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Ryan Blaney experienced Kobe Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ in person

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kobe Bryant didn’t ask normal questions.

Nearly two years after a 20-minute conversation in the back of a Las Vegas steakhouse, that’s what sticks out to Ryan Blaney about the five-time NBA champion.

Blaney reflected on his encounter with Bryant on Monday, roughly 24 hours after the 41-year-old former Los Angeles Laker was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others.

MORE: NASCAR community mourns death of Kobe Bryant

The encounter between the Team Penske driver and Bryant came in October 2018 during a convention for Body Armor, a sports drink company Bryant was an investor in that sponsors Blaney in the NASCAR Cup Series.

“We went into a backroom and all of a sudden Kobe Bryant was standing there,” Blaney said during a media event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Pretty amazing that he was back there and they let me meet him.”

During their meeting, Blaney gifted Bryant the firesuit that he wore during the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier that year.

“He was pretty excited about that,” Blaney said. “Just being able to talk to a guy like that for 20 minutes, someone who didn’t really know a lot about racing, but wanted to learn everything about it 20 minutes. Just the way he asked questions, (he) was so interested in it, to me I could see where they call it the ‘Mamba Mentality’ comes from and how he used it in basketball to become so great.

“That was the coolest moment. I don’t get star struck very often. I knew all the answers, but I was getting nervous that I would answer wrong when he was asking me questions he knew nothing about. That’s just his atmosphere.”

Bryant didn’t pepper Blaney with the cliche questions one expects from those uninitiated with auto racing.

“I just didn’t expect the amount of interest he showed, he wanted to learn everything about it,” Blaney said. “It wasn’t like the (how do you use the) bathroom question. It wasn’t ‘do you get dizzy?’ It was technical stuff and shows what kind of amazing, intellectual person that he was. That was something that really tickled me, how excited he was to learn about it.”

Blaney, who said he was a Bryant fan growing up in the ’90s before LeBron James arrived on the scene to play for his home team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, said it was a “shame” he was never able to get Bryant to attend a race weekend.

“For somebody who has inspired so many young boys and girls around the country for decades, the social media stuff the last day and half has been unbelievable to see people who looked up to him growing up. I did too, I ain’t lying, how can you not watch Kobe Bryant when you’re growing up as a kid? A terrible loss. I hate that for his family and the other family involved.”

Bryant didn’t forget about their steakhouse encounter. He later sent Blaney a signed copy of his book, “The Mamba Mentality.”

Blaney keeps it on display on a bookshelf.

“Just really neat,” Blaney said. “You respect other great athletes and people and their work ethic. I think that’s what impressed me the most about him was his work ethic at everything. He’d outwork you at every little bit. You’ve got to respect somebody like that, who will figure out how to beat you and if he can’t do it with talent he’s going to outwork you really hard. I don’t know, it’s just amazing to get a privilege like that. It’s hard to describe.”

UniFirst to sponsor Chase Elliott in three Cup Series races this year

Chase Elliott
Hendrick Motorsports
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UniFirst will be a sponsor of Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet in three Cup Series races this year, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

The company will be on Elliott’s car at Phoenix Raceway (March 8), the All-Star Race (May 16) and the playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Sept. 27).

A work clothing and uniform supplier, UniFirst has been a Hendrick Motorsports sponsor since 2016. It sponsored William Byron in four races in 2018 and three last year.

UniFirst also will be featured as an associate sponsor for all races in 2020.

 

Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. be on the next NASCAR Hall of Fame ballot?

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CHARLOTTE – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a well-established devotee of racing lore.

But on the eve of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 11th class being inducted Friday, he is trying to avoid pondering something historic.

That he could be a part of its 12th class next year.

“It’s hard not to think about it, but that’s as far as I let myself go,” Earnhardt said. “I try not to get too wrapped up in it.

“I follow a lot of guys on social media that are passionate about the history of the sport even more so than I am, and there’s a lot of guys that belong in the Hall of Fame that probably should go in there before me. And my feelings about that are if I ever get in, I’ll be very honored. I hope that may happen one day.”

It’ll happen Friday for Tony Stewart, Joe Gibbs, Bobby Labonte, Waddell Wilson and the late Buddy Baker as the 2020 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame formally is enshrined at the Charlotte Convention Center. The ceremony will be broadcast live on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET.

The vote for the 2021 class likely will happen in May, and Earnhardt, who retired from full-time racing after the 2017 season to become an NBC Sports analyst, is eligible to be chosen among the 20 names on the ballot. According to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, drivers who have competed for at least 10 years and have been retired for two years are eligible for nomination.

The 2020 candidates, which are selected by a nominating committee next month, should be announced by mid-March. Among recently retired big-name drivers, Jeff Gordon and Stewart both were candidates in their first year of eligibility. Carl Edwards, who left NASCAR after the 2016 season, didn’t make the nominee list last year.

