Nate Ryan: It’s another sign of Harvick’s underrated savvy for NASCAR exposure and promotion (he’s the same star who advocated rotating the championship race long before it was in vogue).
Dustin Long: I like it in the sense of creating some buzz around the series, but I think it should be open to anyone, not just a Cup interloper. And why not do the same thing when Kyle Busch runs in the Xfinity Series?
Daniel McFadin: My initial gut reaction is that it’s awesome. NASCAR needs more promotions like this, especially building off the Triple Truck Challenge that started last year. My secondary reaction: why just full-time Cup drivers? That $100,000 could do a lot for a mid-tier or lower-tier team in the Truck Series. I can’t imagine the investment is worth it for a major sponsor or a top-tier team to have to put together a quality one-off ride for a Cup driver in hopes of winning the bounty. But, I still think it’s cool and I’m crossing my fingers something comes of it.
Jerry Bonkowski: It’s a novel idea but isn’t it kind of going backwards in terms of putting more full-time Cup drivers into a Truck, when the general idea of the series was to be a developmental entity for other drivers, primarily younger ones, rather than a place where full-time Cup drivers can go to race a few times a year for extra cash? If anything, the “bounty” should also be available to regular full or part-time Truck drivers, as well, to beat Busch, drivers from Matt Crafton to Jennifer Jo Cobb to Norm Benning.
Nate Ryan: In the absence of the Big Three and a less experienced field, Briscoe’s Las Vegas victory was a promising start, and it’s encouraging that he has set such a high bar. It’s a big jump to go from one victory in each of the past two seasons to eight, but it could happen.
Dustin Long: I think the chances are slim. Even with a limited number of drivers with wins in the series, I don’t foresee someone dominating as Christopher Bell did last year in winning a series-high eight races.
Daniel McFadin: Eight wins is a lot. We don’t yet know who will be Briscoe’s most stout competition this year and likely won’t have a real grasp of that until the end of March. At this point I don’t anticipate anyone reaching the eight-win mark.
Jerry Bonkowski: I feel the domination of the “Big 3” – Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer — was somewhat of an anomaly the last few years in the Xfinity Series. Now that they’re in Cup, that opens up the door for more parity in the series. And as a result, an opportunity for more wins across the board for many more drivers. I don’t think Briscoe, or any other driver for that matter, needs to have eight to 10 wins to make the championship race. I can see a few drivers maybe winning four or five races, but don’t feel anyone will dominate the way Bell, Reddick and Custer did the last couple of seasons.
Nate Ryan: It was impressive, particularly how he fought to pick up spots with the dive onto the apron during the final restart. There’s been no shortage of talk about the team’s determination to return as contenders, but Sunday backed it up for the first time in a long while.
Dustin Long: Good run and this team needs good performances early to not be buried by its winless streak. Let’s see if this team can keep it going.
Daniel McFadin: I wasn’t surprised by the result. Johnson and his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates ran in the top 10 consistently all day, with Johnson placing ninth in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2. He clearly had top-10 speed and the chaos around the final restart obviously helped him improve his position a few spots. It was a much needed result for a team that only had one top 10 in the final six races last year.
Jerry Bonkowski: I picked Johnson to win at Las Vegas, so a fifth-place finish isn’t all that bad. I think he has a great opportunity to finally break his 2 ½-year winless streak at his home track of Fontana on Sunday. Even if not there, I’m convinced JJ will definitely break the winless streak soon. I expect to see him at least make the playoffs. In his final Cup season, he has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
What will you be keeping a close eye on this weekend at Auto Club Speedway?
Nate Ryan: Whether the Toyotas can prove that Las Vegas was just a blip.
Dustin Long: I want to see if Team Penske, after its strong showing at Las Vegas, will continue to be as strong this weekend. Last year at Auto Club, Team Penske went second (Joey Logano), third (Brad Keselowski) and fifth (Ryan Blaney).
Daniel McFadin: I’ll be watching to see if the improvement of the Chevys and the downturn of the Toyotas shown in Las Vegas was a one-off or the start of an extended narrative for the opening portion of the season. Not seeing any Toyota driver finish better than 15th was kind of a shocker.
Jerry Bonkowski: Jimmie Johnson, obviously. But I’m also keeping my eyes on guys who usually aren’t in the conversation all that much, but are off to decent starts to the season points-wise, including Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace, Corey LaJoie and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. It will be interesting to see how they fare over the next few races, to see if they can maintain their spots in the standings and keep their performance level up.
