Junior Johnson

Bowman Gray Stadium cancels 2020 season

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Bowman Gray Stadium, which first hosted races in 1949 and witnessed some of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, announced Thursday that it is canceling its season.

The move comes two days after North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper extended the state’s Phase 2 reopening through Aug. 7. Mass gatherings are limited to 25 people outdoors during Phase 2. The state had a record 1,142 residents hospitalized because of coronavirus on Wednesday.

The track cited Gov. Cooper’s extension of Phase 2 and the uncertainty of what the future will be in deciding to not race this season.

The track stated:

“On July 14, Governor Cooper extended ‘Phase 2’ of COVID-19 restrictions for another three weeks until August 7. During this phase, events such as the racing at Bowman Gray Stadium are not permitted to have more than 25 spectators. We believe it is highly unlikely that Governor Cooper will significantly relax these restrictions in August or even September.

“Some professional sporting organizations may be holding events without fans. We, however, have no plans or desire to hold events without our fan base in the stands.

“This unprecedented situation has unfortunately forced us to cancel any plans for racing during the 2020 season. We have no plans to race in the fall or winter. We do not know how the COVID-19 situation will continue to evolve over the coming months, but we are planning to return to racing in the spring of 2021 – and we are hopeful that we will be able to do so at full capacity.

“Again, we are thankful for the patience and understanding of our fans, drivers, crew members, sponsors, officials, employees, friends, and family. We hope that everyone stays healthy and well during this time. We look forward to seeing you all again at the Madhouse in the spring of 2021.”

MORE: Wood Brothers Racing’s first win came at Bowman Gray Stadium

The track did not run a race this year.

Bowman Gray Stadium, NASCAR’s longest running weekly track, hosted NASCAR Hall of Famers Junior Johnson, Glen Wood, David Pearson, Richie Evans and Jerry Cook during their driving days. It is the track where NASCAR Hall of Fame car owner Richard Childress sold peanuts in the stands before later racing at that track.

The track was started by NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and Alvin Hawkins.

Kevin Harvick aware of ‘responsibility’ that comes with 50+ Cup wins

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Kevin Harvick entered another tier of excellence Sunday with his dominating NASCAR Cup Series victory at Darlington Raceway.

With his second career victory at the track “Too Tough To Tame,” the 44-year-old driver notched the 50th Cup Series win of his two-decade career.

That’s an achievement only 13 other Cup drivers – including two who are active – have reached. All 11 retired drivers who have reached the mark are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

With the victory, Harvick joins competitors Jimmie Johnson (83 wins) and Kyle Busch (56) in the 50+ win club.

More than half of Harvick’s wins – 27 of them – have come since he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. He’s now tied with Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett.

“I’m always very cautious in trying to analyze things that I do personally, just because I feel awkward doing that,” Harvick said Monday on NBCSN’s “Lunch Talk Live” with Mike Tirico. “But I think in this particular instance, when you talk about Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson and those types of names, you have to kind of sit back. For me I almost have to pinch myself, because those are people that have had a major impact on our sport. So you hear those names, sometimes I sit back and try to ask myself, ‘Have you done what you needed to do in order to live up to the expectation of what those guys have done besides just winning 50 races?’

“There is a responsibility that comes with all that when you put yourself up next to names like that and for me that’s a good reminder of making sure that you take seriously the responsibility of trying to make the sport better and move it forward, because that’s what those names have done and they’re icons in our sport and I’m personally holding myself responsible to try to come close to living up to those expectations.”

The last time the Cup Series boasted three active drivers with 50+ wins was the 2001 Daytona 500, the weekend before Harvick’s debut.

In the field that day were Dale Earnhardt Sr., Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace. Earnhardt had 76 wins and Gordon and Wallace had joined the 50-win club within three weeks of each other the previous season.

Earnhardt’s death in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 resulted in Harvick being promoted by Richard Childress Racing to take his place the following weekend at Rockingham. He’d earn his first Cup win in his third start, beating Gordon in a photo finish at Atlanta.

With Johnson set to retire from full-time Cup racing after this season, the active 50-win club will be back to two drivers relatively quickly.

Harvick might be the last driver to enter the 50-win tier in the Cup Series for at least a few years.

The next active driver on the all-time wins list is Denny Hamlin. Hamlin, 39, sits at 38 victories following his win in the Daytona 500 in February. He’s won seven times over the last two seasons after going winless in 2018.

