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NASCAR President: Sport on ‘journey’ to make it better for all

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NASCAR President Steve Phelps says the sport continues “this journey toward getting better” and “bringing a more welcoming and inclusive environment, whether at the race track or you are watching on television.”

Phelps made the comments Saturday night on NASCAR America on NBCSN before the regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway.

He spoke after a remarkable week in sports that saw athletes halt play to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“For us it really is getting back to this, what’s action can we take?” Phelps said on NBCSN. “I mean, it’s great to say the words, but if you don’t follow them up with actions, they’re really meaningless. And so, for us, it’s continuing down … this journey towards getting better. And getting better really means bringing a more welcoming and inclusive environment, whether at the racetrack or you’re watching on television, that our sport is a place where everyone is welcome.”

MORE: Jimmie Johnson: Athletes have “a right to share our opinion”

MORE: Bubba Wallace: NASCAR is not turning away from “evil acts” by racing

Asked about the events of this week in sports, Phelps said:

“Listen, the events of this week are difficult for sure. The sports world, we saw some things that are unprecedented with games being canceled and athletes finding their voice and talking about, in their minds what needs to happen, what needs to change.

I pivot back, frankly, to where we were back in early June. With, you know, coming out of the death of George Floyd, what the drivers did with their video in Atlanta, you know, kind of that moment of listening that we had as a sport in Atlanta and then the following week with the banning of the confederate flag and importantly to make sure that, you know, we were making sure we were following through with that at the racetrack, which is something that we have done. And then the following week, with Bubba Wallace at Talladega and just those iconic images that came from Talladega.

Before the June 7 Cup race at Atlanta began, the cars were stopped on the frontstretch. Pit crews stood on the wall behind the pit boxes. Phelps then addressed competitors and fans.

“Those watching at home, thank you for your time,” Phelps said. “Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard. The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better.”

“The time is now to listen, to understand and to stand against racism and racial injustice. We ask our drivers, our competitors and all our fans to join us in this mission, to take a moment of reflection to acknowledge we must do better as a sport and join us as we may now pause and … listen.”

Here are Phelps’ full comments in his NBCSN interview Saturday

Krista Voda: We are joined now by the president of NASCAR, Steve Phelps. It is never easy to see our country have divided. What are your observations from the sports world this week and what’s the sentiment inside the NASCAR community?

Steve Phelps: Well, first of all, thanks for having me on, Krista. It’s a pleasure to be with you and Brad. Listen, the events of this week are difficult, for sure. The sports world, we saw some things that are unprecedented, with games being canceled and athletes finding their voice and talking about, in their minds, what needs to happen, what needs to change. I pivot back, frankly, to where we were back in early June. With, you know, coming out of the death of George Floyd, what the drivers did with their video in Atlanta, you know, kind of that moment of listening that we had as a sport in Atlanta and then the following week with the banning of the confederate flag and importantly to make sure that, you know, we were making sure we were following through with that at the racetrack, which is something that we have done. And then the following week, with Bubba Wallace at Talladega and just those iconic images that came from Talladega, which, you know, for all of us that have been in this sport a long time, as you, Brad, and Krista, have been, just seeing that sense of community and that sense of family that exists at NASCAR, watching the support of Bubba – I just thought it was extraordinary.

Brad Daugherty: Yeah, it was absolutely remarkable. And Steve, as you go back to June, I mean, going forward, coming forward to now, the seismic shift in all of our cultural ideologies has changed dramatically. And at the forefront of that has been pro sports figures and pro sports teams. You talk about Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA, most notably, but also in the origin of all this was NASCAR and you stood behind a pretty defiant stance and took a really big chance with NASCAR, being one of the leaders, speaking out and taking a stand against social injustices. Why is now the right time for NASCAR?

