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Mike Wells set to direct final NASCAR race for NBC Sports

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For the last four Labor Day weekends, each visit to Darlington Raceway on “Throwback Weekend” has been a trip down memory lane for NASCAR.

Especially for the man who has helped oversee packaging and presenting some of the most indelible images in stock-car racing over the past four decades.

“During the (Southern 500) broadcasts, we play back historic races of Darlington, and I’m going, ‘Oh yup, I did that one, and yeah, I did that one,’” Mike Wells, who is in his 38th season of directing NASCAR races, said recently with a chuckle. “One of the most memorable races – and there’s a number of them – but Bill Elliott was the first one to get the Winston Million and I directed that one, and that was a pretty cool thing. There’s just so many different ones, quite frankly.”

Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway on NBC will mark the last chance for the 21-time Emmy Award winner to leave his stamp on creating NASCAR memories as he closes a run that began in 1981 at Rockingham Speedway.

Wells said he has lost precise count of how many hundreds of races he has directed since then, but he estimates snapping his fingers – his signature method of calling for a camera change – several hundred thousand times in production trucks at racetracks around the country.

That distinct rhythm will move to another racing circuit next year as NBC Sports takes over full coverage of the IndyCar Series, and Wells directs the Indianapolis 500 and other select races.

“Mike’s contributions to NBC Sports and NASCAR during the past 37 seasons have been immeasurable,” said Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC Sports. “His legacy as an Emmy Award-winning director and innovator in the sport is second only to his reputation as a tremendous teammate, leader and mentor to so many who have had the privilege of working with him.

“While it’s bittersweet for this to be Mike’s final NASCAR race for us, we can’t think of a better person to direct NBC’s inaugural Indy 500 in 2019.”

Fittingly, Talladega has been the site for much of Wells’ most memorable race direction in NASCAR.

He was selecting the camera angles for the May 4, 1986 race that began with a fan stealing the pace car. Wells was in the production truck a year later at Talladega when rookie Davey Allison scored his first Cup victory and was congratulated in victory lane by his father, Bobby, whose car had flown into the frontstretch catchfence earlier in the race and caused nearly a 3-hour delay (NASCAR instituted restrictor plates the following season).

Wells also was at Talladega to frame the Oct. 15, 2000 dash by Dale Earnhardt from 18th to first in the final five laps of the last victory of his career.

The Nov. 15, 1992 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway – which marked Alan Kulwicki winning the championship in the final race of Richard Petty and the debut of Jeff Gordon – also was directed by Wells.

“Again, it was just really special to be a part of that whole thing,” said Wells, who also takes pride in directing the first Daytona 500 win, Brickyard 400 victory and championship for Jimmie Johnson during the ’06 season. He also worked Johnson’s seventh championship in the Nov. 20, 2016 season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway.

Wells said it’s tough to pick a favorite track, but he can recall many of their special moments, such as Tony Stewart’s July 2, 2005 win at Daytona International Speedway.

“He climbed up in the flagstand, and we had a camera there, and the fireworks were going off behind him,” Wells said. “My job is to capture the moments, and that was a moment.”

Raised in Milwaukee (where his house was a few miles from a speedway, and he could hear the cars on weekends), Wells’ introduction to race direction came at Eldora Speedway in 1980 when he spent time with track founder Earl Baltes during a camera survey.

“That’s kind of how I really got interested in racing, and a year later, I’m doing NASCAR,” said Wells, who was hired by NASCAR Hall of Famer Ken Squier to direct his first race. “It was pretty cool.”

Technology has changed markedly in the interim with Wells chuckling as he recalls team members once helping carry the cables on handheld cameras used to cover pit stops (they are now wireless).

Back then, just the cable for a camera was four times the size, and quite frankly, you were limited by the length of the cable or you started losing picture,” Wells said. “So now you can go an indefinite amount of miles because of the fiber. That’s probably one of the biggest technical achievements. Certainly the in-car cameras and the robocams and the BatCams, those kind of things, really are huge. It was tough getting in and out of the pit area with them tied to a cable.”

In the past two seasons, Wells also has been pleased by the positive impact on race production by the addition of stages “because you’re guaranteed restarts and now you actually get less green-flag commercials because those commercials are built in during the caution. So the fan at home actually gets to see more green-flag racing than they would have in the past.”

