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A new hope: Hailie Deegan’s success could transform NASCAR

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — An effervescent 18-year-old, who channels the sport’s pioneers in spirit and aggression, moves closer to leading a NASCAR movement.

But Hailie Deegan does not take this journey alone. With family close by and female competitors watching, Deegan’s rise through stock-car racing could open more driving opportunities for women. As long as she continues to succeed.

Deegan’s achievements are not measured against foes but history. She was the first woman to win an ARCA West race in 2018. Her runner-up finish in last weekend’s ARCA event at Daytona International Speedway tied Shawna Robinson and Erin Evernham for the best result by a woman in that series.

Brian Deegan with daughter Hailie before last weekend’s ARCA race at Daytona. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Such marks are just the beginning, her father, former motocross superstar Brian Deegan, says.

“She’s going to be a pioneer to break down all these barriers that haven’t been done yet,” he told NBC Sports after celebrating his daughter’s Daytona performance.

“I’m excited that no girl has won yet because there is a chance to set records. That’s what our house has been about, setting records and creating new opportunities and just breaking down those barriers. I think she’s got a cool road ahead of her.”

Deegan’s Daytona performance came 10 years after Danica Patrick’s heralded stock-car debut at the same track. Patrick’s arrival raised hopes that more women could follow her to NASCAR, but those aspirations vanished as funding faded and results waned for many. Eventually, those obstacles sidelined Patrick. Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s program in the offseason, is poised to shake up the sport.

Others can’t wait, including Jennifer Jo Cobb, who has competed in the Truck series since 2010 minus the resources Deegan has.

“What I do hope is for her success,” Cobb told NBC Sports, “because what I’ve always wanted to see happen is for a woman to have the money so that we could prove that with the right resources it can be done.”

FADING HOPES

When Patrick made her stock-car debut in the Daytona ARCA race a decade ago, she was one of a series-record six women in the 43-car field. That Daytona Speedweeks also saw a female in the Truck race (Cobb) and two women in the Xfinity race, including Patrick. A few months later, Patrick was one of four women to compete in the Indianapolis 500.

“I thought it was super exciting,” Kenzie Hemric told NBC Sports of so many women racing in top levels in 2010, a year before she made her ARCA debut. “I thought, ‘Gosh, all these women are getting these chances and it’s going to be so good for me.’

“I thought I would be right there with them in a couple of years.”

Although Patrick had won an IndyCar race, led the Indianapolis 500 and appeared in multiple Super Bowl commercials, her move to stock car racing helped attract more attention.

“The way I liken Danica in NASCAR at the time is if we had a female quarterback playing for one of the major NFL teams,” said Norma Jones, who wrote a dissertation in 2016 on Patrick in NASCAR for her doctorate in philosophy at Kent State University.

Jones said among Patrick’s biggest impacts was showing that a woman could reach the heights of auto racing.

“If you can’t imagine something to happen or if you can’t place that there,” Jones said, “then it’s an impossibility for you.”

Kenzie Hemric, shown in 2015, was the first female selected to the NASCAR Next program in 2013. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Kenzie Hemric, whose last name was Ruston before she married NASCAR driver Daniel Hemric, also was a pioneer. She was the first female driver selected to the NASCAR Next program, which highlighted rising young talent. Kenzie Hemric was selected in 2013 and ’14. Among the drivers also chosen then were Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Preece and Cole Custer.

Hemric competed in K&N Pro Series East from 2013-15. Her first series race came a few weeks after Patrick won the 2013 Daytona 500 pole. That would be among the highlights for Patrick, who never finished better than 24th in the points before completing her NASCAR career with the 2018 Daytona 500.

Patrick, who did not have any stock-car experience before 2010, was a victim of unrealistic expectations that had a far-reaching effect, Hemric said.

“I think fans, sponsors and everybody expected more results out of her that weren’t necessarily achievable,” she said, “and I think just falling short on those unrealistic expectations made it really hard for other women and sponsors to help other women at that time.”

Lack of sponsorship left Hemric without a ride in the ARCA East Series after 2015. She ran Super Late Model races in 2016 but never made it back to NASCAR as a driver.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

McKenna Haase scans the living room in the Indianapolis home she rents and sees a sprint car seat, midget car seat, asphalt car seat, her racing helmet and seat belts.

Haase, who turns 23 Thursday and again will race sprint cars this season, became a race fan after a chance meeting with Kasey Kahne at a Nashville, Tennessee mall when she was in the third grade. Her passion for racing grew and she later convinced her parents to let her compete.

