NASCAR drivers consider getting vaccinated, reducing appearances with new protocols

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BROOKLYN, Michigan – Corey LaJoie’s benching for a COVID-19 exposure and stricter NASCAR protocols had an impact this week in the Cup Series as drivers reconsidered public appearances and their vaccination status.

Joey Logano confirmed to NBC Sports during a media session Sunday morning at Michigan International Speedway that he elected to get vaccinated after LaJoie was sidelined by a COVID-19 close contact.

Though LaJoie since has tested negative for COVID-19, he is under a mandatory seven-day quarantine (with a test on the fifth day) before he can return to the car.

The policy is different for vaccinated drivers, who don’t have to quarantine but aren’t cleared to return to the NASCAR garage until they have a negative test three to five days later. In LaJoie’s case, his exposure to someone who tested positive occurred last Monday, meaning if he were vaccinated that he could have been cleared Thursday through Saturday to race at Michigan (where he was replaced Sunday by Josh Berry.

“I think it pushes you,” Logano said when asked if LaJoie being sidelined had drivers reconsidering whether to be vaccinated. “It definitely pushes you. Whether you want it to or not, it’s pressure to do it. Does it force you? No, but it could in a way. It made my decision for me. It’s backed you into a corner where you have to make a decision on what you think is best. Everyone is entitled to whatever that is.

“Either way it’s fine. It’s your decision. But it needs to be your decision. You can’t be forced into it. This is just pressure to that, though.”

Logano disclosed a few months ago during an appearance on SiriusXM NASCAR’s “The Morning Drive” that he had an offseason bout with COVID-19.

Brad Keselowski, who learned of Logano’s recent vaccination Sunday, said many Cup drivers soon could be joining his Penske teammate because vaccination shortens the window for being cleared to return to as little as three days (from a minimum of seven for the unvaccinated).

“I know a lot of people are considering it,” Keselowski said. “I think you’d be foolish not to. I don’t have any great answers, and I think everyone needs to do what’s best for themselves.”

Keselowski raced Sunday without front tire changer Ryan Flores, who also was in mandatory quarantine for being in the same podcast studio Monday as the close contact that benched LaJoie.

With NASCAR also altering its at-track policies this weekend (including restricting fans from being on the grid and in haulers and requiring reporters to wear masks in outdoor interviews), the level of concern has been elevated for drivers and teams facing the start of the playoffs in two weeks.

A NACAR spokesman said an hourlong Zoom call was held Friday morning with drivers who wanted clarification on the new protocols and LaJoie’s situation.

Several NASCAR executives were on the call, including director of racing operations Tom Bryant (who oversees COVID-19 protocols and consults with Dr. Megan Coffee, an epidemiologist who has advised NASCAR on the pandemic).

Drivers were advised to avoid poorly ventilated areas and to avoid long periods of contact. In accordance, NASCAR moved its weekly prerace media bullpens outside Sunday and capped driver’ sessions with masked reporters at 10 minutes.

Logano said he canceled three appearances this week and had put everything public on hold for the future.

“I can’t afford to do that,” he said. “It just changes what you can and can’t do for sponsors and the sport in general. You have to think from a way of saying, ‘How do I make sure I’m in the car?’ That’s most important. Because nothing against the team members, but you can’t score any points without the driver in the car. It completely ruins your season. If that happens two weeks from now, your whole season is gone because you got exposed. That’s not OK. That’s not good. Whether you’re vaccinated or not, you still could miss the race.

“I think we’re all learning this thing. It changes every day. You watch the news Monday and Friday and get a different answer. I don’t think anyone knows the truth. That’s a problem we have in our world right now is nobody knows the truth of what’s going on, and that’s scary. But if the protocol is what it is, that’s one thing that we know. How do I position myself best to make sure that I’m racing the car? And then you adjust to that.”

Aric Almirola, who recently qualified for the playoffs with his victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, said he had moved all of his appearances outdoors this week.

“It really boils down to exposure and where that exposure happens,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “I’m going to be very mindful of what situations I put myself in seeing this play out the way it’s played out for Corey, which I personally feel is very unfortunate for him. He seems to be in great health and have no issues and has tested negative and unfortunately due to protocols and the way things are in place, he can’t be here to race. So learning from that, I’ll be very careful what situations I put myself in, especially indoors for any length of time.

“Everything we’ve been doing, any suite appearances, we’ve moved to an outside meet and greet and being mindful of who you come in contact with and how close you come in contact. Making sure it’s outside. From everything we understand from the NASCAR calls, you greatly increase your risk indoors. So being outdoors and making sure you don’t spend any length of time in close contact with somebody gives you the best opportunity to not have to quarantine or sit out in case you come into some contact or exposure.”

