NASCAR fan prepares to attend 1,000th Cup race Sunday at Michigan

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Imagine doing one activity.

Then picture doing that activity religiously, 1,000 times from February 1963 to June 2018.

Joe Baumann is preparing fulfill that this weekend at Michigan International Speedway when he attends his 1,000th NASCAR Cup race.

Baumann, 79, is a native of Erie, Pennsylvania, and owner of a carpeting and flooring company, something his family has done since 1885.

But Baumann has made NASCAR his weekend business.

After getting out of the Navy in 1960, Baumann had his own brief racing career until life got in the way.

“I raced a couple of years in late models at our home track here in Erie,” Baumann told NBC Sports. “Went into drag racing a couple years after that. Started having a big family and that was the end of everything. I become a spectator because I figured there’s no way I can afford a family and the cost to race race cars.”

Baumann’s first time in the grandstands of a NASCAR Cup event came at the 1963 Daytona 500, when Tiny Lund won for the Wood Brothers.

“I loved what I saw when I got to Daytona,” Baumann said. “I’ll never forget it.”

Baumann has seen everything in the 998 races that have followed.

It’s documented in the couple hundred race programs that line his office and in the diary he decided to start keeping about a decade ago.

Joe Baumann sits in his office filled with NASCAR race programs. (Courtesy of Cale Baumann).

Baumann was there in 1969 when Talladega Superspeedway opened its doors for the first time.

He was also present in 1996 when North Wilkesboro Speedway said goodbye to NASCAR racing. He has “everything from the last race there,” including commemorative hats, unused tickets and the program.

Just a year before he experienced his “all-time No. 1” race.

You may have seen the highlights, but Baumann was sitting in Turn 3 of Bristol Motor Speedway the night of the 1995 Food City 500.

“Dale Earnhardt. Terry Labonte. Unfriggin’ believable,” declared Baumann, who was an Earnhardt fan. “I’ll never forget it. (Earnhardt) got black flagged at least twice, maybe three times for rough driving. They sent him to the back of the pack and oh my God, he was hell-bent to get back up front again. He did and it comes down to the last lap and they come off Turn 4 just slam banging each other, side by side and Earnhardt smashed him sideways.

“… I think the people went completely crazy. It was just phenomenal.

“That was tops.”

Baumann racked up races in the 70s, 80s and 90s while owning permanent seats at 10 tracks that hosted two races a year, including Bristol, Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, Atlanta and Talladega in addition to his visits to other tracks.

In 2004, he put a big dent in his total by attending all 36 Cup races, from Daytona to Homestead, with roughly 100 friends joining him over the course of the year.

At his peak, many race weekends saw Baumann and a group of six to 12 friends make the pilgrimage.

“Most of us worked six days a week, we’d leave Saturday night,” Baumann said. “We would leave Erie and drive straight to the track.”

One track, the one in South Carolina that’s Too Tough to Tame, really spoke to him.

Since 1964, when Buck Baker won in Baumann’s first visit to Darlington Raceway, he hasn’t missed a Southern 500.

The custom shirt Baumann and his friends and family will wear this weekend (Courtesy of Cale Baumann).

“The people and the good-hearted racing, it was just amazing they could run 500 miles at that speed and then it had the full metal roof over the top of the whole front straightaway and that made it even worse on your ears probably,” Baumann said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to miss one of these things.’ Back then tickets were like $10 or less and fuel was reasonable. We took a half a dozen guys, normally starting with a pickups truck, campers and things like that to go down. Motels in that day and age were few and far between. … Then my wife (Jackie, who passed away in 2015) got interested, so then her and I started going together. Next thing you know we got into motor homes and things like that. … It’s a great weekend now and everywhere we go it’s the same way. NASCAR people are just unbelievable.”

Baumann’s dedication to Darlington was rewarded last year when he was one of three people inducted into the track’s Fan Hall of Fame.

“That was pretty neat. They took care of me,” Baumann said. “The ring is like a Super Bowl ring.”