She became the first female to win a sprint car race at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway, which hosted its first automobile race in 1901 and is home to the Knoxville Nationals. Her victory came in 2015, a day before she graduated from high school as class valedictorian. Haase has won at Knoxville four other times.

One of the points Jones discussed in her 229-page doctorate dissertation about Patrick in NASCAR was the role of women in a masculine sport. Jones wrote that “women sporting competitors talk about desiring to be perceived as just athletes, without the gender identification.”

So does that mean recognizing Haase as the first female to win at Knoxville merely reinforces gender divides instead of celebrating a significant accomplishment?

McKenna Haase participated in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Combine in 2016 and ’17 but was not selected for the program either year. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

“The local people are probably sick and tired of hearing that phrase (track’s first female winner) over and over again, and even myself it’s like I want to just be known as a really good race car driver at this point,” Haase told NBC Sports.

“Now, are there other first female records that I’d like to break? Absolutely, because there is something to be said about going someplace that nobody has ever gone.”

She acknowledges that “it’s not like we need special treatment or anything like that, but we are at a disadvantage, so to be able to overcome something like that to accomplish something is special.”

Haase says there are numerous challenges competing in a male-dominated sport.

“It starts out fine until the next thing you know you get up into those higher levels and there’s that strength difference, there’s that bravery difference and there’s like a passion difference and a priority difference in what (female drivers) want to do with their lives,” she said. “Another challenge, I guess, would just be obviously the men in general. Now you’re looking around and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men at the track and one female.”

While she admits the obstacles can make the sport “very frustrating at times,” she said she races because “I was designed to be where I am for a reason.”

Those reasons include youth racers. She started the Compass Racing Development program in 2015 to give kids a chance to race an outlaw karts. She’s had about 10 children compete in that program, including four girls. Haase also will launch Youth Racers of America Inc. and plans to host a national motorsports camp in Indianapolis in December for 300-500 youth racers.

The idea for Youth Racers of America stemmed from a paper she wrote at Drake University on the economics of motorsports.

“I basically did a study on where I think our sport is missing and what our greatest value proposition is,” she said. “All my research tied back to youth motorsports and the lack of support in that area and support for the future of the sport.”

“IT’S FUN TO DO THE IMPOSSIBLE”

The poster came from T.J. Maxx and hangs in Jennifer Jo Cobb’s office in a race shop that barely holds five trucks and various parts and pieces.

A black high heel shoe is on the white poster. Above it reads: “The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.”

On the opposite wall in Cobb’s office is a smaller framed poster with words over a giant lipstick kiss imprint that states: “Life is tough and so are you.”

Jennifer Jo Cobb has run more national series NASCAR races than any other woman except Danica Patrick. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“These are my sources of inspiration,” Cobb said. “I need to be reminded.”

Racing has not been easy for the 46-year-old Cobb, who has made 190 Truck starts and 31 Xfinity starts. Only Patrick (252 starts) has been in more national series NASCAR races than Cobb, whose team is beginning its 10th season.

She has done it with minimal resources. Even a week before Truck teams were to arrive in Daytona, Cobb needed to find wheels for her race truck, a driver’s uniform and possibly a hauler to transport her vehicle and equipment to Daytona because her team’s hauler was not operational.

Cobb is undeterred by such difficulties. She just thinks back to how her father, Joe, whom she calls her hero, raced.

“He had less money than anybody else he raced against,” she said. “Driving into the racetrack, just my mom, my dad and me at like 10 years old … and this moment is as clear as day for me, there was one tire on dad’s open trailer tire rack.

“I’m looking around and my mom’s commenting, ‘Look at all the tires these guys are bringing’ for local dirt racing. I said, ‘Yeah dad, why do we have only one tire?’ My dad’s response was ‘Because that’s the spare for the trailer, and if we break down we have to have that.’ ”

Cobb recalls that her father won that night.

“He taught me, not even realizing it, some really huge life lessons, that created my character, which is never give up,” Cobb said. “I say all the time I probably don’t belong here. I know I don’t. This is a sport for people with a lot of money.”

Even with the financial hardships and one top-10 finish in her Truck career,  if a younger female sought Cobb’s advice on racing, she would not dissuade that person.

“Look at all the things that people have said were impossible,” Cobb said. “My favorite is it’s fun to do the impossible. How many times was Walt Disney told that his little mouse dream was ridiculous. If you ask me, it’s nobody’s business to discourage you.”

