James Finch

Podcast: Chase Elliott on driving the No. 9, early start with Hendrick and more

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The spotlight is shining bright on Chase Elliott this week after he earned his first Cup win of 2019 Sunday at Talladega.

The win came at an ideal time for NASCAR on NBC’s Steve Letarte, who interviewed Elliott this week for his “Letarte on Location” podcast.

The interview took place in Elliott’s hometown of Dawsonville, Georgia, at the famous Dawsonville Pool Room.

They covered a number of topics in the 45-minute episode. Here are a few of them.

Chase Elliott with Bill Elliott in 2002. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

MEMORIES OF BILL ELLIOTT’S RACING CAREER

“Obviously, they’re scattered, right? At that age they’re scattered. When you’re a kid I think you recognize big moments and obviously you can tell when something’s special. I do have a couple memories of Indianapolis when he won the Brickyard (in 2002), because I just remember being absolutely amazed by … when you win there they used to take the cars up on this lift gate thing and I just thought that was the coolest thing ever. I remember that as a kid.

“I remember him blowing a tire at Homestead (in 2003) on the last lap and I think Bobby Labonte beat him. 

“The last one I remember, I remember him winning his last race (at Rockingham in 2003). A couple things about that I remember. He beat Jimmie (Johnson), which was pretty cool. Because Jimmie was getting started … He was obviously killing it. Came in and was having all this success and I remember all the hype around him and then just remember (Bill Elliott) beating him that day. Taking it to the young guy. I thought that was kind of cool. Victory lane was a lot of popcorn sponsor of some sort (Pop-Secret). They had popcorn. It was the car and it was popcorn. … I think I asked someone ‘Can I eat popcorn?’ So I’m sitting in victory lane eating the popcorn.”

HOW JAMES FINCH HELPED HIM JOIN HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS AT 15 YEARS OLD

(Former Cup Series owner James Finch kept tabs on Elliott during his late-model career when he raced at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida)

“I think (Finch) had a car or sponsored a car down there. He loves the Snowball Derby, loves Pensacola and going over there and racing. So was in front of him a lot.

“We’re there and I didn’t know this, but apparently he was taking notice of some of the good runs we had at that point in time. He mentioned something to Mr. (Rick) Hendrick and I think Mr. Hendrick kind of thought about it and felt like he might want to help. He gave dad a call one day and dad and I flew to Charlotte one afternoon after school, sat down. Boss picked us up from the airport personally, drove us over to the shop, toured us around at his facility, sat us down in his office. … He’s like ‘I don’t really know what’s next or … what the right move is, but I want to help. Who knows where this is going to go, but I just want to help. I think we can make something work.’ So that was really where everything really started and nothing was ever really promised, he just wanted to help and he expressed that and really opened the door for everything else after that to transpire.”

DIFFERENCE IN RACING THE No. 24 AND No. 9

“I said it then and I’ll say it now, I honestly didn’t put a lot of thought into (driving the No. 24), the number thing. It didn’t bother me. I don’t think it ever really felt like home. (When I started) racing go karts, I didn’t want to be the 24. I wanted to be the No. 9. … It didn’t feel like home from that standpoint, but it’s not something that concerned me. It doesn’t make you go faster or slower what’s on the side of the car. That was kind of my big thing in my head. It is what it is, let’s just go and try to do good. …

“To me (the No. 9) just feels right. I don’t know what it seems like to you. But like me walking out to the grid to get in the car, that’s my car.”

You can listen to the whole podcast below, including Elliott discussing his friendship with Ryan Blaney.

Friday 5: Can Kyle Larson break out of his slump at Talladega?

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Two years ago, Kevin Harvick called Kyle Larson “the best driver to come into this sport since Jeff Gordon.”

Harvick remains bullish on Larson even though the 26-year-old enters this weekend on a 55-race winless drought.

Few drivers could have used last weekend’s break more than Larson — he said at Richmond it has been “a pretty crappy start to the year” — but can he turn things around starting at Talladega Superspeedway?

Larson’s struggles were discussed by Kevin Harvick and co-host Matt Yocum on “Happy Hours” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. Yocum asked Harvick how he kept himself mentally up when things aren’t going well.

Harvick responded by raising questions about Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston.

