hickory motor speedway

Photo: Kyle Larson

NASCAR stars spent off week getting in touch with racing roots

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Thanks to comments by Cup driver Kyle Larson and members of the media, there’s been a surge of talk about NASCAR needing to reach grassroots racing fans.

With all of NASCAR enjoying its first full off week, some drivers did their part for the cause last weekend as they fulfilled their need for speed.

Larson himself was one of them, as the Chip Ganassi Racing driver won a Sprint Car Challenge Tour event at Placerville Speedway in California. It was his second race at the 1/4-mile track in the last month. The Cup points leader took his No. 57 car to the lead halfway through the 40-lap race and beat out 15-year-old Giovanni Scelzi according to the Sacramento Bee.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch took his talents to Hickory Motor Speedway in Hickory, North Carolina, for a Super Late Model race.

Busch piloted his No. 51b car in the Easter Bunny 150, but it was a short night for the 2015 Cup champion. Busch’s run ended 15 laps into the 150-lap event due to mechanical problems.

Elsewhere, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart and Camping World Truck Series driver Christopher Bell competed in Texas.

On Thursday, Kahne started a three-day marathon by finishing 20th in the Gator Outlaw Bash at Gator Motoroplex in Willis, Texas.

The weekend continued with a two-day World of Outlaws event at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in Mesquite, Texas as Kahne was joined by Stewart and Bell.

In Friday’s 25-lap feature, Kahne finished 11th, Stewart placed 14th and Bell finished 18th. Saturday night went about as well for Kahne and Stewart in the 30-lap feature. Kahne finished 16th and Stewart 22nd. Meanwhile, Bell finished fourth as Brad Sweet, a Kasey Kahne Racing driver, won the event.

Aside from Bell and Stewart, these NASCAR drivers will return to their full-time jobs this weekend. The Cup series is back in action at Bristol Motor Speedway for the Food City 500 on Sunday. While Larson leads the points, Busch is seventh and still seeks his first win of the season.

Kahne is 17th in the standings and is trying to earn his first victory since 2014 (Atlanta).

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Where Are They Now? ‘Handsome Harry’ Gant still is rolling

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Tony Stewart retired at 45. Jeff Gordon retired at 44, returned to help out Dale Earnhardt Jr., and retired again at 45.

Jimmie Johnson, 41, says it’s unlikely he’ll be racing by the time he reaches 45. Don’t be surprised if 42-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t far behind his teammate.

Then there are drivers such as NASCAR icon Harry Gant. “Handsome Harry” retired from the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series in 1994 at the age of 54 and then returned to drive 11 races in the Camping World Truck Series two years later at the age of 56.

“My last win at Atlanta in a Busch car, I was 54,” he said, adding with a laugh, “Then I didn’t want to quit.”

He retired again at the end of the 1996 season and spent his “retirement” racing on short tracks across the country until he was 70 in 2010.

Now, the 77-year-old Gant officially is retired from all forms of racing, but he’s as busy as he was when he was behind the wheel. These days, Gant tends to a herd of 100 Black Angus cattle on his 300-acre ranch in Taylorsville, North Carolina, rides his motorcycle around the country and is enjoying the good life.

He still follows NASCAR racing somewhat, but where the sport was the end-all and be-all for Gant for 30 years – from his first race as a sportsman driver at Hickory Motor Speedway in 1966 – now Gant is more of a casual observer.

“I watch the races on TV when I can,” he told NBC Sports. “I like to watch the Truck and (Xfinity) races. I don’t go out of my way, but if I’m not doing anything, I’ll watch it then.”

Then, he adds with a laugh, “Sometimes, I’ll go to sleep at night watching the night races.”

STILL A FAN FAVORITE

Since his last Truck race in 1996, Gant has attended only two NASCAR Cup races in person. One was a few years ago at Texas Motor Speedway, and the other was late September when he took part in the Throwback Weekend festivities at Darlington Raceway.

Harry Gant, right, with lifelong friend and NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett.

One of the biggest highlights of that weekend was when Gant swung back behind the wheel of his legendary Skoal Bandit car and took a parade lap, which drew huge applause.

It was apparent that even though he hadn’t raced in 20 years, Gant was still a fan favorite at the “Track Too Tough To Tame.” He received some of the loudest applause of the NASCAR greats who attended and was swamped by fans welcoming him back as if he never had left.

Yet Gant also noticed something. While he enjoyed the attention, Gant admitted that the NASCAR of his era is not the same NASCAR of today.

“It was very strange being there because I really didn’t know anybody there,” he said. “I didn’t know any of the crew guys, crew chiefs, drivers, didn’t know anybody except just a few older people I knew and older fans.

