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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.

Friday 5: The impact Alex Bowman’s win had on a fellow competitor

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Seven words transported Landon Cassill through time and space last weekend.

After Alex Bowman retreated from the roof of his car at Chicagoland Speedway, celebrating his first career Cup win, he said of the triumph: “It’s all I’ve wanted my whole life.”

Those words struck Cassill.

“I’ve said the same thing a lot,” Cassill said Thursday, walking from the Xfinity garage to the Cup garage as he competes in both events this weekend at Daytona International Speedway. “If I could win just one race. I’ve thought that to myself.

“I think that hit me because I saw myself as (Bowman) winning that race. Then it kind of made me think about everything it takes from the time you are a little kid and everything that somebody like Alex Bowman or myself has had to do in his career.”

Landon Cassill says that Alex Bowman’s win provides ‘a tremendous amount of hope’ that a driver can climb up to a race-winning ride. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Every driver’s journey is different. Cassill was hired as a development driver for Hendrick Motorsports before he graduated high school in Iowa. He served as a test driver, helping the team develop the Car of Tomorrow. Cassill drove for JR Motorsports in 19 of 35 Xfinity races in 2008 but then ran only one Xfinity race the following season.

He moved to Cup in 2010. His 16 races were spread among three low-budget teams. Much of his career has been with such operations. Cassill, who turns 30 Sunday, has driven for four Cup teams that since have folded.

Still, he’s made 305 Cup starts but has never won. His best finish was fourth at Talladega on Oct. 19, 2014. Combined with Xfinity and the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Cassill has made 440 starts in NASCAR national series. He continues to seek his first win in any of those series.

So when Bowman — whose first 71 Cup starts were with an organization that since has folded — won last weekend, the significance wasn’t lost on Cassill.

He tweeted about how he’s seen Bowman’s journey up close and how “there’s a lot of racecar drivers that felt that win.”

Bowman gives those racers hope, showing that one can climb from the depths of the sport to reach Victory Lane.

“It’s a tremendous amount of hope,” Cassill said of Bowman’s feat. “It’s a reminder to me, you still need massive support to get there, but it was hope that you still need to fight for the kind of support.”

Bowman saw Cassill’s tweet and appreciated the comments.

“Him and I raced each other a lot in the back half of the garage over the years,” Bowman said. “He’s obviously super good and does a lot with a little. You look at guys like Ross Chastain that have kind of had a similar career path. I feel like the back half of the garage doesn’t get the credit they deserve sometimes.”

It’s challenging to move up from the back half of the field. After losing his ride, Bowman was hired by Hendrick Motorsports to be its simulator driver. There were no races with that deal, but it led to nine starts for JR Motorsports, then to substitute for Dale Earnhardt Jr. after he missed the last half of the 2016 season because of a concussion. Bowman took over Earnhardt’s ride in 2018 after Earnhardt retired.

That Bowman’s victory happened just before Cassill’s 4-year-old son drove a go-kart for the first time also made Cassill pause.

“I was looking at a 4-year old,” he said, “and I’m like ‘Man, kid, there’s just no telling what it’s going to take to win just one race.’ ”

Bowman knows.

2. End of an era

This weekend marks the last time Daytona International Speedway is scheduled to host a Cup race on or near July 4. The track has held its race around that time every year but one since 1959. The exception was 1998 when wildfires forced the event to be rescheduled for October. Next year, Daytona will host the regular-season finale on Aug. 29.

In 1949, NASCAR’s inaugural season, the series raced on the beach at Daytona on July 10. When the track opened in 1959, the July 4 date became a staple.

While some view this as a significant weekend because of the date change next year, Clint Bowyer doesn’t see it that way.

“It’s a race, man,” Bowyer said. “I hate to say it. I hope this doesn’t rub someone the wrong way and me saying this, but it’s almost like don’t claim Fourth of July. That’s not the Fourth of July Daytona race. It’s the Fourth of Damn July. Make no mistake about it.

