Dale Jr. celebrates joining his father in NASCAR Hall of Fame

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr., who said he once thought he was destined only to be a mechanic at a car dealership, joined his father in the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday night.

“Nothing that racing has given me will ever top this night,” Earnhardt said at the end of his speech. “The people enshrined in this building, they’re my role models and my heroes and one of them happens to be my father, so to join dad in the Hall of Fame is probably as good as it’s going to get.”

Joining Earnhardt in the Class of 2021 is 89-year-old Red Farmer, who will  begin his 75th season of racing when he runs March 18 at Talladega (Alabama) Short Track, and the late Mike Stefanik, a seven-time NASCAR Whelen Modified champion and two-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series champion. 

MORE: Ageless Red Farmer still racing and sharing tales 

MORE: Dale Jr.’s dedication to ill children leaves lasting impact

Broadcaster Bob Jenkins, who died last August after a battle with brain cancer, was honored as the recipient of the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR media excellence. Ralph Seagraves, who passed away in 1998, will be honored with the Landmark Award for outstanding contributions to the sport, partnering the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company with NASCAR in 1971 to sponsor the Cup Series, renaming it the Winston Cup Series. 

They were celebrated by a crowd at the Charlotte Convention Center that included 14 members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The journey from Earnhardt’s home in Kannapolis, North Carolina, to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte is a short trip in terms of miles but long in terms of what it took Earnhardt to complete the journey. Earnhardt shared his journey by highlighting key people along the way that helped shape him.

Those people were Gary Hargett, his first Late Model crew chief, friend and NBC Sports colleague Dale Jarrett, crew chief Tony Eury Sr., sister Kelley, car owner Rick Hendrick, crew chief and NBC Sports colleague Steve Letarte and wife Amy.

Earnhardt then thanked the fans.

“JR Nation has always had my back,” said the 15-time most popular driver in his speech. “When I stumbled, you guys were right there to lift me back up. Man, there were times when I absolutely needed you and you never let me down and were always there. We won together, and we lost together. Because so, you should know that I don’t go into this Hall of Fame alone. I go with you, and I go because of you.”

A fan in the crowd then shouted: “We love you!”

“I love you, too,” he said.

When Earnhardt made his Cup debut in 1999 at the Coca-Cola 600, he was accustomed to the attention. He had won a title in what was then called the Busch Series the previous year and was on his way to a second consecutive crown that season. He also had signed to a six-year sponsorship deal with Budweiser. 

Even so, the night he qualified for that first Cup race — before a crowd of more than 40,000 fans — Earnhardt admitted to jitters.

“I’ll tell you what, I ain’t never been that nervous in my life,” he said after earning the eighth starting spot, seven positions better than his father. “I wasn’t really worried about my ability to run a fast lap, I just knew that there were a lot more people paying attention than normal.”

But the confidence in Earnhardt was immense. The promotional effort Budweiser had in motion for him was second only to its Bud Bowl promotion that centered around the Super Bowl.

“Dale Earnhardt Jr. has become an absolute phenomenon as an athlete, not just a race car driver, and so the interest level for him … is one of the most astounding I’ve ever seen,” Don Hawk, president of Dale Earnhardt Inc., said in 1999. “If the industry is telling me the truth, Dale Jr. is one of the most powerful things to come along in motorsports in years.’’

After he qualified for that Coca-Cola 600, Earnhardt was surrounded by about 35 reporters and photographers near his garage. Teammate Steve Park had to climb atop a cooler so he could reach over the crowd to congratulate Earnhardt.

All the attention was second to what Earnhardt wanted most to achieve.

“If there is one person whose respect I want to earn,” Earnhardt said, “it’s his,” referring to his father.

Less than a year later, Earnhardt won his first of 26 Cup races, taking the checkered flag April 2, 2000, at Texas Motor Speedway in front of more than 200,000 fans. A proud Dale Earnhardt Sr. beat his son to victory lane. Father pulled son out of the car and bear hugged him.

“He told me he loved me,” Earnhardt later said of what his father told him in their embrace.

Less than a year later, his father died in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. A family mourned. As did a sport.

