Buddy Baker

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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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2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame induction ceremony honors new class

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The latest five-member class will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame tonight and the ceremony will air on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET.

The class is headlined by three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart, who will be inducted with his former owner Joe Gibbs and former JGR teammate Bobby Labonte.

Here is a look at the five men who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Tony Stewart

Stewart, AKA “Smoke,” retired from full-time Cup competition after the 2016 season, taking with him three Cup titles (2002, 2005 and 2011) and 49 Cup wins. On top of that, he has 55 Cup wins and two titles as co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, which he left Joe Gibbs Racing for in 2009. Stewart’s three wins in his rookie Cup season in 1999 made him the first rookie to win in Cup since Davey Allison in 1987.

Among Stewart’s 49 Cup wins were two victories in the Brickyard 400 at his home track of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A former IRL champion, Stewart is one of four drivers to attempt “The Double” of competing in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day, doing so in 1999 and 2001.

Joe Gibbs

Former head coach of the Washington Redskins, Gibbs will be inducted into the Hall of Fame 28 years after Joe Gibbs Racing first hit the track with Dale Jarrett in the 1992 Cup season. JGR has earned five Cup titles since, including last year with Kyle Busch, and 176 Cup wins, the first coming in the 1993 Daytona 500 with Jarrett.

With 341 wins in Cup and Xfinity, JGR is the winningest organization in NASCAR national series history. Gibbs is the latest active team owner to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining Richard Petty, Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Jack Roush, Richard Childress and Leonard Wood.

Bobby Labonte

The younger brother of Hall of Famer Terry Labonte, Bobby Labonte ended his NASCAR career with the 2000 Cup title (Gibbs’ first) and the 1991 Xfinity Series title. He was the first of four drivers to win championships in both series.

Labonte earned 21 Cup wins, including the Brickyard 400 and Southern 500 in 2000. His first win came in the 1995 Coca-Cola 600.

Buddy Baker

A driver turned broadcaster, Baker made his first Cup start in 1959 and his last in 1992. In-between, he claimed 19 wins, including three in the Coke 600, the 1980 Daytona 500 and the 1970 Southern 500.

In 1980, he became the first driver to eclipse the 200-mph mark on a closed course while testing at Talladega Superspeedway. Upon his retirement, Baker transitioned into TV, serving as an analyst for TNN and CBS broadcasts and later as a co-host on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. Baker died in 2015 from lung cancer.

Waddell Wilson

A talented engine builder and crew chief, Wilson built the engines for the cars that won three Cup titles, two for David Pearson and one for Benny Parsons.

As crew chief, he won the Daytona 500 three times, with Baker (1980) and Cale Yarborough (1983-84).

If you can’t catch the induction on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 8 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Four of 2020 NASCAR Hall inductees to serve as grand marshals for Sunday’s Roval race

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Honorary pace car driver Mario Andretti will have a lot of stellar company around him for this Sunday’s race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Speedway officials announced Thursday that four of the five NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2020 inductees will serve as grand marshals for the race.

Former drivers Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte, team owner and Super Bowl-winning coach Joe Gibbs and crew chief and noted engine builder Waddell Wilson will give the command to start engines for the cutoff race in Round 1 of the Cup Series playoffs.

The fifth member of next year’s Hall of Fame class, Buddy Baker, passed away in 2015.

The race will be televised live on NBC starting with Countdown to Green at 1:30 p.m. ET. Drivers will take the checkered flag shortly after 2 p.m. ET.

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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.