Dale Earnhardt

‘You’re the dirtiest car owner in NASCAR’: An oral history of the night Dale Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Richard Childress slipped into a Harley Davidson T-shirt and slipped out of the pits at Bristol Motor Speedway.

He snuck up to the press box with Dale Earnhardt, who also had changed out of his famous black and white firesuit, avoiding legions of angry fans still stewing about one of the most famous finishes in NASCAR history.

There was only so long the owner of the No. 3 Chevrolet could remain incognito, though, after Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte on the last lap to win the Aug. 28, 1999 race at the high-banked short track, and Childress’ luck ran out the next morning while getting breakfast at Hardee’s after a sponsor appearance in North Wilkesboro.

“I walked in, and there was a line, and this little old lady,” Childress said recently with a chuckle. “I never will forget it, she come up to me and said, ‘You’re Richard Childress, aren’t you? I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She said, ‘You’re the dirtiest car owner in NASCAR, and you have the dirtiest race driver. Terry Labonte is the finest man out there and the best race driver. You should be ashamed of yourself.’

“That’s a true story. Never will forget that young lady.”

“Yeah, it might have been my aunt,” Labonte, who was sitting alongside, cracked. “I don’t know.”

The famous dustup between Earnhardt and Labonte, which left more than 140,000 fans screaming at full volume for nearly 20 minutes after the race, is the subject of a narrative edition of the latest NASCAR on NBC Podcast.

The episode recounts that fateful full-moon night at Bristol from the perspective of several on-track principals and behind-the-scenes players in the pits, victory lane, the scoring tower and the announcer’s booth.

The most memorable part of that Saturday night? The crowd, which mostly booed Earnhardt (a nine-time winner at Bristol).

“It was the loudest moment in sports by a group of fans,” Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Marcus Smith said. “It was absolutely amazing. It’s one of the most memorable moments in all of sports and certainly in NASCAR.”

You can listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher or by clicking on the embed below.

Here are some highlights of what many people recalled about one of the most controversial and thrilling finishes in NASCAR history:


            THE SETUP AND THE SPIN

The Goody’s 500 began with rookie Tony Stewart on the pole position and leading 225 of the first 251 laps. He wouldn’t lead again after that, though, as the second half of the race became a duel between the two stars who had battled for a win at Bristol four years earlier (when Labonte crossed the finish line sideways after being wrecked by Earnhardt at the checkered flag).

Labonte took his first lead on Lap 300 and traded the lead with Earnhardt seven times over the final 200 laps.

Kevin Triplett, then-NASCAR director of operations who was one of the officials in the scoring tower: “It came down to Dale and Terry. They changed the lead several times. It was similar to a really close basketball game where the lead gets swapped a lot and Terry would take it for a while, Dale would take it for a while. There are all of these other things that go on in a race at Bristol, but they had settled in that this was going to be between the two of them. Little did we know at that point how much it was going to be between the two of them.”

Andy Graves, crew chief for Labonte: “Terry is one of the smartest drivers I’ve ever worked with. He’s one of those guys all of a sudden you look up with 100 laps to go, and there he is. He was just real quiet, methodical, going about his business. Took care of the car really good and always would be able to communicate back the changes that he knew he was going to need for the last 100 laps. We always had good finishes at the end.

“We really weren’t very good the first half of the race, but as the rubber laid down, and it started getting choppy that’s what we had tested for, and sure enough, our car came in, and I think from Lap 300 on, we definitely had a pretty good car.”

Labonte was pulling away from Earnhardt with 15 laps to go when smoke began trailing from the car of his younger brother, Bobby. Fluid on track from the expiring engine caused Jeremy Mayfield to spin, bringing out a yellow. As Labonte slowed down from the lead under caution, he was hit from behind by Darrell Waltrip, who was scrambling to get a lap back during an era in which NASCAR still allowed racing back to the caution flag.

Labonte: “Darrell said he sure was glad Dale spun me out, otherwise, he’d have been the one blamed for it. When the caution came out, you raced back to the caution. It was a gentleman’s agreement. You didn’t do that unless you were unlapping yourself or keep someone a lap down. I was lapping Brett Bodine, I eased off the gas, and Darrell ran into the back of me, turned us around. Sitting there backward thinking, ‘This is wonderful.’ With 10 laps to go, backward in 3 and 4.”

Graves: “It was really a no-brainer to pit at that point after getting spun out. He had already had flat-spotted the tires. That really wasn’t that much of a magic call. You pretty much had to do that. In those five laps of green for Terry to get back to Dale and get underneath him and clear him was pretty amazing. Terry was on a mission that night for sure.

Labonte restarted in fifth on the final green flag, quickly passing Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. He had gotten past Earnhardt off Turn 4 to take the white flag before they made contact.