EXTRA MOTIVATION

At a time when many teens attempt to navigate life’s complexities, Hailie Deegan experiences often take place in public.

She makes those challenges seem easy, often smiling, laughing and full of energy. Deegan is not afraid to share amusing experiences on social media including the time last year she put the wrong fuel in the van she drove and faced a repair bill in the thousands of dollars.

But it’s not always so much fun having everything you do watched.

Hailie Deegan (No. 4) trails Michael Self on the last lap of the ARCA season opener last week at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Trust me, it’s a lot of pressure,” Deegan told NBC Sports. “It’s a lot that comes with racing, Being a girl in racing does bring attention. … At the end of the day it has its pros and cons. When you’re doing good, it gets you noticed. When you’re doing bad, it tears you down. That’s how racing is.

“Racing is kind of like the craziest roller coaster you’ll be on, emotionally. It takes a toll on you because you’re going to have lot more bad races than good races.”

Deegan’s victories have been memorable for more than the historic value. She made contact with the leader on the last lap in all three ARCA West races she’s won. Twice Deegan took the win from a teammate, including at Colorado National Speedway last June. Deegan, echoing a sentiment from generations of drivers, said after that win: “If you take a swing at me, I’m going to take a swing at you back.”

Deegan acknowledged after her runner-up finish at Daytona last week “that one thing I regret from the past two seasons was making more enemies than I should have. Carrying more grudges than I should have. That is something this season, especially coming to the ARCA Series and a lot of news drivers, I want to stay away from that and have people on my side.”

Especially young girls.

“That is always cool having little girls come up to me and say they want to be a race car driver one day,” Deegan said. “That motivates me more because you know what you are doing is right and all the work you are putting in is worth something.”

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Winners and Losers after opening weekend of Daytona Speedweeks

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WINNERS

Erik JonesLet’s see, overshoots his pit stall, involved in three accidents … and wins the Busch Clash a year after finishing last in this event. Even he couldn’t believe it. “I don’t know if it’s the biggest win,” Jones said of his career, “but definitely one of the coolest. I mean, just from an aspect that me and my friends will laugh about this one for a long time looking back at it, wondering how we won.” They won’t be the only ones.

History repeating (sort of) — Credit Erik Jones and his team for attempting to duplicate the victory lane photo of Terry Labonte and his team after Labonte won at Bristol in 1995 with a smashed car. Jones’ damaged car wasn’t too far off from Labonte’s.

JTG Daugherty Racing — Ricky Stenhouse Jr. gets the accolades for winning the Daytona 500 pole with his new team, but let’s also give credit to the team for the car and its alliance with Hendrick Motorsports that gave the car Hendrick power.

Brendan Gaughan and Justin HaleyBoth are guaranteed a starting spot in the Daytona 500 after being the two fastest among the non-chartered cars in qualifying.

Hailie DeeganMichael Self won his second ARCA race at Daytona on Saturday but Deegan finished second in her first series race at Daytona. Her finish ties the highest result for a female driver in series history.

LOSERS

Team (Penske) camaraderie — Brad Keselowski was livid with teammate Joey Logano for blocks that led to both crashing, along with Kyle Busch. Said Keselowski of Logano’s blocking: “We were in a position to finish it off, and we got destroyed for no reason. You would think these guys would be smarter than that. … Somebody throws a stupid block that’s never going to work and wrecks half the field and then goes ‘eh.’ Maybe we need to take the helmets out of these cars and take the seat belts out. Somebody will get hurt and then we’ll stop driving like assholes.”

History — Never before in the history of the Busch Clash has the eighth-place car finished 10 laps down. That’s where Ryan Blaney placed because of a crash. Only six cars were running at the end of Sunday’s event.

Martin Truex Jr. He was eliminated by a crash in the Clash for the third time in the last four years.

Hailie Deegan says runner-up finish at Daytona is like winning

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Michael Self celebrated, but Hailie Deegan and her family rejoiced Saturday night.

Deegan finished second to Self in her first ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway. Deegan’s finish tied Shawna Robinson and Erin Crocker for the best finish by a female in an ARCA race. Robinson finished second at Daytona in 1999. Crocker placed second three times, the last time in 2007 at Kentucky.

MORE: A crucial year for for Hailie Deegan’s career begins at Daytona 

“Second is winning this weekend,” said Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s development program in the offseason. “I think winning the first race would have been a little too high of standards for us this season. Everything would have been downhill. So at least I have something to work toward.”

