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NASCAR Cup Series

Earnhardt Jr. Excited for Season Following Comfortable Test at Darlington

After a recovery process extending six months, Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced last week he had been medically cleared to return behind the wheel, beginning wit the 2017 Daytona 500.

The 42-year-old has been under the care of Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, through his recovery.

Collins, along with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, cleared Earnhardt following the 185-lap test over the course of five hours. Before the test at Darlington Raceway, Earnhardt admits there were some nerves and butterflies.

“As soon as I got my feet on the ground in Darlington, I was in my suit and over there by the door wondering if the car was ready to go,” h said. “I couldn’t wait to get in there and just go ahead and get out there and see what it felt like and see what I felt like. I was having a hard time sleeping the night before, but it had been a long, long time since I had drove a car. It is so rare to have that long of a break. The off-season doesn’t seem like it’s that long, plus you do a little bit of testing in the off-season, but it was really odd.

“As soon as I got out there after about three laps it came right back to me. I wasn’t like I sort of had to relearn to do it all over again. It felt very comfortable. The speed was there.”

The test came about after NASCAR adjusted the rules earlier this year to allow drivers that are coming back from injury an opportunity to test for the day – as long as the team used nothing to gather data from the test.

“I really appreciate them creating opportunities and rules for drivers in this type of situation to be able to get in a car,” Earnhardt said. “It really helps build your confidence to know that everything is working like it’s supposed to work, no matter what your injury it before you go get back into a full race weekend. It’s nice to be able to kind of get some personal reassurance and confidence. I was really happy to have the opportunity.”

Through the test, Earnhardt ran 15 laps at a time, followed by a 20-minute break which included an evaluation, checking both visual and balance reference points. Choosing Darlington as the place to use for the test worked correctly, as it’s a rough track on any driver mentally with having to run right next to the fence and keep the car off the wall in the process. While the hope was the numbers would look well throughout the test, the numbers created a greater satisfaction than expected.

“You sort of get acclimated and up to speed with what it takes to kind of drive a racecar and those systems strengthen through that process. Rather than see them sort of flat-line and stay the same, which was what I was hoping for, they actually got stronger,” Earnhardt said. “That was great. I felt like throughout the day I got more and more comfortable in the car and it felt like an old shoe by the end of the day. I was happy with the speed we had. That wasn’t really the ultimate goal, but we had great speed. The car drove really good, and we just continued to put tires on it and go out and run 30 laps at a time. And come in, get out, think about it, talk about it, get checked out and by the end of the day we felt really confident that health wise I was 100 percent and ready to get back in the car.”

The test was a culmination of five months of hard work through the process Collins put together in a series of therapies – some physical, some mental – to help Earnhardt heal from his injuries, from working towards being able to feel “normal” again, to being able to drive a racecar again. With everything put together, confidence radiates in being ready to come back now.

“I feel very confident in what I’ve seen in myself and my improvement and I feel confident in what my doctors are telling me about my future and the risks that I’m taking and my ability to be able to withstand the normal wear and tear of not only driving a race but getting in that unfortunate accident from time to time,” he said. “We all feel pretty confident that not only am I as healthy as I was before the symptoms came last year, but I’m actually stronger. Having gone through this before also gives me additional confidence. This isn’t uncharted territory for me, so I know what I need to feel personally to know that I’m as strong as I need to be and healthy. I’m certainly feeling that way, but I’m also hearing the affirmation from my doctors that I can go back and drive racecars.”

Now with clearance in hand, Earnhardt will make his return, hoping to build upon his race team’s success from last season. While he was out of the car, Alex Bowman and Jeff Gordon, split the remaining 18 races on the schedule, scoring five top-10 finishes including Bowman leading 194 laps at Phoenix International Raceway after starting pole.

“Greg (Ives, crew chief) did an amazing job in a difficult situation to motivate and keep the morale up in the team,” Earnhardt said. “They actually, their performance, actually improved with the rest of the company throughout the last half of the season. I think that Greg gained a ton of confidence in himself and the guys. The guys are real happy with how they performed and how the cars performed and the cars they took to the racetrack. I was thrilled to see that. We had struggled in the summer, and it was great to see the whole company rally together and Jimmie (Johnson) winning the championship.”

