Dale Earnhardt: Essence of the Intimidator, father and friend

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EDITOR’S NOTE: NBC Sports will take a look at the life, legacy, and long-lasting impact of Dale Earnhardt, who died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. This is the first in an oral history series that remembers “The Intimidator” though the voices of those who knew the seven-time Cup Series champion, who remains one of the biggest icons in NASCAR history.

Many have tried to define Dale Earnhardt, explain the essence of the man behind the reflective sunglasses and thick mustache, whose mill town upbringing resonated with the everyday man even as Earnhardt did remarkable things with the black No. 3 Chevrolet.

There were those who viewed Earnhardt as NASCAR’s Elvis for the fervor his fans showed. Some looked at him as the sport’s Babe Ruth for being among the best at what he did. Others compared him to James Dean, whose time ended well before it should have.

Twenty years after his death in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500, Earnhardt remains a relevant figure in NASCAR that time has enhanced, not forgotten. Many continue to try to explain who Earnhardt was to those who didn’t witness his greatness on the track and the person off it.

The fact is, he was simply Dale.

What does that mean?

Let these people explain:

Humpy Wheeler (former general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2006 interview): Dale Earnhardt was the last working-man driver that we had. The guy running the backhoe and the shrimp boat captain and the carpenter, people out there working with their hands, they loved Earnhardt.

Ken Squier (during the 2001 broadcast of Earnhardt’s memorial service): I’ve always thought part of the magic of Dale Earnhardt was that he was the common man who did uncommon things. He was everybody who ever had a dream. He was the one with the focus and concentration and strength to live out his dream and take it to the greatest heights. … He was that John Wayne character that wasn’t a fictitious character on the screen. This was for real.

Kyle Petty: He came in like Darrell (Waltrip) did. “I’m here, you gotta make room.” That’s kind of the way Darrell came in. He didn’t tiptoe in. Earnhardt didn’t tiptoe in. Did that ruffle feathers? I don’t ever remember my dad’s feathers being ruffled. You know what I mean? I just don’t. I just don’t ever remember, especially it from Dale. It was just like, “OK, there’s another guy that we got to race against that is good that we got to beat.”

Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt’s last NASCAR Cup victory came in 2000 at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

Dale Jarrett: The superstars don’t take no for an answer in their quest to be the best, and Dale was exactly that. He wasn’t letting anything get in his way. He did things his way.

Jeff Gordon (in 2006 interview): A Babe Ruth figure, that’s the way I look at him. He’s probably the best driver I’ve ever raced against, and certainly the way he left the sport is something that’s only going to leave his persona at an even higher level. He still had things to accomplish, he still had things he wanted to do. The fact that we didn’t get to see that happen is only going to continue to make him larger than life.

Felix Sabates (former car owner in a 2006 interview): In a way, Dale dying did a lot for the sport. Jesus dying did a lot for Christianity. No, no, no, I don’t compare him to Jesus. I compare him to Elvis. You know, I know Burt Reynolds, that probably is a good comparison. Because Burt has the personality Dale had.

Kurt Busch: Senior did everything. He did it right. The way he went about himself with the Intimidator look and driving style, it was always there. He did it with the officials. He did it with the manufacturers. Then he had that swagger and that smirk to know what he was capable of at all times. He just nailed it everywhere he went.

I was a kid growing up in Vegas watching races. He was who we rooted for. My dad loved his driving style. I tried to emulate it and that’s what got me in trouble early in my career. Who is this 22-year-old punk acting like he’s going to move people out of the way and then just lip off afterwards and walk away? Yeah, you could do it, but you could only do it if you were Dale Sr.

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Billy Scott (a friend of Earnhardt in a 2000 interview with the News & Record of Greensboro, N.C.): Really back when Dale was young and we really didn’t have money to go out and eat steak, we’d eat a lot of tomato sandwiches and stuff like that back in them days. Dale, to me, has never forgotten where he’s come from. He’s proved that by coming to see us. He told us he would never forget us and never would forget where he had come from. That’s been true.