Phelps: Well, you know what, Brad, that’s a really good question. You know, for us, and again, I’ll go back to June, it was a moment in time in this country that it appeared like everyone really was interested in understanding what was happening. An opportunity for us to listen. That’s where we were as a sport. You know, Bubba, who I think we would all suggest that he’s shown nothing but class and courage in this whole thing and he always has kept it up here, never has gone down here. It’s all about love, understanding, welcoming people to this sport and that’s really what we’re about. And I think that for us at this moment in time, where we were in June, was something that was important for our sport. We want to have this great sport open to as many people as we can. And the events that happened in June really showcased who our sport was, so, I was super proud of it. I know that the two of you have, I’ve had conversations with you about this, so I think it was, again, time and place, that was our time. There’s still work that needs to be done, for sure, and since June, you know, we’ve done a lot of listening with our own employees, with our industry broadly, with our many partners, Comcast, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Geico and many, many others about the role that sports can play, the role that our athletes can play and the roles, frankly, that our broadcast sponsors and our sponsors can play in what’s going on in our sport.

Voda: You bring up some great points, I think we’re all just trying to be better human beings overall. What is the biggest, I guess, takeaway or learning through all of the conversations and impact that you’ve had, you know, even dating back just to June?

Phelps: Yeah, listen, there’s so many, Krista, and they just kind of all blur together. But for us, it really is getting back to this, what actions can we take? I mean, it’s great to say the words, but if you don’t follow them up with actions, they’re really meaningless. And so, for us, it’s continuing down this continuum of this journey towards getting better. And getting better really means bringing a more welcoming and inclusive environment whether at the racetrack or you’re watching on television, that our sport is a place where everyone is welcome. And that’s really, you know, we say it a lot, but I think our sport does that better than any other, frankly, in terms of this sense of family and this sense of community that exists.

Daugherty: Steve, we get through February, the pandemic hits, everyone’s scrambling, trying to figure out, especially in the sports leagues how they’re going to get their seasons done or in. Here we are, we’re coming to the end of the season tonight, the regular season. How in the world did you guys come up with this ending at Daytona? You’ve hit it out of the park, my friend. This is going to be epic. I want to know a little bit, I’ve known you a long time, I want to know about the thinking that went into this, because this is going to be an epic night for the playoffs to begin after this.

Phelps: Well, I think you go back, Brad, just getting back to racing as we did on May 17th in Darlington, first without fans and then with fans. You know, here tonight, we’re going to have over 20,000 people, which is both, you know, an extraordinary accomplishment, you know, all the protocols that are in place, both for our competitors and our fans, but here we are, race 26 of the regular season. This has been circled on my calendar since the schedule came out last year and you just think about, you know, even at the time, switching from the July 4th date and frankly, we were heavily criticized for doing that and bringing it to tonight, this is why we’ve done it. You think, DJ. said, if you have eight people — there are actually 17 individuals, drivers that could get in tonight that are in the top 30 that can win their way in or point their way in. It’s going to be — not that Daytona’s not always a wild ride, it’s going to be a wild ride.

Voda: Well, thank you, Steve. We appreciate both your time and your transparency on these topics and we’re going to see Steve again later in the show. He’s going to present Kevin Harvick with the award for regular season supremacy.

Bubba Wallace shares with Dale Jr. behind scene stories from Talladega

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Bubba Wallace spent time talking with NBC Sports analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Tuesday discussing some of the events of the last few days at Talladega Superspeedway.

Wallace reveals his emotions before the race, the quip Richard Petty told him to help settle his emotions before climbing into the car and celebrating with fans at their first race after the event.

Here is part of the conversation Wallace and Earnhardt had for NASCAR America at Home:

Dale Jr.: What were you thinking as drivers pushed you down pit road before the race?

Bubba Wallace: I had walked out with headphones on just to kind of block out the noise and just kind of escape. Music is my escape, Dale. I forgot who came and tapped me, maybe it was (Corey) LaJoie or someone told me, ‘You ready to roll?’ I think that was when kind of the emotion came through … (That morning) I woke up and jumped on (the driver group chat) and Jimmie Johnson said ‘I’ll be standing next to Bubba during the anthem today’ and I lost it, I lost it right there. It’s not the hate that breaks me, it’s the support, knowing that people out there support me, makes you feel good, it pulls on your heartstrings for sure.

