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Friday 5: Recent winners share long journey to Victory Lane

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Recent races reaffirm Ross Chastain’s message to young drivers.

“I still tell people to chase it,” he said of going after their dreams of competing at racing’s highest levels.

Chastain is among three drivers who overcame long odds early in their careers to win NASCAR races within the last month. Coincidence? Sure, but it also shows how perseverance can be rewarded.

Chastain, who has driven for low-budget teams and saw a full-time Xfinity ride go away in the offseason because of a sponsor’s legal issues, won last weekend’s Xfinity race at Daytona International Speedway and won a Gander Outdoors Truck Series race last month at Gateway.

Brett Moffitt, the reigning Truck champion whose career early was plagued by lack of funds, won last month at Chicagoland Speedway.

Alex Bowman, who once found out he had lost a Cup ride on Twitter and spent time as a sim driver for Hendrick Motorsports, scored his first Cup victory at Chicagoland Speedway.

“All of us … have been in bad situations in their career,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “Some people, they get that good opportunity, and when that falls through, they just don’t have the willpower to fight back and do what you have to do to survive. It sucks, I’ll admit it.

“I’ve been in really bad equipment at times and it’s really frustrating and you find yourself asking why you’re doing this, and you just keep working away and hoping the right opportunity comes back.

“I think that’s what you’ve seen between Alex, Ross and myself. We’ve all paid our dues and done the bad stuff. Fortunately, we all find ourselves in a good position now.”

Chastain admits there is no guarantee that someone can climb the ranks that he, Moffitt and Bowman have, but the odds are worse if one doesn’t try.

“It might be six months, it might be six years, it might never happen,” Chastain told NBC Sports. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s the same way if you graduate college today and you try to go get a job. You’re not guaranteed to go find a job, not the one you want. So you might have to take a start-and-park job.”

Chastain had to start and park in the Truck Series, but he doesn’t regret it.

“You run 10 laps all weekend, but … you have a whole year to think about the track,” he said. “I see so much value in track time and laps on track.”

Moffitt was without a ride in 2017 when Red Horse Racing shut down after the fifth race of the Truck season. He later ran seven races for BK Racing in Cup.

“You’re just doing it for money,” Moffitt said of taking a ride with the low-budget Cup team that went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy before being sold during the 2018 season. “I did it at the end of ’17 after Red Horse shut down and I went and raced for BK Racing simply to pay bills. You’ve got to do what you’ve go to do to pay rent and to keep yourself relevant in the sport. It kept me going through the offseason and fortunately I landed the job at Hattori (Racing) the following year.”

That led to the Truck Series title.

It’s a crown he looks to defend with GMS Racing. One of his main challengers will be Chastain, who is with Niece Motorsports.

Chastain admits Bowman provides a lesson even for him.

“Something like Alex, I’d always heard him for years say Mr. (Rick) Hendrick is not going to call me, but (Hendrick) did,” Chastain said. “I think the same thing. Chip Ganassi is not going to ask to be in his Cup car. The Xfinity car, yeah, but that was a whole different situation. He’s never going to ask me to be in his Cup car, but I’ve got to keep trying. I’ll be there if they ever need me.

“Running this truck race and the Cup race Saturday night and running in the 30s will help me if that day ever comes. If not, I got to run a freaking Cup race and I got to come here with the opportunity to win in the Trucks.”

Chastain also has a sense of perspective when he looks at where he’s come.

“Go back one year and look at all that has happened,” he said, standing on pit road at Kentucky Speedway. “One year ago … I was just racing and having fun.”

Now he’s having more fun winning. Just like Moffitt and Bowman.

2. Lightning strikes at Daytona

More than 40 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes were recorded within an 8-mile radius of Daytona International Speedway during a two-hour period Sunday, according to data from Earth Networks and the company’s Total Lightning Network.

The lightning strikes were recorded from just before NASCAR stopped last weekend’s Cup race to shortly before series officials declared the race finished.

NASCAR’s policy is to stop all activity at a track for any lightning within an 8-mile radius of the facility.

