Chris Lambert

Photo by Dustin Long

Through the viewfinder: Memorable photos of 2019 season

Leave a comment

The end of each NASCAR season provides a chance for reflection … and a time to go back and look at the many photos taken at the track. Here are some photos I took in 2019 and what made them stand out to me.

Photo: Dustin Long

If you’ve been to a race, you’ve likely seen pit crews stand in their pit box and wave to their driver as they pass by on pit road before heading to the track to begin the race (at least at races where cars are staged on pit road).

The Richard Petty Motorsports pit crew, though, waves to every vehicle that passes them on pit road. Often drivers will wave back.

“If you don’t wave at them, you actually feel bad because they’ll like make sad faces,” Martin Truex Jr. said. Above was the scene at Charlotte in May on All-Star weekend.

 

Somewhere in this photo is Kyle Larson‘s car after he won the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. Photo by Dustin Long

 

Photo by Dustin Long

After each event, one of the biggest races is for the spotter of the winning team to make it down from atop the press box to Victory Lane to celebrate with the team. Sometimes the spotter can’t make it down in time before photos begin to be taken.

Spotter Chris Lambert makes sure to get a picture with his driver, Denny Hamlin, after each win because Lambert often misses the group pictures. This photo is of them after Hamlin’s win at ISM Raceway put the No. 11 driver in the championship race.

But there is more to Lambert than being the voice that tells Hamlin “clear” or “inside” or “outside.” His first wife and infant son were killed in a car crash 20 years ago. After the tragedy, a series of seemingly unrelated events over the next few years led him to marry one of his wife’s best friends. Before each race, Lambert honors the family he has and the one had.

 

Photo: Dustin Long

The intensity on Cole Custer‘s face is striking in the moments after he finished second for the Xfinity Series championship for the second year in a row in Miami.

Custer moves up to the Cup Series in 2020, joining a talented rookie class that includes two-time Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell. This could be one of the best rookie of the year races in recent years.

 

 

The throwback schemes for the Southern 500 have made the event at Darlington Raceway even more special for many race fans. The Wood Brothers crew uniforms help the past come alive. Photo: Dustin Long

 

Photo: Dustin Long

This photo is of artwork in the Talladega Superspeedway media center celebrating 50 years of NASCAR racing at the track.

After I tweeted the photo, I was a bit surprised by the reaction from fans and their comments about the artwork. That’s one of the things I’ll remember most about this picture.

Of course, seeing some of the sport’s most famous cars on track together also was memorable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Dustin Long

Another special story on pit road in 2019 was the return of Daniel Smith, rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team.

Smith’s last event of the 2018 season was the Bristol night race before he was treated for testicular cancer. His treatment included four rounds of chemotherapy, which consisted of one week in a hospital and two weeks of recovery each time. Still, he continued to work out in the hospital.

Smith returned at Daytona in February. He remained on pit road through the Bristol night race this past season until surgery to remove lymph nodes in his lower abdomen. He returned to his job on pit road at Talladega Superspeedway in October.

 

 

Nothing else needs to be said as Mike Wheeler, crew chief for Matt DiBenedetto, stares at the damaged left front corner of the car after DiBenedetto finished second in the Bristol night race. Photo: Dustin Long

For Denny Hamlin’s spotter, each race begins with a prayer for Hailey and Austin

Leave a comment

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Each second ravaged his soul more than the last. Chris Lambert crumbled after his wife and infant son died in a crash. He turned to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain. When their numbing effects eroded, loss and anguish tortured him again.

What was the point in living?

Several times he contemplated suicide. 

Amid the blur of death, emptiness and self-medication, Lambert woke one day in an unfamiliar house, unaware of how he got there and around people he didn’t know. His wallet and cell phone were gone.

“What in the hell are you doing?” Lambert said to himself that day. “Is this how they would want you to be living your life now?”

A moment in time

Chris Lambert spots for Denny Hamlin in the NASCAR Cup Series and Brandon Jones in the Xfinity Series. Lambert’s role is that of friend, coach, part-time psychologist, protector and purveyor of whatever information the driver desires.

Hamlin and Lambert have worked together since 2012 but neither has won a Cup championship. They’ll try again Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC), 20 years after the most devastating moment of Lambert’s life.

“As a parent, I just cannot imagine,” said Hamlin, father of two daughters, about Lambert’s loss. “It just puts into perspective, ‘You think you’ve got problems.’ Any small or big ask he has of me, I go above and beyond … for him.”

It was to be date night for Lambert and wife Hailey. Austin, 15 months old, stood at the door as Lambert backed out of the driveway on his way to play softball with a church team. Austin soon would head to a park with Hailey before she would drop him off at her mother’s home. Then Lambert and Hailey would have some time together.