He also has plans to continue the rehab exercises in which Collins says will further strengthen the vestibular system, so therefore Earnhardt can be as sharp as he can be.

While it wasn’t certainly the ideal situation to go through, it’s something in which Earnhardt hasn’t taken for granted. He admitted he has learned more about himself, learning to appreciate aspects of his life more while not taking things for granted.

“When you get something kind of taken away from you, you certainly realize what it is worth,” he said. “We gripe about our schedule and this and that and the other, but once you are not doing it and you are watching all your friends out there on the track and watching your crew work without you it really puts thing into perspective. It helps you kind of appreciate really what you’ve got. Definitely feel recharged and energized about the opportunity to be able to come back and race. I felt like I had a lot left in the tank. I’m excited about getting to Daytona.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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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.

 

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NASCAR Cup Series

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2016 Recap/2017 Outlook – Ryan Newman

After making the Chase the past two years, this season didn’t go as Ryan Newman would’ve intended things to go.

 

Car No.: 31

Crew Chief: Luke Lambert

Team: Richard Childress Racing

Wins: 0

Top-Fives: 2

Top-10s: 10

Points Finish: 18th

2016 Quick Summary: After making the Chase in the past two seasons, there was belief that perhaps Ryan Newman could sneak in for a third straight season. Though with only two top-10s in the first 10 races, it was clear early on it’d be close for Newman to make it, and not an easy task at that. However, a glimmer of hope shined through the next 10 races as Newman was able to post five top-10 finishes during the summer, including a third at Kentucky Speedway.

Sitting just inside the window of qualifying, everyone knew the next six races were critical for Newman’s season. Struggling to find speed, not contending for top-five finishes and a pair of finishes outside of the top-25 to go with only one top-10 (eighth at Darlington), and Newman found himself 17th in the standings and outside of the Chase.

Through the final stretch of the season, the lackluster results continued with Newman posting only two top-10s, with a best finish of fourth at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Though despite not being top-10s, it’s worth noting there was six top-15 finishes.

2016 Highlight(s): Despite missing the Chase, Newman had a couple of strong finishes on the season, including a third at Kentucky.

2016 Lowlight(s): After qualifying for the Chase the past two seasons, Newman found himself on the outside this year.

2017 Outlook: While the results weren’t what Newman hoped for, there were more top-15s during the second half of the season than the first. Combined with Austin Dillon showing speed through the year an contending for wins, it seems Richard Childress Racing is getting things back on track. It’s just a matter of whether the competition changes during the off-season are the right ones and whether the trend continues.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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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.

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Commentary

Make Room for Mopar?

Rumblings have begun to stir about a possible manufacturer expansion for NASCAR, and Dodge has been linked to making a comeback.

Dodge left the sport after winning the Sprint Cup Series title with Brad Keselowski in 2012, 11 years after re-entering NASCAR with Evernham Motorsports in 2001.

Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, spoke with NASCAR Vice Chairman Jim France and International Speedway Inc. CEO Lesa France Kennedy over the weekend during the Ferrari Finali Mondiali at Daytona International Speedway about the possibility of Dodge making a return to NASCAR.

Marchionne, who is also the CEO of Ferrari, said, “Yes, I’d love to return to NASCAR. I was the one who made the decision to pull out of NASCAR. I am the guilty party at the table. In 2009 we came out of bankruptcy, and tried to race in NASCAR, but with the big bills and make payroll was a stretch.

“We are in a different place now. I think it is possible we can come back to NASCAR. I think we need to find the right way to come back in, but I agreed with both Jim and Lesa we would come back to the issue.”

NASCAR CEO Brian France confirmed he met with Marchionne on the subject, and stated at Homestead-Miami Speedway that NASCAR was in discussions to possibly add another manufacturer. However, he stated they currently were “not in a position to make that announcement.”

So if, and it’s a big if, Dodge does indeed rejoin the sport, it will be one of four manufacturers, alongside Ford, Chevrolet, and Toyota. The question then becomes what team Dodge would align themselves with.