Almirola said he “had no idea” whether more drivers would consider being vaccinated because of the improved timeframe for returning from a close contact.

“Whether it shortens the time frame or doesn’t, it’s a personal decision for all the drivers,” he said. “Everybody is going to make a different decision based on what they feel is best for them and their family. And at the end of the day racing is important, it’s our livelihood. But I think people will make choices based on what they feel is right for their health and their family, irregardless of what ramifications might come from being in a race car. It’s a very polarizing subject, and it’s very divisive as well. There’s a lot of opinions one way, a lot of opinions another way.”

Almirola was one of several drivers who declined to disclose their vaccination status Sunday.

In addition to Logano, William Byron and Tyler Reddick also said Sunday they were vaccinated. Denny Hamlin and Bubba Wallace are the only other Cup drivers known to have publicly confirmed they’ve been vaccinated.

Reddick said he “decided to get vaccinated months and months and months ago. I’ve not pressured anyone on my team vaccinated. Just personal preference based on how I’m going about my work week. It makes sense for me personally and my family to be vaccinated. No problem talking about that, but everyone ultimately has that choice. We live in the United States. We have the freedom to decide if we’re going to get up and go out the door every day or sit at home and watch Netflix or TV. I just thought it was going to be good for my guys and my team if I took that. That’s why I did it.

“All the other drivers that are going to be in the playoffs, we all know that missing one race is huge. We can’t really afford to do that. It’s going to be important to be smart, but ultimately, that’s a risk the drivers get to manage. It’s our responsibility and ultimately falls on our shoulders to manage our risks outside of the racetrack. (NASCAR is) doing everything they can to help manage those inside track grounds and inside the garage. We’re thankful for what they’re doing, and it’s going to be an ongoing process. The more we learn about it, the more it’ll continue to change.”

Some drivers have been lobbying NASCAR for a change that would clear a driver through multiple negative tests, but that seems unlikely to happen as the current protocols follow Centers for Disease Control guidance.

“I don’t think anyone really likes it,” Keselowski said. “I’m not sure I have a better idea. I don’t think anybody is happy to see Corey not be able to race. The system sucks for everybody. There’s no winners here. We’re all trying to work our way through it and wish Corey was here.

Said Logano: “There’s plenty of concern. It checks you up quite a bit on everything knowing that Corey was exposed, and Flores as well without having a positive test. Then you can’t go racing just like that. And not be able to go racing even if you test negative. You can’t come back racing. It doesn’t settle well. I think it made the all the drivers very nervous and makes you check up on what you’re doing.”

Where are they now? Scott Riggs races with son, Layne

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Scott Riggs, who raced for 15 years in NASCAR’s top three national series, now is guiding the racing career of his 20-year-old son, Layne.

And things are going well.

Layne won this year’s NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series Late Model championship, scoring 16 wins in 43 starts and edging former series champion Peyton Sellers by four points for the title.

Riggs thus became the youngest champion in Weekly Series history.

“It all started when Layne was 10 years old, mostly just something to entertain him and to have some fun,” Scott told NBC Sports. “But it’s turned into a full-fledged job. My life and plate have been full.”

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes

The Riggs family’s race shop is located in Bahama, North Carolina, Riggs’ home base during his NASCAR career. Scott describes himself as the “truck driver, spotter, crew chief and in-shop mechanic.”

“I am very tired,” he said.

The team, which depends on volunteers, didn’t plan to race in so many events this season, but when Layne started the year with a string of victories, it made sense to chase the national championship and give him a chance to be the youngest winner ever.

“To chase it that hard and be that close and then to win it, it was very exhausting,” Scott said. “It was a very big relief to finish the year.”

Success on short tracks resulted in Layne racing in three Camping World Truck Series events this year with Halmar Racing. He had a best finish of seventh at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in his series debut.

MORE: Snowball Derby attracts top NASCAR drivers

Scott Riggs ended his NASCAR driving career in 2014 in the Truck Series. He won five Truck races and four Xfinity races and ran 208 Cup races without a win. He made his Truck debut in 1999, moved to Xfinity in 2002 (winning Rookie of the Year) and then to Cup in 2004.

Riggs, now 51, raced in the Cup Series from 2004-13 with stops at MB2 Motorsports and with teams owned by Gene Haas, Tommy Baldwin and Ray Evernham, among others. He had four top-five finishes.

