Bobby Labonte

Friday 5: Recent winners share long journey to Victory Lane

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Recent races reaffirm Ross Chastain’s message to young drivers.

“I still tell people to chase it,” he said of going after their dreams of competing at racing’s highest levels.

Chastain is among three drivers who overcame long odds early in their careers to win NASCAR races within the last month. Coincidence? Sure, but it also shows how perseverance can be rewarded.

Chastain, who has driven for low-budget teams and saw a full-time Xfinity ride go away in the offseason because of a sponsor’s legal issues, won last weekend’s Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway and won a Gander Outdoors Truck Series race last month at Gateway.

Brett Moffitt, the reigning Truck champion whose career early was plagued by lack of funds, won last month at Chicagoland Speedway.

Alex Bowman, who once found out he had lost a Cup ride on Twitter and spent time as a sim driver for Hendrick Motorsports, scored his first Cup victory at Chicagoland Speedway.

“All of us … have been in bad situations in their career,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “Some people, they get that good opportunity, and when that falls through, they just don’t have the willpower to fight back and do what you have to do to survive. It sucks, I’ll admit it.

“I’ve been in really bad equipment at times and it’s really frustrating and you find yourself asking why you’re doing this, and you just keep working away and hoping the right opportunity comes back.

“I think that’s what you’ve seen between Alex, Ross and myself. We’ve all paid our dues and done the bad stuff. Fortunately, we all find ourselves in a good position now.”

Chastain admits there is no guarantee that someone can climb the ranks that he, Moffitt and Bowman have, but the odds are worse if one doesn’t try.

“It might be six months, it might be six years, it might never happen,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s the same way if you graduate college today and you try to go get a job. You’re not guaranteed to go find a job, not the one you want. So you might have to take a start-and-park job.”

Chastain had to start and park in the Truck Series, but he doesn’t regret it.

“You run 10 laps all weekend, but … you have a whole year to think about the track,” he said. “I see so much value in track time and laps on track.”

Moffitt was without a ride in 2017 when Red Horse Racing shut down after the fifth race of the Truck season. He later ran seven races for BK Racing in Cup.

“You’re just doing it for money,” Moffitt said of taking a ride with the low-budget Cup team that went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy before being sold during the 2018 season. “I did it at the end of ’17 after Red Horse shut down and I went and raced for BK Racing simply to pay bills. You’ve got to do what you’ve go to do to pay rent and to keep yourself relevant in the sport. It kept me going through the offseason and fortunately I landed the job at Hattori (Racing) the following year.”

That led to the Truck Series title.

It’s a crown he looks to defend with GMS Racing. One of his main challengers will be Chastain, who is with Niece Motorsports.

Chastain admits Bowman provides a lesson even for him.

“Something like Alex, I’d always heard him for years say Mr. (Rick) Hendrick is not going to call me, but (Hendrick) did,” Chastain said. “I think the same thing. Chip Ganassi is not going to ask to be in his Cup car. The Xfinity car, yeah, but that was a whole different situation. He’s never going to ask me to be in his Cup car, but I’ve got to keep trying. I’ll be there if they ever need me.

“Running this truck race and the Cup race Saturday night and running in the 30s will help me if that day ever comes. If not, I got to run a freaking Cup race and I got to come here with the opportunity to win in the Trucks.”

Chastain also has a sense of perspective when he looks at where he’s come.

“Go back one year and look at all that has happened,” he said, standing on pit road at Kentucky Speedway. “One year ago … I was just racing and having fun.”

Now he’s having more fun winning. Just like Moffitt and Bowman.

2. Lightning strikes at Daytona

More than 40 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes were recorded within an 8-mile radius of Daytona International Speedway during a two-hour period Sunday, according to data from Earth Networks and the company’s Total Lightning Network.

The lightning strikes were recorded from just before NASCAR stopped last weekend’s Cup race to shortly before series officials declared the race finished.

NASCAR’s policy is to stop all activity at a track for any lightning within an 8-mile radius of the facility.

Randy Smith, Homeland Security Specialist for Earth Networks, told NBC Sports that the first lightning strike within an 8-mile radius of Daytona International Speedway was recorded at 3:12 p.m. ET. That strike was located about 6.3 miles east of the track in the Ormond Beach area.

Cars were called to pit road soon after and the race was stopped at 3:18 p.m. ET, according to NASCAR.

There were nearly 30 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes from 3:12 – 3:45 p.m. ET Smith said, according to data from Earth Networks’ Total Lightning Network.