Hendrick Motorsports is well-established with the Chevrolet brand and would never consider switching brands. Stewart-Haas Racing will switch over from Chevrolet to Ford beginning in 2017, so they are not going to make the jump to Dodge either. Nor will Roush Fenway Racing, as they are fully ingratiated into the Blue Oval culture and the consumer street performance division as well.

Joe Gibbs Racing, in partnership with Furniture Row Racing, carry the banner for Toyota with plenty of factory support from Toyota Racing Development and as long as they are Toyota’s top dogs, they’re not going to switch manufacturers.

Team Penske was the last team to run Dodges, and won the championship with Brad Keselowski before hopping over to Ford. Since then they have overtaken Roush Fenway Racing as the best team in the Ford camp. Wood Brothers Racing will only race under the Ford banner. There’s no way they ever leave the Blue Oval brand, especially with their improved performance since becoming a satellite team with Team Penske.

So with all these teams most likely sticking with the manufacturers they have now, it doesn’t leave a ton of options open. But here is a short list of possible candidates:

Richard Petty Motorsports is the best choice because of the history. Petty was the face of Dodge in his day, and fans link his name and heritage to that of Dodge. They go hand-in-hand. With the Ford pool getting more crowded, they would have an opportunity to be the poster children of Dodge once again.

BK Racing is a second-tier Toyota team, and isn’t anywhere near the level of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas, and don’t seem to be catching up anytime soon.

Front Row Motorsports, much like Richard Petty Motorsports, isn’t the biggest fish in the Ford pond, and if they get more factory support from Dodge than they do Ford, it would make sense.

Richard Childress Racing and Chevrolet go deep, and I don’t see them moving brands, and I especially don’t see the No. 3 in anything other than a Bowtie. However, they do play second fiddle to Hendrick Motorsports.

JTG Daugherty Racing is a growing operation, in both size and competitiveness, as they work in close collaboration with Richard Childress Racing. But if they wanted to be trailblazers and bolt for Dodge, it’s not like JTG hasn’t changed manufacturers before.

Germain Racing will remain with Chevy most likely, as they hired a new gun in Ty Dillon, grandson of Richard Childress. Their performance should also be better as they too are a satellite operation of Richard Childress Racing.

Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates is a team I can see going either way. They haven’t been as competitive as Hendrick Motorsports racing in Chevys, but they haven’t been terrible. Kyle Larson is a rising star, and Chevrolet would hate to see him go. But Ganassi a has history with Dodge as he gave Dodge their first win in their latest re-entrance to the sport in the early 2000s.

A return for Mopar isn’t likely for 2017, as any manufacturer who wished to join NASCAR would have had to make a formal request by September 2015. A full-scale car would have had to be submitted to NASCAR by April 1, 2016. However, should they return in 2018 or beyond, it could provide an interesting shake-up.

Shane Carlson is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL SHANE AT shane.carlson@popularspeed.com

TWITTER: @ShaneCarlson4

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

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NASCAR Cup Series

Bowman To Run Clash at Daytona

Dale Earnhardt Jr. may be cleared to return, but he’s giving Alex Bowman one more shot behind the wheel of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet.

Bowman will run the The Clash at Daytona International Speedway on February 18 to open-up Daytona Speedweeks. Bowman was able to qualify for the event virtue of his pole at Phoenix International Raceway in November.

“Alex did such a great job in the car this year, and I felt like he deserved another opportunity,” Earnhardt said. “When I spoke with Rick and the team about him driving The Clash, everyone agreed that he more than earned it, and Nationwide was 100-percent on board. I’m really grateful to him and Jeff for what they did for our team, and I’m glad Alex is getting another run with us.”

The opportunity is welcome by Bowman, who stated it meant a lot to him.

“I definitely have to thank Mr. H and Dale for allowing me to run The Clash, but also I have to thank Nationwide for all their support,” he said.

