Martinsville Cup race turns back clock to 1978 (video)

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MARTINSVILLE, Virginia — The last time a Martinsville Cup race featured four cautions before Monday?

You have to go back to when car owner Richard Childress was racing, the field had 30 cars, and drivers in that race included Satch Worley, Baxter Price and Ferrel Harris, along with eight Hall of Famers — race winner Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Benny Parsons, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Terry Labonte, David Pearson, and Childress.

That was September 1978. That race also had four cautions.

Of the four cautions in Monday’s snow-delayed race won by Clint Bowyer, two were for stage breaks, one was a competition caution and the other one was for an incident.

So, why were there so few cautions in Monday’s 500-lap race?

Opinions vary.

“Once you get strung out here, there’s not a lot of attrition,’’ Denny Hamlin, a five-time winner at Martinsville, said after placing 12th Monday. “Guys give each other room and when somebody is faster, somebody gives up the spot.

“It’s different racing now than what it used to be. I think that everyone is running the same speed. All of our cars, whether it be data sharing, setups that we’re sharing with each other and all that, everyone is getting their car to drive very, very similar.

“Even when I would come up on lapped cars, they were running a similar speed to what I was, but I was able to get through traffic better than they were. We’ve gotten the cars to where the drive is so similar so when everyone runs the same speed it’s hard to pass and with less passing there’s less chance for incidents. I thought it was still a good race, a lot of races have gone caution-free for a long time back in the day and Clint really put a whipping on them.”

Jeremy Bullins, crew chief for Ryan Blaney, said that with so few restarts, there were fewer chances for accidents and cautions toward the end of the race.

“I don’t know about the data sharing aspect,’’ Bullins told NBC Sports. “It could have an impact on it, but I think it’s just one of those days were it seemed like everybody stayed off each other a little bit more than normal and weren’t knocking each other out of the way. You saw the end of the Truck race. Once they started racing hard, they started going crazy.

“We didn’t have that caution with 50 to go that led to all the cautions at the end. That’s really what makes a difference. If you don’t get the late caution and jam everybody back up again, that’s what separates them at the end. Once they get spread out like that, you’re not going to get a caution. It’s the late cautions that jumble everything up.’’

The race’s final caution was from laps 385-391 for contact between Austin Dillon and Jamie McMurray.

Scott Graves, crew chief for Daniel Suarez, had a different thought on the matter.

“This is the third (race) on this tire combination,’’ Graves told NBC Sports, noting the change to the right-side tread compound before the 2017 spring race that helped create an outside groove at the flat track. “I feel like since we’ve been on this tire combination it’s been a little different, it hasn’t been your typical Martinsville. … With this tire you still don’t have all the marbles going down and you can run on the outside a little bit and it’s not as big a penalty as it used to be.’’

BACK IN THE DAY

The four cautions in Monday’s Cup race at Martinsville were the fewest there since the September 1978 race. A look back at what was taking place in 1978:

1978 Cup champion: Cale Yarborough

1978 Daytona 500 winner: Bobby Allison

Cost of gas: 65 cents a gallon 

Highest-grossing movies: 1. “Grease”; 2. “Animal House”; 3. “Superman”; 4. “Every Which Way but Loose”

Billboard top 100 singles for 1978: 1. “Shadow Dancing” by Andy Gibbs; 2. “Night Fever” by Bee Gees; 3. “You Light Up My Life’’ by Debby Boone.

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Daytona 500 victory 50 years in the making for Austin Dillon’s tire changer

Photo: Dustin Long
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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The younger members of Austin Dillon’s team, full of adrenaline-fueled energy and excitement, celebrated their Daytona 500 victory Sunday with a late-night visit to a tattoo parlor to permanently etch their achievement on their rear end.

Terry Spalding didn’t make it that far. It was time to turn in.

That’s OK, Sunday was a big enough day for the 50-year-old front tire changer, who experienced his first Daytona 500 win.

Yes, Spalding is 50 years old and changes tires for a Cup playoff team. Age alone gives him a different perspective on the Daytona 500 victory.

“I’m really able to appreciate it,’’ Spalding told NBC Sports. “I’ve been doing it 20-some years. Only since I’ve been at RCR in the last seven or eight years have I really been able to win the races that I won.’’