Andy Graves: “Usually when you’re chasing down the leader and coming to the white flag off Turn 4, and you see your driver get underneath the leader, usually, you’re pretty happy. You’re thinking, “OK, we’ve got it.” Right then, I was like, ‘This is not going to end well at all.’ I had this weird gut feeling, and unfortunately, where we were pitted, I had a clear shot to see Terry drive into Turn 1. He had to enter lower because he was side by side by Dale, and unfortunately, the car bottomed out. If you watch the replay, sparks came out, which shot Terry up the track just enough that’s how Dale was able to really plant him in the left-rear corner. I think if Dale had hit him square in the back bumper, we would have been fine. But unfortunately with bottoming out and shooting up one groove, it was just enough. Of course we were upset, but I think my first reaction was, “Yep, I knew that was going to happen.’ ”

Labonte: “I got under Dale on the white flag. I had a bad angle, the car bottomed out, and Dale got in the back of me. We spun out off 2, and that was the end of race for us. Made for some exciting highlights.”

One final attempt at revenge backfired for Labonte after he was spun.

Labonte: “I was sitting there on the back straightaway and had my car running again and had it in reverse, and I saw him come off Turn 2, and he was rolling down the back straightaway, and I had it timed perfect, and I thought to myself, just like it was yesterday, I said, ‘Well that No. 3 might be going to victory lane, but this No. 5 is going to be stuck in the side of it.’ And I was going to back into him and T-bone him. And I had it timed perfect, and when I popped the clutch and gave it the gas, it tore reverse gear out, and the car moved about a half-inch. And just let all the wind out of my sail right there.

“I was like, ‘Well, guess that wasn’t meant to be, either.’ Probably a good thing looking back on it that reverse gear tore out of it, because we probably would have had a heck of a fight with our crews and stuff, so … that probably wouldn’t have been good for any of us.”


              THE AFTERMATH

A crowd of 140,000 remained riveted by the postrace scene, incessantly cheering and booing at ear-splitting volumes as replays and interviews were shown on the large video screen in the middle of the infield.

Dr. Jerry Punch, ESPN pit reporter who interviewed Earnhardt in victory lane: “Probably the most eerie time I’ve ever seen in a victory lane. Every word he said, it got a little bit louder. You know the end of a race, three hours of engine roaring. Thunder Valley, Bristol Motor Speedway, and it gets quiet when the race is over, the guy in victory lane cuts his engine off, everyone shuts their engines down, and it gets nice and quiet. It’s almost eerie. Well, that didn’t happen that night. Earnhardt comes in, the sparklers go off, he shuts the engine off, and it got loud. It got very, very loud.

I’m looking at him, and I probably did half of his 76 victory lane interviews. He’d be smiling and stroking that big bushy mustache. He looks around in a look of bewilderment like, ‘What’s that noise?’ Because literally, there were 140,000 people there, and every single one of them had an opinion on what had just happened. They weren’t all booing. There were a lot of diehard Earnhardt fans there, but there were probably 40,000 Earnhardt fans, and 100,000 who were fans of the other 41 drivers. They all had an opinion. Some were gesturing you’re No. 1 with different fingers. He climbs out of the car and almost before I can ask the first question, he’s apologetic. He says his first phrase, ‘I meant to pay him back,’ and then he goes on. ‘Really just meant to rattle his cage.’ It touched him these were people who were screaming, frustrated and angry. But within a few seconds, he’s Earnhardt, so he won the race and was going to enjoy victory lane, but for just a moment, there was that bewilderment and all the noise.”

Elliott Sadler, who was a rookie making his third Cup start at Bristol: “I remember it like it was yesterday.  What I remember the most is two things. One, Bristol has always done a great job of having the big video screen when they do interviews and stuff so the fans can be a part of the interviews after the race and stuff like that. I just remember how loud the fans were booing and all of that. Half of them cheering, half of them booing when Earnhardt was giving his explanation and all the stuff going to victory lane with Terry Labonte and all that. How loud that place was after the race. It’s probably as loud as it’s ever been at any racetrack that I’ve ever been to. And then people were throwing things. The fans were throwing things and not very happy about the outcome of the race. That’s what I remember was how loud it was. The emotion that was in that stadium after that race.

“I remember getting out of the car and the crowd was going crazy and reacting to everything going on. Loudest postrace I’ve ever been a part of. It was absolutely amazing. So much energy in that stadium. It was awesome.”

Dustin Long, NBCSports.com editor who covered the race in his first season on the NASCAR beat: “I remember being up in the press box 20 minutes later pounding on the keyboard, and I heard all this noise again. I looked up, and they were replaying the last lap of the race, and when it came to the bump, all the fans were booing. Three-fourths of the stands were still full, and no one wanted to leave.”

David McGee, Bristol announcer who interviewed Earnhardt on the track PA: “My biggest recollection of that night was the crowd. When the incident happened, 140,000 people or whatever capacity at that time. Most of them were cheering. But you could hear the boos 70-30, 60-40, whatever. And as events wore on over the next few minutes. The booing got louder. Earnhardt was always super popular at this racetrack, and to hear that kind of booing for Earnhardt here. That was remarkable.

