12 Questions with Corey LaJoie (2018)

Corey LaJoie (second from left) stands with former NASCAR Next drivers who competed in this year’s Daytona 500. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Corey LaJoie of TriStar Motorsports. LaJoie finished 40th in the Daytona 500 after an engine failure.

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

Not a whole lot. When you’re a little kid, you have a little more vivid dreams of trying to win the 500, and then you get here and you’re kind of fighting an uphill battle every week with a couple of places I’ve been. So your dreams start to be a little more realistic, and you dream of like maybe running 12th on a good day.

I dream about weird stuff, but for the most part I don’t have vivid racing dreams.

2. If you get into someone during a race — intentional or not — does it matter if you apologize?

Oh yeah, you’ve gotta address it right up front. You can’t let it fester. It’s just like life: If you do it wrong, it just only gets worse, and tempers only get more bitter the longer you go and you don’t address it.

A big reason why people get into it is because they race each other hard week after week, and if you race that person week after week, that means you’re gonna be parked next to them, right? So that’s how it always happens: You get in a fight with somebody, and then you’re riding in the (driver) intros truck with them the next week. Something like that happens all the time.

So nip in the bud, grow a pair. If you didn’t mean to, just tell them, “I didn’t mean to.” I’ve had to do that a couple times, but you can’t let that grow because you’ll end up like a Matt Kenseth and Joey (Logano) situation, and that didn’t end up good for any one of them.

3. What is the biggest compliment someone could give you?

For the stage that I’m at in my career, you’re just trying to survive and scratch and claw and stay in the sport because you’re hoping for an opportunity to get in a well-funded car. But for now, you’re here, you’re digging, you’re scratching, you’re clawing, and when people from the other side of the garage acknowledge that they know how hard I’m working and they see me develop as a race car driver — even though the results may not show it every week — when somebody actually on that side notices and says, “Hey man, you’re doing a good job, keep it up,” it definitely makes the hard work worth it sometimes. Because then you know it’s not going unnoticed.                                

4. NASCAR comes to you and says, “Hey, we are bringing a celebrity to the race and we’re wondering if you have time to say hi.” Who is a celebrity you’d be really excited to host?

Probably Ryan Reynolds. That guy’s a stud. I think he’s funny. I think that’d be just a hilarious day of just walking around with that guy and showing him our sport and showing him everything that our lives are every week and kind of see what he thinks. I think that’d be my choice.

I mean, (wife) Blake Lively might come with him, so then you’ve got to think about who his plus-one is.

5. In an effort to show they are health-conscious, NASCAR offers the No. 1 pit stall selection for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for a month. Would you do it?

(Laughs) No, man! No. That No. 1 pit stall ain’t worth like a good pizza and a cheeseburger and some beer. No pit stall is worth that. I can’t do that.

6. It’s time for the Random Race Challenge. I have picked a random race from your career and you have to guess where you finished. This is the K&N East series, 2012, the year you finished second in points, the September race at Loudon.

I finished second to (Kyle) Larson by like three inches.

Wow! You remembered that one right off the bat.

Right off the bat. That’s the one that still stings because I led, I don’t know if the race was 150 laps and I led…

You led 25 laps.

I led like the last 25, and on the last, late-race restart, I couldn’t get going on the short run and Larson rolled the top on me and I got back to him in (Turn) 3 and moved him when he crossed the line. He beat me by like three inches. I hadn’t won at Loudon up to that point, always ran good, but that one was too close to home.

So I brought up a bad memory.

No, it’s all good. I mean, obviously it kind of brings up back when people used to think I was a good race car driver. So that feels like a lifetime ago. But that was a fun race. Darrell (Wallace Jr.) finished third in that race.

Yeah, I have here that Larson won, Bubba finished third and Chase Elliott finished fifth, so it was a pretty stacked field.

Yeah, K&N was tough back then.

You won five races that season. You finished that season with five straight top-twos, and three of your five wins came in those final five races. So that was a pretty strong finish.

Yeah, and then we had a judgment call on a carburetor that cost us 25 points, and we lost the championship by six points.

Oh, is that what happened? I don’t even remember that. Dang. Was it the right call?

Depends on whose truck you’re sitting on. Not mine, I can assure you.

7. Who is the best rapper alive?

That’s a good question because I like rap music. I like all music. I’ll have like some MercyMe followed up by Tupac or totally out there. Let’s see my latest. (Opens iTunes.)