“I think I was very fortunate and the timing was right for me to move up through the ranks and get so many good opportunities,” Riggs said. “I raced late models for a long time, and then all of a sudden I got the opportunity to get in a truck. Won some races and poles and won races and poles in Xfinity.”

MORE: Jody Ridley’s upset for the ages

He ran out of chances in Cup as team models shifted, including some downsizing and mergers.

“I felt like I couldn’t get an opportunity that I had worked for and earned,” Riggs said. “It was hard for me. I was bitter for a year or so. But I look back, and a realization came over me that I was fortunate to have that time with my kids when they were at the right ages. I got to watch them do their things and just be the dad I wanted to be — not being gone four out of every seven days racing.

“I don’t think I’d have the relationship I have today with my kids if I had had a longer time in the sport.”

 

 

NASCAR Power Rankings: Memorable quotes through the years

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The best quotes from drivers and others involved in NASCAR competition often come in the heat of the moment — after a crash or a close finish or a controversial decision by officials.

NASCAR’s history is filled with memorable quotes from drivers who won races to drivers who watched wins slip away to officials caught in a moment of history.

Here’s a look at 10 that stand out:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. “I didn’t mean to turn him around. I meant to rattle his cage, though.” — Dale Earnhardt, describing how he didn’t mean to wreck Terry Labonte after he wrecked Labonte on the last lap at Bristol Motor Speedway to win the Aug. 28, 1999 race.

2. “They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their ass. There’s no way to get around that.” — Kevin Harvick, Feb. 21, 2010, offering his opinion on why Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team won so many races after Johnson outran him to win at Auto Club Speedway.

MORE: An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley wins at Dover

3. “It’s a stump-puller.” — Sterling Marlin, emphasizing the strength of his engine after he won the Daytona 500 Feb. 19, 1995.

4. “It’s probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do.” — Joey Logano, talking about Kevin Harvick after they were involved in a late-race crash at Pocono Raceway June 6, 2010. Harvick’s wife, DeLana, often wore a firesuit similar to those worn by team members during races.

5. “Do you have a brother?” — Ward Burton, responding to a reporter who asked if it was tougher to finish second because the race winner was his brother, Jeff, March 7, 1999 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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6. “I couldn’t hear him. He’s got that little yap-yap mouth. I couldn’t tell what he was saying.” — Ricky Rudd, commenting on what Kevin Harvick said to him after they wrecked at Richmond Raceway, Sept. 6, 2003.

7. “We can’t race with tears in our eyes.” — team owner Robert Yates, explaining why his team would not participate in the next week’s race after its driver, Davey Allison, was killed in a helicopter crash, July 1993.

8. “He’d have to toast everyone with milk.” — Dale Earnhardt, commenting on the celebratory drink choice Jeff Gordon might make if he ever won the Cup championship. After he won the 1995 Cup title, Gordon followed through, toasting his championship with a glass of milk at the awards banquet.

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9. “You know they say there’s talkers and doers. I’ve done this twice.” — Tony Stewart, winning the pre-race trash-talk contest with Carl Edwards prior to the 2011 race for the championship. Stewart had won the title in 2002 and 2005 and notched another over Edwards in 2011.

10. “This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I’ve ever personally had to make, but after the accident in Turn 4 of the Daytona 500 we’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.” — NASCAR President Mike Helton, confirming Earnhardt’s death at Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 18, 2001.

Honorable mentions: David Pearson, after being told that Richard Petty had said Pearson was the best driver he ever raced against: “I agree with him.” … CBS broadcaster Ken Squier, calling the famous finish of the 1979 Daytona 500: “And there’s a fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison! The tempers, overflowing. They are angry. They know they have lost. And what a bitter defeat.” … NASCAR founder Bill France, providing a unique ending to a pre-race prayer after temporarily forgetting to use Amen: “Sincerely, Bill France.”

Snowball Derby entry list includes NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, Truck drivers

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Four Cup drivers are among those entered for Sunday’s 55th annual Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

The Cup drivers entered are former series champion Brad Keselowski, playoff competitor William Byron, two-time Southern 500 winner Erik Jones and incoming Cup rookie Noah Gragson, who advanced to the Xfinity title race this year.

Also entered: Josh Berry, who competed in the Xfinity championship race this year, and Ty Majeski, who competed in the Truck championship race this year.

Majeski won the 2020 Snowball Derby. Gragson won the race in 2018. Jones won the event in 2012 and ’13.

Others entered include:

Chandler Smith, who won the 2021 Snowball Derby and will drive for Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2023, is listed on the entry list but stated on social media he will not be competing.