The 18-year-old smiled as she spoke.

Her father couldn’t stop smiling. He and wife, Marissa, embraced Hailie after the race with Marissa shouting “awesome!”

“Her day will come,” Brian Deegan said on pit road of his daughter. “She’s got momentum. The main thing with her is she had a lot of momentum at the beginning of last year. Once she gets momentum, it’s on. She doesn’t want to lose. She’ll work 18 hours a day. She’ll work at the gym, study tape. She’s serious. We’re on a mission.”

Saturday’s mission for Deegan was to learn. She ran in the top 10 most of the race and learned from spotter Eric Holmes, who encouraged her at times and told her what not to do other times.

Most of the incidents were behind her in Saturday’s 80-lap race but one happened in front of her. She was pushing Chuck Hiers through Turn 2 when the contact turned Hiers and sent him into the wall.

“There were moments where I thought, ‘God, I shouldn’t have done that,’ “ Deegan said. “And there were moments when it was like, ‘Okay, that is good.’ People have to keep in mind we are ARCA racing. We aren’t Cup racing. We aren’t Xfinity racing. Most of the people here are here to learn and eventually get to that level and work out the kinks at this level.

“I think I learned a lot of good takeaways from this race. Some things I could have tried and been more aggressive on, but everything I did in this race got us that second place finish.”

Next for Deegan and the ARCA Series will be March 6 at Phoenix Raceway.

“I feel like the first race sets the tone for the season,” she said Saturday. “Having a good first race can help keep the ball rolling and help the guys at the shop. When you are on a nice, positive high level, you bounce that off each other and the work ethic and it just helps for the rest of the year.”

Saturday schedule at Daytona

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The hibernation period ends for Cup cars as they hit the track today at Daytona International Speedway to begin the 2020 season.

The day begins with a practice session specifically for the 18 cars in Sunday’s Busch Clash. There will be two Cup practices later in the day to prepare for Sunday’s Daytona 500 qualifying and next week’s qualifying races.

Saturday also features the ARCA season opener. The day ends with the draw for the staring lineup for Sunday’s Busch Clash.

Here is today’s schedule:

(All times Eastern)

7:30 a.m. – ARCA garage opens

8:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. – Cup garage open

11:35 a.m. – 12:25 p.m. – Final Busch Clash practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network)

12:30 p.m. – ARCA qualifying; multi-car

1:35 – 2:25 p.m. – Daytona 500 qualifying practice; all cars (FS1, MRN)

2:45 p.m. – ARCA driver-crew chief meeting

3 – 3:50 p.m. – Final Daytona 500 qualifying practice; all cars (FS1, MRN)

4:15 p.m. – ARCA driver introductions

4:45 p.m. – ARCA Lucas Oil 200; 80 laps/200 miles (FS1, MRN)

6:30 p.m. – Random drawing for Busch Clash starting position and pit selection

Friday 5: Key storylines entering Daytona Speedweeks

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Eighty-three days after Kyle Busch celebrated his second Cup championship, the garage opens today at Daytona International Speedway.

And with it will be the sense of renewal and unbridled optimism that often pervades during the offseason and Daytona Speedweeks.

Such feelings are evident in drivers who think this is their year to win the Daytona 500 and with smaller teams that count on the race’s big payday to help fund their operations for the coming weeks. Hope also will be strong with those among the many driver and crew chief changes made since last year.

With all the good feelings entering Daytona Speedweeks, here are five storylines to watch:

1. When will Kyle Busch’s Daytona 500 drought end?

While Kyle Busch has won a summer Cup race at Daytona, three qualifying races, a Busch Clash, a summer Xfinity race, a Truck race, and an ARCA race, he’s never won the Daytona 500 in 14 previous attempts.

The closest Busch has come to winning the season-opening race was last year when he placed second to Denny Hamlin as part of a 1-2-3 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing that included Erik Jones finishing third.

David Pearson celebrates winning the 1976 Daytona 500 after a last-lap crash with Richard Petty.(Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

If it is any solace for Busch and his fans, Hall of Famer David Pearson didn’t win his lone Daytona 500 until his 15th attempt.

Others who needed more years before winning their first Daytona 500 were: Kurt Busch (in his 16th start), Darrell Waltrip (17th start), Buddy Baker (18th start) and Dale Earnhardt (20th start).