What’s on your phone here?

I like Rick Ross.

Rick Ross, the Boss?

Yeah, Rick Ross the Boss. Meek Mill is good. (Keeps scrolling through iTunes.) I’ve got a lot of Rick Ross in here. I like Gucci Mane, too. Yeah, so I like rap music. I like it all.

So you’re going with Rick Ross for your answer?

I’m gonna go with Rick Ross, the Boss.

Kyle Busch last week said Eminem, so we have one vote for Eminem.

(Laughs) He has to say that, because that’s what the big yellow thing is on the hood of his car.

8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?

Wow, what a question that is. I don’t know, it just depends whose face needs to get punched in certain situations. I mean, I pretty much like everybody.

Some people just have annoying faces though.

Now there’s people’s faces I don’t want to punch, I can tell you that. Like (Ryan) Newman. That guy’s neck is so solid, you punch his head, it’s like one of those little guys in martial arts — the little blow-up thing with the black base, and his head just bounces right back off your fist. So Newman would be a guy I would not want to mess with. He’s like cornbread-fed.

I feel like Newman would be one of those people in a superhero movie when they start attacking the guy and it has no effect on him whatsoever.

He’s like the rock guy (Thing) from the X-Men.

Yeah, he’s like that. Keeps coming.

So I would say Ryan Newman has the least punchable face.

9. NASCAR enlists three famous Americans to be involved with your team for one race as part of a publicity push: Taylor Swift, LeBron James and Tom Hanks. Choose one to be your crew chief, one to be your spotter and one to be your motorhome driver.

That’s easy. LeBron James will be the crew chief, he’s a great leader of men, he would get that ship rolling good. He probably doesn’t know how to take a tire off, but he can get them people working like in a synchrony. I don’t even know if that’s a word. Symphony, maybe?

Tom Hanks on the roof spotting because — what’s that movie he was in with the plane? (Sully) He’s a familiar voice, it’s kind of like a calming Tom Hanks voice up on the roof, so you don’t get fired up.

And then T-Swift will drive the bus, and I’ll let her sing karaoke all she wants.

You’d hang out for the weekend?

I’m engaged, so I can’t answer the question like that…

OK, well you can bring your fiancee. I’m sure she would want to hang out with her.

Yeah, for sure. So yeah, T-Swift driving the bus, Tom Hanks on the roof, LeBron James calling the shots. That’s a dream team.

10. What is the key to finding the best pre-race bathroom?

I’ve always said if you’re a fan, you find the closest port-o-potty to wherever (drivers) get off the trucks from driver intros. You can meet everybody from Danica to Dale Jr. to anybody else if you stand to the closest one off the driver intros truck. Usually there’s a line about six deep with all drivers (waiting to pee).

So that’s a little tip for the fans: If you want to get an autograph, don’t worry about waiting around all day by the pit area, because they’re not gonna sign it. Go to the port-o-potty, and preferably try to have them sign it before they use the bathroom, because there’s no sink in there.

11. NASCAR misses the highlight reel value brought by Carl Edwards’ backflips and decides a replacement is needed. How much money would they have to pay you to backflip off your car after your next win?

How much money? Does that include the medical bills they would have to pay for?

You would probably have to negotiate that into it.

You ask that question to (Daniel) Hemric, and he’s gonna tell you, “For free.” That’s his thing. But for me, I have a hard time doing a backflip on a trampoline, so I’d probably do it for $100,000. And I’d be close to sticking it.

So you wouldn’t get hurt that bad?

No. But I would make sure to park in the grass. I would do it in the grass, for sure. But yeah, 100 grand, I’ll do it.

12. Each week, I ask a question given to me from the last interview. Last week, I interviewed Kyle Busch. His question was: With life on the road, how do you balance the travel with each location, whether you go out, you stay in a motorhome — you have a motorhome?

No.

OK, so a hotel. How do you decide if you’re just gonna chill, or go do something fun in that city — what goes in the decision?

Since I stay away from the racetrack, I can see the surroundings when I leave and kind of pick different restaurants on the way back. You’ve got your one or two restaurants you want to hit up in every city you go to. I go to Phoenix, I’ll hike up Camelback (Mountain). Or there’s a really good steakhouse in Atlanta which I go to, little things like that.

But you try to keep it routine. You want to go to bed fairly early, maybe see some friends who don’t live at home and live somewhere else and meet up with them.

