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Garrett Smithley, Stephen Leicht to compete for JD Motorsports in Xfinity

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JD Motorsports continues to fill out its driver lineup for the 2019 Xfinity season with announcements that Garrett Smithley and Stephen Leicht will compete for the team.

Smithley, 26, returns to drive for the team for the fourth consecutive year. He will pilot the No. 0 Chevrolet.

The Feb. 16 season-opener at Daytona International Speedway will be his 100th series start.

“I’ve been working hard this offseason to make my fourth year with JDM the best ever, I think it will be,” Smithley said in a press release. “I’m so blessed to be given the opportunity to race here by Johnny and all my sponsors. Daytona will be my 100th Xfinity start and all but two of those races have been at JDM. It’s an amazing race team and family, and I can’t wait to get this season going.”

Leicht, 32, is set to drive the No. 01 Chevrolet in his first full-time season since 2007 with Robert Yates Racing. That season he won his only NASCAR race at Kentucky Speedway.

Daytona will also be his 100th series start.

“I’m super stoked about my opportunity to drive for Johnny Davis,” Leicht said in a press release. “He has competitive cars with smart people in his stable and I’m looking forward to seeing what the season brings.”

Jani-King will be an associate sponsor of Leicht this season.

“Stephen is a great talent to have in our arsenal this season at JD Motorsports,” owner Johnny Davis said in a press release. “With his experience spanning nearly ten years in the series, we are confident that he will be able to take care of his equipment, which as we all know is very important for family teams. I am genuinely looking forward to seeing how he can improve our operations this season with all the knowledge he brings to the team.”

The announcements for Smithley and Leicht follow the news that Ross Chastain will return to drive the No. 4 Chevrolet in 30 races, in addition to competing in three races for Kaulig Racing.

New NASCAR Cup team owners invest in minor league hockey team

Spire Sports + Entertainment
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You might say that the newest NASCAR Cup team owner is now in a Rush.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which recently purchased the Cup charter of former NASCAR championship team Furniture Row Racing, has branched out, taking a minority ownership share in the Rapid City (South Dakota) Rush of the 27-team East Coast Hockey League.

Spire co-founders Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr will become active minority partners in the Rush, hoping to bring the team back to past prominence.

“We aren’t going to be saviors here,” Spire co-founder Jeff Dickerson said in a press conference at the team’s Rushmore Plaza Civic Center home. “There’s no magic bullet. It’s going to take all of us to create the culture that builds excitement and value. The city loves the Rush and we hope to get it back to where it was.”

Rush majority owner, Rapid City businessman Scott Mueller, sees better days ahead for his club.

“The biggest thing is (Spire’s) sports industry knowledge,” Mueller said, according to the Rapid City Journal. “It’s about putting people in seats, selling advertising and they have a lot of knowledge on that. (Dickerson) sees so many venues, and I think he’s going to be involved in changes that are needed.

“We’ve taken some steps in the last few months. These are great days for us, and we’re really excited about our future.”

The Rush is mired in sixth place in the ECHL’s seven-team Mountain Division.

In addition to purchasing Furniture Row Racing’s charter, Spire represents several race car drivers including NASCAR’s Kyle Larson, Landon Cassill, Ross Chastain, Justin Haley, Todd Gilliland, Garrett Smithley and Vinnie Miller and IndyCar’s James Hinchcliffe.

Spire isn’t the only NASCAR Cup team owner involved in other sports. Roush Fenway Racing’s co-owner John Henry owns Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox and the Liverpool Football Club of soccer’s Premier League, while Chip Ganassi previously was a minority owner in MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates. Felix Sabates, who also holds a minority ownership stake in Chip Ganassi Racing, is also a minority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

“We have been looking for several years to find something in minor league sports and see if what we do in motorsports translates to this space,” Puchyr said, according to The Journal. “Our due diligence indicates that it does.”

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New owners purchase Furniture Row Racing’s charter

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Spire Sports + Entertainment, an agency that represents drivers and sponsors and works with some NASCAR teams, has purchased Furniture Row Racing’s charter, NBC Sports confirmed Tuesday.

The new team’s car number will be 77. The team will field Chevrolets. Driver, sponsor and an alliance will be announced at a later date.

The team will be co-owned by Jeff Dickerson and T.J. Puchyr, among the founders of Spire.

