The Top Five: Breaking down the Bristol spring race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway…

1. An off-day for an elite race team

One of the top crew chiefs in the garage faced reporters after the Bristol race and gave a frank assessment of his team’s lack of speed.

“This was probably about the worst car I gave him to go race with this year,” the crew chief said. “We didn’t make a lot of headway in practice. We weren’t as good as we hoped to be.”

The driver echoed that sentiment, saying the team never hit on the right setup for the entire weekend.

“We just didn’t quite have the speed,” he said. “We just didn’t show exactly what we needed there.”

Added the crew chief: “They had us covered today. We weren’t very good, like I’ve said a dozen times already.”

Yikes. Clearly, it sounds like a very tough Sunday at Bristol for…(checks notes)…Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens?!?!

That’s crazy. In a season where Busch has already been stellar, the field somehow allowed the No. 18 team to score yet another victory and add to its already-impressive playoff point total. Busch now has 19 playoff points, which is by far the most after the first eight races under this system (12 was the previous best).

We all know there are times when Busch loses races on days he had the best car. On Sunday, he won a race where he clearly wasn’t the fastest. This is shaping up to be a long season for Busch haters yet again.

“Hopefully we can get back on our horse and give him something he can race with a little closer next week,” Stevens said.

2. Odd ending

Bristol was a really fun and interesting race from Lap 1, with all sorts of unpredictable twists (from wrecks to loose wheels) that kept the pace moving quickly. Fears of a dreadful race due to the aero effects of the new package didn’t come to fruition and the traction compound appeared to last throughout the day (instead of wearing out halfway through).

All in all, it was the best race of the season so far.

But it sure ended in an anti-climactic way. One of the Team Penske cars was headed toward victory lane — they’d been the class of the field, leading 344 laps.

And then, strangely, the Penske trio just handed the race to Busch by pitting before a restart that ultimately came with 14 laps to go.

Track position won out, with the top two finishers — the Busch Brothers — pulling away on old tires. Joey Logano went from eighth to third, but wasn’t really a threat for the win.

Later, Logano said he thought the pit decision was a no-win situation for the frontrunners.

“The last thing you want is a caution with 15 to 20 to go at Bristol and you’re the leader, because you know everyone is going to make their decision off of what you do,” he said. “If you stay out, you’ve got to expect half the field is going to pit, maybe more. If you come in, five or six stayed (out). So it’s just part of the game.”

But is it? I’m having a hard time visualizing it. If the leaders stayed out — let’s say it was only the three Penske cars and a few others — they would have been in the same situation as the Busch Brothers ended up in.

Perhaps Logano was just trying to avoid throwing his team under the bus for a strategy decision that clearly cost him the race. And for viewers at home, it certainly made for a weird ending.

3. Race recap from a parallel universe

BRISTOL, Tenn. — As continuous cheers rained down from the stands for 15 minutes following the checkered flag, Kurt Busch stood atop the victory lane building in Bristol Motor Speedway’s infield and shrugged his shoulders with a grin.

“I really wanted to beat him,” Busch said of his younger brother, Kyle. “I decided I was going to wreck him, and if I got close enough when we took the white, I was just going to drive straight into Turns 3 and 4 and wreck him.”

Busch did exactly that, sending his brother’s No. 18 car spinning and crashing as the No. 1 car crossed the finish line. Bristol fans, weary of seeing Kyle win yet another race, responded by erupting in joy as Kurt circled the track with a Polish victory lap.

It also may have sparked a rivalry at a time when NASCAR could use some bad blood.

“I’ll get him back,” Kyle said on the track’s public address system as fans showered him with jeers. “I don’t care if it takes me all season and I don’t care what the penalty is. He’ll regret this day ever happened.”

In related news, Bristol reported ticket sales saw an immediate increase for its upcoming Night Race in August.

4. Yes, we see it

The stands looked bad. Attendance has steadily been getting worse over the last decade. It’s not going to get much better anytime soon. Everyone acknowledges this. No one I’ve seen is trying to talk around this fact, nor appearing to hide it or sugarcoat it.

But given it’s 1) Not anything new and 2) Not going to change … can we please just stop talking about it for awhile? The topic is exhausting.

5. You picked a fine time to leave me

This weekend turned into a celebration of Darrell Waltrip’s career, which is probably the first of many tributes he will receive leading up to his retirement from broadcasting in late June.

Drivers gave him hugs and recorded video messages that left him emotional in the booth, and the track gave him one of its signature gladiator swords following a news conference where he shared many reflections on his time in NASCAR.

Waltrip, one of NASCAR’s all-time great drivers and a uniquely special broadcaster, deserves the fond farewells.

But they’re also long overdue. The moment Jeff Gordon stepped into the FOX booth and brought his current knowledge of the cars, teams and drivers — while Ol’ DW preferred to rely on his old-school experiences — it was painfully obvious a change was needed.

Given television’s crucial role in how NASCAR is represented, it’s absolutely fair to question whether the best product is being shown to viewers. In that sense, it’s also perfectly acceptable to look forward to a fresher voice in the booth.

Waltrip passionately defended himself on Friday, though, and it’s clear many people agree with him.

“People say, ‘He’s not relevant any more, hasn’t driven a car,'” Waltrip said. “I’ve been in the cars. I know what they feel like. I know what it feels like to win a race here. You want to listen to some guy that’s never won a race somewhere tell you how to drive a car? I don’t think so.

