Jeffrey Earnhardt

Jack Hawksworth’s unexpected NASCAR adventure

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When last week started, Jack Hawksworth didn’t know he would end it by making his NASCAR debut.

That changed Tuesday morning when the 28-year-old British sports car driver received a text from a friend at Toyota letting Hawksworth know a seat was waiting for him at Joe Gibbs Racing, a result of Jeffrey Earnhardt’s departure.

Hawksworth was in Chicago, on a brief vacation from his full-time job competing in IMSA before he was going to fly home to England for the first time in weeks.

Instead, he found himself flying to Charlotte, North Carolina, later on Tuesday. Waiting for him was a couple of hours in the Toyota Racing Development simulator, a seat fitting, a NASCAR mandated drug test and a JGR crash course in the world of NASCAR.

It was “completely, absolutely nuts,” Hawksworth told NBC Sports of his whirlwind week. It was all made possible due to his work with Lexus and TRD over the last three years in IMSA.

Hawksworth said a potential NASCAR opportunity “had been talked about” earlier in the year “but it obviously had never come to fruition at any point.”

Three days after receiving the text message, Hawksworth arrived in the garage at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a track he’d competed on in IndyCar and just four months earlier in IMSA, where he had won in the GTD class.

But walking into the NASCAR garage for the first time – for his first NASCAR event in any capacity – brought about a feeling he hadn’t had since late 2011 when he first visited the U.S.

“It literally felt like I was just arriving in America again,” said Hawksworth.

The Basics

With the help of crew chief Ben Beshore, the rest of the No. 18 team and his teammates in Christopher Bell and Brandon Jones, Hawksworth spent two practice sessions Friday figuring out how to handle a stock car.

“I was able to jump into basically a plug-and-play situation were everything was ready to go,” Hawksworth said. “The mechanics were on the ball with everything. Ben was able to get me up to speed with everything, explain how everything worked within the series.”

Hawksworth described the “huge difference” between NASCAR and what he’s used to driving in a Lexus sports car around the same track.

“Suddenly the braking zones were double the length of what I’m used to and the corner speeds were much lower,” Hawksworth said. “I found the car quite easy to overdrive, so I have to basically rein it in a little bit, so I have to slow myself down and kind of back up my entries to the corners and try to drive to the limit of the vehicle.”

He also had to get acclimated to a manual H-pad transmission.

That’s one of the areas Bell and Jones provided insight on, as well as how to navigate the pit road speed limit.

“It really was a good atmosphere within the team,” Hawksworth said. “The accommodation of the three of us really helped us lift our game up.”

It all led to Saturday, where a “confident” Hawksworth put the No. 18 Toyota on the front row, qualifying second to Austin Cindric.

“I didn’t really have any pre-conceived idea of how the race would play out or how qualifying would play out,” Hawksworth said. “I was just trying to approach it with an open mind and do the best job that I could.”

As the field rode around the track during the race’s warm-up laps, Hawksworth experienced a surreal moment that reminded him of his childhood.

Jack Hawksworth navigates Mid-Ohio. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

“I used to have a game which I had on my computer when I was little, I think it was ‘NASCAR 95’ or something like that,” Hawksworth said. “The view inside the car as I was doing the warm-up lap reminded me of that computer game, especially when you got Austin’s No. 22 accelerating next to me and it would pop up just outside my left window net.”

Welcome to NASCAR

Once the green flag dropped, Hawksworth was all business.

“I knew it was a 75-lap race. I just wanted to get through the first lap and hold position,” he said. “Once I got through Turn 1, I just wanted to settle into a rhythm really, try to evaluate how the car was, just like I would in any other race.”

It wasn’t a flawless first stage for Hawksworth. On Lap 15, while trying to hold third place, he was hit from behind by Cole Custer in the final turn, which resulted in both cars going around, but they were able to continue.

Hawksworth finished outside the top 10 in the first stage after most of the leaders stopped to pit before the stage concluded.