I like to stay at hotels. For one, it doesn’t cost me anything — I just show up and get in the rental car and go to the hotel. But everywhere has its little perks. There’s some places like Pocono where there’s nothing really to do there, so everywhere has its pluses and minuses.

So you don’t have to worry about race traffic too much in the morning? You get there early enough?

Yeah, so I leave fairly early. That is a nightmare of mine, waking up in a cold sweat and waking up late on a race day like, “Oh.” Then you’re like, “It’s 3:30 in the morning, let’s go back to sleep.”

There’s your racing dream.

Yeah, that’s one of the dreams I’ve always had, waking up and you’re late to practice, you’re late to qualifying or something, and you wake up and you’re like, “Oh. Phew. Good thing.”

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with, but do you have a question I can ask another driver for next time?

You should do Bubba, and then you should ask him how much gas money he gave me for driving him to school for three years.

What’s the story there?

We went to the same high school. He was a year and a half younger than me, so I drove him, picked him up. I lived like five minutes away from school, so I had to drive past the school like 10 minutes, turn around and come back. So it was an extra 20 minutes twice in my day, right?

I drove him to school for two and a half years. And he gave me $20 the entire time!

You ask him that question, he’ll bust out laughing. So ask him how much gas money he gave me for wasting valuable time to come pick his ass up and bring him to school. I love Bubba, but he should have given me more gas money.

So he still owes you, with interest.

Yes. He can afford it now, I’m sure.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Daytona 500

Five thoughts after Sunday’s 60th running of the Daytona 500…

1. That’s racing

I’m sort of baffled by the outrage over Austin Dillon driving through Aric Almirola — after Almirola admitted he saw Dillon coming and threw a last-ditch block. There’s no sound reason behind the anger here, other than fans can’t stand Dillon and his perceived silver spoon background — while Almirola would have been a likable winner and feel-good story after last year’s broken back and transition to Stewart-Haas Racing.

I get that Dillon irritates fans (he doesn’t care, by the way; Dillon believes in the “as long as they’re making noise” philosophy), but geez. Seriously, folks? Take the emotion out of it for a second.

Dillon had a huge shot of momentum from a Bubba Wallace push when the Almirola block happened, and it was on the last lap of the freaking Daytona 500. So what was Dillon supposed to do, let off the gas and cut Almirola a break?

“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him, and not had this Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing,” Dillon said.

But even if he did lift, Dillon probably would have gotten turned by Wallace behind him.

After all, that’s what seemed to happen when Ryan Blaney blocked Chase Elliott in the first Big One (Elliott lost momentum, got loose and spun off Brad Keselowski, starting a pileup). And when Denny Hamlin blocked Kurt Busch in the last Big One, Busch lost his momentum and got turned by the air off Blaney’s nose.

As we saw throughout Speedweeks, superspeedway racing has evolved into a risky, ballsy game of chicken when it comes to blocking. Almirola had no choice but to throw that block — in hopes Dillon would somehow blink — and Dillon had no choice but to drive through him.

Unless he wanted to lose, of course.

“I had such a run,” Dillon said, “and I had to use it.”

2. A star is born

NASCAR got stuck in some political debates last year, which prompted outsiders to once again bring up stereotypes about the sport’s fans.

But the majority of race fans aren’t racist. How do I know? Because Bubba Wallace is quickly becoming one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR.

Fans at Daytona gave Wallace a loud cheer before the 500, and his high profile in the media this week (including a feature on ESPN, a six-part docu-series on Facebook and then some air time in front of the largest audience NASCAR has all year) allowed fans to take a closer look at whether they like him or not.

It certainly seems like they do. And it has everything to do with his personality, which is refreshing, energetic, fun, raw and real.

I mean, what other driver shows emotions like this?

If Wallace can do anything in the 43 car and is even halfway competitive, it will be massive for NASCAR. His profile only grow if that’s the case.

But Richard Petty Motorsports has a lot of work to do judging by last year’s results, and if Wallace doesn’t run in the top 10, he risks becoming another Clint Bowyer.

Fun guy, hilarious, great personality, people love him, but…

At the tweetup on Sunday, fans emphasized they seek the perfect combination of personality and results. A driver needs both to truly be a superstar.

Those who deliver in both ways are the types of drivers NASCAR needs to succeed. Wallace certainly has the personality; now we’ll see whether he can produce on the track.

