Categories
News

2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Honors Five NASCAR Legends

Allison, Gordon, Kulwicki, Penske and Roush Officially Enshrined

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Feb. 1, 2019) – Five of NASCAR’s legendary competitors – three drivers and two owners – were enshrined into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, tonight during the Induction Ceremony held in the Crown Ball Room at the Charlotte Convention Center.

Davey Allison, Jeff Gordon, Alan Kulwicki, Roger Penske and Jack Roush comprise the 10th Class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame – now home to 50 inductees.

A phenom from Northern California, Gordon is credited for taking NASCAR from a southern pastime to the mainstream. He became the youngest driver in the modern era to win a premier series title as a 24-year-old in 1995. The leader of the Rainbow Warriors – named for his colorful Chevrolet – went on to win three more championships (1997, ’98, 2001). In 1998 Gordon won a modern era-record 13 races. He finished his career third on the all-time wins list with 93 victories. The youthful, flashy Gordon served as the perfect rival to the rugged Dale Earnhardt Sr. and was the first NASCAR driver to host “Saturday Night Live.” He retired from full-time NASCAR racing as the sport’s iron man, boasting a record 797 consecutive starts.

“What a special evening. I’m so honored to be here surrounded by friends, family, fans and many people that have worked very hard behind the scenes for me over the years,” Gordon said. “Thank you to the fans who make racing the great sport that it is. You make being a race car driver a dream come true.”

Allison is regarded as one of the top pure talents to ever take the wheel of a race car. He won 19 races and 14 poles before his tragic death in a helicopter accident in 1993 at 33 years old. The son of 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame Inductee Bobby Allison, he finished second to his father in the 1988 Daytona 500 as the pair became the only father-son duo to finish first and second in NASCAR’s biggest event. Allison would later win ‘The Great American Race’ in 1992.

An accomplished short-track racer from Wisconsin, Kulwicki moved to Charlotte in 1984 with only a pickup truck and self-built race car with the hope of competing in NASCAR’s premier series. He quickly made his dream into a reality earning Rookie of the Year with his self-owned team in 1986 and picking up his first win at Phoenix in 1988. Despite lucrative offers, Kulwicki never raced for anyone but himself. In 1992, he overcame a 278-point deficit with six races left to capture the NASCAR premier series championship on the strength of two wins, 11 top fives and 17 top 10s. Unfortunately, Kulwicki never got the chance to defend his title after dying in a plane crash on the way to Bristol Motor Speedway in 1993. He’ll forever be known for his trademark “Polish Victory Lap,” a celebratory cool-down lap with the driver’s window facing the fans.

One of America’s renowned entrepreneurs, Roger Penske has built a motorsports empire involved with racing for more than 50 years. Penske has won 114 NASCAR premier series races, two Daytona 500s (Ryan Newman, 2008; Joey Logano, 2015), four Xfinity Series owner titles, and two premier series owner championships (Brad Keselowski, 2012; Joey Logano, 2018). Outside of competition, he built Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, in 1996 and previously owned Michigan International Speedway. NASCAR Hall of Famers Rusty Wallace (36 wins) and Bobby Allison (four wins) have raced for Penske.

“This Hall of Fame honor and this moment is very special to me, and I am so glad to share it with my family and friends,” Penske said. “Racing has been a part of my life almost as long as I can remember. It is a common thread that is woven throughout all of our Penske business. Racing is simply who we are.”

A graduate-level mathematician and engineering entrepreneur from Michigan, Roush was a drag racing owner and enthusiast before he decided to try his hand at NASCAR in 1988. Since entering the sport, he’s won a record 324 races across NASCAR’s three national series and boasts five owner championships, including two premier series titles (Matt Kenseth, 2003; Kurt Busch, 2004). Roush initially built his powerhouse team by pairing with 2017 NASCAR Hall of Fame Inductee Mark Martin, who won 83 national series races for Roush from 1988-2005.

“‘When I announced my plan to start a NASCAR Cup team in January 1988, few if any knowledgeable fans and even fewer Cup team personnel would have given me favorable odds of surviving for more than three decades as I stand before you tonight,” Roush said.

