Daniel Smith

Photo: Dustin Long

Kevin Harvick’s rear tire changer sidelined by cancer treatment

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Daniel Smith, rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team, left a hospital Saturday afternoon after surgery this week as part of his cancer treatment.

Smith, who had the planned surgery Thursday, told NBC Sports through a team spokesperson that he should be back in four to six weeks. The Cup playoffs begin in four weeks at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

It was shortly before the Bristol night race last year that doctors discovered Smith had testicular cancer. He spent the day before that race undergoing scans, blood work and other tests to determine if the cancer had spread. Doctors found that the cancer had infected two lymph nodes in his lower abdomen and also saw a spot on his lung that was concerning.

Daniel Smith, rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team, was released from a hospital Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Dustin Long)

Two days after last year’s Bristol night race, Smith had surgery to remove the tumor in his testicle. After a few weeks to heal, he began chemotherapy treatments. Each round consisted of one week in a hospital and two weeks of recovery. He had four rounds (12 weeks) of treatments. Smith returned to the track to watch Harvick compete in the championship race in Miami last year and then was back to changing tires at Daytona in February.

Thursday’s surgery is expected to be the final one Smith needs. Tonight’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is the first he’s missed this season. He stated through a team spokesperson that he walked a mile in the hospital Friday and again on Saturday before his release.

Harvick, who won last weekend at Michigan, starts eighth in tonight’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Kevin Harvick’s rear tire changer returns to pit road after cancer treatments

Photo: Dustin Long
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. —  Daniel Smith stepped up to the pit wall to no fanfare. Those around Kevin Harvick’s stall focused on the cars heading toward pit road during Sunday’s Clash at Daytona instead of on the 34-year-old father of three young children.

The fans missed Smith crouch as Harvick’s car approached, then spring off the wall once the car stopped. Smith changed the right rear wheel, sprinted around the car’s rear to the left side and changed that wheel.

He was done in seconds.

Only a couple of hours earlier, the thought of doing something so common in a NASCAR race nearly brought Smith to tears.

Diagnosis

The call came the week of the Bristol night race last August, just two months after the birth of Smith’s third child.

Smith had cancer.

“Me and my wife sat on the living room floor and cried our eyes out,” he said.

Smith’s doctor couldn’t say to what extent Smith had cancer and if it had spread. More tests were needed. Smith’s mind raced.

“I just wanted to be alive to raise my kids,” said Smith, whose oldest child is 4 years old.

Rear tire changer Daniel Smith sprints during a pit stop in Sunday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway. Photo by Dustin Long

Smith spent the day before the Bristol race undergoing scans, blood work and other tests to determine if his testicular cancer had spread.

It had.

The cancer had infected two lymph nodes in his lower abdomen and doctors also saw a spot on Smith’s lung that was concerning. The cancer was not found anywhere else.

About 24 hours later, Smith stood on the pit wall at Bristol Motor Speedway to pit Harvick’s car that night. Smith knew it could be the last time he would pit the car in a while, maybe ever.

The previous weekend Smith had been in Victory Lane after Harvick’s win at Michigan. Now Smith prepared for an uncertain future.

Recovery

Two days after the Bristol race, Smith was in surgery so doctors could remove the tumor from one of his testicles. After a few weeks to heal, chemotherapy treatments began.

Each round of treatment consisted of one week in a hospital and two weeks of recovery. Doctors ordered four rounds — 12 weeks — of this treatment.

“You can’t leave the unit,” Smith said of when he was in the hospital. “You’re hooked up either to a chemo cord or your IV all day long

Daniel Smith watches the start of Sunday’s Clash. Photo by Dustin Long

“After that first round, you don’t feel so bad. Each round, they knock you down a little bit more. You don’t get time to build all the way back up to where you were so each round got a little bit tougher.”

All the fluids made him gain weight. The chemo sapped his strength and soon his hair was falling out.

Smith soon could no longer do 10 push-up before quitting.

That was tough on the athletic Smith, who joined what was then Haas-CNC Racing in 2004 and worked his way to the pit crew. He remained with the team when it was renamed Stewart-Haas Racing and was a pit crew member on Tony Stewart’s 2011 championship team. Smith and his teammates were moved to Kevin Harvick’s team shortly before the 2014 Chase and helped Harvick win the title that year.

Smith focused on returning to the pit crew for 2019. He worked out as best he could when he was in the hospital and at home.