“So he comes to victory lane, Jerry Punch does the first interview. We carried PRN over the PA. I go up and ask the same stupid question that he just answered twice. By now, the crowd is really into it. He says it again: ‘I didn’t mean to wreck him. I meant to rattle his cage.’ The crescendo of boos now is like 70-30 against Earnhardt. He was looking around like, ‘Wow, did I make people that mad?’ You could see the look on his face.

“My other vivid memory of that night is nobody left. We’re 10 minutes after the race, usually the crowd is flying out the gate. Everybody stayed. I don’t know what they were waiting for. I don’t know if they thought there was going to be a big fistfight. Finally, Terry Labonte finally came out of the hauler and talked to PRN. He made a comment about, ‘He never means to wreck anybody but he wrecked me anyway.’ The crowd is losing their mind at this point. Jeff Byrd, our general manager at the time, we’re standing in victory lane taking in this scene, and Jeff said, ‘Turn that off, we’ve got to get these people out of here. People are way too upset now.’ I go find our sound guy working in victory lane, and he cut everything off. Silence. Then the crowd starts to dissipate and everyone starts to leave. The energy was just … it was a full moon night. If we’d have kept interviewing people, people would have stayed to watch. They were expecting something else to happen.”

Triplett: “And as loud as it was in the grandstands, on the other side of that glass (in the control tower), I think I remember was a bit of silence from the rest of us just standing there like what just happened? And on the other side of the glass it was anything but silence. I mean this place … I’ve been in and around racing and watching races since ’86-87, and I’ve never heard a combination of cheers and boos and jeers that was that loud at one time in my life, and I don’t remember ever hearing Earnhardt getting booed. Now it wasn’t exclusive. There were cheers and people with 3 hats and black hats waving, before he even got back around on his cooldown lap, it was crazy. I guess the easiest way to explain it was sheer emotion. Regardless of if people were happy he won or mad, everybody, and I usually don’t like absolutes, but I think everyone in the grandstands was yelling something, whether positive or negative.”

George Shaw, Bristol fan who has been sitting in the Turn 1 grandstands since 1997: “I guess the one thing I remember the most, even Earnhardt fans were booing Earnhardt that night. Which kind of amazed me. Because he got booed a lot anyway, but for his own fans, some of them to be booing him, was something I’d never experienced before. One of my best friends was sitting in the row right in front of me and he’s a diehard Earnhardt fan, he’s probably got 300 Earnhardt diecasts and everything. He was booing him. Which absolutely shocked me.”

Chocolate Myers, gas man for Earnhardt: “All the cheers and boos from the fans, the one thing that Richard Childress told all of us, ‘Boys, you may want to take those Goodwrench shirts off before you leave here tonight.’ I took his advice. I had on a T-shirt. When we left that racetrack that night, there were so many people out there, that it was a little scary to be quite honest with you. Because I was so big, I could take my uniform off, and they could still spot me. So I was a little bit concerned. To be part of that back in those days and go there and now be friends and be able to relive those memories, it’s awesome.”

Childress: “Yeah, we had our concerns because there was people that were really upset. I put on a Harley-Davidson T-Shirt when I left. I actually wore it up to the press box with Dale. Yeah, there were some people that were upset. The little old lady the next day in North Wilkesboro who told me I was the dirtiest car owner that had ever been in NASCAR and had the dirtiest driver that had ever been. I thought she was going to whip on me right there at Hardee’s.”


              CRIME AND PUNISHMENT?

Would NASCAR penalize The Intimidator or even strip the victory? Was the move intentional enough to merit punishment? That was the discussion immediately after the race and in the days that followed among many.

Triplett: “We watched the replay. How do you make that decision of what was going through someone’s mind? There have been times I’ve been in the tower and it was fairly easy. There would be one driver who shall remain nameless, I think it was the last race he wore white gloves. We noticed on the replay there was a very distinct turn of the white gloves. I don’t think he ever wore white gloves after that. We were able to tell there was a very distinct movement of the steering wheel into the car beside him. So that was a much easier to decision to make. We felt confident there was intent there.

“This one, because of the emotion and the reaction, I don’t think we were prepared to do anything at that point anyway. I think it was we’re going to look at this, review this and take a look and see. Because you don’t want to add, regardless of booing or cheering, you don’t want to add fuel to that fire at that point. If you’re going to make a decision, it needs to be with all your faculties about you where it’s not on emotion. It’s on what you have in front of you. Anything that occurred that night would have been on emotion. That was an emotional night.

“It was one of those things like what is the basis (for a penalty)? There were double-digit cautions. How is that any different from the wreck that happened 10 laps earlier for Terry to get tires? We have to peel away all of these other layers of the onion and the emotion. We had to decide what did we know happened and how does that compare to any other racing incident coming to the checkered flag over the course of the years. We decided there’s no there there, or at least not enough to do anything. I think there was a reaction to that. I think some people were disappointed there wasn’t a fine. I don’t remember us ever discussing the win not being a good win. It was more is there a fine or probation. That sort of thing. I don’t ever discussing the win being part of the equation. Then it was how do we determine if there’s a penalty.

