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Friday 5: North Wilkesboro to make its comeback on iRacing

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Long gone but never forgotten, North Wilkesboro Speedway will make a comeback.

On iRacing.

Steve Myers, executive vice president and executive producer at iRacing, told NBC Sports that “we’re on track to get (North Wilkesboro) released the first week of June.”

No other long lost track is as revered among NASCAR fans as the .625-mile speedway where the frontstretch went downhill into Turns 1 and 2 and the backstretch went uphill into Turns 3 and 4.

NASCAR ran 93 Cup races there from 1949 — when it was the finale in the inaugural season of NASCAR — to 1996. Hall of Famer Junior Johnson was the local favorite. Richard Petty and Bobby Allison had an epic door-banging battle in 1972. Ricky Rudd and Dale Earnhardt tangled on the last lap in 1989 and crashed, leading Rudd to hide in the back seat of a passenger car to escape the wrath of fans. Jeff Gordon won the final Cup race there in 1996.

The track was revived in 2010 and held a few races. Its final race was 2011. 

North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1966. Jim Paschal won the pole and the race. David Pearson started second and finished third. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

In December, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others helped clean the surface so the track could be scanned and added to iRacing’s sim racing program.

“There were certainly sections of the track that were much worse condition than could possibly be raced on,” Myers said. “Turns 3 and 4, the pavement was sliding. You could see it was buckling in on a section of the track … from sitting unused for so many years.

“Going into Turn 1, the drainage coming out from underneath the grandstands kind of ran across the track and because it was downhill, it was funneling down the front straight pit wall and right along into Turn 1 and collecting in the apron at the exit of the pits. You could tell there (had been) a lot of water there because the pavement started peeling up along that wall. So those things are kind of the obstacles that we have in the production process of trying to figure out how to smooth those things out and do the best we can.

“The data, we looked through it already, we’re pretty far along on the development of the track. It actually looks pretty good.”

That’s not the only track iRacing is working on to give race fans. They are working to do a version of Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville.

“Everyone that has kind of been clamoring for that, I think, is going to be excited about that,” Myers said.

2. Offseason iRacing?

OK, it was one event under extraordinary times where there were no other live sporting events on TV at time when normally there would have been NCAA basketball tournament games, NBA and NHL contests, among other sports, but the excitement (and viewership) for last weekend’s debut of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series has raised the question of if this is something that could be done in NASCAR’s offseason.

With NASCAR looking to end future seasons earlier and possibly making the offseason longer, a question was posed on social media if iRacing with Cup drivers would be a good offseason element for the sport and its fans.

Tim Clark, NASCAR senior vice president and chief digital officer, told NBC Sports this week that “anything is possible, (but) I do think it’s probably early to think about that now.

“I think we’re in a unique position in that we’ve got not only sim racers like you see in the (eNascar) Coca-Cola (iRacing) Series but also professional drivers that are able to do this at a high level,” Clark said. “What that does, I think it gives us some flexibility to determine what we’re going to do with these platforms and the timing. I think we want to strike the balance between having some opportunities to do more in this space but also being cognizant enough to not oversaturate.”

Should there be something in the offseason, it would face obstacles. Many drivers typically take vacations after the season. With the holidays of December, that makes it more challenging.

Now, if there was an interest in a short series of offseason races, January could be the time. Sundays could prove difficult because of NFL playoff games. So maybe a midweek event? Still that would face competition from other pro and college sports. And of course, the biggest question is if people will still want this after sports resume throughout the calendar.

3. IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheaders

Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s announcement Thursday that it was moving its IndyCar GMR Grand Prix from May 9 to July 4, puts it on the same day as the Xfinity race there, also on the road course, and a day before the Cup race on the oval.

IndyCar and NASCAR doubleheaders have been discussed often in the last year and Josef Newgarden ran six laps in an IndyCar on the Charlotte Roval in September. Now fans will have the chance to see the NTT IndyCar Series and NASCAR’s top two series at the same facility on the same weekend.

Josef Newgarden drove demonstration laps Sept. 27, 2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval. (Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Mark Miles, president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Corp., which owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar Series, explained the move and what it could mean for the future.