Randy Smith, Homeland Security Specialist for Earth Networks, told NBC Sports that the first lightning strike within an 8-mile radius of Daytona International Speedway was recorded at 3:12 p.m. ET. That strike was located about 6.3 miles east of the track in the Ormond Beach area.

Cars were called to pit road soon after and the race was stopped at 3:18 p.m. ET, according to NASCAR.

There were nearly 30 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes from 3:12 – 3:45 p.m. ET Smith said, according to data from Earth Networks’ Total Lightning Network.

The network recorded no cloud-to-ground lightning strikes from 3:46 – 4:23 p.m. Drivers were back in their cars and close to restarting their engines when another lightning strike hit within the 8-mile radius.

Smith said data showed there was a lightning strike 6.7 miles south of the track at 4:23 p.m. About 10 lightning strikes within the 8-mile radius soon followed. Rain later followed.

NASCAR receives direct notifications from The Weather Company in Atlanta throughout a race weekend. There is a dedicated senior meteorologist at The Weather Company who is on call throughout the weekend with NASCAR. NASCAR also is in contact with representatives from law enforcement, medical support and other local, state and federal agencies monitoring weather conditions.

3. New Daytona class

This season’s Daytona points races saw a unique winning class.

Three of the five points race winners at Daytona International Speedway this year scored their first series win: Austin Hill in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Michael Annett in the February Xfinity race, and Justin Haley in the July Cup race.

Ross Chastain won the July Xfinity race, giving him his second career series victory. The outlier this year was Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, who scored his 32nd career win with that victory.

Since 2017, five of the 15 points race winners at Daytona scored their first series win. Joining Hill, Annett and Haley on that list are Erik Jones (2018 July Cup race) and Kaz Grala (2017 Truck race).

Since 2017, 11 of the 15 points race winners at Daytona scored either their first or second series win with the victory. Those that scored their second career series win at Daytona were: Chastain, Tyler Reddick (2018 February Xfinity race), Austin Dillon (2018 Daytona 500), Ryan Reed (2017 February Xfinity race), William Byron (2017 July Xfinity race) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2017 July Cup race).

4. Deal or no deal?

Justin Haley said he’s received offers for additional Cup races since he won last weekend’s rain-shortened race at Daytona International Speedway.

But Haley has said no deal to all of them. He’s not scheduled to run another Cup race this year and that’s fine with him.

“I’m so focused on the Xfinity stuff, and I really don’t like jumping out and doing a lot of extra races,” he said. “I just like to focus where my job is at.”

But what about the extra track time he could get?

“In my deal, I think the only place I can be super competitive (with Spire Motorsports) are the super speedways because of the 10-inch spoiler,” he said. “I think we saw at Talladega I was very competitive and I wrecked the race car that was our backup car that we took to Daytona. It was just as fast. I could have went up there and raced. I could have competed in the top 10 all day, but they were three wide and I didn’t want to put myself in that position because I already wrecked one of their car cars.

“It was so hard to keep in the back because I definitely could have went up there and raced. Everyone was like a back marker won … it was a personal and team decision to run in the back because we knew there would be a big one. I think taking that car to a mile and a-half probably wouldn’t be helpful for me. And those cars are so much easier to drive than Xfinity cars with the downforce and everything, you’re pretty much wide open. The Xfinity cars are the hardest cars to drive right now.”

The deal Haley wants is on the winning car. He wants to buy it but the team has such few cars it’s not willing to part with the car at this time.

“I’m in talks to get it,” Haley said. “It’s my first win car. I don’t care what it takes. I’ll probably end up with it somehow, if I have to buy another car (for the team) or whatnot.

Once Haley gets the car, where will he put it?

“I’d probably knock a wall down,” he said, “and put it in my living room.”

5. How times change

This weekend marks the ninth year Cup has raced at Kentucky Speedway but only about a third of the drivers who competed in that inaugural Cup race in 2011 are still in the series.

Twenty-nine of the 43 starts are no longer competing in Cup. That includes drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin and David Reutimann, who finished second in that race to Kyle Busch.