3. For Blaney, wait til next year

This really seemed to be the Ryan Blaney 500, especially after so many other contenders wrecked out. It looked like Blaney had the strongest car and could do anything with it. He led 118 laps in playing the typical Keselowski role, a dominating performance on a day when no one else led more than 22 laps.

Blaney was leading a single-file line with 10 laps to go when William Byron spun in his damaged car, which brought out a caution that ultimately cost him the race after the ensuing restart.

“That stunk,” Blaney said of the caution. “That grouped everyone back together. I tried to block as best I could, but it’s just so hard when they’re coming so much faster than you.”

Still, a green-flag finish wouldn’t have guaranteed a Blaney win. He had the best car of those remaining, though that doesn’t mean everyone would have stayed in line. But he’ll always wonder.

“It definitely was going to get tough there, and it was starting to brew up to where people were going to start to go,” he said. “With five to go, it was probably crunch time — and we were five laps away from that.

“But I thought we could control the lead pretty good, and it just didn’t play out that way.”

Ryan Blaney collects himself after climbing from his car following a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

 

4. Logic doesn’t prevail

I don’t know if this will go down as one of the best Daytona 500s ever, but it was certainly one of the most entertaining.

Honestly, it shouldn’t have been.

With drivers knowing their cars were less stable than in previous years thanks to the new rules package, it seemed running single-file (like in the Clash) would be the smart way to go.

It certainly would have been very boring, but logic dictates that’s what the drivers should have done in order to still be racing at the finish.

Instead, the drivers got all crazy over the end of Stage 1 and took out a bunch of great cars. Then more wild moves finally bit them just after the halfway point.

“It looked like everybody thought that was the finish of the Daytona 500 and it was really only lap 59 coming to 60,” Jimmie Johnson said of the first incident. “… I’m not sure everybody was thinking big picture and really using their head through that.”

I’m sure they weren’t. But I can’t really figure out why. Drivers had privately predicted a single-file race, perhaps even with several groups of six-to-12 car lines spread across the track. Then they would all go hard for the win at the end.

Instead, it seemed like the opposite happened in the first two stages. It was weird. Super entertaining, but weird.

Perhaps the start of a new season left everyone too antsy to use the patience required to make it to the finish, or maybe racers just can’t help themselves from racing hard — even when it’s not necessary at the time.

5. Underdogs shine

Speaking of those who patiently bided their time and made it to the finish, there were some surprise names who had solid results after others wrecked out.

Chris Buescher previously had only one top-10 finish at a restrictor-plate track in nine starts, but he finished fifth on Sunday.

Michael McDowell finished ninth to record his sixth career top-10 finish — five of which have come at Daytona.

Justin Marks had a surprising run in his first career Cup race at Daytona and finished 12th despite being one lap down.

Also, David Gilliland made his first Cup Series start since 2016 — and recorded a 14th-place finish, his first top-15 since the 2015 Daytona 500.

And finally, despite all the drama and questions about whether it could even get the car on the track, BK Racing got a 20th-place finish with Gray Gaulding. Not a bad day for a team that just filed for bankruptcy protection.

NASCAR Preseason Playoff Predictions with Bubba Wallace

It’s time to make playoff predictions for the upcoming NASCAR season, which means picking the 16 drivers and the champion. But it would be boring if I just rambled about the predictions by myself, wouldn’t it? That’s why I invited Rookie of the Year contender Darrell Wallace Jr. to give his picks as well — and tried to find out how many drivers we agreed on.

Common picks (both Jeff and Bubba):

— Martin Truex Jr.

— Kyle Busch

— Denny Hamlin

— Kevin Harvick

— Kyle Larson

— Jimmie Johnson

— Chase Elliott

— Ryan Blaney

— Joey Logano

— Brad Keselowski

— Erik Jones

— Ryan Newman

— Jamie McMurray

Jeff only:

— Clint Bowyer

— Kurt Busch

— William Byron

Bubba only:

— Bubba Wallace

— Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

— Austin Dillon

Jeff’s championship pick: Kyle Busch

Bubba’s championship pick: Kyle Larson

Media Tour Day 3: To promote or not to promote?

Hey, did you see the quotes from the NASCAR Media Tour this week?

Oh boy, the barbs were flying.

Kyle Busch said NASCAR’s suddenly intense promotion of younger drivers was “stupid” and “bothersome,” adding he’s “not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal.”