Larry McReynolds: “This was a Saturday night race, and on Monday, we were flying to St. Louis to do some more testing with the 2000 Monte Carlo. I got to the (airport) early Monday morning, and Dale drove up. I said, ‘That was an interesting finish, wasn’t it?’ And honestly, it was just him and I standing there, and he kind of dropped his head and said, ‘I’m telling you, that’s not the way I wanted to win that race. I’m not going to give the trophy back, I can promise you that. I really just wanted to nudge him and move him on up out of the way. I hate the outcome was what it was. I know everybody is upset with me. That’s not the way I wanted it.’ I said ‘Dale, I don’t know if I’m buying that or not. You may convince someone else.’ But he seemed very sincere that’s not the outcome he wanted. He was selling, but I wasn’t buying. Because I worked with him and knew what he was like at Bristol.”

Childress: “I talked to Dale the next morning. Honestly, he didn’t mean to wreck Terry. He meant to move him out of the way. The one thing I remember about it was how close we come to losing the race. I think it caught Dale a little off guard that he did wreck, and that Jimmy Spencer almost won the race that night.”

Labonte on when he talked with Earnhardt: “It was the next week at driver introductions. I never will forget it. We were sitting there, and it just so happens we had qualified kind of close to each other at Darlington, and we went to driver introductions, and everybody was standing around waiting for the time to get introduced, and I turned around, and he was standing there, and we kind of looked at each other, and John Andretti was standing there, and John looked at me and looked at Dale and said I’m standing in the wrong place, and that just broke the ice, and everyone kind of laughed about it. We went on around that race.”


              THE LEGACY AND THE WAY OF THE INTIMIDATOR

Triplett: “In the legend of NASCAR fandom, it’s become in some instances the legend of NASCAR Woodstock, where 600,000 people were at Woodstock, but 300 million people say they were there. The number of people who say they were at that ’99 race and talk about it is just amazing. And maybe they were I don’t know. It’s just crazy at what happened and the fact that 20 years later people are still talking about it

“I’ve seen a lot of sports, but I haven’t seen anything to compare it to that. You had a couple of legends. Guys now in the Hall of Fame who had won their share of championships and races here between them. 11 or 12 wins. It was just the unbelievable emotion and was sustained and lasted. There were people still buzzing about it. Especially living here in Bristol. It’s not uncommon over the years for people to say I was sitting in Turn 2 and know exactly where they were sitting. I spent 10 years at the speedway, we would talk to season ticket holders and get their memories of why they had season tickets at Bristol. And almost every one of them would say, at some point, they would talk about ’99. It was one of those I was at Woodstock moments.”

Childress: “Dale was a great driver everywhere, but he was really a master when it come to (Bristol) and Darlington. The toughest tracks to get around, Dale was one of the drivers who could manage. He had car control. He had the feel of the race cars, and he had the vision to be able to run as close and tight as he could with cars. That’s what it takes at Bristol.”

Graves: “I’ve never watched the whole race back. To be totally honest with you. Last night just watched a little bit so I didn’t sound totally stupid with my memory here today, but it’s something that I know it’s become one of the iconic finishes in the sport. I appreciate all the history with NASCAR, but I kind of wish that we were on the winning end of that one.

Labonte: “I loved everything about Bristol and still do. It’s one of my favorite races to watch, but it was one of those deals we didn’t come out on top that, but hey, that’s just how things happened. Doesn’t take long. You get over it. You move on. If you held a grudge about something like that, you’d be miserable. If you held a grudge for every little thing that went wrong. So I was always I didn’t hold grudges.

Larry McReynolds: “I worked with Dale for two seasons of 97-98, a) he loved that racetrack. He loved Daytona, loved Talladega, loved Darlington, but he loved Bristol. I saw it all the years of racing against him. How hard he would run you at that racetrack. My last year as a crew chief, 2000, we were leading the race and probably a straightaway lead. I bet Dale was 50 laps down, and he ran Mike Skinner from the wall to the apron for 20something laps. I finally went down there and about knocked Richard off the pit box. Are you not going to do anything? He looked at me, you tell him to move over, I ain’t telling him. That was just Dale. It didn’t matter if it was for the win. It didn’t matter if it was for 10th, 20th. Or he was 50 laps down, he didn’t discriminate. He raced everybody, even his teammates, just as hard.

“I remember one of the races I was working with him, we got ready to go out for final practice, and he was just about to back out, and I said hold on a minute, hold on a minute. Just sit tight a second. I went digging through the toolbox. He went, “What are you looking for?” I said a hammer. What do you want to do with a hammer? I said I’m going to go ahead and just beat the front end off it because I know that’s what I’m going to go tune to all night probably after Lap 10 or 15 because I know you’re going to beat the nose off and the complain about the way the car is driving. He definitely loved that little old half-mile racetrack.”

Richard Childress: “He wasn’t going to give up. He never gave up. One thing that made Dale so great. I remember talking to him about it. Sitting around at Daytona in a rain deal. I said Dale how in the hell do you go so good them last 50 laps or something. How do you get so strong at the very end? He said I want it worse than the rest of them. So that was the Dale Earnhardt I knew.”

