Brian Moffitt

Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

Bubba Wallace, RPM extend sponsorship with World Wide Technology

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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Richard Petty Motorsports and World Wide Technology (WWT) announced Thursday they will extend their partnership into 2019. The agreement includes multi-race primary sponsorship and associate sponsorship on Bubba Wallace’s No. 43 Chevrolet as well as a technological alliance.

WWT was also named the official Technology and Analytics Partner of RPM.

The number of races for which they will serve as primary sponsor and the race dates will be announced at a later date. WWT served as primary sponsor seven times in 2018 including five consecutive races from the Brickyard 400 through Dover’s fall race.

“Our partnership with WWT allows us to use our own data in a way that is most useful for us,” said Wallace in a press release. “This isn’t something that is shared, but rather data that (crew chief) Drew (Blickensderfer) and our engineers now use during the race weekend and the actual race itself.

“This season was just the beginning for WWT, and I think we are just scratching the surface of their capabilities. They are also giving us the sponsorship that we need to be better on the track – that’s something that we’re all looking forward to. They are a great company and I’m looking forward to working with WWT more in 2019.”

In 2018, WWT created a proprietary dashboard that contributed to a seven percent increase in average running position and a 10 percent increase in the average finishing position, according to the release. Utilizing this data allowed RPM to make better decisions regarding their pit stop strategies.

“In a short time, we’ve seen the immediate impact World Wide Technology can make on our race program with their big data analytics,” said Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer, Richard Petty Motorsports. “Their continued partnership will have a significant impact on the performance of our race team through data analytics, application enhancements and creation of proprietary performance focused applications.”

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Bubba Wallace named to Ebony Power 100

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
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Bubba Wallace has been named to Ebony Magazine’s Ebony Power 100 for his accomplishments as a NASCAR Cup series driver.

Listed as an “MVP,” Wallace joins other athletes such as Antonio Brown, Stephen Curry and Venus Williams as well as former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama. 

The list was created to recognize leaders of color who have positively impacted their community.

“This is quite an honor to be recognized with others in the African-American community,” Wallace said in a press release. “It’s humbling to join a list of the other star athletes, artists and community and national leaders. I’m just trying to be the best driver that I can be and focus on winning races for Richard Petty Motorsports and our partners. To be recognized for some of our accomplishments this season is an honor and I’d like to thank Ebony for the recognition.”

Wallace gained the honor based on his on track performance early in the year, including a second-place finish in the Daytona 500 and a top-10 finish at Texas Motor Speedway.

His off-track accomplishments also played a role in the selection. Wallace has been a notable influencer on social media. Earlier this year, Facebook posted a “Behind the Wall: Bubba Wallace” docu-series that earned more than five million views.

“We are proud of what Bubba is doing both on and off the track for our race team and our partners,” said Brian Moffitt, CEO of Richard Petty Motorsports, in a press release. “We know that we have something very special with him and he continues to break barriers outside our sport to be a first-class athlete, spokesperson and inspiration to many.”

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Bubba Wallace without backup car for Talladega Cup race

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Bubba Wallace will be without a backup car for this weekend’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. Sunday on NBC).

The Richard Petty Motorsports rookie will have to make it through one practice session and qualifying on Saturday with one No. 43 Chevrolet at his disposal before competing in his second Cup race on the 2.66-mile track.

“Out of all the speedway races we have had, we have run okay, but then the cars are totaled at the end,” Wallace said Friday at Talladega. “That is part of it. So, yeah, we are just going to go out and do our own deal until the race starts. That was new news to me going into this weekend. I was like ‘Oh, alright’.”

He finished 16th at Talladega in the spring and placed 14th in the July Daytona race.

The lack of a backup car is a product of RPM’s lack of funding.

The team has struggled to secure sponsorship for Wallace, who finished second in the Daytona 500 but has one top 10 in the 29 races since. He has wrecked in four of the last 10 races.

RPM also auctioned off Wallace’s Daytona 500 car in May. The car went for roughly $83,000.

Sunday’s race will be the seventh where Petty’s Garage and Medallion Bank have been on the car. Both are companies operated by the team’s co-owners, Andrew Murstein (Medallion Bank) and Richard Petty (Petty’s Garage).

NBC Sports’ Dustin Long chronicled the team’s sponsorship struggles while embedded with RPM in August.

“Reality is we were so late in what took place in ’17, budgets were petty well set in ’18,” Brian Moffitt, the team’s CEO, said at the time of signing Wallace. “We knew this year was going to be like it is. We were hoping we would close more business in-season like everybody does. We really think that ’19 and the discussions that we do have are very positive around Bubba.”

Wallace called the team’s situation “ballin’ on a budget.”

“Money is the root of all evil and success for us,” Wallace said. “We just need a partner, and we have great partners right now with World Wide Technology for a brand-new sponsor to come on-board and to take a big leap with us is big. So, they have done a lot for us. STP, Air Force, Click N’ Close, and we have had a number of great partners throughout the year to get us to where we are at, but we still need more. We want more funding to help our speed, help all resources that go into making a race team successful. …

“We will go out and finish out these next six races the best that we can. We have a new car coming here in a couple of weeks, so we have some good things coming it’s just a matter for having a little bit of luck on our side. I was just glad to be able to finish Dover last weekend (in 23rd, his best finish in seven races) and now we can kind of get through this weekend, hopefully unscathed and then get the last five I would say into a smooth consistent roll into the off-season. And then get really prepared for when February comes around.”

NBCSN will debut “Racing Roots: Featuring Bubba Wallace” at 6:30 p.m. ET Saturday after Cup qualifying.