The 14 drivers who ran in that race and remain in the series are Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski, David Ragan, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Landon Cassill, Paul Menard, Clint Bowyer, Michael McDowell.

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Kyle Busch returns to Daytona with both good and painful memories

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Even though it was the scene of the worst wreck of his career, that has not dulled Kyle Busch’s love affair with Daytona International Speedway.

Busch missed nearly the first third of the Cup season after suffering a broken right leg and broken left foot on Feb. 21, 2015 while competing in the Xfinity Series season-opening race there.

Even so, the 2.5-mile superspeedway remains one of Busch’s favorite tracks. He’s coming off his best career Daytona 500 finish (second), and also has one win (2008) three other runner-up finishes (2006, 2007 and 2016) and a fifth-place showing in 15 starts in the annual summer Coke Zero Sugar 400 there.

You’ve got to be good, but there’s still a lot of luck involved,” Busch said in a media release. “You’ve got to be out front. When your cars are fast, you need to do a good job, you know how to lead it, get yourself through traffic, you’ll be out front a lot of the time.

(Brad Keselowski) is very hard to pass, he’s very fast. When those guys are out front, they seem to be able to control the race. Last year – I think it was a Duel, maybe the Clash at Daytona – Denny (Hamlin) … was leading, trying to hold Brad off, and they ended up crashing. So hard to hold those fast cars back, if you will. They do a good job of being able to predict the lines and how they build the inertia and everything behind them.”

Kyle Busch is taken to an ambulance, having suffered a broken right leg and broken left foot in this crash during the 2015 Xfinity Series race at Daytona. Photo: Getty Images.

While the Daytona 500 is typically run during the day and under much cooler conditions in February, summer’s shorter Coke Zero Sugar 400 under the lights is in some ways even more difficult to win.

For us, you still want to win everywhere you go, every single week,” Busch said. “To win at Daytona is always cool. It’s definitely special. It’s the birthplace of NASCAR – the superspeedway aspect of it. I definitely love going there.

It’s hot, it’s slick and you can make the most out of yourself as a driver and what you’ve got in the car. We won there in 2008 and I’m hoping we can get a win with our Interstate Batteries Camry this weekend. We came so close to my first Daytona 500 win in February, so I would really like to finish the deal this weekend and get to victory lane – that’s always the goal.”

Busch has made 28 starts at Daytona in a Cup car, with the majority of his success coming in the 400. For whatever reason, the summer race always seems to bring out a better side of him – although it can be a bit toasty at times.

It’s going to be a hot one,” Busch predicted (wunderground.com is calling for a high of 88 degrees and a 50% chance Saturday afternoon, just a few hours before the green flag drops for Saturday night’s race. “Right now, it’s all about getting your fluids back in you throughout the entire week.

You’re not going to get them all back in one or two nights. It’s going to take the entirety of a week. You’ll start over again after that race. It’s Daytona. A lot of different planning goes into that.”

Saturday night’s race marks the first time that Cup drivers will pilot cars without restrictor plates since 1988. Plates have been replaced by tapered spacers. But Busch is convinced the racing will still be similar to plate competition – and with the usual suspects who seem to do well there, as well as the almost obligatory “big one” (or more than one in the same race).

I don’t ever really think about when something is going to happen,” Busch said. “That’s a spur of the moment thing, it just does happen. As far as being able to make your way, make your maneuvers and things like that, Brad and Denny are probably two of the best at being able to do that.

I try to watch a little bit what they do and how they do it. I’m just not very good at emulating that. They have a really good sense of what’s going on behind them, how they can make the lines kind of build up that inertia, that pressure, it kind of shoots them forward. The only thing I see behind me is a car. I can’t really see what’s going on three, four deep. Any time I try to back it up and stall it in order to get that inertia or get that run going, somebody just pulls out and wants to pass me.”

While he doesn’t dwell on what happened to him in 2015 at Daytona, he hasn’t forgotten about it and appreciates the changes Daytona and other tracks have made to make things safer for drivers.

I think, of course, the things Daytona has done with the SAFER Barrier along the whole outside and inside of the racetrack,” he said. “There are too many different areas on these racing surfaces where we can get out of control and crash into things.

