Fan Profile: Emily Ellis

These 12 Questions-style fan profiles are one of the rewards offered as a tier on my Patreon page. You can catch up on the other profiles so far this season here.

Name: Emily Ellis

Location: Goochland, Va.

Twitter name: C1Triplee

Age: 43

1. How long have you been a NASCAR fan?

Since my teens. I’ve been coming to Richmond since I was in high school, back when the Sawyer family owned the track.

2. How many races have you attended?

More than 30. I’ve only missed one Richmond race since 1989. 

3. Who is your No. 1 favorite driver?

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick.

4. What made you a fan of those drivers?

I was a Dale Jarrett fan. Somewhere in this house is my Ford Credit coat. So I’m a Ford fan, and I like Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick — which has taken some warming up over the years. But of course I like Junior, and not just because of the connection to the other 88 driver I rooted for.

5. Who is your most disliked driver?

Denny Hamlin.

6. Why don’t you like him?

Dislike is a strong word, but he’s not one of my favorites. I will say he has kind of matured, but he was rather obnoxious in his younger years. I just really didn’t care for some of his off-track behavior for several years. But I think he has kind of mellowed with age, as we all do.

7. What is your favorite track?

Talledega. It’s one of my favorite ones to watch and is at the top of my bucket list to go to. The campground parties and parades — that must be such an experience! And after watching Darlington throwback, it’s quickly climbing on my list of tracks I want to go to.

8. What is one thing you would change if you were in charge of NASCAR?

There hasn’t been a lot of consistency. There’ve been a lot of rule changes, but it’s like they’re throwing a lot of glitter at things to try and make it look shiny. They need to go back to basics. NASCAR boomed and got so big, it just couldn’t exist in the place it was. Now it’s maybe finding its footing a little bit, but there’s just so much change — restart zones and green-white-checkers and all these things. Let’s just go race and have fun and not try to make such a spectacle of things. They don’t need all the razzle-dazzle. Let’s settle on something and get back to basics.

9. What is one thing you would keep the same if you were in charge of NASCAR?

The driver interaction with fans. That’s huge. Years ago, you’d just be walking around and here comes Benny Parsons. The down-to-earth drivers, that’s what the fans actually love — being able to connect with them.

10. How often do you yell at the TV during a race?

Ha! Are you watching me? Actually, I don’t think I yell as often as I used to since I became a parent. I let my thumbs do the yelling these days on social media more than my mouth.

11. Do you have any advice for other fans?

Social media has changed the game. Creating my own Twitter list is actually better than listening to the announcers. I add people who I find interesting and that’s the best thing. I’ve also made new friends that way.

12. What else do you want the NASCAR world to know about you?

I can’t really think of anything exciting to tell the world about me. I’m just a mom that likes NASCAR. I’m not that exciting.

Emily Ellis (center, blue dress) and her family. From left to right: Katie, Samantha, Emily, Wesley, Winn and Stuart. (Photo courtesy of Emily Ellis)

12 Questions with Aric Almirola

The series of 12 Questions continues this week with Aric Almirola of Richard Petty Motorsports. Despite missing eight races with a broken back, Almirola can still make the playoffs Saturday night at Richmond Raceway with a win and a NASCAR waiver. 

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

There has to be a balance of both. Race car drivers are always fine-tuning their craft and you constantly learn. Even Jimmie Johnson, after winning seven championships and all the experience and laps that he has, he still learns every weekend — or at least I think he does, just from talking to him and conversating with him.

So as a race car driver, you’re constantly learning and working at trying to be better. But there has to be some natural ability and some natural talent to be able to make the work pay off.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

(Laughs) I don’t know. I think with our sport, you have to compete and run up front and be sort of in the spotlight to gain the fans. So we’ve gotta do a better job of that; I’ve got to do a better job of that. And if you run up front, the fans will come.