Bubba Wallace with Jimmie Johnson before Monday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

So I think that’s kind the emotion I was running through that whole time. So getting out of the car, I had a lot of emotion there, just going through everything. It sucks to be kind of carrying all of that weight but it’s part of the journey. Being able to turn around and see all the drivers standing there was really cool. I don’t know what made me look and see if the whole garage was there. Jimmie had talked to me about it. He had called me a couple of hours before the race and said that people reached out and wanted to be a part of that. So I stood up on the door and I looked and saw basically the entire garage and I lost it. I stood up and almost collapsed. It looked like Atlanta all over again (laughs).

But man, it was something truly incredible to witness and to be a part of.  It makes me proud to have a voice in NASCAR and also be a driver and be a part of this sport, a family sport and we all know it’s family. As much as we give each other crap on the racetrack, I will say for a fact, word for word, I got out of the car and I said I don’t like half you guys but I do appreciate all of this (laughs). It was a true testament of how big a family sport this is.”

Dale Jr.: Tell me a little bit about NASCAR President Steve Phelps. Who is he to you?

Bubba Wallace: He’s becoming a bigger and bigger friend than he is … the president of the sanctioning body. I fired off a text message to him a couple of weeks ago. One of the first things I said, ‘Hey, I look at you as a friend, so if I say anything that offends you, we’re friends.’ … I told him we need to take a big stand. We needed to take a big stand and stand up for what’s right. He quickly called me right after that and we had a really good conversation of where he stood and where he wants the sport to go and where he wants us all to go as a whole. That was pretty powerful there.

“He’s been very transparent with me. … The conversation that I had about what went down Sunday was, one, scared the hell out of me because he called me and it was one of those like you just did something wrong, like, my mind was racing, what interview did I do did I say the wrong thing … he was like we needed to talk in person. He comes over to the bus and he walks in and he’s kind of got of that really quiet mellow voice. I said, ‘Hey Steve, how is it going?’ (He said) ‘not good.’ …

When he finally looked up at me, he had tears in his eyes. I don’t know what’s going on, what he’s about to say, what I’m getting at is showing how much Sunday meant to him and offended him and hurt him, showed the character that he is and the passion that he has behind the sport but also his drivers and his friends. That he was disrespected, he was hurt, he felt threatened. He was not going to let this get away and blow under the rug. He was going to do everything in his power to find justice for this and to this day he is still carrying that and even beyond.”

Dale Jr.: What is your personal support system like? Who is helping you through this?

Bubba Wallace and Ryan Blaney. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Bubba Wallace: One, Amanda, my girlfriend. She has been super supportive. … She knew how much pressure and how much I was going through from Sunday throughout the race, everything that went on the whole pre-race, just the whole couple of days and couple of weeks I’ve been going through. … She has been a huge support so I love her for that. My mom, my sister and my dad. They’ve been all been there. …

“Talked to (Ryan) Blaney a lot. He was over here last week and we had a good conversation, talking about everything that is going on in the sport and the world, how crazy it is and what we could do to be better. I think that small little support group there on top of everybody reaching out, including yourself. … It’s cool to see that support.”

Dale Jr.: What has it been like to see new fans come to the sport?

Bubba Wallace: Man, that has been really cool. I think that was a powerful moment even after the race. I was pumped for Blaney. I was contemplating walking out to the finish line and I was like that’s a long walk. I’ll wait until he drives by. I heard the Bubba chants and I looked over and I see a decent amount of African Americans sitting in the stands. I was like, dude, that’s badass, that’s awesome. I guarantee you that was their first race. I felt obligated to walk over there, I wanted to walk over there. I wanted to kind of share that moment with them.

“They were like, ‘We’re all the way from Atlanta, we drove over here to check out our first NASCAR race,’ and they were all so proud of me and proud to be there and happy to be there and it was super cool to witness and be able to do the interview with them in the background screaming and hollering in support was super cool.