The network recorded no cloud-to-ground lightning strikes from 3:46 – 4:23 p.m. Drivers were back in their cars and close to restarting their engines when another lightning strike hit within the 8-mile radius.

Smith said data showed there was a lightning strike 6.7 miles south of the track at 4:23 p.m. About 10 lightning strikes within the 8-mile radius soon followed. Rain later followed.

NASCAR receives direct notifications from The Weather Company in Atlanta throughout a race weekend. There is a dedicated senior meteorologist at The Weather Company who is on call throughout the weekend with NASCAR. NASCAR also is in contact with representatives from law enforcement, medical support and other local, state and federal agencies monitoring weather conditions.

3. New Daytona class

This season’s Daytona points races saw a unique winning class.

Three of the five points race winners at Daytona International Speedway this year scored their first series win: Austin Hill in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Michael Annett in the February Xfinity race, and Justin Haley in the July Cup race.

Ross Chastain won the July Xfinity race, giving him his second career series victory. The outlier this year was Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who scored his 32nd career win with that victory.

Since 2017, five of the 15 points race winners at Daytona scored their first series win. Joining Hill, Annett and Haley on that list are Erik Jones (2018 July Cup race) and Kaz Grala (2017 Truck race).

Since 2017, 11 of the 15 points race winners at Daytona scored either their first or second series win with the victory. Those that scored their second career series win at Daytona were: Chastain, Tyler Reddick (2018 February Xfinity race), Austin Dillon (2018 Daytona 500), Ryan Reed (2017 February Xfinity race), William Byron (2017 July Xfinity race) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017 July Cup race).

4. Deal or no deal?

Justin Haley said he’s received offers for additional Cup races since he won last weekend’s rain-shortened race at Daytona International Speedway.

But Haley has said no deal to all of them. He’s not scheduled to run another Cup race this year and that’s fine with him.

“I’m so focused on the Xfinity stuff, and I really don’t like jumping out and doing a lot of extra races,” he said. “I just like to focus where my job is at.”

But what about the extra track time he could get?

“In my deal, I think the only place I can be super competitive (with Spire Motorsports) are the super speedways because of the 10-inch spoiler,” he said. “I think we saw at Talladega I was very competitive and I wrecked the race car that was our backup car that we took to Daytona. It was just as fast. I could have went up there and raced. I could have competed in the top 10 all day, but they were three wide and I didn’t want to put myself in that position because I already wrecked one of their car cars.

“It was so hard to keep in the back because I definitely could have went up there and raced. Everyone was like a back marker won … it was a personal and team decision to run in the back because we knew there would be a big one. I think taking that car to a mile and a-half probably wouldn’t be helpful for me. And those cars are so much easier to drive than Xfinity cars with the downforce and everything, you’re pretty much wide open. The Xfinity cars are the hardest cars to drive right now.”

The deal Haley wants is on the winning car. He wants to buy it but the team has such few cars it’s not willing to part with the car at this time.

“I’m in talks to get it,” Haley said. “It’s my first win car. I don’t care what it takes. I’ll probably end up with it somehow, if I have to buy another car (for the team) or whatnot.

Once Haley gets the car, where will he put it?

“I’d probably knock a wall down,” he said, “and put it in my living room.”

5. How times change

This weekend marks the ninth year Cup has raced at Kentucky Speedway but only about a third of the drivers who competed in that inaugural Cup race in 2011 are still in the series.

Twenty-nine of the 43 starts are no longer competing in Cup. That includes drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and David Reutimann, who finished second in that race to Kyle Busch.

The 14 drivers who ran in that race and remain in the series are Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, David Ragan, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Landon Cassill, Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer, Michael McDowell.

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Kasey Kahne still smiling despite recent racing setbacks

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Kasey Kahne’s NASCAR season and career were cut short in September because of dehydration issues. Ten races into his return to driving sprint cars full-time, he was injured and has not competed since late March. He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to return.

“It’s been a rough year for me and racing,” Kahne tells NBC Sports, standing in his race shop, near one of the sprint cars he should be getting ready to drive. 

Even as he speaks about all the disappointment in the last eight months, he smiles.

“I’m still happy,” Kahne says, shortly after having hugged 3-year-old son Tanner. “I know it won’t be long and I’ll be fine and then, hopefully, these rough years are behind me.”

Kahne smiles again.

