When they were younger: Drivers reflect on first Cup start

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The pressure, Alex Bowman says, is present in the playoffs, but that’s nothing compared to what he felt trying to make his first Cup start.

Bowman noted the anxiety with “being a broke race car driver … trying to make your first start at the Daytona 500.”  

He made it through that experience to become a playoff driver for Hendrick Motorsports.

Where current drivers once fretted about making their first Cup start, they are now series veterans, and in some cases, champions. But the memories remain from the early days of their career.

NBC Sports asked drivers about their their first Cup start. Here is what they had to say:

ALEX BOWMAN

First Cup race: 2014 Daytona 500 in the No. 23 for BK Racing

Started: 29th

Finished: 23rd

Daytona 500 - Practice
Alex Bowman at Daytona in 2014. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

“We were like the slowest car in qualifying (he ranked 47th of 49 cars and was 1.5 seconds off the fastest lap). Our superspeedway cars were so slow and we weren’t locked in.

“Talk about pressure in the playoffs. Try pressure being a broke race car driver trying to make it – trying to make your first start at the Daytona 500 when there’s (49) cars there, a bunch of guys going home, not being locked in, going into a duel. … I had never Cup raced before.

“Didn’t really know what to expect (in his qualifying duel) and went in and kind of got lucky. Some things happened on the last lap and ended up in the top 15 (finished 14th) to make the show. That was a stressful environment. That was really difficult.

“You look at now, our speedway cars are so fast at Hendrick Motorsports. You can tag along at the end of the draft and pull out when you want to and guys go out with you. If I was the last car in line in that car (in 2014), you’re losing the draft. You’re not keeping up with everybody. That was really difficult.

“Then I remember walking out from the driver intro stage and just there being so many people, never seeing so many people in my entire life. That was really neat.”

Chase Elliott

First Cup race: Martinsville Speedway (March 29, 2015) in the No. 25 for Hendrick Motorsports

Started: 27th

Finished: 38th

STP 500 - Qualifying
Chase Elliott with his father Bill at Martinsville in 2015. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)

“Just a lot of excitement … obviously one of the biggest opportunities of my life. I remember going into that weekend and it was supposed to rain on Friday and it did and we didn’t have any points. So if it rained out qualifying, we weren’t going to be able to race. I just remember really stressing about it raining. I was more worried about that than anything.

“Fortunately, it didn’t rain. We got to qualify. We got to race, learned some valuable lessons that I take to Martinsville to this day.

“I feel like they picked some good tracks for me because they were tough, and I think (crew chief Alan Gustafson) had a play in that. I think they did those things on purpose to help me get a little bit of a head start and know kind of what was coming at some of these really challenging race tracks. … Might not have had much fun in the moment at some of those tracks, but I did feel there was a reason they were looking out for my best interests down the road.”

Kurt Busch

First Cup race: Dover International Speedway (Sept. 24, 2000) in the No. 97 for Roush Racing

Started: 10th

Finished: 18th

UAW-GM 500
Kurt Busch in 2000. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

“I went to Dover because (car owner) Jack Roush said ‘Hey, let’s go there. As good a place as any to make your first start.’ I was like ‘Uh, OK.’ Qualified 10th.

“As I was walking back after I qualified, Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. made a comment to me. He said: “Son, I didn’t know if you were ever going to lift.” I’m like, I don’t know if that was good or bad because I really drove it down there for qualifying.

“When the race started, everybody just took off. They were going so fast. ‘Where is everyone going?’ I thought these races were 400 miles and we’re going to take our time. I kid you not.

“I was so intimidated when I started that race. Bobby Labonte goes blowing by. Dale Jarrett. Jeff Gordon. (Dale) Senior. Everybody.

“I radioed to my crew and I said: ‘Just tell me when I’m 43rd. Just tell me when I’m last.’ … A few laps later, I’m last. When I was a rookie in a Legends race, they make you start in the back, and that mentally made me reset, and then I just started chipping away on trying to make passes and got back up to 18th, two laps down.”

Kyle Busch

First Cup race: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (March 7, 2004) in the No. 84 for Hendrick Motorsports

Started: 18th

Finished: 41st

NASCAR - Nextel Cup -The UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 - Qualifying
Kyle Busch at Las Vegas in 2004. (Photo by Kevin Kane/WireImage)

“I think I hit the wall on Lap 7, and I think I was done on Lap 11. Unfortunately trying to figure out the effects of dirty air. I wasn’t ready. I qualified OK, 18th. Expected to do better.

