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Friday 5: Racer shares his struggles with depression, anxiety

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The challenge to race hasn’t always been about sponsorship and equipment for Cody Ware.

The 23-year-old suffers from depression and anxiety.

He wrote in a Facebook post last year that when he took a hiatus from racing and went back to school in 2015, his struggles got “so bad that I actually tried to kill myself.”

As Ware prepares to start his first Daytona 500 on Sunday, starting 37th for his family’s team, he is speaking about the mental health struggles he’s faced.

“I think most of my day-to-day struggles come internally,” he said. “The biggest step for me making the plunge into full-time Cup racing was to make sure I could mentally and emotionally handle it. Being on medication every day, it’s a constant struggle between fears and doubts and uncertainty, always kind of wondering to myself if I could get through a full 36-race season in Cup. I feel like with friends and family on board … I think with all that, it will be a good experience.

“This isn’t my story, this is a story that needs to be talked about for everybody. This is an issue that I think is way more prevalent in the country that is not discussed at all. I think that the more people have a voice and use their voice to talk about mental health and the stigma around it, that will help more people than I can even imagine. Even if all I’m doing is starting a conversation, then I’m accomplishing what I want to do.”

Ware follows a number of athletes and former athletes who have spoken about mental health struggles. NBA player DeMar DeRozan opened up about his struggles with depression and anxiety in February 2017, telling the Toronto Star: “It’s one of them things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we’re all human at the end of the day.”

Shortly after that, NBA player Kevin Love wrote in The Players’ Tribune about a panic attack he had during a game in 2017 and how therapy sessions have helped him. “Everyone is going through something that we can’t see,” he wrote.

Last August during his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech, Brian Dawkins detailed his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts he had early in his NFL career.

The National Institute of Mental Health states that nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness — more than 40 million people. Young adults age 18-25 years have the highest prevalence of a mental illness compared to adults 26-49 years and those age 50 and older.

Ware says he was about 17 years old when he acknowledged “that I had a problem” but it wasn’t until a few years later that he said he “started actually trying to fix the problem.

“That’s kind of been the big part for me the last few years, making the conscious effort to keep fighting that fight,” he said. “It’s not something that I can just take some medication and be done with it. It’s a battle every morning when I wake up to really deal with those problems.”

He acknowledges setbacks he’s had.

“Back in 2017, I had a few issues on social media where I said and did some things that I should not have and that obviously, as it should, caused a lot of backlash on myself personally,” said Ware, who accused a fellow racer of infidelity after a disagreement over who was responsible for a crash.

“I think hitting rock bottom (after that) was the best thing that happened to me because that really gave me the wake-up call of ‘hey, this is only going to get worse, and you’re never going to come back from it unless you do something about it right now.’ That really set the stage where I’m still having to deal with a lot of that now. I own it, and I accept it and all I can do now is show that I’m making an effort to improve myself and also talk about my story.”

2. Dueling takeaways

With 21 cars per race and the inability for cars to build momentum in the bottom lane, much of the field ran single-file in both qualifying races Thursday night.

Competitors say they don’t anticipate that being as prevalent in Sunday’s Daytona 500 with a 40-car field (provided several cars are not eliminated by an accident or multiple accidents).

One driver who tried to do something in Thursday’s second qualifying race was Chase Elliott. In the final 10 laps, he often went to the bottom lane by himself and attempted to pass a car and move back to the high line. He climbed from 10th to sixth late but when he tried doing the same thing to take fifth, he lost momentum and fell back, finishing eighth.

“If they’re going to ride around the top all day long, I’ll be happy to try the bottom, at least make something for the great people that are watching up here in the stands,” Elliott said afterward.

The biggest move was Joey Logano’s maneuver from fourth to first on the final lap. He got a great push by teammate Ryan Blaney, giving Logano the momentum to go to the bottom. Blaney followed. The top three — Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Aric Almirola were not aligned as tight on the high line.

Logano side drafted Almirola, stalling him and still had the momentum with Blaney behind him to shoot into the lead.

“I knew I wanted to do it into (Turn 1), so I went for it,” Logano said of his winning move. “You kind of cross your fingers, hope it was good enough to break that plane where (Bowyer) couldn’t pull me back in the side draft. I was able to break that plane, come on up.

“That was a big moment once I was able to clear him. I didn’t want to get that far ahead, but I was. Being two‑wide didn’t give Bowyer a good enough run to get back to me.”