Known as the Sprint Unlimited the past couple years, the 75-lap non-points event is set to put some of the sport’s biggest stars up against each other for nothing but cash and bragging rights. The event was renamed this year as a result of Sprint leaving NASCAR, giving it a nod of history in the process to when it was called the “Busch Clash” from 1979 till 2013.

Drivers who were 2016 Pole Award winners, former Clash race winners, former Daytona 500 pole winners who competed full-time in 2016, and drivers who qualified for the 2016 Chase are eligible for this year’s event.

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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.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Earnhardt Cleared to Return to Competition

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be back behind the wheel in 2017, as he has been medically cleared to return to NASCAR competition following a test at Darlington Raceway on Wednesday afternoon.

“I feel great, and I’m excited to officially be back,” Earnhardt said. “I expected things to go really well yesterday, and that’s exactly what happened. Actually getting in a race car was an important final step, and it gives me a ton of confidence going into 2017. Thanks to the staff at Darlington for hosting our team and to NASCAR for giving us the opportunity to put a car on the track. I’ll do more testing in January to help knock the rust off. When it’s time to go to Daytona, I’ll be ready.”

Earnhardt has been out since Kentucky in July due to recovering from a concussion sustained in a crash at Michigan International Speedway in June. The 42-year-old has spent the past five months under the care of Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, through his recovery. Collins, along with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, cleared Earnhardt following the 185-lap test over the course of five hours.

“Dale is one of the hardest-working patients I’ve ever encountered,” Collins said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked, and we believe he is ready to compete at a professional level again and can withstand the normal forces of a race car driver. Dale has been very open with us, and we’ve had plenty of time for his treatment, so we feel very good about his long-term prospects and how this has been managed by everyone involved.”

Through 595 career starts, Earnhardt has posted 26 wins and 148 top-fives, with a best finish of third in the year-end points in 2013. His most recent top-five points finish came in 2013, with a fifth.

“Dale deserves so much credit,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “I’m proud of him for listening to his body and standing up to take responsibility for his health. He’s worked extremely hard and set a terrific example for others. It’s great news as we go into the off-season, and we can’t wait to see him back on the racetrack at Daytona.”

While Earnhardt was out from behind the wheel, Alex Bowman and Jeff Gordon split the remaining 18 races on the schedule, scoring five top-10 finishes including Bowman leading 194 laps at Phoenix International Raceway after starting pole.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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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.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Ryan Blaney Reflects on Rookie Season

AVONDALE, Ariz. – One of the most popular drivers in NASCAR, Ryan Blaney, had quite the rookie season in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford.

Although he did not take home the Sunoco Rookie of The Year title, the 22-year-old driver still garnered three top-fives and 11 top-tens, an impressive feat for a newcomer in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Blaney’s skill and maturity in the series came as no surprise given the success he achieved in both the XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series, in which he competed for Team Penske and Brad Keselowski Racing. However, with this being the Wood Brothers’ first full season in eight years, the young driver was met with his fair share of challenges.

One of the biggest obstacles this season, per Blaney, was just trying to figure out the cars.

“Learning how to transfer from practice to the race to be good, that’s something that’s been really tough,” he said last month at Phoenix International Raceway.

Also, with the transition from the XFINITY Series to the Sprint Cup Series brought forth another challenge – the simple length of the races. The XFINITY Series typically runs 250-300 mile races, while Cup runs 400-600 mile events.

“The knowing what you need, in the course of over 400, 500 miles to be better,” Blaney added. “That’s something I need to work on. Something we need to work on for next time.”

The season wasn’t all difficult, though, for the North Carolina native hailing from Ohio. He said one of the most memorable parts of competing in his rookie season was merely getting the opportunity to compete every single week with the Wood Brothers.

“Just to be able to run every week and work with this team… it’s always nice to be at the track every single week with them,” he said. “That’s been really nice to have.”

Looking ahead to the 2017 season, the Wood Brothers will be making significant changes. The historic racing team moved shop from Harrisburg, N.C., to Mooresville, N.C. This new home is located much closer to Team Penske, who has been closely affiliated with the team throughout Blaney’s career.