A new hope: Hailie Deegan’s success could transform NASCAR
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — An effervescent 18-year-old, who channels the sport’s pioneers in spirit and aggression, moves closer to leading a NASCAR movement.
But Hailie Deegan does not take this journey alone. With family close by and female competitors watching, Deegan’s rise through stock-car racing could open more driving opportunities for women. As long as she continues to succeed.
Such marks are just the beginning, her father, former motocross superstar Brian Deegan, says.
“She’s going to be a pioneer to break down all these barriers that haven’t been done yet,” he told NBC Sports after celebrating his daughter’s Daytona performance.
“I’m excited that no girl has won yet because there is a chance to set records. That’s what our house has been about, setting records and creating new opportunities and just breaking down those barriers. I think she’s got a cool road ahead of her.”
Deegan’s Daytona performance came 10 years after Danica Patrick’s heralded stock-car debut at the same track. Patrick’s arrival raised hopes that more women could follow her to NASCAR, but those aspirations vanished as funding faded and results waned for many. Eventually, those obstacles sidelined Patrick. Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s program in the offseason, is poised to shake up the sport.
Others can’t wait, including Jennifer Jo Cobb, who has competed in the Truck series since 2010 minus the resources Deegan has.
“What I do hope is for her success,” Cobb told NBC Sports, “because what I’ve always wanted to see happen is for a woman to have the money so that we could prove that with the right resources it can be done.”
When Patrick made her stock-car debut in the Daytona ARCA race a decade ago, she was one of a series-record six women in the 43-car field. That Daytona Speedweeks also saw a female in the Truck race (Cobb) and two women in the Xfinity race, including Patrick. A few months later, Patrick was one of four women to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
“I thought it was super exciting,” Kenzie Hemric told NBC Sports of so many women racing in top levels in 2010, a year before she made her ARCA debut. “I thought, ‘Gosh, all these women are getting these chances and it’s going to be so good for me.’
“I thought I would be right there with them in a couple of years.”
Although Patrick had won an IndyCar race, led the Indianapolis 500 and appeared in multiple Super Bowl commercials, her move to stock car racing helped attract more attention.
“The way I liken Danica in NASCAR at the time is if we had a female quarterback playing for one of the major NFL teams,” said Norma Jones, who wrote a dissertation in 2016 on Patrick in NASCAR for her doctorate in philosophy at Kent State University.
Jones said among Patrick’s biggest impacts was showing that a woman could reach the heights of auto racing.
“If you can’t imagine something to happen or if you can’t place that there,” Jones said, “then it’s an impossibility for you.”
Kenzie Hemric, whose last name was Ruston before she married NASCAR driver Daniel Hemric, also was a pioneer. She was the first female driver selected to the NASCAR Next program, which highlighted rising young talent. Kenzie Hemric was selected in 2013 and ’14. Among the drivers also chosen then were Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Preece and Cole Custer.
Hemric competed in K&N Pro Series East from 2013-15. Her first series race came a few weeks after Patrick won the 2013 Daytona 500 pole. That would be among the highlights for Patrick, who never finished better than 24th in the points before completing her NASCAR career with the 2018 Daytona 500.
Patrick, who did not have any stock-car experience before 2010, was a victim of unrealistic expectations that had a far-reaching effect, Hemric said.
“I think fans, sponsors and everybody expected more results out of her that weren’t necessarily achievable,” she said, “and I think just falling short on those unrealistic expectations made it really hard for other women and sponsors to help other women at that time.”
Lack of sponsorship left Hemric without a ride in the ARCA East Series after 2015. She ran Super Late Model races in 2016 but never made it back to NASCAR as a driver.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
McKenna Haase scans the living room in the Indianapolis home she rents and sees a sprint car seat, midget car seat, asphalt car seat, her racing helmet and seat belts.
Haase, who turns 23 Thursday and again will race sprint cars this season, became a race fan after a chance meeting with Kasey Kahne at a Nashville, Tennessee mall when she was in the third grade. Her passion for racing grew and she later convinced her parents to let her compete.
She became the first female to win a sprint car race at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway, which hosted its first automobile race in 1901 and is home to the Knoxville Nationals. Her victory came in 2015, a day before she graduated from high school as class valedictorian. Haase has won at Knoxville four other times.