We’ve seen that over the years – I think most notably maybe Mark Martin at Michigan several years ago, getting caught on that inside pit wall. We tend to find about anywhere to hit, so it’s just a matter of trying to protect ourselves, as well as the race fans and our crew members, as best as possible.”

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Come together: Grassroots track, NASCAR track unite to grow racing

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Chicagoland Speedway and Grundy County Speedway are located roughly 25 miles apart. But until recently, that distance might as well have been 2,500 miles.

Their class of racing is as disparate as you can get. Chicagoland Speedway, located in Joliet, Illinois, plays host once a year to NASCAR’s Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series, while Grundy County, located in Morris, Illinois, hosts four sportsman series on more than 20 weekends.

The 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway has a seating capacity of nearly 50,000, while the 1/3-mile Grundy County Speedway seats about 3,700. Ticket prices, concessions and souvenirs are also a world apart.

It used to be that the two tracks had little in common and little interaction. But that’s changing. Big tracks like Chicagoland Speedway realize that grassroots speedromes like Grundy County are fertile breeding grounds for racing fans. That’s why the two tracks are no longer competitors fighting for the same dollar. Now, they’re partners and friends in the racing world. Each supports the other, offers assistance and cross-promotes at the other’s events.

Chicagoland Speedway hosts this weekend’s NASCAR action and the kickoff of NBC Sports’ portion of the Cup schedule. Photo: Getty Images

They’re in our backyard essentially, we’re neighbors,” Denny Hartwig, Chicagoland Speedway’s public relations director, told NBC Sports. “There are several other short tracks around, but I think it’s so important to connect the dots between Chicagoland Speedway and Grundy County.

We actually have some staff members that go there and work on their operations crew, so there’s a natural fit there. With them being so close to us and us to them, it’s important that we stay in touch. We find ways that are going to help them and there’s ways they can help us. But we need to be working hand-in-hand; it’s so important.”

Scott Kosak, founder of the grassroots racing site RacingIn.com (its motto is “For Fans of Fast”) has kept a keen eye on increased relationships between tracks like Chicagoland and Grundy County.

Any time a major league entity recognizes the synergies with the minor league entities that are in proximity, that’s a great thing for the sport,” Kosak said. “Specifically for NASCAR, when the series only comes through Chicago once a year, many of those same race fans want to be engaged year-round.

“If they’re not able to watch a race on Sunday on TV, they can go to a place like Grundy County Speedway virtually 25 or 30 Fridays or Saturdays a year and be engaged by the product. That can only help race fans continue to feel engaged with a sport that has had its share of growing pains, but also has its share of opportunities if they’re able to continue to engage fans year-round rather than just watching on TV or a hand-held mobile device.”

Chicagoland Speedway opened in 2001. Grundy County has been around since 1905, first in rural Mazon, Illinois from 1905-71. When it outgrew its venue, Grundy County Speedway relocated 10 miles north to its current home.

Short tracks right now are trendy, it’s hip, it’s cool,” Hartwig said. “It’s a pretty small space, so there are synergies between the two (tracks), and along that path, there are ways we can help them and they can help us. That’s going to help everybody involved, from the local guys to the (NASCAR) folks down in Daytona.”

Photo: Jerry Bonkowski

In its 18-year existence, Chicagoland Speedway has hosted a number of NASCAR stars including Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Grundy County Speedway has also seen its share of NASCAR luminaries chase the checkered flag there, including Hall of Famers Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Stewart, as well as Tom and Ted Musgrave, late actor/racer Paul Newman, Johnny Benson, Ryan Newman and others.

Those guys don’t forget their roots, they don’t forget where they come from, guys like Clint Bowyer, who hasn’t forgotten where he comes from in Kansas,” Hartwig said. “Going back at Grundy, some of the guys that have raced there are big names in addition to the guy that works at the local hardware store.

There’s a ton of history and the need to default back to it, that this is where they started, how it’s evolved and to reconnect, to realize and make sure this works well for both of us.”