Though it has yet to be written on paper, Wood Brothers co-owner Len Wood told Fox Sports that Blaney is expected back to run full-time again next season in the No. 21. Regarding what he intends to focus on for next season, Blaney said it’s important to “just improve the little things.”

“You always can improve on something,” he added. “Whether it’s my side that I got to improve on a lot, communication side, just putting the whole package together. It’s a lot of little things that make a big difference.”

Vivian Meza is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL VIVIAN AT vivian.meza@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 staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2016 Recap/2017 Outlook – A.J. Allmendinger

A.J. Allmendinger is one of those drivers who may take in the off-season for all it’s worth, and be thankful for a reset going into next year after a frustrating season.

 

Car No.: 47

Crew Chief: Randall Burnett

Team: JTG Daugherty Racing

Wins: 0

Top-Fives: 2

Top-10s: 9

Points Finish: 19th

2016 Quick Summary: For Allmendinger, the season certainly didn’t start out as planned with only one top-10 finish in the first four races. However, there seemed to be a glimmer of hope when he was able to finish eighth at Auto Club Speedway, followed by a runner-up at Martinsville Speedway. For the California, it marked his first top-10 finish since the summer of 2015.

“I feel like we’ve been at our best at the end of the races,” Allmendinger said post-race at Martinsville. “We’ve maximized. That’s the biggest thing we said – if we just maximize our finishes … that’s what you have to do. In Atlanta, we had some problems. I’ve really felt like the last four races we’ve been able to put together whole races. Fontana and here, we had really fast race cars. We’re getting there. There are ups and downs. This is a long season. The biggest thing, especially with a team like ours, is when you have a good race car; you’ve got to capitalize on it. Fortunately, today we were able to do that.”

Though while there seemed to be a glimmer of hope, it never paid off into the results in which Allmendinger had hoped for with only one top-10 – eighth at Kansas Speedway – in the next 13 races. As a result, the frustration mounted, and in the summer, it came out in a series of interviews.

The hope would return, however, as Allmendinger followed up those races with four straight top-15s, including a fourth at Watkins Glen. It looked as though Allmendinger was going to win at the Glen, too.

The driver of the No. 47 Kroger/Kingsford Chevrolet SS quickly put himself inside the top-five in the early stages and looked to be set to challenge for the victory. However, a speeding violation at Lap 27 resulted in Allmendinger being mired back deep in the field. The road course ace dug himself out of the hole, working his way back into the top-10 in the late stages. Through the final four restarts in the final 25 laps, Allmendinger ran as high as third at one point. He ended up crossing the finish line in fourth.

The small glimmer of hope would result in a mixed series of results for Allmendinger in the final 12 races to close the season as he posted four top-10s, including a pair of eighths.

2016 Highlight(s): The runner-up at Martinsville Speedway and the drive back through the field at Watkins Glen proved Allmendinger can still get the job done, despite his last win coming in 2014.

2016 Lowlight(s): As noted above, the long streak through the summer with only one top-10 in 13 races, resulting in frustration for Allmendinger.

2017 Outlook: While Allmendinger struggled throughout the season, he was able to pull together four top-10s in the last 12 races. As a result, it could appear JTG is en route to finding the missing piece of the puzzle. It’s just a matter of whether it’ll pay off when the season starts.

However, there’s another twist as the team will expand to two cars, with Chris Buescher driving the second entry. With the results questionable throughout the year, it has some wondering whether the move will pay off for the organization. It’ll depend on how quickly they get things quickly, and how well they utilize their partnership with Richard Childress Racing.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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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.

 

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Commentary

WAID’S WORLD: NASCAR’s First Sponsorship Era Was Its Most Enduring

With the passing of Sprint as the sponsor for its elite series, and the coming of Monster Energy Drink, NASCAR moves into a new era – again.

Since 1971 NASCAR has been privileged to have series sponsors that have benefited the sport, its competitors, its speedways and the sanctioning body itself.

I daresay that without these sponsors NASCAR would be a shadow of what it is today. Their contributions helped propel stock car racing forward and greatly influenced its marketing success and once-burgeoning popularity.

Prior to 1971 NASCAR’s top circuit was known as the Grand National Series. To be honest it simply plodded along as the years passed. National attention? Hardly. It was, at best, a regional sport.