“It was a lot of days of just not feeling like doing anything, but I knew I needed to and just pushed myself,” he said.

Daytona

As Smith recovered, the NASCAR season continued. Harvick advanced to the Championship 4 at Miami. Smith went to that race in hopes of celebrating another title but Joey Logano won the race and the championship.

Smith’s recovery continued in the offseason as he rebuilt the strength.

After arriving at Daytona on Sunday, all that he had done to get to that day hit him.

“Just the journey,” Smith said, his voice quivering. “I get emotional now thinking about it. Everything that me and my family has gone through to get to this point and all the people that have helped us. I’ll be thinking about all those people that were so gracious to us and helped us out and being with my guys. My guys are like my brothers.

“It’s going to be me holding back tears, but they’re going to be good tears.”

One more challenge

Although Smith has returned to pit Harvick’s car, he will miss some races later this spring. Doctors want to remove the two lymph nodes that the cancer infected. The plan is to have those removed in either March or April. The operation will enhance his chances of a full recovery.

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Viewers guide to Miami Championship Weekend

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Sunday will be a life-changing day for one driver. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano will race for the Cup championship in Miami (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC and NASCAR Hot Pass on NBCSN).

Harvick, Busch and Truex look to become the 16th driver in NASCAR history to win multiple Cup championships. Logano seeks his first series title.

“It’s just one of the greatest joys in the world,” Busch said of winning a NASCAR Cup title.

While one will celebrate Sunday, the other three will experience what Busch calls “one of the greatest defeats in the world.”

Here’s a guide to the final weekend of the NASCAR season:

FAMILIAR FACES

Kyle Busch races for a championship for the fourth consecutive year after failing to advance to the title race in 2014, the first year of the elimination format.

Kevin Harvick makes his fourth appearances in the championship race in five years. This is reigning champion Martin Truex Jr.’s third appearance. Joey Logano also makes his third appearance.

The four drivers have combined to win more than 60 percent of the races this season — the first time the Championship 4 drivers have won more than half the races in a season in the elimination format. They also rank first through fourth in top fives and laps led this year. This is clearly the best four for the title this season.

FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT

When one races around each other enough, things happen and drivers never forget.

Joey Logano upset Martin Truex Jr. by bumping him out of the way on the last lap to win at Martinsville last month. Had Logano not won that day he would not have advanced to the championship race.

Logano said he was doing what he had to win that day. Asked how he’d retaliate, Truex said: “I’m just not going to let him win (the title). I’m going to win it.”

Logano and Busch have their history in this race. Busch was upset with how Logano raced him at the end of the race last year.

“He held me up,” Busch said of Logano after last year’s title race. “He was there blocking every single chance he got. Got a real buddy there.”

Of course, it was March 2017 at Las Vegas when Kyle Busch walked up to Joey Logano and threw a punch at him for a last-lap incident between the two.

Harvick bumped Busch out of the lead with seven laps to go to win at New Hampshire in July. Said Busch after the race: “I’m not sure he (Harvick) had to do it, but he did. It’s fine. How you race is how you get raced.”

MUST-WIN SITUATION

In the first four years of this format, the champion had to win the race to claim the crown.

Logano is still haunted by the 2016 race. He restarted third on the inside line behind Carl Edwards with eight laps left. Logano dived low to get by Edwards, who blocked. They made contact, triggering a multi-car crash. While Logano was able to continue, he could not get to the lead again and finished fourth.

“Every time I watch that race, I get so mad I slam my laptop closed,” Logano said. “That moment will forever be burned into my mind of how close we were to winning a championship that day, but we’ve got another opportunity to right that, so here we go.”

The streak of a champion needing to win the race at this 1.5-mile track is likely to continue. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have combined to win 16 of the last 20 races on 1.5-mile tracks.

LAST RIDE TOGETHER

Sunday’s race marks the final race for Furniture Row Racing. The team, based in Denver, Colorado, is shutting down after this season.

Furniture Row Racing, owned by Barney Visser, made its Cup debut in 2005. The team did not compete in every Cup race until 2010. Furniture Row Racing scored its first Cup victory in 2011 when Regan Smith won the Southern 500. That was the organization’s only win until Martin Truex Jr. won in 2015 at Pocono. Truex has won 17 races with the team.

“We understand it’s here, (this) week is our last week, but it’s cool that we’re going to Homestead with a chance to win it in his last race,” Truex said.