“It’s not like we had a plan in place,” Miles said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. “It’s something that comes up. It’s been clear for a long time that both series, under the right circumstances, thought it could be a good thing for the sport and for each of our series.

“The spirits have always been willing. It hasn’t necessarily always been the highest priority, but this just sort of created the opportunity of here’s an opportunity, let’s go for it and as has been said there wasn’t much hesitation.”

IndyCar driver Graham Rahal expressed his feelings with running at Indy with NASCAR and the possibility of future doubleheaders with NASCAR.

“I’m extremely excited to run with NASCAR,” Rahal said in a social media video. “I think it’s a great opportunity for our sport, for their sport to come together. Opportunity maybe for some doubles to be done, which we’ll look into and things like that. But I do think that’s really good and it’s exciting for all of us to go off and do that together.”

Indianapolis Motor Speedway also announced Thursday that the Indianapolis 500 would move from May 24 to Aug. 23.

4. What to do?

With shops closed or running with a limited crew because of no racing until May 9 at the earliest for Cup organizations, teams are trying to figure out what to do next.

“What became very apparent to me about two Mondays ago is after Atlanta is that you could not make a long-range plan,” Philippe Lopez, general manager of Richard Petty Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “Because I did. I did it on Tuesday. I redid it on Wednesday. Then on Friday, I said, ‘You know what, it’s impossible. We’ve never gone through this.’ ”

RPM driver Bubba Wallace with team owner Richard Petty earlier this season. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Lopez said the RPM shop was closed this week and was closed part of the previous week.

“The biggest thing we’ve told (employees) that right now this is about them and their families and we wanted them to be home and be safe. We have continued to pay our employees and not cutting anything yet.

“They know, obviously if this goes on for much longer, we can’t afford to stay at that rate and that pace. There are, fortunately, some teams that can but we’re, unfortunately, not one of those.”

Lopez said that he is reaching out to employees each Friday to give them the plan for the coming week.

“The biggest thing was,” he said, “is we’re all going to get through this together.” 

He said a group text for employees has been “really heartwarming to see how they are taking care of each other. It’s just a good bunch. Everyone is taking care of each other right now. I told them to not worry about the racing part. We can build cars in two weeks.”

5. Long wait

There are certainly bigger issues in the world with COVID-19 infecting more people in the U.S. than any other country and the demand for medical supplies.

While racing, along with all sports, waits to resume, there have been many stories that have intrigued me. One is Jesse Little.

The 22-year-old senior at UNC Charlotte spent the previous five seasons trying to make it in NASCAR’s Truck Series but never competing in half the races any of those season. His was a case of a driver seeking work his way into a full-time ride.

He got that chance this season in the Xfinity Series with JD Motorsports and after four races, he, like everyone else, waits for when sports can return.

Jesse Little is in his first season in the Xfinity Series. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Little understands his plight does not compare to others who are suffering.

He also understands that this pause is just part of a journey he has gone through to become a full-time racer.

“I’ve learned to expect nothing and be prepared to react to everything,” Little told NBC Sports.

The Xfinity Series is not scheduled to return to racing until May 23 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, meaning teams would go 11 weeks between races. He’s gone months between starts in his Truck career, which has seen him run between four and nine races since 2015.

He admits there have been times when his career could have ended because of the lack of rides.

“Like a lot of drivers in my position, there were always crests and there were troughs,” said Little, whose best finish this season was 14th at Las Vegas. “I think at the end of 2017 when I ran only four Truck races that year and my last race I crashed and was, like ‘OK this might be it. Luckily, I’m going to school full-time who knows.’

“We were fortunate enough to be able to make the investment and go racing and bring back some people I had great chemistry with and had good notebook and that’s when I had my most successful year in Trucks in 2018. So in the span of six months, I went from thinking I was pretty much done to having my best career finishes and leading laps.”

And it led to him getting a full-time ride this season.

“I’m fortunate to have the support system I do,” said Little, the son of former NASCAR driver Chad Little, of family and friends. “If it wasn’t for them, without a doubt, I probably would have said, ‘All right this racing stuff didn’t work out. I played my cards.’ “They forced me to continue down the path and in doing so, each step … I’ve been given chances and I’ve seen personally that I believe I have what it takes and I’m confident enough in myself. It’s proved to me and I think to the people I want to prove, I think I deserve a shot at showcasing the potential I have. Each one of those things has given me the next step to readjust and get to that next spot.”