In addition to the five inductees enshrined today, Jim Hunter was honored as the fifth recipient of the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR.

Hunter’s career in the NASCAR industry spanned more than 50 years as a NASCAR executive, track president, public relations professional and journalist. He worked for a decade as an award-winning journalist before transitioning to public relations for Dodge, then Darlington Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway. In 1983, Hunter was named NASCAR vice president of administration. Ten years later, he became president of Darlington Raceway and corporate vice president of the International Speedway Corporation. Hunter was a close confidant of Bill France Jr. who lured him back to NASCAR in 2001 to lead an expanded public relations effort aimed at responding to the needs of burgeoning media coverage. Many drivers and industry executives credit Hunter’s mentorship as the key to their NASCAR success.

Prior to tonight’s Induction Ceremony, journalist Steve Waid was presented the seventh Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence.

About NASCAR

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, Inc. (NASCAR) is the sanctioning body for the No. 1 form of motorsports in the United States. NASCAR consists of three national series (Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series™, NASCAR Xfinity Series™, and NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series™), three regional series, one local grassroots series, three international series and the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA). The International Motor Sports Association™ (IMSA®) governs the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship™, the premier U.S. sports car series. Based in Daytona Beach, Fla., with offices in eight cities across North America, NASCAR sanctions more than 1,200 races in more than 30 U.S. states, Canada, Mexico and Europe. For more information visit www.NASCAR.com and www.IMSA.com, and follow NASCAR on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Snapchat (‘NASCAR’).

Categories
News

2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame Inductees Selected

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 23, 2018) – NASCAR announced today the inductees who will comprise the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2019. The five-person group – the 10th since the inception of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010 – consists of Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Jeff Gordon, Roger Penske and Jack Roush. In addition, NASCAR announced that Jim Hunter earned the 2019 Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR. The distinguished group will be honored during the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Feb. 1, 2019.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame Voting Panel met today in a closed session at the Charlotte Convention Center to debate and vote upon the 20 nominees for the induction class of 2019 and the five nominees for the Landmark Award.

The Class of 2019 was determined by votes cast by the Voting Panel, including representatives from NASCAR, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, track owners from major facilities and historic short tracks, media members, manufacturer representatives, competitors (drivers, owners, crew chiefs), recognized industry leaders, a nationwide fan vote conducted through NASCAR.com and, for the fifth year, the reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion (Martin Truex Jr.). In all, 57 votes were cast, with two additional Voting Panel members recused from voting as potential nominees for induction (Ricky Rudd and Waddell Wilson). The accounting firm of EY presided over the tabulation of the votes.

Voting was as follows: Jeff Gordon (96%), Jack Roush (70%), Roger Penske (68%), Davey Allison (63%) and Alan Kulwicki (46%).

The next top vote-getters were Buddy Baker, Hershel McGriff and Waddell Wilson.

Results for the NASCAR.com Fan Vote, in alphabetical order, were Davey Allison, Buddy Baker, Harry Gant, Jeff Gordon and Alan Kulwicki.

The five inductees came from a group of 20 nominees that included, in addition to the five inductees chosen: Buddy Baker, Red Farmer, Ray Fox, Harry Gant, Joe Gibbs, John Holman, Harry Hyde, Bobby Labonte, Hershel McGriff, Ralph Moody, Larry Phillips, Ricky Rudd, Kirk Shelmerdine, Mike Stefanik and Waddell Wilson.

Nominees for the Landmark Award included Janet Guthrie, Barney Hall, Alvin Hawkins, Hunter and Ralph Seagraves.

The Class of 2019 Induction Weekend is set for Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, through Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. The official Induction Ceremony will take place on Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. The Class of 2019 marks the 10th class and a total of 50 legends inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. To celebrate the momentous occasion, new events and special programs have been added throughout the extended weekend.

Tickets to Induction Ceremony events begin at $75 per person (plus tax and applicable service fees). Tickets go on sale on Saturday, June 9, 2018, at 10 a.m. ET. A special pre-sale will be available to NASCAR Hall of Fame members Wednesday, May 30, 2018, through Friday, June 8, 2018. To learn about becoming a NASCAR Hall of Fame member, visit nascarhall.com/membership. For additional details about the Class of 2019 Induction Weekend schedule and ticket packages, visit nascarhall.com/inductees/induction-ceremony.