“I have the knowledge. I have the experience. Look, I don’t sit at home Monday through Thursday twiddling my thumbs.  I talk to crew chiefs.  I talk to drivers. … I know how they do it. I could build the damn car myself if I had to. Tell somebody else, some of these guys, build a car, see how it runs.

“Nobody shook me and said, ‘Man, it’s time to give it up.’ It’s just that time.  72 years old. I could do this til’ I’m 90.

“This is what I know, this is what I do best. I’ve loved every minute of it.  I think I’m pretty damn good at it, to tell you the truth.”

Heading into the weekend, the controversial Jenna Fryer column was a hot topic, and she got a lot of crap for it. But if anything, Fryer may have done him a favor: Rallying DW’s supporters for a celebration tour while drowning out the previously loud voices of his detractors.

Post-Bristol podcast with Brian David Johnson and Kate Ertmann

Portland residents Brian David Johnson, a renowned futurist and bestselling author, and Kate Ertmann, a management consultant, join me again on the podcast to talk about topics stemming from Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Driven Life: Robby Lyons on treating concussions

Photo: HMedia

This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed podcasts (also transcribed for those who prefer to read) involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Truck Series driver/owner Robby Lyons. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A lot of NASCAR fans are familiar with the Dale Jr. concussion story and his saga, but you have your own story. And one thing we’ve learned through the Dale Jr. experience is that every situation is different. So what was your experience and how did this all start for you?

Every experience is different and in the same way, every concussion is different. That’s one thing I wasn’t aware of — and I think that’s why so many of them go undiagnosed or people don’t even know what’s wrong with them, just because there are so many different symptoms. Someone can have one symptom and none of the others, but it’s still a concussion.

I started racing dirt bikes when I was five years old, and I raced motocross and Supercross for 18 years. The whole reason I got out of dirt bike racing was from the injuries. There’s a quote, I think it was Ricky Carmichael who said, “With age comes the cage.” So of course, me and my parents were like, “Maybe we should just go down that route.” I think the amount of money we spent on hospital bills those first 18 years probably could have funded somebody’s entire Cup career.

I didn’t really take the head injuries as serious until last year. I knew it was serious because that’s what some doctors told me before I quit racing motocross: “If you hit your head hard again, you’re going to be messed up for the rest of your life.” And of course I’m like, “Well every doctor’s supposed to say that, because they don’t want to see you messed up.”

But I’ll actually backtrack even further than that. In 2017, when I was racing Super Late Models, I had a wreck at one of my local short tracks at Florida. It was only a quarter mile, but this guy that I’d been holding up for awhile got impatient and decided to just clobber me going into a corner. We went back and watched my GoPro video and it’s like, “Holy cow, that was a hard hit.” It was during July, so it was really, really hot. The helmet blower quit, I didn’t have anything to drink in there, it was a 100-lap race and I thought at the end of it that I had heat stroke or heat exhaustion. My dad ended up having to pull me out of the car after the race, and he was like, “You weren’t even there.” (The general reaction) was like, “Wow, you need to work out more.”

Then I got my deal with Premium Motorsports with Jay Robinson and my roommate, Garrett Smithley, he kind of introduced me to them. I made my first Truck start at Phoenix at the end of 2017 and raced Homestead, and made a deal to run the first four races of 2018. When we got to Martinsville (last March), I think we got about halfway through that race and there was a wreck in front of me. Cody Coughlin got into the back of me, and I spun into the back of Cory Roper’s truck. He had stopped, and so I kind of slid broadside into his truck, and it ripped the whole right side of my truck open like a can. I remember Michael (Waltrip) up in the booth saying, “That looks like a truck that’s been to Martinsville.”

So toward the end of the race, I was feeling all right; more so disappointed. Then the motor went and brought out the final caution five laps from the end.

When I got out, they were like, “You feeling OK?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m a little dizzy, but I think it’s from the carbon monoxide.” But it was 26 degrees outside and I could see out my right side door, so I thought, “Eh, maybe it’s not.” So I didn’t go to the care center. I should have.

Obviously it’s a long time off between Martinsville and back then Texas was the next race. It was really weird — as time went on, I started feeling weirder and weirder and kind of overthinking stuff. It was like my anxiety was getting crazy.

I’ve kind of always had issues with anxiety and my mood changing. I’m an introvert, so it’s odd that this is the business I chose to be a part of. So I a lot of it I just chalked up to, “This is just typical me, just having to take some time to chill” — because it had been a frustrating start to the year.

But as it went on, I started having sleeping issues. Leading up to getting pulled out of the Truck at Texas last year, which was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make, I had gone 92 hours with only four hours of sleep.

Whoa, no way.

I knew it was a problem. Like I would try to sleep, and I would lay down and feel like I was having a heart attack. So I just had to get up. A lot of the nights, I just stared at the ceiling for who knows how many hours and just lost track of time.

The day I was supposed to leave for Texas, I went to walk out to go to my truck in the driveway and I just collapsed in the yard in front of our house. I picked up my phone, called my dad and I’m like, “I can’t race this weekend.” Actually, I think I said, “I can’t get to the airport.” And he’s like, “Well you’re definitely not going to be able to drive a race car around at 190 miles an hour then.” He was right. My passion is so strong, I might have tried it, so it’s probably good that divine forces knocked me down in the driveway.