Dillon says Spalding doesn’t need a Daytona 500 ring to note how special he is.

“Terry is just a champion in life, period,’’ Dillon said. 

Spalding grew up the son of a racer in Pennsylvania and moved to North Carolina to pursue a job in the sport in 1990 — the same year Dillon was born.

Along the way, Spalding has worked in Cup for car owners such as Travis Carter, Ray Evernham, Richard Petty, Michael Waltrip, Richard Childress. Spalding has gone over the wall to service cars for drivers such as Jimmy Spencer, Elliott Sadler, Tony Raines, David Reutimann, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard and Dillon.

Spalding went to in Victory Lane at Indianapolis in 2011 when Paul Menard won. Spalding was in Victory Lane last year when Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600.

That he is still going over the wall is a feat considering the radical changes for pit crew this season. With NASCAR eliminating one of the over-the-wall positions, pit crew members are having to redefine their roles. Those that haven’t adjusted as well have lost jobs or been dropped down a series. Spalding’s duties have changed. He now carries a 60-pound tire with along with his air gun.

He’s always managed to adjust through the years. When he turned 40, he often was asked how much longer would he wanted to change tires. He randomly said 50. It’s a nice round number. Realistically, as pit crews have become more athletic and younger — many are in their 20s — that seemed like a pipe dream.

Now that he’s 50, how much longer will he go?

“I feel as good as I did when I was 40,’’ Spalding said. “I thought about when I can’t go over the wall anymore, starting to coach.’’

He’s got to find time. He plays in the same basketball league Denny Hamlin hosts at his house that includes Dillon, Darrell Wallace Jr., Ryan Blaney and others. In recent years, Spalding competed in slalom ski races. He’s also played in a roller hockey league. He’s competed in mountain bike races.

“I still go in the weight room, I don’t hit it as hard as I used to,’’ Spalding said. “I like to do things … and stay active that way.’’

He’s not ready to quit any time soon.

“I want to go as long as I can,’’  he said. Barring some freak injury, I honestly think 55 is no problem.’’ 

That would be at least five more Daytona 500s.

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Déjà vu: Lucky penny once again rides with the No. 3 to Daytona 500 victory

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Twenty years ago, Dale Earnhardt Sr. won his only Daytona 500 with a lucky charm on-board his No. 3 Chevrolet.

Glued to his dashboard was a penny given to him by then 6-year-old Wessa Miller the day before the race.

On Sunday, Richard Childress Racing’s No. 3 returned to Daytona’s victory lane in a Cup Series race for the first time since Earnhardt’s historic day.

Austin Dillon, the grandson of team owner Richard Childress, took the checkered flag after contact between him and race leader Aric Almirola on the last lap resulted in Almirola wrecking.

Glued on the left side of dashboard in Dillon’s Chevrolet was his own lucky penny, also given to him by a young fan.

“We did an autograph session before the Clash (on Sunday), and a lot of fans were there, and some kids that I don’t think they knew a whole lot about racing, but they were enjoying themselves,” Dillon said Sunday night.

One of the fans was a seven or eight-year-old boy wearing a white Ford hat.

“I said, ‘Man, you’ve got to take that off,'” Dillon recalled. “I signed my hat, gave it to him, and said, ‘Now, look, I’ve got to be your favorite driver, right?’  And he’s like, ‘All right, cool, I’ve got you now.'”

The next day, Dillon encountered the boy standing at the fence of the Cup garage. He wore the hat Dillon had signed.

“He yelled at me, and I turned, I seen he had my hat on.  So I was like, sweet.  He’s like, ‘Hey, I got this for you.’  It was a lucky penny.  Put it in the car, and it’s sitting on the dash right now, and it’s pretty special.  I think that’s really cool.  I’ve never been that superstitious in my life, but my grandfather is very superstitious, so I listened to him in the race, I ran the bottom more, I found a lucky penny, and it just worked out tonight, I guess.”

The penny that was given to Earnhardt is still in the car that won in 1998. It sits in the Richard Childress Racing Museum in Welcome, North Carolina.