Earnhardt’s win at the July 2001 Daytona race — the first Cup race at the track since his father’s death — is one of the most memorable moments in the sport, if not most memorable, in the 2000s. The victory was cathartic not only for Earnhardt but for the sport and its fans.

“I was almost blinded by the flashbulbs going off as Dale Earnhardt Jr. went across the finish line,” said Elliott Sadler after finishing third that night.

Said Earnhardt after that race: “I never would have imagined this would happen. I can’t believe this is happening to me. I don’t know why this is happening to me. I’m just going to stay close to my friends … and to the people that make me feel good and maybe I’ll figure it out.’’

Among Earnhardt’s highlights was winning the 2004 Daytona 500. The trophy is a part of his Hall of Fame display case. While that victory was special because he didn’t have to wait as long as his father to win the 500, it also had special meaning for a future Cup driver who was with Earnhardt that weekend.

Denny Hamlin, a three-time Daytona 500 winner, got his first experience with what it was like to win that race as a guest of Earnhardt’s that weekend.

“We had just met online racing,” Hamlin told NBC Sports. “Not really sure why, but he invited me to come down and stay with him and his friends that weekend. … I’ll never forget going to victory lane and celebrating and then taking the trophy from there to the golf cart, rode with him and the bus driver back. Carried it in from the golf cart  to the bus, wondering if I would have my own.”

While Earnhardt’s career had its share of victories, including another Daytona 500 win in 2014, it was the way he treated people with compassion and kindness — whether competitors, officials, media or fans — that made him stand out.

Earnhardt’s Chance2 Motorsports team was a key starting spot for future Cup champion Martin Truex Jr., and Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports team elevated future Cup champion Brad Keselowski.

It is what Earnhardt has done for others that stand out to his friend Truex.

“You look at just his impact on the sport,” Truex told NBC Sports. “Now he’s a broadcaster (for NBC Sports). … I really admire his passion for the sport and how much he puts into everything he does and his commitment the people around that he cares about. Very special guy.”

Car owner Rick Hendrick told a story Friday about how Earnhardt, when he was driving for Hendrick during the recession, told Hendrick to take $1 million out of his salary to make sure his team members were taken care of financially.

Hendrick said the team didn’t do it. Earnhardt then went to the office and made sure they did what he wanted with his salary.

“That’s the heart of Dale Earnhardt,” Hendrick said. “it was taking care of the folks in the organization.”

After Hendrick shared the story, Earnhardt told his former boss: “I got to credit, obviously all the people that I’m around me that influence you to make choices like that. You would have done the same thing. I was influenced by you in that moment, by my sister, by anybody else that I’ve worked with and dealt with. You’re a product of the people that you spend time with and the environment that you spend time in. … It’s people like you that sets such a good example for people like me.”

Earnhardt continues to strive for more in his role as a broadcaster for NBC Sports since retiring from full-time Cup competition after the 2017 season.

Earlier this month, he took part in the NASCAR organizational test at Daytona International Speedway. He drove a Hendrick Motorsports car both days. Earnhardt told NBC Sports he wanted to learn as much about the car to help him convey that to fans when he’s in the broadcast booth.

“I’m going to stand around and listen to everything they’re talking about (at the Daytona test) try to learn everything I can about this car,” he said before the test. “Try to take notes and document my experience so when I’m standing up there in the booth and something pops up, I can lean on that a little bit.”

Dr. Diandra: Is Talladega really the biggest, fastest, fiercest track?

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Talladega Superspeedway has a reputation as one of the wildest tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Is it hype? Or do the numbers prove the point?

The biggest

Talladega is the longest oval track in the NASCAR circuit. At 2.66 miles (14,045 feet), one Talladega lap is the length of about 468 football fields. Talladega is longer than Mauna Kea is tall.

If we measure lengths in terms of Talladega:

  • The distance from Charlotte to Nashville (the location of the NASCAR awards ceremony) is 339 Talladegas.
  • If you flew direct from Los Angeles to New York City, you would cover 2500 Talladegas.
  • Martinsville is just 0.20 Talladegas.

Talladega also holds the record for banking in current Cup Series tracks with 33 degrees. Talladega’s banking is so high that the outside lane of the 48-foot wide racing surface is 26.1 feet higher than the inside lane. That difference is about the height of a two-story house.