My parents actually got a flight back to Kannapolis in North Carolina and they picked me up and drove me down to Florida and I took some time off. I went to the doctor and they said it was all kinds of things. “Oh it’s this, oh it’s that, try this medication, try this.” I started exercising more, resting a lot.

Because people were still thinking it was heat stroke or something or heat-related and you were still just recovering from that?

Yeah, basically, and a lot of them thought it was stress because I don’t have an agent or PR or anything like that or somebody to help me look for sponsorship. That was something that was tough on me at first; it’s a whole new world. Late Model racing is one thing, but when you’re doing it all yourself, it can get really overwhelming at times, especially if you’re not all there healthy like I was. So it was easy for me to get overwhelmed very quickly. My dad could tell you, we had plenty of arguments during that time, and later on I found out a lot of them I didn’t even remember having.

I started getting better, just on my own, and then I raced at Kentucky. That was late August, and that was my first race back — so I missed half the season. That whole time I was kind of getting my head straight, I wasn’t really looking for sponsors or anything like that, so I knew that I needed to focus on me more than anything.

Toward the end of the year, Premium had different ideas for where they wanted to go, they wanted to focus more on their Cup team. Me and my dad had a conversation about, whether it would be less stressful if we just had our own equipment and we could control how we performed and we could get out there and compete and not have to worry about contracts and all the inner workings that we don’t really know about yet.

So we called our good friends Jeff and Chad Finley. I drove Late Models for Chad back in 2015, and we had saw that they had run their truck at Gateway and finished sixth their first race and went to Bristol and made the last round of qualifying. We thought we’d definitely like to see what they’ve got going on, and of course they’ve got Bruce Cook, his track record speaks for itself with the owner’s championship with Kevin Harvick’s team, and he won races with Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer, and he was leading this whole operation. So we’re like, “This seems like a really awesome deal. Let’s look into it.”

We had bought a couple trucks, one of them was Josh Reaume’s superspeedway truck. It was a good truck, and we got a couple from Brad Keselowski’s old truck team, and we finished out the year.

Then we ran Talladega. I was racing for the lead with six laps to go and ended up in a wreck again on the backstretch there on the last lap. Shocking, I know — that never happens. (Laughs) But then we ran at Homestead and I ended up cutting a tire down and hit the wall.

On the way down to Homestead, I had a buddy of mine, Brenden Koehler, riding with me. He’s looking to get involved in PR stuff and he’s actually living with me and Garrett now. I actually met him on iRacing. But on the way down to Homestead, we listened to Dale Jr.’s book (Racing to the Finish) on audiobook.

I remember we were about halfway through it and I had noticed every single time something was said that kind of reminded Brenden of things he had seen in me, he would turn and look at me. I’d be like, “Why are you looking at me, man?” But I knew exactly what was going on.

You’re hearing this and you knew. It was speaking to you.

Oh yeah, for sure. It’s just like that gut feeling and it’s just like, “Oh man.” I felt like I could have written that book. Minus the stuff in the beginning — obviously his story’s even crazier a lot of times, how he got to where he was and just the things he’s been through.

But you know, when it came down to our experience in racing and the head injury part, it all made sense. From the Late Model deal in 2017 to the truck stuff to what had happened earlier that year and the deal before Texas, I’m like, “This all makes sense.” Dale literally was having the same stuff happen to him.

Photo: HMedia

So up to that point, nobody had said this might be concussion-related, all this stuff you’re going through? Until you listened to that, it didn’t click for you?

It didn’t. I can’t tell you how many nights I lost sleep thinking, “Am I just crazy?” Not when I’m driving cars really fast with walls around me — that’s pretty crazy — but like another kind of crazy. Since I heard Dale talk as passionately as he did about it, I feel the same way. February was the donate your brain month and I pledged my brain to science as well. I know that’s something that Dale Jr. did because CTE and post-concussion syndrome, all those things, you can’t diagnose it until after you’re gone. I know that having that ability to look at a brain that’s been through trauma is going to be key to developing the technology in the future to be able to help other people. Something I never want to see happen is somebody go through what I went through.

There were so many times when I was like, “Is it even worth going forward?” And not even in racing — but life. I was in a rough, rough place, and when you don’t know why, you just feel crazy. So in some sense, I would say his book saved my life. And it’s kind of helped me be able to cope with what happened. Because I went through that. I can’t imagine his sense of joy that his book has helped so many people.

My roommate Brenden, he looked over me in the car and said, “I think you need to go to Dr. Collins.” And in my mind I’m like, “There’s no way I can go see him. He’s kind of like a Hollywood figure” — that type of thing in my mind.

Yeah, you’re thinking that’s who the big rich celebrities go to.

Yeah, of course. And I’ve never felt like I’m anything other than a normal person. I walk into this garage sometimes and still feel out of place, like, “Oh my God, that’s Matt Crafton. I’ve watched him race before.” And even guys that will come up and talk to you, you like stare for a second, you’re like, “Wait, me?” You’re looking over your shoulder. “No, you.” So I felt even more like it, like he’s not going to accept me as a patient.

But we ended up calling Dr. Collins and talked to his secretary up there and she’s like, “We’re kind of a month behind making appointments, but yeah, come see us. We’re going to do these tests and then you can see Dr. Collins and see what he thinks.”