“I already knew that I was starting further back then I wanted to, so I knew I wanted to go forward. Just trying too hard. Way overdriving my capabilities, the car’s capabilities. That one was short lived.

“Just remembered that as a big learning experience and trying to set the tone in racing in the Xfinity Series for the rest of the year, racing for a championship. Those races I could learn from and kind of recalibrate where I was in my development.”

Tyler Reddick

First Cup race: 2019 Daytona 500 in the No. 31 for Richard Childress Racing

Started: 39th

Finished: 27th

“That first race for us was one of those days where, very early on, we had to fight and keep overcoming things that just were not good for our team.

“We were coming to pit road early in that race and there was some sort of miscommunication behind us. I remember getting run over from behind, flying through the air and taking out myself and Jimmie Johnson. ‘Oh my God, my first race out and crashing with the guy that I looked up to most of my life and career.’

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 61st Annual Daytona 500
Tyler Reddick, after getting hit by another car, bounces off Jimmie Johnson’s car during the 2019 Daytona 500.(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“That whole race could have been pretty easy to emotionally check out and give up, whatever the case may be, let the pressure of a bad first race really overcome you. We didn’t. We got the car fixed eventually where we could go back up there and raced.

“Unfortunately, when that happened, I was lined up with Austin (Dillon) and Daniel Hemric and the three of us were pushing the middle of three-wide going toward the front and didn’t wait long enough, didn’t have the experience to know it and got caught up in a crash. Very easily could have emotionally and mentally checked out from that race with the issues we had (earlier) but never quit. Never do.”

Denny Hamlin

First Cup race: Kansas Speedway (Oct. 9, 2005) in the No. 11 for Joe Gibbs Racing

Started: 7th

Finished: 32nd

Subway 500 Practice
Denny Hamlin in 2005. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

“I remember thinking that Cup racing was for me. I’ll never forget pulling out on pit lane … I felt like I was in a video game. These iconic paint scheme and drivers were all around me (Greg Biffle started beside Hamlin and Tony Stewart started behind Hamlin).

“I was starting up front. It stinks the finish was so bad because we had a cut tire under the green flag and never caught a caution and I was two laps down for having to pit for a cut tire.

“We were really fast that day, just never got to really show it.

“Just a fun experience. I knew when I got in the big horsepower car vs. being in the Xfinity Series that this car fits me better.”

Aric Almirola

First Cup race: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (March 11, 2007) in the No. 80 for Joe Gibbs Racing

Started: 31st

Finished: 41st

NASCAR - Daytona Testing
Aric Almirola in 2007. (Photo by Cliff Welch /Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)

“I remember it being an extremely nerve-wracking weekend. We were going there with an R&D car, kind of experimenting for Gibbs at the time. 

“I remember that back then you had to qualify your way in. When you came as a non-top 35 in points car, and back then they used to get 48-50 cars trying to qualify for 43 spots (55 cars were on the entry list). Vegas was one that everybody wanted to go run because the purse was big. If you made it at Vegas, it was a good payday.

“It was a great place for Gibbs to go and try and experiment and work on some new technology and new setups, so I remember being a nervous wreck. I remember qualifying in and feeling like the weight of the world was lifted off of me. Then I remember waking up race day morning and feeling like the weight of the world was right back on me. 

“I just remember being really nervous, just wanting to go and perform and run well to just kind of prove that I belonged. I remember being really devastated that we wrecked and the race didn’t go really how I envisioned or hoped it would.”

Martin Truex Jr.

First Cup start: Atlanta Motor Speedway (Oct. 31, 2004) in the No. 1 for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Started: 33rd

Finished: 37th

NASCAR Busch Series - Tropicana Twister 300 - Qualifying - July 9, 2004
Martin Truex Jr. in 2004. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

I recall just how difficult it was. How fast those guys were. I think we had a flat tire at one time, hit the fence and blew up later. It was a tough day. It wasn’t fun at all.

“The biggest thing I remember was just how fast those guys were and how much I still had to learn.

“That was still not even through my first full year in the Busch Series back then. ‘You got a ways to go yet.’ It was kind of a great moment for me, honestly, to see all of that and see how hard those guys were driving and what they were getting out of those race cars. ‘OK, I know what I need to be working on.’”

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.

MORE: Memorable images from 2022 NASCAR season

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.

MORE: 2023 NASCAR, ARCA schedules

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.