He would have a much more enjoyable second stage. On the initial restart, he made a three-wide pass to move into fourth.

Two restarts later on Lap 37, Hawksworth cleared Bell for the lead entering Turn 3 as a multi-car wreck unfolded in Turn 2. Three laps later, he claimed the stage win under caution.

“I felt like I was beginning to understand the restarts,” Hawksworth said. “I was beginning to understand how the other guys were racing. In the end it felt like we were in position to compete and have a go at trying to win the race.”

Then the day fell apart.

A slow pit stop resulted in Hawksworth restarting deep in the field where the racing was like a “dogfight.”

He went off course on Lap 67 while ninth and got grass on his grille, which would take a toll on his front brakes.

“End of the race kind of a bit of a write off,” said Hawksworth, who brought the No. 18 Toyota home in 15th.

He didn’t have much time to stick around. Hawksworth left the track for a two-and-a-half hour drive to Detroit for a seven-hour flight to England, followed by the drive to his apartment in Bradford, where he discussed his weekend via phone.

At home, he took the time to watch his NASCAR debut on TV, where he got a kick out of seeing “cars going around with half the body work missing.”

What stood out to him days removed from the event?

“I really enjoyed the experience and it was just something completely unique and completely different atmosphere to anything that I’m used to,” Hawksworth said. “To pinpoint one weird thing is difficult because everything felt strange.”

Hawksworth is definitely open to stepping into the NASCAR world again if the opportunity arises. It won’t be next weekend at Road America, as that conflicts with an IMSA race. Matt DiBenedetto will be driving the No. 18.

But when NASCAR races on the Charlotte Roval on Sept. 28-29, there’s no IMSA conflict.

“I feel like I’d go in there with experience and with a race underneath I think we could go in and be serious contenders to win,” Hawksworth said of a hypothetical second start. “I’d relish the chance to have another crack at it.”

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Matt DiBenedetto to drive Joe Gibbs Racing Xfinity car at Road America

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Matt DiBenedetto announced Tuesday that he will drive the No. 18 Xfinity car for Joe Gibbs Racing next weekend at Road America.

Jeffrey Earnhardt was scheduled to run that car at Road America before parting ways with sponsor iK9 on Aug. 7.

This will be DiBenedetto’s first Xfinity start since 2016 when he ran 19 of the season’s 33 races. He last ran at Road America in 2014, finishing 11th for car owner Curtis Key.

DiBenedetto will be able to run Road America because the Aug. 24 race comes on the final weekend off for Cup.

Jack Hawksworth joins Joe Gibbs Racing for Mid-Ohio Xfinity race

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Jack Hawksworth, a former IndyCar driver and current IMSA racer, will make his Xfinity Series debut this weekend in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN).

Hawksworth takes the place of Jeffrey Earnhardt, who announced Wednesday morning he had parted ways with sponsor iK9 and wouldn’t be competing this weekend.

Hawksworth, 28, has two IMSA wins this year, including a GTD class win at Mid-Ohio in May.

“I’m excited to be joining the Joe Gibbs Racing team and driving the No. 18 iK9 Toyota Supra this weekend at Mid-Ohio,” Hawksworth said in a press release. “It’s a fantastic opportunity in a completely different series, against completely different competition and in a different type of racing.

“From a personal perspective, I’m very excited to experience something new and to be challenged in a new way. It’s going to be very different, I’m sure it’s going to be difficult and there’s going to be a bit of a learning curve with it, but I’m going into it with a championship-winning organization so that gives me a lot of confidence. I look to get out there and do a good job and looking forward to getting out on the track.”

A native of Bradford, England, Hawksworth competed in IndyCar from 2014-16, with the final two years racing for A.J. Foyt.

He earned one podium finish in 2014 on the Houston street course.