And he actually helped develop the ImPACT test, which after we’re in a wreck, we have to go to the care center and they make us do a segment of that test and everybody has to have a baseline test.

So I went up to Pittsburgh — it was late December — and first thing they had me do was take the ImPACT test. He told me my scores were dramatically off from where my baseline was. And obviously I didn’t go to the care center that day in Martinsville and there was no way for them to check.

So here’s me encouraging other drivers, if they’re reading, to go to the care center if you hit anything. Just go. Because you’re not in your right state of mind when that happens and you might feel nothing at the time.

Photo: HMedia

But you feel like if you had gone, the test would have shown something that day at Martinsville?

I feel like it could have. We ran before the Cup race that day (due to the snowout), and I sat up in the stands at Martinsville and watched all 500 laps of the Cup race, which largely went caution-free besides the stage cautions. And there’s a part that Dale talks about in his book when he was in Martinsville standing on top of the haulers watching cars go around and he had to get out of there. It was driving him insane and he felt like he was getting sick or having a panic attack or something. And as that race went on, I got dizzier and dizzier and got a headache and actually I had my buddy drive my truck home. So that’s what I’m saying. It was like, “Man, this book, I felt like I could write it.”

I don’t know if the test would have changed anything then — it might have, it might not have — but the whole fact of the matter is, everything that I went through up in Pittsburgh was basically the same thing. For those who read the book…have you read it?

I have, actually.

It’s crazy how simple he makes concussions sound when in reality they’re kind of the most complicated thing that can happen to somebody, especially being an invisible problem, mostly. It all depends on the information that you give them. And I think a lot of the times I held off on giving information because I was worried about somebody thinking I was crazy. So I’m like, “You know what? That’s just me, and I’m just going to deal with that myself.” And it gets to a point where you can only deal it with yourself for so long.

So I ended up going up to Pittsburgh and went there four times. They gave me a list of exercises to do. A lot of them are really weird, like holding a string with a whole bunch of beads on it from your nose outwards and you have to focus your eyes on each bead and then back.

One was just tossing a tennis ball behind you to somebody. The first time I did that in the hallway up in Pittsburgh, I fell over after doing it three or four times. By the last appointment there, he was like, “How’s the tennis ball thing going?” I was like, “I did it 40 times without stopping.” He’s like, “All right, now we’re going to have you do it while walking backwards.” I was like, “Aw man, you can’t do that.” (Laughs)

But another interesting thing, my peripheral vision used to be terrible. I mean, from when I started racing Legend cars, one of my issues was being afraid of the wall. When I would come off the corner, I would always hold it like a car length or a half car length off the wall — and of course that’s pinching the corner, so that doesn’t make sense. So I actually learned how to drive based on sound. Because of the way the engine noise bounces off the wall, I can tell how far I am from the wall.

My friends used to mess with me because they knew I had bad peripheral vision, so they would like throw paper airplanes at my head. Obviously I couldn’t see it coming. But the other day, one of my roommates was waving at me and I turned and looked at them. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, your peripheral vision’s a lot better.”

Wow, no kidding?

It’s insane. I used to sit with my door open in my room out to the living room and they would all just make faces at me and stuff and I’d never see them. So heads up if anybody plans on tricking me now — I can see them.

But it’s just been crazy. Life’s been a lot better. Totally did a 180. I wish I hadn’t dealt with it for so long, but if I hadn’t, then I wouldn’t be able to be here saying the things I’m saying and saying I beat it. I just hope anybody that is feeling that way, if you’ve hit your head even once and you’re going through these things, just go talk to somebody.

So somebody reading this may not realize the symptoms of a concussion, as you didn’t. They may think something is wrong with them or they’re going crazy, but it could be all related to this and you don’t know until you go see Dr. Collins. And you said it was affordable, it turned out?

It was. I went there expecting to spend my life savings, which isn’t really that much because I have race cars. (Laughs) But I went up there expecting that. And at the end of the day, you see a lot of doctors there. I saw three doctors regularly when I went up there, and it’s kind of like a day trip, so obviously you’ve got to pay for airfare if you’re not from around there. But you see three doctors and they take almost an entire day to see you. There’s a physical therapist that makes you do physical exercises — they call it exertion therapy — where you run on a treadmill or toss a medicine ball around and all while doing visual exercises. Then you see Dr. Collins and his assistant. It’s a lot of time that they take out of their day to help and, you know, it was just a couple hundred dollars. And that was without insurance that was recognized in Pennsylvania. But yeah, don’t let that deter you from going, because they’ll work with you for sure.

That’s really cool. So have you talked to Dale about this experience?

Dr. Collins told me, “Whatever you do, find Dale’s number from somebody.” At first he was like, “I’ll give you his number,” but then he was like, “I probably shouldn’t do that.” So I haven’t yet. I’ve been trying to run into him, but a lot of people plan on running into him. I know that when the time and place is right I’ll talk to him. But if he reads this, I can’t thank him enough. And I know there’s a lot of other people out there that would say the same thing. Dr. Collins told me ever since Junior’s book came out, he’s had other people and other drivers even that raced in NASCAR and IndyCar go to him and say, “I think this is going on with me,” and it turns out that it was. And obviously HIPPA laws say that he can’t say who. But I can’t imagine the sense of pride and joy he has that he has changed so many people’s lives through something that is really awful.