While he largely is responsible for what fans see as a race director, Wells constantly credits his co-workers for the quality of the broadcasts that typically involve a crew of more than 100 people.

He recently was touched when a former longtime camera operator on his crew drove from Phoenix to Las Vegas last month just to visit for an evening with Wells before he directed his last playoff opener.

“You just can’t beat that,” Wells said. “It’s such a close-knit family anyway. I keep saying we’re like a traveling gypsy show, and we are. You just feel so proud that someone would take the time to do that.”

You can hear Wells recount his career during a 2016 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast by listening below or via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or Google Play.

Friday 5: Toyota looking for more with Fords dominating first third of season

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Although Toyota is ahead of pace for wins compared to last year when the manufacturer scored 16 Cup victories, the president of Toyota Racing Development isn’t satisfied.

Toyota has four wins this year — three by Kyle Busch and one by Martin Truex Jr. — but Ford has scored a series-high seven victories.

“I always use laps led as an indicator of performance because if you’re not leading laps than something is not right,” Toyota’s David Wilson told NBC Sports. “I think Dover, for the first time since Atlanta of 2017, a Toyota did not lead a lap. That was an alarm bell. That’s not acceptable. We recognize that we need to be better and we’re on it.”

Only one Toyota driver (Busch) ranks in the top five in laps led this season. Kevin Harvick has led 21 percent of all laps run this year. Busch is next at 12.7 percent.

Toyota won 14 of the final 19 races last year and scored the championship with Martin Truex Jr. So, why isn’t Toyota as dominant this year?

“We make no bones about it, Fords, the Ford camp … the No. 4 camp in particular is out front right now and kudos to those guys,’’ Wilson said, noting Harvick’s success. “I think what happened in the offseason with the flat splitter and the (Optical Scanning Station) clearly brought the field closer together, but our MO isn’t one to whine about it or complain about it.’’

Wilson admits Toyota had found advantages with the splitter and now that is gone with the rule change for this season.

“We were doing some really clever things with the front of our cars and year over year, we just lost some front downforce,’’ he said. “That’s why you hear a lot of our guys complaining about having tight race cars.’’

Wilson also spoke to NBC Sports about a couple of other topics.

On the need for a fourth manufacturer in Cup, Wilson said:

“When we came into this sport, we had four manufacturers with Dodge being the fourth. As soon as Dodge left, one of our first agenda points with NASCAR (was) to start beating the drum to get another manufacturer on board.

“With the size of the field, given the investment that each of us make, the sport will be healthy with another manufacturer, so again I know and trust that NASCAR is out there looking.’’

On the aero package run with restrictor plates run at the All-Star Race and what adjustments need to be made, Wilson said:

“I don’t think we want the drivers to be flat-footed all the time. We have the best drivers in the world and we’re putting them in a situation where some of them equated it to a video game. Most of them had fun. It was fun, but it was also the All-Star race and it wasn’t a points race. Again, these are the best drivers in the world. These cars should be hard to drive.”

2. Falling behind

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season.

Kevin Harvick already has 24 playoff points — and that’s after he was penalized at Las Vegas and lost all seven playoff points for his victory ands stage wins. Kyle Busch is next with 17 playoff points.

No one else has more than seven playoff points.

Those points could mean the difference in advancing in the playoffs or going all the way to the championship round in Miami.

Denny Hamlin, who has one playoff point, understands the deficit he could be facing. Should Harvick and Busch continue to collect playoff points, they could give themselves a big enough advantage to make it to Miami provided they don’t have major issues in any of the rounds.

Martin Truex Jr. had such a large playoff point advantage last year that he qualified for Miami with one race left in the third round, leaving only one spot left in the championship field when the series headed to Phoenix for the final race of that round.

“That’s a continued concern for us,” Hamlin said. “That’s really what made us press so much in the second-to-last playoff stage last year. We knew there was essentially one spot available after those three had locked themselves in.

“We’re trying everything we can. We really have struggled with stage points. We’re finishing well. I’ve made a few mistakes on pit road this year and that has set us back on stage points. I think we’ve got to focus on stage points first then we worry about playoff points.”

3. Betting on NASCAR

Kevin Harvick is an interested observer in what will happen after a Supreme Court decision earlier this month struck down a 1992 federal law that banned commercial sports betting.