Class of 2019 Inductees:

Davey Allison

Davey Allison was born with speed. The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison grew up more interested in football, but could not escape the racing bug, following his father into the family profession. The younger Allison honed his skills at local Alabama tracks, getting his big break in 1987, taking over for legendary driver Cale Yarborough in Ranier-Lundy’s Ford Thunderbird. Allison spent no time continuing the family’s legacy, compiling two wins, five poles and nine top fives in his full-season debut to capture 1987 premier series rookie of the year. Allison won 19 races and 14 poles, including the 1992 Daytona 500, before his tragic death in a helicopter accident in 1993.

Jeff Gordon

Blessed with once-in-a-generation talent and charisma, Jeff Gordon helped take NASCAR from a regional sport to the mainstream. Gordon took NASCAR by storm in the 1990s, becoming the youngest driver in the modern era to win a premier series title as a 24-year-old in 1995. He went on to win three more championships (1997, ’98, 2001). In 1998, Gordon led the Rainbow Warriors – named for his colorful No. 24 Chevrolet – to a modern era-record 13 wins. Overall, he won 93 races, which ranks third on the all-time wins list. Gordon is a three-time Daytona 500 champion and won the Brickyard 400 a record five times.

Alan Kulwicki

Noted Wisconsin short-track racer Alan Kulwicki moved to Charlotte in 1984 with nothing but a pickup truck, a self-built race car and the hopes of competing in NASCAR’s highest series. He had no sponsor and a limited budget. Kulwicki burst onto the scene as the 1986 NASCAR Rookie of the Year with his self-owned AK Racing team. Throughout his career, Kulwicki received lucrative offers from powerhouse race teams, but insisted on racing for himself. That determination eventually led to his first of five career victories at Phoenix in 1988. His signature season was his championship-winning 1992 campaign, where Kulwicki overcame a 278-point deficit with six races remaining to capture the NASCAR premier series title. Kulwicki never got the chance to defend his title, dying in a plane crash in 1993.

Roger Penske

A true captain of industry, Roger Penske has steered one of the most successful motorsports ships in the sport’s history. Penske, who celebrated his 50th anniversary in racing in 2016, reached a major milestone and collected a prestigious award during the golden anniversary season. That year, he reached 100 wins in NASCAR’s premier series and capped off the season by receiving the Bill France Award of Excellence. Penske won the premier series championship in 2012 with driver Brad Keselowski, and owns two Daytona 500 wins with Ryan Newman in 2008 and Joey Logano in 2015. And from 2013-15, Penske tied a record with three consecutive owner championship in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Off the track, Penske likewise makes an indelible mark. He built the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California in 1996, and previously owned Michigan International Speedway.

Jack Roush

Once a Michigan-based drag racing owner and enthusiast, Jack Roush made his best motorsports decision when he turned south in 1988 to start a NASCAR team. Since beginning Roush Racing (now known as Roush Fenway Racing), the graduate-level mathematician turned engineering entrepreneur has won a record 325 races across NASCAR’s three national series. Overall, Roush boasts five NASCAR national series owner championships, while his drivers have won an additional three driver championships. Roush has displayed a prowess for discovering and developing talent. He helped Matt Kenseth (2003) and Kurt Busch (2004) grow into premier series champions and also jumpstarted the careers of Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle.

Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR:

Jim Hunter

Throughout his career, Jim Hunter left an indelible mark on NASCAR and those associated with the sport. His wit and wisdom helped guide NASCAR’s growth during portions of six decades as a company executive, track president, public relations professional and journalist. Hunter broke into the motorsports business as a member of the media in the 1950s. He worked as the sports editor of the Columbia Record, was an award-winning reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and columnist for Stock Car Racing magazine. He moved to the public relations side of the business with Dodge in the 1960s before serving as public relations director at Darlington Raceway and Talladega Superspeedway. In 1993, he became president of Darlington Raceway and corporate vice president of the International Speedway Corporation. He remained at Darlington until 2001 when he accepted an offer from Bill France Jr. to return to NASCAR to lead an expanded public relations effort aimed at responding to the needs of burgeoning media coverage. 