Mental illness I think is something in this country that just deserves so much more attention and coverage, especially in stuff that’s caused by traumatic brain injuries. Dr. Collins’ office is at the UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and the Pittsburgh Penguins actually train up there. Hockey is legit crazy. I have my Tampa Bay Lightning hat on right now. But funny story, the first day I walked in there, I had this same hat on, and I didn’t realize that we’re going to the Lemieux Training Center, and I’m like, “Oh crap. I should probably take my hat off.” (Laughs) But it ended up being a lot of fun, we mess with each other a lot.

You indicated that your peripheral vision is better now and you’re feeling a lot better. But overall, where would you put yourself in your recovery process now?

My last appointment up there was in February and we had made my goal to be able to race Daytona. And he told me, “You’re going you have to bust your you-know-what if you want to get to Daytona and race.” Daytona is my home track being from Florida, and it was tough. I had to commit a lot and my friends and family helped me a lot, but (the appointment) was the weekend before the Shootout and I was so nervous walking in there because I kind of felt like I hadn’t done my best. But I felt so much better and I knew things were getting better and I could toss a ball 40 times walking backwards, so why not? Sounds easy enough. And he said I could go race.

When I walked in there the first day, I was expecting to be told, “You can’t race anymore — ever again.” And not only that, but, “You’re never going to be normal again.” Those are the thoughts that go through your head all the time before I got better. Just constantly like, “This is never going to get better, it’s going to get worse.” So I kind of put off going to see people because I didn’t want to be told that. Ignorance is bliss, right? But I couldn’t be happier that I did.


Related: Book review of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Racing to the Finish

12 Questions with Corey LaJoie (2019)

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Corey LaJoie of Go Fas Racing. This interview was recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed for those who prefer to read.

1. Are you an iPhone person or an Android person, and why?

I’m a normal human being, so I’m an iPhone person.

That makes you a normal human being?

Yeah. Are you an iPhone person?

I am an iPhone person. Actually, you continue the streak. Not one driver so far has said Android.

Yeah, I wouldn’t know how to operate it. I wouldn’t even know how to turn one on.

2. If a fan meets you in the garage, they might only have a brief moment with you. So between an autograph, a selfie or quick comment, what is your advice on the best way to maximize that interaction?

I think the selfie is the best way to go. Like have the camera ready, and, “Hey, can I take a selfie?” “Yeah sure!” Snap. There it is.

A lot of people don’t even know what my name is anyway, so if you can call my name out and it’s not “Paul Menard” — because I get that about five times a weekend. If you can call Corey LaJoie and “Hey, can I have a selfie?” that’s automatic brownie points in my book.

So people see a firesuit and they’re like, “You must be somebody!”

“Paul Menard!” I say, “Yeah, I wish.”

3. When someone pulls a jerk move on the road when you’re driving down the highway, does that feeling compare at all to when someone pulls a jerk move on the track?

No. I get way more mad when somebody pulls a jerk move on the road than on the track because on the track you expect it, right? You’re racing. But on the road when somebody does something stupid, it can put other people’s lives in danger, right? So that gets me way more fired up.

But I’m a little more tame in my older age now. I’m not one to honk, I’m just one to get really close or put you in the median or really use my car as a weapon sometimes. But I’ve toned that down a little bit.

4. Has there ever been a time where you’ve had a sketchy situation with your safety equipment?

Not that I can recall. My dad would get pretty mad at me if I did (Randy LaJoie’s Joie of Seating builds race car seats). There’s been times where I’ve raced a Super Late Model or something without a HANS device, and you just figure either “Ah, I forgot it,” or “I’m not going that fast.” So there might have been a couple of times when I raced without a HANS device.

But for the most part, my dad would get pretty pissed off if I didn’t have all my stuff in order and I got hurt, because it would look bad for the business obviously. So in that regard, I try to stay pretty safe.

So his interest goes beyond just the seats, obviously.

Yeah, if I get hurt — even if my toe gets hurt in the race car — it’s a bad representation of the business. So I’ve got to make sure all my stuff is dialed in so if something does happen, I don’t get too terribly hurt.

5. If your crew chief put a super secret illegal part on your car that made it way faster, would you want to know about it?

I’d be interested to know what it was so I can apply it to another car, whether it’s a Super Late Model or something.

So you want to take his idea later after you race it and be like, “Oh, OK.”

Yeah. That’s what a lot of the big guys do with the risk versus reward. The reward is so much greater, because if you can run an illegal part — like spoilers for four months at a time and not get caught until the end of the year and you’ve already made the Chase and you’ve already made the final two rounds of the playoffs, then that was worth it. So I would run an illegal part because there’s everybody else in the gray area. They can tell you that they’re boxed off all they want to, but everybody’s pushing the gray area. Some guys push it a little more, some guys don’t.

Is that a misconception among fans? Because I think fans only think people are cheating when somebody gets caught. But everybody’s doing it all the time, pretty much.

The further back in the garage you get, the less bending of the rules happens because the fines versus the budgets are way, way smaller, right? On a team with a $3 million budget, a $100,000 fine is quite a bit. To a $30 million budget, a $100,000 fine is nothing. So that’s got to be taken into account.

