“It all kind of came together Friday when we were home,” said T.J. Majors, spotter for Joey Logano, on the Twitch broadcast of the iRacing event, The Replacements 100. “Bryan Cook had the same idea as I did, Boris at JGR, and then Kevin Hamlin put a lot of work into this as well. … We started adding drivers to the list. A lot of fun. It’s unfortunate circumstances that we’re all home today, but we’re just trying to make the most of it and give people something to do and watch and have some fun.”
We really appreciate everyone's patience and understanding through this unprecedented situation over the past few days. We love you guys and can't wait to see you here real soon for the #FOHQT500! ❤🏁 pic.twitter.com/NThTc947Dw
As NASCAR entered its first weekend without racing on the track, Bristol Motor Speedway issued a statement Sunday afternoon. Part of the statement read:
“As these uncertain times unfold, we remain in constant contact with health officials, NASCAR and key stakeholders to continue to monitor this pandemic closely. … We must move forward preparing for our events, even if there’s a chance it might not happen, but know that we’re doing our part to enhance our cleaning efforts, locating additional handwashing for our fan zone areas and providing hand sanitizer around the property.”
Bristol is scheduled to host Cup, Xfinity and ARCA East on April 3-5.
“Large events and mass gatherings can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 in the United States via travelers who attend these events and introduce the virus to new communities. Examples of large events and mass gatherings include conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events, weddings, and other types of assemblies. These events can be planned not only by organizations and communities but also by individuals.
Therefore, CDC, in accordance with its guidance for large events and mass gatherings, recommends that for the next 8 weeks, organizers (whether groups or individuals) cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States.”
Marcus Lemonis, from series sponsor Gander RV & Outdoors, added another $50,000 to Harvick’s bounty. Truck owner Chris Larsen pledged $50,000 to any Truck Series regular who could win a series race with Kyle Busch.
Suddenly, Saturday’s Truck race at Atlanta Motor Speedway became the most anticipated series event since the Trucks ran at Eldora Speedway for the first time in 2013.
With sports shut down, including NASCAR, for the foreseeable future because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saturday became a day of confusion. What to do with no racing and no sports.
“I’m sitting here at home on a Saturday. It feels weird,” Matt DiBenedetto said in a video to fans.
Texas Motor Speedway issued a statement Saturday that track officials are “currently preparing to host our regularly scheduled events and will continue consulting with officials on best practices and recommendations.”
What are your takeaways from the West Coast swing?
Nate Ryan: Hendrick Motorsports is back. Paul Wolfe and Joey Logano are a winning combination. Joe Gibbs Racing needs to regroup but isn’t out of the ballgame by any stretch.
Dustin Long: How Goodyear’s ability to bring a tire that wears more is changing the game. Hendrick Motorsports’ performance. The speed of Martin Truex Jr.’s car and how he’ll be a factor once he avoids the various issues that plagued him. Harrison Burton’s performance in Xfinity, which included a win and three top fives during this swing.
Daniel McFadin: Despite Ford and Joey Logano winning two of the three races, it doesn’t feel like any team or manufacturer has an outright advantage over everyone else. The races at Phoenix and Auto Club had a distinct energy to them that they’ve lacked in general over the years. The season has a some momentum behind it, let’s hope it stays on track in Atlanta.
Jerry Bonkowski: First, we’re seeing Chevrolet teams starting to shake off the struggles of the new Camaro at Daytona and Las Vegas and are coming back to prominence quickly if Fontana and Phoenix are any indication. Second, Ford continues to show its mastery over Toyota and Chevy. This could be a huge season for Fords if the current trend continues. Lastly, Toyota is uncharacteristically struggling with little consistency between teams (other than perhaps Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin).
Dustin Long: Matt DiBenedetto. He will give the Wood Brothers their 100th Cup victory.
Daniel McFadin: William Byron. While DiBenedetto is the most experienced in Cup of the group, Byron has more time in quality equipment, from the Truck Series up through Cup. DiBenedetto hasn’t shown us a complete race in the No. 21 yet as he re-calibrates his talent and knowledge to what he has to work with.
Jerry Bonkowski: This is a tough question because all of the drivers listed have the ability, they just need some luck. But if I had to pick one, it would probably be Tyler Reddick. Even though he had a disappointing outing at Phoenix, he still has been the best-performing rookie in Cup this season and has even outshined his veteran teammate, Austin Dillon, at times.
Do you think anyone will beat Kyle Busch to collect any of the bounties in the Truck Series this weekend at Atlanta?