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

EVERNHAM: Hall of Fame Induction “Really Blows Me Away”

Starting out his career as a driver, Ray Evernham believes to this day that he can still drive good enough to be in one of NASCAR’s top series. However, his career ultimately didn’t take that route, instead leaving his mark on the sport in another way.

Seeing the talent of a young Jeff Gordon, Evernham remarked “there is no way in the world I could ever drive as good as that guy,” and took his talents to the pit box.

While their time at Hendrick Motorsports began in 1993, they originally met three years early in September 1990, when Jeff Gordon was trying out a Buck Baker School car. Evernham said he saw Gordon’s “pure talent and ability” that afternoon, with the chemistry clicking immediately.

Evernham ultimately went on to lead Gordon to three of four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championships as a crew chief, before leaving Hendrick Motorsports. He then went into team ownership, winning races with Bill Elliott and Kasey Kahne.

During that time, he got to celebrate his accomplishments in victory lane with his fellow team members, but never took time to fully enjoy those moments. Instead, with a focus on winning more races, it was enjoy it for the time being, before re-focusing in knowing a full field is gunning for you.

“I wish that I probably would have savored some of those things a little bit more, but I’m really thankful and I feel blessed that I’m still surrounded by many of those people and then have the opportunity to do it now,” he said.

He got some time to reflect this past Friday night when he was inducted in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“It’s like a fire hose of emotions,” Evernham remarked. “Normally when something happens, it’s one or two emotions, but just about everything that you could possibly feel, whether that’s happiness or sadness or pride or humbleness, it happens because when you start racing like I did and like Jeff did, you never really expect to get there. You dream about it and you work hard to get there and the whole time you’re doing it you never really think that you could ever make a mark in a sport that would get you at this level.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Age Presenting No Barrier for Byron’s Rapid Rise

William Byron has taken the NASCAR world by storm since emerging onto the Camping World Truck Series scene in 2016.

The NASCAR XFINITY Series champion turned 20 last month, but his accomplishments as a teenager set him apart among the next generation of racers.

After scoring seven Truck Series wins and Rookie of the Year honors last year, he translated that success to the XFINITY Series in 2017.

He became the second-youngest driver to capture the series title and won four races including on two of the sports biggest stages – Daytona and Indianapolis.

“Daytona was a huge stage to win on,” Byron told POPULAR SPEED. “It was very unique. Kind of the coolest moment of the year was winning there and at Indy.”

Teenagers excelling is rare in most professional sports but common in racing.

While many professional athletes are developing in their college years, Byron dominated the lower ranks en route to the top.

“NASCAR’s kind of unique because whatever age you are you can race and if you’re really good, you can get to that level,” Byron said.

He followed the path blazed by Chase Elliott after the then 19-year-old won multiple races en route to the championship in the No. 9 JR Motorsports entry.

The talent both demonstrated during their tenures in the second-tier series quickly advanced them to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Byron has exceeded all expectations over the last two seasons, and that led to the opportunity to climb behind the wheel of the No. 24 for Hendrick Motorsports in 2018 as Elliott moves to the No. 9.

The quick career progression can not only be credited to the quality of Byron’s equipment but his relentless preparation.

“Staying mentally focused and calm in the car, the race craft that you have, and how you do on restarts and how you race guys is all based on what you learn,” Byron said. “All that stuff has come over time, and I feel like it’s developed pretty well.”

Moving to the Cup Series carries significant pressure in itself but also being tasked with climbing into an iconic ride brings new expectations.

“Hopefully I can make it my own in some ways but also carry on the tradition Jeff Gordon left and all the races that he won,” Byron said. “Hopefully we can progress that number more, and I feel like it’s going to be a really strong year.”

While performing well will be a significant goal for the team, Byron also finds himself in a unique position to bridge the gap between the past and present for Jeff Gordon fans. 

“The biggest thing it does is hopefully connects the fans that were connected with him to me and be able to grow their passion of the sport with me as well,” Byron said.