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As Technical and Operations Director at Grundy County Speedway, Don Marshall is essentially the traffic cop who keeps things on the straight and narrow. If a fight breaks out in the pits or if there’s an on-track incident similar to what happened between Johnny Sauter and Austin Hill at the NASCAR Trucks race in Iowa earlier this month, Marshall has a zero-tolerance policy.

I make the rules up and enforce them,” Marshall told NBC Sports. “My thing is if it’s in the rules, it’s black and white. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. I don’t care who it is.

If you want to fight, you’re going to get booted out. There’s no fighting, no leaving your pit to go to someone else’s pit and start something. Kids don’t need to see that or hear bad language. They want to see adults act like adults.”

Grundy County Speedway Tech and Operations Director Don Marshall inspects a race car. Photo: Chris Goodaker/Goodaker Photography.

Marshall oversees the racing with a soft-spoken but firm manner. Fields for the four classes have drawn a combined 87 cars entered this season, from the entry level Four-Cylinder Division, through the Street Stock and Mid-America classes, up to the kings of the track, the Late Models.

Racers come from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. And they bring family and friends.

A lot of the fans in the stands probably know somebody who’s racing, and then there’s fans that have been going to races since they were kids,” Marshall said. “Their parents took them and now they’re bringing their own kids to the races.”

Those kids are the key to Grundy County’s future.

We have to get the kids involved,” Marshall said. “We’ve got to take the phones away from the kids and also do things to get the costs down to get more people involved.”

Like in NASCAR, fans at Grundy County have their loyalties. One of the most successful drivers there is five-time track champion Eddie Hoffman Jr. The current Late Model points leader is bidding to tie his father, Eddie Hoffman Sr., for all-time titles (six) at the track this season. 

Eddie has fans and he has non-fans,” Marshall said with a smile. “When you’re a winner, people boo you. They don’t like repeat winners. If you win a lot, you’ll get booed.”

Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Grundy County Speedway often played host to packed houses. And while Morris has grown in population, the track still suffers from somewhat of an identity crisis at times.

There’s a lot of people in Morris that don’t even know the race track’s there,” Marshall said. “We’ll do some promotional stuff and people will be like, ‘There’s a race track in Morris?’ Yes, it’s been there since 1971.”

Marshall has been involved in racing for more than 40 years. A former midget car championship crew chief, he has been at Grundy County Speedway since 2011. As long as there’s racing and he’s involved, Marshall is happy.

Once you get racing in your blood, it’s hard to get away from it,” he said. “I tried to get away from it for a little bit and I got drawn back in.”

The enhanced relationship between Grundy County Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway is paying dividends, bringing more fans to the short track, especially on a weekend like this with NASCAR in town, both Hartwig and Marshall agree. While Grundy County will welcome NASCAR fans on Friday night, Chicagoland Speedway will recognize and introduce some of Grundy County’s champions during Saturday’s pre-race activities, as well as have them take part in a meet-and-greet in the infield fan zone.

Zach Ortz celebrates a four-cylinder win June 14 at Grundy County Speedway. Photo: Chris Goodaker/Goodaker Photography

The guys at most of these short tracks are pseudo celebrities,” Hartwig said. “They’ve built their own brands, are racing in front of the same people – they may be racing in front of their neighbors. We thought it would be cool to bring them out, put them in front of a new audience and with the ultimate intention that some of our fans go to their track, some of their fans come to our track and we just tell their story.

Later this summer, we’re going to be the entitlement sponsor for one of Grundy County’s races, so it’s something we’re going to continue to grow and work closer together to make sure we help one another. Whether it’s us going to Grundy County for a night doing social media at their track or bringing our mascot or our show car. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that I think is going to pay dividends for both facilities.”

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Grundy County Speedway sits on the northern edge of the Morris, a blue-collar town of about 15,000. Located 60 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, Morris is surrounded by fertile farmland and is bisected by Interstate 80, which sees thousands of semi-trailers and cars pass through daily.