Of course, some Hall of Fame drivers never won a Daytona 500. Mark Martin failed to win the race in 29 starts. Rusty Wallace didn’t win in 23 starts. Tony Stewart, inducted into the Hall of Fame last weekend in a class that included Baker, did not win the Daytona 500 in 17 starts.

With Toyota the presumptive favorite again this season — based on few rule changes and Toyota’s 19 wins in 36 points races last year — will this be the year that Busch wins the Daytona 500?

2. Putting the puzzle together

Car owner Roger Penske shocked many by jumbling his driver/crew chief lineup after his organization won six races and placed all three drivers in the top eight in points.

But as Brad Keselowski recently said: “We want to be great. We want to win championships. You’ve got to recognize that winning races is still a significant accomplishment in this sport. It’s great competition week in and week out, so winning is good but also emphasize that greatness is the championship. We didn’t win it. It means we’ve got work to do.”

Todd Gordon (left) will serve as Ryan Blaney‘s crew chief this season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Daytona marks the debut of the new combinations. Keselowski is paired with crew chief Jeremy Bullins. Joey Logano is teamed with crew chief Paul Wolfe, who led Keselowski to a championship in 2012. Ryan Blaney is working with Todd Gordon, who guided Logano to the Cup title in 2018.

Other new pairings to watch include Martin Truex Jr. and James Small, who takes over with Cole Pearn leaving the sport, and Chris Buescher and Luke Lambert, who both come to Roush Fenway Racing from other teams.

Crew chief strategy often is limited at Daytona because of the need for cars within the same manufacturer to work together (i.e. pit at the same time), but Speedweeks can be valuable for new driver/crew chief pairings with communication. After Daytona, Cup teams race seven consecutive weekends before the Easter break in April. If the communication falters, the results may not be as good.

3. Will the chaos continue?

Last year’s Daytona 500 saw 36 of the 40 cars involved in a crash, according to NASCAR’s race report (Racing Insights, which supplies statistics to NBC Sports, had 37 cars involved in accidents).

“It’s incredible to me how many times we were able to crash in the last 10 laps,” Jamie McMurray said after last year’s race, his final Cup start.

“Brains come unglued,” Kyle Busch said after last year’s race. “That’s all it is.”

Just a portion of the chaos in last year’s Daytona 500. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

There were three cautions, including two red flags totaling nearly 40 minutes, in the last 17 laps. Those incidents collected 29 cars and forced the race to go seven laps beyond the scheduled distance.

Such destruction has become a trend. The past three Daytona 500s have seen an average of 32 cars involved in accidents. 

Last year’s Daytona Speedweeks was especially tough on Cup car owners. A total of 60 cars were involved in accidents in practices, qualifying races, the Busch Clash and the Daytona 500. That was an increase of 16.7% from the previous Daytona Speedweeks.

As another Speedweeks begins, key questions are how many cars will be damaged, how will that impact teams and who can emerge from the chaos to win?

4. Who steps up in this pivotal contract year?

Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski are among the drivers in the final year of their contract this season.

Who will drive this car in 2021? (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

What better way to have some leverage at the bargaining table then to be the reigning Daytona 500 champ?

Silly season could be frenzied with several drivers, including Erik Jones, Alex Bowman and Clint Bowyer, among those in the last year of their contracts. A strong start could build momentum over the next several weeks and help drivers remain in their current spot or find a tantalizing ride elsewhere.

One thing is for certain, the No. 48 is open next year with Jimmie Johnson set to step away from full-time Cup racing after this season. 

5. Hailie Deegan’s Daytona debut

The 18-year-old makes her debut on Daytona International Speedway’s oval with today’s ARCA practice sessions. Of course, she was on track a couple of weeks ago in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race.

Hailie Deegan will compete in her first race on Daytona’s oval this weekend. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Deegan left Toyota’s development program for Ford in the offseason and will drive full-time in the ARCA Series for DGR-Crosley. She won three races in what was called K&N Pro Series West over the past two years.

Deegan’s move to ARCA will be watched closely at Daytona and throughout the season. She has the best funding and resources among any female drivers in NASCAR.

Some may view her as the next Danica Patrick but Deegan and her family are wanting to take a more measured approach to moving up the NASCAR ladder.

Deegan understands what’s at stake. She said last month during sports car testing at Daytona that “this is the year that’s very important and crucial to my career because it decides contracts for years out with sponsors getting behind you for the higher levels.”

It all starts this weekend for her.

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