Kasey Kahne signs autographs for fans during a recent open house at his race shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It’s the look many NASCAR fans know well. Although Kahne is 39 years old, he looks much like the 23-year-old rookie who grabbed so much attention when he finished second in three of his first seven starts in NASCAR’s premier series. Kahne remains as thin as those days and ready to race. 

He just can’t now because of his undisclosed injury.

So he waits and stays busy.

“I feel like I’m way too young to not work or anything like that,” Kahne says. “Always working on ideas to do.”

As for his racing, Kahne isn’t sure. He was injured in a March 29 flip at Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He hopes to be cleared by July 1 so he can spend the summer racing. That way he’ll be better prepared for the Knoxville Nationals (Aug. 7-10). 

If he’s not cleared by July 1, he says he doesn’t anticipate being ready to run at Knoxville a year after his team, Kasey Kahne Racing, won the Nationals with driver Brad Sweet.

Kahne looks forward to racing again based on how the sprint car season started.

“It was really up and down, but we were making a lot of gains and I was making a lot of gains,” Kahne says. “I felt the final two races before I went out for a bit were my best two, and I was heading in the right direction.”

James McFadden will drive Kasey Kahne’s car until Kahne returns. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I think right now my car that James McFadden is going to drive is going to be awesome for him because we’re in a good direction. I’m really hoping he has a lot of success over the next month or maybe the next two months.”

With being out of the car, Kahne is enjoying more time with friends and family. He watched the All-Star Race. He hosted a barbecue the night of Coca-Cola 600 qualifying last week and spent Sunday watching the races.

Seeing Clint Bowyer swing at Ryan Newman after the All-Star Race brought back a particular memory for Kahne.

“Me and Kevin Harvick got into it once at Phoenix,” Kahne says of their battle for fourth late in Kahne’s rookie year. “We were like running tight, super close. After the race, I bumped him and actually was just saying good race, and I think he was thinking I was mad at him. Instantly, the veteran is going to get pissed, which I totally understand now.

“He’s at my car before I’ve shut it off. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do. Then (Kahne’s crew chief) Tommy Baldwin is mad. It was funny how that all worked. That was kind of like we were mad at each other but we weren’t after we talked.”

Last weekend’s races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway brought back other memories for Kahne. 

Three of his 18 career Cup wins came in the Coca-Cola 600. His last Cup victory was in 2017 at Indy. He is one of eight drivers who have won both the 600 and Brickyard 400 in their careers. 

Three of those drivers are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame (Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon). A fourth will be inducted in January (Bobby Labonte). Three others are future Hall of Famers (Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick). 

Kahne counts his third Coca-Cola 600 victory as among his most memorable because it was his first with Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.

He recalls much of what happened during his Brickyard 400 win but not much afterward. He was dehydrated after that race, showing signs of what would force him out of the car in 2018.

“The problem with the Brickyard is that I was do dehydrated and stuff and throwing up and just felt horrible and all I wanted to do was to go to sleep and I didn’t get to enjoy the win,” Kahne says. “It took until Wednesday before I even felt halfway decent.”

His condition became more challenging and led to last year’s Southern 500 being his final Cup race.

“An hour to go in that race, I said you better never do this again,” Kahne recalls of that race where he battled dehydration and went to the infield care center after finishing 24th. “This is not good.

“Then after I felt better like the next Friday, I was like I need to race some more.”

Kasey Kahne signs diecast cars for a fan at Kasey Kahne Racing’s open house earlier in May. (Photo: Dustin Long)

He didn’t get the chance in NASCAR. The longer races made it challenging for his body because he was sweating so much. He announced in October that he had not been cleared to race the rest of the season. Having previously said 2018 would be his last in Cup, his career in that series ended. 

While he can’t compete in the long races of NASCAR, the shorter sprint car races are not a problem for Kahne.

He looks forward to getting back into the car. Although Tanner, who has enjoyed all the extra time with his father, expressed other feelings the other day.

“He doesn’t like me getting into race cars any more,” Kahne says. “If I get in one, he tells me to get out. Just because he’s glad that I’m home and not racing.

“I know he likes racing. He had fun when we were at the track.”

Kahne can’t wait to go back as a driver instead of just a car owner.

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Social media salutes NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2020

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Social media quickly rose to congratulate the five men named Wednesday to the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2020: Tony Stewart, Buddy Baker, Joe Gibbs, Bobby Labonte and Waddell Wilson.