The Snowball Derby is among the more prestigious Super Late Model races on the calendar and coming after the NASCAR season makes it easier for more Cup, Xfinity and Truck competitors to take part in the event.

Qualifying takes place Saturday. The Snowball Derby is scheduled for 2 p.m. ET Sunday. Racing America will stream Sunday’s race for $49.99. A three-day viewing pass can be purchased for $74.99.

 

 

An upset for the ages: Jody Ridley’s 1981 victory at Dover

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NASCAR’s history is sprinkled with upsets, from unlikely winners riding the Talladega draft to short tracks that yielded unexpected wins when favored leaders crashed on the final lap.

Survey the list of surprise winners over the decades, and Jody Ridley’s name likely will stand out.

On May 17, 1981, two days shy of his 39th birthday, Ridley won a 500-mile race at Dover Motor Speedway in Delaware. It was the only victory of Ridley’s Cup career and the only win scored by Virginia team owner Junie Donlavey, who participated in the Cup Series for 45 years, with 863 starts.

Donlavey’s team was perpetually underfunded, and his drivers often raced with tired, overused engines and tires that had too many laps. He survived with a mostly volunteer crew and enough sponsorship to carry him from race to race. Rival drivers and team owners considered Donlavey one of the most popular residents of NASCAR garage areas across those many years, but he rarely had the chance to reach for victory lane.

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On that spring day at Dover, one of NASCAR’s toughest tracks, everything fell the right way. Many of the tour’s leading drivers parked with engine or overheating problems, and the day’s best car – the Wood Brothers entry driven by Neil Bonnett — was sidelined with an engine issue late in the race after leading 404 laps.

Ridley, running a steady race, benefited from an unusual day at Dover. The race had only two cautions, and the final 471 laps of 500 were run under green-flag conditions. A general lack of cautions prevented top teams from changing tires frequently, putting Ridley, who was used to running tires longer than normal, on better footing.

When Cale Yarborough left the race with engine trouble 20 laps from the finish, Ridley inherited the lead — he had been two laps down to Yarborough — and led the rest of the way. He won by 22 seconds over Bobby Allison, who was the only other driver on the lead lap. Dale Earnhardt finished third, a lap down. Illustrating the problems experienced by many in the field — not an unusual result in those days — was the fact that the fourth-place driver, D.K. Ulrich, was nine laps off the lead pace.

Ridley drove into Victory Lane for the first time, much to the delight of Donlavey’s crew.

“Junie took it all in stride,” Ridley, now 80, told NBC Sports. “He wasn’t as excited as the team guys were. Junie was the type of guy who didn’t want to cash in on other people’s bad luck. He kind of felt sorry for the guys who blew up. That’s just the way he was.

“For me, it was the highlight of my career. Once I got into Cup racing, I knew we probably wouldn’t do much winning because we didn’t have the equipment. It was icing on the cake to win that one.”

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Jody’s son Anthony, then 22 years old, was listening to the race via radio in Chatsworth, Georgia, where the family lived.

“I was upstairs at my girlfriend’s house, and I think I bounced all over the upstairs and then floated down to the first floor,” Anthony said. “It was all pretty cool. Dad called home. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t get real excited about anything, but he was happy.”

The win paid $22,560. Ridley’s cut from the check (40 percent, generally standard in those days) was $9,024, a nice payday but not Ridley’s biggest in Cup. He would win more for finishing in the top 10 in the Daytona 500.

“We were having a good day,” Ridley said, “but I never thought about winning it. We just didn’t have the cars. But we stayed in the hunt, and the other teams couldn’t get too many new tires, and Junie had put a different gear in the car. Normally he would put in a taller gear and drop the RPMs down (to protect the engine), and you couldn’t keep up. For some reason that day, he didn’t. And it paid off.”

Before joining the Cup tour full time in 1980 at age 37, Ridley had established himself as one of the top short-track drivers in the country. Across the South, at top Eastern Seaboard tracks and into the Midwest, a visit by Ridley usually meant a tough night for the locals.

MORE: Five laps that impacted Cup season

Ridley’s older brother, Biddle, and Anthony kept the Ridley short-track cars running.

“We did all that together for 36 years,” said Anthony, who started changing tires during pit stops at the age of 14. “It was how we made a living, but trying to feed three families out of a race car is tough.”

Ridley still lives in Chatsworth, where his 1981 victory was a sports highlight for years.

“He can’t hear well, but he’s still tough as a pine knot,” Anthony said.