Then Kevin Harvick said those comments were “like the child that is whining for some attention.” Bubba Wallace let out an exaggerated laugh and said Busch’s comments were “so dumb” and “so stupid.” Ryan Blaney said Busch was being unfair because “doesn’t want to do anything” when it comes to promoting the sport.

Wheeeee! And the season hasn’t even started yet. NASCAR!

But in reality, that summary is a very shallow interpretation of Busch’s comments — and the reaction to them.

What’s really going on here? Well, there’s a lot to it — and it’s worth exploring before making a judgment.

——–

Let’s start with Busch’s premise: That NASCAR is putting its promotional muscle into the younger drivers at the expense of established, successful veterans.

That seems hard to deny based on all we’ve seen and heard about Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson over the last couple seasons — and now that William Byron, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Bubba Wallace, Ty Dillon and Alex Bowman have replaced veteran drivers, the young stars seem to be everywhere.

But can you blame NASCAR if it’s leaning heavily on the new generation? The superstars all just retired in a span of a few years — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart — leaving NASCAR scrambling to keep millions of fans from feeling disconnected.

Officially, NASCAR insists it is promoting both young and veteran drivers (NASCAR executive Steve Phelps said the strategy was a “mix” of both). But it is certainly counting on the new class to carry the future.

Last May, the week after Earnhardt announced his retirement, NASCAR sent Larson, Blaney, Elliott and Jones on a media tour to New York City — and why not? There’s a lot riding on their shoulders now.

Busch, of course, has noticed — along with the rest of us — that NASCAR really wants fans to get attached to one of the new drivers so they can grow with them over the next 15 or 20 years. But Busch is wondering where that push was when he was a young driver himself.

And actually, NASCAR’s Phelps said, Busch has a point.

“Until four or five years ago, most of our marketing was about the racing itself and pretty pictures around the racing,” Phelps said. “It wasn’t about the stars of our sport.

“So do I think that’s fair. When he came into the sport and started winning right off the bat? Yeah, I think it’s a fair statement that we did not give that kind of support.”

It’s true. NASCAR didn’t give the same promotion to Busch or Denny Hamlin or Carl Edwards like it’s doing with the current crop of new drivers. You can argue the Gillette Young Guns were a thing, but that was a sponsor program — not a NASCAR initiative (it also had drivers who were established and even some in their 30s).

Even after NASCAR began focusing more on the “star power” initiative, it did so by pushing the drivers who were already big names in order to sell tickets and try to stop the bleeding with TV ratings. You can’t really fault that strategy.

But it also caused Busch’s class of drivers to get passed over, and in the process created sort of a lost generation. Now it’s too late to suddenly start convincing fans to make Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski or Joey Logano their guy.

Hamlin said today’s young drivers are “very lucky” they’re coming in during a time where fans are actively looking for a new person to pull for. It’s sort of a clean break.

“Most likely, (a fan’s next driver) is not going to be someone who raced against their (old) favorite driver; it’s going to be someone new that comes in,” Hamlin said. “They’re picking someone from the start just like they picked their driver who retired from the start.”

There’s nothing wrong with NASCAR picking up on that, because it is trying to plant the seeds for the future — albeit a little late.

And Busch — despite his sharp-tongued comments — definitely understands that. My theory is Busch’s frustration comes from wanting the attention for his sponsor, not himself. As the years have progressed, Busch understands his livelihood is tied to M&Ms continuing to feel like it gets enough bang for its buck. That’s why he’s willing to do things like record a wacky touchdown dance on video. So if he’s in the latest NASCAR ad campaign, that gives his sponsor exposure and, in turn, helps his job security.

But there’s a second part to this whole discussion, and it’s one where the veteran drivers could take some lessons from their younger peers.

——-

Behind the scenes, NASCAR is always communicating with drivers and their representatives about promotional opportunities.

Would you like to do a radio hit on an Orlando sports talk station?

Would you be willing to appear on the Kansas City FOX affiliate’s morning show?

Any interest in a cameo on a new TV series that’s coming out next fall?

Want to be a voice in Cars 3?

This probably won’t surprise you, but NASCAR has much more success getting younger drivers to accept these types of invitations.

Ryan Blaney, in particular, is known as someone who says yes to most of the things NASCAR asks him to do.

Why?

“You have to think of the end game,” Blaney said. “I would rather make other people happy than myself. If I have to sacrifice time, it is just time. I would rather do something meaningful to the sport than to go sit on my couch.