While he waits to race, he keeps busy with school work.

“The week heading into Atlanta I was stressing a lot because the week going into Homestead was my midterms and I was swapped absolutely with school,” said Little, whose major is management information systems. “The week after my midterms was my senior project. Literally racing got put on hold right when I needed to focus on my two classes at school the most. That’s what I’m taking up my time and I’m able to focus on my school stuff.”

Even with that, he’s still doing his race prep work from exercising and studying race film.

“I want to be as prepared as I can,” he said about when racing returns.

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Friday 5: Matt Tifft on the road to recovery from December seizure

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Even on his honeymoon, Matt Tifft exercised as he prepared to race again this season. But about 30 minutes after his workout, Tifft began to feel “weird.”

The only way he can describe it now is that it felt like he stuck his finger into an electrical outlet.

He tried to tell his bride something was wrong, but he couldn’t speak. His tongue rolled back. And then eyes rolled back.

“I could see it,” Tifft told NBC Sports. “I could actually see my other eye. It was the freakiest thing out of a nightmare movie that you could ever imagine.”

As his body convulsed, he couldn’t breathe.

Eleven weeks later, Tifft describes the Dec. 12 seizure — his second last year — in a way he admits he could not have done so a month ago. But understanding what likely led to both seizures and using a cannabidiol (CBD) product help his anxiety, Tifft says he feels much better and looks forward to two weeks before his 24th birthday when he can return to driving a street car. As for racing again? He hopes to do so but knows there’s no guarantee.

Matt Tifft says the use of a CBD product has helped him in the last month. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Tifft, a Cup rookie last year, suffered his first seizure shortly shortly before practice Oct. 26 in the Front Row Motorsports’ hauler at Martinsville Speedway. After the Dec. 12 seizure, there was one common theme: Tifft had been off his keto diet both times. He suffered food poisoning that led to what he said was an “extreme stomach infection” about a week before the seizure at Martinsville.

While off his diet during his honeymoon, the combination of eating foods he hadn’t — and forcing his body to process carbs and sugars it had not in some time — along with his body reacting to his workout “spiked me into the danger zone.”

But it took time for that cause to be found. Tifft, who had brain surgery in July 2016 to remove a slow-growing tumor, worried about what was happening to him and panicked about being in public.

“My battle with this anxiety and panic attacks have gotten a lot better … (with) CBD,” Tifft said of cannabidiol, a naturally occurring compound found in the resinous flower of cannabis. “It has actually been, I would say a life-changing thing for me to go from being terrified of leaving my house (to) being able to go in public when I started taking that. It’s made such a huge difference that I can function socially and go to places and do things.

“I find it interesting still that that’s illegal in our sport because I know so many times after intense races or you go to Dover or Bristol and your body is all twisted up and it feels terrible and you just have to take ibuprofen or Tylenol because that is what is legal. If we could take something like (CBD), I think it’s a much more natural and efficient way of helping our bodies.”

The NASCAR Rule Book addresses CBD products in its Substance Abuse Policy in a section titled: Dietary and CBD Supplements.

Section 19.3.4.a states “Dietary and CBD supplements may contain (either purposefully or through contamination) a prohibited substance under this Policy.”

Section 19.3.4.b states: “Any product sold with a warning advising non-use if the purchaser is subject to a drug testing program should be avoided even though such products may be available without a prescription.”

Sports leagues are split on CBD. The World Anti-Doping Agency announced in 2018 that CBD had been removed from its list of banned substances making this year’s Olympics the first in which athletes can legally use CBD.

MORE: Questions and answers about CBD from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency

The Pain Management Committee of the NFL and NFL Players Association held a fact-finding forum in January with manufacturers of products that use CBD in sports medicine. The NFL’s drug policy includes a ban on THC, a substance found in marijuana and some CBD products. Mike Bass, NBA executive vice president of communications, told NBC Sports Philadelphia that “we have regular discussions with the players’ association about a variety of matters, including … CBD. Those conversations are ongoing.”