“I’ve been saying it for the last couple of weeks and I’ve always stood by this, I want everybody to feel welcome. When I go to a sporting event, when I go to a (Charlotte) Hornets game or a (Carolina) Panthers game, I don’t feel like I’m unwelcome because of who I look like. I want that same feeling for anybody that comes to a NASCAR event, that comes to a race and … the Confederate flag was a thing that kind of held people back and maybe the actions of some fans toward other people held people back. I’m trying to change that narrative and show, hey, come on out. You don’t have to cheer on me. You can cheer on Ryan Blaney, whatever. … Learn about the sport. Learn about the strategy. Know that we’re just not driving in circles because we’re driving on ovals. We go straight a little bit. Learn the pit stops, what it takes, the choreography of that. Learns the ins and outs of the sport. That’s where you get hooked.”

Bubba Wallace with fans after Monday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Dale Jr.: Is racing a necessary outlet for you at these times?

Bubba Wallace: Absolutely. I told Jimmie (Johnson) after the race, we were walking back to our buses, I told him, man, I wish that race didn’t end, it was a lot of fun. Now the work starts. Racing is not work and you know that.

“(Richard Petty) The King, right before I climbed in, he said, ‘Well, this is your chance to flip off that switch on the back of your head where we shut our brains off and go out.’ He said here’s that little switch you can pull off. We had talked about it when he got there to the track a couple of hours before with him, myself and Brian Moffitt (CEO of Richard Petty Motorsports) were sitting there and talking. Drivers have that switch. Once you put that helmet on it, it hits that switch down and you turn it off. He said, now you get to turn off that switch, so go have fun.”

Dale Jr. on Hall of Fame: ‘No greater pat on the back or tip of the cap than this’

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Many people would likely rather run as far away from the dentist as they can.

But on the day he could be named one of three inductees to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to the dentist for a root canal.

“I’ve been more nervous about that and the anxiety about the root canal was all counter to this whole Hall of Fame induction,” Earnhardt said after his selection to the Class of 2021 with Mike Stefanik and Red Farmer. “At 5 o’clock, when the (announcement) show started, that’s when it all started. I didn’t think I was going to be this emotional. But it’s a great feeling and it was very emotional to be chosen.”

It wasn’t just the dentist visit that has kept his mind off Tuesday’s announcement.

“I’m sorry but I hadn’t put any thought into (Tuesday’s announcement),” he said. “My mind’s been dominated by what’s going on in our world and what’s happening around us and how to keep the movement and the conversation going and what can I do, things like that. I’ve been putting a lot of thought into that.

“Since we’re coming out of the pandemic and everything going on with that, there’s a lot of news that’s fluid every single day and trying to understand where we are with that and what I need to be understanding about that … there’s so much happening and I haven’t been able to put a lot of thought into this Hall of Fame induction.

“… I didn’t have any time whatsoever to be nervous or worried about being picked or any of that until 5 o’clock when the show started. It really started to hit me then, that this is such a weird, important moment in my life. I didn’t know it was going to be this emotional.”

Earnhardt choked up several times, both on NASCAR America’s telecast of the Hall announcement on NBCSN, as well as on the media teleconference afterward. For a man who has spent much of his career comfortably displaying a wide range of emotions, Earnhardt admitted this was a whole different feeling.

“I was really surprised and taken aback by the feeling that came over me,” he said.

While many fans and even voters felt Earnhardt’s selection for the Hall would be a slam dunk – after all, he did earn 76 percent of the vote – the son of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt felt otherwise.

“I was good with just being on the sheet (of 10 nominees), I was going to be happy with that,” Earnhardt said. “I’m 45 and relatively young in the grand scheme of Hall of Fame things and I was going to be patient waiting.”

But it was difficult for voters, be they members of the media or those in the NASCAR industry, to overlook Earnhardt.

He was NASCAR’s most popular driver unabated for a decade and a half. He was a two-time Xfinity Series champion. He was a two-time Daytona 500 champion.