Continuing to produce results and advance the legacy of the ride will serve as his next challenges.

Making mistakes is an understood occurrence for people around Byron’s age. However, a balance between maturity and confidence has allowed him to handle demanding tasks impressively in the past and maintaining that composure will likely serve him well moving forward. 

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

Richmond Performance Won’t Define Earnhardt Jr.’s Farewell Year

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final season behind the wheel hasn’t played out like many expected.

Following two of the best years of his career before being sidelined due to a concussion in 2016, the No. 88 team eyed a return to championship form in 2017.

However, consistent struggles have now placed the team well outside the Playoff picture.

With the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season coming to a close on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway, it’s looking unlikely that the Hendrick Motorsports driver will compete for the championship for a final time.

After both Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart were in the mix for the title in their farewell years, many assumed Earnhardt Jr. would follow a similar path and win to make the post-season field.

Instead, it has been an uncharacteristic year for the 42-year-old. Earnhardt Jr. has only scored one top-five and four top-10 finishes through 25 races, both career lows.

With 11 events remaining, he has time to improve; but without a victory at Richmond, he won’t be in the championship conversation.

However the Federated Auto Parts 400 unfolds, it won’t define his exit from the sport as a full-time competitor.

While earning a Playoff spot is a major accomplishment each season, the focus for Earnhardt Jr. is on the bigger picture of bringing his career to a close.

It has been a big relief to finally have an end date and a decision made and knowing that is it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. 

Announcing his retirement in April has allowed this season to be more about enjoying the ride. Despite the struggles, the reaction off-track has been encouraging.

“The reaction from the fans and everything that I’ve experienced from week to week has been really uplifting,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It’s been a positive, fun experience. You know the results are not great, but I’ve dealt with that in my career in the past.”  

His season has been reminiscent of 2009 and 2010 when he also faced significant struggles and never gained a footing to emerge as a consistent threat. Having been in this position before, it provides a mindset for Earnhardt Jr. to work through.

“I know how to deal with that emotionally and personally, and I know how to work through it,” he said.  “So, that has not been that difficult, to be honest with you.”

Richmond is one of four tracks on the schedule where Earnhardt Jr. has visited Victory Lane three or more times, leaving the door open for a win. He will start tonight’s event from the 21st position.

While unlikely, it’s still possible that he could compete for the title. However, it won’t change his perspective on the season nor deter his approach in the final races.

It has been about more than performance for Earnhardt Jr. this season, and away from the track, it continues to be a successful and appreciative final year.

“So, I’ve really enjoyed it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think that hopefully, it is enjoyable all the way to the very end.”

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Gordon, Burton Put it On The Line in ’97 Southern 500

Two decades ago, Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports dominated the competition at Darlington Raceway, site of Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500.

Seven times Gordon won races at the Track Too Tough to Tame, including four Southern 500s.

With 93 career victories in what today is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Gordon and the No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet were tough to beat anywhere.

But Darlington was an especially good track for him. In fact, the only track where he won more often was Martinsville Speedway, where he won nine races.

The most memorable of Gordon’s four Southern 500 victories came in 1997, when he held off a furious charge from Jeff Burton in the closing laps to win the race and in the process capture The Winston Million, a $1 million bonus that R.J. Reynolds gave for winning three of NASCAR’s biggest four races of the year.

Little did anyone know at the time that Gordon (FOX Sports) and Burton (NBC Sports) would both go on to become NASCAR television commentators after their driving days ended.

The ’97 Southern 500 began on a strange note, when Dale Earnhardt passed out in his car on the opening lap of the race. The seven-time champion was pulled out of his car, placed on a stretcher and taken to a local hospital. A week later, Earnhardt would joke about it and insist he was never in any danger, but when it happened it appeared serious.

Once the race got going, Bill Elliott dominated early, leading 181 of 367 laps. But at the end of the race, it came down to a battle between Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and Burton’s Roush Fenway Racing Ford.

Coming to the white flag, Burton dove under Gordon in Turn 4, but Gordon turned down on him and the two made contact at the start-finish line. On the last lap, Gordon was able to hold off Burton to become the first driver to win three consecutive Southern 500s.