“We think this is the perfect time to buy in,” Dickerson told NBC Sports about why the company was moving into the role of a car owner and purchasing a charter. “Our guys sit in board rooms and tell people how much they believe in the sport. We believe in this sport. We believe in the leadership.”

The Furniture Row Racing charter is the most valuable charter to be sold. Part of the money paid to teams with charters is based off performance the past three years. With a championship and runner-up finish the past two years, the Furniture Row Racing charter will provide more money than any of the previous charters that have been sold. Furniture Row Racing ceased operations after this season.

A NASCAR spokesperson said that the sanctioning body does not reveal the price of charters but NBC Sports has learned that this is the most paid for a charter. The only charter price that has been revealed came from the sale of BK Racing’s charter through bankruptcy court in August. Front Row Motorsports purchased that charter and team equipment for $2.08 million.

There are 36 charters in Cup. A charter team is guaranteed a starting spot each race. To maintain the charter, a team must compete in every race.

This will be the first time for Dickerson and Puchyr to be Cup car owners. They can provide the new ownership that some have questioned for the sport as the current group of owners age.

Spire Sports + Entertainment was founded in 2010. Among the drivers the company represents are: Kyle Larson, James Hinchcliffe, Landon Cassill, Ross Chastain, Todd Gilliland, Justin Haley, Vinnie Miller and Garrett Smithley.

Spire Sports + Entertainment also provides services to Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing, GMS Racing and Toyota Racing Development.

 

 

Look back at 2018 season through photos

Photo: Dustin Long
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With the completion of the season, I often go back and look at the photos I’ve taken on my phone and reflect upon the special pictures.

Here are 10 photos I took that stood out to me as I looked back upon the 2018 season.

 

For those who question if Paul Menard smiles. He does. Here he is doing an interview with NBC Sports during media day in January

 

Clint Bowyer with son Cash in the media center after Bowyer ended a 190-race winless streak by winning that event in March.

 

This is among my favorite pictures just for the girl’s reaction at getting Kyle Busch‘s autograph as he headed to the drivers meeting at Bristol in April. Busch would go on to win that race.

 

Michael Riggs, shock specialist for Bubba Wallace’s Richard Petty Motorsports team, sets the scales for the team at Bristol in August. Another one of my favorites in how it shows the work of a crew member that most people don’t see.

 

NASCAR Hall of Famer Leonard Wood sits on the pit wall during the Southern 500 as William Byron races by in a Jeff Gordon Rainbow Warriors paint scheme. So much history in this picture.

 

Garrett Smithley hugs Ross Chastain in Victory Lane after Chastain won the Las Vegas Xfinity race in September for Chip Ganassi Racing.

 

Jimmie Johnson played a joke on Martin Truex Jr.’s team at Dover, a week after Johnson’s contact spun Truex in the final chicane and cost Truex the win at the Charlotte Roval.

Johnson was allowed in the Dover garage after it closed and put about a dozen children’s bikes on the lift gate of Furniture Row Racing’s hauler.

“Cole (Pearn) made a comment to me at the end of last weekend when we were leaving the track all in good fun,” Johnson said at Dover. “I saw some of his crew guys when I came back from a bike ride on Friday, and one of them grabbed my bike and said, ‘Oh, hey, is this my nice, new bike that Cole was talking about?’ ”

“So, as I shared that story with my team, the ideas started flowing, and we … sent my bus driver off to Walmart where they had some pre-assembled bikes and had some fun with it.”

 

Aric Almirola after he failed to win the Dover playoff race in October. Not much else needs to be said.

 

David Gilliland, who won the pole for the Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway in October, holds a puppy his family adopted earlier that week.

 

Ray Gallahan, fueler for Joey Logano‘s team, watches the team spray each other with champagne after Logano won the championship. It was Gallahan’s last race going over the wall. He sat back to take it all in and to avoid be “sticky” from the champagne.

Long: Ross Chastain’s win ‘gives all the little guys hope’

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LAS VEGAS — Garrett Smithley walked out of Victory Lane with a smile on his face.

On a day when he wrecked in qualifying and finished 18th in a backup car, he couldn’t contain his excitement for Ross Chastain, typically his teammate at JD Motorsports but not on this day.

Saturday’s Xfinity race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was one of three races this season that Chastain will run in Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet — a car with more funding and resources than Chastain’s regular ride.

Chastain scored a dominating win.  