But between the park and her mother’s house, Hailey’s car crossed the center line of a rural road and crashed head-on into another vehicle.

Four people died.

Lambert remembers little in the months after the Oct. 16, 1999 crash. A moment, though, is vivid among the fog. It took place at the funeral home when some of Hailey’s friends came through the receiving line to offer condolences.

One of them hugged Lambert.

Little did he know how that would change his life.

 

Hailey Lambert

Hailey was a cheerleader. Lambert played football.

He was quiet. Lambert followed the advice of his grandfather, who would say that because a person has two ears and one mouth they should listen twice as much as they talk.

Hailey was energetic and outgoing.

But it was more than opposites attract.

“There was just something about her that made everybody happier and in a better mood,” he said.

Although they had been flirting for several weeks, it was Hailey who asked Lambert out. Sitting outside the school gym with friends as they listened to music one night, Hailey asked Lambert: “So are you ever going to ask me out?”

“Well, yeah,” he said, “we can definitely go out.”

The next night after a football game, they went to a Pizza Hut popular with students.

Their first true date came the following night with a dinner and a movie. She then took him to her farm where her family was rebuilding their home after a fire. Other relatives were at the family barn sharing an evening of kinship around a bonfire.

“We were up all night just talking and getting to know each other better,” Lambert said. “From that point on, we were pretty much inseparable.”

When Lambert proposed to Hailey, he did not do it in private. On Christmas morning at the home of Hailey’s grandparents, in front of her extended family, Lambert asked Hailey to marry him.

After she said yes, Lambert turned to Hailey’s grandfather, a retired pastor, and asked him to perform the service. He said yes.

“Their entire family was just like she was,” Lambert said. “They took me in like I was theirs from day one.”

 

Austin Riley Lambert

Austin, born July 6, 1998, was learning to talk. He would say ‘Momma’ and ‘Daddy.’ He also said ‘puffs’ for the cheese puffs that he devoured.

Another of his early words was ‘cow,’ which he learned from all the visits to the farm of Hailey’s parents. He also loved their horses but had yet to say that word.

Already Lambert could tell which parent Austin mirrored.

“His personality, he was going to be a lot like his mom,” Lambert said. “He was just an overall happy kid.”

Before Austin was six months old, Hailey’s father got his grandson a lifetime fishing license so they could spend future days together bonding in the tranquility of nature.

Sitting still, though, was not something Austin did much of at his age.

“We were on the go a lot just to get out of the house and try to burn some of that energy off of him,” Lambert said with a smile. “He was never still.”

 

A conversation

One night, as Hailey and Lambert talked, the discussion turned to the future.

“I don’t know where it came from,” he said.

Soon Hailey was saying that if anything happened to her or they were no longer together, she would be fine with him dating any of three friends in particular.

When one is young and in love, such affirmations float away like a random leaf in fall. There’s too much living to do to ponder such a dark future for more than a moment.

One of the friends Hailey approved of Lambert seeing if something happened to her was Angela. Hailey and Angela graduated together from A.L. Brown High school in Kannapolis, North Carolina. When Angela returned home on weekends while attending Appalachian State University, they would go out while Lambert watched Austin at home.

For as implausible as Hailey’s scenario and suggestion seemed at the time, there was something else that made the idea of Lambert ever dating Angela unrealistic.

“She’ll be the first to tell you,” Lambert said of Angela, “that she didn’t like me.”

 

The “lowest of lows”

When Hailey didn’t arrive at her mother’s home that October day in 1999, family members worried. No one knew where Hailey and Austin were.

A friend told Lambert that they had been with Hailey and Austin hours earlier at a park. He went to retrace the route Hailey would have taken from there to her mother’s house. Hailey’s sister then called. She told him to go immediately to the hospital in Concord, North Carolina.

Hailey’s injuries were severe. Doctors could not save her.

They kept her alive long enough for Lambert and her family to say their goodbyes. She was 20.

Lambert then raced 26 miles to a hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina, to be with his son, unaware that Austin died from his injuries during the helicopter flight.

Instead of comforting his son, Lambert had to identify the body.

 

Learning to live

After awaking in the house where he knew no one and didn’t know how he got there, Lambert vowed to try “my best from that point on to start living the way that I knew I needed to live.”

He worked and also helped a friend race at area tracks. One night, the team returned to the shop after a race and had a party. Among those there was Hailey’s friend, Angela. She had returned home from college to take care of her mom and finish her education at a local school.

Angela and Lambert started talking about Hailey, high school and life.

“Four hours later we were still talking,” he said. “I think it was a therapy session for both of us.”

While Angela had seen the kindness Lambert displayed around Hailey and Austin, she also knew about the fights he used to get in with others. She didn’t like that.

