Jimmie Johnson

Miami weekend ends with never-before-seen achievement

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Never before has there been a championship weekend like the one just completed at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Kyle Busch (Cup), Tyler Reddick (Xfinity) and Matt Crafton (Truck) each captured championships and set a standard for the sport.

This past weekend marked the first time in the history of the Truck, Xfinity and Cup series that each champion won more than their first series title. That goes back to 1995, the first season of the Truck Series.

Busch earned his second Cup crown Sunday night. Reddick won his second consecutive Xfinity championship Saturday. Crafton captured his third Truck title on Friday night.

The closest it has come in recent years to having all three national series champs winning multiple titles was 2010 when Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive Cup championship and Todd Bodine claimed his second Truck title, but the Xfinity championship was won by Brad Keselowski, who collected his first and only championship in that series.

Crafton, who did not win a Truck race this season, opened Miami’s final championship weekend by finishing second to collect the series title.

Asked if he was worried about any criticism that he was a champion despite not winning a race this season, Crafton said: “I’m going to sleep really good all winter long with this trophy because when you win a race, that’s very sweet, but usually you only have one week, like four or five days to gloat about it, but I think I’ve got like two-and-a-half months to gloat about this championship before next year.”

Reddick topped Cole Custer in a late duel before pulling away to win the Xfinity championship. Reddick became the first driver in that series to win back-to-back championships with two different teams. He won the 2018 championship with JR Motorsports and this year’s crown with Richard Childress Racing.

“Just real awesome to be able to have two back‑to‑back championships with two different teams,” Reddick said. “And what made this one so much more special is we were consistent week in and week out.”

Busch completed the weekend by becoming the only active Cup driver, other than Johnson, to have multiple titles.

“I would love to be sitting here right now talking about eight,” Busch said. “I’ve been in the sport for 14, 15 years, whatever this season is for me, and so we’re only talking about two.  It’s nice to have the success that we have, take it when you get it, but there’s certainly a few missed opportunities for sure.”

Long: Kyle Busch’s ride of a lifetime makes him forget past losses, if only briefly

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The 25-foot blue-and-white fishing boat is awarded annually to the race winner at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Every year since NASCAR debuted its playoff format in 2014, the Cup champion also has won the season finale to receive the $125,000 boat.

But with a boat comes the need to name it.

A couple of hours after becoming only the second active driver with more than one Cup championship, Kyle Busch was asked what he might call his new boat.

After pondering it briefly, he suggested “Should Have Been 18” — as in he should have also won the 2018 championship.

For a driver who thought he would have had three, four or five series titles by age 34, it is the defeats like he suffered in this race last year that sting the most.

Busch admitted earlier this week that even if he won Sunday night, he might not be able to enjoy it because his goals are so much higher.

“Trust me, there ain’t going to be anybody happier than me if we cross the finish line first on Sunday, for at least the first 10 minutes,” he said Thursday.

Busch was happy for longer than that but his celebration seemed muted. This polarizing driver who sang on his radio “All I do is win, win, win, no matter what” in March at Auto Club Speedway when he won his 200th career NASCAR national series race, simply said “Awesome work. Awesome year. Thank you boys” after capturing his 56th career Cup race and second championship.

“The thing with Kyle,” wife Samantha said, “sometimes he’ll listen to motivational speakers and all that. They say, ‘This is your job and you’re here to win and you’re here to perform and you’re here to be the best, so like congrats when you do it, but know that there’s always another goal.’

“I think that is it with Kyle, “Awesome I did one, now I want two.’ It’s not that he’s not proud of it … he just knows that he always has to keep setting that bar higher to push him and his team. I don’t think (the celebration) was sedate. I think it was confidence. ‘We came here to do what we were supposed to do.’ ”

While he smiled after winning, there wasn’t the unbridled exuberance. Admittedly, Busch was crowded almost immediately after exiting his car on the frontstretch and didn’t get to do his customary bow to the crowd. He also didn’t get to throw son Brexton in the air, which was the first thing the 4-year-old asked him to do when he got to his dad, until about four hours after the race.

Busch had suggested that Brexton get into the bowl of the championship trophy but his son demurred, saying he was too big for that (A few hours later, Busch coaxed Brexton to sit in the bowl for photos). Had Busch won last year’s championship, he could have had matching photos.

