Ben Beshore

Jack Hawksworth’s unexpected NASCAR adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Basics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to NASCAR

Once the green flag dropped, Hawksworth was all business.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the day fell apart.

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

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

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

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

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

What stood out to him days removed from the event?

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

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

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

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

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Jeffrey Earnhardt, Xfinity team have been ‘putting all of our focus’ into Atlanta

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While last Saturday’s Xfinity Season opener at Daytona marked Jeffrey Earnhardt‘s debut with Joe Gibbs Racing, most of his team’s energy was spent preparing for another race.

The No. 18 team’s main concern entering 2019 was what awaited them in the season’s second race weekend in Atlanta.

“When we started to prepare for this season, we didn’t really focus on Daytona,” Earnhardt said in a media release. “Then we went down there and ran well. We’ve been putting all of our focus into Atlanta from the very start of this.”

In a rather uneventful Daytona race, the grandson of Dale Earnhardt Sr. started second and led the first 29 laps before losing the lead on the last lap of Stage 1 to Justin Haley and finishing fourth. He then placed outside the top 10 in Stage 2 and finished 15th in the race, three spots shy of his career-best result.

The 29 laps led were more than in his first 66 Xfinty starts combined.

Now comes Earnhardt’s second of nine Xfinity starts with JGR. He will try to really show off what he’s capable of as a driver on the abrasive 1.54-mile surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“Going into Atlanta, I feel like we’re going to be even better than we were last weekend,” Earnhardt said. “The Gibbs cars ran well in Atlanta last year, but it’s a track where the quality of your equipment really shows and it’s more about the driver than compared to Daytona, which can be a wildcard.”

Earnhardt has two Xfinity starts at Atlanta, but none since 2015. His best result is 25th.

JGR has two Atlanta wins in 43 combined Xfinity starts there. Both victories belong two Kyle Busch (2016-17). Last year JGR had one top five (Christopher Bell, third) and a top 10 (Kyle Benjamin, eighth) while Brandon Jones placed 17th.

“I really feel (Daytona was) just the beginning of what will turn out to be the best season I’ve had in a long time,” Earnhardt said. “As I said, we’ve been working on our Atlanta preparation for a few months now, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone when we go out and do the same this weekend. I’m looking forward to adding a few more things to the list of career firsts and career highs by the time we leave Georgia.”

Earnhardt’s crew chief, Ben Beshore, called Daytona a “positive” experience for the team but said Atlanta will present “quite a difference” when it comes to team communication.

“There’s a lot more going on,” Beshore said. “You’re not wide open all the way around and you’re not at the mercy of who is pushing you or who is in front of you. Atlanta is a lot more handling focused and Jeffrey is going to be out there by himself to where he controls his own destiny with the feedback he gives to us.

“We’ve done a lot of work on that communication ahead of time so that when we arrive there is already a comfortability level and we’re able to give him the adjustments he needs to keep the iK9 Toyota Supra up front.”

 

Joe Gibbs Racing announces 2019 crew chief realignment

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On Thursday, Joe Gibbs Racing announced a crew chief realignment for the 2019 season for four of its teams.

Chris Gabehart will take over for Mike Wheeler as Denny Hamlin‘s crew chief in the Cup Series. Wheeler and Hamlin parted ways following the season finale at Homestead. Gabehart spent the last three seasons as an Xfinity crew chief for JGR earning a total of nine wins during that time. Last year, he was the crew chief for the Xfinity No. 19 team of Brandon Jones.

Eric Phillips will also move from the Xfinity series to Cup as the car chief for Hamlin. He earned eight wins during three seasons as an Xfinity crew chief on the No. 18.

Jeff Meendering will fill the crew chief spot on the Xfinity No. 19 vacated by Gabehart and will be paired with Jones.

Meendering returns to JGR after two years with Stewart-Haas Racing and the No. 00 car.

Ben Beshore moves from his current role as engineer on Kyle Busch‘s car to fill the role of crew chief on the Xfinity No. 18. This team typically fields multiple drivers during the season.

“With such a short offseason it’s important to start work toward the 2019 season immediately and we are proud with the teams we have assembled now, both in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and in the Xfinity Series,” said owner Joe Gibbs in a press release. “With Chris Gabehart joining Adam Stevens, Chris Gayle, and Cole Pearn on the Cup side we believe we have the right leaders in place to benefit our entire organization.”

Former driver Mark McFarland will become team manager and crew chief for JGR’s K&N Pro series and ARCA car. In 31 starts in the Xfinity series, McFarland scored one top 10 at Talladega in 2006 while driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“In addition, we take a tremendous amount of pride in our accomplishments in the Xfinity Series and are excited to have Jeff Meendering and Ben Beshore join Jason Ratcliff to lead our efforts there, as well as bolster our developmental program in ARCA with the addition of Mark McFarland,” Gibbs said.

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch can afford to lose interim crew chief for Daytona

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Kyle Busch may have yet another view in his ear this weekend when he races in the Coke Zero 400.

Interim crew chief Ben Beshore may be suspended for the race after two unsecured lug nuts were found on the No. 18 Toyota after the Sonoma race.

The possible loss of Beshore comes after Busch’s usual crew chief, Adam Stevens, was suspended four races for a wheel falling off Busch’s car following a pit stop at Dover.

Daytona will be the fourth race of that suspension. NASCAR America’s analysts discussed the impact of the possible suspension for Busch, who is still looking for his first win since July of last year.

“They’re not making mistakes, they’re just finding themselves in difficult positions,” Dale Jarrett said. “This is certainly another one of those, going to a race track Kyle Busch can win at. But who you have on that pit box means a lot as for performing all through a race.”

Said Jeff Burton, “The frustration level is mounting, obviously. Kyle Busch is expecting to win races. … I think if you’re going to lose your crew chief, this is probably the race you want to lose it for. Going to Daytona, you pretty much have a plan going there. The pit strategy will be interesting with the stages, but if I was going to a race track, this would be the race I’d feel most comfortable without my crew chief.”

Watch the above video for the full segment.

Kyle Busch’s interim crew chief faces one-race suspension for lug nut violation

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Kyle Busch faces going to Daytona International Speedway next weekend with his third different crew chief in the last month.

Crew chief Adam Stevens was suspended four races when a tire rolled off Busch’s car during the Dover race earlier this month. Engineer Ben Beshore took over as interim crew chief. He faces a one-race suspension after two lug nuts were found not secured on Busch’s car after Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway.

Section 12.5.2.6.3.b lists the minimum penalty for lug nut violations. The penalty for having two unsecured lug nuts is a one-race suspension for the crew chief and a $20,000 fine.

A NASCAR spokesperson confirmed to NBC Sports that there were no other issues found in inspection after the race. NASCAR will announce penalties later this week.

Busch finished fifth in Sunday’s race.

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