Long: Playoff drought could be coming to an end for one team

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — As cars ran out of fuel Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, Ryan Newman gained positions.

Then his engine sputtered, and he ran out of fuel in Turn 4.

On the final lap.

Newman made it to the finish line without losing any spots. He went from 18th to 12th in the last three laps as others coasted or had to pit for fuel.

Those six spots gained — and six points collected — helped stretch Newman’s lead for one of the final Cup playoff spots. He can help end a significant playoff drought. Newman enters Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) 15th in the standings. Clint Bowyer, who holds the final playoff spot, is 10 points behind Newman.

MORE: Click here for the point standings.

Not since 2006 has the No. 6 team made the Cup playoffs. That car number was the first number Roush Fenway Racing used when it entered NASCAR’s premier series in 1988 with Mark Martin. And it was Martin in the car when it last made the Cup playoffs. Now it’s Newman’s ride and he is three races away from making the playoffs.

“To get into the (playoffs), race our way in throughout the whole season, it would show a huge step for the program,” said crew chief Scott Graves.

The team struggled last year with Trevor Bayne and Matt Kenseth sharing the ride. Graves, who had been Daniel Suarez’s crew chief for the majority of the past two years at Joe Gibbs Racing, joined Newman with the No. 6 team this year.

Topping off for fuel played a key role in Newman’s finish at Michigan. Twenty-seven cars pitted on Lap 150 under caution but Newman returned to pit road the following lap to top off on fuel. Only Newman and teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came back to pit road to top off for fuel on Lap 151

Without that extra fuel, Newman would have run out sooner and lost positions — and points.

Ryan Newman is in a playoff spot with three races left in the regular season. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Newman looks to lead the No. 6 back in the playoffs with a grinding style that has not been pretty but has been productive.

The team has struggled to find speed. Newman has not started better than 16th in the last 15 races. It’s a key reason why Newman has scored 19 stage points in that span.

Newman is ahead of Bowyer, Suarez and Jimmie Johnson in the race for the final two playoff spots. Bowyer (54 stage points), Suarez (23) and Johnson (37) each has more stage points than Newman.

With the deficit on stage points, Newman and his team have had to score solid finishes. That made Graves’ decision to top off for fuel on Lap 151 at Michigan critical.

“We know the guys we’re racing against here, they’ve got the potential on any given weekend to go up there and bust off stage points and potentially win,” Graves said. “Obviously we are working really hard. We are grinding it out and getting the finishes we can to stay in this.

“That’s how we have to race right now. We know that to get in and even get anywhere in the (playoffs) if we do get in, we’ve got to really work on speed to get points.”

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Kevin Harvick revealed after his victory Sunday that he’s been racing with a right shoulder injury this summer.

The shoulder, he said, was not injured in an accident on the track. No, he injured the shoulder throwing a Nerf ball to son Keelan.

“It’s cut into my golf game,” Harvick quipped Sunday on NBCSN’s post-race show.

He later added that the shoulder is “probably 80 percent now. I mean, there was a point when I went to Sonoma that I couldn’t even lift it up. It feels better in the race car than it does  — the worst thing I had to do in the race car was shift.

“My main concern was Watkins Glen, but we got through it. It’s getting close to being back where it needs to be. But it was definitely uncomfortable. The load that these cars put on it is right next to the … it’s right in the spot where it’s not feeling well. So all the load from the shoulder is where it’s been injured. … But it’s fine.”

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Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, William Byron and Bubba Wallace were among the drivers who had conflicts after Watkins Glen and had to address it at Michigan.

Johnson and Blaney traded barbs through the media before eventually meeting in Johnson’s motorhome last Friday night. Busch had meetings with Byron and Wallace.

With the rules package intended to keep cars closer together and blocking more prevalent, additional conflicts are likely to occur toward the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. How one handles those situations could play a role in the final weeks of the season.

Such situations can be challenging, says Brad Keselowski, who had feuds with Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards early in his career. There remains friction with Busch even after Keselowski sought to smooth things between them.

“It wears on you as much as you let it wear on you,” Keselowski said of conflicts with other drivers. “Second, I would say that there are some drivers that handle conflict incredibly well and there are some that don’t. I have never considered myself to be the best at it.

“I will be honest, I do look at videos of guys like Dale Earnhardt. He was in so many situations of conflict and they were easier to deal with in his time and age because of the lack of social media and lack of a 24-hour news cycle and things of that nature. But then on the flip side, he was a master at dealing with it. So I think you look at those guys and you think that probably parlayed into some of the success of his career, so you would be a fool not to study and try to learn from it. In today’s landscape it is harder than ever to handle for sure.”

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Ben Rhodes collected a dubious honor Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.

He ranked fifth in the points — before the standings were reset for the playoff competitors — and failed to make the playoffs. That makes him the driver who has been the highest in points before the standings were reset to miss the postseason in Cup, Xfinity or the Gander Outdoors Truck Series in this current format. 