People love to cheer for winners and people love to boo for winners, right? You saw that with Dale Earnhardt, you saw that with Darrell Waltrip, you see it with Kyle Busch. Obviously, you’ve seen it with Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. Back in the day, people used to hate Jeff Gordon if they were a Dale Earnhardt fan, and then Dale showed some love to Jeff and when Dale passed away, it seemed like the Rainbow Warriors came out in flying colors. So I think success breeds stardom, and stardom breeds fanbases. So I’ve got to do my part on the racetrack to gain more fans.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

Away from the racetrack, I think the hardest part is just balancing life and a family and still trying to work, still trying to work out and stay in shape, make the sponsors happy, go and do sponsor appearances or PR requests, go and do Race Hub or NASCAR America. All of those things, they take time out of your weekday life. And don’t forget Thursday through Sunday, we’re 1000 percent dedicated to racing.

So our families sometimes get put on the back burner, and I think that’s the most challenging part for most race car drivers — especially ones like myself who have a wife and kids — just trying to find that balance during the week. If you said yes to everything, I could find ways to work seven days a week every hour I was awake. But trying to figure out when to say no is the hardest part.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Absolutely. My wife (Janice) especially, if she was there, she would poke and prod me to loosen up some and do those kinds of things. So yeah, I think I’m a very personable guy. I enjoy people and I enjoy people coming up and saying hi, especially if they’re respectful — I think that’s important.

So Janice doesn’t mind getting date night interrupted?

No, not at all. She thinks it’s good and she thinks it’s cool that people recognize me. Like I said, as long as they’re respectful. There’s the occasional (person) that’s not very respectful, but most people are extremely respectful. When people come up and just want to meet you or get a picture and an autograph, it’s kind of cool.

I never thought that day would come. When I was an 8-year-old kid or a 10-year-old kid racing go-karts, never did I ever in my wildest dreams think that someone would want my autograph — even though when I was about 10, I would sit there and practice my name in cursive in case I had to sign an autograph one day. And now, I have to do it.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I think the amount of hard work that all these crew guys put in. They work 60 hours a week during the week at the shop, and then they come to the track and put in three or four hard, grinding days at the track. They devote more of their life to this than even the drivers and team owners do. The crew guys, all of the front of the workload, really falls on their shoulders. They ensure that the cars are prepared and built and the haulers are going to and from the races. So much of this sport rests on their shoulders, and they put in a tremendous amount of work and that’s sometimes overlooked.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Jimmie Johnson, about going on a bike ride this morning.

How was your ride?

It was good. I rode 42, 43 miles, so it was a nice morning ride here in Darlington. The weather was nice for it. It was a little humid, a little overcast, but it was nice to get up and get the blood flowing.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yeah, absolutely. We go out and we put out a show for the people that come to watch, the people who tune in on TV to watch, the people who tune into the radio to listen to it. That’s what we’re doing: We’re putting on a show.

If there wasn’t anybody that watched, and if there weren’t any fans in the stands, every race car driver in the garage area would probably still race — but we wouldn’t have a job doing it. We wouldn’t make the money we make, we wouldn’t have the sponsors we have, we wouldn’t have the involvement.

Having the fans, that changes the whole atmosphere. We all grew up racing Saturday night short tracks, and when you go there and have 1,000, 2,500, or 5,000 fans, you don’t really pay much attention to it. But then when you start racing in NASCAR and you walk out in that driver introductions stage for the first time and you see 100,000 fans in the stands, it changes things. It brings a whole new level of excitement and energy to our sport.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I’m not big on doing it. I tend to refrain from doing that most of the time. But when it’s deserved, it’ll certainly come out.

What happens when it gets done to you?