Bill Malcolm (He told the News & Record in 2010 that he often stopped at a gas station for coffee on his way to work in the mid-1980s. Some days, Malcolm arrived before it opened at 6 a.m. Earnhardt was there early now and then, buying a Sundrop): At first, I really didn’t realize who he was. He would pull in. I would pull in. He would talk about his family, and I would talk about our family. We didn’t talk much about racing. We would talk a while, and I would go to work and he would go out on the farm. He was so proud of it. I can remember him telling me, “One more payment, Bill, and I’ll have this farm paid off.”

Atlanta Journal 500
Dale Earnhardt celebrates his fourth Cup Championship with wife Teresa Earnhardt and daughter Taylor Earnhardt after the Atlanta Journal 500 on Nov. 18, 1990. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

Dale Beaver (Motor Racing Outreach chaplain from 1999-2005): MRO did this thing called the Father’s Day Olympics (each year at the track). It was always a big deal at the track. Miss Jackie (Pegram), I don’t know how she did it. Miss Jackie was able to get to come to that and just do the goofiest things with (daughter) Taylor when she was little. … She got him to sit down and put like a tablecloth around his neck and Taylor put whip cream or shaving cream all over his face and stuck Cap’n Crunch cereal or whatever it was on. I forget exactly what the object of the game was, but then he gets up from the chair, we all had a big laugh and Taylor is having a ball because now her dad is chasing Miss Jackie, trying to get whipped cream or shaving cream on her.

Kyle Petty: Only him and Neil Bonnett were best buds. We were friends. His dad raced. My dad raced. We raced. Started that same year although I was 10 or 12 years younger or whatever, but we talked just like all drivers talked. We found ourselves in positions and places a lot. And then Junior came along and Adam came along. Man, we found ourselves talking about what they had done at Myrtle Beach or what this had happened because they raced together some times. You just talked about junk and how Junior was doing and how Adam was doing.

Dale Beaver (on the first time he met Earnhardt, asking Earnhardt to sign a permission slip so Taylor could go on a MRO camping trip in 1999): He’s about to qualify. He’s sitting at a table (in the back of the team’s hauler) peeling an orange. … He said, “Come here, I want to ask you about that trip you’re going to take Taylor on.” … We talked for a few minutes about just being dads and how it’s very important that Taylor was going to be somewhere she was going to be secure, who all was going to be there. … I remember looking at him saying, “Dale, I’ve got two boys and I don’t even want them walking across the street without them holding my hand.” He’s like, “You’re exactly right.” He got to talking to me that just the fact “that you blink … and they grow up and they’re not kids anymore. You better keep them safe and take care of them for as long as you can.”

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Earnhardt/Childress NASCAR 1998
Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress at Daytona in 1998. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Richard Childress: Not only did he impress me on the race track, he impressed me with so many things that he’d done for people away from the track that people would never ever know about. All of those things. That’s where he had a heart of gold.

Don Hawk (Dale Earnhardt Inc. president from 1993-2001): What you saw – the intimidating, swaggering Earnhardt – that was 100 percent real. It wasn’t an act. He literally drove the same way. His walk and talk and swagger was always consistent. He didn’t give you an inch off the track or an inch on the track. I’m talking about competitively. Because there’s a side of him that was so cool, and I’ve seen personal things that he’s done to help people or churches or stuff like that, and you’d go, “Wow. That’s the same guy?” Yeah, that’s the same guy. But he would do it almost like the Bible says: Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When Dale did a good deed for somebody, he tried to do it as quietly as possible.

Dave Marcis (2020 interview with NBC Sports): We were at Darlington one time and I wanted to ask him to sponsor my car at North Wilkesboro. I finally got the nerve to go up to him and told him, “Dale, you need to sponsor my car at Wilkesboro with Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet.” He asked how much did I want. I told him $2,500. He said that wasn’t enough. He never said another word the rest of the weekend to me about it. … About two weeks later, the mail came and he sent me $5,000. You just never knew what to expect from him.

Kyle Petty: We’re out in Riverside (in 1980) riding go-karts with all the R.J. Reynolds people one night. … He got up somehow on top of my go-kart and we kind of got hung together. When it was over with and we got everything off, my pants were ripped from just below my knee and all the way down. I had a pair of cowboy boots and whatever was sharp was under that thing slit my cowboy boots from the top to the bottom like a razor. If it got in my leg, I’d still be in the hospital.