Rhodes scored more points than playoff drivers Ross Chastain, Austin Hill, Johnny Sauter and Tyler Ankrum. The difference is that in NASCAR’s win-and-you’re-in system, Chastain, Hill, Sauter and Ankrum won this year. Rhodes did not.

Also what makes Rhodes standing unique is that not all the playoff competitors ran all the races or scored points in all the races.

Ankrum was not old enough to compete in the season’s first three races. Sauter was suspended one race when NASCAR penalized him for wrecking Hill at Iowa in June. Chastain started the season running for points in the Xfinity Series and switched to Truck points before the season’s ninth race, which was at Texas in June. That’s why they were behind Rhodes in points.

The Truck playoffs begin Thursday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Bump and Run: Who will earn final playoff spots?

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Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson are fighting for the final two playoff spots (provided someone below them in the points doesn’t win any of the next three races). Which two do you think make the playoffs?

Nate Ryan: Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer.

Dustin Long: Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson.

Daniel McFadin: Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez. Of the four drivers they’re the only two who have produced consistent enough results.

Jerry Bonkowski: Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson. Suarez has had a strong season but hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves. Making the playoffs will be a huge boost for him and his team. Ditto for Johnson. Sure, he hasn’t won in his last 82 starts, but he’s never missed the playoffs. That would be even more embarrassing than remaining winless for the rest of the season.

At this point, who would be your Championship Four in Cup for Miami?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr.

Dustin Long: Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin

Jerry Bonkowski: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.

There are 36 charter teams. Sixteen make the Cup playoffs. That’s 44.4% of the charter teams making the playoffs. Are you OK with that? Or should there be a different number of teams make the playoffs?

Nate Ryan: I’d prefer that the field be limited to 12 drivers and the elimination sets changed to reach the Championship Four (how about eight drivers after Round 1 and six after Round 2?). While the “anybody who gets in can win the championship” argument is appreciated (and with Tony Stewart’s 2011 as a rallying cry), this season in particular seems to have accentuated that there are only so many teams truly worthy of running for a title. While Jimmie Johnson extending his playoff streak and Ryan Newman gritting out a berth are both nice storylines, they are the NASCAR equivalent of 16 seeds.

Dustin Long: It’s too many. But it’s on par with the Truck series where eight of the 19 drivers (42.1%) who have run in at least 80% of the races made the playoffs. And it’s on par with the Xfinity Series where 12 of the 28 drivers (42.9%) who have started at least 80% of the races will be in the playoffs. The 80% marker is used since one Truck driver, Tyler Ankrum, started 81.3% of the regular-season races, missing the first three because he was too young to race on those tracks, and made the playoffs.

Daniel McFadin: I’d be OK if there were only 14 drivers in the Cup playoffs. It would add more drama to the regular season and postseason. Playoff eliminations don’t have to include round numbers in each round. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I’d like to see the playoff structure changed to see the top-20 teams make the playoffs. Then, 10 teams would be eliminated after the fifth playoff race, five others would be eliminated after the penultimate race, leaving five teams/drivers to battle it out in a winner-take-all race in the season finale.

What is your most memorable Bristol memory?

Nate Ryan: As far as races covered there, my first taste of a night race in person – Jeff Gordon bumping Rusty Wallace aside for the win during a 2002 race filled with emotion (Ward Burton’s heel pads, Jimmie Johnson’s obscene gesture, Elliott Sadler’s finger-pointing) – would rank at the top, beating out Carl Edwards’ bump on Kyle Busch in August 2008, Jeff Gordon’s shove of Matt Kenseth in March 2006 and Kurt Busch’s win under duress in August 2003.

Dustin Long: The 1999 night race where Dale Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte but meant only to “rattle his cage” on the last lap. What is most memorable is that several minutes after the race ended, the track played the radio call of the final lap on the PA system and when it got to the point where Earnhardt spun Labonte, boos cascaded from the stands. The stands appeared to be more than half full even then, people not wanting to leave after seeing such a wild finish.

Daniel McFadin: My memory comes from the first time I covered a race at Bristol in 2017 and it doesn’t involve the race itself. While driving to the track, I rounded a corner and suddenly it was in front of me. It just doesn’t make sense that a facility like Bristol exists where it does. Having grown up for 20 years watching Bristol races, it was a surreal moment.

Jerry Bonkowski: The first time I attended the night race at Bristol in 2000 is a memory that will forever stay with me. It was a battle of the senses, sounds, smells and more. Honestly, when cars took the green flag to start the race, the first thing I immediately thought of as I watched the action from pit road was tens of thousands of angry hornets had been released, the sound was deafening and overpowering.

Friday 5: Did driver quit NASCAR race to watch man walk on moon?

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As the celebration of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon 50 years ago takes place Saturday, the event puts a spotlight on NASCAR folklore.

And an independent driver named Henley Gray.

The story goes that Gray pulled off the track and quit the Bristol race so he could return to his Rome, Georgia, home and watch man walk on the moon on July 20, 1969.

