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Friday 5: Youth movement expanding in NASCAR

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While the focus during the offseason is on which drivers will fill what seats in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks, there’s also a lot taking place for younger drivers seeking to reach NASCAR’s top levels someday.

Toyota Racing Development spends the end of the year evaluating talent and seeing what roles those drivers can have in the coming season.

“When I look at kind of that 16- to 21-year old group … there’s some pretty fantastic talent in that group,” Jack Irving, whose duties at Toyota Racing Development include overseeing the organization’s driver development program, told NBC Sports earlier this month. “(Also) we’ve literally tested 14- and 15-year olds that I’m extremely excited about in the same way.”

The question is where might that talent go if it remains in Toyota’s pipeline.

Toyota has five Cup seats with three filled by drivers who competed in the championship race this season — 2019 champion Kyle Busch, runner-up Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, who placed fourth in the points. Toyota’s other two Cup seats are filled by budding stars Erik Jones (23 years old) and 2020 Cup rookie Christopher Bell (24).

Joe Gibbs Racing’s 2020 Xfinity lineup includes Brandon Jones, who turns 23 in February. This will be his third consecutive season with JGR. Joining him is Riley Herbst, who turns 21 in February, for his first full season with the team, and 19-year-old Harrison Burton for his rookie campaign.

Kyle Busch Motorsports will have 18-year-old Raphael Lessard compete full time in 2020 after running five races for the team this past season. The team also will have 19-year-old Christian Eckes, who won the ARCA title this past season, drive full time. He made eight starts in 2019 and four starts for the organization in 2018. A third truck will feature several drivers. Chandler Smith, who doesn’t turn 18 until June and is limited in what tracks he can run before then, likely will run some races for the team.

Then there’s Derek Kraus, the 18-year-old who won the title in what is now known as the ARCA West Series. There’s also 18-year-old Hailie Deegan, who finished third in points in the ARCA West Series and shows signs of climbing NASCAR’s ranks. And Ty Gibbs, the 17-year-old grandson of car owner Joe Gibbs, who won twice in ARCA and once each in what is now ARCA East and ARCA West Series in 2019. Many others are in the pipeline, which stretches to the formidable Keith Kunz Motorsports midget teams.

As each season nears an end, the work increases for Toyota Racing Development to evaluate drivers and where they will race for next year. The competition can be intense.

“I think there is a point here somewhere quickly where you get pushed pretty hard to start winning and competing,” Irving said, “to compete for top five in all the races and not have wrecked cars and do all these things and then also be a good teammate and a good person and all those kinds of things that you don’t necessarily always talk about that are pretty important for what we do from a structure perspective.”

Another key factor can be how a young driver ends a season, even if it doesn’t end in a championship.

“You typically want to see them under pressure, so the end of the season really does matter in the whole scheme of things,” Irving said. “If they’ve had a tough season, how are they finishing? If they’re having a good season, then how are they finishing?

And there’s more that is examined.

“We typically go through an analytics run through with the group,” Irving said. “A few of us will get together and kind of go through … some of the things from the coaches, some of the things from the engineers who work with them and what they’ve done with the team, so we’ll start talking to the individuals in the team, if it’s the team owner, if it’s crew chief, car chief.”

It’s all about seeking to find the next talent for the Cup Series.

2. New Generation

Based on what driver lineups that are set for next year, the 2020 Daytona 500 could see half the field age 29 and younger.

Drivers who will be age 29 and under as of next year’s Daytona 500 (Feb. 16) and have rides announced are:

Age 22: William Byron, Cole Custer, Quin Houff

Age 23: Erik Jones

Age 24: Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick

Age 25: Christopher Bell

Age 26: Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Bubba Wallace

Age 27: Chris Buescher, Ty Dillon, Kyle Larson

Age 28: Matt DiBenedetto

Age 29: Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Ryan Preece

One also can add Corey LaJoie (age 28), Ross Chastain (27), Parker Kligerman (29) with the expectation they will each be in a Cup car for next year’s season-opening race. That would put the list at 20 drivers age 29 and under in next year’s Daytona 500. And there could be even more, including Daniel Suarez, who turns 28 in January, and John Hunter Nemechek, 22.