One of the points Jones discussed in her 229-page doctorate dissertation about Patrick in NASCAR was the role of women in a masculine sport. Jones wrote that “women sporting competitors talk about desiring to be perceived as just athletes, without the gender identification.”
So does that mean recognizing Haase as the first female to win at Knoxville merely reinforces gender divides instead of celebrating a significant accomplishment?
“The local people are probably sick and tired of hearing that phrase (track’s first female winner) over and over again, and even myself it’s like I want to just be known as a really good race car driver at this point,” Haase told NBC Sports.
“Now, are there other first female records that I’d like to break? Absolutely, because there is something to be said about going someplace that nobody has ever gone.”
She acknowledges that “it’s not like we need special treatment or anything like that, but we are at a disadvantage, so to be able to overcome something like that to accomplish something is special.”
Haase says there are numerous challenges competing in a male-dominated sport.
“It starts out fine until the next thing you know you get up into those higher levels and there’s that strength difference, there’s that bravery difference and there’s like a passion difference and a priority difference in what (female drivers) want to do with their lives,” she said. “Another challenge, I guess, would just be obviously the men in general. Now you’re looking around and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men at the track and one female.”
While she admits the obstacles can make the sport “very frustrating at times,” she said she races because “I was designed to be where I am for a reason.”
Those reasons include youth racers. She started the Compass Racing Development program in 2015 to give kids a chance to race an outlaw karts. She’s had about 10 children compete in that program, including four girls. Haase also will launch Youth Racers of America Inc. and plans to host a national motorsports camp in Indianapolis in December for 300-500 youth racers.
The idea for Youth Racers of America stemmed from a paper she wrote at Drake University on the economics of motorsports.
“I basically did a study on where I think our sport is missing and what our greatest value proposition is,” she said. “All my research tied back to youth motorsports and the lack of support in that area and support for the future of the sport.”
“IT’S FUN TO DO THE IMPOSSIBLE”
The poster came from T.J. Maxx and hangs in Jennifer Jo Cobb’s office in a race shop that barely holds five trucks and various parts and pieces.
A black high heel shoe is on the white poster. Above it reads: “The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.”
On the opposite wall in Cobb’s office is a smaller framed poster with words over a giant lipstick kiss imprint that states: “Life is tough and so are you.”
“These are my sources of inspiration,” Cobb said. “I need to be reminded.”
Racing has not been easy for the 46-year-old Cobb, who has made 190 Truck starts and 31 Xfinity starts. Only Patrick (252 starts) has been in more national series NASCAR races than Cobb, whose team is beginning its 10th season.
She has done it with minimal resources. Even a week before Truck teams were to arrive in Daytona, Cobb needed to find wheels for her race truck, a driver’s uniform and possibly a hauler to transport her vehicle and equipment to Daytona because her team’s hauler was not operational.
Cobb is undeterred by such difficulties. She just thinks back to how her father, Joe, whom she calls her hero, raced.
“He had less money than anybody else he raced against,” she said. “Driving into the racetrack, just my mom, my dad and me at like 10 years old … and this moment is as clear as day for me, there was one tire on dad’s open trailer tire rack.
“I’m looking around and my mom’s commenting, ‘Look at all the tires these guys are bringing’ for local dirt racing. I said, ‘Yeah dad, why do we have only one tire?’ My dad’s response was ‘Because that’s the spare for the trailer, and if we break down we have to have that.’ ”
Cobb recalls that her father won that night.
“He taught me, not even realizing it, some really huge life lessons, that created my character, which is never give up,” Cobb said. “I say all the time I probably don’t belong here. I know I don’t. This is a sport for people with a lot of money.”
Even with the financial hardships and one top-10 finish in her Truck career, if a younger female sought Cobb’s advice on racing, she would not dissuade that person.
“Look at all the things that people have said were impossible,” Cobb said. “My favorite is it’s fun to do the impossible. How many times was Walt Disney told that his little mouse dream was ridiculous. If you ask me, it’s nobody’s business to discourage you.”
At a time when many teens attempt to navigate life’s complexities, Hailie Deegan experiences often take place in public.
She makes those challenges seem easy, often smiling, laughing and full of energy. Deegan is not afraid to share amusing experiences on social media including the time last year she put the wrong fuel in the van she drove and faced a repair bill in the thousands of dollars.
But it’s not always so much fun having everything you do watched.