Usually I’m mad, like, “What the heck is that guy’s problem?” Sometimes, you know when maybe you’re gonna get it and you maybe did it on purpose. Like you know it’s coming and you don’t really care. And then other times you’re kind of caught by surprise.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Sure. I think the one guy that comes to mind for me is Tony Stewart. When he raced, and I thought we raced really well together, and he raced everybody like that. Like he would race you hard when he knew he wanted that spot or had a car good enough to have that spot, but then on other days when he was struggling with his car or whatever, he would not hold you up, he wouldn’t fight you. And then the next pit stop, if he made an adjustment and his car was better and he came from a straightaway behind and caught you, you would pay him that same favor back; you would let him go and wouldn’t hold him up. He learned from the Mark Martins and the Dale Earnhardts and those guys how to race that way, and that’s the one guy where I always felt like if he cut me a break, I was sure to return the favor if it came back my way.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I’ve had dinner with Garth Brooks. He’s pretty famous.

That’s awesome. How was that?

That was pretty cool. We went and hung out with him and Trisha (Yearwood) backstage at what was supposed to be one of his final ever concerts in Kansas City at the Sprint Center. We hung out with him backstage before he went on, and had pizza and drank some beer. That was really cool.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

(Thinks for awhile) I’m not trying to stall because I don’t have anything I want to improve on, I’m stalling trying to figure what’s on the top of the list. I have a lot of things I want to improve on.

I think I’d like to improve on just being a better husband and a better dad when I’m available. It’s so easy in this sport about getting caught up in racing and racing kind of being number one and everything else taking a backseat. Even in those moments when I am home and being a husband and a dad, I still find myself lost in my own thoughts about racing and everything revolving around racing. So I think that’s probably the one thing that would most benefit me to improve on, is to just continue to be a better husband and a better dad when I am home.

12. The last interview I did was with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.  His question was: What did you do on the off weekend? And if it was fun, why didn’t you invite him?

(Laughs) Well he did something really cool, and he didn’t invite me, so I’m pissed, actually. He went out on a huge yacht and toured around down at the Bahamas. So I’m jealous, and shame on him for asking me why I didn’t invite him to our little resort that we went to.

My wife and the kids and I — Janice, Alex, and Abby — we all piled in the car and went down to the beach down in Georgia and made a long weekend out of it. The kids started school, so taking them out of school for a whole week is not really ideal, especially when they had just started. So we took them out of school for just Friday and Monday and made a long weekend out of it. We left Thursday afternoon when they got out of school and went to the beach. So we had a great time. The weather was a little crappy a couple of the days, but we still made the best of it and had a lot of fun.

I don’t know who the next driver interview is, but do you have a question I can ask another race car driver in general?

Yeah. Ask them why they agreed to do this interview. (Grins)

This interview was brought to you by Dover International Speedway. The cutoff race for the first playoff round takes place at Dover on Oct. 1. Here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).

The Top Five: Breaking down the Southern 500 at Darlington

Five thoughts after Sunday night’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway…

1. Denny’s Drive

Denny Hamlin sometimes seems like the forgotten Joe Gibbs Racing driver when compared to teammate Kyle Busch, who is constantly in the spotlight.

But Hamlin’s impressive weekend at Darlington might have been the best of his NASCAR career, and it reminded everyone how good he can be.

It looked like Hamlin had choked away a chance to win the Southern 500 when he missed pit road under the green flag late in the race — a mistake that cost him more than 10 seconds (he was 23 seconds behind the leaders when he came out of the pits).

From that point, though, the rally was on. Hamlin charged through the field and retook the lead with three laps to go when Martin Truex Jr. blew a tire.

The win will go down as one of Hamlin’s signature moments, and deservedly so. As good as he is at Darlington — his average finish here was the best among active drivers entering the race — Hamlin still had to execute an incredible comeback after his mistake.

“Denny is obviously a wheel man here,” crew chief Mike Wheeler said. “If you don’t win here with Denny, you probably didn’t have a good enough car.  Seeing him coming from 10 seconds back in one stint, I was really happy with that effort, and I knew we probably had the fastest car.”