“I think when you look at (Larson’s) environment, I look at his crew chief,” Harvick said. “I don’t think he’s the most positive guy in the world. When you have a driver that is in a slump, I don’t think it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think Chad is a pretty low-key guy that kind of complains a fair amount.

“I think as you look at that, I don’t know if it’s going to come from his crew chief. I think it will have to come from (car owner) Chip Ganassi or somebody outside of what they do, crew chief to driver. (Larson is) still really young, so he needs some guidance and he needs some help to get through the situations that he’s in. In the end, when his contract is up, I don’t know exactly when that is, but he’s going to be a hot commodity.”

Johnston has been Larson’s crew chief since 2016. Johnston came to Chip Ganassi Racing after he was Tony Stewart’s crew chief in 2014-15. Those were Harvick’s first two seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Larson has scored all five of his Cup victories with Johnston as his crew chief.

Harvick said on his show of Larson: “The bottom line is Kyle Larson is a very, very talented driver that can win a lot of races with the right people around him and the right guidance from somebody kind of helping him finish races and helping him understand when things are good or if things are bad, if you’re running fifth, you need to finish fifth. Having those people around him would in the right environment, the right chemistry and the right things to go with it are really going to help him along in his career.”

It has been a tough start of the season for Larson, who has not finished better than sixth. He led 142 laps at Atlanta but saw his chances to win fade when he was penalized for speeding. Larson finished 12th that day.

Chevrolet’s struggles also haven’t helped Larson or teammate Kurt Busch. Joe Gibbs Racing has won six races for Toyota, and Team Penske has won three races for Ford this season. They’re the only two organizations to win in the first quarter of the season. Chevrolet teams have combined to win four races in the last 45 races, going back to last year’s Daytona 500.

Ganassi noted this week on Twitter the challenges Chevrolet teams face.

Larson’s task doesn’t get easier this weekend. He has five top-10 finishes in 21 Cup starts at Talladega and Daytona. Larson has never finished better than sixth at either track. After finishing 11th at Talladega in the playoffs last year, Larson lamented: “We just had a terrible race car and were really slow all weekend.”

Will the new package this weekend change Larson’s fortune?

2. What to expect this weekend?

Depends on who you ask? Drivers have different takes on what might happen.

There are many questions because of a few changes. Tapered spacers have replaced restrictor plates. Teams are getting about 100 more horsepower, meaning engines will top 500 horsepower.

To offset that speed gain and slow the cars, NASCAR raised the rear spoiler an inch to 9 inches. NASCAR also is mandating a 1-inch bolt-on track bar mount to change the height from 11 to 12 inches, raising the rear of the car by an inch.

“Handling should not be an issue at all, I’m pretty confident in that,” said Joey Logano, who has won three of the last seven Talladega races, including last spring’s event. “It was (before). You could tell some cars were better than others.

“Now, I think the field will be more equally matched. It’s already the great equalizer, and now we’re equalizing it even more. I would assume the pack will be tighter, cars will be closer, more aggressive moves, probably closer blocks. Maybe the runs happen quicker because the hole in the air is bigger. Maybe the runs on the leader will be bigger.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a tandem (draft). That can happen. I don’t know if it will or not. You would think with a spoiler that big there is a good chance of that. We’ll see.”

Paul Menard is among those who question how long tandem drafting — which was prominent about a decade ago — can work, if at all.

“The big restriction with tandem racing is cooling,” he said. “Our radiators and things aren’t made, the spec radiators don’t have the cooling we had a few years ago when we did the tandem. I think you will see people get to people’s bumpers and push as long as they can.”

There are other questions as well

“I am wondering how the side draft will work,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won this race in 2017 for his first career Cup victory. “How you can get different runs on cars and ultimately what you can do when you are out front to maintain the lead. That is what our speedway racing has turned into, get to the top five and if you are in the top two of each lane, bottom or top, how do you stay there. I think a lot of people have it figured out now, but now that the package is going to change. Is that still going to be something easy or capable of doing?”

Practice should be interesting today but even that will not provide all the answers. Those will come Sunday.

3. Memorable moment 10 years ago

The end of the April 26, 2009 race at Talladega will remain one that is replayed with one car flying into the fence on the last lap, a new Cup winner being crowned and the driver whose car flipped running across the finish line to complete a race his car couldn’t.