Dillon’s penny will also remain where it was glued as the car is displayed in Daytona’s museum for the next 12 months.

“I think that penny deserves to stay with its owner, the car, so it’s going to stick right there,” Dillon said. “You guys can go check it out. I’d like to find that kid, though.  Maybe I can ‑‑ if somebody knows (him), if you could get him to the track tomorrow, that would be really cool.”

Long: Past, present come together for thrilling Daytona 500 finish

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The kids paid homage to history and became part of it after Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Against a purplish sky, as day transitioned to night at Daytona International Speedway, the scoring towers blazed with the No. 3 and No. 43 in the top two spots. Not since April 1987 at Bristol have those iconic numbers stood together atop the results of a NASCAR Cup race.

But instead of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty in those cars, it was Austin Dillon piloting the No. 3 to the victory and rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. driving the No. 43 to a runner-up finish.

And in a nod to the sport’s rough-and-tumble days, the car ahead of the No. 3 on the final lap spun out of the lead after contact. A trail of sparks and smoke produced the lasting image of Aric Almirola’s car instead of it covered in confetti in Victory Lane.

Almirola, though, held no grudge against Dillon.

After all, that’s just racin’.

That’s what the public wants. The sport has faced a tug-of-war with fans ton how to make the racing more exciting. Older fans long for past days, recalling the rivalries but overlooking that the competition wasn’t always so balanced. New fans need more to keep engaged.

Stages were added last year to enhance the racing. It created chaos Sunday. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and youngsters Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Ty Dillon were eliminated through no fault of their own in a crash just before the first stage ended.

That was one of four multi-car crashes. Each time wayward cars avoided the path Dillon and Wallace took.

Then again, both Dillon and Wallace have taken their own paths through the years.

Dillon, the grandson of car owner Richard Childress, drove the No. 3 when he raced as a child. To NASCAR fans that number represented Earnhardt and became sacred after his death on the last lap of this race in 2001.

Childress admits he was “ready to get out of the sport” after the death of his best friend. What was left? His friend was gone.

“The relationship that him and Dale Earnhardt had was a friendship that you don’t find every day,’’ Dillon said. “I mean, it’s one of those friendships, a best friend that you trust and you love. I could tell how much as I grew older their friendship meant and still wears on him because he misses him.’’

Childress recalled a conversation he and Earnhardt had on a mountain in New Mexico during a hunting trip. The two men reflected upon their mortality. They agreed to go on if something happened to the other.

With that, Childress kept racing through the sadness and emptiness.

Then something came along to lift Childress’ spirits. His grandsons Austin and Ty. Both played sports but followed their father into racing. Childress backed them in the early days and groomed them, hoping they could carry Richard Childress Racing further.

As Austin Dillon progressed, he and Childress had a conversation about the No. 3. Dillon still used it but the closer he moved to NASCAR’s national series, the touchier the subject was for some.

“That was Dale’s number,’’ Childress reminded Austin.

“No it isn’t,’’ Austin told pop-pop. “It’s your number. You drove it, and that’s why I want to do it.’’

Childress was convinced that Dillon should continue to drive it in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series. The number had not run a Cup race since Earnhardt’s death on Feb. 18, 2001. Until Austin did in 2014.

For Wallace, who has raced since a child, it is race that sets him apart.

He became the first African-American to compete in the Daytona 500 since Wendell Scott in 1969. Wallace’s achievement earned a tweet from Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton wishing him well.

“I got weak at the knees,’’ Wallace said.

Before he climbed into his car, Wallace was given the phone. Former Major League Baseball home run record holder Hank Aaron wanted to wish him good luck.

“Just knowing that people are tuning in and hopefully noticing the new face and the new change that’s coming to NASCAR and they get behind it and support it. Just exciting,’’ Wallace said.

Still, both drivers — essentially teammates with Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports in an alliance — were not the main story entering the 60th running of this race.

Dillon didn’t have time to ponder such things before Sunday’s race.

He was trying to console his wife about 90 minutes before the race. Dillon couldn’t understand why his wife cried as they prayed with family members in their motorhome.

‘’Are you okay?’’ Dillon asked Whitney. “What’s wrong?’’

