Photo by Nigel Kinrade Photography/NASCAR

Northwest racer Brittney Zamora progressing in K&N West competition

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Stock-car racing may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about the Pacific Northwest, but make no mistake, despite being the only region in the continental United States without a NASCAR national series race, the Northwest has produced plenty of talented drivers who achieved success in NASCAR’s highest levels.

Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Mike Bliss and Derrike Cope are all drivers who once called the Northwest home, and Kennewick, Washington’s Brittney Zamora hopes to become the next Northwest racer to become a NASCAR star.

At age 20, Zamora may be a NASCAR K&N West Series rookie, but she enters the series with an impressive racing resume.

Born into a racing family, Zamora began racing karts at age four. She went on to race in the Northwest Super Late Model Series, where she would win Rookie of the Year honors in 2016, and won championships in 2017 and 2018.

Zamora’s success in late models led to the opportunity to drive the No. 99 ENOS/NAPA Filters Toyota for Bill McAnally Racing this season in the West Series, as well as on part-time basis in the East Series. Through seven K&N West Series events, Zamora has four top fives, five top 10s, 26 laps led and one pole.

“It’s been a pretty good start,” Zamora told NBC Sports. “A lot of people have expectations for me to go out there, but my expectations for myself are a little higher. I’m disappointed that we haven’t gotten that win yet.”

Regardless, Zamora believes she’s on the right track. When asked what grade she would give her performance this year, Zamora gave herself “a B+ or an A-.

“For our first year in the series, and with the competition out here, we’ve done really well progressing and achieving our goals,” Zamora said. “We’ve already met a lot of our goals and we’re only halfway through the season. As long as we can keep improving and keep setting those goals and reaching for them, (we’ll be fine).”

Zamora insists she would have never made it into the sport without the help of her racing hero.

“A lot of drivers get asked ‘who’s your biggest idol in racing?’ and they’ll say A.J. Foyt, Dale Earnhardt, one of the guys in the Cup Series or someone like that. Mine would have to be my dad,” Zamora said.

“He is who got me into racing. I went to the racetrack when I was four days old to go watch him with my family. It’s been my whole life. Growing up and seeing him win championships racing super late models, I wanted to follow in his footsteps, and not only have I done that but I went beyond that with his help and support. I wouldn’t be here today without him.”

Brittney’s father, Mike Zamora, raced across the Northwest for more than 20 years. Once it was time for Brittney to move up to those cars, Mike gave up his seat and began serving as her crew chief.

In the K&N West competition, however, Mike finds himself watching his daughter race from a distance. He and Brittney still find plenty of time to talk to each other during race weekends, and Mike offers his daughter advice when she asks for it, but he doesn’t get to be as hands-on with her K&N car as he is in late models.

“I don’t mind it at all, but it was kind of hard to take a step back because with our racing, I’m so involved,” Mike said.

“I’m the crew chief. We’re building the cars ourselves in our garage. With Bill McAnally Racing, they have guys that this is what they’re doing for a living and they’re better at this than I am. It’s hard to just sit back and watch, but I know that she’s in good hands.”

Though it is too early to predict how her racing career will turn out, she is on the right track to hone her racing skills.

“I’ve thought about this my whole life because I want racing to be my career,” Zamora said. “I don’t want a normal job. I want to be in a race car. Holding a steering wheel is my profession.”

“The Cup Series would be great. It’s the highest level of stock car racing there is, but honestly if I could make a career out of racing ARCA, Trucks, or Xfinity, I would be happy. As long as I’m in a race car competing every weekend, that would be nice.”

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Friday 5: Rivalries among Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske drivers brewing

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The domination by Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske this season could give NASCAR fans two of the best driver rivalries the sport has seen in years.

JGR’s Kyle Busch and Penske’s Brad Keselowski have had a long, tension-filled rivalry that can spark at any time.

But the sport’s hottest rivalry involves JGR’s Martin Truex Jr. and Penske’s Joey Logano. It has been that way since last year’s Martinsville playoff race when Logano moved Truex on the last lap to win and earn a spot in the title race.

Twice this season — and three times since last year’s finale in Miami — Truex and Logano have finished 1-2 in a race. Logano beat Truex to win the championship. Truex held off Logano to win at Richmond and the Coca-Cola 600 this year.

After the Richmond win, Truex was asked if he worried having Logano behind him in the final laps after what happened at Martinsville.

“I think he drove me as hard as he could without hitting me, which that’s what I always expect, and that’s kind of how I’ve always raced him,” Truex said. “Hopefully we can race clean for the rest of the year.”

With plenty of playoff points remaining and a playoff that features two short tracks and the Roval, it seems likely there will be contact if they continue to race together at the front.

Racing in close proximity has led to contact and conflict for Busch and Keselowski through the years.