“Very rarely do I say no to things just to sit on my couch. I can do that at night and I can do that when I retire. I want to do as much as I can right now to make it work and make other people happy and make this thing the best it can.”

So you can understand why it frustrated Blaney when he heard Busch say the younger drivers are “bullied into doing more things” for NASCAR because the veterans say ‘No’ a lot more.

“We’ve been there, done that and have families and want to spend as much time as we can at home,” Busch said.

Blaney said he agrees to those opportunities not because he’s coerced, but because “I think it is good for the sport and myself.”

“I can tell you personally that (Busch) doesn’t like doing a lot of stuff, so that is why they don’t ask him to do a lot of stuff,” Blaney said. “That kind of made me upset how he bashed that part of it. To each his own. If he doesn’t want to do anything, so be it.”

This is where the younger drivers have a major edge over their older counterparts. They’ve come into NASCAR during a period of struggle, which has given them the mindset of needing to do whatever it takes to stay relevant.

“Certain drivers…when they get to this certain level, they stop doing stuff,” Bubba Wallace said. “… It’s kind of like pulling teeth when you get well-established in the Cup Series.”

Wallace told reporters they could pinch him if he ever acts that way.

But many veteran drivers entered the sport during the glory years and have lived through the decline. So they feel discouraged, as if there’s not much one driver can do to make a difference. That makes them more likely to turn down some of the promotional work a new driver might accept.

It’s hard to fault them, either. For example: Let’s say NASCAR asked a driver to do a satellite media tour — where they sit in a studio for a couple hours and talk to various local TV stations all over the country every 15 minutes. Is that really going to do anything to impact NASCAR’s health? What about a radio spot on KISS 98.5 or 1080 The Fan?

“The reality is what I do today to promote the sport most likely makes very little difference in this time span and this era,” Keselowski said. “I am not saying it makes no difference, but very little difference.”

Keselowski emphasized he believes promoting the sport is part of his job. And his intention is to leave the sport well-stocked for the future, which he’s done in areas outside marketing — like developing future talent in his Truck Series team.

But the truth is, times have changed for everyone. The downturn many others in NASCAR have felt over the last 10 years is finally hitting drivers in their wallets. And it’s not going to get any better with the status quo.

So the drivers — both young and veteran — have two choices. They can either ride it out as long as possible without doing much, hoping to make it to retirement; or they can actively try to play a role in building NASCAR back up to help future generations receive the same sort of lucrative opportunities they’ve had along the way.

Highlights from Friday press conferences at Texas

A quick roundup of the media center happenings Friday at Texas Motor Speedway…

Chase is still pissed

Chase Elliott, who has been declared as the “People’s Champion” by Texas Motor Speedway, made it clear he is still upset with Denny Hamlin following their incident at Martinsville last week.

“Definitely not happy about it and I don’t think a whole lot has changed,” he said. “But no, I am not going to answer your questions about whether I am going to get him back or not. Don’t even ask, because you are not going to hear it from me. Just don’t go there.”

OK then!

But Elliott did answer some questions about the incident, saying he’s not out of the playoff picture on points despite being in a 26-point deficit to the cutoff position, that the fan support after Martinsville was “definitely unexpected” and the People’s Champ banner was “definitely strange.”

Elliott also said he hasn’t paid any attention to the Martinsville fallout this week, only turning on the TV to watch Netflix and refreshing his Twitter so he could see college football news, because “as you all know, the Georgia Bulldogs are ranked No. 1 right now in the country.”

“I was more consumed with that than this other stuff,” he said.

Blaney on Harvick: NBD

Ryan Blaney shrugged off the post-Martinsville discussion with Kevin Harvick that included jabs at the end of the conversation.

“We weren’t happy with each other,” Blaney said. “Both of us had our conversations and what we were upset about. I felt like we handled it fine. It was a stern talking-to (from Harvick).

“I have a lot of respect for Kevin. He helped me a lot when I got started a couple of years ago. It is just Martinsville racing, pretty much. We had a talk and I think we are fine. I am sure we are over it. Those (jabs) were just to reassure that we were good.”

Dale Jr. got a horse (kind of)

You knew Eddie Gossage was going to go big on the Dale Jr. retirement gifts, and he definitely did by riding a horse into the media center.

But the horse wasn’t actually a gift — it was to signify the track is sponsoring a therapy horse in Earnhardt’s honor.