Tifft said he began using a CBD product in January and felt better about 20 minutes later.

Former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (right) celebrates after Kurt Busch won the 2017 Daytona 500. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“I think the thing that initially brought me to it was athletes like Rob Gronkowski, guys who have been advocates of it afterward from their healing and recovery,” Tifft told NBC Sports. “Someone like me, who has dealt with brain issues, it’s known as a neuro protective, so for someone like me, I’ve always been interested from the outside of it and studied the results of it and effects of it.”

Should Tifft get a chance to race again in NASCAR, he knows he could be at a crossroads with CBD.

“If it came down to and I was cleared to race again and that was kind of the choice, I’d have to weigh out, if I go off of this can I feel I feel OK and be fine,” he said. “If that’s the case, I’d be fine with doing that. I think an optimal sense if we can have something that can benefit folks but also be able to come back to racing, that’s the ideal scenario.

“It depends on the time where right now I’m excited to get my normal’s drivers license June 12 because it’s a six-month process (after the last seizure). For me, right now, honestly, driving anything other than iRacing is just far-fetched.”

2. On target for 250

Last March, Kyle Busch collected his 200th career victory among NASCAR’s top three national series — Cup, Xfinity and Trucks — and the idea was posed that he could be on his way to 250 or more career series wins before he retires.

Busch remains on target heading to Auto Club Speedway this weekend with 209 career NASCAR victories, including his Truck win last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Kyle Busch has won 209 career NASCAR races across the Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

His success in the Truck series — he’s won his past seven starts — led Kevin Harvick and then Marcus Lemonis to tweet that they would give a total of $100,000 to a Cup driver who could beat Busch in the Truck Series. Busch has four Truck races remaining this season. Both Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson will take that challenge

Since 2015, Busch has averaged 13.4 victories a year in those three series combined. He turns 35 in May, giving him plenty of years to reach 250 career wins, but his efforts will be slowed in the future. Busch has stated that once he hits 100 career Xfinity victories (he has 96) he would stop racing in that series except for if car owner Joe Gibbs requested him to drive in particular races.

What Busch is doing is something that won’t be seen again in NASCAR unless series officials relax the rule that limits veteran Cup drivers to no more than five Truck and five Xfinity races a season.

So just as Richard Petty’s record of 200 Cup wins is viewed as one that will not be broken — because the number of races was cut from more than 60 to 36 — Busch’s ever-increasing total also will be one that will never be touched. The next closest active driver to Busch is Harvick, who has 110 combined wins in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. The active driver after Harvick is Jimmie Johnson with 84 wins (83 in Cup and one in Xfinity).

3. Aggressive driving

Xfinity rookie Harrison Burton had an interesting take on aggressive driving when asked about it earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On Track” show. This is what he said:

“I think that aggression is becoming more and more acceptable in our sport,” Burton said. “From my perspective last year in the Truck Series, Ross Chastain came in and was the most aggressive guy, right? Everyone was like mad at him for like two weeks. After that, it was like ‘OK, why don’t we all race like that?’ and then it just turned up the wick of the flame and everyone kind of rose to that level and it made the racing a lot tougher, a lot more challenging, a lot more fun and it was good for the overall racing in Truck Series.

“I think that has kind of happened everywhere, not necessarily because of Ross, but the packages and the way things have been changing in the sport. It’s super aggressive now, which is super fun. That’s becoming a little bit more acceptable, but you also have to still use your head and respect the guys that have been there for years and years before you and try to find a balance there.”

4. Where’s the tax benefits?

Eddie Gossage, president and general manager of Texas Motor Speedway, raised questions this week during TMS’ media day about the need for a better infrastructure near the track with the development that has taken place.

“Our local, state and federal officials have collected our tax money and spent it somewhere else apparently because they’re not building us roads,” Gossage said, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram“We desperately need roads improved yesterday.”

Gossage went on to say:

“It’s just inappropriate for the elected officials and the bureaucrats to have that kind of development without building the proper infrastructure to support it. I call on all of them to get out here today to start building those roads because it doesn’t matter if you’re a business or a resident, there’s too little concrete out here to get where you need to get going.”

5. Testing

William Byron will stay in California longer after Sunday’s race to test the Next Gen car on Monday and Tuesday.

