Friday 5: Recent winners share long journey to Victory Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That led to the Truck Series title.

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

Chastain admits Bowman provides a lesson even for him.

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

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

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

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

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

2. Lightning strikes at Daytona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. New Daytona class

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

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

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

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

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

4. Deal or no deal?

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

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

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

But what about the extra track time he could get?

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. How times change

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

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

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

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Was Justin Haley’s Cup win most unlikely in last 20 years? Maybe not

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In a long history littered with upsets and unlikely winners, Justin Haley’s victory might be remembered as the biggest fluke yet in NASCAR.

But it also might be remembered as the start of something big, as it was for a few other bolts from the blue in the Cup Series.

In only his third Cup start (and the 18th race for fledgling Spire Motorsports in its inaugural season), Haley was in first for one lap – the only lap he’s led in his career – when the Coke Zero Sugar 400 was stopped Sunday because of inclement weather.

The 20-year-old from Winamac, Indiana, inherited the lead when Kurt Busch pitted from the lead on Lap 127 of a scheduled 160. A little more than two hours later, after multiple holds for lightning and a downpour, Haley was declared the winner.

LONG: The signs were there for Haley’s bombshell

He became the first driver to win a race with one career lap led since Brad Keselowski scored his inaugural victory on April 26, 2009 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Keselowski is one of several Cup winners who were as unexpected as Haley was Sunday at Daytona.

Keselowski also is a good example of some who went on to create much greater legacies.

Here are some of the biggest upsets over the past 20 years in NASCAR’s premier series (which means we are excluding some memorable surprises from the Xfinity and truck series, such as David Gilliland at Kentucky Speedway in 2006):


2016 Pennsylvania 400: In NASCAR’s first fog-shortened race in more than 40 years, Chris Buescher led the final 12 laps by staying on track after many pitted during a green-flag cycle.

The rookie won in his 27th career Cup start and catapulted into a playoff berth that was a seven-figure boon for Front Row Motorsports.

“This is going to change our whole year right here,” he said. “We got a win here, so we’ll take it any way we can get it.”


2013 Aaron’s 499: Another Front Row Motorsports stunner as teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland finished 1-2, rocketing from the fourth row in a two-lap overtime restart that ended a race delayed more than three hours by rain.

(John Harrelson/NASCAR via Getty Images)

“This is a true David vs. Goliath moment here,” said Ragan, who snookered Carl Edwards with a last-lap pass for the second victory of his career (after winning at Daytona in July 2011).

The win was popular among the well-funded teams that were vanquished for a rare moment. Jimmie Johnson responded, “Awesome,” when told of Ragan’s victory over the radio, and Kevin Harvick tweeted it was “what NASCAR is all about!!!”

“As frustrated as I am by this loss, I’m really happy for (Ragan and Gilliland),” Edwards said.

“I see how hard teams have to work to be competitive at this level. It truly couldn’t happen to two better guys.”


2011 Southern 500: “We’re not supposed to win this thing!” Regan Smith radioed his Furniture Row Racing team after his only victory in NASCAR’s premier series.

(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Earning his first career win in a signature race on one of the trickiest tracks in NASCAR (it had been 23 years since Darlington’s last first-time Cup winner, Lake Speed) was a feat for Smith. It also was the first win for Furniture Row Racing, which was only in its second full season and years removed from becoming a championship contender.

But most impressive was how Smith won: Inheriting the lead by staying on track under caution and then fending off Edwards (who was on fresh tires) on two late restarts. Smith slammed the Turn 2 wall on the final lap while holding the throttle wide open to join a roster of legendary Southern 500 winners that includes David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.

“I don’t know if my name deserves to be next to them, but after tonight, maybe it does,” said Smith, who wouldn’t win again in Cup but became a perennial winner and title contender in Xfinity.


2011 Daytona 500: A day after turning 20, Trevor Bayne won the Great American Race in the second start of his Cup career. In a perfect blend of new blood meets old school, it was the first Daytona 500 win for venerable No. 21 of Wood Brothers Racing since Pearson outdueled Petty in a classic 1976 finish.

(Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Bayne’s performance at Daytona International Speedway was nearly as sublime. As many Cup stars struggled to adapt to the phenomenon of tandem drafting, the Knoxville, Tennessee, native made a host of veteran moves to avoid many wrecks and parry a final charge by runner-up Edwards.

“If I tried to put it into words, I couldn’t do it any justice,” said Bayne, who famously radioed “Am I dreaming?” to his team after taking the checkered flag of the 53rd Daytona 500 to become the race’s youngest winner.

It would be the only Cup victory for Bayne, who didn’t run full time in NASCAR’s premier series until 2015. His career-best points ranking was 22nd, and he left the series after last season.


2009 Coca-Cola 600: David Reutimann was in 14th place when he stayed on track at Charlotte Motor Speedway and inherited his first lead just past the halfway mark of the longest race of the season.