Nate Ryan: No. Kyle Busch knows best when he says Kyle Larson is his main threat at Homestead-Miami Speedway a week later.
Dustin Long: No. Kyle Busch wins this weekend.
Daniel McFadin: My heart says yes, but my gut says no. Chase Elliott will be the primary challenger, but this will be his first Truck Series start since 2017. Meanwhile, Busch has won in five of his 11 Truck Series starts at Atlanta since 2005. Regardless, this is the most excited I’ve been for a Truck Series race not held on dirt or a road course since … let me get back to you on that.
Jerry Bonkowski: Unless Busch wrecks or suffers mechanical problems, I don’t believe anyone takes the bounty in Atlanta. Rather, I believe Kyle Larson has the best chance to do so the following week in Miami.
Never give up: Corey LaJoie keeps chasing his dream
It was five years ago and Corey LaJoie’s racing career was in flux. He had run five Xfinity and two Truck races in 2014. He would go without a start in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks in 2015. Instead, LaJoie spent 2015 as David Mayhew’s crew chief in what is now the ARCA West Series.
Johnson happened to see LaJoie interviewed during a broadcast of Mayew’s dominating ARCA West win at Evergreen Speedway and was surprised that LaJoie was not racing.
“I thought maybe he was ready to pursue the crew chief side of life,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “I thought, man, we’ve got a huge system at Hendrick, we’ve got (an Xfinity) team, we’ve got engineering roles we need people in all the time and it’s rare you find a racer, someone who grows up racing, that heads down that path.”
Johnson sent LaJoie crew chief Chad Knaus’ number and told LaJoie to call.
“What do you want to do?” Knaus asked LaJoie.
There never has been any doubt that LaJoie, 28, wanted to race.
“I’ve never wanted to not do it from the time I was 7 years old and my dad started to make me build my own race cars,” LaJoie, son of two-time Xfinity champion Randy LaJoie, told NBC Sports.
“He wanted to make my path hard enough all the way through the times where he knew opportunities were going to dry up and even when you’re not in the best cars. The resilience that you have to learn, it breaks you down to the foundation of why you want to do it. If your foundation is based off of, well because my dad hired some good people and I won a lot of go-kart races,that ain’t what’s going to keep you going. It’s the fire, the feeling you did this with your buddies or your team and it’s because you were the better man that day.”
But sponsorship issues interceded and LaJoie’s opportunities became more infrequent. He ran five ARCA races in 2013, winning three times but that didn’t lead to any opportunities.
Instead of fading away, LaJoie accepted a role as a crew chief for the ARCA West team in 2015, flying from Charlotte, North Carolina to California on a regular basis.
“It’s easy to … get beat down because you don’t get a lot of validation for what you’re doing inside the car and outside the car,” LaJoie said. “So I do remind myself of when I was flying to Bakersfield, making 1,200 bucks to crew chief a West car. I remind myself that because pursuing that with my time and my whole heart was what allowed me to stay in the fold to be a race car driver. I keep coming back to a couple of conversations with Chad Kanus and Jimmie.”
“I CAN’T HANG IT UP”
Knaus discussed the possibility of a job for LaJoie at JR Motorsports, the Xfinity team affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports, as a car chief or mechanic.
“I slept on it and tossed and turned and called him back and said I appreciate the effort,” LaJoie said. “I don’t want to give up trying to be a race car driver. I don’t know why because I don’t have any driving stuff going on at all. I can’t hang it up yet.”
LaJoie admits there was more he could have done to race. He didn’t reach out to companies for sponsorship.
“I was kind of bitter,” LaJoie said. “I was over the whole firing off cold calls. … I wasn’t full court press trying to find money to be a race car driver.”
A sponsor reached out to LaJoie and wanted to help get back in a car. It led to a 10-race effort with JGL Racing in 2016. LaJoie failed to finish four races and had two top-10 results.
After the season, LaJoie was “hounding” BK Racing car owner Ron Devine to drive one of his Cup cars in 2017.
“I’ll mow your grass, whatever you want me to do,” LaJoie said he told Devine. “You can give me $200 a race. I just want to drive your car.”
LaJoie asked Johnson if he would call Devine and help convince Devine to sign LaJoie.
“He really deserves a chance,” Johnson said he told Devine.
Shortly after Johnson’s call, Devine told LaJoie they could do a deal. But Devine told LaJoie that if he didn’t make the Daytona 500, there wouldn’t be enough money to run LaJoie’s team.