“Trust me, it’s a lot of pressure,” Deegan told NBC Sports. “It’s a lot that comes with racing, Being a girl in racing does bring attention. … At the end of the day it has its pros and cons. When you’re doing good, it gets you noticed. When you’re doing bad, it tears you down. That’s how racing is.
“Racing is kind of like the craziest roller coaster you’ll be on, emotionally. It takes a toll on you because you’re going to have lot more bad races than good races.”
Deegan’s victories have been memorable for more than the historic value. She made contact with the leader on the last lap in all three ARCA West races she’s won. Twice Deegan took the win from a teammate, including at Colorado National Speedway last June. Deegan, echoing a sentiment from generations of drivers, said after that win: “If you take a swing at me, I’m going to take a swing at you back.”
Deegan acknowledged after her runner-up finish at Daytona last week “that one thing I regret from the past two seasons was making more enemies than I should have. Carrying more grudges than I should have. That is something this season, especially coming to the ARCA Series and a lot of news drivers, I want to stay away from that and have people on my side.”
Especially young girls.
“That is always cool having little girls come up to me and say they want to be a race car driver one day,” Deegan said. “That motivates me more because you know what you are doing is right and all the work you are putting in is worth something.”
In round one of qualification, Matt Crafton and Norm Benning made contact, doing damage to the right front fender of the Crafton’s No. 88. He posted the 17th best time in that session. Crafton failed to advance to the final round and will line up 18th.
Johnny Sauter won his fourth race of 2018 and for the fifth time at Texas Motor Speedway by holding off pole sitter Stewart Friesen in a green-white-checkered finish to end the PPG 400.
Sauter started the race in fifth and managed to stay in contact with the leaders, but did not take the lead until the final stages of the race. Using a combination of fuel and tire conservation, he led 51 laps on the way to victory lane.
Stewart Friesen led the field to green from the pole, but got loose in the outside groove early in stage one. He fought back throughout the night – winning stage one and challenging for the lead late in the race. A determined charge in the final 20 laps put him in position to challenge Sauter. Unfortunately he got hung up behind Justin Haley on the final lap and could not get close enough to make the pass for the lead.
The biggest incident of the night came on lap 109. Battling for a position in the top 10, Dalton Sargent and Myatt Snider got together while trying to use Jennifer Jo Cobb as a pick. Snyder made hard contact with the wall and retired on lap 105 in 23rd. Sargent remained on the lead lap and finished just outside the top 10 in 11th.
HOW SAUTER WON: Sauter stayed out on old tires with 55 laps remaining and stretched his fuel to race to the end.
WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: Enfinger inherited the lead when Todd Gilliland pitted near the end of the second segment and scored his first stage win of the season; he continued to battle among the leaders before finishing fourth. Friesen matched his career best finish of second; his previous runner up finish came on the dirt track of Eldora Speedway last July. Justin Haley gave his teammate Sauter a huge push on the final restart before getting overhauled by Friesen on the final lap; Haley finished third to score his sixth career top five.
WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT:Ben Rhodes developed an engine problem toward the end of stage one and lost multiple laps while trying to diagnose the issue; he finished three laps off the pace in 16th. Justin Fontaine hit the wall hard on lap six and pancaked the right side of his truck – finishing 30th in the 32-car field. Driftwood Texas driver Bayley Currey got loose in the outside lane on lap 11 while running 18th and hit the turn four wall; he finished 29th. With 10 laps remaining in stage one, Brett Moffitt got loose under Austin Wayne Self and spun into the turn one wall. Moffitt brought out a second yellow when he almost spun 19 laps from the end before finishing 18th. Fighting to stay on the lead lap, Bo LeMastus made contact with Norm Benning, cut a tire, and hit the wall with six to go in stage two. LeMastus finished 26th; Benning finished 21st.
NOTABLE: Gilliland received his high school diploma in a pre-race ceremony before climbing into the lead at the start of the Rattlesnake 400.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “I’m speechless at this point; I don’t even know what to say anymore,” Sauter said from victory lane on FoxSports 1. “This is a lot of fun. Five wins at Texas – I feel very, very lucky … It’s all about getting that clean start. I knew that (Friesen) was going to be aggressive – obviously he’s hungry for his first win and so I just timed it right.”
WHAT’S NEXT: M&Ms 200 at Iowa Speedway at 7:00 p.m. ET on June 16 on FS1.