Here’s what is known: NASCAR raced that day at Bristol. The Volunteer 500 began at 1:30 p.m. ET. with a field that included Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Buddy Baker among the 32 drivers.

Pearson won. Runner-up Bobby Isaac finished three laps down. Gray placed 15th, completing 206 of 500 laps. The reason he did not finish is listed as “quit.”

The race ended just after 4:30 p.m. ET. The Eagle lunar module with Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the moon at the Sea of Tranquility at 4:17 p.m. ET. Armstrong didn’t step on to the moon until 10:56 p.m. ET.

Based solely on the timeline, the story is possible that Gray quit to watch man walk on the moon.

But there’s a problem.

“That didn’t happen,” Gray told NBC Sports this week. “I don’t know how that got started.”

Gray is 86 “I’ll be 86 and a half next month,“ he said. “Halves count when you get my age.” — and ran 374 Cup races from 1964-77. He never won.

His best finish was fourth at Nashville on July 30, 1966. Petty won the 400-lap race, leading every lap. Petty was followed by Buck Baker (five laps down), Allison (six laps down) and Gray (17 laps down) in a field of 28 cars. Henley went on to finish a career-high fourth in the points that season. It was the only season he placed in the top 10.

Since he wasn’t a “hot dog” as he called the factory-backed drivers of that era, Henley admits he quit some races. As an independent, he had to be wise with his money. Sometimes it wasn’t worth running 100 more laps in hopes of earning another $100 when the wear and tear on the car would be greater. So he packed up and headed to the next race.

“I was having a ball,” Gray said of his career. “I wasn’t making any money, but I was having a ball.”

After a crash at Michigan ended his driving career, Gray remained in the sport as an owner.

Dale Earnhardt drove for Gray in October 1977 at Charlotte. It was Earnhardt’s fourth career Cup start. He finished 38th after a rear end failure 25 laps into the race. Baker drove for Gray at Martinsville in April 1982, finishing 28th. Benny Parsons finished 28th at Daytona in July 1982 in Gray’s car.

Gray goes from one story to the next, recalling his career, laughing at the stories and times with drivers who have since passed.

But he is adamant. He didn’t leave Bristol early to watch man on the moon.

Now, there is one story that is true about Gray looking up to the heavens.

“(One) time, there were three of us on our way from Charlotte going down to Rockingham, an eclipse was going to happen at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” he said. “We pulled over on the side of the road and stood there for a while and watched all the eclipse and got back in the trucks and went on to the race.”

2. NASCAR is watching

Alex Bowman on the roof of his car after winning at Chicagoland Speedway. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Twice in the last three weeks, victory celebrations featured drivers standing on the roof of their car. Alex Bowman did it after he scored his first Cup win three weeks ago at Chicagoland Speedway. Kurt Busch did it last weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

In the early 2000s, NASCAR frowned upon drivers standing on the car’s roof after a victory. NASCAR penalized a team after its roof was found to be too low. It so happened that the team’s driver jumped on the roof after winning. That celebration went away.  

Kurt Busch celebrates his Kentucky win atop his car’s roof. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

What Bowman and Busch did evokes the spontaneity some suggest has been lost because of corporate sponsorship and the need for drivers to thank sponsors before relishing a victory.

Last week also saw five crew members ride on Kurt Busch’s winning car from the start/finish line after his celebration there. The moment was lauded on social media for how it resembled such celebrations decades ago. 

It’s a wonderful image. So is a driver standing on the roof of a car after winning. But both present potential problems for NASCAR.

In an era where a failure in post-race inspection can lead to a disqualification of any car, including the winner, NASCAR has to be mindful of ensuring the vehicle’s integrity while permitting celebrations that fans enjoy. 

On the recent celebrations by Bowman and Busch, a NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports: “Our inspectors are very good at their jobs, so it hasn’t been an issue thus far. We will continue to remind the teams about celebrating responsibly.

We will not hesitate to make a stand if celebrations turn nefarious, but the very recent trends of drivers being human and showing emotion over something they’ve worked so hard for isn’t hurting the integrity of the sport in our opinion.”

3. A new strategy

Since lightning stopped the Daytona race a couple of weeks ago and rain later finished it, some teams are taking a closer look at how they monitor weather.

Previously, many watched radars for when rain would arrive at the track. Now, teams have to be aware of NASCAR’s policy that any lightning strike within an 8-mile radius of the track will stop the action.

While there’s no way to predict when and where lightning will strike, if an approaching storm features lightning, teams will have to be aware of that.

Kurt Busch gave up the lead at Daytona under caution to pit when NASCAR announced that the restart would be on the next lap. Shortly after pitting, lightning struck 6.3 miles from the track and the race was stopped with Justin Haley in the lead. The race never resumed and Haley won.

“I asked NASCAR about their policy and how they handle things and what they look at so we are now making sure we copy everything the same,” Kurt Busch said. “That will help us gauge how to call a better race.”

Said Kyle Busch: “That’s certainly something that we all have to got to look at and think about now.”

Lightning won’t be an issue this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, drivers will have to deal with the heat. Temperatures are expected to be in the 90s this weekend.