Behind Hamlin is Kurt Busch (31 wins) and Brad Keselowski (30 wins). Busch, 41, is in his 20th full-time Cup season and hasn’t had a season with more than one victory since 2015.

Keselowski, 36, has been winning at a consistent rate the last four seasons, winning at least three times each year since 2016. If he kept that pace up, he’d need another six to seven seasons to reach 50.

Long: A day unlike any other in NASCAR

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Drivers walked alone to their cars Sunday at Darlington Raceway. No team members with them. No family around them. No fans anywhere.

New procedures in an era of the coronavirus.

Drivers carried their helmet, water bottle and other supplies. They headed to their cars amid questions about NASCAR’s first race in 10 weeks, making it the first major U.S. professional sport to return during these times.

Would masks and social distancing be effective? What if someone showed symptoms? What if it was a driver?

“Up until probably about two or three hours before the race, I was ready for something to go wrong,” Brad Keselowski said in a zoom call with media after finishing 13th in a race won by Kevin Harvick.

“What’s it going to be? Is someone going to be sick? Or is there going to be somebody boycotting outside the racetrack? But nobody did. Nothing bad happened. They pulled this thing off. It feels little bit like a Christmas miracle.”

Consider it Christmas all alone.

The track was empty except for about 900 essential personnel that included drivers, team members, series officials, safety personnel, TV personnel, media and others.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said everyone who went through the health screening passed and “our doctor at the check‑in … was 100% confident we were in a good place to go racing.”

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France was at the track but stayed out of the infield. Instead, he got on the track’s p.a. system before the race to thank the teams for their efforts to bring racing back.

Joey Logano carries his equipment to his car before Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Many were excited to be at the track again. Joey Logano said he was the first driver to arrive Sunday. After he passed his health screening, he went to his motorhome to isolate for a few hours before going to the car. When he unpacked his uniform — which normally would have been on the team’s hauler but is now the driver’s responsibility to limit contact with team members — Logano realized he had packed two left shoes.

Thankfully there was an extra pair in the hauler, but I thought that was funny,” he said.

After a few hours alone, the waiting finally ended and drivers emerged from their motorhomes or vehicles.

“About 10 minutes before we are supposed to be (by the cars), all of a sudden you see drivers popping out of their motorhomes carrying their helmets and walking to the grid,” Logano said. “That was funny. I have never seen anything like it.”

No one has.

Or heard anything like they did Sunday.

“Just very subdued, very quiet,” Denny Hamlin said. “That’s the biggest thing I noticed, it was just how quiet everything was.”

Erik Jones said it felt as if they were at a test.

“Then you get on pit road, and it feels more like a race,” he said, noting the pit crews in their stalls and cars on the grid. “You are just missing the fans. Unique, different. It was weird standing there for the anthem and it’s playing over the loudspeakers and then you hop in and go.”

After Darius Rucker sang the National Anthem, which was videotaped, a montage of healthcare workers came on TV screens and over the p.a system to give the command to start engines for the first time in 71 days.

“Man, that is a good sign,” Jimmie Johnson said to his team on the radio after he cranked his engine.

But the jitters remained for many.

No one knew what to expect when the green flag waved to begin the race. With no practice and no qualifying, drivers were making their first lap at speed on Lap 1. Seven of the 40 drivers competing Sunday had never run a lap at speed in a Cup car at Darlington.

“The feelings, the nerves, the anxiety, the excitement, knowing we were in uncharted territory,” Kurt Busch said about the start.

But nearly as soon as the green came out, the yellow flag waved. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made contact with another car and crashed into the SAFER barrier on the inside wall along the backstretch. His race was over before completing a lap.

Drivers had a chance to catch their breath and then do it again.

Then, it became about racing. The lack of fans was noticeable in the background of TV shots. The color of the cars contrasted with the gray of many of the track’s empty seats.

As the race progressed, the focus remained on the track. Johnson wrecked on the final lap of Stage 1. Harvick and Alex Bowman showed they had the two best cars.

Bowman battled Harvick for two laps after a late restart but Harvick pulled away and went on to score his 50th career victory, tying him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett on the all-time wins list.

A milestone victory, a first win this season, a fifth consecutive top-10 finish. All things to celebrate. Harvick screamed on the radio in celebration and did doughnuts at the start/finish line and then climbed to his car to silence.