Five laps later, NASCAR stopped the race, and after two hours of intermittent rain, Reutimann was named a first-time winner. The most notable thing he did during the first 300 miles of the race was anger Tony Stewart with some blocking maneuvers.

“It certainly wasn’t the prettiest, but someone’s got to win these things,” said the Michael Waltrip Racing driver, who had six top 10s in the previous 74 starts and failed to qualify for 10 races two years earlier. “We might as well take a gamble.”

Who made the genius call?

A crew chief named Rodney Childers.


2009 Aaron’s 499: In his fifth Cup start, Brad Keselowski drove with the verve of a veteran and never more so than on the final lap at Talladega Superspeedway when he held steadfast on his line as Edwards cut down on him with a block that backfired.

(Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The contact sent Edwards’ Ford sailing into the catchfence (scattering debris that injured seven fans) and introduced NASCAR to the steely resolve of the then relatively unknown Keselowski, 25, who delivered car owner James Finch’s underfunded and part-time team its only win in 251 starts.

“This is NASCAR racing at its finest,” Keselowski said. “This was a great show. … There has to be some element of danger. Who doesn’t love watching football players hitting each other head on as fast as they can? That’s what the fans want: Contact. If we’d ran all race without contact, someone would have written about how boring it was.”

The first restrictor-plate start of Keselowski’s Cup career didn’t lack for action. Keselowski admitted he nearly wrecked the field after a bump from Dale Earnhardt Jr. left him pointed him toward the infield but added, “but you ain’t got time to be scared. How does that saying go? ‘I ain’t got time to bleed’? You’d better go, and if you’re scared, this is not the right place to be, because that’s when you make poor decisions.”

The five-time Talladega winner eventually proved often to make the right decision in the track’s game of three-dimensional chess … but 10 years ago, it was stunning that he could be so good in his debut.


2002 UAW-GM Quality 500: This was how a whirlwind five weeks went for Jamie McMurray.

Hired to drive full time for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2003 … named less than a month later as injured Sterling Marlin’s replacement for the final seven races of the 2002 season … set a record in the second start of his Cup career by winning at Charlotte Motor Speedway, his self-proclaimed worst track in NASCAR.

(Sporting News via Getty Images)

“Everybody asks if I’m nervous,” McMurray said after leading 87 of the final 106 laps at Charlotte and beating Bobby Labonte (one of the best on the 1.5-mile oval during that era). “Yes, I’m freaking nervous!”

What made the Joplin, Missouri, native’s breakout from obscurity even more astounding was that his first Cup win came before his first victory in the Xfinity Series, where he had three top fives in 64 career starts to date. He quickly ran off two wins in the final five races of the Xfinity season, proving how far a little confidence can carry a driver.

“They took a chance on me,” McMurray said of team co-owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates after the Charlotte win. “They put me in first-class equipment, and I made the most of it.”

Said Ganassi: “It’s validated now. A lot of these young kids today have the talent and everyone’s fast. I look at the heart. Jamie’s got a lot of heart.”

Dale Jr. Download: Joe Gibbs and the mystery of Carl Edwards’ retirement

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It’s been roughly two-and-a-half years since Carl Edwards stunned the NASCAR world in January 2017 with the announcement he was stepping away from the sport.

No one was more stunned than his owner at the time, Joe Gibbs.

“I would have to say that conversation might have been (in) my top five as far as shocks for me in life,” Gibbs said on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download (airs at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

“They said, ‘Hey, Carl’s outside,'” Gibbs recounted. “It was after the season. I figured he was going to come in and wish me a happy offseason and good Christmas.”

Instead, Edwards sat down and said, “Joe, I think I made up my mind. I’m going to step out of racing.”

“I was sitting there and I go, ‘You do realize that every young guy your age wants to drive a race car and make a ton of money? Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?'” Gibbs asked Edwards.

What’s even more shocking is that in June 2019 Gibbs still isn’t fully aware of the reasons behind Edwards’ departure after the 2016 season.

“Never really ever really got to the (reasons),” Gibbs said. “He said, ‘I’m not going to share with you, I’m not going to share with anybody the real bottom lines.’ … I will say this right now, I feel good about it from the standpoint, we still talk every now and then. Last time I called him he was on his boat in the Bahamas. I said, ‘Well, you’re doing pretty good.'”

Edwards sudden departure sent ripple effects through the sport that are still being felt today when it comes to drivers.

Martin Truex Jr. now drives the No. 19 Toyota that Edwards piloted for JGR, having replaced Edwards’ successor, Daniel Suarez, after the 2018 season.

With a drivers stable of Truex, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones, Toyota and JGR find themselves with the challenge of what to do with Xfinity Series star Christopher Bell beyond 2019.

“That’s one of the challenges you’ve got, particularly in bringing along young guys,” Gibbs said. “It’s happened to us before and man, you get caught up in that, what’s the right decision? There are options there. We’re kind of considering everything. You’re trying to work your way through them. Of course, what we just talked about, the sponsor. How does the sponsor fit in all that. It gets to be really complicated.”