Talladega is a tri-oval. Think of it as three straight lines connected by three curves.

A graphic showing the tri-oval shape and how it got its name

 

While tri-oval describes the track shape, it is also used to refer to the frontstretch — the most triangular part of the track.

And Talladega’s frontstretch is formidable. The 4,300-foot segment is banked at 16.5 degrees. Talladega’s frontstretch has more banking than all three of Pocono’s turns.

The backstretch, known as the Alabama Gang Superstretch, isn’t too shabby, either. It’s 1,000 feet longer than Daytona’s backstretch. If you were to unroll Richmond, its entire 0.75-mile length would just cover Talladega’s backstretch.

Talladega’s infield is so large that it could hold the L.A. Coliseum, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, Richmond and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A graphic showing that it's possible to pack five smaller tracks, plus the NASCAR Hall of Fame into Talladega's infield

The Fastest

Bill France Sr. originally envisioned Talladega as Indianapolis Motor Speedway with higher banking. At a time when raw speed was the big attraction, higher banking would allow Talladega to wrest away the closed-track speed record from Indy.

In 1970, just six months after Talladega hosted its first race, Buddy Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph mark on a closed course.

Baker’s breakthrough happened at a testing session. It wasn’t until 1982 that Benny Parsons became the first Cup Series driver to qualify over 200 mph. Just four years later, all but one of the 42 drivers starting the spring race qualified over 200 mph.

In May 1987, Bill Elliott set the all-time Cup Series qualifying record at 212.809 mph. That record will likely never be broken. During the race, Bobby Allison got airborne and crashed into the catchfence. NASCAR subsequently mandated restrictor plates (and now tapered spacers) to keep speeds down and cars on the ground.

Restricting airflow to the engine makes drafting even more important. That, in turn, leads to large packs of cars racing within inches of each other. That’s why four of the top-10 closest finishes in the Cup Series happened at Talladega.

In the spring 2011 race, Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by just two-thousandths (0.002) of a second. That ties the famous 2003 Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch Darlington finish for the smallest margin of victory in Cup Series history.

Of all Talladega races run after NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in May 1993, 44 ended under a green flag. Of those races:

  • Seven (15.9%) were won by less than 25 thousandths of a second.
  • Fifteen (34.1%) were won by less than one-tenth of a second.
  • Thirty-nine (88.6%) were won by less than two-tenths of a second.
  • The largest margin of victory was 0.388 seconds.

The Fiercest

Pack racing leads to more contact. Out of 35 Talladega races run under the current green-white-checkered rule, 14 (40%) ended under caution. Rain caused one of those yellow/checkered finishes. The rest were due to accidents.

In 64 races since 1990, Talladega has seen 228 caution-causing spins or accidents, which involved 1,120 cars.

Almost half (49.2%) of these incidents involved only one or two cars. A one- or two-car accident is no less problematic for the drivers involved than a larger crash. But the more cars involved in accidents, the more likely a driver is to be knocked out of the race.

  • 3.5% of all accidents since 1990 involved 20 or more cars.
  • 5.7% of accidents collected 15 or more cars.
  • 16.7% were 10-car or larger crashes.
  • 38.2% involved five or more cars.

While probable, the Big One is by no means inevitable.

Neither are accidents in general. Three races since 1990 finished with no cautions, but all three of these races took place before 2003. The lowest number of cautions in a Talladega race since 2003 is three. That happened at the fall races in 2013 and 2015.

The average number of caution-causing accidents and spins in a Talladega race is 3.5.

  • Seven races (10.9%) had a single caution-causing accident or spin.
  • 14 out of 64 races (21.9%) had four caution-causing accidents or spins
  • 13 of 64 races (20.3%) had three caution-causing incidents.

Races with four or fewer accidents make up 71.9% of all Talladega races — which means that races with five or more accidents only account for 28.1%.

The numbers definitely uphold Talladega’s reputation. Although the track itself remains the same, the racing varies. Tune in to NBC (2 p.m. ET) to see whether this fall’s bout is accident-filled or accident-free.

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”