As for the single-file racing throughout the Duels, Logano said:

“It’s all driver mentality, right? It’s what everyone is thinking. I think what kind of leads the top to be strong is a few different things. 

“I think one of it is the side draft is more effective to the right side of a car. You’re able to slow down a car more from being on the right side than you can the left side. A lot of it is because of the shark fins. That’s just a theory in my mind. Seems like that is how that works.

Once that is in a driver’s head that the bottom is not going to work, you have five guys that think that, when they get to the lead they move to the wall, at that point the wall is going to be the fastest way around. It’s the best way to defend the lead.  You see those cars go up there.

I personally don’t think the bottom is that bad. When you can only get two, three, maybe five cars with you, it’s not enough. It’s not enough to do it. You have to have six, seven cars that are really committed to each other.”

3. No change needed

A question that has come up this week is if NASCAR needs to do something to help the stability of the cars to give drivers more confidence at Daytona.

Denny Hamlin said nothing needs to be changed.

“I think the cars are plenty stable and really more stable than I’ve felt them, especially when I kind of think back 10 or 15 years ago,” he said after finishing fourth in the second qualifying race Thursday. “These cars drive way better. If there’s mistakes made, it’s usually drivers, not the air or the car that’s making those mistakes.”

4. Axe the All-Star Race also?

Kevin Harvick said this week that the Clash should be eliminated — possibly foreshadowing that the Daytona 500 might not open the season in the future.

Harvick notes the cars crashed in the Clash and the payout from the race and questions the value to teams. He’s right. The Clash should go. In the last eight years, 70 percent of the cars in that event were involved in a crash. Sunday, 17 of the 20 cars were involved in the last accident before the rain came.

But why stop with the Clash? As NASCAR looks to make changes to the schedule, why not get rid of the All-Star Race? It’s a non-points event like the Clash. Eliminate both and NASCAR can tighten the schedule.

Harvick, though, says the All-Star Race should say.

“I still think that we have to have a weekend where we can show off as a sport,” Harvick said of keeping the All-Star Race. “That is really, when you look at the All-Star events, it needs to be something to where we can go to a city and have them embrace the All-Star event so you have pit stop competitions and unique parties.

“You go to a place like Nashville and have an All-Star race, you don’t have to make up formats because you are going to have a heck of a race with a great atmosphere and a market that you can have all kinds of events and excitement and enthusiasm.

“I went to the Super Bowl this year. You look at the Super Bowl and it doesn’t look like our Daytona 500. There is not as much going on here as there was there. When you look at the All-Star race and the (NBA) All-Star event that will be in Charlotte this weekend, their All-Star events move around, the Super Bowl moves around. You get enthusiasm from not doing the same thing over and over and over.”

As for the idea of an event at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, Speedway Motorsports Inc. and the group that promotes racing at Nashville Fairgrounds are working on a proposal to present to the city to upgrade the track for future NASCAR events.

5. One that got away

For as much as drivers celebrate their wins, they remember the defeats as much, if not more.

For 2017 Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, he thinks back to the 2005 season-opening race as one that got away.

I wanted to make a move on Jeff Gordon on the back straightaway on the last lap,” Busch said. “As I went to look out to make the pass, because I had a good run from the guys behind me, it was a line of Chevys. I was in a Ford that year. It was Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. behind me and I think it was Jeff Burton and a line of guys were ready to go with Dale Jr. I was going to get hung out to dry.

“I came back to second. That one stayed with me for a while.”

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Houston Texans’ J.J. Watt named Daytona 500 Grand Marshal

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Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt will serve as the grand marshal and give the command to start engines for Sunday’s Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway officials announced.

Watt becomes the first NFL player to give the command to start engines in The Great American Race’s 61-year history.

“I am honored to have the opportunity to serve as Grand Marshal for this year’s ‘Great American Race,’” Watt said in a statement. “The Daytona 500 is a truly iconic event with a rich history and I am very much looking forward to taking in the action up close and personal this year.”

A three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Watts is also known for his charity work, most notably raising more than $41 million for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts for the city of Houston in 2017. He was awarded the prestigious Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award for his hurricane relief efforts.

“We’re ecstatic to have a person who has shown to be not only an incredible athlete, but also somebody who has done so much for communities in need,” Daytona International Speedway president Chip Wile said. “J.J. is one of the best players currently in the NFL and now he’s going to be our Grand Marshal. … It’s a spectacular pairing.”