“The weirdest part of the day for me was getting out of the car and not hearing anybody cheering,” Harvick said.

After his TV interview, he drove to Victory Lane for a muted celebration.

“There were two photographers there, no team guys,” Harvick said. “I was able to kind of get my team guys a nice little elbow bump there as I left Victory Lane, tell them great job. Those guys didn’t get a chance to take a picture with their car. Just a lot of sacrifices that go into it.

“But in the end, in the big picture of things, being able to do what we did today, and that’s race, is what everybody wants to do.”

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Where Are They Now? Catching up with Janet Guthrie

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Janet Guthrie never set out to be a pioneer or trailblazer. All she wanted to be was a race car driver.

The Iowa native considered herself just like every other racer out there: she loved going fast.

That she was a female was inconsequential. She never sought attention just because of her gender. Rather, she wanted to be judged solely on her merits behind the wheel.

Unfortunately, many in the racing world – particularly fellow competitors and fans in NASCAR and IndyCar – thought otherwise.

To those jaded observers, a stock car or open-wheel car was no place for a woman to be in. Yet that’s precisely where Guthrie aspired to be.

Janet Guthrie led the way for generations of female racers to follow, becoming the first woman to race in both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. (Photo by D Dipasupil/FilmMagic/via Getty Images.)

May 30 marks the 44th anniversary of Guthrie’s first appearance in a NASCAR race. She started 27th in the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and finished 15th, a remarkable showing considering it was her first-ever foray into the world of NASCAR.

The male-only world of NASCAR, that is.

Her Charlotte debut – which would mark the first time a female raced on a NASCAR superspeedway – would be the first of 33 appearances for Guthrie in the then-Winston Cup Series between 1976 and 1980.

Even to this day, more than four decades later, Guthrie’s name remains synonymous with opening the door for other female racers who wanted to make their mark in the world of motorsports, particularly in NASCAR and IndyCar.

Virtually every female who has come along in some form of stock car racing, from NASCAR Cup to the lowest levels of sportsman racing, from Danica Patrick to Hailie Deegan, has Guthrie to thank for paving the way for them.

Even now, at the age of 82, Guthrie has never forgotten the weight that rested on her shoulders when she took the green flag at Charlotte.

“I knew back at the time that if I screwed up, it would be an exceedingly long time before another woman got a chance,” said Guthrie, who was 38 at the time of the Charlotte race. “I came to feel it as a responsibility, really.

“I mean, I didn’t do what I did to prove anything for women. I did it because I was a racing driver right through to my bone marrow.”

Guthrie achieved a number of firsts in her career, with the most notable year of her life being 1977 when she became the first woman to compete in both the Daytona 500 (finished 12th and was named the race’s top rookie) and the Indianapolis 500.

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After graduating from the University of Michigan, Guthrie began what she thought would be a long career as an aerospace engineer.

The desire to make airplanes go faster rubbed off in four-wheel form with Guthrie, who began racing sports cars in her mid-20s. She would become quite successful, including earning two wins in her class in the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race.

Guthrie said she was much more accepted as a female racer in sports car racing, particularly on the Sports Car Club of America circuit. The more she raced, the more opponents and fans looked at her solely as a very tough competitor, not as a female.

But by the mid-1970s, when she was racing sports cars full-time, the lure – particularly IndyCar racing – kept getting stronger for Guthrie.

It was that lure that eventually led to an unexpected career detour into NASCAR.

In 1976, Guthrie was offered a ride to become the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500, but her car wasn’t competitive enough and she failed to make the field.

When her effort fell short at Indy, Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler offered Guthrie a ride in NASCAR’s longest race, the World 600 – which ran later on the same day as the Indy 500.

Despite having never been in a stock car, Guthrie jumped at the chance to further show her four-wheeled versatility.

David Pearson (inside front row) won the 1976 World 600, which was where Janet Guthrie made her NASCAR debut, finishing 15th. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

While there was quite a bit of insolence among her male competitors, Guthrie got some help from some competitors including Donnie Allison and Buddy Baker.

But some others that initially helped Guthrie were soon forced by peer pressure to ultimately ignore her.

“Somebody would give me a little hand and I would credit them when talking to a newspaper reporter and then that driver wouldn’t speak to me,” Guthrie said. “Oh my God, they’d apparently get a hard time from everybody else – so I learned not to do that.”