Seeds of Sunday’s triumph go back to last year’s disappointment when Busch fought an ill-handling car and wasn’t a factor as Joey Logano passed Martin Truex Jr. late to win the championship.

“I felt like not necessarily the car we brought but some of the approach that we had coming into it wasn’t right for my team, wasn’t right for Kyle, and I wanted to remedy that situation in the best way possible, and that’s to get here, number one and number two, perform at a high level,” crew chief Adam Stevens said.

When Busch experienced a similar loose condition with his car in his opening laps of Saturday’s practice, he had a flashback to last year’s Miami race.

“Oh, hell, here we go,” Busch said he thought.

“And then we worked on it. Adam did some really good adjustments to it early on in practice to get us to the tight side where I was really, really good at being able to rip it off the wall and had good rear security. I was like, OK, now we’re tight but we found both sides of it, so at least we’re not stuck with what we had like we did last year.”

But even if he felt good going into the race, few outside his team did.

The driver considered one of the most naturally talented in the sport, was viewed by many as an underdog. After opening the season with 11 consecutive top-10 finishes, including three wins, and later capturing the regular-season championship, he was inconsistent in the playoffs.

That he also hadn’t won in his last 21 races, while his teammates won nine of those events, gave many reason to question if Busch could challenge Kevin Harvick or Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Truex for the crown.

Busch was good Sunday but the race fell his way as the title contenders faltered one by one.

“That whole race went according to plan for a change,” Stevens said.

Truex saw his title hopes fade when his team made an egregious error, mixing a left- and right-side tire team before putting them on the car. Truex had to return to pit road on Lap 122 of the 267-lap race to fix the problem.

“I’ve never had that happen,” he said after finishing as the championship runner-up for a second year in a row. “I don’t even know what to say.”

Truex fell a lap down, later got back on the lead lap and while he would lead for five laps, it was only during a green-flag pit cycle.

“Ultimately it was the loss of track position that bit us,” he said.

Hamlin’s race soured after crew chief Chris Gabehart made an aggressive call for a piece tape the length of a forearm be put on the front grille to change the handling. What it did was prevent enough air from getting to the engine to cool it. The oil temperature pegged. So did the water temperature.

Hamlin feared the engine would blow. His team called him to pit road on Lap 221 while he ran third. Water and steam shot out of the hood like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. Hamlin was never a factor after that, finishing 10th.

“We beat ourselves right here just trying to get too much because that’s what you do in the championship race of the playoffs,” said Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart.

Kevin Harvick’s team game planned for a late-race caution, something that has happened all but one previous year in the playoff format. This time, though, there was no caution over the last 101 laps. And Harvick had no shot, placing fourth.

That left Busch, who had been so frustrated with his winless drought that when reminded last weekend at ISM Raceway that the champion also won the season finale — and he hadn’t won in five months — he responded by saying: “Thanks for the reminder.”

While Busch downplayed the doubt of others  — “I try to tune a lot of things out,” he noted. — Samantha said such things fueled him.

“You know Kyle likes to prove people wrong,” she said.

He did Sunday. While he seemed subdued, Busch admits there was a moment he was emotional as he joined seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson as the only current drivers with more than one series crown.

“I do remember taking the white flag and crossing underneath that and I had some tears rolling down my eyes for the last lap and was just like, ‘Come on, man, we’ve still got to finish this thing, don’t be such a sis.’ ” 

The best moment for Busch, though, came later. After his wife hugged him, his son hugged him and his brother Kurt hugged him, Busch got back into his car to drive it to Victory Lane with Brexton.

“Brexton actually came to me,” Busch said. “I don’t know if he got the idea from somebody else or if he just remembered it from Keelan (Harvick) doing it with Kevin, and said, ‘Dad, can I go for the ride with you?”

NASCAR approved the request.

“That was really, really special for Brexton, for me and Brexton to be able to take in that moment and go for a ride around the track,” Busch said. “At first he was sitting down on the floorboard, and I was like, You can’t see anything, man. I was like, ‘Stand up a little bit.’