We looked at it and kind of laughed about it and I’m like, “You just ruined my cowboy boots. I just bought these cowboy boots.” … We laughed about it and we joked about it and he never said anything. He just walked over the next week to the truck and said, “I got these for you,” and that was the end of the conversation. So, somewhere it bothered him that he had messed up those cowboy boots. That was the kind of guy he was. You thought he didn’t have a conscience, but he had a conscience.

Don Hawk (Dale Earnhardt Inc. president from 1993-2001):  This man came to the gate of DEI, back in the old days before Garage Mahal, it was just a chain-link fence gate. But it was remote controlled by the office with two-way glass. We could see out, they couldn’t see in. At the gate, this man gets out and is standing at the gate looking, and Earnhardt says, “Huh. Open the gate.” I said, “Dale, I don’t know who it is.” He said, “I know who it is, I can’t believe it. Let me feel it out first.” …

The man proceeds to explain to him, “Dale, I know the last time you saw me was over 15 years ago, and I was a drunk. I want you to know I’ve been a dozen years sober, I’m now a preacher at this small church, and I just wanted you to know that I was such a bad example to you, what happened in my life. It just mattered to me to come tell you that.” Dale asked about what kind of church. Dale knew I was religious and asked what I thought. Told him I thought it was legitimate. I’d driven by the church, and it was old and rough.

The guy said, “Yeah, I took it over, and we park right there in the grass.” Dale said, “What do you mean you park in the grass?” He said, “We can’t afford a parking lot, but that’s OK.” We get done talking, Dale takes the guy for a ride around the property, brings him back in my office, and says, “Talk to Hawk for a couple of minutes, I’ll be back.”

He comes back in with a brown bag full of cash and said, “Turn that grass into a parking lot and don’t tell anyone I gave it to you.”

Nate Ryan contributed to this story

Surveying key race dates for the 2023 Cup season

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NASCAR Cup Series cars will fire up again Feb. 5 as the 2023 season begins with the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum in Los Angeles.

Two weeks later, the regular season opens with the Feb. 19 Daytona 500, for decades the curtain-raiser for the Cup Series’ 10-month cross-country marathon.

With only a single week break in mid-June, the Cup schedule visits familiar stops like Darlington, Bristol, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover but adds two new locations that should be highlights of the year — North Wilkesboro and Chicago.

Here’s a look at key races for each month of the season:

February — With all due respect to the unique posture of the Clash at the Coliseum (Feb. 5) and the apparent final race on the 2-mile track at Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26) before it’s converted to a half-mile track, the Daytona 500 won’t be surpassed as a February highlight. Since the winter of 1959, the best stock car racers in the land have gathered on the Atlantic shore to brighten the winter, and the results often are memorable. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon and so many others have starred on Daytona’s high ground, and sometimes even rookies shine (see Austin Cindric’s victory last year).

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy aiming for breakout season

March — The newly reconfigured Atlanta Motor Speedway saw its racing radically changed last year with higher banks and straights that are tighter. The track now is considered more in the Daytona/Talladega superspeedway “family” than an intermediate speedway, generating a bit of the unknown for close pack racing. William Byron and Chase Elliott won at AMS last year.

April — Ah, the return to Martinsville (April 16). Despite the rumors, Ross Chastain’s wild last-lap charge in last October’s Martinsville race did not destroy the speedway. Will somebody try to duplicate Chastain’s move this time? Not likely, but no one expected what he did, either.

May — North Wilkesboro Speedway is back. Abandoned by NASCAR in 1996, the track’s revival reaches its peak May 21 when the Cup All-Star Race comes to town, putting Cup cars on one of stock car racing’s oldest tracks for the first time in a quarter century.

June — The June 11 Sonoma road course race will end 17 consecutive weeks of racing for the Cup Series. The schedule’s only break is the following weekend, with racing resuming June 25 at Nashville Superspeedway. Sonoma last year opened the door for the first Cup win by Daniel Suarez.

July — The July holiday weekend will offer one of the biggest experiments in the history of NASCAR. For the first time, Cup cars will race through the streets of a major city, in this case Chicago on July 2. If the race is a success, similar events could follow on future schedules.

August — The Aug. 26 race at Daytona is the final chance for drivers to qualify for the playoffs, ratcheting up the tension of the late-summer race considerably.