Compare that to 2015 when there were 13 drivers age 29 and under in that year’s season opener.

3. 99 Club

Five drivers completed at least 99% of the 10,255 laps run this season in Cup, the first time any driver has reached that mark since 2015.

Joey Logano led the way, completing 99.67% of the laps (10.221). That’s the highest percentage of laps completed by a driver since 2010 when Matt Kenseth ran 99.93% of the laps. Kenseth ran all but eight of the 10,778 laps run that year.

Also completing more than 99% of the laps this Cup season were Paul Menard (99.63%), Ty Dillon (99.18%), champion Kyle Busch (99.14%) and series runner-up Martin Truex Jr. (99.00%).

4. Ticket deals

With all the sales for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, many tracks also have announced special deals for tickets to NASCAR races this coming season.

NBC Sports’ Daniel McFadin has compiled what deals many tracks have starting today. You can find the information here.

5. Banquet week

The NASCAR Awards Show, which will celebrate Kyle Busch’s championship, takes place next week in Nashville, Tennessee. Festivities will be Dec. 3-5 with the Awards show taking place Dec. 5.

NBCSN will air Burnouts on Broadway at 11:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 4. and replay it at 7 p.m. ET Dec. 5. NBCSN will air the Cup Awards show from 8-10:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 5 with a replay immediately afterward.

The Xfinity Awards show will air from 9-11 p.m. ET on Sunday (Dec. 1) on NBCSN.

Hailie Deegan: ‘It’s definitely been a struggle’ finding sponsorship

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K&N Pro Series West star Hailie Deegan hasn’t announced her racing plans for the 2020 season yet, despite there being just one race left on her K&N schedule this season, Saturday’s season finale at ISM Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on fanschoice.tv/6 p.m. ET Nov. 14 on NBCSN).

One part of that?

Sponsorship.

The 18-year-old driver was a guest on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Skinner Round-up” Monday where she discussed her “struggle” in finding partners to put together a schedule. While racing in both K&N Series the last two years and part-time in the ARCA Menards Series this season, her sponsors have included Monster Energy, iK9 and NAPA.

“People think it’s easy, think it’s ‘Oh, you get media, you get attention, you get sponsors.’ It’s not that easy,” Deegan said. “At the end of the day there’s not usually just one person that covers all your funding, it takes help from a lot of areas. I’m really just looking at finding partners who want to really commit with me for the long run. So it’s definitely been a struggle and can already tell it’s going to be a struggle in the future.”

Deegan has three K&N West wins since last year. She’s only the second woman to win a NASCAR sanctioned race and she has an uncanny habit of doing it it in dramatic fashion.

Two of those wins came this season. In six ARCA starts this season, she has four top-10 finishes. Her best finish was fifth at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis.

Deegan shared what she would hope for from a dream schedule in 2020 if money wasn’t an issue.

“If I had the dream scenario, unlimited budget, which not many people have, which I don’t have, I wish, I’d say I’d be running full ARCA with K&N East,” Deegan said. “Maybe throw in Sonoma for the West Series. … I haven’t looked at the East schedule yet. It all depends on when the schedules get released.

“One thing I really want to do is race (the) Eldora (Gander Outdoors) Truck race. That’s like a dream goal for me for next year.”

Deegan explained to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio what appeals to her about getting time in the K&N East series, where she has 14 starts and a best finish of ninth two times.

“I think the K&N East competition, I feel like the knowledge just from being on the East Coast and the tools they have out there they can use it just helps a lot more with the setups,” Deegan said. “Being out in the West Coast, it’s a little harder just because you don’t have the resources necessarily that the East Coast does and all the people with their knowledge out there.

“But we still make it work for the West Coast, everything’s good out there, but I’d say the East Coast level they just have those resources. And the ARCA series, I feel like the ARCA series has some good competition. There’s a solid top eight to 10 guys that if you brought them into the K&N seres could probably win.”

Jagger Jones, grandson of Parnelli Jones, scores first NASCAR win

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Jagger Jones, the 17-year-old grandson of famed racer Parnelli Jones, scored his first NASCAR victory, taking the checkered flag in Saturday night’s K&N Pro Series West race at All American Speedway in Roseville, California.