And perhaps more than all the wins or what he achieved during nearly a quarter-century in the sport, starting on its lowest rungs and working his way to superstardom, was the fact Junior also was picked for the Hall because of who he became, whether he wanted to or not, after his father died in a crash at Daytona in 2001: The sport’s biggest ambassador.

“There’s no greater pat on the back or tip of the cap than this, from the industry, from the people who vote … whether they’re drivers, journalists, industry execs or what,” Earnhardt said. “It’s such a great feeling that somebody felt I made an impact on the sport.”

Now that he’s a father himself (with a second child now on the way), and has become a popular broadcaster, Tuesday’s announcement was somewhat cathartic for the former driver of the No. 8 and 88.

“There was a point in my career I started to think, ‘Ok, I’m not going to win seven championships, maybe not even one championship, or not win 100 races, maybe not even 40 races,’ ” he said.

“ … People wanted me to be like (my father). When I realized I wasn’t going to be able to win those races and championships, I started to think what I could do outside of that, what else I could control to help the sport and be a good ambassador for the sport.

“I wasn’t always perfect but started focusing in those areas, being accessible and being accountable. I feel I did a decent job at that. I don’t want to sit here and measure that, but I’m pretty happy about that part of my career and the impact I had on the sport.”

Earnhardt admitted early in his career, he did some things that potentially ruffled some feathers of the sport’s hierarchy, like his celebrated interview with Rolling Stone or being on TV shows like “Cribs” on MTV.

“I always thought it was important I gained a ton of fans because of who I was, right out of the gate,” he said. “But I knew when dad died, I was going to assume all or most of his fan base, and I feel like I took care of that. I didn’t squander it, and I grew that base and introduced people who hadn’t heard of Dale Earnhardt.

“I always felt like the sport needed to be healthy long after my driving career was over. It’s important for me that our sport survives and stays strong long after my life is over.”

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NASCAR America at Home: ‘What now?’ between Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch

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NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte has a simple question after Wednesday night’s explosive situation between Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott.

“What now?”

Busch said after Wednesday’s race that he made a mistake when he clipped Elliott’s car while Elliott ran second late in the event at Darlington Raceway. The contact sent Elliott’s car sliding down the frontstretch and into the SAFER barrier on the inside wall. After exiting his car, Elliott walked toward the track and gave Busch the middle finger.

After the race, Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson discussed the incident with Busch.

“Mistake or not,” Letarte said on NASCAR America at Home (video above), “if I’m Alan Gustafson, if I’m Chase Elliott, I’m still mad. I am irritated. I don’t think that Chase is one to go turn him on purpose, but I would take every inch of every move with every benefit of the doubt for the rest of the season.”

Letarte said the “big story” is what will Elliott do in response.

This isn’t Elliott’s first issue with a Joe Gibbs Racing driver. Denny Hamlin spun Elliott late in the 2017 Martinsville race. They had a discussion after the race.

Two weeks later at Phoenix, Elliott and Hamlin were running side-by-side when a nudge from Elliott sent Hamlin into he wall. Hamlin’s car developed a tire rub that eventually cut the tire and sent the car into the wall.

Letarte, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton all said they thought the contact from Busch at Darlington was a mistake.

Kyle Busch is going to get a lot of the blame,” Jarrett said. “He’s already taken the blame. He made a mistake and race drivers make mistakes. Things happen.

“You don’t think that’s going to happen like that on a straightaway, but that shows just how important it was for him to get back in line. … Kyle Busch just misjudged it a little bit.”

Said Burton: “(Busch) didn’t intentionally wreck Chase Elliott, but what he does have to do, other than just on TV, he’s got to take responsibility to Chase Elliott. He can’t wait for Chase Elliott to get in touch with him. He’s got to go make this right because it was his mistake and it’s on him to make it right. If you do those things as a driver, then typically things go away quicker.”

Let the debate begin: NBC Sports experts make NASCAR picks

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Go ahead. Scan the four-driver teams the NASCAR on NBC announcers, analysts and writers have put together in the NASCAR America Draft.

Think you could do better?

Then try! It’s easy.

Take a look at the list of drivers at the bottom of this file. Select four drivers. But you can spend no more than 10 tokens for your four-driver team.