2. Asphalt’s fault

Goodyear did a great job with the Darlington tire and deserves praise, but the tire wear that allowed Hamlin to tear his way up through the field — as others fell off the pace — was due to the track surface more than anything.

That’s really what it comes down to: Does the track surface wear and get abrasive after a repave, or does it act like Charlotte?

Darlington, despite being the closest track in proximity to Charlotte, has certainly aged much differently since being repaved. As such, tires make a massive difference — which truly makes it a throwback race to the times there were comers and goers throughout the course of a run.

Hamlin’s charge was the shining example, but don’t forget the end of Stage 1, either.

Truex tracked down Kyle Larson and caught him from several seconds back — something that never happens on 1.5-mile tracks where the tires don’t wear as quickly (if anything, clean air just allows the leader to drive away at those places).

But with tires making a difference, Truex made the pass at the line.

Great stuff. And it’s because of the surface — yet another reminder these tracks should hold off on repaves as long as possible.

3. Hot take?

I don’t share in the belief regular season champion Martin Truex Jr. is a lock for Homestead, even though he obviously has a great chance to get there after going into the playoffs with at least 52 points for each round.

Here’s the thing: Sure, he has a massive advantage over a driver like Jamie McMurray, who has zero playoff points. But the top contenders for the title — Truex’s primary competition like Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson — will enter the playoffs with well over 20 points.

So by the time Round 3 rolls around, Truex might have a 30-something point advantage on Busch and Larson — half a race — but not a full-race lead.

In that case, he’s a virtual guarantee to make Round 3. But after that, anything can happen, like if three different winners left only one spot on points, which could be a battle if Truex has problems.

Truex will be in my final four picks, of course. But let’s just pump the brakes on acting like he’s unstoppable or can’t get caught up in someone else’s wreck at Martinsville.

4. Come back, throwback!

Prior to the green flag, Motor Racing Network announcer Mike Bagley said I really should check out the view from the Earnhardt Towers suites in Turn 3 if I’d never seen that perspective before.

So I stood alongside Bagley as the field rode around behind a pace car and Richard Petty’s old No. 43 car — driven by Petty himself — on the parade laps. The pace car turned off its lights (the signal the race was about to go green), but then a funny thing happened: Petty didn’t get off the track.

I’m not sure if Petty just forgot when he was supposed to come to pit road or just chose to stay out for fun, but the result was NASCAR trying to communicate with The King — and methods included a black flag (how hilarious is that?) followed by pace car driver Brett Bodine emphatically waving Petty by, with his hand outside the window.

Finally, Petty got the hint.

On the team radios, drivers sounded tickled as spotters relayed why the race would be delayed one lap. NASCAR’s original seven-time champion wouldn’t get off the track to start Darlington’s throwback race. Ha!

I absolutely loved it and am still smiling about that as I type this. What else could sum up the throwback weekend so well than a Hall of Famer taking an extra moment in the spotlight after he and his colleagues were celebrated?

The “reunion” part of the throwback concept continues to build. It’s really turned into a Homecoming for old drivers — not just Hall of Famers, but anyone who used to be involved with NASCAR — and that’s a beautiful thing.

Although the throwback concept is planned out for upcoming years, the theme will change each time (the next two years are open to all years of NASCAR history). That should do enough to keep the weekend fresh, and I hope it becomes a permanent fixture that people won’t tire of.

5. Delusional Dale Jr. fans

Crew chief Greg Ives will be likely suspended for one race after the No. 88 team left two lug nuts loose on the right rear wheel during the final pit stop.

NASCAR pulled Earnhardt out of line at the end of pit road after spotting the loose lugs (Earnhardt was initially told there were four, not two) and the driver spent some time peering at the wheel with his crew.

“There was a real bad vibration on the last run, and there was a bunch of them loose on the right rear,” he told me. “They must have just had a screw-up. It’s nothing intentional. You wouldn’t want to leave four loose like that. I mean, they’re not even up on the wheel.”