Baumann, who named his youngest daughter Allison after his favorite driver, Bobby Allison, and his youngest son Cale after Cale Yarborough, wanted his 1,000th race to come at Darlington.

But knee-replacement surgery last year shortened his schedule.

Instead, he’ll reach the 1,000 race mark Sunday with the FireKeepers Casino 400. The drive to Brooklyn, Michigan, is a much easier trip for the roughly 50 people who will camp with him for the weekend.

What festivities will there be to mark the occasion?

“My friends are full of surprises, believe me,” Baumann said. “Something’s going to happen.”

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Kevin Harvick: ‘Chase Elliott winning is better for our sport’

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The question was to make a pitch but Kevin Harvick admitted it likely doesn’t matter how much he does because there’s only one driver who will win the NMPA Most Popular Driver Award now that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is no longer racing.

“We’re fortunate to have a great fan base, but we probably won’t win,’’ Harvick said Friday at Kansas Speedway. “I’d say the next guy that’s going to take that reign is going to be Chase Elliott. The bottom line is when you look at our sport, there is only a few guys that come through this sport that have the name, the history, the heritage of that NASCAR family and carry that through their career, and Chase is one of those guys.

“He’s done a great job of carrying himself and being competitive and doing all the things that he does … he has that family name and that history and the heritage of the hardcore NASCAR fan who are going to be the people who vote that. His dad won a few times in the Most Popular Driver and he’s the next Dale Jr.”

Bill Elliott was selected as the most popular driver a record 16 times. Earnhardt won the honor 15 consecutive years.

Harvick suggests that Chase Elliott could make a significant impact on the sport but the key is winning. Elliott, the 2014 Xfinity champion, remains winless in Cup. Saturday night’s race will be his 89th career series start. He has finished second eight times, including at Richmond last month.

“Is he going to win enough to be the megastar? At some point,” said Harvick, who is coming off his win last weekend at Dover. “He’s a star right now, but winning takes you to that next level of being a bigger star, and Chase Elliott winning is better for our sport and he’s going to be the guy that wins the Most Popular Driver, in my opinion, for the next several years. There’s nobody else that has that ties to our sport like Chase does. I can win 20 races a year and I’m never going have that tie to the sport like Chase does.”

But Harvick does have one special fan among those who cheer him. Earnhardt revealed this week on Twitter that his grandmother is a Harvick fan because Harvick took over Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s ride after his death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

“Seeing that comment from Dale Jr. and seeing the reaction from a lot of the fans is a lot of responsibility, obviously,’’ Harvick said. “It’s like I said on the (SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) show Tuesday night, when you look at the Earnhardt family in general, the legacy they have in our sport from start to finish – from Ralph to Dale Jr. on down to what happens next, it’s a major backbone of what has happened in this sport. When you look at that, I feel like I have a small part of where that changed … and where it’s going.

“So, for me, there’s a lot of pressure but also a lot of pride in that as well to try to do right, whether it’s for the family or for those old Senior fans. You want to do the right thing. I haven’t always done the right thing, but I feel as you go through the years you transition more into the right direction than what we did in the beginning, so that, to me, personally feels good.”

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Podcast: Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the best (and only) driving advice he got from his dad

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. said his late dad gave him only one piece of driving advice, but that small bit of wisdom went a very long way.

“It was such a great lesson, and he did such a great job giving it to me,” Earnhardt said on this week’s NASCAR America Debrief podcast. “I’m really surprised he didn’t give me any more (lessons), because he taught me really well in this particular situation.”

Well enough to sweep the Cup-Xfinity weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway in August 2004.

After those dual victories, Earnhardt credited some advice he had gotten from his seven-time champion father about driving the 0.533-mile oval.

During a practice session at Bristol, Earnhardt Jr. made laps while his dad talked him through it on the radio and guided him on when to hit the accelerator and let off.

“He took the whole lap and wound it back counterclockwise,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “He basically was teaching me to get in the corner easier and off the corner harder. I was overdriving the car. It made the lap more about momentum and timing and rhythm. This made driving Bristol really easy.