“So he then was kneeling and holding on to the roll bar and stuff, and that was really, really cool. And I was smiling the whole damn time and looking over at him and making sure that he was having fun, enjoying that moment. We were waving at the camera that was in there and stuff. It was a lot of fun. I’m thankful for that.”

And in that moment, there was no thought of chasing five, six or seven championships, no thought about losing the title in 2018, no thought of anything else.

In that moment, it was just a father and a son going on a ride together.

It’s just that this trip ended in Victory Lane.

Daniel Hemric claims Cup Series Rookie of the Year honors

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On his way out the door, Daniel Hemric gave Richard Childress Racing a parting gift.

Hemric closed out the 2019 Cup Series season – and his three-year tenure with the team – by winning Cup Rookie of the Year honors.

The 28-year-old driver finished 12th Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway and ended his rookie year 25th in the point standings. That was one spot ahead of Ryan Preece, who finished 27 points behind him.

The other major rookie, Matt Tifft, ended the year 31st in the standings, but missed the last three races following a seizure at Martinsville Speedway last month.

Hemric’s finish in Sunday’s race was his best since he also placed 12th in the Bristol night race in August. He finished the season with one top five (fifth in spring race at Talladega) and one other top 10 (seventh in July race at Pocono). He also earned a pole at Kansas.

“It’s pretty special to say the least,” Hemric said. “I wish we were able to win Rookie of the Year and have a couple more solid finishes throughout the year than what we had, but about five or six weeks ago, myself and Preece somehow ended up tied with four or five races to go, so we knew we had to buckle down.  And really proud of this group for doing that.”

Hemric’s Rookie of the Year honors come after Richard Childress Racing – for whom Hemric raced two years in the Xfinity Series in 2017 and 2018 seasons, as well as his first Cup campaign in 2019 – announced in September the driver wouldn’t return to its No. 8 Chevrolet in 2020. Tyler Reddick will take his place in the car.

On Wednesday, JR Motorsports announced Hemric would drive its No. 8 Chevy in 21 races next year in the Xfinity Series.

“It’s tough for (his team), obviously, with me announcing my plans over the last couple days, a lot of those guys’ future is unknown,” Hemric said. “It’s easy for them to lay down, and they didn’t.  They kept continuing to put their best effort in every single week. For the last three weeks, we were able to string three decent races together, tonight being one of our best of the year.”

Hemric’s achievement comes the night after Reddick won the Xfinity Series title for RCR and at the tail end of the team’s 50th anniversary year.

“I don’t want that to get lost in things,” Hemric said. “50 years RCR has been in existence, and what Richard and (his wife) Mrs. Judy and that organization has done for countless numbers of people throughout our industry, they’ve changed lives and done it in bulk.

“To be able to see Reddick do what he did, between himself and his crew chief, Randall (Burnett), and that whole group last night, the job they did was exceptional all year, to bring RCR another Xfinity Series championship.  And at the beginning of every year we all set a certain amount of boxes that we all want to check, and we were able to check off a couple of those throughout the year, and tonight was a big one we wanted to accomplish.”

Hemric, who remains winless in five full-time seasons competing in NASCAR’s three national series, described his looming move to JRM as a “kind of a breath of fresh air.”

“I’m really pumped up starting right to getting to work on that deal,” Hemric said. “Having runs like tonight make me go into the offseason knowing I can compete and race at this level.

“It’s the little things when you have a season like we’ve had that get you over that emotional hump.”

One of those moments happened Sunday.

“I passed a seven‑time champion (Jimmie Johnson) on the last lap of a 60‑lap run at Homestead,” Hemric said. “Those are little victories you find in the light at the end of the tunnel in years like this.”

As to his eventual competition in the Xfinity Series, Hemric put them on notice.

“There’s no gray area,” Hemric said. “They know why I’m coming there.  They know my goal is to get back to this level, and I feel like it’ll be a full force effort to get me back.”

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Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick come up short of second Cup titles

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Sunday evening saw three of the Cup Series’ four championship drivers with a chance to become just the second active Cup driver with multiple titles on their resume.

In the end, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick had to watch Kyle Busch join that club, which Jimmie Johnson had been the sole member of since 2016 until Busch won under the lights at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Truex finished runner-up in the season finale for the second year in row while Harvick brought his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford home in fourth.