Gibbs discussed Toyota’s influence on Bell’s future.

“Honestly we don’t make any decision (without them), we’re constantly talking back and forth,” Gibbs said. “It’s a real partnership from a standpoint, we’re the ones that have to get the sponsors. So the race team is hard after it. … Some of these problems, if you remember back when we took Erik and he wound up going to the 77 over at (Furniture) Row (in 2017) and everything that happened there, those are tough decisions to go through and work through, but that’s the challenge of our sport. You can say what you want, but you’re not going to go anywhere unless you have great drivers.”

Also discussed in the episode:

  • Gibbs’ Hall of Fame NFL coaching career
  • Why Gibbs returned to coaching the Washington Redskins in 2004
  • Being elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame with his former drivers, Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte

 

Trucks to carry decal honoring team owner in Friday’s race at Charlotte

Photo: Jamie McMurray
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NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series trucks will carry a commemorative decal in Friday night’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, honoring team owner Mike Mittler, who passed away May 10 at 67 years old following a lengthy battle with cancer.

I’ve always loved racing and got involved in 1968,” Mittler said in a 2011 interview, according to a media release from his team, MB Motorsports. “Through local races I got to know the Wallace family. I worked on the crew that helped Rusty Wallace become the USAC stock car Rookie of the Year and 1983 ASA Champion.

We ran some NASCAR Busch races and did a few Cup events as well. When Rusty moved south, I started helping (younger brother) Kenny Wallace and was with him when he was crowned the 1986 ASA Rookie of the Year.”

While the Wallace brothers – Rusty, Kenny and Mike – all moved south to North Carolina, Mittler remained true to his roots and built both his racing and manufacturing businesses in Wright City, Missouri (about 40 miles west of St. Louis).

Mittler helped several up-and-coming race car drivers in their careers, including former NASCAR Cup champion Brad Keselowski, fellow Missouri natives Carl Edwards and Jamie McMurray, Justin Allgaier, Regan Smith and others.

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NASCAR America: What are the top five upset wins at Talladega?

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Of his 76 career NASCAR Cup wins, Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt earned a record 10 victories at Talladega Superspeedway.

Brad Keselowski has the most wins – five – of active drivers at the 2.66-mile facility, NASCAR’s largest racetrack.

On Thursday’s NASCAR America The MotorSports Hour, Krista Voda and analysts Parker Kligerman and AJ Allmendinger recapped the top five upset wins at ‘Dega:

No. 5: 1981 Talladega 500 – Ron Bouchard beats NASCAR Hall of Famers Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte in a wild three-wide finish. Bouchard’s winning margin was 2 feet. He would also go on to win the 1981 NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year honors.

That was Ron Bouchard’s lone win in the Cup Series,” Voda said.

No. 4: 1988 Winston 500 – Phil Parsons earns the only win of his NASCAR Cup career, defeating runner-up and Hall of Famer Bobby Allison by .21 of a second.

Phil Parsons, stealing a win, in the black Skoal Bandit car, the classic Skoal,” Kligerman said. “The hair’s even better on Phil, it’s a blonde mullet.”

No. 3: 2006 UAW-Ford 500: Brian Vickers took out Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the backstretch on the final lap and wins under caution.

Brian Vickers tries to make a move on his teammate, Jimmie Johnson, and takes out Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” Kligerman said. “How did he make it out of Talladega alive?

No. 2: 2009 Aaron’s 499: Brad Keselowski earns his first career Cup win in one of the most dramatic finishes ever seen at Talladega. Carl Edwards tried to block Keselowski and force him below the yellow line at the bottom of the track. Keselowski wasn’t having any of it, held his ground, made contact with Edwards’ car – sending Edwards into the catch fence – and then held on to defeat Dale Earnhardt Jr. by .175 of a second.

You’re not supposed to go below the yellow line, Brad Keselowski said ‘I’m not going below the yellow line,’” Allmendinger said. “Carl Edwards went up in the grandstands and bounced back. I remember driving by there and said ‘wow, that was big.’”

Added Kligerman, “The reason (Keselowski) didn’t go below the yellow line is a year prior, Regan Smith got the win taken away for going below the yellow line. So (Keselowski) listened to that.”

No. 1: 2013 Aaron’s 499: This race went four laps into overtime before Front Row Motorsports teammates David Ragan and David Gilliland finished 1-2 for the organization’s first-ever Cup win. 

It was a long day,” Kligerman said, “It was basically nighttime (in victory lane) with rain delays and tornado warnings. It was a crazy day but that’s an exhilarating win for that team.”

Ragan comes into Sunday’s race “as a long shot, according to Vegas, 100-to-1 odds. Somebody’s got to take that bet,” Voda said. “David Ragan is a name you always have to pay attention to at Talladega.”

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