“I didn’t tell him I had zero drafting experience,” LaJoie said.
LaJoie made the Daytona 500 and ran 31 more events for BK Racing, an underfunded team, that season. He had one top-20 finish. LaJoie ran 23 races in 2018 for TriStar Motorsports, another underfunded team. He had one top-20 finish.
Last year, LaJoie moved to Go Fas Racing, a step up among the small teams but still one that has limited resources. LaJoie scored two top-10 finishes and six top-20 results.
A HEARTFELT LETTER
LaJoie’s results do not stand out, but one has to factor the teams he was with and the financial challenges they faced. He’s pondered whether it would be better to run with a more competitive team in the Xfinity Series and go for wins vs. running in the pack in Cup. Each time he thinks running Cup is better.
“The guys that I race around any given Sunday, they run 24th to 28th and are guys that are capable of winning Xfinity races,” LaJoie said. “I’m learning the same tricks of the trade, how to move around, car control on Sunday that I would be on Saturday.”
Even with those results, LaJoie has not lost his confidence.
“The reason why I didn’t give (driving) up, you just think back to times growing up and times you were racing Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, the guys that are making a name for themselves and are successful,” LaJoie said.
“I can remember vividly races where you are in the zone and I am better than them. There were times they would do the same thing back to me. I never thought I wasn’t capable of doing it at the highest level. I never gave that up.
“There’s times, sometimes a string of six, seven weeks in a row you’re wondering what in the hell am I doing, do I know how to drive a race car? But then you’ve just got to go back to those times where you didn’t have the best car and you had to move around and you had to find different areas to get after it and you rememberer that feeling of accomplishment you had and that was kind of what kept my flame going of not giving up.”
It is that confidence that LaJoie, who will start at the rear in Sunday’s Daytona 500 because he’s going to a backup car, looks to the future.
He is one of several drivers whose contracts expire after this season. Among those are a former champion (Brad Keselowski) and four other drivers who won Cup races last year (Larson, Blaney, Bowman and Erik Jones). And there are others who will be free agents after this season who finished higher in points than LaJoie, who was 29th last year.
With that in mind, LaJoie knows he needs to do something different to stand out.
He wrote a letter to car owner Rick Hendrick, seeking to be considered for the No. 48 car, which is open with Jimmie Johnson saying this will be his final full-time Cup season. LaJoie gave Hendrick the letter at the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony last month.
“He talked about how he got started, and I told him when he handed it to me that ‘You’ve been a great model for NASCAR, I’ve watched you and you’re clean cut and you’ve done a good job,’ ” Hendrick told NBC Sports.
Hendrick said he never received a letter like LaJoie’s.
“This was the first time I’ve gotten a letter from the heart,” Hendrick said. “I’ve gotten letters and phones calls, usually from agents. It was really a heartfelt letter (from LaJoie) and it was really personal.
“I was impressed with him before and am more impressed after.”
William Byron needed just one race to know what his life’s aspiration was destined to be. He worried he’d never get a second chance.
“I did a go-kart race when I was 13 years old,” the 22-year-old Byron told NBC Sports. “I remember … waking up the next morning and having that feeling in my stomach if I never get to race again, I’m going to be devastated.”
Instead, he had to settle for racing on a computer. But he was good, winning 104 iRacing events across two seasons.
By the time he reached 15 years old, Byron faced a dilemma: he was too old to start in go-karts and too young for late models.
One day, after researching various types of racing, William came upon Legend cars as his ticket into competitive racing.
Bill Byron was a bit skeptical about his son’s racing aspirations but placed the onus on his son to convince him. So William, an honor student at Charlotte Country Day School, wrote a five-page paper listing why the little boxy jalopies were the perfect fit for him.
“I think that desire and feeling of, ‘Hey, I could do this,’ is what kind of led me to write a paper about (Legends racing)and persuade people just to get me in a car for a couple of times,” Byron said.
Despite his youthful enthusiasm, his first time driving a Legend car didn’t go smoothly.
“I had no idea how to use the clutch or anything,” he said. “I was really struggling and then once I got on the racetrack, I just felt like this comfort and this calmness about being on the track. I’ll never forget that. I knew then that I could be competitive at it.”
A Legend car is a 5/8-scale replica of cars with body styles from the 1930s and 1940s that weigh between about 1,300 pounds and have motorcycle motors that pump out 130-plus horsepower, depending upon the model and class a driver is in.