And also, if we roll through pre-qualifying inspection and we fail the first time, we’re really worried about the next time we go through being right because we can’t afford to lose another guy. (Editor’s note: Crew members get ejected for the weekend if a car fails inspection twice). Like we’re not maxed out on our roster numbers anyways — we’re probably two shy — so when we roll through and we fail, we’re like, “Oh boy, we can’t afford to give John away for the rest of the weekend for just qualifying tech.” So we’ve got to make sure we’ve got all our stuff right when we go through.

And those (bigger teams) just have another mechanic to pull from or they’ll put the crew chief in the driver’s bus for the race. Like those guys aren’t going anywhere, right? And they have the resources where they can bend the rules and have it not be that big of a penalty.

6. What is a food you would not recommend eating right before a race and are you speaking with personal experience with this recommendation?

I would venture to say a Taco Bell run would probably not be well-advised before a race. I haven’t had that.

So don’t make a run for the border right before a race.

No, I don’t recommend that at all. I usually get Taco Bell after a race. But there’s certain things where you don’t want to be burping up something and have it just be smelling really bad. It’s not fun when your stomach is rumbling for 400 miles.

And you can smell inside the helmet?

Oh yeah. There’s not a whole lot of escape for that, so…

7. Is there life in outer space, and if so, do they race?

I don’t think so. That could get in a real deep conversation, but for the most part, I’m going to say no. I’ll leave it at that. I have other theories, but not enough time today.

8. What do drivers talk about when they’re standing around at driver intros before a race?

A lot of them talk about their kids and what they do away from the track. There’s not really a whole lot of racing talk because you’re going to get a whole lot of racing fix for the next four hours, so you don’t really want to. Sometimes there’s a little bit of talk, right? Just “How’s your car driving?” and “This happened the other day.”

But there’s going to be a little more talk this Sunday (at Phoenix, in the wake of the Daniel Suarez-Michael McDowell fight), maybe pinning different drivers against each other, maybe head-to-head fights. So see who will win what. I think there’s going to be some more conversations about that.

So after the McDowell-Suarez thing, people will be like, “Hey, do you think this guy can take this guy?”

Yeah, I think so. 

9. What makes you happy right now?

My wife and just the state of my career right now, everything is going really good and I’m happy here at Go Fas Racing, bringing some fast cars to the racetrack. And just reading the Bible quite a bit, just been digging into that, it’s been really good. So I’ve got a lot of good things rolling in my life. I’m pretty content and happy where I’m at right now.

10. Let’s say a sponsor comes to you and says, “We are going to fully fund the entire rest of your racing career on the condition that you wear a clown nose and an 80’s rocker wig in every interview you do forever.” Would you accept that offer?

It depends how much I would be getting paid out of the deal because funding my career making $80,000 a year for the next 20 years is different than funding my career and me making $15 million. So if they’re funding my career and I’m making $15 million, I’ll wear a nose, hair, bell bottom pants all they want. So I haven’t had that opportunity come to my attention yet, but it would depend on what I would be making on the backhand, because every man has a price.

11. This is the 10th year of the 12 Questions. There has never been a repeat question until now. Pick a number between 1 and 100, and I’m going to pull up a random question from a past year’s series.

Let’s do 71. That was my Bandolero number back in the day.

Do you keep a mental list of people who you owe for payback?

No. You know the guys that you owe one to, but you also want to make sure that it’s right time and it’s beneficial to you. So I would like to say no because I’m not a revengeful type of person, but there are certain times where you cut guys a little bit more of a break than others sometimes just from the way they’ve raced in the past. So whether or not it’s putting somebody in the wall, that probably isn’t how I think. It’s just a matter of how hard I’m going to race somebody at what time in the race versus how they race me or did something to me weeks prior.

12. The last interview was with Paul Menard. As you mentioned earlier, he asked how often you get mistaken for him.

Four to five times a weekend.

That sounds very often.

Yeah. I wish I was Paul Menard. But I’m not, and eventually people might start mistaking Paul Menard for Corey LaJoie.

He said he was walking in the garage and somebody said, “Hey, Corey LaJoie!”

Wow! First for everything. Yeah, I’ve gotten Paul Menard for the last three to four years before everybody kind of knows I’m even here. So that’s a small improvement.

Maybe putting your face on a car has helped raised awareness.

Yes, it definitely has, no doubt. Old Spice got their money’s worth out of that. But yeah, that’s actually funny that Paul Menard got Corey LaJoie because I’ve been getting Paul Menard for several times every weekend for the last two years.

I don’t know who the next interview is going to be with. Do you have a question I can ask another driver?

I would ask somebody if they ever raced hung over, but nobody would be truthful in answering that. Unless it’d be like Clint Bowyer, then it’d be like, “Hell yeah!”

I like the fighting thing. But I think that one comes up a lot — what driver would you fight? Everybody says Ryan Newman, right? Because he’s like cornbread fed and he’s got no neck, so he can probably take a punch.

Do you think Suarez could take down Newman?

No.

So even Newman could take down Suarez? Newman’s that indestructible?

Newman is an oak tree. You could like run into that guy, you’d bounce off.

So I think a legitimate question would be, we all didn’t consider Suarez a fighter, right? Or strong. Who is another sleeper in the garage that you probably wouldn’t want to get into a fight with? Like Chris Buescher, somebody like that.

So not the main guys you think of, not like the Newman type, but who’s a guy that’s sneaky strong, that’s going to be able to…

Kinda squirrely, like punch you in the face before it even happens. I wouldn’t even have bet Suarez. I would put Suarez on the map, but I wouldn’t have seen him yanking down Michael McDowell like a little boy. So I’m trying to visualize the garage. Maybe Kevin Harvick.