Afterwards, Burton was not happy with Gordon. “We had the fastest car all day,” said Burton, who was hurt by a series of sub-par pit stops. “Now we know how to race. We know how he’s going to race, so we know how to race him.”

And Burton said he should have hit back harder.

“I just didn’t get him good enough. … I was going to do my best to make sure he didn’t win the race, because he cut down on me,” Burton said.

And Gordon said had the roles been reversed, Burton would have blocked him.

“I would have expected it (in the same situation),” Gordon said. “You get that checkered flag in your mind and in your sight and you’ll do just about anything to get there. That’s what I did.”

Categories
Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: Doors Once Closed To Young Drivers Now Wide Open

We all realize there’s a youth movement going on in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing. Guys who are not far removed from adolescence are steadily replacing guys who retire in their early 40s.

It wasn’t that way in the past. Drivers who hung around long enough to become veterans didn’t retire. They were recycled.

If their tenure with one team came to an end, they simply moved on to another. Sometimes the vets merely swapped rides and kept going.

Only a handful of drivers remained with a single team much longer than three years. In fact, a three-year contract was routine.

Among the regulars, only Richard Petty didn’t move – for decades. The reason was simple. Petty Enterprises was a family-owned business passed along to Richard by father Lee, the team’s founder and three-time champion.

But even Petty moved on for a couple of seasons, 1984-85, when he raced for owner Mike Curb.

For the majority of drivers it was a matter of finding employment and hope that it might last for more than a few seasons. It seldom did.

This “one team to the next” environment included some of NASCAR’s top competitors. I daresay Bobby Allison, the late Benny Parsons and the late Buddy Baker drove for 10 teams or more during their careers.

They were recycled and sometimes not by choice. If they did not produce they were gone. And if they were at odds with their team – specifically their team owner – they either left by choice or were terminated.

But they kept racing with another organization.

For decades team owners weren’t willing to sign eager, young talent. They relied on experience and it was always available.

To be hired, a young driver had to be noticed. In the majority of cases he was not recruited. He had to catch someone’s eye.

Terry Labonte did so when he finished fourth at Darlington in 1978 and won the Southern 500 two years later.

Rusty Wallace was a hot shoe in the Midwest who startled everyone with a 1980 runner-up finish in Atlanta driving for Roger Penske – his future employer.

Ken Schrader was also a top Midwest talent. Ricky Rudd was a very successful competitor in Virginia. Both of them started modestly in NASCAR but progressed to bigger and better things. There were several like them – as we know from the often-told story of Dale Earnhardt.

Perhaps the most notable was Jeff Gordon. He was a racing star almost from the time he could walk. He was well on his way to Indianapolis when a stint at the Buck Baker Driving School led him to NASCAR.

As most others Gordon started out modestly with owner Bill Davis. His all-attack driving style drew the attention of Rick Hendrick who quickly broke the mold and signed Gordon.

That was in 1992 and, as you know, Gordon went on to become a superstar – and he spent his entire career with Hendrick.

It was Gordon that changed owners’ minds. They saw for themselves how a team could benefit with the employment of young talent that would only become better with experience.

Owners searched for the next Gordon. They signed young drivers and either put them in NASCAR’s minor leagues or lent them out to other Cup organizations for development.

NASCAR increased the scope of its diversity program. And I trust you remember Jack Roush’s “Gong Show” method of discovering young talent.

The NASCAR world has changed. It is no longer soaking in money. Sponsorship, once relatively easy to find because of the sport’s popularity, is now scarce. Where a team could race with a tidy sum from a single financial backer, it now requires dollars from multiple sources.

The theory is that in order to save money, owners hire the less-expensive younger drivers, several of whom are barely in their 20s.

In my opinion it’s paying off.

You are doubtless already aware of the strong presence, and in some cases success, of the likes of Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher – and now, Erik Jones.

Others already signed by major teams wait in the wings.

Yes it is a different NASCAR. Where doors were virtually closed to young drivers they are now wide open.

And that is a good thing.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

For Dale Jr., Or Any Driver, Retirement Should Be Definite

After winning the pole last weekend at Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Jr. left the door open for running the Clash and perhaps even the Daytona 500 next year.