“We never set down and talked about how to draft. ‘You see me doing this, this is why.’ He never would do that, but that one time I guess he saw me struggling pretty bad (at Bristol).”

The anecdote amused fellow podcast and NASCAR America guest Dale Jarrett, who had been stymied in his attempts to draw knowledge from “The Intimidator.”

“I’m glad to hear that, because I had a complex,” Jarrett said with a laugh. “I thought he just wouldn’t talk to me about driving. Every time I tried to pick his brain. He would not talk about driving a race car whatsoever. He would not talk about setups.

“He didn’t care what you had. He knew he was better than you, so he didn’t care how you might be going about it. If you beat him, it was because you had something he didn’t. That was his philosophy. I thought for sure he was talking to (Dale Jr.) about things.

“You can talk to other drivers. You go try to have a conversation (with Dale Earnhardt) about a certain track, he wasn’t going to have it. He’d totally change it. He’d talk T-shirts, hats and diecast cars and him going hunting.”

“What he thought was important,” Earnhardt Jr. said with a laugh.

Click on the embed above to hear the podcast, which appears every week after the “Wednesdays With Dale Jr.” episode of NASCAR America on NBCSN.

It also is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.

NASCAR America: Dale Jarrett says it’s time to consider Kyle Busch among greats

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Last week, Kyle Busch won the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway and it is time to start thinking about the records he may one day hold, according to Dale Jarrett in Monday’s edition of NASCAR America.

“We need to start talking about Kyle Busch being one of the best of all time, in my opinion,” Jarrett said. “He’s such an outstanding race driver.”

Busch’s Texas victory was his 44th in the Cup series, which ties him with Bill Elliott for 16th on the all-time list and puts him within two wins of 15th-place Buck Baker.

“Let’s look at how he’s climbing up the ladder in the Cup series with each of these (wins),” Jarrett said. “You think about 10 more years, winning four or five races a year, where that’s going to elevate him to. Talking about getting past Dale Earnhardt (76 wins) and Darrell Waltrip (84) and Cale Yarborough (83) and people like this. And challenging Jimmie Johnson (83) and Jeff Gordon (93) as far as the number of wins.

Jarrett goes on to reference Busch’s Camping World Truck Series victories (50, second on the winners list, one behind Ron Hornaday Jr.) and Xfinity wins (91, leading the winners list) while making his case for Busch’s remarkable place in NASCAR’s history.

For more on what Dale Jarrett had to say, watch the video above.

NASCAR America: Texas still has many unknowns after repaving project

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Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway will mark the third Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race since the track was repaved before the 2017 season and there are still plenty of unknowns facing drivers.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte and Dale Jarrett sat down with Krista Voda at the Big Oak Table in Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America to discuss what should be expected.

“As the pace falls off, you slow down quite a bit,” Earnhardt said. “And the one thing I always liked about Texas was being able to move around. You can run anywhere on that race track from the very bottom to the very top. Since the repave, it’s narrowed up quite a bit, but with the Tire Dragon – the Tire Monster – they are definitely widening the groove out. I remember the last year I ran there, (Turn) 3 and 4 was really wide. You could get up in the middle and actually make some good time there.

“That track is aging rather quickly. I think they’re doing some good things – or must be doing some good things – to help that asphalt age to where it will get to where we’re back on the fence.”

Part of the repaving project included reshaping Turns 1 and 2. The impact of that has yet to be fully appreciated, according to Letarte.

“I think, as it widens out, it’s only going to make it a more difficult track with the two ends being so different,” Letarte said. “You talk about the speed at Texas; it was one thing when both ends were really fast. Well, now you run (Turn) 3 and 4 and you fly off Turn 4 and then you come down the frontstretch and it kind of suckers you in to overdrive Turn 1. It’s so flat, you’ve got to go almost to the apron.”

For more about the unknowns faced by the drivers this week, watch the video above.