In last season’s playoff race at Richmond, they battled for the lead. After Busch passed Keselowski, Busch stuck his hand out the window at Keselowski.

Asked what he thought Busch meant by the gesture, Keselowski said then: “I don’t try to read his mind. That’s the last place I need to be.”

Busch said of his message to his rival: “When you spend 15, 20 laps trying to pass the guy and you pass him and you get run into right as soon as you pass him, it’s kind of like, ‘Come on, man, really?’ But oh, well.”

They’ve also had their issues at off the track, most memorably two years ago when Keselowski talked and tweeted about what he believed was Toyota’s advantage and Busch responded with a tweet to shut up (although not in as nice of terms).

If the trend from the first half of the regular-season continues, then each of those drivers will be racing around each other all season. All four rank in the top seven in the number of laps run in the top 15 (Busch is first at 90.7%) and all four rank in the top five in laps led (Keselowski is first at 765, followed by Busch at 684).

While other teams will try to break the stranglehold Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have had in winning 12 of the first 13 points races of the season, it’s likely fans will see Logano and Truex together and Busch and Keselowski running door to door.

It could make for quite a summer.

2. Hendrick Motorsports rebounds

Hendrick Motorsports placed all four drivers in the top 10 in last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 for the first time since the April 2016 Texas race.

Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson have helped lead a turnaround for car owner (center) Rick Hendrick’s team. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The series is at Pocono Raceway this weekend. Last July, Hendrick Motorsports placed three of its cars in the top 10 — Alex Bowman was third, William Byron sixth and Chase Elliott seventh. Two Hendrick drivers (Jimmie Johnson in eighth and Elliott in 10th) placed in the top 10 in last June’s race there.

The organization comes into Pocono with a good bit of momentum. Hendrick Motorsports placed three cars in the top 10 in the two previous points races.

Bowman was second at Dover, Elliott was fifth and Byron was eighth. The following week at Kansas, Bowman was second, Elliott placed fourth and Jimmie Johnson finished sixth.

It was because of those performances that Brad Keselowski said before last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 that “I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars. I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff.”

Keep an eye on the Hendrick cars this weekend and see if their recent run continues.

3. Getting back in gear

Half of Martin Truex Jr.’s 22 career Cup victories have come on 1.5-mile speedways, but until last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 win, he had not had as much luck on those tracks lately.

After winning the 2017 championship, five of Truex’s next six victories came at tracks other than 1.5-mile speedways. Then he scored his Coke 600 win.

Three days before that victory, Truex said trying to get the right setup for 1.5-mile tracks was “our biggest challenge this year, no question. … Just still searching for that confidence as a team of what we need to show up at these tracks with.”

After the victory he said: “Now that we’ve got some momentum here and a little confidence on the mile-and-a-half, that’s a really good sign for us moving forward.”

4. Support growing for IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader

Executives from Toyota Racing Development and Chevrolet expressed their interest in IndyCar and NASCAR competing at the same track on the same weekend.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, and Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, made their comments in separate interviews Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It would be incredible to see IndyCar, edge-of-the-seat, massive speeds, wheel-to-wheel competition on one day and come right back the next day and see an incredible Cup race back-to-back,” Campbell said. “Absolutely incredible. All for it. I think the possibilities are there. A lot of work to be done to get to that point. I think it would be great for the race fans, most importantly. Great for TV and we’d love it as a manufacturer.”

Said Wilson: “Politically, the leadership across both of those organizations have expressed their openness to looking at a more collaborative approach. We applaud that even if we are not racing in both platforms like our colleagues at Chevrolet are. We are hopeful and would love to see nothing more than a doubleheader down the road.”

5. Enjoying the show

Earlier this week, I wrote about Kasey Kahne and how he’s remained optimistic despite health issues that ended his NASCAR season and career last year and an injury in a sprint car in late March that still has him sidelined.

I asked him if he missed racing in Cup. He had an interesting response.

“There hasn’t been a race yet where I was like, “Man, I wish I was out there,’ but I’ve enjoyed watching them all,” Kahne told me.

He then told me: “I’d like to see a little bit of the rivalries that they’re building now. It’s fun to see the younger guys coming up and still see the veteran guys do well. I like watching all of that and how they progress.”

Maybe Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. will be as entertaining as Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch can be in terms of rivalries. Or maybe it will be some other drivers.

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Kasey Kahne still smiling despite recent racing setbacks

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Kasey Kahne’s NASCAR season and career were cut short in September because of dehydration issues. Ten races into his return to driving sprint cars full-time, he was injured and has not competed since late March. He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to return.

“It’s been a rough year for me and racing,” Kahne tells NBC Sports, standing in his race shop, near one of the sprint cars he should be getting ready to drive. 

Even as he speaks about all the disappointment in the last eight months, he smiles.