A 15-time Most Popular Driver and two-time Xfinity champion with 26 Cup victories, Earnhardt has credentials that can match those of others who have been elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

But he lacks the on-track resumes of Gordon (four championships, 93 wins in Cup) and Stewart (three titles, 49 wins in Cup), both of whom were first-ballot selections.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame annually inducts the top five in voting from 20 candidates. Last year’s top three vote-getters outside the top five were Mike Stefanik, Ray Fox and Hershel McGriff.

The trio is likely to return for consideration this year along with the 12 others on the 2020 ballot who weren’t selected: Sam Ard, Neil Bonnett, Red Farmer, Harry Gant, John Holman, Harry Hyde, Ralph Moody, Marvin Panch, Jim Paschal, Larry Phillips, Ricky Rudd and Red Vogt.

Votes are cast by a panel of more than 50 that includes NASCAR executives, track owners, media members, manufacturer representatives and the reigning Cup Series champion (Kyle Busch), as well as an online fan vote.

“I’m certainly young enough to wait it out if I need to, and there’s a lot of guys in our sport that belong in there, and there’s only so many that get inducted each year,” said the 45-year-old Earnhardt, whose late seven-time champion father was among the inaugural class in 2010. “There’s just so much history in our sport that should be acknowledged and appreciated and will be, so it’s got to be tough as someone who’s having to vote for who goes in.

“That’s got to be some of the toughest decisions to make that decision on who’s going to get there.”

He addressed his Hall of Fame prospects while attending a Jan. 15 news conference at the Uptown Charlotte shrine, which recently unveiled a new Glory Road exhibit that features 18 championship cars chosen by Earnhardt.

NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelley said Earnhardt was selected because of his appreciation of stock-car history. Earnhardt recently helped spearhead a project to map defunct North Wilkesboro Speedway for iRacing gamers, and he has an upcoming program about vanished racetracks slated for the Peacock streaming service.

One of his first forays into TV production was a documentary show called “Back in the Day” that celebrated classic NASCAR races and footage.

“I do love to be acknowledged for the passion that I have for the history,” said Earnhardt, whose favorite era is the 1970s. “If you’re a bit of a historian of the sport, any involvement in anything the Hall of Fame is going to be doing is awesome and going to be a great experience.”

Kyle Busch feeling like ‘the new guy’ during his Rolex 24 debut at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kyle Busch was looking forward to his first stint at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

The two-time Cup champion was less enthused about his second turn behind the wheel in the IMSA season opener. Busch will climb back into the No. 14 Lexus RCF GT3 at 2 a.m. Sunday, just past the midpoint of the endurance race classic at Daytona International Speedway.

“That’s going to suck, yeah,” Busch deadpanned. “That’s exactly when I told them I did not want to run, and I got it.  Thank you very much.

“(I’m) the new guy.  I pulled the short straw.”

Click here to read more about how Busch felt about his AIM Vasser Sullivan car.

DC Solar founders to plead guilty to charges related to $1 billion Ponzi scheme

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Thirteen months after the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Internal Revenue Service raided the headquarters of DC Solar and the home of its founders, Jeff and Paulette Carpoff, the couple has entered plea agreements related to a $1 billion Ponzi scheme, the impact of which saw Chip Ganassi Racing close its Xfinity Series program in 2019.

Jeff Carpoff has agreed to plead guilty to one count each of wire fraud and money laundering while Paulette Carpoff will plead guilty to one count each of conspiracy and money laundering.

According to the plea agreements filed with the Eastern District of California, the government will recommend an initial sentence of 30 years in prison for Jeff Carpoff and 15 years for Paulette Carpoff prior to any co-operation they provide with the case.

The agreement outlines a Ponzi scheme that operated from March 2011 to December 2018, ending with the raids on the Carpoff’s residence in Martinez, California, and DC Solar’s headquarters in Benicia, California.

DC Solar was a company that built and leased solar energy equipment and also sponsored Chip Ganassi Racing in the Cup and Xfinity Series. It was the primary or co-primary sponsor for Kyle Larson in 16 Cup races and for three races with Jamie McMurray in 2018. It also sponsored 10 Xfinity races with Ganassi and announced in November 2018 it would sponsor Ross Chastain’s full-time ride in 2019.

It also sponsored Xfinity Series races in 2018 at Phoenix Raceway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the infield “FanGrounds” at Richmond Raceway.

In the wake of the raids and the company filing for bankruptcy in January 2019, CGR was forced to close its Xfinity operation.

During the nearly eight-year scheme, the plea agreement says the Carpoffs used the money generated from it to buy their NASCAR sponsorships, 150 luxury and collectible vehicles and luxury real estate in Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas, the Caribbean and Mexico.

They also purchased a suite at a professional football stadium, a subscription private jet service, the Martinez (California) Clippers minor league baseball team and a 2018 performance by an internationally known rapper at a company holiday party.

Funds were also used to make illicit payments to their co-conspirators and others.

As part of their respective plea agreements, the Carpoffs have agreed to pay restitution to their victims, totaling between $800 million and $1.6 billion.