It might have crowned a “national” champion but the thinking here is beyond the Mason-Dixon line, few knew him or even NASCAR itself.

The seeds of change were planted in 1971 – and from a most unusual source and set of circumstances.

Hall of Fame driver and team owner Junior Johnson was at a crossroads after the 1970 season. It had been a lackluster year with driver Lee Roy Yarbrough.

In 1971 Johnson and Yarbrough entered just two races, at Daytona and Rockingham, before Johnson stepped aside to build race cars for clients.

He was not about to use his own money to compete. He had to have a sponsor.

As a businessman Johnson was always aware of the economic climate. So it wasn’t hard for him to learn that the federal government had banned all cigarette advertising from television – an action that had been predicted for some time.

An idea went off in Johnson’s head. If cigarette companies could not advertise on TV it meant they had to spend money somewhere.

The headquarters of giant R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. was located in Winston-Salem, N.C., about an hour away from Johnson’s shops in Ronda.

“When I learned what had happened to them I got my butt to Winston-Salem as quick as I could,” Johnson said. It took months.

When it happened Johnson made a good pitch for sponsorship. The Reynolds people were interested. But after some discussion they told Johnson that to support his team would be like dropping a pin in a well. There wouldn’t be much impact.

“They told me they had millions of dollars to spend,” Johnson said. “Now, I wanted some of that. But it occurred to me that if I made a counter proposal, it could benefit NASCAR and everyone in racing – including me.”

So Johnson told the Reynolds people they needed to contact NASCAR’s Bill France Sr. as quickly as they could. They would likely discover they would find the most beneficial way to spend their dollars.

“If I had kept my mouth shut I would have gotten some Reynolds dollars,” Johnson said. “But with the money the company could put behind NASCAR, things could really take off.”

Johnson likely had no idea how right he was.

In 1971 Reynolds, through its Winston cigarette brand, created the NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National Series. It posted a point fund of $100,000 – the largest ever at the time – and the Cup schedule consisted of races over 250 miles in length, although points earned in other events would count.

It grew from there. To expound on everything Reynolds did for NASCAR and all involved is no easy task.

Reynolds was a savvy marketer. It provided free advertising for NASCAR and the Winston Cup Series through newspapers, radio and point-of-sale events.

It offered any speedway free paint jobs for its walls as long as they accepted the red and white Winston colors. Many of them did.

There came show cars and Miss Winston.

Eventually Reynolds created Sports Marketing Enterprises, a separate unit charged with the responsibility of promoting all of the company’s sporting endeavors – which grew to include other NASCAR circuits, drag racing, sports car racing and even rodeo.

It sponsored races at Riverside in California and Talladega. It helped give birth to The Winston, NASCAR’s all-star race that exists to this day, and The Winston Million.

It was largely responsible for the NASCAR Awards Banquet’s move from a hotel in Daytona Beach to the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, which gave the ceremony much more sophisticated atmosphere in the world’s leading media market.

And, of course, it helped to increase the point fund by millions over the years.

There’s a lot more – I know I can’t remember everything – but suffice it to say that they Reynolds-NASCAR union proved to be one of most successful in all of professional sports.

It lasted 33 years. It came to an end in 2004 and, I’m sure, for several reasons. One of them had to be the increasingly diminishing market for cigarettes, which had become vilified as causes for several maladies.

The Winston Cup era remains a very big part of NASCAR lore. Even today, many fondly remember the days when the sanctioning body and R.J Reynolds were united.

There is even a Winston Cup Museum in Winston Salem.

Johnson said that with the money R. J. Reynolds could put behind NASCAR, “things could really take off.”

At the time no one could predict how right he would be.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

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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.

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NASCAR Cup Series

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 2016 Recap/2017 Outlook – Ryan Blaney

Partnering up with the Wood Brothers for the full schedule, Ryan Blaney had a solid rookie campaign en route to finishing 20th in points.