That is, until she got the Junior Johnson and Cale Yarborough seal of approval.

“The single most significant thing that happened was when (team owner) Rolla Vollstedt called Cale, who agreed to take my car out and practice it. Cale took it out and his speeds weren’t any more competitive than mine had been.

“Then Junior Johnson walked over to where we were standing and he and Cale talked and Junior looked at me and he said to Herb Nab (Yarborough’s crew chief) ‘give her the setup.’ And that made all the difference in the world. That was a gift that was truly priceless. I’ll never forget Junior Johnson for doing that.”

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Guthrie earned five top-10 finishes in her 33 career starts in stock car racing’s highest level, including a career-best sixth-place finish at Bristol in 1977.

That would remain the highest finish by a woman in modern day Cup racing (from 1971 to the present day) until Patrick equaled Guthrie’s finish at Atlanta in 2014.

Sara Christian was the only woman in NASCAR history to earn a top-5 finish — finished fifth — in a dirt race in Pittsburgh in 1949, but that preceded the Grand National Series, which eventually became the Winston Cup Series in 1971. Christian also recorded a sixth-place finish three races earlier in 1949 at Langhorne (Pa.) Speedway.

“We had run high on previous occasions, but something always happened,” Guthrie said. “Bristol was a ferociously difficult track, so short, so many high-banked turns, no time to relax.

“Everything went right for us that time. Nobody spun where I couldn’t avoid them, the engine didn’t blow and we didn’t have any significant handling issues. I really felt very, very good about that race.”

Doing so well on one of NASCAR’s most challenging tracks also marked a breakthrough when it came to how fellow drivers treated her. Instead of their dwelling on her being a female, Guthrie finally began to be treated like one of the boys – and she loved it.

“The most gratifying thing was to see attitudes change — and they did change,” Guthrie said. “They were starting to joke with me and give me a hard time and that kind of stuff. That really made me feel very good.”

Another high point of Guthrie’s NASCAR career was the 1977 season-ending race at Ontario Motor Speedway, when she became the first woman to ever lead a Cup race.

“That was one my very greatest pleasures,” she said. “The high point of that race really was going at it hammer and tongs with Bobby Allison for lap after lap after lap.

“I mean, I had so much fun. I’d pass him, he’d pass me back. We just went back and forth and back and forth. It was wonderful. I just loved it – until the head gasket failed and I ended up in some insignificant position (24th).”

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After competing in 31 NASCAR races between 1976-78, Guthrie couldn’t get a ride and was forced to sit out the 1979 season. She returned for two final starts in 1980, including being Dale Earnhardt’s teammate in that year’s Daytona 500 – he finished fourth, she was 11th.

Janet Guthrie became the first woman to race in the Daytona 500 in 1977. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

Guthrie’s NASCAR career abruptly ended after her final Cup start in the 1980 Coca-Cola 500 (finished 28th) at Pocono Raceway.

The reason for her departure was perhaps the one element Guthrie ultimately had most in common with countless male race car drivers over the years – lack of sponsorship.

She failed to get even one overture from other teams, including small, underfunded operations.

“Oh, it was a really terrible period of time,” Guthrie said. “I mean, ’78, ’79, ’80, ’81, ’82, ’83, all those years I spent every living moment attempting to find backing to continue racing at the top levels.

“Finally, in 1983 I realized that if I kept it up, I was going to jump out of a high window. That was when I quit doing that and started working on the book.”

Unable to race, Guthrie’s book – “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle” – became a labor of love. It took her 23 years to write before it was published in 2005.

“I really thought of that book as my own legacy,” Guthrie said. “Sports Illustrated called it, I’ll never forget this, ‘An uplifting work that is one of the best books ever written about racing.’ I thought that was pretty nice.”

With the book now out of print, Guthrie is looking to republish it on her own on the Kindle platform, to introduce her life story to a new audience, particularly young, aspiring female racers.

While opportunities for women in NASCAR have increased since her time in the sport, including initiatives such as Drive for Diversity and a number of rising stars such as Hailie Deegan, Guthrie admits things are still not equal.

“The problem for women, in my opinion, is they still have a harder time finding funding for this very expensive sport than does a man of similar accomplishments,” she said.

A resident of Aspen, Colorado for the last 30-plus years, Guthrie is active in the town’s arts scene as well as belongs to a garden club. She also keeps up with racing by watching on TV but doesn’t attend many races.