Brad Keselowski celebrated that day, driving for car owner James Finch in a part-time ride that saw Keselowski drive the No. 09 car five times that season. Keselowski was running full time in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports and did seven Cup races for Hendrick Motorsports in a fifth car teams were allowed to run with a rookie driver.

Keselowski’s future, though, wasn’t with Hendrick Motorsports. The team didn’t have an opening with its four-car team filled by Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin. That lineup would remain intact through the 2011 season.

In October 2009, Keselowski signed with Team Penske. That came less than a month after Martin inked an extension through the 2011 season with Hendrick Motorsports.

Keselowski’s Talladega victory a decade ago was the first of 29 in Cup for him. Six of those 29 victories have come at the superspeedways at Daytona and Talladega. He’s won five times at Talladega and once at Daytona.

How different might things have been for Keselowski had he not won that race at Talladega in 2009?

“I’d like to think that it opened some doors for me,” Keselowski said. “It’s hard to say because none of us have complete control over our destiny, but when I look out the window, I’m not sure I would have ended up at Penske if I hadn’t won that race. 

“It was a major marker. It opened up, in my mind at least, but I can’t speak for Roger (Penske) or Discount Tire. It opened up the window for me to get the Discount Tire deal, which I needed to really feel good about driving for Team Penske because that opened up the Xfinity Series for me, opened up the team development side that I thought was going to be so critical to our success and to kind of get Penske on its feet. 

“If you recall, they were in a bad place at the time, and I don’t know if that would have happened without winning that race. Maybe it would have. I don’t know. It’s a better question for Roger and Discount Tire, but either way, I’m glad it happened. I’m thankful and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

4. Working together again?

One of the fascinating elements from the Daytona 500 was how Toyota and Hendrick Motorsports worked so well together to offset the dominance of Fords.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan revealed the inside story of that deal after the race.

The question is will such a union be needed this weekend to combat the Fords or will the rules help others gets to the front?

Keep an eye on how this plays out this weekend.

5. White House visit 

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders announced during a briefing Thursday that reigning Cup champion Joey Logano would be honored at the White House next week, continuing a tradition of Cup champions visiting the President.

Logano and members of his team are scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump at 3:30 p.m. ET Tuesday on the South Lawn at the White House.

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Bump & Run: Debating best racing movies, memorable Talladega moments

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Whenever NASCAR returns to Talladega, the movie “Talladega Nights” is often brought up. What is your favorite racing movie and why?

Nate Ryan: In the documentary category, it’s “Senna.” The chronicle of one of Formula One’s most extraordinary talents and personalities is so emotionally gripping, you can be captivated without knowing anything about racing. In feature films, it’s “Le Mans” (because Steve McQueen) and “Winning” (because Paul Newman).

Dustin Long: “Winning.” The 1969 movie, which starred Paul Newman,  Robert Wagner and Joanne Woodward, is a classic. A close second for me is “Senna,” the powerful 2010 documentary of Ayrton Senna.

Daniel McFadin: The cinematic masterpiece that is “Days of Thunder.” OK, “masterpiece” may be a strong word, but it’s the best depiction you could ask for of NASCAR in cinema, and I try to watch it every year before the Daytona 500. It’s not too far over the top and the on-screen racing is gripping and fun. Even though it wasn’t a breakout hit at the box office, “Days of Thunder” undoubtedly played a factor in the rise of NASCAR’s popularity heading into the 1990s. The sport could use another film like it right now and not a farce like “Talladega Nights.”

Dan Beaver: “Greased Lightning.” It was not only a good racing movie but an exceptional biopic of Wendell Scott and an inspirational underdog story.

What is your most memorable Talladega moment?

Nate Ryan: There are too many surreal episodes to choose just one … but five stand out from those covered in person:

The April 6, 2003 race in which Dale Earnhardt Jr. rebounded with a damaged car on a controversial pass for the lead below the yellow line.

Everyone thinks of multicar crashes at Talladega, but Elliott Sadler’s never-ending tumble down the backstretch in the Sept. 28, 2003 race still registers.

Jeff Gordon’s winning celebration on April 25, 2004, being met by a few thousand beer cans hurled by angry masses showing their displeasure with a yellow flag that ended Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s bid at a win (and virtually created the overtime rules).

The wicked airborne crash of Carl Edwards into the frontstretch catchfence during the final lap on April 26, 2009, injuring several fans as Brad Keselowski scored his first Cup victory with the underdog James Finch team.

