Because of continuing restrictions on having fans at race tracks in North Carolina, fans missed out on seeing a significant finish this past Saturday at Hickory Motor Speedway.
Veteran driver Annabeth Barnes Crum, of Taylorsville, N.C., became only the third woman to ever win a Late Model event at the .363-mile North Carolina short track. The other two women were Chrissy Wallace in 2007 and Kate Dallenbach in 2016.
“It was really awesome,” Crum told NBC Sports. “My whole team, we’re all really excited. We’ve been racing at Hickory a long time and have a couple of wins in Limited Late Model.
“Late Model is obviously the higher division. It’s really hard to get a win in Late Model anywhere in this day and time, it’s so competitive. It’s been taken over by the big teams like JR Motorsports. There’s a ton of big teams in Late Model racing now. We’re just a small team, my dad works on the car. We’re a two-car team. To get a win, we’ve really been working hard, so it really means a lot to us.”
After finishing third in the first of two 40-lap races Saturday night, the starting order for the second race was inverted, leaving Crum to start eighth.
The whole (second) race actually, it was kind of a hot mess, there was a lot of beating and banging and took a long time to get it all sorted out.
“The whole (second) race actually, it was kind of a hot mess, there was a lot of beating and banging and took a long time to get it all sorted out,” Crum said. “I think at one point, we had fallen back to 12th (in a 15-car field).
“There were a lot of cautions, just a pretty heavy race with lots of hard racing. But we had a lot of luck on our side, we missed a lot of the bad (wrecks) and stayed patient and we were there at the end.”
The 25-year-old Crum took the lead off a restart on Lap 28 and pulled away in the final 12 laps for the win.
“She is a fierce competitor here at the track, came up through the ranks and won in Limited and has worked real hard to get to the Late Model venue and we’re happy to see her get her first win,” Hickory Motor Speedway general manager Kevin Piercy told NBC Sports.
Known as “the world’s most famous short track,” Hickory is one of the oldest tracks in NASCAR, having opened in 1951. It previously hosted both the Cup and Xfinity series, but for the last two decades has been primarily used by the Whelen All-American Series, the Pro All Stars Series South Super Late Models and the CARS Touring series for late models and super late models.
The venue, about 65 miles northwest of Charlotte, has been a key part of racing careers for numerous luminaries, including NASCAR Hall of Famers Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett and Jack Ingram, as well as Harry Gant and Ralph Earnhardt.
Crum has one regret about her win: husband Jake, also a racer, wasn’t able to attend because he was babysitting their children at home.
Annabeth has been racing since she was 7 years old, having worked her way up through the ranks of go-karts, Legends, Bandoleros, Limited Late Models and for the last seven years, in Late Models.
With the CARS Series slated to race at Hickory this Saturday, her next race there will be June 20.
Due to ongoing state restrictions on crowds and social distancing, this past Saturday’s twin races were not run under the usual NASCAR Whelen All-American Series sanction.
Still, Annabeth is ready to go for two wins in a row on June 20.
“I’m excited to get back to the track,” she said. “It’s exciting and awesome to get the win and we’re getting a lot of recognition now and it feels great.
“But now I immediately feel the need to back it up.”
On March 29, 1987, Bill Elliott tried to win at Darlington Raceway by going the final 72 laps on one tank of gas.
That didn’t work out.
Instead, Elliott ran out of gas on the final lap and had to watch the No. 3 of Dale Earnhardt zoom by on his outside in Turn 4 and take the checkered flag.
“When it ran out, I just pulled down out of the way,” Elliott said according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era.” “I sure wasn’t going to push him into the wall. I don’t drive that way.”
Earnhardt, who led 239 of 367 laps, stopped for fuel with 11 laps to go.
Then, as he chased Elliott, he smacked the wall in Turn 2 with four laps to go.
“I knocked the hell out of the wall, but I still wound up winning. That’s tough to do,” Earnhardt said according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing.”
The win was Earnhardt’s third Darlington victory in four races.
Also on this date:
1959: Junior Johnson won a 100-mile race at Wilson (N.C) Speedway. He did it in front an audience who didn’t have a place to sit. According to “NASCAR: The Complete History,” the grandstands caught fire and burned to the ground less than an hour before the race began.
1992: While the above mentioned race from 1987 started a four-race win streak for Earnhardt, the 1992 TranSouth 400 at Darlington represented the opposite for Elliott. The win followed victories at Rockingham, Richmond and Atlanta. Even despite four wins in the first five races of the season, Elliott was second in the points to Davey Allison, who won the Daytona 500 and finished fourth or better in the next four races.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.