He shouldn’t.

We have seen this story before with big name drivers retiring from full-time racing. Mark Martin is perhaps the best and most wellknown example of the urge many competitors feel once they declare retirement. Martin came back to race for years after such an announcement, in a combination of full-time and parttime seasons for various teams in the garage.

Jeff Gordon is the most recent example. After an entire career racing the No. 24 car, the driver returned to sub for Earnhardt last season, competing in a handful of events in the No. 88 while its usual talent recovered from concussion-like symptoms.

For Gordon especially, the situation was not fun.

Certainly, these superstar drivers earn the right to return when they want. After all, they have devoted their lives to this, and it is understandable if they want to compete at NASCAR’s highest level once again. Unfortunately, doing this seems to end their careers with a fade rather than a bang.

Gordon’s last few weeks in the No. 24 were incredible. The win at Martinsville and heading into the championship round at Homestead gave the sport and Gordon’s fans an energy boost. Even though he didn’t win the title, those races were big moments that provided meaning and closure to the driver’s career.

He should have quit while he was ahead, but he didn’t. Racing the following year in a different car took away those memories. Sure, nothing can discount the fact that Gordon competed for a championship in 2015, but the event was promoted as his final race – and that was a lie.

Drivers may not want retirement tours, but it doesn’t matter what they want. Such tours benefit the fans, the people who deserve closure after following a career of ups and downs.

When fans of Earnhardt buy tickets to Daytona, Talladega or Homestead this year, they should be sure those are his final races at that venue. Otherwise, the moments created throughout the season will be diluted with a feeling of uncertainty and closure will not feel as ripe.

Earnhardt has said he would race the Daytona 500 again under the right circumstances. Perhaps, in his case, such an event would be a significant place to end his career and provide such closure.

However, such a return is a risk. Earnhardt would have to be driving a very competitive car with an appropriate number – the No. 8 is the only one that could provide as much closure as the No. 88. More importantly, he has to shut the door completely after that. Anything less would result in disappointment.

It also doesn’t help that last weekend at Daytona was promoted as his final race at the speedway by NBC, the track and the sport in general. Either way, Earnhardt needs to solidify his plans soon and be transparent with his fans and the sport in general. His last race shouldn’t be a surprise, and it should clearly be his final ride.

Gordon did not come back under the right circumstances, and while every driver is different, Earnhardt should refrain from making similar decisions, so fans are not tricked into following a retirement tour that has no meaning.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @TravisBarend

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Commentary

Earnhardt Replacing Darrell Waltrip at FOX Would Be a Win for NASCAR

There is no arguing that the biggest storyline of the past week has been the announcement that this season will be Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

As the sport’s most popular driver for well over a decade, there is also no debating the impact that Earnhardt has had on NASCAR and how he has represented the racing world with class.

While 2017 marks the end of an era, Earnhardt has been very clear that he plans to remain a part of the sport in some way. Naturally, many in the industry, including Earnhardt himself, are thinking that a TV career may be the next step.

In fact, a move to TV is inevitable and needs to happen for the health of the sport. For Earnhardt, it is the only step that can be just as impactful as his previous career.

The list of what he could do after this year is a long one. From being a driver coach for Hendrick Motorsports, to being at the track as a team owner, to perhaps even working for the sanctioning body in some fashion, Earnhardt can do whatever he chooses. However, anything short of being in the TV booth would be a disappointment for the sport overall.

Still, despite having the big name, putting the two-time Daytona 500 champion in front of the camera is not something that is necessarily easy to do. Earnhardt only has two choices – FOX Sports and NBC Sports, both of which have expressed interest in talking about the possibility of adding the driver.

However, Earnhardt’s entrance to the TV industry has to come as a replacement for someone else. While he has joined the booth in the past as a fourth member for both FOX and NBC, having that number every week is too many, and the networks seem to agree with this.

When Jeff Gordon retired and moved to FOX, he replaced Larry McReynolds, which altered the ideal driver-crew chief combination usually in the booth. Instead, two drivers, Darrell Waltrip and Gordon, represent the sport each weekend.