William Byron will start the 200-lap, 500-mile race on the pole, while Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman will start alongside Byron on the front row. The rest of the 40-car starting lineup will be determined in Thursday night’s two Gander RV Duels, beginning at 7 p.m. ET.

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Friday 5: Turnaround in 2018 has Aric Almirola looking ahead to 2019

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Aric Almirola‘s performance this season at Stewart-Haas Racing provided validation to a driver who had not raced in the best Cup equipment before 2018.

Almirola improved 24 spots from last year to finish a career-high fifth in the points, the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in Cup since the elimination format debuted in 2014. 

Part of the reason for Almirola’s jump was because he missed seven races last year after being injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway and finishing 29th in points for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola also showed what he could do in his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“For me, there was always some amount of self-doubt, how much am I a contributor to the performance not being where I want it to be,” Almirola said this week in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “Sometimes you have to take that long, hard look in the mirror. I think for me … with my future and career being uncertain, one thing I was really hopeful for was that I would get an opportunity in a really good car to be able to know, hey, is it me or not? If I get that opportunity, can I make the most of it? Can I compete?

“I was fortunate enough that things worked out for me that I was able to get that opportunity. Some people never get that opportunity. But I was able to get that opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. I’ve got the best equipment in the garage area, and I was able to go out and compete. I ran up front and won a race and finished in the top five in points. It was a great year for me personally.”

Almirola nearly won in his first race with SHR this season. He led the Daytona 500 on the last lap before contact from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall and Dillon to the victory.

Almirola was in position to win at Dover when a caution for teammate Clint Bowyer came out in the final laps. Almirola pitted and then wrecked on the restart. Almirola won at Talladega when he passed teammate Kurt Busch after Busch ran out of fuel on the final lap.

“Now that we’ve got a year under our belt, and I feel like we achieved quite a bit, we can really focus in on our weaknesses and where we didn’t perform at our best and try to make that better. We can circle back to some of the tracks we ran really well at and figure out what we need to do to capitalize on some of those races where we felt like we could have won and didn’t do it. It’s very reasonable to have higher expectations going into next year.”

2. Not going anywhere

For those who wondered — and there were some whispers in Miami — Brad Keselowski will be back with Team Penske for the 2019 season.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Keselowski said Wednesday in Las Vegas of questions at the end of the season that he might retire. “As far as I’m aware (all is good). I will be at Team Penske driving the No. 2 car this year to the best of my knowledge. I’m under contract to do so.”

Recall that Keselowski was outspoken in June about the package that was used in the All-Star Race and warned then that “if we overdose on that particular form of racing, it will have … a long-term negative effect.”

Keselowski suggested in June that fewer talented drivers would come to NASCAR over time if the All-Star package became the primary one. NASCAR adopted a package for 2019 similar to what was used in the All-Star Race but added more horsepower than was used in that race.

One change for Keselowski is that he’ll have a new spotter. Joey Meier announced Nov. 19 that he would not be spotting for Keselowski in 2019, saying he had “been told my time as the 2 Car spotter has come to the checkered flag.” Keselowski said that a new hire hasn’t been made yet.

3. Offseason plans

What does a racer do when the season ends? Race, of course. At least that is what Alex Bowman will do.

He’ll compete in a midget at the Gateway Dirt Nationals today and Saturday at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams NFL team before they moved to Los Angeles.

Bowman also plans to run a midget at the Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget event Dec. 15 in the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin, Illinois in preparation for the Chili Bowl in January in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also has entered a midget for C.J. Leary for the Chili Bowl, which will be Jan. 14-19.

Not every driver will race in the next few weeks.

Ryan Blaney says he’ll leave Saturday for Hawaii. It’s his first trip there.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but the group I was with wanted to go,” he said Wednesday in Las Vegas. “I would like to go somewhere other than America to try to change up the culture, but I think that’s enough of a culture change in Hawaii to experience new things.”

He also plans to do some snowboarding before being home in January when his sister gives birth to her child.

Erik Jones said he’ll do some ice fishing – “go sit out in the cold and look at a hole in the ice, it’s just relaxing for me.” He said he plans to spend time with family in Michigan enjoying the holidays.

Denny Hamlin said he’ll go to St. Barts for a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. “Just going down there for some vacation time in the next few weeks and after that just spend some time at home relaxing.”

Austin Dillon said he expects to be in a deer stand for some time before Christmas.

4. ‘Exciting’ move

Kyle Larson calls the pairing of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and the World of Outlaws in a doubleheader at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track in February “exciting” but he says a key will be track preparation.