“As we head in to the second road course of the season, we’re fortunate to have a veteran like Jack Hawksworth be able to come out of the Lexus program to help out the Toyota family and our team in the No. 18 iK9 Supra this weekend,” said Steve DeSouza, Executive Vice President of Xfinity Series and Development for Joe Gibbs Racing in a press release. “He will bring a great deal of experience and a history of success to JGR this weekend.

“I think he’ll be a great asset to our team and be someone that both Brandon (Jones) and Christopher (Bell) can look to for advice on how to get around Mid-Ohio. He’s proven he can win at the track and no reason not to continue that this weekend with the 18 team.”

Jeffrey Earnhardt parts ways with sponsor IK9, won’t race at Mid-Ohio for JGR

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The remainder of the 2019 racing season for Jeffrey Earnhardt is unclear after the grandson of seven-time NASCAR champion and Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt tweeted this morning that he has “parted ways” with sponsor IK9.

IK9 had sponsored Earnhardt in five of his seven Xfinity Series starts this season. Those five races were in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Earnhardt’s other two Xfinity starts were for XCI Racing. IK9 also sponsored Earnhardt’s sole Cup start for XCI Racing this season at Talladega.

Earnhardt tweeted: “Just wanted to let ya’ll know that iK9 and I have parted ways and wanted to thank them for the opportunity to race with @JoeGibbsRacing & @ToyotaRacing. Wish them the best in their future.”

As recently as Aug. 5, Joe Gibbs Racing tweeted Earnhardt would be competing in this weekend’s Xfinity race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

 

According to a JGR team statement, “IK9 remains a sponsor with us and will be on the car this weekend as scheduled. He (Earnhardt) is parting ways with IK9 as he indicated in his tweet. We will announce the driver for this weekend for the No. 18 IK9 Supra soon.”

The son of former racer Kerry Earnhardt and nephew of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeffrey Earnhardt has one top-five (a career-best third at Charlotte) and two other top-10 finishes (sixth at Atlanta, eighth at Texas) in his seven Xfinity starts this season. All three of those finishes were with JGR.

“Jeffrey has a great relationship with JGR and Toyota and that has not changed,” a Jeffrey Earnhardt Inc. spokesman said in an email to NBC Sports.

It’s unclear whether Wednesday’s news will impact the 30-year-old Earnhardt’s tenure with XCI Racing.

Earnhardt has 76 career Cup starts, 73 Xfinity starts, 10 Truck Series starts and has also competed on the Pinty’s (Canada), K&N East and Whelen Euro series.

IK9 issued this tweet Wednesday afternoon:

Updated entry lists for Michigan, Mid-Ohio

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NASCAR has another split weekend on tap with the Cup and Gander Outdoors Truck Series racing this weekend at Michigan International Speedway, while 175 miles south the Xfinity Series visits Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the second road course race in a four-race stretch.

Here’s the entry lists for each series:

CUP – Consumers Energy 400 (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Michigan

There are 38 cars entered for this race.

Gander Outdoors Truck Series regular Spencer Boyd will make his Cup debut Rick Ware Racing’s No. 53 Chevrolet.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity– B&L Transport 170 (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Mid-Ohio

There are 38 cars entered for the race.

Max Tullman is entered in the No. 53 Chevrolet owned by Means Motorsports. There is no driver attached to the No. 74 Chevrolet of Mike Harmon Racing.

NASCAR on NBC analyst and former Cup driver AJ Allmendinger will be behind the wheel of the No. 10 Chevrolet of Kaulig Racing.

Regan Smith makes his return to competition driving JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

IMSA driver Jack Hawksworth will make his Xfinity Series debut in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota after Jeffrey Earnhardt cancelled his contract with sponsor iK9 and announced he wouldn’t be racing this weekend.

Click here for the entry list.

TRUCKS – Corrigan Oil 200 (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET on FS1) at Michigan

There are 31 trucks entered for the race.

Spencer Boyd is back in Young’s Motorsports’ No. 20 truck after missing one race due to a non-racing injury.

This is the last race of the regular season for the Truck Series.

Click here for the entry list.

 

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