Richard Petty’s 200th and final career Cup race came in the July Daytona race in 1984. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

“I don’t like having to be there practicing Thursday at Daytona. I feel like we’re asking our fans to be there as well. If we’re on the racetrack, that means you’re asking fans to be there. I don’t want it to take away from their Fourth of July.

“I got a family, I got kids. Everybody likes to come over to my house. And unfortunately, that’s going to be a Wednesday night show instead of on the Fourth. Still you could go down then and still put on a show. In my opinion, Daytona stands on its own two feet and it always will. It doesn’t need Fourth of July to be a part of that. Daytona is a celebration all of its own.”

Ryan Blaney said: “I always liked having the Daytona race that weekend, but at the end of the day, it is just a weekend and just a race, and you can move it to whatever date you want. As long as you are going there, you know you are going to a very special racetrack. I always enjoy it being on the weekend of the Fourth.”

But Daytona isn’t the only track to host a Cup race on July 4. Oswego, New York (1952), Spartanburg, South Carolina (1953), Weaverville, North Carolina (1954) and Raleigh, North Carolina (1956-58) also have held races with NASCAR’s top series on July 4.

David Pearson has the most Cup wins on July 4 with five. Tony Stewart and Cale Yarborough scored four wins each on or around July 4.

3. A new idea

Ty Dillon has expressed many ideas on ways the sport can engage fans. With NASCAR’s help, he had a link to a camera in his car at Sonoma that immersed fans in his world during the race.

“I just think the basis of that idea was to have live-streaming cameras in every single race car,” Dillon said. “We can afford that in this sport and whoever wants to do it can do it. That way, we can maybe live stream from each driver’s personal account, team’s account or it can vary week to week. This is to drive fan engagement to certain sponsors, teams and add value that way.”

Dillon wants to do more. He wants drivers to have the ability to respond to fans during a race. He’s willing to extend a stage break caution to do so.

“Drivers, owners, race teams, TV providers all have to understand the importance that we have to open our minds to the fact that between stages is just as important to the future of the sport to communicate to our fans as it is to get in the right call of information,” Dillon said. “Yes, you have to get the right information into our crew chief first, but we can maybe take an extra pace lap under caution for a social lap.”

It’s an interesting concept. Maybe there will come a day where competitors will take an extra lap of caution during stage breaks to answer questions from fans.

4. Not looking back

Justin Haley crossed the finish line first in this Xfinity race a year ago at Daytona International Speedway but was penalized for going below the double yellow lines at the bottom of the track to get by Kyle Larson and Elliott Sadler to cross the finish line first.

As he returns for tonight’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), he’s seeking to forget last year’s finish.

“I was more upset with myself and disappointed in myself,” Haley said of that finish. “I’ve never watched the race back. I’ve never seen the finish. I probably won’t watch the race still. It’s just a sore subject for myself. I’m upset that I let my team down and my family down more than anything.”

Even though he has not watched the end of that race, Haley showed Friday he had not forgotten what he calls his first Xfinity win, tweeting about the finish.

5. Tough trick

Only once since 1983 has a driver won both Daytona races in the same season. Jimmie Johnson performed the trick in 2013.

Why is it so much more difficult to sweep at Daytona and Talladega than other tracks?

Let Denny Hamlin, who is going for the sweep Saturday (7 p.m. ET Saturday) after winning the Daytona 500, explain.

“The reason it’s so hard is it’s not about a fast car,” Hamlin said. “It’s not like you can hit on a setup at a racetrack and sweep both races. You see that a lot in a season. Whoever wins the first race at say Pocono or Martinsville, or Richmond, they’ve won that race because they have hit on a setup and their car is fast. When they go back there, they use those notes and they are going to be fast again.

“At Daytona, it’s not setup driven. It is strategic that you really have to make yourself a great race-car driver here. It’s just putting yourself in the right position here at the right time and avoiding the wrecks. It’s hard enough to win one, let alone two, because of all of the variables. It’s so hard to do. The odds are stacked so far against you. That’s why you don’t see it happen very often.”