As far as actual gifts, Gossage gave Earnhardt the top of the scoring pylon from his first Texas win, lit up with a No. 8. That was a pretty badass present, actually.

And to finish off the gifts, he gave the Earnhardts a custom-made baby stroller in the shape of a pink car.

Bubba — and NASCAR — get a sponsor

NASCAR had been working to help Richard Petty Motorsports find sponsorship, and a deal with mortgage brand Click n’ Close was apparently the result of those efforts.

RPM announced it will have three races of sponsorship from Click n’ Close, and NASCAR announced the brand will become the “Official Mortgage Provider of NASCAR.”

Anyway, Click n’ Close will sponsor RPM’s No. 43 car for the Daytona 500, as well as a Phoenix and Texas race next season. So although RPM has a ways to go to fill out the car with sponsorship, at least it’s now three races closer.

As a side note: The car was unveiled as a Ford, but Ford put out a statement before the news conference saying it has not received a commitment from RPM to return to the manufacturer next season.

Jimmie Johnson isn’t worried

Despite having the worst season of his career — at least in terms of average finish (15.5) — Johnson says he can make it to Homestead after entering Texas three points below the cutoff.

“I do feel good about getting in,” he said. “I think we are all just so used to momentum and we haven’t had that extremely high positive momentum, race-winning momentum on our side just yet. One thing I know about our team is when we get hot — and we can get hot quick — great things can happen.”

Also…

In news that didn’t take place inside the media center, Team Penske announced Miller Lite is reducing its sponsorship of the No. 2 car from 24 races to 11 next season.

That’s a big yikes, considering Miller has been such a longtime and loyal sponsor.

But Discount Tire will step up to fill the void on Keselowski’s car next season, sponsoring 10 races — including the Daytona 500 and Homestead.

News Analysis: Bubba Wallace to drive Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 car

What happened: Darrell Wallace Jr. will move to the Cup Series to drive Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 43 car next season, the team announced Wednesday. That will make Wallace the first full-time African-American driver in the Cup Series since Wendell Scott ran 37 races in the 1971 season.

What it means: Bubba gets a well-deserved shot at a Cup ride, and NASCAR gets an injection of excitement with a big personality getting to drive at the top level. NASCAR needs more characters after losing star power over the last few years with the departures of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — and Wallace’s edginess and enthusiasm will help with that. Also, you would assume this announcement means RPM feels like it will be able to find enough sponsorship to continue as an organization after anchor partner Smithfield decided to leave the team. The team’s news release announcing the decision said sponsorship for Wallace will be announced at a later date, so it’s unclear what that will entail.

News value (scale of 1-10): Seven. There are several distinct elements at play here, including Wallace’s skin color (which shouldn’t be notable in 2017 but will grab headlines based on NASCAR’s lack of diversity), the legend of the 43 car and the hope of an potential new star getting a chance at the Cup level. The news is not a surprise, though, based on the frequent updates from SportsBusiness Journal’s Adam Stern about RPM trying to sign Wallace.

Three questions: Does RPM have sponsorship secure, or is it making this announcement in hopes of drumming up funding now that it has a driver signed? Will Wallace, who was 11th at Kentucky earlier this year, be able to have more performances where he finishes ahead of where Aric Almirola typically did in the 43? Will Domino’s be involved with the team in any way, or will the company stupidly ignore a great opportunity to be paired with a rising star?

The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway…

1. Oh, that restart

Kyle Larson’s brilliance behind the wheel of a race car — it doesn’t matter what kind — is the sort of raw ability that every race fan can appreciate. And that was on display for all to see on Sunday.

Larson’s fourth-to-first move on the overtime restart — first slicing his way up the middle, then getting right to the bottom before anyone had time to really counter — was perhaps the best moment of his NASCAR career so far.

Today’s NASCAR is so much about the car and less about the driver, but Larson has shown several times how much the driver still matters. He is willing to try things others do not or cannot, and it provides for quite a show whether the attempt succeeds or fails.

This time, it worked — and Larson completed a week where he forced those who scoffed at his “last true racer” comment several months ago to wonder if maybe he was right.

2. Truex vs. Kyle

In the majority of races this season, the fastest cars have been either Truex or Kyle.

It’s just that the “Kyle” role has switched between Larson and Busch.

Larson was leading the points until he dropped off a cliff recently and tumbled to third with five finishes outside the top 20 in a seven-race stretch. It looked like he lost all his momentum as the Toyotas took over, but questions remained whether that was a product of losing his crew chief to a suspension.