Truex thought his No. 19 Toyota, which his team had been refining for three weeks after his Martinsville win, had the “complete package” for a championship night.

“We were really good on short runs, good on long runs,” Truex told NBC. “Just another one that got away. Felt like we had what it took to win tonight, even more so than last year.”

Truex’s title hopes began to fizzle due to human error on pit road. After he won Stage 1, Truex pitted from the lead in the middle of Stage 2 on Lap 120.

When new tires were placed on his car, the right- and left-front tires were placed on the wrong sides.

Truex felt a difference immediately and returned to the pits on Lap 122. The mistake corrected, Truex returned to track the first car a lap down in 13th.

Luckily for Truex, the only non-stage break caution of the race – for a John Hunter Nemechek spin – fell in his favor on Lap 137. Truex received the free pass and after pit stops restarted 13th.

“Just (lost) control of the race there with the issues we had,” Truex said. “Having to restart back where we did and eating up our tires.”

Though he used up his tires, Truex quickly returned to the top 10 in the process and by the end of Stage 2 he was in fourth. But track position and a tight car kept Truex from being able to make a real run at Busch over the final laps.

“We were faster the whole last run, it’s just that we were too far behind to make up with traffic, lapped traffic and all those things,” Truex said. “Just another one that got away. Felt like we had what it took to win tonight, even more so than last year.

Truex said missing out on a title by one spot, two years in a row “definitely stings a little, but the fact that we have one is still really a big deal. It’s hard to win these things.”

Harvick, who was trying to follow-up his title from the 2014 season, lamented a car that fell off on long runs compared to the Joe Gibbs Racing cars.

Harvick led the first 20 laps of the race before Truex passed him. Harvick led twice more for 21 laps.

“We just needed to do something different,” Harvick said. “Really our best chance was to have a caution there at the end and never got one.  We just did something different hoping for a caution, and that’s what you’re supposed to do in those late situations like that.  Just do the opposite of the cars you’re trying to race, and it just didn’t work out.”

Harvick said with this race’s recent history of having a late caution, “you kind of play towards that.”

Harvick was asked if being the lone Ford driver pitted against three Toyotas had any impact on how the night went for him.

“Not really … it really turns into individual battles,” Harvick said. “I’d even say those guys are all racing for each other and trying to win a championship.  Never really looked at it quite that way.”

Ryan: NASCAR must take steps to make Phoenix title-worthy in 2020

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Let’s start with the positives for ISM Raceway: Outside of its racing, everything last weekend showed the 1-mile oval on the west side of Phoenix is championship ready.

Its fan enthusiasm – two consecutive sellouts in the Round of 8 finale and an enormous village of campers deserving of its own zip code in the Valley of the Sun – is firmly established as nonpareil in NASCAR’s premier series.

The community and local media support is deserving of the big-event status that often has been lacking during an 18-year run in South Florida for the season finale of the Cup Series.

And $178 million in renovations have delivered striking vantage points from gleaming new grandstands while offering an efficiently inviting infield with the 21st-century ambiance and amenities that too much of racing lacks.

This racetrack is ready to play host to the title-deciding race … provided that its 1-mile ribbon of asphalt can deliver the goods.

That, though, was the biggest question leaving Phoenix last weekend and facing all tracks of a mile and shorter next season when the low-horsepower, high-downforce package enters its second season.

“They’ve got to figure out something for this race because it’s going to be a letdown if it’s like that and it’s the championship race,” third-place finisher Ryan Blaney said. “Hopefully, they can figure something out. I thought it was a start. They just need to keep doing their homework on it.”

Said Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson: “As a fan, we need our short tracks to be better. To be what they were. They were the best races, honestly. Obviously with this package, they’re not well suited.”

There is no doubt the 2019 rules have been conducive to better racing (and particularly restarts) on the 1.5-mile ovals that make up the bulk of the schedule (and once the bulk of the playoffs). They weren’t really needed for Sunday’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which already had a reputation for outstanding racing because of its progressive banking and high tire wear.

Any championship venue should strive to meet the gold standard that has been set over the past 18 years in Miami.