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David Ragan honoring David Pearson with Southern 500 scheme

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David Ragan‘s car for this year’s Southern 500 (Sept. 1 on NBCSN) will have a paint scheme honoring three-time Cup champion David Pearson.

Ragan’s No. 38 Ford will be based on the No. 17 Ford Torino that Pearson won his last championship with in 1969. That year Pearson won 11 Cup races. Ten of Pearson’s 105 Cup wins came at Darlington.

MORE: The announced paint schemes for the 2019 Southern 500

Ragan’s car, which was unveiled at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, will be sponsored by the Shriners Hospitals for Children network.

Pearson, who passed away in November at 83, was a member of the Shriners, as is Ragan.

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Friday 5: Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski add to their history of duels

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Kyle Busch’s victory last weekend at Pocono Raceway was more memorable for his disdain with being asked about the aerodynamic package raced there, but overlooked was that rival Brad Keselowski finished second.

The history between Busch and Keselowski is long, tense and filled with biting comments and bent sheet metal.

But it also is marked by how often they run next to each other at the front.

Pocono marked the 11th time in Cup that Busch and Keselowski have finished first and second in a race. Keselowski has won seven of those races, but Busch has been the victor in the last two instances (Pocono 2019 and last November’s race at ISM Raceway).

Only one other matchup among active drivers has had more 1-2 finishes. Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick have finished first and second 14 times with Johnson winning 12 of those races. After finishing second to Johnson at Auto Club Speedway in 2010, Harvick memorably said: “Jimmie is a good friend of mine, but there’s no denying how lucky they are. They have a golden horseshoe stuck up their a–.”

Of course, the gold standard in 1-2 finishes is Richard Petty and David Pearson. They ran first and second 63 times. Pearson won 33 times to Petty’s 30.

Here’s a look at most 1-2 finishes among active Cup drivers heading into this weekend’s race at Michigan International Speedway:

14 — Jimmie Johnson (12 wins) vs. Kevin Harvick (2)

11 — Brad Keselowski (7 wins) vs. Kyle Busch (4)

10 — Kyle Busch (5 wins) vs. Kevin Harvick (5)

7 — Jimmie Johnson (5 wins) vs. Kyle Busch (2)

7 — Martin Truex Jr. (4 wins) vs. Kevin Harvick (3)

7 — Denny Hamlin (4 wins) vs. Jimmie Johnson (3)

2. Optimism for a better race

The belief among some in the garage is that this weekend at Michigan could provide some of the same type of racing that fans saw last month at Kansas Speedway – racing that drew more positive reviews than last weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway.

“I think it’s going to look somewhat like Kansas,” said Alex Bowman, who finished second to Brad Keselowski in that race. “I think Kansas and Michigan are the two tracks that complement this package the most.

“It’s probably not going to be as double-file as Kansas, just because Kansas has widened out so much more than Michigan has. If you look at the Xfinity race last year with that package, it was a pretty good race I thought. I think it was very interesting how you had to work the air. I’m looking forward to that; I think it’s going to be a really good race for the fans.”

Erik Jones placed third at Kansas and also thinks the racing this weekend could mirror what took place at Kansas.

“Obviously the track is not as wide groove-wise, but as far as the throttle you’re going to carry and the racing you’re going to see, I’d say similar to Kansas,” Jones said. “I feel like it’s going to be really packed up a majority of the time. You’re going to see guys getting big runs and making big moves. There’s probably going to be some big wrecks. I don’t know. It’s going to be fun.

“By yourself, you’re probably going to be pretty easily wide open, which is kind of unexciting, but as you get into the race and get into a pack, it makes it pretty eventful.”

3. Preferable schedule

While the focus on schedules often is on where NASCAR is or isn’t or where it should be, there’s been a change the past couple of weeks.

Last week’s Pocono schedule was changed to have both Cup practices Friday and qualifying moved to Saturday. That meant that Cup cars were only on the track Saturday for their qualifying effort.