Do you take a former champion among those costing five tokens, leaving you with only five tokens to make your final three picks. Do you play it safer and go for a driver who costs four tokens? Do you go with veterans? All rookies? Something in between?

See the teams the NBC Sports crew put together and then do your team. And share it with us on social media using #NASCARAmericaDraft.

 

Jeff Burton’s team

Kevin Harvick (5 tokens)

Christopher Bell (2 tokens)

Matt DiBenedetto (2 tokens)

Michael McDowell (1 token)

I want a superstar. I’m going to go ahead and bite the bullet and spend five tokens on a superstar driver. … The reason I’m going to pick Kevin Harvick is because I know what he can get it done on the racetrack. It doesn’t matter what racetrack it is, he can be competitive. …  I’ve been his teammate. If I’m a car owner, I want that guy in the meeting, pushing to make everybody better, doing everything that he can to make himself better and everybody else. I know the intangible value that Kevin Harvick brings to the table.

 

Steve Letarte’s team

Denny Hamlin (4 tokens)

William Byron (3 tokens)

Christopher Bell (2 tokens)

Corey LaJoie (1 token)

I’m going to take what I think is a cornerstone driver. When I look at the four token options, there are two great young talents in Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, I think they have a lot of upside, Kurt Busch is a champion, but I’m taking Denny Hamlin. I’m taking, in my opinion, the best driver who has never won a championship. Denny Hamlin, I know he’s a little bit older at 39 years old, but I think he’s as mature as he’s ever been. I think he can lead our organization to building good cars and giving good feedback. Why? Because he wins everywhere. … I think he would excel in that leadership role.

 

Kelli Stavast’s team

Denny Hamlin (4 tokens)

Alex Bowman (3 tokens)

Matt DiBenedetto (2 tokens)

Ryan Preece (1 token)

I think Denny is a bargain at 4 tokens and Matty D is a steal for 2.

 

Rick Allen’s team

Kyle Busch (5 tokens)

Matt DiBenedetto (2 tokens)

Cole Custer (2 tokens)

Ryan Preece (1 token)

 

Kyle Petty’s team

Joey Logano (5 tokens)

Matt DiBenedetto (2 tokens)

Christopher Bell (2 tokens)

Bubba Wallace (1 token)

 

Dustin Long’s team

Chase Elliott (4 tokens)

Ryan Blaney (4 tokens)

Corey LaJoie (1 token)

Bubba Wallace (1 token)

Let me introduce you to the modern day “Rat Pack” that will continue to transform NASCAR, just as the original 1960s version altered popular culture and Las Vegas. No driver under 30 needs to apply for my team that will be strong for years to come.

 

Nate Ryan’s team

Denny Hamlin (4 tokens)

William Byron (3 tokens)

Tyler Reddick (2 tokens)

Bubba Wallace (1 token)

Denny Hamlin because he’s in his peak year at age 39 and is a steal for four tokens after a 2019 championship round appearance. Byron has the most potential of the three-token guys. Tyler Reddick might be a slight reach at two tokens, but he will win in Cup. Bubba has the transcendent appeal and charm to attract major sponsors if he can have some success in a good ride.

 

Daniel McFadin’s team

Denny Hamlin (4 tokens)

Tyler Reddick (2 tokens)

Matt DiBenedetto (2 tokens)

Ryan Preece (1 token)

No Cup champions on my team, but I went with the best current driver to not have a title (Hamlin) who still has at least five years left in the tank. He can mentor Reddick. I like Preece and DiBenedetto as a pair of drivers in their late 20s with untapped potential who can motivate each other with a friendly rivalry.

 

Jerry Bonkowski’s team

Denny Hamlin (4 tokens)

William Byron (3 tokens)

Matt DiBenedetto (2 tokens)

Bubba Wallace (1 token)

Taking a driver worth five coins would really skew things, so it’s better – at least mathematically – to take one pick apiece from the other four categories. I expect big things from all four of my picks, particularly Byron and DiBenedetto.