On the northern edge of town sits the Grundy County Fairgrounds, where the annual Corn Festival – a five-day festival touted by the Heritage Corridor Convention and Visitors Bureau as “the perfect mix of small-town charm and big city fun” – is held and also is the home of Grundy County Speedway, which hosts races every Friday night (and occasionally on Saturdays) in spring and summer.

From left: Randy Weese, Cheryl Hryn and Don Marshall (Photo: Jerry Bonkowski)

Two of Grundy County’s veteran racers are Randy Weese and Cheryl Hryn.

The 63-year-old Weese is celebrating his 25th year of racing at the speedway.

I’m the old-timer,” Weese said with a laugh.

But racing keeps Weese young. He’s in excellent physical shape and could pass for someone 15 years younger. He attributes a lot of that to coming back week after week to race.

It’s the camaraderie with the other drivers,” Weese told NBC Sports. “I was in it for about 21 years and then got out of it for about three years when we started our own (floor covering) business here in Morris and pulled me away from racing. I wanted to get that up and off the ground and then got lured back into the racing. I love it because it’s very exciting and it’s in the blood. Once you get it in the blood, it’s hard to get out of it and give it up.”

Grundy County Speedway has been good to Weese. He’s a two-time track champion and one of its biggest supporters. Not only does his company have several billboards and signage around the track, Weese also sponsors his own race car and six others driven by friends in the four divisions that regularly compete at the track.

He admits there are some unique moments with the cars he sponsors.

It becomes interesting when your own sponsored race car is next to you and you’re doing a little bit of beating and banging or you’re trying to push that guy around and you say, ‘Hey, my name’s on that car,’” Weese said with a laugh.

But in a more serious tone, Weese says he believes in giving back to a track that has been so good to him. That’s why he writes so many sponsorship checks.

If you don’t have cars, you don’t have a race track and you don’t have fans is what it boils down to,” Weese said. You’ve got to fill the stands. But before you fill the stands, you have to fill the pits with race cars. People don’t like to see eight or nine cars. They would rather see 30 cars. Today, we’re 18 or 19 cars (in most classes). But I see that coming back, I see the car count getting better. That’s of course going to naturally increase the (number of fans in the) stands also.”

Although he has raced at other tracks, Grundy County Speedway is and always will be Weese’s home.

Randy Weese. Photo: Chris Goodaker/Goodaker Photography

It all started with my children,” Weese said. “I started coming out there when my children were six years old and I brought them year after year. I started getting to the point where I thought, ‘You know what, I could do this.’ My kids absolutely loved it. They’d pick out their favorite driver, go down into the pits after the race to get their autograph, get their hat or program signed. That’s what really keeps the people there.”

Weese’s 36-year-old daughter, Tracy, helps in the pits not only with his car but with others. The elder Weese sees himself racing for many more years.

Even though I’m 63 years old, it’s still exciting,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. If the health stays well, I’m probably going to go to 70. It keeps you young.

Most of the drivers out there are in their 30s or 40s. Hanging around that kind of age group keeps us older guys young. Plus, I’ve also taught a lot of guys racing things. We’ve got guys out there 15, 16 years old (racers can begin competition at 14 years old). I tell them to try this or that, and those 16 year olds started beating me. But I’m the kind of person that says, ‘You know what, that’s great, you tried it, it worked for you, you beat me, more power to you.’”

One of Weese’s fellow competitors and close friends is Hryn, who also competes in the Street Stock Division. The Blue Island, Illinois, resident followed in the footsteps of her father, who also was a sportsman racer.

Cheryl Hryn. Photo: Chris Goodaker/Goodaker Photography

I always wanted to be behind the wheel,” Hryn said. “I thought it was neat when he did it and when I watched him against the people he competed with, that was what I wanted to do when I got older.”

Hryn is one of more than a half dozen females who compete at the speedway. She will make her first start of the season Friday.

Each one of us girls, when we go out there, we stand on our own,” she said. “We fight tooth-and-nail with the guys and the other girls equally.”

Now in her 13th year of racing, the 49-year-old Hryn has ended the last few seasons thinking that maybe its time to hang up her helmet. But once January 1 rolls around, she’s already heavily into getting her race car ready for the upcoming season.