“I’m still happy,” Kahne says, shortly after having hugged 3-year-old son Tanner. “I know it won’t be long and I’ll be fine and then, hopefully, these rough years are behind me.”

Kahne smiles again.

Kasey Kahne signs autographs for fans during a recent open house at his race shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It’s the look many NASCAR fans know well. Although Kahne is 39 years old, he looks much like the 23-year-old rookie who grabbed so much attention when he finished second in three of his first seven starts in NASCAR’s premier series. Kahne remains as thin as those days and ready to race. 

He just can’t now because of his undisclosed injury.

So he waits and stays busy.

“I feel like I’m way too young to not work or anything like that,” Kahne says. “Always working on ideas to do.”

As for his racing, Kahne isn’t sure. He was injured in a March 29 flip at Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He hopes to be cleared by July 1 so he can spend the summer racing. That way he’ll be better prepared for the Knoxville Nationals (Aug. 7-10). 

If he’s not cleared by July 1, he says he doesn’t anticipate being ready to run at Knoxville a year after his team, Kasey Kahne Racing, won the Nationals with driver Brad Sweet.

Kahne looks forward to racing again based on how the sprint car season started.

“It was really up and down, but we were making a lot of gains and I was making a lot of gains,” Kahne says. “I felt the final two races before I went out for a bit were my best two, and I was heading in the right direction.”

James McFadden will drive Kasey Kahne’s car until Kahne returns. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I think right now my car that James McFadden is going to drive is going to be awesome for him because we’re in a good direction. I’m really hoping he has a lot of success over the next month or maybe the next two months.”

With being out of the car, Kahne is enjoying more time with friends and family. He watched the All-Star Race. He hosted a barbecue the night of Coca-Cola 600 qualifying last week and spent Sunday watching the races.

Seeing Clint Bowyer swing at Ryan Newman after the All-Star Race brought back a particular memory for Kahne.

“Me and Kevin Harvick got into it once at Phoenix,” Kahne says of their battle for fourth late in Kahne’s rookie year. “We were like running tight, super close. After the race, I bumped him and actually was just saying good race, and I think he was thinking I was mad at him. Instantly, the veteran is going to get pissed, which I totally understand now.

“He’s at my car before I’ve shut it off. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do. Then (Kahne’s crew chief) Tommy Baldwin is mad. It was funny how that all worked. That was kind of like we were mad at each other but we weren’t after we talked.”

Last weekend’s races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway brought back other memories for Kahne. 

Three of his 18 career Cup wins came in the Coca-Cola 600. His last Cup victory was in 2017 at Indy. He is one of eight drivers who have won both the 600 and Brickyard 400 in their careers. 

Three of those drivers are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame (Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon). A fourth will be inducted in January (Bobby Labonte). Three others are future Hall of Famers (Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick). 

Kahne counts his third Coca-Cola 600 victory as among his most memorable because it was his first with Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.

He recalls much of what happened during his Brickyard 400 win but not much afterward. He was dehydrated after that race, showing signs of what would force him out of the car in 2018.

“The problem with the Brickyard is that I was do dehydrated and stuff and throwing up and just felt horrible and all I wanted to do was to go to sleep and I didn’t get to enjoy the win,” Kahne says. “It took until Wednesday before I even felt halfway decent.”

His condition became more challenging and led to last year’s Southern 500 being his final Cup race.

“An hour to go in that race, I said you better never do this again,” Kahne recalls of that race where he battled dehydration and went to the infield care center after finishing 24th. “This is not good.

“Then after I felt better like the next Friday, I was like I need to race some more.”

Kasey Kahne signs diecast cars for a fan at Kasey Kahne Racing’s open house earlier in May. (Photo: Dustin Long)

He didn’t get the chance in NASCAR. The longer races made it challenging for his body because he was sweating so much. He announced in October that he had not been cleared to race the rest of the season. Having previously said 2018 would be his last in Cup, his career in that series ended. 

While he can’t compete in the long races of NASCAR, the shorter sprint car races are not a problem for Kahne.

He looks forward to getting back into the car. Although Tanner, who has enjoyed all the extra time with his father, expressed other feelings the other day.

“He doesn’t like me getting into race cars any more,” Kahne says. “If I get in one, he tells me to get out. Just because he’s glad that I’m home and not racing.

“I know he likes racing. He had fun when we were at the track.”

Kahne can’t wait to go back as a driver instead of just a car owner.

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Kasey Kahne to miss ‘several’ sprint car races due to injury

Kasey Kahne Racing
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Kasey Kahne Racing announced Wednesday that the former Cup Series driver will miss “several” upcoming sprint car races due to an undisclosed injury suffered in a race at Williams Grove Speedway in Pennsylvania on March 29.

Kahne will be replaced by Australian driver James McFadden in his No. 9 sprint beginning at the World of Outlaws Patriot Nationals in Charlotte May 24-25.