Harrisburg, North Carolina-based 600 Racing Inc., produced the first Legend car in 1992. Now known as U.S. Legend Cars and a subsidiary of Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company has built more than 6,000 Legend cars, and shipped them throughout the U.S., as well as 28 other countries, according to the company’s web site.
Legend cars are not only a good training device for racers, they’re also economical. A family can get started in the sport for around $15,000 to $20,000. Legend car races are held at major NASCAR venues such as Charlotte Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Dennis Lambert, who was Byron’s crew chief in Legends racing from late 2012 through mid-2014, said the class continues to flourish because of drivers like Byron and others.
“Parents see the William Byrons on TV that came from Legends and makes them think to put their kid in there and run a couple years and get feedback of them in that style of car, so I think that’s what keeps bringing them back,” Lambert said.
Lambert owns Dennis Lambert Racing, one of the largest coaching and at-track support businesses for Legends cars and drivers in the U.S.
Right from his first meeting with Byron, Lambert wasimpressed with how prepared and inquisitive the aspiring racer was.
“He and his father met me at my house and William came with a notebook and a pen to take notes to see what was going on in Legends and what they needed to do and what their next step was,” Lambert said. “He showed me right away he was all-in to what his next step was.”
Lambert took Byron for his first Legends test at Concord (North Carolina) Speedway in October 2012, the same track where Byron would win the Legends Young Lions National Championship less than a year later.
“He was pretty impressive right away,” Lambert said. “It (transferred) over from the iRacing. It doesn’t necessarily happen like that for everybody, but for him he definitely picked it up right away.”
Byron credits his early success in Legends racing to Lambert’s guidance and influence upon his career. The two remain close friends and Lambert attends a number of Byron’s Cup races each season.
“The confidence as a driver is key, so you have to have the confidence to kind of go out there and do what you need to do. He was always out there coaching me.
“It was tough in the beginning. (Lambert) really didn’t want to work with me because I was so fresh and so clean, I had no races under my belt. It took a little time but he kind of developed me as a driver.”
Three weeks after his first test, Byron entered his first Legends race in November 2012 at Rockingham Speedway, starting on the outside pole and finishing fourth.
But there were still a few bumps ahead.
“I went to Florida to race seven times and I wrecked like five times but I was fast so I was trying to figure that out,” Byron said. “Once it all clicked it was just a lot of fun.”
Byron quickly went from Legends rookie to master in 2013. Competing in the Young Lions division, he won 33 races in 69 starts, won Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 10-race Summer Shootout title and capped the season off by winning the U.S. Legends Young Lions National Championship.
Byron moved up to the Legends Pro Division that winter and won several more races plus championships at the Winter Nationals at Auburndale Speedway and the Winter Heat Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
From there, Byron began his rapid climb up the NASCAR ladder, starting with the Whelen All-American Series and Pro Late Model Division in 2014. He moved to the K&N Pro Series East in 2015, Gander RV & Outdoor Series in 2016, the Xfinity Series in 2017 (winning the title) and Cup in 2018.
Because a Legend car is small and seemingly nimble, it may look easy to drive, but it’s not.
“The cars are very difficult to drive,” said Lenny Batycki, host of Performance Racing Network’s syndicated “At The Track” show and a Charlotte Motor Speedway Legends racing pit reporter. “I’ve asked a number of young drivers and to the racer, they’ll say it’s throttle control that those cars teach you how to drive more than anything else.”
Byron concurs. In a post on his personal web site, Byron said, “Racing a Legends car can be tricky at first. It took me a few months to really get the hang of things, but once I caught on it all made sense to me.
“The cars are great to drive and they really teach you many of the techniques you need if you want to move in up your racing career.”
Legends racing has become one of the best developmental pathways for young racers who seek to one day become NASCAR drivers.
Byron hasn’t forgotten his Legends roots. He turned a few practice laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway last year and also ran the Roval road course with Lambert in CMS’s Winter Heat series two years ago.
“William came out the first week and struggled,” Lambert recalled. “That week, he wanted my GoPro footage. I regretted it in the end, but I sent him the video from the week before and he studied it – he’s very intrigued and committed to figuring it out – and then came back the next week and beat me.”
Because many Legends races are televised, Byron also learned early how to deal with the media, a skill that would prove beneficial for each step of the NASCAR ladder he climbed.
Motor Racing Network NASCAR announcer Steve Post has also been the lead public address announcer for Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Summer Shootout since 1997. He saw Byron and many others develop.