When the K&N Pro Series West raced at the Vegas Dirt Track in September, the conditions were so dusty that it impacted the racing and viewing for fans.

“I think for them to both be able to showcase how cool the event is, the track needs to be right, the way it is prepped needs to be right,” Larson said this week. “That’s the only thing I”m nervous about, judging how the (K&N West) race went a few months ago.

“I just hope that the track is good so fans can get the opportunity to see some good racing in a few different series.”

5. Together again

Among those joining Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn in moving to Joe Gibbs Racing will be car chief Blake Harris and an engineer, Truex said in Las Vegas.

Having Pearn in the JGR shop should prove beneficial for all, Kyle Busch said.

“Adam (Stevens’) and Cole’s offices will be right next door to one another instead of being on a chat all the time,” Busch said of his crew chief and Pearn.

Busch likened Truex and Pearn helping the organization as much as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth did. Joe Gibbs Racing won 26 of 72 races in 2015-16 when both Edwards and Kenseth were there. 

NFL schedule reveals conflicts in some markets with NASCAR races

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The NFL released its schedule for every team Thursday night, revealing conflicts with a few NASCAR Cup races — but not as many as it could have been.

The first conflict comes Sept. 9 when Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosts the Cup regular-season finale at 2 p.m. ET. The Indianapolis Colts play their home opener against the Cincinnati Bengals at 1 p.m. ET.

“In a perfect world, we’d rather not be head-to-head at home,” Doug Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, told The Indianapolis Star. “But we knew we’d be head-to-head regardless, whether they were here or on the road. … We just had our fingers crossed that it wouldn’t be the first year of the new date for the race.” 

Other places where NASCAR and NFL compete nearby:

# Oct. 7 – NASCAR races at Dover International Speedway. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, who have a strong following in that region, are home to the Minnesota Vikings in a rematch of the NFC championship game that sent the Eagles to the Super Bowl. The race is at 2 p.m. ET. The game is scheduled for 4:25 p.m.

# Oct. 21 – NASCAR races at Kansas Speedway at 2 p.m. ET, and the Kansas City Chiefs are home to the Cincinnati Bengals at 1 p.m. ET.

NASCAR avoided conflicts a few other weekends.

The Charlotte Roval race is Sept. 30 and the Carolina Panthers have a bye that weekend.

The Texas race is Nov. 4 and the Dallas Cowboys play Nov. 5 in a Monday night game.

The Phoenix race is Nov. 11 and the Arizona Cardinals are on the road.

The season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway is Nov. 18. The Miami Dolphins have a bye that weekend.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has ‘some interest’ in being part of group that buys Carolina Panthers

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not one of two race car drivers who are part of Felix Sabates’ group seeking to buy the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, according to the Associated Press.

NASCAR’s 15-time most popular driver told the AP he hadn’t been asked by Sabates to join the group. But Earnhardt said he reached out to Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., about the possibility of being part of an effort to pursue the team.

SMI own Charlotte Motor Speedway and seven other NASCAR tracks.

“I said, ‘Hey, Marcus, if you guys are in the middle of it and you think it’s a good business deal, I definitely have some interest,'” Earnhardt told the AP. “But I am not one of the guys that Felix is talking about.”

Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, told the Charlotte Observer last week he was part of a local group in the Charlotte area seeking to buy the Panthers. Sabates said he is not in position to be the majority owner by a “long shot.”

Sabates’ group includes five businessmen, two of the team’s existing minority owners and two race car drivers, who Sabates declined to name.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is selling the team after it was revealed in December by Sports Illustrated that four former Panther employees received “significant settlements” for workplace misconduct that included “sexual harassment against female employees and for directing a racial slur at an African-American employee.”

NASCAR recently denied a report that CEO and Chairman Brian France was part of a group interested in buying the team.

Earnhardt, a noted fan of the Washington Redskins, recently retired from Cup racing after 18 full-time seasons on the circuit.

“I wouldn’t have the kind of money where I would move the needle too much, but it would be something to have a lot of pride in, and a good Charlotte NFL team is good for the city of Charlotte,” Earnhardt said. “I wish them success because of what it does for our community, not only from a pride standpoint, but an economical standpoint. I wouldn’t be a big player, and it wouldn’t be an investment that would really create a big change in my life.

“But I certainly would love to be supportive to the team and the success of the team to the community. That means a lot to me.”

Earnhardt will make his debut as a member of the NBC Sports broadcasting family next month during coverage of the Super Bowl and winter Olympics.