In a statement to NBC Sports, the 86-year-old Parnelli Jones, who won the 1963 Indianapolis 500, said of his grandson’s achievement: “I just knew it was a matter of time until Jagger rose to the top and won at this level. I’m very proud of him. Jagger has worked hard on his racing skills this year and continues to improve and learn.

“Not only is Jagger a good driver but he’s a very good student. I’ve been impressed by both Jagger and Jace (his younger brother) – they continue to work hard and balance their driving with their work in the classroom. They’re outstanding young men on and off the track and I’m truly a very proud grandfather. Jagger and his team earned this win after a successful season and hopefully it’s a building block for the future.”

Hailie Deegan, who started on the pole, overcame an early spin and finished second.

This is Jones’ first season in the series. He had finished runner-up twice, scoring those finishes in his first career series race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track in March and at Douglas County Speedway in Roseburg, Oregon, in June.

Trevor Huddleston placed third Saturday night, points leader Derek Kraus was fourth and Todd Souza was fifth.

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Shawna Robinson reflects on her and son being cancer free, post-racing career

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CONCORD, N.C. — Fourteen years after her racing career ended, Shawna Robinson got to experience a first at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

On a hot September day, the former NASCAR driver arrived on the track’s pit road as one drop in a sea of pink.

Robinson, 54, wore a pink shirt identical to those worn by numerous other women who covered pit road, signifying their status as survivors of breast cancer. They were all there to help paint the track’s pit wall pink ahead of NASCAR’s Roval race weekend.

For Robinson, the first woman to win a NASCAR sanctioned race (Charlotte/Daytona Dash Series’ AC Delco 100 at New Asheville Speedway on June 10, 1988), it was the first time she’d attended the “Paint Pit Wall Pink” event to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Robinson, who once suffered from Stage 3 breast cancer, has been in remission since 2015.

“It’s just an honor to be a part of this,” Robinson told NBC Sports. “You just see the courage of all these survivors and you know the process you go through once you’re diagnosed, it’s a journey.”

October is significant for Robinson not just because of her experience with cancer. In January 2014, two months before her diagnosis, her father-in-law Dale Clark passed way after a short battle with prostate cancer.

“We had just lost (Dale) and the next thing you know, I have the same oncologist and I’m doing chemo in the room that he did, and my mother-in-law’s there with me,” Robinson recalled. “Things just come full circle. It’s been really, really tough on everybody losing Dale and then for me to get through the process and then for (son) Tanner.”

Six months after her last radiation treatment in September 2015, Tanner was diagnosed with testicular cancer just before his 20th birthday. He’s now cancer free and pursuing a career as a professional gamer.

“We were able to catch it early,” Robinson said. “Him going to chemo was probably harder. I went through chemo for three years, he went through it for six months because it was such a different type of treatment.

“Just to see him go through that and the frailness was really, really tough. But he’s cancer free. When I lost my hair, he shaved his head (to give moral support). Little did he know a few years down the road he’d be losing his hair due to chemo.”

Robinson shared a lesson that came to mind seeing her fellow survivors gather at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“Life never will be the same again, but you’re fortunate,” she said. “It changes the person who you are and I feel that it makes you a better person. It makes the life that you’ve lived even that more grateful to have another day to live it.”

After not having raced since she failed to qualify for the April 2005 Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, Robinson is still finding ways to live within the racing community. And that’s not including being a member of the National Motorsports Appeals panel.

Robinson is the founder of the interior and event design company Happy Chair, which has been responsible for design projects for Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman and other NASCAR drivers.

“I kind of went from the driver’s seat to the inside of the driver’s home,” Robinson said.

Robinson’s interest in both racing and design originated while growing up in a racing family in Iowa, where she got her competitive start by racing diesel trucks.

“I think I got part of it from my mother, who was very much into decor, and I grew up as a little girl going to flea markets and antique stores and my dad was the racer,” Robinson said. “Every weekend was at a race track.”

Robinson “dabbled” in design when she took a two-year hiatus from racing in the 90s to have her two children, Tanner and Samantha.