Michigan has adopted the same schedule this weekend.

“I think it’s great,” Chase Elliott said last weekend of the change at Pocono. “We’re supposed to be the best at what we do, and I don’t know why we practice for hours on end, anyway. So, whatever they want to let us do is great.

“It just separates the guys who belong and the guys who are good and the guys who aren’t, you know? Again, you have a certain amount of time. Everybody has the same about of time. And, you just make the most of whatever you have and try to get it as good as possible for Sunday.”

4. Streak ends

Ross Chastain will see his record streak of consecutive starts across NASCAR’s top three national series at the beginning of a season end this weekend.

The streak will end at 36 after Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Michigan International Speedway. He is not entered in Sunday’s Cup race (Garrett Smithley is in the No. 15 Premium Motorsports ride Chastain has been in this year).

Earlier this week, Chastain announced that he was declaring Truck points instead of Xfinity points. Drivers are allowed to declare for only a series at a time but can switch however often and whenever they want.

Chastain enters tonight’s Texas Truck race with zero points — because he didn’t declare Truck points earlier. He’ll likely need to win to make the playoffs (his Kansas win doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility since he hadn’t declared for Truck points at the time) and be in the top 20 in points when the regular season ends.

5. Streak buster?

Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske enter this weekend having won 13 of the 14 points races in Cup. Neither organization has won in the past five races at Michigan. Kyle Larson has three wins for Chip Ganassi Racing during that time. Stewart-Haas Racing won the other two races, both last year, with Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick.

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Kyle Busch aims for third straight Richmond win

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If anyone should be happy about the current Cup schedule, it’s Kyle Busch.

The month of April has Busch getting to visit his two of his best tracks in consecutive weekends.

A week after earning his eighth victory at Bristol Motor Speedway – the most victories he has at any Cup track – Busch will get the chance to follow it up at Richmond Raceway.

The .750-mile track has been the site of six of Busch’s 54 Cup wins, the most for Busch at a track after Bristol. Now, Busch will try to win his third straight Richmond race.

Should he do that, he’d be the fourth Cup driver to win three or more races in a row at Richmond and the first since Bobby Allison (1982-83).

Busch would join Allison, David Pearson (three wins, 1965-66) and Richard Petty’s seven in a row from 1970-73.

In this race last year, Busch started from the rear for unapproved adjustments and led 32 laps to claim the win.

“I always looking forward to Richmond,” Busch said in a media release. “Obviously, last year was really good for us there, even though we didn’t have the best car there in the spring, (crew chief) Adam (Stevens) and the pit crew guys were able to put me in a good position to win and we capitalized on that, as well. Certainly want to keep the momentum rolling from last week and really the start of the season for us, keep that top-10 streak going, too.”

Busch has finished in the top 10 in all eight races this year, something not done since Terry Labonte in 1992.

At Richmond, Busch has one finish outside the top 10 in his last seven starts.

Busch said Richmond is “getting a little trickier” due to the combination of its aging race surface and the current Cup car.

“The consensus at Richmond is, of course, just trying to get your car to turn, but also having really good forward bite,” Busch said. “You have to be able to get off the corners at Richmond. You have to have good brakes, as well, and be able to turn the center. All of it correlates.

“Everything you want as a racecar driver, you’ve got to have (the) most of all of it and, if you don’t, then you better hope you have more forward bite than the rest of them. That’s sort of the equation of Richmond. It’s a fun place to race. It’s really cool. As a driver, you wish it could widen out and give you more options of being able to run around in different grooves, but it hasn’t shown us that the last couple of years.”

While Busch will attempt to earn his fourth win of the year, he’ll also look to continue the dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske to open the season.

The two teams are the only organizations to earn wins this year, with JGR claiming five to Penske’s three.

Their command of victory lane also stretches over Richmond.

JGR and Penske have combined to win eight of the last 10 races there.  JGR has five wins and Penske has three.