Dillon’s words were not soothing.

“She kind of got mad at me for like, why are you crying,’’ he said. “She stormed off. So I walked back to the bathroom, like, ‘Babe, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?’’

“I get emotional when it comes to you,’’ Whitney told him.

“That’s good, but it’s okay, I’m going to be okay, it’s all good,’’ Dillon reassured. “We had it out there for a second, and I was like, ‘Look, before I get in this race car, my mind has got to be right, so tell me you love me.’ And she’s like, ‘I love you. That’s why I’m crying.’ ’’

Then she told him something else.

“This one is not going to be easy,’’ she said of the race.

“You’re not going to lead every lap and be up front much, but you’re going to do it when it’s clutch, you’re going to win when it matters, on the last lap,’’ she said.

It wasn’t just Whitney’s words with him. He had a lucky penny in his car — just as Earnhardt had in the No. 3 car when he won the 1998 Daytona 500.

Dillon got the penny earlier this week while doing an autograph session outside the garage. A child in a white Ford hat came through the line. Dillon, a Chevrolet driver, took off his hat, signed it and gave it to the child.

“I’ve got to be your favorite driver, right?’’ Dillon told the child he estimated to be 8 years old.

The next day, Dillon saw the child wearing his hat outside the garage fence. Dillon approached him. The child gave Dillon a penny that he put in his car.

Between Whitney’s words and the penny, Dillon only led only the final lap. Actually, he led less than half a lap, taking the lead after the contact with Almirola.

“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him,’’ Dillon said. “I guess that was my other option, give up a Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing. I don’t know, I’m glad he’s not mad. If he needs to do it to me at Talladega for everybody to feel good, I’ve got a Daytona 500 championship trophy, ring, whatever. I don’t care. I’ve got the 3 back in Victory Lane.’’

Back where Dillon was in 1998 as a 7-year-old, celebrating Earnhardt’s win that day and collecting all the sponsor hats the team wore.

Sunday, they were in Victory Lane for him. Childress and the team laughed, sprayed champagne and celebrated a night they hadn’t enjoyed after the Daytona 500 since last winning it in 2007.

As the team members posed for pictures with their sponsor hats, they didn’t raise their index finger to signal they were No. 1 as they cheered.

They didn’t raise two fingers for the number of Cup wins Dillon now has.

They raised three fingers.

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Friday 5: Questions about size of future Hall of Fame classes

Photo by Lance King/Getty Images
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After NASCAR celebrates the ninth Hall of Fame class tonight (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN), questions may soon arise about how many inductees should be honored annually.

NASCAR inducts five people each year. When NASCAR announced eligibility changes in 2013, a former series executive said that the sanctioning body would “give strong consideration” to if five people should be inducted each year and if there should be a veteran’s committee “after the 10th class is seated.’’

The 10th class — which Jeff Gordon will be eligible for and expected to headline— will be selected later this year and honored in 2019. That gives NASCAR a year to determine what changes to make if officials follow the schedule mentioned in 2013. NASCAR has discussed different scenarios as part of its examination of the Hall of Fame.

Among the questions NASCAR could face is should no more than three people be inducted a year? Should only nominees who receive a specific percentage of the vote be inducted? Should other methods be considered in determining who enters the Hall? 

Only one of the last five classes had all five inductees selected on at least 50 percent of the ballots. Five people in the last three classes each received less than 50 percent of the vote.

The challenge is that if NASCAR reduced the number of people inducted after the Class of 2019, it could create a logjam in the coming years.

Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards (provided Edwards does not return to run a significant number of races) would be eligible for the Class of 2020.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth (provided Kenseth does not return to run a significant number of races) would be eligible for the Class of 2021.

Stewart would appear to be a lock for his year and it seems likely Earnhardt would make it as well his first year.

If the Hall of Fame classes were cut to three a year, and Stewart, Earnhardt and Kenseth each were selected in those two years, that would leave three spots during that time for others.

The nominees for this year’s class included former champions Bobby Labonte and Alan Kulwicki, crew chief Harry Hyde (56 wins, 88 poles) and Waddell Wilson (22 wins, 32 poles), car owners Roger Penske, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs and Cup drivers Buddy Baker, Davey Allison and Ricky Rudd.