Shawna Robinson in 2002 before qualifying for the Daytona 500. She was the second woman to compete in the race. (Craig Jones/Getty Images)

“Really just word of mouth, it just really picked up with, ‘Would you help me do this, would you help me do that?'” Robinson said. “Then I went back into racing in ’99 and then basically got out of it in 2005. (Going back to design work) seemed like the next step to go to.”

Robinson describes her style as “very eclectic,” as she likes to “take old patterns and mix them up. I’m a little mixed up, so I guess that works well for me.”

Anyone with familiar with JR Motorsports’ headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina, might have seen her work.

“Still to this day if you see any kind of interviews with the crew or the team it’s on the blocked wall in the back with all those colors,” Robinson said. “I was literally on a scaffolding painting those squares. It’s pretty cool to still see that. I worked very closely with Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. and Kelley (Earnhardt Miller). Everybody kind of did their race shops in red, black, silver. He wanted to go a totally different route and we used a lot of earth tones and odd colors. It’s a very homey feel to that shop and it’s a very family feel with JR Motorsports. …

“I created that atmosphere and to see it 10, 15 years later and it’s still standing. A lot of times when you go to a job you did in the beginning or early on and you go back to it and you think ‘Oooh, I could have done this different.’ I don’t feel that way, I feel like it’s really held its beautiful look that it has.”

Here’s an example of Robinson’s design work.

For Robinson to focus on her new endeavors, she believed she had to “pull the door down on that world” of racing, which saw her make 72 starts in national NASCAR races, become the first woman to win a pole in the Xfinity Series (Atlanta 1994) and be the second woman to compete in the Daytona 500.

And Robinson is clear “You can’t do racing halfway.”

“Any career you want to succeed at, you can’t do it halfway,” she said. “So I really had to dive into (interior design) and just think I had the support and the clientele because of being in the racing world and people have a trust with you. Giving you the key to their house or giving you the opportunity to go in and work with their things.”

Shawna Robinson during the 2001 Brickyard 400 race weekend. (Jonathan Ferrey /Allsport

The club of woman who have competed in NASCAR is small, but Robinson has high hopes for the latest woman to grab the sport’s spotlight, Hailie Deegan.

Thirty years after Robinson, Deegan became the second woman to win a NASCAR sanctioned race last year when she won at Meridian (Idaho) Speedway in the K&N Pro Series West. She’s added two more wins this season.

“She seems like such a confident girl,” Robinson said. “There’s no question she’s a hard driver that’s not afraid to put her nose (in a tight spot) to get to the next spot. I think she’s got a ton of potential. The fact that she’s running with Toyota support and she’s running different K&N races, she can pretty much get into anything and drive it. I think that’s going to be her saving grace.”

Robinson has never met Deegan. If she does, what would she like to talk to her about?

“I hope she knows who I am would be one thing,” Robinson said with a slight laugh, “or who I was.”

Even if Deegan doesn’t know who she is, plenty of people still remember her career.

Robinson said she gets autograph cards in the mail “every day and get people that want things signed or just want to know how I’m doing. I’m happy about all that. They’re still very, very supportive.”

Hailie Deegan joins DGR-Crosley for K&N East Bristol race

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Hailie Deegan will compete for DGR-Crosley in Thursday night’s K&N Pro Series East race at Bristol Motor Speedway, the team announced Monday.

Deegan, 18, competes full-time in the K&N West series and has made 12 starts in the East Series the last two years. All her K&N starts have come with Bill McAnally Racing.

This will be her first start for the team co-owned by David Gilliland, who fields two K&N cars and three entries in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

Deegan will drive the No. 54 Toyota with sponsorship from iK9. She’ll have Ty Gibbs and Tanner Gray as teammates.

“It’s awesome that we were able to work with DGR-Crosley on running the K&N East race at Bristol,” Deegan said in a press release. “They have top-notch equipment and people within their organization. Every weekend they are competing for wins, and as a driver, that’s all you want — a chance to win.”

Deegan, who has three K&N West wins, has made two Bristol starts in the East Series. She finished 22nd last year and 16th earlier this season after a wreck.

The  Bush’s Beans 150 will air live at 6:30 p.m. ET Thursday on fanschoice.tv and will be broadcast at 7 p.m. ET Aug. 21 on NBCSN.