But how can NASCAR take steps toward achieving that in 2020? There would seem few options for modifying ISM Raceway, whose footprint seems more than set after several years of capital improvements culminated in last year’s overhaul. NASCAR already has declared its horsepower and downforce specs largely will remain in place for next season.

And perhaps given the sudden groundswell for rotating the championship round, this largely will become a moot point if the title race’s stay is short-lived at ISM Raceway.

But here are a few suggestions for potentially enhancing Phoenix – and the 750 horsepower package on all smaller tracks — are percolating in the industry for next year, though:

Soften the tires: This seems the lowest-hanging fruit for improving the racing because of its simplicity. To avoid failures, Goodyear has erred on the side of producing bulletproof tires that ensure durability but undermine the disparity in speeds that is needed for optimal passing numbers.

That isn’t possible with tires that can run 3,000 laps without replacement (which was the estimate at Martinsville). Brad Keselowski noted the tires at Phoenix probably could have lasted 1,000 laps, which is why much of the 312 laps seemed like slot car racing. When there is no reward for tire management, it adversely impacts cars being able to move forward and backward.

“That really changes the dynamics because you get some guys that put a lot of camber in the car and take off on the short run and fall off on a long run,” Keselowski said. “You get some guys that drive really hard on soft tires and wear them out, and that creates comers and goers, but when you have such a hard tire, one that doesn’t fall off, you’re not going to see that.”

If degradation is factored in, the racing should improve but with some accompany headaches.

“A tire really soft with a lot of fall off makes for great racing,” Alex Bowman said. “At the same time, it makes for tire failures, and it’s hard for a tire manufacturer to be like, ‘Hey we’re going to bring this tire and if you run it too long, it’s going to fail, so don’t do that.’ It’s much easier for them to bring a hard tire with a ton of durability and very little falloff that doesn’t fail so they don’t get any flak for a tire failing. If you were a tire manufacturer, what would you do? Everyone’s kind of in a box. They want to bring the best product they can to the racetrack. To them, that’s one that doesn’t have failures.”

At some point, though, the PR concerns of a tire supplier must be outweighed by the negative ramifications on the quality of racing. What good is it to have flawless tires in races that no one wants to watch?

One potential compromise solution: Soften the tires with an emphasis on the left sides, which at least create fewer problems for teams (i.e. crashes, heavy impacts and body damage) when they fail.

Chop the spoiler: NASCAR officials have opened the door to reconsidering tweaking the cars to help racing on shorter tracks next year, and the most obvious play would be reducing the 8-inch spoiler that keep cars glued to the track and creates a larger aerodynamic wake that makes the handling of trailing cars less stable.

But while it theoretically should ameliorate the current downforce woes, the cause-effect is more complex than with simply softening the tire. Changing the height of the spoiler will affect the balance of the cars and perhaps be unworthy of the tradeoff.

Teams also are likely to spend more money on R&D if the spoiler heights aren’t static. This is a less important rationale given that cars are already much different from the 550 horsepower package (tracks 1.33 miles and longer) vs. the 750 hp (1.33 miles and shorter) because of the downforce and drag.

Work on the traction compound: ISM Raceway marked the first time that one of the tracks formerly owned by International Speedway Corp. attempted to apply PJ1 without consultation with Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks (which had been using it the past three years). From the outset, the traction compound intended to add a lane seemed to have been applied too high on the track.

“I think it would have been a lot better race if they would have got it low enough,” Kevin Harvick said. “It was just way too high I thought. It was closer in one and two. I mean, it was still probably 3 or 4 feet. Probably needed to come down just a little bit in that end. The other end, it was 7 or 8 feet. It was way too high.”


Beyond simply improving the racing at shorter tracks in 2019, NASCAR already had its challenges at ISM Raceway. While the 1-mile track has become a darling of ISC because of its location and fan support, the competition in Cup (or lack thereof) has produced controversy before.

In the April 21, 2007 debut of the Car of Tomorrow at Phoenix, passing was so nonexistent, Denny Hamlin (who lost the lead on Lap 99 and never regained it) declared the new chassis was “mission failed” if the goal had been to improve the action. NASCAR’s decision to throw four debris cautions during that same race led Tony Stewart to accuse the sanctioning body of officiating tantamount to pro wrestling in one of the biggest controversies of the three-time series champion’s career.