—The massive cloud of dirt and dust that erupted in Turn 4 on Oct. 7, 2012 when a block by Tony Stewart in the last turn helped trigger a 25-car pileup and left Earnhardt with a concussion that sidelined him for two races.

Dustin Long: So many. Here are a few I’ve covered in person:

— Dale Earnhardt’s final Cup win in October 2000. He went from 18th to first in the final five laps to win in one of the most riveting charges to the checkered flag that I’ve witnessed.

— The April 2004 race when fans littered the track after Jeff Gordon won. Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were side by side when the final caution came out. Gordon was declared the leader and won when the race when it could not be resumed before the checkered.

— The October 2006 race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. led the last lap with Jimmie Johnson and Brian Vickers trailing. Johnson made a move to get under Earnhardt and Vickers followed. Vickers hooked Johnson, turning Johnson’s car into Earnhardt’s car, wrecking both. Vickers scored his first career Cup win.

— The October 2008 race where Regan Smith took the checkered flag first but Tony Stewart was given the win by NASCAR because it stated that Smith illegally passed Stewart by going below the yellow line coming to the finish.

— The April 2009 finish where Carl Edwards’ car flew into the fence in his last-lap duel with Brad Keselowski, who scored his first Cup win and did it for car owner James Finch.

Daniel McFadin: It may not be my most memorable moment, but it’s what popped in my head: A year before his dramatic final Cup win, Dale Earnhardt showed off his magic in the 1999 IROC race at Talladega. Coming to the checkered flag in second place, Earnhardt shot to the outside of Rusty Wallace in the tri-oval. He went as far wide as you possibly could and beat Wallace to the line without any help. Fun fact – all three of his 1999 IROC wins came on a last-lap pass.

Dan Beaver: Bobby Allison’s watershed 1987 accident that forever changed racing on the superspeedways.

Who wins a race first: Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin or Aric Almirola?

Nate Ryan: Even after his weak showing at Dover International Speedway, Kyle Larson remains too talented to stay winless, and his up-and-down season could foreshadow a surprise win at Talladega or a redemptive victory at Kansas Speedway.

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin at Martinsville.

Daniel McFadin: Aric Almirola. He’s fed up with coming up short this year and barring being involved in a wreck I expect to see him flex his restrictor-plate muscles this weekend.

Dan Beaver: Kyle Larson wins at Kansas in two weeks. But if he can’t pull it off, then Denny Hamlin grabs the checkers at Martinsville.

Friday 5: Furniture Row Racing’s demise is a fate others know too well

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. — The names have changed but the stories haven’t when it comes to the tale of Furniture Row Racing and all the teams before it that faded away.

The concern about costs, the dependence on sponsorship and the volatility of it all is not something that is new to NASCAR (or even motorsports). That those issues contributed to Furniture Row Racing announcing this week that it would cease operations after this season only added that team to a long list. That Furniture Row Racing won the Cup championship last year only makes the story more powerful.

But not unique.

Go back in time and look at what other car owners were saying and how their concerns were repeated.

In 1999, Ricky Rudd closed his race shop and sold his cars and equipment at auction because he was unable to find a sponsor to continue a team that had won six races in six seasons, including the 1997 Brickyard 400.

Rudd told motorsport.com the day of the auction: “I’ll probably get a little sad when I see those race cars loaded up on trucks and rolled away. That’ll bother me a little. The hardest day was the day before I signed with (Robert) Yates. I walked into the shop and told the guys that the sponsorship deal wasn’t working out, and that I was sorry but I was gonna do something else next year.”

In 2007, Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. merged during the season because Ginn needed help after it was unable to find funding for two of its three cars. Car owner Bobby Ginn explained to The Associated Press that had he not merged: “We would have had to continue to cut costs, and that is disgraceful to me. I am proud of the merger. I would not have been proud of putting a car out there that couldn’t compete.”

Ginn went on to say: “Even if the sponsors had come in, we probably would be talking about something like this anyway. This is just going to be the way teams operate going forward, and we needed to be invited to the party before it was too late.”

In 2009, Bill Davis Racing — a team that won the 2002 Daytona 500 with Ward Burton — was sold after what The Associated Press described as a “fruitless search for sponsorship.”