Guthrie has been inducted into more than a half-dozen motorsports halls of fame and is again among five nominees – the others are Mike Helton, Alvin Hawkins, Dr. Joseph Mattioli and Ralph Seagraves – for the 2021 Landmark Award for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Because she didn’t log the minimum 10 years in NASCAR to be eligible to be inducted into the Hall as a driver, winning the Landmark Award would still acknowledge all that she went through in her NASCAR career.

While she calls being considered for NASCAR’s Landmark Award “very flattering,” Guthrie admits there remains one big lament in her life.

“I wish with all my heart that I had been able to continue racing so that I would have the 10 years in NASCAR necessary to be considered for the Hall of Fame itself,” she said. “I really feel that I would have won Cup races.

“I mean, I led a race, I had run with the leaders on various occasions and I knew what I could do there. Now in Indy cars, I only drove 11 races, so I can’t make the same assertion with the same confidence. But in NASCAR I can.

“Oh, I’d give anything to go back to 1980.”

Editor’s note: We will have another story focusing on Janet Guthie’s IndyCar career – most notably the Indianapolis 500 – next week on MotorSportsTalk. 

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May 7 in NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt earns lone road course win

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Last week we documented Mark Martin’s first of two restrictor-plate wins, which came in 1995 at Talladega after he passed Dale Earnhardt coming to the white flag.

Only a week later, on May 7, The Intimidator returned the favor. But his revenge didn’t come on a superspeedway. It occurred on one of Martin’s specialities in the mid-90s — a road course.

From 1989-98, Martin was an ace on road courses. In his first 10 starts at Sonoma Raceway, he placed in the top three five times, including a win in 1997. At Watkins Glen International, he never finished outside the top five in the same time span, winning three consecutive races from 1993-95.

Earnhardt, on the other hand, only broke through for a road course win once in 47 attempts during his Cup career, which included 20 starts and 13 top fives at the defunct Riverside International Raceway.

The breakthrough happened at Sonoma and occurred in typical Intimidator fashion.

Martin led 64 of the first 70 laps in the 74-lap event. Earnhardt had led none. But on Lap 70, Earnhardt loomed in Martin’s rear-view mirror as Jeff Gordon looked on from third place in almost a mirror image of the week before.

Earnhardt didn’t let up. He almost gave Martin a shove as they entered the Carousel with two laps to go. After Martin slipped in oil, Earnhardt dove to his inside and emerged with the lead as they exited Turn 6.

Earnhardt led the rest of the way, never receiving a real challenge, aided by Martin and Gordon nearly getting together in Turn 11 coming to the white flag.

“I was as careful as I could be the last lap without giving Mark a chance to get back to me,” Earnhardt said in the next day’s Charlotte Observer. “I knew I was close to getting my first win on a road course and I didn’t want to blow it after trying for so long.”

Earnhardt was asked if would have been able to pass Martin cleanly if not for Martitn’s slip in the Carousel.

“Clean to me is not putting him out of the race track,” Earnhardt replied. “Now why did I say that?”

Also on this date:

1955: Junior Johnson overcame two spins to lead 123 of the final 136 laps and win at Hickory (N.C.) Speedway. It was the first of his 50 career Grand National victories.

1972: David Pearson passed Bobby Isaac with three laps to go to win at Talladega. A young rookie from Franklin, Tennessee, named Darrell Waltrip competed in his first Cup Series race. He started 25th but fell out on Lap 69 due to a blown engine. Also in the race was country singer Marty Robbins, who placed 18th and was voted rookie of the race. Robbins later was disqualified for an illegal carburetor.

1983: Darrell Waltrip lapped the field to win a Cup race at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway over Bobby Allison. The race was named after Marty Robbins, who died the previous December at 57 due to complications from a heart attack. Robbins made 35 Cup starts from 1966-82. His only start at the Nashville short track was his first career start.

2005: In an overtime finish, Greg Biffle overtook Ryan Newman and beat Jeff Gordon to win the first night race at Darlington.

2011: On old tires, Regan Smith held off Carl Edwards to win at Darlington to claim his first and only Cup Series win and the first NASCAR win for Furniture Row Racing, which had been competing since 2005. After being involved in a late wreck, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch got into a post-race altercation that saw Harvick reach into Busch’s car and Busch drive away, pushing Harvick’s car into the pit wall.