He’ll become the fourth driver to test the car. Austin Dillon drove it at Richmond in October, Joey Logano tested it at Phoenix in December, and Erik Jones drove it at Homestead in January.

NASCAR’s next test after the Auto Club test is scheduled to take place March 16-17 at Atlanta.

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Dale Jr. says Luke Kuechly made right decision on retirement from NFL

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CHARLOTTE – As a professional athlete who understands the impact of concussions on career longevity, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an understandably emotional connection to Luke Kuechly’s stunning retirement from the NFL.

“Relief,” Earnhardt said Wednesday when asked about his reaction to the Carolina Panthers star linebacker walking away from pro football at 28. “I think my feeling for Luke is relief.

“He had an amazing career. Obviously, I’m sure he would have loved to have played longer, but he’s made some amazing, great choices for himself and for his family and his future.”

Though Kuechly didn’t reference concussions during a poignant 5-minute video posted Tuesday night by the Panthers to announce his decision, he cited no longer being able to play the game “fast, physical and strong” as he always had. A history of concussions plagued an eight-year career for Kuechly, who missed the last six games of the 2016 season and another in ’17 with a head injury.

I still want to play, but I don’t think it’s the right decision,” he said in the video.

That’s a similar sentiment to when Earnhardt announced nearly three years ago that he would be ending his career as a NASCAR driver at 43. Though healthy enough to have driven beyond the 2017 season, the 15-time most popular driver said the long-term quality of life with his family and the risk of another head injury weighed heavily in a decision to trade in his helmet for a headset as an NBC Sports analyst.

Earnhardt suffered several concussions during his Cup career. He admitted to hiding one for a few months while racing in 2002. Multiple concussions in the 2012 season sidelined him for two races, and he missed the final 18 races of ’16 while recuperating from another concussion.

“When you get in those types of situations that (Kuechly) was in, you have to make some difficult choices, and I think he made the right one,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like that a lot of people can learn from that. I think he set an amazing example for a lot of young folks to follow.”

Earnhardt has used his injuries as a platform for raising awareness about concussions, particularly in his candid 2018 autobiography, “Racing to the Finish.”

“It’s all improving across the board,” Earnhardt said about how concussions are handled in pro sports. ‘Especially when you see what Luke’s doing and making the choices he’s making, it’s obvious that we’re all a lot better off because of what we’ve learned as a society over the last decade about concussions and the seriousness of those situations, and how we need to take care of our bodies and when to step away and when to know that you need to take a break.

“I feel like we’re all much better off today than we were five or 10 years ago. And I can only see that improving. The understanding about concussions is always improving. The science behind it. Everything is getting better year after year. And that’s exciting. It’s good for our competitors today, no matter what sport you’re playing. It’s great for our veterans and guys who have retired because the science is just improving for everybody to diagnose and treat even years and decades after your playing days or being in a race car. You can still improve your quality of life and that makes me really, really happy.”

Earnhardt’s departure from the No. 88 Chevrolet received virtually universal support in NASCAR, and he was pleased by a similar reaction for Kuechly.

“(Kuechly) gave everything he could to when he was out on the field for the better of his team,” Earnhardt said. “If you listen to comments from his coaches and the players that he’s played with, you understand exactly what kind of person he was and how much of a teammate he was to the guys he played with. That speaks volumes.

“You just have to want to support his decision. (I’m) excited about his future and what he might do next and the next chapter for him. It’s going to be positive and successful, you’d imagine, because of the type of person that he is.”

As a broadcaster, Earnhardt has moved into a more ambassadorial role in his life after driving. That was evident Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which unveiled a new Glory Road exhibit that highlighted 18 championship cars personally selected by Earnhardt (including two driven by his late seven-time champion father).

“I do love to be acknowledged for the passion that I have for (NASCAR) history,” Earnhardt said. “If you’re a bit of a historian of the sport, any involvement in anything the Hall of Fame is going to be doing is awesome and going to be a great experience. I’m just glad that they asked me and hope that people appreciate what we created. I feel great and confident about it and hopefully feel good about it adding a lot to the experience when you come through here.”