“Most of the fights were me taking up for people that wouldn’t take up for themselves,” he said. “If I saw somebody picking on somebody, I would try to stand up for (them).”

As Angela and Lambert talked, barriers came down.

Just as they did that night at the funeral home.

It was Angela who hugged Lambert.

Eventually, they began dating. But about six months into their relationship, he broke it off.

“I told her I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. Nothing she had done. It was just 100 percent me. I pushed her away.”

Lambert also faced an inner quarrel. Could he get close to another woman? His mother died from bone cancer when he was 3 years old. An aunt who looked over him died when he was young. Then his wife died.

“It seemed like every woman I got close to was taken too early,” he said.

Angela kept in touch, making sure he was OK during their time apart. They got back together within six months and were married Aug. 2, 2003.

“Our relationship has been the strongest it’s been ever since then,” Lambert said. “To understand that I’m worthy of letting myself go for the love of a woman, I know it goes back to that hug.”

Family routine

Angela and Lambert have two children. Hunter is 15. Cameron is 13.

With his role solely as a spotter, Lambert doesn’t work at Joe Gibbs Racing’s shop. That’s allowed Lambert to spend as much time as possible with his family between races.

They will be at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday to see if Lambert and Hamlin can win the championship.

They also are a part of Lambert’s routine before every race.

Once the prayer and national anthem are complete in pre-race ceremonies — and before engines are fired — Lambert calls his family. They wish him good luck and tell him they love him.

After hanging up, Lambert steps away from the other spotters for a moment alone.

He prays for family members who have passed. He prays for the grandparents who raised him. He prays for the wife who loved him.

And he prays for the son who stands against the door the last time Lambert saw him alive, waving goodbye.

 

 and on Facebook

 

Long: Denny Hamlin’s knockout punch sends him to title race

Leave a comment

AVONDALE, Ariz. —Denny Hamlin punched the dash of his car in frustration nine years ago at ISM Raceway, the beginning of a collapse that cost him the Cup championship.

Sunday, he unleashed a flurry of punches after a win at the same track that lessens the pain of that miserable day in 2010 and could catapult him to his first series title.

Hamlin is changing the narrative of a Cup career in its 14th season that features two Daytona 500 victories but numerous playoff disappointments. It comes in Hamlin’s first year with crew chief Chris Gabehart.

Gabehart’s demands and Hamlin’s ease with pressure have Hamlin joining Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in next week’s championship race in Miami.

Hamlin is just the second Cup driver since the playoff format debuted in 2014 to race his way into the championship by winning the season’s next-to-last race. Harvick had to win at this track to make the 2014 title race and followed it the next week by winning the championship in Miami.

Two days before Sunday’s race, though, Hamlin sought to temper any disappointment should he fail to advance to the championship, saying: “It’s been a really good year and I’m just not going to let the outcome of this weekend, or last weekend, decide whether it’s a good season or not.”

Gabehart saw the comments and others like them and texted Hamlin.

The message was clear. Expect more of yourself.

“The biggest thing he always keeps pushing is that ‘We’re here to win, we’re not going to settle for anything other than winning,’ “ Hamlin said of Gabehart.

“I’m more of a ‘Let’s not get too high, let’s not get too low.’ I always like to put myself in the middle, to prepare myself both ways. I don’t think he does. I think he only prepares to win, and he’ll deal with it if he doesn’t.”

Gabehart has challenged Hamlin and helped him find areas he can be better, leading to six victories — the most since Hamlin won eight races in 2010 — and his first appearance in the title race since 2014.

“The biggest thing I see,” spotter Chris Lambert said of Gabehart’s influence on Hamlin, “is he holds Denny accountable for everything. It’s not just ‘Well we struggled on restarts or we had this issue. Why do we struggle? How can we fix it? We’ve got to fix it for you to be that elite driver that we know that you are.’ ”

Before the season, Gabehart went over race analytics, a deeper measure of racing statistics beyond results, with Hamlin and Lambert.

“It opened Denny’s eyes,” Lambert said.

Hamlin responded by winning the Daytona 500 to be the first driver to qualify for the playoffs.

But there have been challenges along the way, particularly in the playoffs. Hamlin’s mistake last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway led to a crash that put him 20 points behind Joey Logano for the final transfer spot.

Sunday, Hamlin struggled on restarts. He fell from first to fifth on the restart at the beginning of the second stage. Gabehart talked Hamlin through following restarts, telling him at one point to think of his strategy but don’t overthink things.

Overthinking his situation has been a fault associated with Hamlin since 2010. An ill carburetor forced Hamlin to make an extra pit stop late in that year’s race at ISM Raceway, costing him several positions and points. Instead of having a comfortable lead on Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick entering the season finale in Miami, Hamlin had a slight lead. Johnson and Harvick ganged up on Hamlin in the press conference a few days before the title race, unsettling Hamlin. Hamlin then qualified poorly and spun in the race, losing to the title to Johnson.