Either way, two or more lug nuts means at least a one-race suspension (three or more is a three-race suspension), which means Ives won’t be at Richmond next week unless Hendrick Motorsports appeals the upcoming penalty.

Here’s the thing: Earnhardt fans on Twitter responded to this with not disappointment, but much rejoicing because they don’t like Ives. I don’t want to call out individuals and embed their tweets here, but more than a few fans seemed to think this would give Earnhardt a chance to turn things around next week.

Damn! Are you people serious?

Ives isn’t the problem — at least not the sole problem. It’s all of Hendrick Motorsports right now. Look at Darlington: After a glimmer of hope in practice, none of the team’s drivers ran very well all night or finished in the top 10 (Chase Elliott was 11th).

So you really think just because an engineer gets to be crew chief for a week that Earnhardt will suddenly find speed that the rest of the team doesn’t have?

C’mon. There will be no Richmond miracle, with or without Ives. It’s not the crew chief, it’s the cars in general.

DraftKings Fantasy NASCAR picks: Darlington Southern 500

I’m playing DraftKings this season and will be posting my picks here each week. Disclosure: If you want to play and sign up using this link, DraftKings will give my website a commission.

Last race’s results: Played $4 Brake Pad contest. Won $0.

Season results: $76 wagered, $80 won in 19 contests.

This week’s contest: $4 Brake Pad game (single entry).

Darlington picks:

— Kyle Larson ($10,300): As you’ll see with these picks, I’m leaning heavily on 10-lap averages from Darlington practice. Single-lap speed doesn’t tell us much here — since the tires fall off so dramatically — so I want to pick cars that are good on the long run. Even though Larson hits the wall a lot at Darlington, he was fastest in 10-lap average for final practice (out of 26 cars), which I will take as a good sign.

— Denny Hamlin ($9,900): Hamlin was fastest in 10-lap average for the first practice and then dropped to fifth in final practice — but it was notable that his fastest run was from laps 21-30 during that session. That shows his team made positive changes and was getting faster. Hamlin also happens to be excellent at Darlington: His average finish is 6.3, which is the best of any driver and his personal best at any track.

— Jamie McMurray ($8,500): McMurray was eighth-fastest in 10-lap average for final practice and has been a pretty consistent top-10 car all season long. He looks like a solid choice for another good run on Sunday. This was a tough call, as Clint Bowyer ($8,400) also seems like a solid pick at this price range (Bowyer was ninth-fastest in 10-lap average and starts 16th, which is 11 spots further back than McMurray).

— Kurt Busch ($8,200): Aside from winning the Daytona 500, it hasn’t been a very good season for Busch (only two top-five finishes since then). So why would Darlington be any different? Well, Busch had two solid practices — he was third-fastest in 10-lap average for both sessions — before qualifying seventh. That could translate into a good Southern 500 performance.

— Kasey Kahne ($7,500): I’m not sure if I’m talking myself into this one or it’s really true, but the Hendrick Motorsports cars looked pretty decent in practice despite a poor team-wide qualifying effort (the top qualifier was Jimmie Johnson in 18th). So although Kahne starts 23rd, he was the fastest Hendrick car in final practice (ninth in single-lap speed) after being sixth in the first practice. That’s good speed for this price, although Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($7,600) is another viable option in this range if you’re willing to gamble that his slump will suddenly end.

— David Ragan ($5,600): If you’re looking for a bargain, I’m going with Ragan this week. Ragan’s 10-lap average was 16th of 26 cars in final practice, which puts him just behind Joey Logano and ahead of drivers like Daniel Suarez and Austin Dillon. He starts 26th, which is three spots higher than his season average. Compared to other options in this price range, Ragan’s prospects appear pretty decent.

Daniel Suarez unsure why Subway abruptly ended sponsorship

Daniel Suarez, walking through the Darlington garage with a patch over the spot where a Subway logo used to appear on his firesuit, claimed Saturday he did not know why the sandwich chain suddenly ended its sponsorship.

ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass reported earlier Saturday that Subway had immediately ended its contract with Joe Gibbs Racing — this despite having been scheduled to sponsor Suarez’s No. 19 car at Talladega Superspeedway next month.

The company told Pockrass in an oddly worded statement the sponsorship “had” to be terminated “due to circumstances beyond our control.”

But Suarez said the decision wasn’t something he could control, either.

“That is nothing in my control and there’s not a lot I can do about it,” Suarez told me and Pockrass after qualifying.

The Cup Series rookie told us he found out about Subway’s decision on Friday. He had been out of the country for the NASCAR off weekend and “didn’t know a lot about” what was going on.

Asked if the decision was related to something he did, Suarez said: “I don’t really know. Like I said, I just found out yesterday — and on a race weekend, I don’t really have time to think about that. I have to think about the race.”

So was Suarez sad or upset about the decision?

“That’s part of racing,” he said. “Sponsorship comes and sponsorship leaves. There’s nothing we can do about it. I don’t really know the reasons, so there’s not a lot I can add to it.”

Subway, which had sponsored Suarez predecessor Carl Edwards, jumped on board with the Mexican driver at the start of the season. The company even featured Suarez in a commercial, which was part of its four-race sponsorship.

“We are excited about the future with Daniel Suarez!” Subway chief advertising officer Chris Carroll said in a February statement.

But by Saturday, Subway had pulled the commercial off YouTube and Joe Gibbs Racing had removed the company from the “Partners” section of its website.

JGR did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kelley Earnhardt Miller: Dale Jr.’s disappointing final season ‘depressing’

If you’re a member of Junior Nation who has found Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s string of bad results in his final season to be deflating, you’re not alone.

Earnhardt’s sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller said this season has been “pretty depressing and disappointing,” and aches to see her brother have better results.

“It seems like just some luck things that happen here and there, and things that are beyond his control,” she said Friday at Darlington Raceway, where the track unveiled the naming of the Earnhardt Tower suites honoring her brother and father. “It’s certainly not how he wanted this last season to be and it’s not a lot to write home about lately.”

Earnhardt Jr. has just four top-10 finishes this year after having four straight seasons of at least 20 top-10s before his injury-shortened 2016 campaign. He currently ranks 22nd in points, which is on pace to be his worst year since 2009.

Earnhardt Miller said she’s frustrated for her brother because”I know he wants so much more than that” and has seen how he responds when he’s contending for wins.

“When he’s really running well, he has that connection with all the people around him and his fans and really holds his head high when he’s performing well,” she said. “So I’d love to see that for him in this last year.”

That said, Earnhardt Miller has no regrets about seeing Earnhardt Jr. come back to race one more season. She’s glad he has gotten to run this final season on his own terms and not have to cut his career short because of an injury, she said.

In terms of support, Earnhardt Miller said she just shoots Earnhardt Jr. a text here and there to keep his head up. She’d do more than that but said Earnhardt Jr. “doesn’t like anything mushy, so I try not to get too mushy.”

“He says I’m always mushy and I’m always the one that cries at everything,” said Earnhardt Miller, who acknowledged she’ll cry a lot at Homestead in November. “So I try to just keep it on the surface and not get too deep, but let him know that we’re thinking about him. I think that’s the most important thing for him.”

Even now, after all the fame he’s experienced throughout his career, Earnhardt Jr. still doesn’t seem to grasp how big of a star he is at times.

“We’ve sat in a lot of meetings this year where I have to remind Dale he’s a pretty special athlete,” Earnhardt Miller said. “He’s so humble and down to earth. He’s like, ‘Why would anybody want to do that (tribute)?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, this is the last year of your career on the track and you are a really special human being. You rank up there with a lot of top-notch athletes.'”

Earnhardt Miller just wants him to have some happy days on the track to go with it.