For NBC, an Earnhardt entrance to the team makes sense on paper, as the position would pair Earnhardt with former crew chief Steve Letarte, which would be great to watch considering their incredible chemistry. However, that would come at the expense of Jeff Burton, who has proven to be a tremendous analyst, treating viewers as intelligent beings and adding depth with his thoughts. Simply put, Burton should remain in his spot.

It ultimately comes down to FOX, which already has a full lineup. Gordon has proven to be exceptional since his start with the network last year, so he is safe. That leaves Waltrip, who has been working in his role since 2001.

Waltrip is very polarizing to many fans, with people either loving or loathing his commentary. The former driver is a great storyteller, and no doubt has immense knowledge about the sport in general. But like other areas of the industry, NASCAR would benefit from having younger faces in the booth.

Waltrip hasn’t raced full-time in years, closing in on two decades. Since then, NASCAR has undergone sweeping changes, from race and championship formats to generations of cars. Waltrip may still have some relevance to him, but not in the way Earnhardt would in his position.

The next few months will be critical for Earnhardt, the TV partners and the sport overall. After Gordon’s retirement announcement two years ago, FOX Sports announced his hire by Charlotte race weekend in May. If that is any precedent, it may not be long before Earnhardt’s plans are solidified.

No matter how long it takes, if millions of fans tune into the Daytona 500 next year to see Earnhardt guide them through the event, NASCAR will in some way keep its biggest star – and that’s good news.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @TravisBarend

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Johnson’s Performance Will Be Tested at Martinsville and Texas

Jimmie Johnson ended the 2016 season by winning the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in dramatic fashion and capturing his record-tying seventh NASCAR Cup Series championship. 

The No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team entered 2017 with high expectations as all eyes are on the defending champions to see if they can win a historic eighth title.

However, Johnson is off to the worst start of his career. A crash left him 34th in the DAYTONA 500; he placed 19th at Atlanta, 11th at Las Vegas, ninth at Phoenix, and 21st at Auto Club Speedway last weekend. He currently sits 17th in the driver’s standings, behind two of his teammates, Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne.

Johnson’s start to 2017 marks the longest span of races he has gone to begin a year without placing inside the top-five. His previous worst start came in 2009 when he didn’t score a top-five finish until the fifth race of the year at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Now heading into the sixth and seventh events of the year at Martinsville Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway respectively will be very telling in determining whether or not there’s cause for concern from the seven-time champion.

Martinsville may be the perfect place for Johnson to turn his season around. He is the winningest active driver at the track with nine victories including his most recent coming last October.

The win not only clinched the No. 48 team a spot in the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami for the first time, but Johnson tied Jeff Gordon with his ninth Martinsville victory.

Johnson has won consecutive races at Martinsville three times in his career. After visiting Victory Lane in October 2006, he then swept the 2007 events at the speedway.

When he won the October 2008 race, he went onto to score a victory in the following spring event. He again scored back-to-back wins in the October 2012 and April 2013 races.

Johnson knows how to succeed at Martinsville and always seems to perform well no matter what circumstances surround the race, which will make Sunday very telling as a strong run could go a long way.

While Martinsville may be one of Johnson’s best tracks, he has found unparalleled success in his career at Texas.

Johnson is the all-time wins leader at Texas with six victories. When compared to active full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers, he has triple the number of wins among those closest to him.

Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch come closest to Johnson as all have two wins at Texas, including Busch’s victory last April.

The recent repave of the entire speedway and reconfiguration of Turns 1 and 2 will provide an added challenge during the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, but Johnson’s experience and success will likely bode well for him.

When a team struggles early in the season, it isn’t always a sign of caution. However, continued misfortune may turn into a trend and lead to additional frustrations as the season continues.

Going to two tracks that Johnson excels at and that also feature two completely different layouts will be very revealing regarding the No. 48 team’s performance.

Running well over the next two weeks could mean even more than just providing the team with confidence to rebound from a rough start to the year. Both tracks will play a crucial role in the playoffs as they are Round of 8 race locations. Success now may mean an improved chance of returning to the championship race in seventh months.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.