The team said Kahne, who was set to compete in more than 50 races this year, will continue to be hands-on with the car and travel with the team.

Kahne’s return will be announced at a later date.

Friday 5: Is time running out for Cup playoff hopefuls?

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While the Cup playoff field won’t be set for another four months, there is a shrinking window for those not already in the top 16 in points as the series heads this weekend to Dover International Speedway.

Since 2017 — when stage racing and stage points were added — 84.3 percent of the drivers who were in a playoff spot after 10 races made the playoffs that year.

Take out those who already had wins to be playoff eligible at this point in the season and 81.8 percent of the remaining drivers in a playoff spot after 10 races made it to NASCAR’s postseason the previous two years.

That’s good news for the drivers in the top 16 in points now. Last weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway was the 10th of the Cup season.

What’s also telling is that 13 of last year’s 16 playoff drivers are in the top 16 at this point in the season. That’s despite rule changes intended to make the racing tighter and possibly give more drivers chances for better finishes or wins.

The three drivers in a playoff spot this year who were not in that position at this time last year are Chase Elliott (seventh in points this season), Daniel Suarez (12th) and Austin Dillon (14th). They replace Kyle Larson, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who were all in a playoff spot at this time last year.

So far, those who have earned a playoff spot with a win this season (provided they start every race) are Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Elliott.

With NASCAR’s system of win and you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen. A fuel-mileage race can create a surprise winner or a pit gamble can help someone score an unexpected victory. Maybe a rain-shortened race leads to a new winner.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Last season, no driver outside a playoff spot won any of the final 16 regular-season races.

In 2017, two drivers outside playoff spots won in the final 16 regular-season races to make the postseason. Dillon was 22nd in points entering the Coca-Cola 600 and won that race on a fuel-mileage gamble. Kasey Kahne was 22nd in points later that season entering the Brickyard 400. He won that race in the second overtime.

The question becomes how much will those not in a playoff spot now gamble to score a win and secure a spot instead of having to rely on points to make it? This will be worth watching in the coming weeks.

2. A year later

Talladega winner Chase Elliott has made the biggest jump in the standings compared to where he was after 10 races last year.

A year ago, Elliott was 18th. He is seventh this year, moving up 11 spots. Other big gainers among the top 30 from last year are: Daniel Suarez (up nine spots to 12th this year), Ty Dillon (up five spots to 22nd), Denny Hamlin (up four spots to third) and Austin Dillon (up three spots to 14th).

Those who have fallen the most this year from this point last season: Kyle Larson (dropped 11 spots to 21st), Clint Bowyer (down six spots to 10th this year), Bubba Wallace (down six spots to 28th this year), Erik Jones (down five spots to 18th this season) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (down five spots to 20th this season).

3. Familiar ground

It has been nearly two years since Jimmie Johnson last won a Cup race, but he’s back this weekend at Dover International Speedway, the site of his most recent victory.

Jimmie Johnson winning at Dover in 2017. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Johnson won his 83rd career Cup race June 4, 2017, at Dover to tie him with Cale Yarborough for sixth on the career victory list. That win was Johnson’s 11th at Dover, most of any driver.

In the 69 races since, Johnson has four top-five finishes and 21 top-10 finishes. He’s led 149 laps during that time. His best finish since that last win is third. He placed third at the fall Dover race in 2017 and third at the spring Bristol race last year. His best finish this season is fifth at Texas. He has four top-10 finishes in the first 10 races of this year.

“The first couple of downforce races we were not where we needed to be,” Johnson said of this season. “I think we’ve kind of rallied back and put some speed in our cars and are going the right way. Based on performance, I would say we are at a ‘C’ but I know the distance we’ve made up here recently.

“If there’s an effort score, I want to score my team really high because we’re working really hard to get there. But at the end of the day, the results are results and we know we’ve got to get better. I feel like we’re headed into ‘B’ territory right now.”

4. Tight rookie battle 

In the Xfinity Series, the rookie race features a tie for first. John Hunter Nemechek and Chase Briscoe are tied for first with 295 points each. Noah Gragson is third with 284 points. Justin Haley is next with 273 points. Brandon Brown completes the top five with 180 points.

5. All for some popcorn?

According to LehighValleyLive.com, two eighth graders have been accused of arson after lighting an abandoned building at Nazareth Speedway on fire last weekend.

Nazareth Speedway hosted what is now the Xfinity Series from 1988-2004 but has sat abandoned since. Martin Truex Jr. won the last NASCAR race there.

Police said that the boys, one age 14 and the other 15, showed up on Snapchat recorded by one of the boys at the scene as the fire burned. According to police, the story says that before the fire, one of the boys stole lighter fluid, a lighter and Jiffy Pop popcorn from a nearby supermarket. According to police, the boys attempted to heat the Jiffy Pop from the fire.

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