Garrett Smithley hugs Ross Chastain in Victory Lane after Chastain won the Xfinity race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Photo: Dustin Long

“It gives all the little guys hope,” Smithley said of Chastain’s victory.

As if it to make sure that Chastain’s win was real and the embrace they shared in Victory Lane was not imaginary, Smithley said it again.

“It gives all the little guys hope.”

Money is king in NASCAR and the owners with it are the kingmakers.

For those without money, everything is harder. There are fewer resources to develop new parts and make cars faster. Instead, such teams rely on less reliable parts, tape measures instead of laser measurements and hand-written notebooks instead of computer simulation programs. It’s a gap that rarely can be closed.

Facing such obstacles, teams are left only with hope. It’s why crew members get up at 5 a.m. to head to the shop and why they might not leave until midnight trying to repair a car from the last race and get it ready for the next one. Instead of flying to the upcoming race like many teams, it often means long drives through the night with little sleep before the garage opens the next morning and the race for speed resumes.

For such teams, the race for 25th can be as meaningful as the race for the lead to bigger teams.

Ryan Preece knows both worlds. He drove for JD Motorsports in 2016 and had one top-10 finish for the underfunded team.

Nobody noticed him.

So he took the sponsorship money he had and went to Joe Gibbs Racing to run two races (that later became four) instead of 33.

Ryan Preece celebrates his first career Xfinity race in 2017 at Iowa Speedway. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

Preece won in his second race with Gibbs. He’s won again with the team this year. Although he says he’s focused on the remaining races with Gibbs, his gamble will likely lead to a full-time ride next season in the sport. 

Preece isn’t alone in believing less is more. Alex Bowman lost his Cup ride before the 2016 season. With no rides left, he signed to run select races with JR Motorsports that year and also served as the test driver for Hendrick Motorsports’ simulator program. That put him in position to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. after Earnhardt had to sit out the second half of that season because of symptoms from a concussion. Bowman went on to take over the No. 88 when Earnhardt retired after last season and is in the Cup playoffs.

Those moves did not unnoticed.

Matt DiBenedetto, who also had to start and park early in his career and has run for a variety of small-budget teams, announced recently that he would leave his full-time Cup ride with Go Fas Racing after this season and bet on himself like Preece did.

“I paid a whole lot of attention to those guys and what they did,” DiBenedetto told NBC Sports of Preece and Bowman. “They were a big driving force in me making this decision.”

Matt DiBenedetto hopes to be the next to follow in the success of Ryan Preece and Ross Chastain to attain a more competitive ride. (Photo: Getty Images)

DiBenedetto said he decided to follow the model Preece tried after “seeing other guys get just barely bumped above me on those lists (for rides). That was the push I needed to make this bold and risky decision.”

For Chastain, the risk was low. Jeff Carpoff, president and CEO of DC Solar, which sponsors the No. 42 Xfinity car, approached Chastain earlier this year at Auto Club Speedway as Chastain walked with helmet in hand from his Xfinity car to the Cup garage. The brief conversation led to further talk by Carpoff of putting Chastain in the No. 42 Xfinity Ganassi car at some point this season.

Chastain revealed Saturday that he’s not getting paid for these three races — he also ran the car at Darlington and makes his last start in it next week at Richmond.

“I get laughed at from inside the garage,” Chastain said of his no-money deal for these three races. “We literally bet on ourselves that we wouldn’t make any money now, but it would pay off.”

Chastain had to hold off Justin Allgaier, the regular-season champion, in a spirited duel that included contact and had Allgaier ranting on the radio at the time. Allgaier later attributed his anger to being in the moment.

But when Chastain pulled away from the field on the final restart and it became clear he would score his first career Xfinity win — in his 132nd series start — he just wanted to enjoy the moment.

Ross Chastain in Victory Lane. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

He didn’t yell or scream on the radio. He put his head down, punched the steering wheel and stayed silent.

“They were all congratulating (me) on the radio,” Chastain said of the team. “I just wanted to listen and hear it.”

It was a sound he could not have imagined when he was starting and parking early in his career because there wasn’t the money to run a full race.

“That’s not the ideal way,” Chastain said. “I wouldn’t recommend that because it’s tough, and it’s very trying. A lot of phone calls (with family) late at night. We didn’t know it was going to get better, but they kept telling me that.”

Back then, he only had hope.

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