Delaware is on pace to be among the first states to have sports betting outside of Nevada. Dover International Speedway has a casino next to the track. NASCAR fans attending the Oct. 7 Dover playoff race could have their first chance to legally bet on a NASCAR event while attending that event.

Harvick has had segments on sports betting each of the past two weeks on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show. So what has he learned?

I have more questions than answers just because of the fact that we have a couple of race tracks that have casinos on the property already,” Harvick said, alluding to Dover and Kansas Speedway.

“It seems like there’s a very good opportunity to get creative with a place like Dover that has that casino sitting there to have some creative betting during the race to really intrigue the fans – things that you could do from your phone or in the casino or just random stuff,” Harvick said. “Could you turn that track and race into an atmosphere like a horse race? I think there’s just a lot of questions and a lot of answers that need to be individually solved. That’s the interesting part is it’s going to come state by state, so who is going to lead that charge? Is it race tracks or is it NASCAR?”

Harvick stressed finding a way that some of the money bet filters back to the sports. The NBA seeks what it calls an “integrity fee” for all bets related to its events. Whether that is possible, remains to be seen.

Harvick also noted that a change that needs to be made is how TV money is distributed in NASCAR. Tracks keep 65 percent of the money from broadcasters, teams get 25 percent and NASCAR collects 10 percent. According to International Speedway Corp.’s 2017 annual report, broadcast and ancillary media rights accounted for 50.2 percent of total revenues for that year. 

4. Special Day

Wednesday’s Hall of Fame selection proved poignant with Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison, who were killed within months of each other 25 years ago, joining the Class of 2019.

There are many special connections between those. One was a special observer. Tom Roberts is a long-time family friend of the Allisons. He served as Bobby Allison’s p.r. person for several years. He also worked with Kulwicki as his p.r. person. Roberts also has helped spearhead the Kulwicki Driver Development Program to help young drivers climb the ranks of racing.

Roberts had never attended the Hall of Fame announcement but came up from his Alabama home to witness Wednesday’s proceedings.

“It just felt right,” he said of seeing both make the Hall. “It will take a while to soak in (that both made it together).”

5. New winner?

An interesting stat for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 is that the top 11 qualifiers have never won this race.

Austin Dillon scored his first Coca-Cola 600 — and first Cup win — last year.

Kyle Busch starts on the pole and will be joined on the front row by Joey Logano.

The other drivers in the top 11 who have never won the 600 are: Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola, Daniel Suarez and Kyle Larson.

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What might have been: Jeff Gordon driving for Jack Roush?

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Had things gone differently, Jeff Gordon might have driven for Jack Roush instead of Rick Hendrick.

Gordon told the story after he was selected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2019 Wednesday with Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Roger Penske and Roush.

Recall that Gordon’s first full-time ride in what was called the Busch Grand National Series, he drove a Ford for car owner Bill Davis.  

Here’s how Gordon tells the story:

“I had a contract that was like a year‑to‑year contract with Ford where they gave me a car, a little bit of money, drove for Bill Davis.

“The Roush thing, I think, came when they got wind that I was starting to get some offers. The first one came from Cale Yarborough in ’91. (I told him) I’m not even halfway through my rookie season. I can’t do that.

“But Bill was gracious enough to let me go test that car. Many people don’t realize I tested for Cale out here at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I spun out, I just didn’t hit anything.

“Went through ’91. Then in ’92, that’s when things got real. We started winning. We won the race in Atlanta. Everybody knows about the story about Rick Hendrick seeing me there. I don’t know what happened, but the buzz started getting around.

“Of course, Bill wanted to go Cup racing. Didn’t look like a reality to me at the time. It seemed like we were a long way from being a Cup team. It was a great Busch Grand National team.

“So Ford came to me and said, ‘Hey, we’d like to talk to you about a potential opportunity with Jack Roush.’ I never spoke to Jack until after all that. But that’s what Ford had mentioned to me. I think it was kind of out of desperation of, we don’t want to lose you in our camp. I think by that point I was already set with what I was going to do with Rick.

“By the way, if I had the opportunity prior to Rick calling me, I’d have jumped on top of that. To drive for Jack Roush, how amazing would that have been? So I’m happy the way things worked out, but you can believe had I not already been signed with Rick. …  It all worked out for the right reasons, but I would have done that.’’