September — The Cup playoffs open with the Southern 500, making Darlington Raceway a key element in determining which drivers have easier roads in advancing to the next round.

October — The Oct. 29 Martinsville race is the last chance to earn a spot in the Championship Four with a race victory. Christopher Bell did it last year in a zany finish.

November — Phoenix. The desert. Four drivers, four cars and four teams for the championship.

 

Trackhouse Racing picks up additional sponsorship from Kubota

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Trackhouse Racing announced Friday that it has picked up additional sponsorship for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez from Kubota Tractor Corp. for the 2023 season.

Kubota sponsored Chastain’s No. 1 Chevrolet last October at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It is expanding its sponsorship to six races for the new season.

Chastain will race with Kubota sponsorship at Auto Club Speedway, Phoenix Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Homestead-Miami. Suarez’s Chevrolet will carry Kubota livery at Texas Motor Speedway.

MORE: Friday 5: Legacy seeks breakout year in 2023

The team also announced that a $10,000 donation will be made to Farmer Veteran Coalition for each Kubota-sponsored race in which Chastain finishes in the top 10. The FVC assists military veterans and current armed services members who have an interest in farming.

“The sponsorship from Kubota is especially meaningful to me because it allows me to use my platform to shine a bright light on agriculture and on the men and women who work so hard to feed all of us,” said Chastain, whose family owns a Florida watermelon farm.

 

Friday 5: Legacy MC seeks to stand out as Trackhouse did in ’22

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While the celebration continued after Erik Jones’ Southern 500 victory last September, executives of what is now Legacy MC already were looking ahead.

“(September) and October, decisions we make on people are going to affect how we race next (February), March and April,” Mike Beam, team president, told NBC Sports that night.

Noah Gragson had been announced as the team’s second driver for 2023 less than a month before Jones’ win. 

But bigger news was to come. 

The team announced Nov. 4 that Jimmie Johnson would become a co-owner, lifting the profile of a team that carries Richard Petty’s No. 43 on Jones’ cars.

As February approaches and racing resumes, a question this season is how far can Legacy MC climb. Can this team mimic the breakout season Trackhouse Racing had last year?

“I think everybody looks for Trackhouse for … maybe the way of doing things a bit different,” Jones told NBC Sports. “Obviously, starting with the name. We’ve kind of gone that same direction with Legacy MC and then on down from there, kind of how a program can be built and run in a short amount of time.

“There’s some growth in the back end that we still have to do to probably be totally to that level, but our goal is definitely to be on that same trajectory that Trackhouse was over the last two seasons.”

Trackhouse Racing debuted in 2021 with Daniel Suarez. He finished 25th in the points. The organization added Ross Chastain and several team members from Chip Ganassi Racing to form a two-car team last year. Chastain won two races and finished second in the points, while Suarez won once and was 10th in the standings. 

Legacy MC co-owner Maury Gallagher purchased a majority interest in Richard Petty Motorsports in December 2021 and merged the two teams. Jones won one race and placed 18th in points last year. Ty Dillon was winless, finishing 29th in points and was replaced by Gragson after the season. 

“Legitimately, we were a pretty new team last year coming in,” Jones said. “There were a handful of Richard Petty Motorsports guys who came over, but, for the most part, it was a brand new team.

“I think what we built in one year and done is similar to Trackhouse in their first year. I think maybe even we were a step ahead of where they were in their first year.”

Legacy MC looks for more with Jones, Gragson and Johnson, who will run a limited schedule this year. Johnson will seek to make the Daytona 500 field.

Jones said Johnson has infused the team with energy. Gragson has been trying to soak up as much as he can from Johnson.

Gragson told NBC Sports that having Johnson as a teammate is “going to be an incredible opportunity for a young guy like myself, first year in the Cup series, a rookie, to be able to lean on a seven-time champion.

“Incredible person, friend, mentor that Jimmie has become for myself. He’s probably going to be pretty over me by the time we get to the Daytona 500 because I just keep wearing him out with questions and trying … pick his brain.”

2. Kyle Busch’s impact

Car owner Richard Childress says that Kyle Busch already is making an impact at RCR.

Busch joins the organization after having spent the past 15 seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch will pilot the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR this year.