Said Visser: “For me personally, my emotions are all over the board. I am sad not to be able to continue. I am going to miss the guys for sure, miss this whole thing. I don’t know what it’s going to feel like exactly when it’s over. And I don’t know what the emotions will be like when the Daytona 500 rolls around next year and we’re not in it. I just don’t know how emotional it will be. I am afraid it will be enormous.”

The team’s hauler left the shop late Tuesday night for its trip to Miami. It was an emotional time for the team.

“I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotional it was (Tuesday) night when we loaded up,” crew chief Cole Pearn said. “I think we’ve just been head down, kind of pushing super hard, trying to do everything we can to get ready for this weekend, and once it was in the truck and saw the lift gate up, there was a lot of tears shed and a lot of sad faces, and I think all of us really realized that that was the last time we were going to do it together as a group.”

NEW (OLD) FACE ON THE PIT BOX

Tony Gibson, who is nicknamed “Old Man,” will be Kevin Harvick’s crew chief again this weekend in place of Rodney Childers, who was suspended the final two races by NASCAR for an infraction found on Harvick’s winning car at Texas.

That the 54-year-old Gibson is on the pit box is a story itself. He suffered a blood clot July 6.

“I was actually just driving home from work and just had a real, I just could not get my brain to function with my hands and my feet, and I could not drive any further and knew something was wrong,” Gibson said. “Just wasn’t sure, and ended up going to the emergency room and put me in for observation that night, and then about one in the morning they came back and they had done several scans and told me I had a blood clot in my vertebral artery.”

He said he was in the hospital for a little more than a week before being released. As the blood clot dissolved, it caused a mini stroke. He returned to the hospital. Gibson said he lost about 85 percent of the hearing in his left ear and most of the function in his left eye. He’s been doing rehab and returned to work Aug. 20.

Gibson has an appointment scheduled with his neurologist Friday but will miss it because he will be in Miami, leading Harvick’s team.

“I was very lucky, and I don’t take that for granted,” Gibson said. “There’s a lot of people out there that are way worse than me, so it’s just something that I’ll overcome and I’ll get used to it and go on.”

TIME TO SAY GOODBYE

There will be many changes after Sunday’s race, particularly among drivers.

Matt Kenseth does not have plans to race next season, so Sunday’s race looks to be his final Cup race.

Daniel Suarez will run his last race for Joe Gibbs Racing. He is being replaced by Martin Truex Jr. after this season. Suarez has not announced where he’ll drive next year but is expected to sign with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Kurt Busch will drive his final Cup race for Stewart-Haas Racing. His seat is expected to be filled by Suarez. Busch is expected to move to Chip Ganassi Racing and replace Jamie McMurray, who has an offer from car owner Chip Ganassi to drive in next year’s Daytona 500 before moving to a position in the front office.

Ryan Newman will run his final race for Richard Childress Racing and move to Roush Fenway Racing to drive the No. 6 car next season. Newman will be replaced by RCR Xfinity driver Daniel Hemric.

Matt DiBenedetto will drive his final race for Go Fas Racing. DiBenedetto moves to Leavine Family Racing to drive the No. 95 next year. Go Fas Racing has not announced a driver for next year.

AJ Allmendinger will drive his final race for JTG Daugherty Racing this weekend. He will be replaced by rookie Ryan Preece next season in the No. 47 car. Allmendinger has not announced plans for next year.

This also will be the final weekend seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson races with crew chief Chad Knaus. They’ve been together since Johnson’s rookie year in 2002 but will split after this season. Knaus will be the crew chief for William Byron next year. Kevin Meendering will be Johnson’s crew chief next year.

PIT CREW CHANGES

Kevin Harvick’s team announced this week that it is changing its rear tire changer.

Chris McMullen, who had been teammate Aric Almirola’s rear tire changer all season, moves to Harvick’s team this week and replaces Michael Johnson.

The move was made because Almirola was eliminated from title contention last weekend at Phoenix. McMullen becomes the team’s third rear tire changer this season. Daniel Smith had the role until health issues forced him out. Johnson took over at the Southern 500.

That’s not the only team that has made changes in the playoffs. After teammate Ryan Blaney was eliminated last month at Kansas, his jackman, Graham Stoddard, went to Joey Logano’s team.

“That group has been stellar,” crew chief Todd Gordon said of the revamped unit. “If you look at Martinsville, I would give them a fair amount of credit for putting us in position to win that race.”