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Jeff Gordon leads 2019 Hall of Fame Class

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Jeff Gordon, the four-time Cup champion who ushered in a new era of NASCAR on and off the track and opened a pathway for younger drivers to the premier series, was selected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019 on Wednesday.

The 46-year-old Gordon is the youngest inductee among the 10 Hall of Fame classes.

Joining Gordon in the Class of 2019 are: Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki.

Gordon was selected on 96 percent of the ballots — surpassing the record of being on 94 percent of the ballot shared by David Pearson (Class of 2011) and Robert Yates (Class of 2018).

Roush was selected on 70 percent of the ballots, Penske was on 68 percent, Allison was on 63 percent and Kulwicki was on 46 percent.

They will be inducted Feb 1, 2019.

The next three top vote-getters were Buddy Baker, Hershel McGriff and Waddell Wilson.

A total of 57 ballots were cast — 56 by Hall of Fame voting members and one online fan ballot. The fan ballot had Allison, Gordon, Kulwicki, Baker and Harry Gant.

Jim Hunter was selected as the Landmark Award winner for his contributions to NASCAR as a media member, p.r. person, track operator and NASCAR official.

Gordon’s selection marks the third consecutive class that features a member of Hendrick Motorsports. Car owner Rick Hendrick was selected to the Class of 2017. Ray Evernham, Gordon’s crew chief for three of his titles, was voted to the Class of 2018. 

“I think it tells you a lot about that combination, what Rick created in his organization and the people,” Gordon said. “When Ray and I came to work, Ray told me all the resources are there, this could be something really special. It obviously ended up being way more than we ever anticipated. Those two are like family to me. To be able to follow them is very, very, very special. … Besides my parents, I owe those two everything to how they contributed to my life in more than just racing.”

Gordon’s success made car owners more open to hiring young drivers. Gordon also opened a pipeline from Midwest sprint car racing that helped future Hall of Famer Tony Stewart, among others, move to NASCAR.

Gordon’s influence goes beyond the track. He introduced NASCAR to mainstream America in the 1990s when he dominated, winning Cup titles in 1995, ’97 and ’98. Gordon appeared in national ads that weren’t just during NASCAR races and was the first — and only — NASCAR driver to host Saturday Night Live.

Gordon won 47 of his 93 career Cp wins between 1995-99. The driver dubbed “Wonder Boy” early in his career by Dale Earnhardt won his fourth title in 2001 — the year Earnhardt died in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. Gordon won three Daytona 500s, five Southern 500s and five Brickyard 400s.

Off the track, Gordon displayed class and poise throughout his career. He also displayed emotions. Gordon cried when he won his first points race, the 1994 Coca-Cola 600. He celebrated what was his final Cup win in November 2015 at Martinsville by bouncing, hooting and shouting “We’re going to Homestead!”

With Gordon’s selection the top five all-time winners in Cup will be in the Hall of Fame — Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip and Gordon.

Kulwicki, the 1992 Cup champion, joins the Hall of Fame after coming close the past two years. He was among the top three vote getters not selected to the Class of 2016. He was tied with Ron Hornaday Jr. for the last spot in the Class of 2017. Both were selected on 38 percent of the ballots and Hornaday was selected in a second vote.

Kulwicki is revered for his underdog run to the ’92 title where he beat Bill Elliott by 10 points as a driver/owner. Kulwicki won five career Cup races before he was killed in a plane crash in 1993 on the way to Bristol Motor Speedway from a sponsor appearance.

Allison won 19 races, including the 1992 Daytona 500. He also was the 1987 Rookie of the Year and finished second to his father in the 1988 Daytona 500.

Allison was a fan favorite for his personality and persistence. Three months after Kulwicki died in a plane crash, Allison died from injures suffered in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway.

Roush, whose name has been synonymous with success for most of his Cup career, joined the premier series in 1988 with Hall of Famer Mark Martin.

Roush, who has scored a record 325 victories across NASCAR’s national series, won his first Cup title in 2003 with Matt Kenseth and won the 2004 crown with Kurt Busch. Roush has five Xfinity championships and one Camping World Truck Series title.

Penske is better known for his success in IndyCar, including his 16 Indianapolis 500 victories as a car owner, but he’s also made an impact in NASCAR.