He has a wrestler background.

Because he has a wrestler background and he’s training with Cowboy (Cerrone), I’m sure he’s picked up some tips here and there to put you in an arm bar before you even knew what happened. So I probably wouldn’t mess with Harvick. I’m sure Cowboy’s taught him some things. Like say, “Hey man, show me an arm bar!” And then that’s that. I wouldn’t mess with Harvick.


Previous 12 Questions interviews with Corey LaJoie:

Feb. 20, 2018

The Top Five: Breaking down the Texas race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway…

1. It was better…but why?

Recent races at Texas Motor Speedway, to put it kindly, have not been the most interesting on the circuit. Like you, NASCAR officials watched those events — along with other races on many 1.5-mile tracks — and thought, “UGH. Surely this can be better.”

So they came up with the 2019 rules package, which by now you’ve heard is the most dramatic change to the cars in years.

Until Sunday, the package hadn’t really worked as intended yet. And it was somewhat of a head-scratcher to those who saw glimpses of it in action before the season began.

But as it turns out, perhaps all the package needed was some chilly weather, sprinkled with a little love — in the form of VHT/PJ1/traction compound/whatever you want to call it.

“I feel like it was good racing,” Daniel Suarez said. “We were able to make runs and move around, get a little crazy on restarts — which is what people like and what we like. Hopefully we can learn from this and repeat it.”

Of course, that’s the tricky part. The rules package clearly isn’t going to work on every track — and it requires the right combination to be successful. As it turned out, Sunday was much closer to the ideal conditions of the Las Vegas test (which was misleading at the time).

On the first day of that test, the temperatures were cooler and the simulated racing looked great. The next day, it didn’t seem to be quite the same.

“We all drafted well and we were putting on a hell of a show — hell, it was fun in the car,” Clint Bowyer said Sunday of the Vegas test. “Then the next day at that test, the sun was out, it was 20 degrees hotter, we were single file and it wasn’t very much fun.”

Texas was more like Vegas in that temperatures were in the 50s, and it unlocked the key elements of the package when drivers could run around the track mostly wide open (except for Turns 1 and 2).

Since its controversial repave — where Texas built those turns to be flat compared to the more traditionally banked Turns 3 and 4 — the racing had struggled. So officials put a heavy amount of traction compound on the upper groove and it led to the track widening out.

That’s the first time the sticky stuff has been used successfully on a 1.5-mile track, following other trials at shorter tracks Bristol and New Hampshire.

“I was pretty bummed when I landed and saw the VHT on the track,” Bowyer said. “I was like, ‘Damn it, what are they doing?’ Because I haven’t had the best experience with it. But I felt like it helped this place.”

Erik Jones said the better Texas racing was caused 70 percent by the VHT and 30 percent by the temperatures.

“I actually thought the racing was better than what it was in the last few years with the low downforce package, and it’s probably the first week I would have said that,” Jones said. “… Cooler weather helping us be wide open was benefitting our package of racing. The other part, being able to move up in both ends and get completely clean air, was letting you get big runs.”

If those circumstances could be replicated more often, NASCAR might really have something to work with. Unfortunately, the weather is about to get a lot warmer.

2. Hockey pucks

If Sunday was a good race, it was in spite of the tires — not because of them.

Races are best when drivers have to manage their tires, choosing to push hard for short term gain or take care of the rubber in hopes of making passes during a long run. Tire wear creates passing and comers and goers, regardless of whatever cars or rules package might be on track.

Clearly, Goodyear could provide a little more in this area. The tires at Martinsville last week were said to have 3,000 laps in them and Texas didn’t seem much different.

“We’re basically running on brick walls, so they’re pretty durable,” Chase Elliott said.

“I don’t build tires,” Kevin Harvick said. “The tires suck every week.”

Aric Almirola said he was running as fast on 70-lap-old tires as he was on a restart with new tires. And Kyle Busch said the pace “didn’t fall off one bit.”

“We ran 28.80s to 29-flats the entire run,” Busch said of his lap times.

That’s two-tenths of a second for many, many laps at a time! Yikes.

It’s no surprise, then, that a pair of fuel-only calls ended up winning the race for Denny Hamlin. Crew chief Chris Gabehart said the object was to spend “minimum time on pit road” instead of worrying about tires and thus opt for track position. That helped his driver overcome two pit road penalties and another time when Hamlin missed pit road and lost six spots on the track.

Bowyer, who finished second thanks to another no-tires call, said he started to realize the strategy would work when he looked in his mirror on the straightaway and noticed no one was gaining on him.

“When you’re that far ahead you start to wonder ‘Can we get in and just do a splash-and-go and prevail?’” he said. “It’s a different kind of racing, there’s no question about that.”

Hopefully, as Goodyear adjusts to the slower speeds and increased downforce — and sees how these first races have played out — it can start introducing a softer tire into the mix.

3. Survive and…adapt?

On Sunday morning, Gabehart told Hamlin the No. 11 team had a winning race car.

Hamlin said he thought to himself: “He’s full of shit.”

After all, the team had struggled with the balance of the car all weekend and gave Hamlin little reason to believe the race would be any different.

But once it started, Hamlin realized Gabehart was right — he had a car that could pass anyone.