In the March 3, 2013 race at Phoenix, Hamlin was fined $25,000 for merely suggesting the Gen 6 car was less conducive to passing.

So, this isn’t the first time the racing at Phoenix has been in the crosshairs.

“The racing specifically at Phoenix has looked like (Sunday) for 15 years,” Steve Letarte said on the most recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “I know people don’t want to hear that. There were moments of great racing at times. There was not good racing at times. Fuel mileage races. Long green-flag runs. That’s Phoenix. I feel we all just have to appreciate what we get. Can it be made better? Yeah. It always could.”

But the stakes never will have been higher for NASCAR to have gotten it right by this time next year. The 2020 finale will be coming on the heels of at least five and quite probably six instances in which the reigning champion also will have won the race in a dramatic showdown with his rivals.


The two Joe Gibbs Racing teams that were locked into the championship round with more than a race remaining in the playoffs took the opportunity to have critical team members skip the race last weekend.

Christopher Bell’s team left car chief Chris Sherwood in North Carolina, while Martin Truex Jr.’s team sent car chief Blake Harris back Saturday after helping prepare the No. 19 Toyota. Truex still finished sixth at Phoenix with what he described to NBC Sports as “half a team and an old car” as the team elected to focus on preparing its Camry for Miami.

“Blake went home to get some work done, getting the Homestead car prepped and ready,” Truex said. “Blake was here for practice (Friday), got all his stuff done here, and we could substitute someone. We couldn’t really substitute anybody (Friday) for him. He’s a big part of our team.

“Obviously that’s why he’s going back to work on that car. Just make sure it’s all good. Checks and double checks.”

Bell demurred when asked about Sherwood’s absence, joking “I’ve been told he’s not feeling well this weekend. I’m just telling you what I’m told.”

There should be no apologizing for or hiding the strategy, though. It’s a smart play, especially considering that two of the past three Cup champions (Jimmie Johnson and Joey Logano) won the title after winning Martinsville and ostensibly having extra time to prepare.


With Front Row Motorsports now facing two vacant rides next season after the announcement that Matt Tifft’s career is on hold indefinitely, the interim driver in the No. 36 Ford would be an obvious candidate.

John Hunter Nemechek, who finished on the lead lap in 21st during his Cup debut at Texas Motor Speedway, said before Sunday’s race at Phoenix that he would be open to racing full time in Cup in 2020 but “there are a lot of unknowns right now.

“Anytime you’re in a race car, it’s an audition,” Nemecek said. “Everyone has their eyes on you. If you can do something, great. It’s only going to help you. If you do something bad, it’s only going to hurt you. I feel like (the debut) being a solid day, it may have turned some heads, it may have given Front Row some stuff. But overall, I don’t feel it’s an audition. I’m here to fill in for Matt and hope he gets a speedy recovery.”


John Hunter Nemechek’s progress underscores the importance of up and coming drivers selling themselves to teams with sponsors as a package deal. His main backer is Fire Alarm Services, which he eventually hopes to bring with him to Cup after having sponsorship in the Xfinity and truck series.

Corey LaJoie said recently that he has four to six sponsors in tow (much of it through business to business deals that guarantee product sales instead of traditional consumer sponsors that value exposure). LaJoie said packaging at least $1 million in sponsorship is the goal in shopping himself to more elite Cup teams.

In the Xfinity Series, Jesse Little’s move into a full-time ride at Johnny Davis Motorsports comes with a several sponsors that backed him in the truck series … and a few that he has yet to sign.

“It was a commitment on my part that I’m going to find this money that I told the team that I would bring,” he said. “I’ll get to work over the next month and a half, and once the season starts, it’ll be a constant journey of finding deals here and there. Instead of saying, ‘This is what I’ll commit to right now,’ I made the decision to go out on a limb and say ‘I think I can get that (funding).’”

Little, who will be driving and hunting money full time while also completing an information technology degree at UNC Charlotte, said he consulted with LaJoie and Ross Chastain before making a leap similar to what they have done.

“They said it was well worth it,” Little said. “As long as you’re willing to take the risk, sometimes it’s what it takes.”