That meant Michigan was going to be a huge test: Would Larson run well on a 2-mile track (a layout which has now generated all four of his career victories)? If not, that would seem to confirm his summer slump.

Apparently, things are just fine. Even though Larson didn’t have a dominant day, he was there at the end and figured out a way to win.

We’re back on the bandwagon now. Pencil him back in for the Final Four at Homestead, along with Truex, Busch and Jimmie Johnson.

3. Kenseth’s nightmare scenario

Matt Kenseth was in a lose-lose situation on the final restart that ended up with the lesser of two evils.

Going into overtime, Kenseth lined up third — on the inside of the second row — behind Erik Jones. His best shot would have been to push Jones on the restart and hope he could make it three-wide, but that could have resulted in a Jones victory.

And that was not going to be good for Kenseth. A new winner from below Kenseth’s spot in the points could have knocked him out of the playoffs (he’s currently holding on to the last spot). Plus, it would have meant helping Jones, the driver who is replacing Kenseth, get his first career win. That probably wouldn’t feel great.

I am not sure what happened and didn’t see any quotes from Kenseth after the race. But on the restart, Kenseth appeared to lay back and try to get a push from Chase Elliott (either that, or he spun his tires).

Ultimately, Kenseth ended up with a flat tire in the ensuing mess and finished 24th. He’s now 31 points ahead of Clint Bowyer for the final spot (see standings below) with three races to go.

The overtime finish cost Kenseth roughly 20 points, which is pretty painful in the battle for a playoff spot. But actually, that wasn’t the worst-case scenario. Because if Jones had won, Kenseth might not have had any points race to worry about at all.

4. Did you notice?

Chris Buescher is having a much better season this year than 2016, when he made the playoffs thanks to his rain-shortened Pocono win.

Buescher finished sixth at Michigan — his best finish of the year — and was right in the mix for a top five on the overtime restart. That was really impressive for a car that doesn’t typically contend there.

Overall, Buescher has improved his average finish from 26.1 to 20.7, already has as many lead-lap finishes as all of last year (11) and picked up his third top-10 of the season.

He’s not going to make the playoffs this season, but he’s trending in the right direction regardless.

5.  Uncertain futures

Bubba Wallace’s victory in the Truck Series race on Saturday was both a feel-good story and a frustrating reminder of the state of NASCAR.

Wallace has been sitting at home for a month, got into a truck for a one-off deal — and won. That’s great on the surface, because everyone watching probably went, “Yes! This will help his chances of getting a ride — and he deserves it.”

But will he get one? Despite being both talented and marketable, there’s no good news yet.

It’s the all-too-familiar problem of today’s NASCAR: Unless a driver personally has money — whether through family or a loyal sponsor — he can only hope the exact right opportunity at the exact right time magically comes his way.

I got another reminder of this on Sunday while watching the race with Gracin Raz (we recorded the post-race podcast, which you can find here). Raz finished fourth in K&N West Series points as an 18-year-old and then was fifth last year. Now 20, Raz has been forced to cut to a part-time schedule running a Late Model he and his dad work on in their garage.

We were chatting during the race and I was asking what the next steps are. The answers aren’t clear, but the solution is: Money. There’s not really much — if anything — Raz can do to jump in a car and prove himself, because that’s not what matters. It’s what money he can bring somewhere to get an opportunity.

Here’s a talented young driver who was just starting his career (and won a K&N West race in 2015), but there’s no pathway forward. The ladder to the top has broken rungs. The same can be said for Wallace, who waits in the same situation — just at a higher level.

It’s a sobering reminder: How many young drivers are there out there, scattered across the country, who could excel if they got the right opportunity?

Sadly, only a lucky few will ever find out — and that’s not healthy for a sport that should be built on the best talents.

———–

PLAYOFF PICTURE

By patron request, I’m going to start including the playoff picture at the bottom of the Top Five each week. Here’s how it looks now:

IN (13): Truex, Larson, Harvick, Ky. Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Johnson, Blaney, Ku. Busch, Newman, Stenhouse, Kahne, A. Dillon.

Points Bubble with four races to go:

14. Chase Elliott +62

15. Jamie McMurray +52

16. Matt Kenseth +31

—-

17. Clint Bowyer -31

18. Joey Logano -98

(Everyone else more than 100 points or one win behind)