Penske won the 2012 Cup title with Brad Keselowski and has two Daytona 500 victories. He also built Auto Club Speedway and once owned Michigan International Speedway and North Carolina Motor Speedway. In Team Penske’s 52-year history, it has 489 major race wins across all series and 553 poles. Included are wins in IndyCar, NASCAR, Formula 1 and the 24 Hours of Daytona.

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Alan Kulwicki: From ‘Underbird’ to NASCAR Hall of Famer

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CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Sometime in 1984 or 1985, Mike Joy, then with Motor Racing Network, was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to cover an ASA race at the Milwaukee Mile.

Among those competing was Alan Kulwicki, who was driving for himself, as he did for much of his racing career.

Joy introduced himself to the young man who grew up just over 10 miles southwest of the track in Greenfield.

Kulwicki told him no introduction was needed.

“I know who you are,” Joy recalls Kulwicki saying. “I listen to you every weekend. I’m going to be down there someday and I’m going to race NASCAR.”

On Wednesday, Kulwicki, who drove the famed “Underbird” to the 1992 Cup title, was the last person announced to the 2019 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The crew chief

Paul Andrews had never attended a Hall of Fame class announcement even though Kulwicki had been nominated the past three years

Andrews, who was Kulwicki’s crew chief for all five of his Cup wins and his 1992 title, was nervous when the first four inductees were revealed and Kulwicki’s name hadn’t been called.

Jeff Gordon, Jack Roush, Roger Penske and Davey Allison all preceded Andrews’ driver and boss.

“Definitely nervous,” Andrews told NBC Sports. “Especially when they put Davey in, because their histories are very similar.”

Both Kulwicki’s and Allison’s careers and lives were tragically cut short 103 days apart 25 years ago.

Kulwicki perished April 1 when his plane crashed in a field in Northeast Tennessee, six miles west of Bristol Motor Speedway, where the Cup Series competed that weekend. He was 38.

Allison followed July 13, dying from injuries he sustained in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway. Allison, who was flying the helicopter, was 32.

Andrews has a lot of happy memories from their career together, including their championship triumph at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992 over Bill Elliott, and Kulwicki’s first Cup win at ISM Raceway in 1988.

But a tearful Andrews said his lasting memory of his time with Kulwicki will be losing him after just five races in 1993.

“It’s something I can’t get out of my heart,” Andrews said.

Andrews, who went on to win Cup races with Jeremy Mayfield, Steve Park and Geoffrey Bodine, hopes people will learn what was in Kulwicki’s heart with his Hall of Fame induction.

“Determination,” Andrews said. “(And) believing in his people and believing in his own talent.”

The competitor

When it came to the ASA racing circuit in the Midwest, Alan Kulwicki and Mark Martin were two “fairly good-sized fish in a small pond,” says Martin.

“There wasn’t room for two big fish,” continued the 2017 Hall of Fame inductee. “We had to race pretty hard.”

Martin hesitates to say he and Kulwicki “were best friends. We were fierce competitors that got along OK.”

Martin raced his way into the Cup Series in 1981 before competing full-time in 1982.

During that season, Martin got a call from Kulwicki, who was still racing back home in Wisconsin.

Kulwicki planned to attend the World 600 race weekend in hopes of meeting people who could further his career.

Being fierce competitors didn’t bar Martin from being hospitable. He invited the aspiring NASCAR driver to stay at his place.

“We were close enough that he did that,” Martin said.

No matter his feelings toward Kulwicki, Martin said it would have been “painful” to see him and Allison not elected to the Hall of Fame this year.

“I’m glad I wasn’t on the voting panel,” Martin said. “This is probably in my eyes, this was one of the toughest years ever. I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with it.”

Unlike Allison, Kulwicki had a Cup title on his record. One that Martin said was “more outstanding” than anything Kulwicki accomplished in their little ASA pond.

Not long after his encounter with Joy, Kulwicki moved to North Carolina in 1985 and made his Cup debut on Sept. 8 at Richmond Raceway driving for someone else.

That arrangement didn’t take.

Six years later, Kulwicki was crowned the 1992 Cup Series champion, becoming the last driver-owner to accomplish the feat as NASCAR became a world of highly funded multi-car teams. He did it driving the No. 7 Hooters Ford Thunderbird, which was nicknamed the “Underbird.”

“What he achieved in NASCAR will never be done again,” said Martin, who finished sixth to Kulwicki in 1992. “It was never done before and will never be done again. It was absolutely astonishing. Period.”