Here are some of the more noteworthy posts from Twitter:

 

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Tony Stewart leads 2020 Hall of Fame Class

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Tony Stewart, the three-time Cup champion who took NASCAR by storm after transitioning from open-wheel racing, was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020 on Wednesday.

Stewart’s election comes two days after his 48th birthday.

Joining Stewart in the Class of 2020 are: Joe Gibbs, Waddell Wilson, Buddy Baker and Bobby Labonte.

The class, the eleventh elected to the Hall of Fame, will be inducted on Jan. 31, 2020.

Edsel Ford won the Landmark Award.

Stewart was selected on 88% of the 57 ballots cast. Gibbs and Wilson were selected on 72%, Baker was on 70% and Labonte was on 67%.

The next three top vote-getters were Mike Stefanik, Ray Fox and Hershel McGriff.

Results for the NASCAR.com Fan Vote, in alphabetical order, were Baker, Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant, Labonte and Stewart.

MORE: Nate Ryan reveals his Hall of Fame ballot.

“It’s very humbling, to be honest,” Stewart said on NASCAR America presents MotorMouths. “There are so many great people in this sport. … to be part of it and have all the great names that are in and the people that were going to be in in the future we’re going to be with, it’s an unbelievable feeling. But it is extremely humbling.

“A lot of it is really mixed emotions because I’m still in race car driver mode and car owner mode. I’m not even thinking about hall of fames. To be inducted earlier this year into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and now going into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, it’s just a very humbling experience.”

When asked what he would say to voters who didn’t select him, Stewart gave a typical Stewart answer.

“I don’t know but when I find out, I’m going to throw eggs at their front door tonight,” Stewart joked.

A native of Columbus, Indiana, Stewart’s election comes in his first year on the ballot. He retired from NASCAR competition at the end of 2016 with 49 Cup Series wins and three titles as a driver (2002, ’05 and ’11).

In 2014 he earned a fourth title in his role as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.

After being crowned the 1997 Indy Racing League champion, Stewart split time in 1998 between the IRL and the Xfinity Series, competing for Joe Gibbs Racing. He moved up to Cup in 1999 and claimed the Rookie of the Year title after earning three wins. He was the first rookie to win a race since Davey Allison in 1987.

Stewart won two Brickyard 400s, four July Daytona races and eight road course races, including his final Cup win in June 2016 at Sonoma Raceway.

Stewart is one of the most prolific Cup drivers to never win the Daytona 500, joining fellow Hall of Famer Mark Martin in that category.

Nicknamed “Smoke,” Stewart is also one of four drivers to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. He did it twice, in 1999 and 2001.

Stewart’s election also comes 27 years after he attended his first NASCAR race, the 1992 Cup finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, as a 21-year-old wearing a $2,000 suit and trying to “impress people.”

“I thought like I was wasting my time being down there,” Stewart said in 2016. “I thought there was no way I was going to get an opportunity to come do this.”

Stewart will be joined in the Hall of Fame by Gibbs. Stewart raced for Gibbs in Cup from 1999-2009, and Labonte, his teammate at JGR until 2005.

“I couldn’t think of a better day than my boss, Joe Gibbs, or my teammate, Bobby Labonte, that was the one responsible to get me in to Joe Gibbs Racing to go in with those guys,” Stewart said on MotorMouths. “And Waddell Wilson, who was part of Ranier-Walsh Racing, who I drove for in ’96 before I drove for Joe. It really is a cool day, a cool day to be in with these guys.”

Gibbs, a NFL Hall of Fame head coach, entered NASCAR as an owner in 1992. Since then he has accumulated four Cup titles, five Xfinity titles and 157 wins. He was elected in his third year on the ballot.

Labonte was also elected in his third year on the ballot. The younger brother of Hall of Famer Terry Labonte, Bobby is a Cup (2000) and Xfinity champion (1991). He earned 21 Cup wins, including two Brickyard 400s and one Southern 500. His first win came in the 1995 Coca-Cola 600.

Wilson was three-time championship engine builder. He crafted the engines that won titles in 1968, ’69 and ’73. He also won the Daytona 500 three times as a crew chief winning with Baker in 1980 and Cale Yarborough in 1983-84.

Baker, known as the “Gentle Giant,” was elected in his sixth year on the ballot. Baker made 699 starts from 1959-92 and claimed 19 Cup wins, including one Southern 500 and two Coke 600s. After retiring he transitioned into TV, where he worked for TNN and CBS and later SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Baker died in 2015 at the age of 74 after a battle with cancer.