“It’s a somewhat different ballgame when I was racing. It’s hard to put your finger on anything, there’s just so many little things that were different back then.”

Gant’s former crew chief, Andy Petree, brought back the old gang together in this tweet last year from Darlington:

SHORT-TRACK SUPERSTAR BEFORE HE CAME TO WINSTON CUP

While it was in NASCAR Cup and Xfinity races that Gant earned the most notoriety, he was a short-track driver first and foremost.

Sure, he earned 18 wins in the Cup Series and finished a career-best second in the season standings in 1984 and won another 21 races in the Xfinity ranks. But Gant earned more than 300 wins in the lower tiers of NASCAR racing, including the Sportsman championship in 1972-74. He also finished runner-up three times in what is today the Xfinity Series (1969, ’76 and ’77).

He paid his dues and served his racing apprenticeship before he cashed in with the then-Winston Cup Series.

“Back in the day, you had David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty – all them drivers – they started out not as young as they do now,” Gant said. “I started racing when I was 24 in a hobby car at Hickory.

“When I got to Winston Cup, I ran for Rookie of the Year in 1979 (at the age of 39 and competed against fellow rookies Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte), and when I first ran for (longtime sponsor) Skoal, I was 41 years old (1981).

“I was 42 before I won my first race in Cup (1982 Martinsville).”

TODAY’S YOUNG DRIVERS NOT PAYING ENOUGH DUES

Gant said that young drivers of today are jumping to the Cup Series much earlier than his era. In so doing, the young guns are not able to build the same type of large and loyal fan bases that drivers developed from their early days of Sportsman racing before moving up to Cup.

“We raced a lot of years, early years, with Sportsman cars, things like that,” he said. “Now, you see a guy who’s 20, racing in a Truck and then racing in NASCAR Cup, they haven’t had enough time to get a fan base. That’s what I think right now the problem today is the fan base for the new guys coming in to race.

“The other part of the problem is you have young guys that aren’t really car guys. Like me, I have always been into cars from the age of 18 or 19 years old, racing short tracks, dirt cars, sprint cars, all them things. I think the young people now don’t really associate with the young people that race, and the models of cars don’t matter to a lot of them.”

Gant still likes NASCAR racing but readily admits, “It’s just a lot of difference. Unless you were there, you can’t really pinpoint everything. Everything is more business-like today than it was.

“And the cars are so much different, looking at it on television. The cars are so much lower. I did not like running with restrictor plates that came out the last few years I raced. It puts you in a box, just like it is now. All the cars are the same in horsepower and the bodies are all the same.

“Back when I was racing, I liked the way it was. We had a stock car. We’d go to Daytona, and it’d be a Monte Carlo, Pontiac, Chevrolet or whatever was running.”

GANT REFLECTS ON HIS TOP CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Of his career, Gant said there were two high points that stand out to him, both markedly different from each other. First was in the Modified Series, while the other was in the Cup Series.

“We had so much fun racing prior to Winston Cup racing,” he said. “The first big race was when I won the Modified race at Daytona, and then also won at Charlotte. Winning at both those tracks were probably the biggest things of my career. A lot of people ask, ‘What about your Winston Cup career?’ Well, you wouldn’t have been there if you hadn’t won somewhere else to start with.”

As for his Cup tenure, it was winning four Cup races in a row in September 1991, along with two Busch Series wins in the same month. He earned his other famous nickname as a result; “Mr. September.”

“I felt like we couldn’t be beat,” he said. “We were coming up on the end of the year, and I could not wait to start the next season then.”

SOON TO BE BACK ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Gant once again is preparing to take part in the 23rd Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, which starts May 13 in Portland, Oregon, and finishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 19. Gant has been part of the Charity Ride each of the previous 22 years.

“We’ve been just about everywhere you can go,” Gant said.

But Gant will be far from the oldest driver on the Ride. Fellow former NASCAR racer Hershel McGriff will take part again in at least one or two segments of the Ride at the age of 89. McGriff competed in a short track race in California as recently as five years ago at the age of 84.

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THE HARRY GANT FILE

Harry Phil Gant — also known as “Handsome Harry” and “Mr. September” 
–Age: 74
–Home: Taylorsville, North Carolina
–NASCAR Cup stats: 474 starts, 18 wins, 123 top fives, 208 top 10s, 17 poles.
–NASCAR Xfinity stats: 128 starts, 21 wins, 52 top fives, 71 top 10s, 14 poles.
–NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: 11 starts in 1996, four top 10s.
–Notable: Holds record as the oldest driver ever to win a Cup Series race (52 years, 219 days) and as the oldest driver ever to earn his first career Cup win (42 years and 105 days).