He took part in a World Racing League endurance race at Circuit of the Americas in December with Austin Dillon and Sheldon Creed. The trio won one of those races.

“I was down there for that, just watching how (Busch) gets in there and works with everybody,” Childress said. “He’s a racer. He wants to win. That’s what I love about him.”

Childress sees the influence Busch can have on an organization that has won six Cup titles — but none since Dale Earnhardt’s last crown in 1994 — and 113 series races.

“He brings a lot of experience and knowledge,” Childress said of Busch. “I think he’ll help Austin a lot in his career. I think he can help our whole organization from a standpoint of what do we need … to go faster.

Dillon told NBC Sports that the team has changed some things it does in its meetings based on feedback from Busch. Dillon also said that he and Busch have similar driving styles — more similar than Dillon has had with past teammates. 

“I think as we go throughout the year and he gets to drive our race cars, he’ll have some new thoughts that he’ll bring,” Dillon said of Busch. “I think we’re already bringing some new thoughts to him, too.”

3. New role for Kevin Harvick

Kevin Harvick, entering his final Cup season, has joined the Drivers Advisory Council, a move Joey Logano said is important for the group.

“Kevin is necessary to the sport, even post-driving career,” Logano told NBC Sports. “He’s necessary for our sport’s success. Kevin sees it and does something about it. 

“He’s always been vocal, right? He’s always been very brash, and like, boom in your face. That’s what people love about Kevin Harvick. Something I like about him as well is that you know where you stand. You know where the weaknesses are. 

“He’s going to push until something happens. That’s great. There’s nothing wrong with that. Having him on the Advisory Council now for the drivers, his experience, but also his willingness to push, is important.”

Jeff Burton again will lead the group as Director of the Council. The Board of Directors is: Harvick, Logano, Kyle Petty, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Corey LaJoie, Kurt Busch and Tom Buis.

Logano, Petty, Dillon, Suarez, LaJoie and Busch all return. Buis, a board member of Growth Energy after having previously been the company’s CEO, joins the drivers group and provides a business background. 

4. Finding one’s voice

Chase Briscoe’s contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing means he could be the longest tenured driver there in the near future.

The 28-year Briscoe enters his third Cup season at SHR, but the landscape is changing. This will be Kevin Harvick’s final season in Cup. Ryan Preece is in his first season driving in Cup for the team. Aric Almirola was supposed to have retired last year but came back. How long he remains is to be determined.

Those changes could soon leave Briscoe as the team’s senior driver.

“It’s a role that is crazy, truthfully, to think about because that could be me in the next year or two, being I wouldn’t say that flagship guy, but being a leader as far as the drivers go in an organization,” Briscoe said.

“Truthfully, I feel like that’s something I want to be. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of leader, team building type of stuff. So, yeah, if that role is kind of placed on me naturally, then that’s one that I would love to have and try to do it to the best of my ability. I feel like that’s a role that you don’t choose, it kind of chooses you.”

Briscoe, who won the spring Phoenix race and made the playoffs last year, said that he’s becoming more comfortable speaking up in team meetings. 

“I look back, especially on my rookie year, we’d go into our competition meeting on Tuesday and, truthfully, I wouldn’t really talk much,” he said. “I would say kind of what we thought for the weekend, but outside of that I would just kind of sit there and listen.  

“This past year, I definitely talked a lot more, and I’d bring up ideas and kind of say things I wanted to get off my chest, where in the past I wouldn’t have done that. I feel like as I’ve gotten more confident in myself and my position, I’ve gotten to the point where I speak my mind a little bit more and, I guess, be a little bit more of a leader.”

5. Busch Clash field

NASCAR released the preliminary entry list for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash. No surprise, the entry list features only the 36 charter teams. Those teams are required to be entered.

With 27 cars in the feature — which is expanded by four cars from last year’s race — there’s no guarantee a non-charter car could make the field. That’s a lot of money to go across country and face the chance of missing the main event.

The Daytona 500 field has four spots for non-charter cars. With that race’s payoff significantly more, it will attract at least five cars for those spots: Jimmie Johnson (Legacy MC), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing), Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports) and Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing). Helio Castroneves confirmed Thursday that he will not enter the 500. He had been in talks with the team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather.

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.