4. Beating the Big 3 in Xfinity 

Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick went 1-2-3 last weekend in the Kentucky Xfinity race, continuing their dominance this season. They’ve combined to win 10 of the last 11 races (Ross Chastain‘s win at Daytona was the exception). Twice, the trio took the top three spots in a race (Bristol and Kentucky). In seven of the last 11 races, the trio has taken at least two of the top three spots.

So, who can top them?

Michael Annett finished fourth at Kentucky and said that was a key performance for his JR Motorsports team.

“At least I’m able to be up there and see where they’re better,” said Annett, who won at Daytona and has 12 top 10s in 17 races this season. “I’m at least able to see that now in the race and just be able to put a whole weekend together. That’s what you’re going to have to do to beat those guys.”

Justin Allgaier, who has six top-three finishes this season, also sees the progress Annett, his teammate, sees.

“I felt (at Kentucky) we were way closer to them speed wise than we have been,” said Allgaier, who finished seventh. “We ran right there with (Custer and Bell) for quite a while.”

Allgaier admits that’s something he couldn’t say earlier in the season.

5. Sticky situation  

This marks the second of three consecutive weekends that a traction compound will be applied to a track surface. It was done last weekend at Kentucky, will be done this week at New Hampshire and also will be done at next week at Pocono.

Watkins Glen follows Pocono but the next oval after Pocono is Michigan. There are no plans at this time for Michigan to use the traction compound next month.

Northwest racer Brittney Zamora progressing in K&N West competition

Photo by Nigel Kinrade Photography/NASCAR
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Stock-car racing may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about the Pacific Northwest, but make no mistake, despite being the only region in the continental United States without a NASCAR national series race, the Northwest has produced plenty of talented drivers who achieved success in NASCAR’s highest levels.

Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Mike Bliss and Derrike Cope are all drivers who once called the Northwest home, and Kennewick, Washington’s Brittney Zamora hopes to become the next Northwest racer to become a NASCAR star.

At age 20, Zamora may be a NASCAR K&N West Series rookie, but she enters the series with an impressive racing resume.

Born into a racing family, Zamora began racing karts at age four. She went on to race in the Northwest Super Late Model Series, where she would win Rookie of the Year honors in 2016, and won championships in 2017 and 2018.

Zamora’s success in late models led to the opportunity to drive the No. 99 ENOS/NAPA Filters Toyota for Bill McAnally Racing this season in the West Series, as well as on part-time basis in the East Series. Through seven K&N West Series events, Zamora has four top fives, five top 10s, 26 laps led and one pole.

“It’s been a pretty good start,” Zamora told NBC Sports. “A lot of people have expectations for me to go out there, but my expectations for myself are a little higher. I’m disappointed that we haven’t gotten that win yet.”

Regardless, Zamora believes she’s on the right track. When asked what grade she would give her performance this year, Zamora gave herself “a B+ or an A-.

“For our first year in the series, and with the competition out here, we’ve done really well progressing and achieving our goals,” Zamora said. “We’ve already met a lot of our goals and we’re only halfway through the season. As long as we can keep improving and keep setting those goals and reaching for them, (we’ll be fine).”

Zamora insists she would have never made it into the sport without the help of her racing hero.

“A lot of drivers get asked ‘who’s your biggest idol in racing?’ and they’ll say A.J. Foyt, Dale Earnhardt, one of the guys in the Cup Series or someone like that. Mine would have to be my dad,” Zamora said.

“He is who got me into racing. I went to the racetrack when I was four days old to go watch him with my family. It’s been my whole life. Growing up and seeing him win championships racing super late models, I wanted to follow in his footsteps, and not only have I done that but I went beyond that with his help and support. I wouldn’t be here today without him.”

Brittney’s father, Mike Zamora, raced across the Northwest for more than 20 years. Once it was time for Brittney to move up to those cars, Mike gave up his seat and began serving as her crew chief.

In the K&N West competition, however, Mike finds himself watching his daughter race from a distance. He and Brittney still find plenty of time to talk to each other during race weekends, and Mike offers his daughter advice when she asks for it, but he doesn’t get to be as hands-on with her K&N car as he is in late models.

“I don’t mind it at all, but it was kind of hard to take a step back because with our racing, I’m so involved,” Mike said.

“I’m the crew chief. We’re building the cars ourselves in our garage. With Bill McAnally Racing, they have guys that this is what they’re doing for a living and they’re better at this than I am. It’s hard to just sit back and watch, but I know that she’s in good hands.”

Though it is too early to predict how her racing career will turn out, she is on the right track to hone her racing skills.

“I’ve thought about this my whole life because I want racing to be my career,” Zamora said. “I don’t want a normal job. I want to be in a race car. Holding a steering wheel is my profession.”

“The Cup Series would be great. It’s the highest level of stock car racing there is, but honestly if I could make a career out of racing ARCA, Trucks, or Xfinity, I would be happy. As long as I’m in a race car competing every weekend, that would be nice.”

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