It’s hard to walk away,” Hryn said. “I went to Rockford (Illinois) Speedway and they had a guy who was 78 years old in the Road Runner Division. When you’re almost ready to give up and then you go there and see someone out there 78 years old and still winning, how can you quit?”

Like Weese, racing is a family affair for Hryn. Her 31-year-old daughter Alexis is a major part of the crew, setting up the car, changing tires and more. It’s that kind of mother-daughter relationship that helps Hryn serve as one of the track’s key role models for female fans.

Girls come up to me all the time,” Hryn said. “I have some of the real little ones that follow me real close. I have a Late Model driver whose daughter has been following me. She’s only five years old. Daddy was her favorite and now I’m her favorite.

And then there are a couple of girls that race right now that have told me, ‘I’m doing this because of you. You made it interesting and you inspired me, so I want to race just like you.’ It makes me feel really great.”

Like Weese, Hryn also believes in giving back to the sport and to the track. Friday, she’ll have her fourth annual Kids Night bicycle giveaway, where she presents several dozen two-wheelers to kids attending the race.

Last year, we gave away 86,” Hryn said. “Over 400 kids show up every year.

That’s one of the reasons I do what I do with the kids because there’s a huge age gap between me and the next generation, and if you don’t get them in the stands, no one is going to be interested – and how are you going to keep the tracks going then?”

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One of the closest observers of grassroots racing around the country, and particularly in Illinois is Scott Kosak, who started RacingIn.com in 2008. At the time, racing in all forms faced challenges in the U.S. Not only was that the height of the downturn of the economy, numerous grassroots short tracks and drag strips began closing.

“Over a decade ago, there were 1,600 grassroots tracks, including dirt and asphalt tracks, as well as drag strips,” Kosak told NBC Sports. “Now there are about 1,100.”

Grundy County Speedway is a survivor. Several popular grassroots tracks within a 100-mile radius of it have closed over the last two-plus decades, including Raceway Park (Calumet Park, Illinois); Santa Fe Speedway (Willow Springs, Ill.), Illiana Speedway (Schererville, Indiana) and Lake Geneva (Wisconsin) Raceway.

But Kosak has also noted a turnaround primarily for grassroots tracks like Grundy County in recent years.

Grundy County Speedway. Photo: RacingIn.com

“One of the benefits that grassroots racing has endured, while NASCAR has felt challenges over the last 10 years, is people that wanted to see great racing found it at their local race tracks,” Kosak said. “That’s not to say that NASCAR isn’t great racing, but as people’s attention spans have diminished over the last 10 years with the rise of social media, people wanted to see racing in a shorter segment, be able to see it close to home. They wanted to get their fix of fast, if you will, and they could see it in heats, and in a matter of three or four hours, they could see eight or 10 different races during that time period with shorter lap segments.

“I think NASCAR has adopted some of those things to its benefit and is starting to take a little bit from the playbooks of local tracks that are experiencing success because of some of the shorter attention span opportunities that they have evidence are successful.”

One of the biggest things that tracks like Chicagoland Speedway, Daytona International Speedway and others have taken from the playbooks of grassroots tracks is increased fan engagement and accessibility.

“The ability of race fans to see, touch and feel race cars and be a part of that experience (has rubbed off on NASCAR),” Kosak said. “The last time I went to Grundy County, what stuck out in my mind is that when they were done for the night, they opened the pit gates for people to be able to go into the pits and walk around.

“I believe that was an opportunity for everybody, whether they had a pit ticket or not. The racers of tomorrow are the youth of today. I think any time younger kids and younger fans and families can go and experience something like that and get as close to the action as that, that’s a plus for sure. NASCAR has some of those experiences now, as well.

“I think a lot of the reasons that grassroots racing is starting to come back is that the tracks that are surviving are finding ways to form partnerships with other larger entities to help them drive traffic. I think the relationships between grassroots tracks and some of the larger NASCAR tracks are a great example of that beginning to happen. We’re seeing that in the dirt world side with tracks in the World of Outlaws and other entities like that, but I think the parallel for paved oval track racing are relationships like what Chicagoland Speedway is doing with Grundy County Speedway.”