A 2019 Class that might feature Jeff Gordon, Harry Hyde, Buddy Baker and two others would still leave some worthy candidates who might not make it for a couple of years if the number of inductees is reduced.

Of course, there are those who haven’t been nominated that some would suggest should be, including Smokey Yunick, Humpy Wheeler, Buddy Parrott, Kirk Shelmerdine, Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant and Tim Richmond. That could further jumble who makes it if the number of inductees is reduced.

Those are just some of the issues NASCAR could face as it examines if any changes need to be made.

2. Hall of Fame Classes and vote totals

Note: NASCAR did not release vote totals for the inaugural class (2010 with Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France Sr., and Bill France Jr.). Below are the other classes with the percent of ballots each inductee was on:

2018 Class

Robert Yates (94 percent)

Red Byron (74 percent)

Ray Evernham (52 percent)

Ken Squier (40 percent)

Ron Hornaday Jr. (38 percent)

2017 Class

Benny Parsons (85 percent)

Rick Hendrick (62 percent)

Mark Martin (57 percent)

Raymond Parks (53 percent)

Richard Childress (43 percent)

2016 Class

Bruton Smith (68 percent)

Terry Labonte (61 percent)

Curtis Turner (60 percent)

Jerry Cook (47 percent)

Bobby Isaac (44 percent)

2015 Class

Bill Elliott (87 percent)

Wendell Scott (58 percent)

Joe Weatherly (53 percent)

Rex White (43 percent)

Fred Lorenzen (30 percent)

2014 Class

Tim Flock (76 percent)

Maurice Petty (67 percent)

Dale Jarrett (56 percent)

Jack Ingram (53 percent)

Fireball Roberts (51 percent)

2013 Class

Herb Thomas (57 percent)

Leonard Wood (57 percent)

Rusty Wallace (52 percent)

Cotten Owens (50 percent)

Buck Baker (39 percent)

2012 Class

Cale Yarborough (85 percent)

Darrell Waltrip (82 percent)

Dale Inman (78 percent)

Richie Evans (50 percent)

Glen Wood (44 percent)

2011 Class

David Pearson (94 percent)

Bobby Allison (62 percent)

Lee Petty (62 percent)

Ned Jarrett (58 percent)

Bud Moore (45 percent)

3. Charter Switcheroo

Five charters have changed hands since last season. One will be with its third different team in the three years of the charter system.

In 2016, Premium Motorsports leased its charter to HScott Motorsports so the No. 46 team of Michael Annett could use it.

The charter was returned after that season, and Premium Motorsports sold the charter to Furniture Row Racing for the No. 77 car of Erik Jones for 2017.

With Jones moving to Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing not finding enough sponsorship to continue the team, the charter was sold to JTG Daugherty for the No. 37 team of Chris Buescher for this season. (The No. 37 team had leased a charter from Roush Fenway Racing last year).

So that will make the third different team the charter, which originally belonged to Premium Motorsports, has been with since the system was created.

4. Dodge and NASCAR?

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne excited fans when he said in Dec. 2016 about Dodge that “it is possible we can come back to NASCAR.’’

One report last year stated that Dodge decided not to return to NASCAR, and another countered that report.

While questions remain on if Dodge will return to NASCAR, Marchionne announced this week at the Detroit Auto Show that he’ll step down next year, and that Fiat Chrysler will release a business plan in June that will go through 2022. The company will announce a successor to Marchionne sometime after that.

Marchionne said, according to The Associated Press, that the U.S. tax cuts passed in December are worth $1 billion annually to Fiat Chrysler.

A Wall Street Journal story this week stated that Fiat Chrysler makes most of its profit from its Jeep and Ram brands, writing that those brands “have been on a roll as U.S. buyers shift to these kinds of light trucks and away from sedans, which is a segment the company has largely abandoned.’’

5. NMPA Hall of Fame

The National Motorsports Hall of Fame will induct four people into its Hall of Fame on Sunday night. Those four will be drivers Terry Labonte and Donnie Allison and crew chiefs Jake Elder and Buddy Parrott.

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