Kyle Busch’s team changed fuelers before last weekend’s race at Phoenix. John Eicher moved over from Erik Jones‘ team in a temporary role. He filled in for Matthew Tyrrell, who stayed home on baby watch. Crew chief Adam Stevens said that he had not heard as of Wednesday if Tyrrell’s baby had arrived but said that Tyrrell would be in Miami with the team and resume his fueling duties.

Martin Truex Jr.’s team has had the same pit crew since Richmond, the second playoff race. Clay Robinson had been a backup front tire changer at Joe Gibbs Racing and moved over to Truex’s team, which gets its pit crew from JGR.

ONE LAST CHANCE

Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson, drivers who each won last year, have a final chance to score their first victory of this season.

Johnson has scored at least one win in 16 consecutive season, which is tied for the third-longest streak in series history (Richard Petty has the record at 18 consecutive seasons).

Hamlin has scored at least one victory in 12 consecutive seasons, which ranks 13th on the all-time Cup list.

Larson has finished runner-up six times this year but has yet to win. He’s had at least one win in each of the past two seasons.

NEW TIRE

Cup and Xfinity teams will have a new left-side tire this weekend compared to what was run in Miami last year.

The left-side tire features a construction update. It is the same left-side tire teams ran at Chicagoland in July. The multi-zone right-side tires have not changed since last year. Cup and Xfinity teams have run this combination of left- and right-side tires at Auto Club Speedway in March and at Chicagoland Speedway in July.

“Because of the high wear we see, these compounds provide the endurance and tread wear needed for Homestead’s track surface, while at the same time giving the cars enough grip,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing.

TWO OTHER CHAMPIONSHIPS AT STAKE

The Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series also will crown their champions this weekend.

The Truck series will race Friday. Former champion Johnny Sauter, Brett Moffitt, Justin Haley and Noah Gragson will compete for the title.

The Xfinity Series will race Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Hemric will compete for the crown. Custer won this race last year but was not eligible to win the championship, having been eliminated from title contention earlier in the playoffs.

The 23-year-old Bell, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, won the Truck series title last year.

Kevin Harvick’s team makes pit crew change for championship race

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Kevin Harvick‘s pit crew will have a new rear tire changer for Sunday’s championship race in Miami (3 p.m. ET on NBC), NBC Sports has confirmed.

Chris McMullen, who has been Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola‘s rear tire changer all season, will go to Harvick’s team in that role this weekend. The move was made since Almirola was eliminated from title contention last weekend at Phoenix.

Michael Johnson goes from being the rear tire changer on Harvick’s team to Almirola’s team. Johnson has been Harvick’s rear tire changer since the Southern 500, replacing Daniel Smith, who has been out because of health issues.

Harvick will race Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. for the championship. Harvick seeks his second Cup title, having won the crown in 2014 in his first year at SHR.

This will be the second consecutive weekend the No. 4 team will be without crew chief Rodney Childers on the pit box and car chief Robert Smith with the team. Both are serving two-race suspensions for an infraction NASCAR discovered after Harvick’s Texas win. Tony Gibson served as the crew chief at Phoenix and will do so again this weekend for the team.

 

Two Cup playoff teams make pit crew changes for Darlington

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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DARLINGTON, S.C. – The playoff teams of Kevin Harvick and Erik Jones each will have a different pit crew lineup for Sunday’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Michael Johnson will be the rear tire changer for Harvick’s team, replacing Daniel Smith this weekend. It will be Johnson’s first weekend with the team, which has won a series-high seven points races and also won the All-Star Race this season. This is the team’s second change with the pit crew this year. Shayne Pipala became the team’s front tire changer at New Hampshire in July.

Erik Jones’ pit crew has two changes this weekend. Brad Donaghy will be the team’s tire carrier, replacing Matt Ver Meer. Trey Burklin will be the team’s jackman, replacing Bailey Walker. These are the first changes to the Joe Gibbs Racing team’s pit crew this year.

“This is the time to make changes for the (playoffs) and evaluate it,” crew chief Chris Gayle told NBC Sports of the moves.

Also, the pit crew for Daniel Suarez, who is seeking to make the playoffs, will have a change. Brian Eastland will be the new front tire changer, replacing Clay Robinson on the Joe Gibbs Racing team. This is the second change of the pit crew this season for the team. Graham Molatch became the team’s jackman at Pocono in June. He replaced Burklin, who started the season as that team’s jackman.