 

Car No.: 21

Crew Chief: Jeremy Bullins

Team: Wood Brothers Racing

Wins: 0

Top-Fives: 3

Top-10s: 9

Points Finish: 20th

2016 Quick Summary: Going into the year, there were a lot of questions surrounding Ryan Blaney and how he’d do. After all, the Wood Brothers hadn’t run the full schedule in awhile, and Blaney had managed some solid top-15 finishes in his limited Cup starts.

Like most rookies, his season started off a little rough. He posted four finishes outside of the top-20 in the first 10 races including a crash at Auto Club Speedway, but also matched it with three top-10 finishes, including a sixth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

As the year went on, it seemed Blaney faced the same inconsistency. There were weeks he’d be in contention for a solid finish, while there were weeks it seemed he was out to lunch. Over the course of the following 10 races, he posted two top-10s highlighted by a fifth at Kansas Speedway, only to match those with two finishes outside of the top-10.

The lead up to the Chase saw the trend continue as in the six races beginning at Pocono Raceway in August to Richmond International Raceway in September, he posted one top-five (fourth at Michigan) to go with two finishes outside of the top-30. The trend then lasted to complete the season for Blaney as he posted two top-10s in the final 10 races, to go with three finishes outside of the top-25.

2016 Highlight(s): Despite an up-and-down campaign, there were some highlights with some promising finishes, as noted in his summary, showing the promise which could be met in the years to come.

2016 Lowlight(s): As noted above, the inconsistency is certainly what led to Blaney finishing 20th in points and failing to join two of his fellow rookies in the Chase.

2017 Outlook: For any team, especially a single-car team, going from running a partial schedule to a full schedule, it can be a daunting task. It’s why for that reason the results should be commended as at least Wood Brothers placed themselves into the top half of the field in their return. Now it’s about buttoning up the small issues, finding the bits of speed to match Penske in which they have an alliance with, and turning those top-10s into top-fives.

If they can make a couple of small gains through the winter, expect Blaney to be in the Chase in 2017.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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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.

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Popular Speed Staff Picks Most Memorable Moments From 2016

Throughout each season of NASCAR competition, there are positive and negative moments which take place. However, there are a select few each year which become memorable and talked about for years to come, like the fight at the 1979 Daytona 500 or Ricky Craven barely beating out Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2004.

After a season which included some history in Jimmie Johnson winning his seventh Sprint Cup Series Championship, a select number of the Popular Speed staff picked one moment from each of NASCAR’s top-three series which stood out.

 

SPRINT CUP SERIES

MITCHELL BREUER: Matt DiBenedetto getting his top-10 at Bristol. The feel-good story of the year in my opinion. It’s one thing to see a combo like BK Racing and Matt DiBenedetto succeed, it’s another to see the emotion from DiBenedetto post-race with tears of joy and seeing how much it meant to him. The thing I love about sports (especially NASCAR) is how unpredictable it can be and the emotion. Both of those things were on full displayed by the 25-year-old, and that is why it is my favorite.

SHANE CARSON: Tony Stewart being vintage Tony Stewart at Sonoma this summer was my favorite moment, for various reasons. First off, I think every fan wanted to see Stewart victorious one last time, whether you liked him or not. I grew up watching him and he definitely has had an impact on the sport. Second, I love the raw emotion he displayed. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the hard road Tony had traveled to get back to relevancy. Third, I respect Tony’s flair for the dramatics. He always makes things interesting, and by knocking former teammate, Denny Hamlin out of the way, you knew how bad he wanted to win that race.

JOHN HAVERLIN: Maybe because it’s still fresh in my mind right now, but the final restart at Homestead-Miami Speedway was the most exciting moment of the season. My heart was pounding as I watched the last two laps of the year. Jimmie Johnson had the restart of his life to hold off Championship 4 contender Joey Logano as well as Kyle Larson, who led a race-high 132 laps. He won the race and joined The King Richard Petty and The Intimidator Dale Earnhardt Sr. as the only NASCAR drivers to win seven Cup championships. A very historic moment in motorsports history.