“One of the things I remember most about William is how polished and buttoned-up he was,” Post told NBC Sports. “This kid really had it together.
“He was the first iRacing to real racing guy. When he started in Legends, he was up front all the time and really did a nice job with his racing on the track, and to win (the championship) in his first year, that was really mind-boggling.”
Several other Legends alums stand out in Post’s memory. Daniel Hemric, then 19, won the biggest prize in Legends history, taking home $250,000 for winning the inaugural 2010 Legends Million.
And even though he’s a full-time Cup driver with Richard Petty Motorsports, Wallace ran most of the Summer Shootout schedule last year.
“The Legends to me was the first real rung on real racing on (Byron’s) ladder, and to get to the top of the ladder, you’ve got to climb all those rungs, and William certainly has done that,” Post said. “Even today on a Monday night Summer Shootout practice session (or at Tuesday night races), you’re standing in the garage area and there William is with some of his buddies that are still racing.
“That he still maintains that connection and reflect back to his roots speaks volumes for him as a young man.”
“In the full Legends car, to step into it right away with no Bandolero experience, no nothing, there hasn’t been anybody that I can recall that just did it as smoothly and as strongly as William,” Batycki said. “Great kid, just picked it up naturally. Determination, awareness, friendliness to just everybody in the garage.”
Byron had that winner’s look in his eyes seemingly from the start, Batycki said.
“Him battling whether it was Hemric or whoever, his determination was the difference maker,” Batycki said. “If he didn’t beat you this week … he was going to try to go and learn and figure it out how to do it as soon as he could – and it usually didn’t take him long. Usually the next week, you were behind him.”
One of Batycki’s favorite memories of Byron’s Legends days was the so-called “garage neighborhood” at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the 2013 Summer Shootout season.
“Every 10 feet away from him were champions or about-to-be champions,” Batycki said. “You had Daniel Hemric, Christian Eckes, FastTrack dirt late model champion Carson Ferguson, last year’s FastTrack champion Cory Gordon, (Fox Sports NASCAR announcer) Mike Joy and his son Scott, Enzo Fittipaldi (grandson of F1 and IndyCar champ Emerson Fittipaldi), former Busch Grand National winner David Green and “Tiger Tom” Pistone.
“That was the kind of racing neighborhood William grew up in. He was going to be a winner, but that neighborhood definitely affected his esprit des corps.”
For guys like Batycki, Post and Lambert, seeing Byron and so many former Legends drivers reach the highest levels of NASCAR racing is rewarding.
When William wins (his first Cup) race, it’s going to be just as exciting – like, that little kid made it, that little pup made it. – PRN and Charlotte Motor Speedway announcer Lenny Batycki on William Byron.
“They become our kids because we’re with them when they’re at Summer Shootout,” Batycki said. “We got to know them as little kids, so that when one of them does well, it’s just like an uncle feeling good about it.
“When William wins (his first Cup) race, it’s going to be just as exciting – like, that little kid made it, that little pup made it.”
Chad Knaus has taken Byron and turned the former Legends champ into a driver who appears on the verge of his first Cup win.
Post recalled one instance last season that, much like when Byron studied Legends racing, typifies how studious Byron remains.
“Last year at Dover, I saw William and Chad Knaus walking the track,” Post said. “They were talking about arcing the car down in (the corner) and Chad talking about different things as well.
“It just really did my heart well because one of the kids I used to talk about in the Summer Shootout is now debriefing and talking with Chad Knaus.”
Added Batycki, “It’s taken somebody that idolized Chad as a fan and now who listens to him as a driver, there’s that almost instant karma. … It’s hard to go against a seven-time championship crew chief, especially when you probably had a poster or picture of him up on your bedroom wall.”
What does Knaus think of Byron as they head into their second season together?
“He is very intelligent,” Knaus told NBC Sports. “I mean, there’s no doubt. He can diagnose, look at data, draw conclusions, watches (and) studies. Those are things that are going to take him to the top.
“I’ve seen a huge shift in him from a personality standpoint, which I think is good. He rolled into my office in October (2018) when Jimmie (Johnson) and I decided to split up. … William came in, he was kind of mousy, pretty quiet, a little intimidated and all that.
“And now he rolls in, he’s got his hair looking good, his shoulders are back. He’s wearing cool clothes. He’s got it. He’s got that thing that we want in all of our race car drivers.
“So his personality has changed tremendously, his confidence has changed tremendously. He gets in the race car now and he’s like, ‘Man, I’m going to go fast.’”