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What drivers say about running the Carousel at Sonoma

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Cup drivers got their first laps on the Carousel on Friday at Sonoma Raceway, a half-mile addition that includes a sweeping left-hand turn and leads to a hairpin at Turn 7. The Carousel was last used in a Cup race in 1997.

Here’s what some drivers had to say about running the Carousel:

Joey Logano“The thing that is still an unknown is how it races. We got behind some cars in traffic in practice to see what effect it has to your car and those little things. There are a lot of unknowns until we race in all honesty.”

Ryan Newman “The Carousel just took a little bit of learning for me and figuring out braking points and what the car balance is going to be like as it went through the corners. Other than that, I guess maybe a little bit of catch-up for me because I came in with a mindset of 18 or 19 years of what I used to do and it isn’t that anymore.”

Kyle Larson “I actually feel like it’s kind of an odd corner just because I feel like I have a lot of grip for the first two-thirds of the corner. And then, like as we get back on the drag strip, I lose all sorts of grip. So, that’s been tricky. It’s been a tricky corner. But, it is what it is. You can’t really pass there anyway.”

William Byron“It’s so blind on entry, so it’s going to be hard to make much out of the entry. I’m sure there will be some passes there once we are all together and stuffed in there, but I don’t know. I think the biggest area to focus on will be exiting that Carousel and trying to get that good so you can launch to the next corner.”

Paul Menard“It is a pretty tricky corner in Turn 6. The exit of it is off-camber wide and you get push. If you can hug it a little tighter and get a run off, you will be able to get inside of somebody for Turn 7. It is a good passing zone.”

Bubba Wallace “In watching all the races, it’s cool to watch Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt go at it there. But, it’s different now. So, we’ll see. We’ll just have to mind our P’s and Q’s and be on our toes the entire time.”

Sonoma could be great opportunity for Cup drivers without wins

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Who is ready for another first-time winner this season in the Cup Series?

A poll taken of the Cup garage would probably bring back everyone but the six drivers who have hogged Victory Lane through the first 15 races of the season.

Divided among just three teams – Joe Gibbs Racing (nine wins), Team Penske (five) and Hendrick Motorsports (one) – variety among teams has not been in the cards so far.

Enter Sonoma Raceway.

NASCAR makes its first trip to a road course this season with the California circuit, which has been reconfigured for its 50th anniversary with the re-introduction of “The Carousel.”

Sonoma may be a prime opportunity for a winless driver to break through to Victory Lane, according to history.

In 12 of the last 16 seasons, dating back to 2002, the driver who visited victory lane in Sonoma was doing so for the first time that year.

Before 2002, it was done only four times in the track’s first 13 years of holding Cup races, with all four occurring before 1998, when the Cup Series stopped running on the “Carousel.”

Drivers in the field this year who will try to repeat history are Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer.

Harvick holds the distinction of being the most recent driver to get his first win of the season at Sonoma. He pulled it off in 2017.

Should he repeat the feat, it would be his first win since November’s Texas playoff race (17 races) and be Stewart-Haas Racing’s first of the year. He’d also join Ricky Rudd (1989, 2002) as the only drivers to achieve that twice.

Drivers who earned first win of the year at Sonoma

Event Date    Race Winner
6/25/2017    Kevin Harvick
6/26/2016    Tony Stewart (only win that year)
6/28/2015    Kyle Busch
6/23/2013    Martin Truex Jr. (only win)
6/24/2012    Clint Bowyer
6/26/2011    Kurt Busch
6/21/2009    Kasey Kahne
6/24/2007    Juan Pablo Montoya (only win)
6/25/2006    Jeff Gordon
6/26/2005    Tony Stewart
6/22/2003    Robby Gordon
6/23/2002    Ricky Rudd (only win)
5/4/1997    Mark Martin
5/16/1993    Geoff Bodine (only win)
6/7/1992    Ernie Irvan
6/11/1989    Ricky Rudd (only win)