ASHLEY MCCUBBIN: The Daytona 500 kicks off every season. Well this year, we got a big treat in how it started. From watching how a perfect strategy folded together, to a rookie’s promising debut, all the way to a classic finish. It doesn’t get any better than how things came down to just a bumper for Martin Truex Jr. and Hamlin, esp in the way Hamlin played those last laps in the move he made on Truex. You want excitement to kick off the year and well, this year we got it.

 

XFINITY SERIES

MITCHELL BREUER: The insane rain race at Mid-Ohio. Lots of fans look forward to stand-alone weekends for XFINITY Series, simply because of the lack of Cup drivers, but this wasn’t just any other stand-alone race. The action was wild, guys like Justin Marks, Andy Lally, and newcomer, Alon Day, showed off their road course skill, did I mention it was also raining during the race?! Fans crave exciting, and wild racing and this race was exactly that.

SHANE CARLSON: Perhaps it was because I was at Iowa Speedway covering this race, but my favorite moment was when Sam Hornish Jr. won in an interim role for Joe Gibbs Racing while subbing for Matt Tifft. The race also took place on Father’s Day weekend, and for the first time in his career, he had his kids and his wife with him in Victory Lane.

JOHN HAVERLIN: My favorite moment of the XFINITY Series season was Michael McDowell’s victory at Road America. McDowell has been in NASCAR since 2007 and had never won a race. Richard Childress gave him a one-time deal to drive the RCR No. 2 at the Wisconsin road course and he prevailed by holding off Brendan Gaughan for the win in the final laps. Certainly a feel-good moment for the series and the fans.

ASHLEY MCCUBBIN: Darlington Raceway holds a lot of historic value for obvious reasons. What a great to celebrate that by having a veteran, guy who’s worked at revitalizing his career this year – Elliott Sadler – in scoring the victory. To be honest, the pure excitement on Sadler’s face after winning, and how thankful he was to JRM for the opportunity just sealed the deal for me.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

MITCHELL BREUER: Brett Moffitt winning at Michigan. This is a moment I feel went under the radar, much like Brett Moffitt. This is a driver who made the most of an opportunity with Red Horse Racing during his run as a substitute driver for Matt Tifft. The highlight of which came at Michigan, where on the last-lap pass, Moffitt passed by Timothy Peters and William Byron (two drivers who were serious Championship contenders throughout the season) in route to his first win. It’s always cool to see a driver make the most of an opportunity, and that’s exactly what Moffitt did.

SHANE CARLSON: I’ve got two moments: The first one is Ben Kennedy‘s breakthrough win at Bristol. He bounced around teams until landing a ride at GMS Racing. It’s cool to see people make the most of the opportunity they’re presented. He certainly did that as he made the Chase. My second moment is seeing Johnny Sauter win the title. I’ve seen him and the rest of the Sauter family make a name for themselves racing on the short tracks of Minnesota and Wisconsin. I’m happy to see the Midwest represented well in a sport not typically known for us folks.

JOHN HAVERLIN: There’s not denying the truck race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park was … interesting. John Hunter Nemechek drove Cole Custer onto the grass as they fought (literally) for the win in the final corner of the race. They crossed the finish line side-by-side, and Nemechek’s No. 8 beat Custer’s No. 00 by a few inches. After the race, Custer sprinted out to the frontstretch where Nemechek was waiting for the officials to hand him the checkered flag and tackled him before the two were pulled apart. It definitely wasn’t NASCAR at it’s finest, but it was pretty entertaining to watch.

ASHLEY MCCUBBIN: Over the past three years, Canadian Tire Motorsports Park has been known to produce excitement. This year, by the way, was no exception. From some of the on-track battles throughout the race for position to the late-race drama between the ThorSport teammates, everything built up as normal. Of course, nothing could’ve prepared us for what happened on the last lap between Nemechek and Custer. I will say there’s nothing like standing on pit road set to interview Daniel Hemric, and seeing Custer go running by you and wondering where he was going. From the last lap last corner action to the tackle to the pit crews arguing on pit road, it had every bit of drama you could want as a fan – even if you didn’t necessary agree with Nemechek’s tactic in running Custer off the road.

See Custer’s tackle on Nemechek by clicking here

 

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.