After Saturday’s qualifying, Wallace posted a message on Twitter for those who had been concerned about the team not having a backup car this weekend.

Inside Richard Petty Motorsports: Searching for sponsorship

Photo: Dustin Long
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Dustin Long is spending this week with Richard Petty Motorsports to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at how a team prepares for a race. He will be with the team at the shop and at Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend. Watch for his stories each day through Sunday.

Part 1: Putting together a game plan for Bristol

WELCOME, N.C. — A stillness hangs in the heavy air. Sounds echo, whether from crickets or distant traffic. Morning dew clings to the grass and the sky is dark as many of the shop employees at Richard Petty Motorsports leave home.

When the team moved on Jan. 2 from its Mooresville, N.C., location to the Richard Childress Racing campus farther north, it meant that many employees had about an hour’s drive to the shop.

Alarm clocks are set earlier to be in the building by 6:30 a.m. for those who work only in the shop and 7 a.m. for those who work on the road crew.

Among the first in the building is shop foreman Brian Dantinne, who wakes up at 4 a.m. and makes the 45-minute drive — among the shorter one-way commutes — to be there by 6 a.m.

Mechanic Jerad Hewitt, whose uncle once was a crew chief at Petty Enterprises, is used to 5 a.m. alarms. He would get up then, have plenty of time to read the paper before making his five-minute drive to Joe Gibbs Racing. After joining Richard Petty Motorsports last month, Hewitt gets up at the same time but has less free time before making the hour-long drive to the shop.

It’s a daunting schedule for those who are not early risers and seems even more challenging when a team’s results include few top-10 finishes. With limited funding — the team does not have a primary sponsor in seven of the 13 remaining Cup races — this single-car team and its employees face challenges each week to be competitive.

Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer talks to Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman while Joey Forgette works on the Bristol primary car. (Photo: Dustin Long)

So how do those who work at RPM get out of bed, make a long drive to work and face seemingly long odds at success many weeks?

“I look at it as we’re against the mega-teams,” Dantinne said, taking a break from ordering parts while crew members work on the Bristol car nearby. “I look at it as a challenge every day I get up to go to work. Hopefully contribute and get better. Trust me, I want to run good. We see our faults, we know what our faults are, so hopefully we can make them better. We’re all driven. Otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”

Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or the NBC Sports app) presents an opportunity for a better result since there’s less reliance on aerodynamics at the half-mile track. The team is hopeful it can repeat its April performance there when Bubba Wallace drove to the front and led six laps. With the team hosting potential sponsors this weekend, another strong run could impact the team’s future.

“Every weekend is important, there’s no question about it,” Brian Moffitt, the team’s chief executive officer says. “But this one in particular with where we know Bubba has run good and we have run good … we are extremely confident that when we give Bubba the right equipment, he can drive it and take it to the front. It’s exciting going into Bristol knowing that.”

Wallace’s car will have Medallion Bank and Petty’s Garage listed as the primary sponsor at Bristol — companies operated by the team’s co-owners Andrew Murstein (Medallion Bank) and Richard Petty (Petty’s Garage). Those logos are put on the car when there isn’t another company that has bought sponsorship.

Bristol marks the fifth race in the last six where Medallion Bank and Petty’s Garage were on the car. Philippe Lopez, the team’s director of competition, admits he has to be a strict gatekeeper on how much money the team can spend based on its sponsorship.

“I have to say no a lot,” Lopez said. “It sucks because I put myself in (crew chief) Drew (Blickensderfer’s) shoes a lot. When I have to say no, I just don’t say no like your parents did. I explain to him this is where we’re at and this is what we can do this month and here’s what I’m thinking, the money we have we need to spend to go fast. Most of the time Drew and I agree. There are some things we need to spend money on, there are some things that would be nice, but it’s not keeping us from that next position.”

That can mean the team might not have the latest versions of some parts or need to run a chassis more races than a bigger team that is constantly building cars that go faster.

With a storied name such as Petty and a dynamic driver as the rookie Wallace, it’s easy to wonder why the team hasn’t been able to find sponsorship for every race this season.

“Reality is we were so late in what took place in ’17, budgets were petty well set in ’18,” Moffitt, the team’s CEO, says in his office, which is decorated with the trophy from the July 2014 Daytona win, the team’s most recent victory.

“We knew this year was going to be like it is. We were hoping we would close more business in-season like everybody does. We really think that ’19 and the discussions that we do have are very positive around Bubba.”

The crew works on the front of the Bristol primary car Wednesday afternoon while decals are being placed on it. (Photo: Dustin Long)

RPM didn’t sign Wallace until late October last year. That was past when many companies had set their budgets. It’s no coincidence that the team announced a two-year extension of Wallace’s contract in late July. That gives RPM additional time to talk to potential sponsors and for those companies to budget money to sponsor the team.

While talks continue, a cost-cutting method the team does — when it doesn’t have a sponsor other than Medallion Bank and Petty’s Garage — is wrap the car in sponsor logos a day before the car is loaded in the hauler to go to the next race. That gives the sales team extra time for any last-minute deals.

It also creates scenes such as Wednesday afternoon at the shop when the crew is working on and underneath the front of the car, while decals are being placed on the back of the car.

Hewitt, who came to RPM from Joe Gibbs Racing admits it is a different atmosphere with a smaller team, but it’s one he appreciates.

“A team like this, a smaller team, everybody is much more focused on the one goal, the focus is on the car,” Hewitt said. “You have to wear a lot more hats because you’re trying to get a lot more done. That’s a little bit of an adjustment where at Gibbs if you saw a certain something that wasn’t in your area you would go find that person. (Here) you just do it.”

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