Those two weeks have defined Hamlin to some.

“I’ve answered so many questions about that day (at ISM Raceway) and the role that it played in the finish of the 2010 season,” Hamlin said.

The questions may cease now.

In the midst of one of his best seasons, the Texas crash and pressure situation could have undone Hamlin. It would have years ago, but he’s become more comfortable as he’s aged — he tuns 39 the day after next week’s race.

This week, Hamlin shared a house with Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse and friends. Hamlin even admitted to playing tennis at 1 a.m.

“I think a lot of people sometimes think athletes need to be extremely focused, and not that we aren’t, but you’ve also got to balance that with some fun and come to Phoenix and getting to golf and go out and eat nice food is a good way to get your mind off all the pressure you have on Sunday,” Larson said.

While Hamlin was frustrated to see a multi-second lead disappear when NASCAR called a caution nine laps from the finish when John Hunter Nemechek hit the wall, he remained calm and handled the pressure well.

Gabehart kept Hamlin in the lead with what seemed a risky two-tire pit stop for a car that had been so dominant. Hamlin benefitted with Ryan Blaney also taking two tires to start beside him and ahead of Busch and Truex, who each were on four fresh tires.

Then it was up to Hamlin to win to advance. Hamlin followed Gabehart’s guidance, plotted his strategy and didn’t overthink it.

“I wanted to choose the top (lane on the restart) simply because I thought if I went into Turn 1 side‑by‑side, I’d rather be on the high side,” Hamlin said. “I thought that I’d seen Kyle get a pretty good run in the traction stuff on a few restarts. I saw it in a few restarts in the Truck race, as well.

“I just thought if I was going to be at a deficit of grip versus my competition, I had the option to go up there and get more. It was going to be a longer distance, but I had the option to go up there and get the grip they didn’t have.

“So I think that was the reason I did it. Luckily it all worked out, for sure. Especially I think having (Blaney) under there with two tires there, as well, gave me a little buffer there. If it was Kyle, I’m not sure I would have held him off, but I would have damn sure tried.”

He didn’t have to worry. Now, Hamlin is off to Miami to have fun and race for a championship.

“I’m going to enjoy the moment,” Hamlin said. “All you can ask for at the start of the year is to ask for an opportunity for a chance to compete for a championship. We have a chance to compete.  It’s goal accomplished. Now we just got to go out there and do it.”

Just as Gabehart would say.

Expect more of yourself.

All-Star Race buzz still has many in NASCAR talking

5 Comments

The rules package and racing in Saturday night’s Monster Energy All-Star Race and Monster Open has many in the sport debating what to do next.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief racing development officer, said Monday on “The Morning Drive” that series officials will meet Wednesday with industry officials to discuss the race and “see where we go from here.”

The Xfinity Series will run a similar package this season at Pocono (June 2), Michigan (June 9) and Indianapolis (Sept. 8) after running it only at Indy last year.

MORE: Transcript of NASCAR’s comments after the All-Star Race

While O’Donnell noted Saturday night that he would “never say never” to running what was used in the All-Star race again later this year in Cup, he said the focus was on 2019 for the package.

Marcus Smith, chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc., said he would be for running the package in Cup at Kentucky (July 14). Kentucky is the last 1.5-mile track on the schedule before the playoffs begin in September.

“Certainly that track has been a place where R&D for the rest of the sport has happened, and we’d be happy to have it again there,” Smith told NBC Sports about Kentucky. “Any mile-and-a-half track, whether it’s ours or not. My interest is in making the whole sport fantastic, and I think we’ve got great opportunities for that.’’

Car owner Joe Gibbs said after the All-Star Race that more evaluation is needed with the package.

“I think there’s a lot to talk about,” Gibbs told NBC Sports after the race. “I’m sure we’ll make a good decision. Everybody is going to work together. I think (the race) will be something that everybody evaluates and thinks about. I think there’s a lot to it that going forward in the future would be very different. Cars will have a chance to be in the wind tunnel and do all the things that we do with them.”

Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, cautioned Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio about a rush to use the package at other tracks immediately.

“You saw the race and as a team member you feel like, wow, there’s something there, but I think we’ve got to be smart about how we roll forward,” he said. “Sometimes that’s going to take more time than I think what our fan base is going to understand, but we’ve got to smart about how we look at this and what we can do with it. I think there’s potential there. If we just implement what we just did, I don’t know if we’re getting all the potential out of it.”

There also was quite a discussion on social media from several in the sport, from spotters and crew chiefs and more, about the racing and what to do next. Here’s what some were saying on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

 and on Facebook