In 2013, car owner James Finch sold Phoenix Racing to HScott Racing. Finch told NASCAR.com at the time: “I’ll come to races and all. I just wasn’t going to go broke doing it. Sponsorships are really tough to come by and stuff like that.” HScott Racing announced in December 2016 that it would not field a team, citing lack of sponsorship as a reason.

In 2015, Michael Waltrip Racing announced it would cease operations after the season. Clint Bowyer was a playoff team for that organization that year.

The organization was a three-car team in 2013 but then lost sponsor NAPA after the season in response to the Richmond scandal that year when NASCAR penalized MWR for team orders in the final regular-season race of the year and removed Truex from the playoffs.

Last month, a bankruptcy judge approved the sale of BK Racing to Front Row Motorsports. Court documents showed that BK Racing, which struggled to find sponsorship, lost $29.5 million from 2014-16. The team also owed a bank more than $9 million in unpaid loans and the IRS more than $2.5 million.

“It’s a tough business,” Devine said in February at Daytona when asked why he never aligned with another team to help defray costs. “I think it’s an expensive learning curve. I also think … you’ve got to decide where you are taking the company and I took it down a very independent route, which probably wasn’t the smartest (thing).”

Just in recent years, the sport has seen Richard Childress Racing contract from three to two teams and Roush Fenway Racing, which had five full-time teams in 2009 downsize to four teams in 2010, three teams in 2012 and two teams in 2017.

Furniture Row Racing cut from two teams to one this season and then suffered a fatal blow when 5-hour Energy announced in July it would not remain in the sport after this year. It is to serve as a co-primary sponsor for 30 races this year. Forget that the 2019 Daytona 500 is 164 days away, the need to have sponsorship secured for next year had already passed for Furniture Row Racing.

Although their lifespan may be recalled more often by fans, its demise falls in line with what has happened to many teams through the years.

2. Similar refrain

This is becoming too familiar for Martin Truex Jr.

For the second time in his career, an organization shut down with him as a driver. Two other times, an organization Truex drove for merged to remain in the sport.

In 2007, Truex was with Dale Earnhardt Inc. when it merged with Ginn Racing, creating a four-car operation. Then that organization later merged with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Truex then left for Michael Waltrip Racing only to see his ride disappear after the 2013 season when NAPA left the team. The fallout was from the Richmond team orders scandal NASCAR penalized MWR. Now, Truex will be heading elsewhere after Furniture Row Racing closes shop after this season.

3. What’s next?

One of the things to watch for with Furniture Row Racing is who buys its charter.

The value of a charter, just like anything, is based on what someone is willing to pay. If there’s only one interested party, the price won’t be as high. If there are more, that can raise the price.

Don’t take what the BK Racing charter (and team) sold for in bankruptcy court last month as an indicator. The team, including the charter, sold for $2 million last month. After a minimum price was set for the charter and team, there was only one bid, leading to a sale that many in the court called disappointing.

One thing that should make Furniture Row’s charter is its recent performance. There’s a historical element to charters that have weighted payments based on the performance of the team that held that charter. With Furniture Row Racing’s championship last year, this charter will have a larger payment to the next owner.

4. Unique attraction

The NASCAR weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway began with a USAC National Midget race on Thursday night.

A quarter-mile dirt track was built inside Turn 3 and more than 100 USAC midgets entered the event.

Holding races leading up to a NASCAR weekend is not a new thing but showing this dirt track series is. With a push toward grassroots racing, such options could be good tie-ins with race weekends — as long as fans show up. If fans don’t attend, they won’t happen.

The grandstand was full for the midget race, which was won by Brady Bacon and saw Christopher Bell finish fifth and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. place 11th.

Many fans were already looking forward to this event returning next year.

5. Special promotion

You might have missed it but Pocono Raceway announced this week that children 12 and under will receive free gate admission while accompanied by an adult to its two Cup races and its IndyCar race in 2019.

Children 12 and under already could attend NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity races for free but this is a step up for the sport.

It provides another avenue to reach out to a younger generation with the hope that those in that group become life-long NASCAR fans.

Admittedly, it’s not something that can be done everywhere. Watkins Glen sold out its grandstands again this year. Darlington Raceway did not announce a sellout for last weekend’s Southern 500 but the stands were close to capacity.

At other tracks where there are open seats, it might be something to consider in the future even if only on a year-to-year basis.

Could be the start of something for Cup races.

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