Long: All Kyle Busch does is win and win

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FONTANA, Calif. — The first time Kyle Busch won a professional race, the then-13-year-old thanked his older brother Kurt.

For not being in that race.

Twenty years later, Kurt went to Auto Club Speedway’s Victory Lane to congratulate Kyle on winning his 200th career NASCAR race.

“They’re all added up through his hard work, his dedication to perfection,” Kurt Busch said Sunday after finishing sixth to his brother.

Kyle Busch’s accomplishment will be debated. Some will suggest the accolades are hollow because many of his 147 wins in the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series came with superior equipment and against inferior competition. Others will look at his 53 Cup wins — which has him 11th on the all-time victory list — and note his talent is worthy of the praise heaped upon him.

Forget about the number 200, don’t let it distract you. And don’t let any discussion of comparing it to Richard Petty’s 200 Cup wins distract you. They’re different.

“Somebody asked me about whether or not I was the greatest of all time,” said Busch, the 2015 series champion who scored his first career Cup victory at this track. “I’m never going to self‑proclaim that. That’s for others to debate. 

“I would just like to be attributed or in that mix of the top five, top eight guys. I think by the time I’m all said and done, I could be in the top two or three of those guys of greatest of all time.”

But one thing to look at is what Busch is doing in Cup.

He has won 13 of the last 50 Cup races, dating back to his 2017 playoff victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

That’s a 26 percent winning percentage. That’s ridiculous. But so are 200 career NASCAR wins (again, don’t let that number distract you).

Busch has accomplished his recent level of dominance in an era of ever-changing rules from stage racing to aerodynamic and horsepower alterations intended to keep cars closer together. He succeeds in an era where drivers can see the data on their competitors. No rule change has stopped Busch from winning.

“Take a look at football,” said Busch’s car owner, NFL Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs. “Take a look at football.  We have something going on over there.  We got a team that’s dominating things.”

Busch hasn’t reached the championship level domination of that team that Gibbs, a former coach of the Washington Redskins, wouldn’t let pass his lips, but it’s hard to argue what Busch has done in Cup lately.

“The thing you can count on in pro sports, everybody is coming,” Gibbs said. “You look at all those race teams out there and how good they are.”

Busch’s biggest competition — other than himself — was Team Penske, which had the top three cars at one point in the race. Instead Penske drivers finished second (Joey Logano), third (Brad Keselowski) and fifth (Ryan Blaney).

“It’s Team Penske and the 18 car,” Logano said of Busch. “They got something. They’ve got a good driver. They’ve got a good crew chief. They’re making good adjustments. They’re building good cars. You put something like that together, they win races.

“I wouldn’t say we’re far off. We’re right there and we’re leading laps as well. Today may have been his day. We’ll come back and fight hard next week.”

They couldn’t beat Busch on a day he cost himself the lead by speeding on pit road on Lap 123 in the 200-lap race. Busch dropped to 18th for the restart.

Stevens counseled his driver that there was enough time to make up the lost ground even in a race where the field got strung out the longer a green-flag run went.

Stevens has been Busch’s crew chief for 43 of Busch’s 200 NASCAR victories. Stevens knows when to coddle, when to push back and when to encourage. Such was the case during the final caution on Lap 165.

Busch, who was leading, debated a change to the car, saying he was afraid to free the car too much.

“Don’t be afraid,” Stevens told his driver.

Stevens later said: “I was really just busting his chops.”

Stevens explained.

“I didn’t want him to not tell me what the car was doing because we were learning about the magnitude of our changes,” Stevens said. “I didn’t want him to forecast his impression upon what we were going to do. I just wanted him to tell me what it was doing.”

The changes worked and Busch was back in front for the final 26 laps.

Then it was just a matter of time before he could sing.

“All I do is win, win and win no matter what,” Busch said on the radio after taking the checkered flag, reciting a line from DJ Khaled’s song “All I do is win.”

For as big as this victory was, there will soon be another race. Busch will compete in Saturday’s Truck race at Martinsville Speedway and the Cup race the following day.

There are more races to win.

“I think anything beyond this is just another number,” he said. “I mean, I could go lightly and say 250 (wins), or I could reach for the stars and say 300. What’s wrong with that?”

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Friday 5: Racer shares his struggles with depression, anxiety

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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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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