Follow @JerryBonkowski

 

NASCAR America: How NASCAR and local short tracks coexist

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Fans love their short track racing and NASCAR is looking at that, including moving previous Saturday night Cup races to Sunday afternoons so as not to impact the local short track shows on Fridays nd Saturdays.

On Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America, Nate Ryan, Dale Jarrett, Parker Kligerman examined how short tracks and NASCAR coexist, why grass roots racing on short tracks is so important for the sport overall, and how NASCAR is looking to do more to help out grass roots tracks.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t fight because everyone, including momma, is watching

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Everyone and their mother is talking about the post-race fight Sunday between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano.

That’s exactly why you’ll never see Dale Earnhardt Jr. throw a punch, at least not in public.

“I would not have done the same thing,” Earnhardt said on the latest episode of the “Dale Jr. Download.” “I know, maybe more than Kyle, there’s a lot of cameras. There’s a lot of people watching. You’ve got social media. You’ve got people getting this content a whole bunch of different ways. If you go up and punch a guy in the face, that’s going to be on TV all week.”

The most noteworthy video of the fight came not from TV cameras, but from NASCAR journalist Jeff Gluck. The original video has been viewed on YouTube 1.8 million times as of Tuesday afternoon.

“You’re going to show up at the racetrack on Friday or Thursday next week and you’re going to be asked about it everyday,” Earnhardt continued. “This will probably go on for a couple of weeks. NASCAR will take this content and it will be on every show that they do, every commercial. So you’ll see it over and over and over. NASCAR will take this fight and use it as an advertisement. ‘You got to come out see what happens at the next race.’ They will wear it out.”

MORE: NASCAR on NBC podcast: Kyle Busch vs Joey Logano.

Earnhardt questioned whether Busch wants to be in the position of having to be constantly be asked by the media – and family – about the fight.

“Momma’s watching, you don’t want to upset your momma,” Earnhardt teased. “She’s just a phone call away.”

Earnhardt went on to share some stories of the “few altercations” he’s had in racing career.

“I’ve never been in a fight like that,” Earnhardt said. “I’m not trying to play out my stuff on the main stage.”

The Hendrick Motorsports driver told the story of him and crew chief Tony Eury Sr. getting into it with Tony Stewart‘s crew chief after some rough driving between the two at Pikes Peak International Raceway in the Xfinity Series in the late ’90s.

“We got called to the hauler after the race,” Earnhardt said. “Tony Sr., he’s really fiery, got a bad temper. He was very upset. Tony Stewart comes in there. Tony’s fine. I could tell from the moment he walked in he wasn’t going to be a problem. But his crew chief … this guy comes walking in and the minute the door opens I can hear this guy talking and yapping. And he’s talking about me being a daddy’s boy and riding my daddy’s coat tails. I went over to Tony Stewart to get to this guy and Tony Sr. went under Tony Stewart;s (arm) to get to the guy.

“I got a hold of the guy, grabbed his shirt, swung and as I swung, he came out of his shirt. It ripped off. Tony Stewart’s just kind of there, kind of tangled up in this unwittingly. Nobody punched anybody.”

Later, after a story about calling Todd Bodine “a cue-ball headed fool” and wielding a jack handle, Earnhardt recalled a story from his late-model days, which resulted in his co-host calling him the “Kyle Busch of Hickory Motor Speedway.”

“We had the entire grandstands at Hickory Motor Speedway pissed off at us one week,” Earnhardt said. “We started last in this race called the Bobby Isaac Memorial. We were running third with about 20 to 30 laps to go. I got black flagged for passing a lapped car under caution. The guy was waving me by, which was totally legit. I didn’t think it was fair. The guy who was my crew chief-owner, says ‘pull in, this is bulls—. We’re getting out.’ So I pull in with a few laps left in the race. The whole grandstand is booing me at me. … Hickory is little bit 50-50 for Earnhardts. There’s a lot of Jarrett fans up there.

“We had ripped our fender off in the race, so it’s in the pits now. My crew chief or one of my crew members throws the fender onto the track, so they’re red flagged at this moment. Cleaning up a wreck. We throw a fender on the track. More boos. I flipped the bird from the pits to the booth. I know the scorer because I changed his oil at Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet. It obviously now looks like I’m flipping off the fans. Now the boos are turning into objects, cans and bottles.

“The guy comes to the dealership like a week later to get his oil changed and me and him have words. That kind of led to my firing from the dealership.”

Listen to the rest of Earnhardt’s stories and the podcast here.

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