Though the car was obviously fast, Hamlin himself had to adjust to what was required from this form of racing. He ended the day with his first 1.5-mile track win since 2015 and joined Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski as the season’s multi-race winners.

If you look at those names, along with Joey Logano (the season’s other race winner), you have to wonder what they have in common aside from driving for great teams.

Perhaps the answer is adaptability.

None of the drivers have raced a package like this before, so they all have to get up to speed on it. Whoever wins these races might just be the ones who aren’t committed to a certain style or feel and are able change on the fly.

“I’m still learning as a driver,” Hamlin said. “This is a complete different style of racing than what I used to do in the past (and that) just doesn’t work that well. I have to adapt. Seems like I’m adapting quickly.”

As noted by the excellent stats account @Talon64, Hamlin is off to the best start of his career as a result. He has two wins and hasn’t finished worse than 11th.

4. A brief word about attendance

I got a lot of tweets today from people ripping Texas for the sparse grandstands. But while it certainly wasn’t a NASCAR crowd from 10 years ago, it also wasn’t awful by today’s standards.

Yes, really.

Here’s the thing: It’s all about the optics. Texas still has 133,000 permanent seats, which is second only to Bristol. It hasn’t torn down large sections of grandstands like most other tracks.

I have no idea how many people were at Texas, but I’m going to say somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 if I had to take a guess. Tracks don’t release attendance numbers anymore, so that’s just a shot in the dark.

But the point is, if you take the Texas crowd and put it at Phoenix (capacity 42,000) or Martinsville (44,000) or even Homestead (48,000), people wouldn’t be as critical. In fact, I’d bet money some people would tweet, “Great crowd, Phoenix! Way to go!”

Sunday’s numbers would have been horrifying in the not-so-distant past. But the reality is in 2019, any NASCAR attendance of 50,000 or more for an average regular-season race would be a good crowd. Even 40,000 is OK.

I’m not saying any of this is ideal, but let’s just be real about it. We’ll likely never know, but I highly doubt Texas had the smallest crowd of the season so far.

5. What’s next

Intermediate tracks are going to take a month-long vacation now as two short tracks (Bristol and Richmond) and a superspeedway (Talladega) take the spotlight.

Some of the upcoming storylines to watch include the effect of the high downforce on Bristol — drivers have said it could take a physical toll on them — and whether the rules package will put a damper on passing. Then it’s off to Talladega, where there will be no more restrictor plates and we’ll see NASCAR use tapered spacers instead (how that will go is anyone’s guess).

It’s also worth keeping an eye on whether Stewart-Haas Racing can join Gibbs and Penske as the only teams to win a race since November, whether Martin Truex Jr. can win his first race of the year and whether the signs of a Hendrick Motorsports resurgence are real or glimmers of false hope.

Cup qualifying takes on bizarre feel again

Despite some tweaks to the Cup Series qualifying format, Friday at Texas looked a lot like previously messy qualifying sessions at Fontana and Las Vegas.

Drivers were upset with how the session unfolded, with cars mostly waiting on pit road until the final minutes and then scrambling to try and get laps recorded before time ran out.

“You just can’t qualify these cars this way,” Kevin Harvick said. “I love group qualifying, but I just laughed all the way out to the racetrack.”

“It’s frustrating and that’s all you can really say about it,” Denny Hamlin said. “It’s just frustrating.”

“It’s chaotic,” Aric Almirola said. “It’s silly.”

But NASCAR in turn criticized the drivers, believing they could have done more to avoid the session turning into a strange spectacle.

NASCAR Cup Series Managing Director Jay Fabian said officials were “disappointed” to see drivers stay on pit road for so long before making their lap and cited Daniel Suarez as a driver who didn’t need the draft to qualify well. He questioned why other drivers didn’t follow Suarez’s lead.

“It’s disappointing they give reasons why they don’t go, then someone goes and they choose not to follow them,” Fabian said of the drivers. “A lot of what they say doesn’t add up with their actions on pit road. That’s the disappointing part. When you see someone roll, you would assume somebody would follow them — and they chose not to.”

Fabian vowed NASCAR would “take whatever steps we have to to clean it up so we don’t have this problem again.”

“Pretty much everything is on the table as far as what we’ll do moving forward,” he added.

Fabian also said Clint Bowyer’s complaints about Ryan Newman clogging the middle at the end of Round 1 were a product of Bowyer being “upset…probably because he didn’t get to make his lap” — and Newman didn’t do anything worth being penalized.

“There were plenty of TV views that showed there was room to go by (Newman),” Fabian said. “I’m sure (Bowyer) is upset.”

Bowyer was indeed upset, feeling like NASCAR should have learned from its previous qualifying “failure” and changed the format before this happened again.

“It’s sad,” Bowyer said. “Those people up there paid a lot of money to bring their families here to watch a qualifying session where people try to go out and do their best, and you’re just sitting around waiting because you know your best is only good enough if the guy in front of you does a good job.  That’s not qualifying.”

Martin Truex Jr. said the solution would be to “Take the plate off and let us qualify like men — drive them,” he said.

But while many drivers were fuming, Joey Logano wasn’t. Asked about how to fix qualifying, Logano said, “Who said there’s a problem?”

“I think it’s entertaining,” Logano said. “There’s a lot to talk about for you guys. You guys all have microphones out and there’s a lot to talk about, so I think it’s OK.”