The Top Five: Breaking down the Martinsville playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s Round 3 opener at Martinsville…

1. What if….

I recently invented a special machine that allows me to travel between parallel universes and watch NASCAR races in two different dimensions. I just arrived back from the alternate universe where Joey Logano elected to race cleanly and NOT move Martin Truex Jr. for the win at Martinsville.

If you’re wondering how that decision went over with everyone, I brought the postrace transcript from Logano’s runner-up press conference from the parallel universe. Here it is.

REPORTER 1: “Joey, it looked like you had a chance to move Martin out of the way on that last lap and backed out of it. What was going through your mind there, knowing that may have cost you a chance to reach Homestead?”

LOGANO: “Look, I love winning. But clean driving is everything to me. If I can’t have the respect of my competitors, I don’t want to be doing this. Martin raced me fair and square, so I wanted to do the same in return.”

REPORTER 2: “That’s great, but what do you say to your fans and team after passing up a guaranteed shot to make the final four?”

LOGANO: “Martin is a classy guy. We attend each other’s charity events and he’s always so nice when my wife and I see him in the motorhome lot. I know we’ll be friends for years to come. It’s just not worth it to ruin that relationship. Heck, we’re supposed to go out on the lake together this week!”

REPORTER 3: “Joey, it looks like Twitter is lighting up with fans who say you must not want a championship badly enough if that’s how you race. How do you answer critics who say you get paid millions of dollars to do whatever it takes to win?”

LOGANO: “Have you ever been loudly booed by a crowd? Have you ever had a driver’s significant other tweet something negative about you? I mean, geez. Those things hurt. I don’t want any part of that. I would rather be a good guy and keep my reputation intact than do anything to make people think I’m a dirty driver.”


SPONSOR: “Joey, we like you a lot, but we’re paying $20 million a year for our car to win races and championships. We’re going to be moving on.”

LOGANO: “Aw, OK. I hope we can still be friends!”

2. Respect for Truex

Is it possible to agree with Logano’s last-lap move and still empathize with the obvious anger felt by Truex and Cole Pearn?


Truex had an incredible drive on Sunday. He had his qualifying time thrown out and started in the back, only to make it through the field — at Martinsville, no less! — and contend in the top five almost the entire day.

Truex fought his way toward the front, then patiently and cleanly worked Logano for the lead until making what seemed to be the winning pass.

Had Truex won, that would have been one of the highlights of his career: First short track win, a win-and-in ticket to Homestead, high stakes with his team getting ready to shut down and people loudly saying he’s the most vulnerable of the Big Three drivers to miss the final four.

Instead…Logano ran into him. And now making Homestead is no sure thing.

Frustrating! Super, super frustrating! Who wouldn’t be angry about that?

I still don’t blame Logano for making the move, but it’s completely understandable why Truex and his fans would be upset about it. When looking back in a couple weeks, that one moment could very well be the difference between competing for a championship and missing out altogether.

That said, as mad as he may be now, I see no scenario under which Truex retaliates. He’s just not that kind of driver. Even if he doesn’t make Homestead, Truex isn’t going to go out and ruin Logano’s championship race with a crash. He might race Logano hard, but Truex won’t pull a Matt Kenseth. No way.

3. What’s the code?

I’m not a driver, so this is just one interpretation of what’s OK on the last lap in NASCAR and what isn’t.

— If you can move someone out of the way and do it without ruining their day — i.e. without wrecking them or costing them more than a few positions — then it’s not only acceptable in NASCAR, but expected. And even encouraged by series officials.

— If you have a chance to door someone for a side-by-side finish, it’s a coin toss as to whether the other driver and the general fan base will think it’s an acceptable move. This often depends on the person initiating the contact.

— If you accidentally wreck the person while trying to move them (like Denny Hamlin on Chase Elliott), that is considered off-limits and there will be repercussions from both the other driver and fans.

— If you crash the person in a reckless-but-unintentional way (not necessarily on purpose, but understanding there will be full contact like Noah Gragson on Todd Gilliland), people may view it the same way as a blatant takeout.

— If you completely crash someone on purpose in order to win, that’s viewed as a dirty move that takes no talent and the fallout might stain your reputation for years.

Logano’s move on Truex — like any bump-and-run at a short track — is about the least offensive way to physically move someone and falls into the first category. That’s the type of move that can only happen in stock car racing and is a hallmark of what makes NASCAR fun. You’re not going to get that in Formula One, let’s put it that way.

4. Stuff that doesn’t matter

Over the last four weeks, I’ve taken a step back from NASCAR as I got off the road for the birth of my daughter. Though I’ve tried to follow the news as much as possible, there’s no doubt having a newborn at home makes it difficult to be as immersed in the NASCAR bubble as the weeks when I’m on the road at races.

And I’ve got to tell you: Looking at the big picture, it’s a bit alarming how the NASCAR world seems to get caught up in minor, tiny crap that doesn’t really matter and actually detracts from the sport.

One example is the race day morning inspection where qualifying times get thrown out. Here I am as a TV viewer who woke up excited to spend my Sunday watching some short-track racin’ across the country. I opened my Twitter app, and what was the big storyline of the day? Drivers getting their qualifying times disallowed, starting at the back for unapproved adjustments, crew members getting ejected, etc.

Seriously? This is what we’re talking about on playoff race day morning?? For a short track where aero doesn’t even really matter???

Officiating things that way certainly seems excessive. And yes, I know all about the reasons why they do it; I’m explaining the big-picture view of why it seems silly.

Another example was the race a couple weeks ago at Talladega. My wife was in the hospital that day and I was unable to pay much attention to the race, though we had it on in the background on mute.

When I tried catching up with what happened, the big controversy was apparently about whether NASCAR should have made the caution one lap shorter and whether officials should have thrown a yellow for a wreck on the last lap instead of having it finish under green.

Look, I completely understand why those are significant debates for those in the NASCAR industry and fans who are super passionate about the sport. But can you imagine how all this looks to casual fans or people who might want to give NASCAR a chance?

Headlines like Drivers criticize NASCAR for running them out of fuel with long caution! and Fans angry NASCAR chose drama over safety on last lap! just seem like such minor things from afar. As does Defending champion will start at the back today for failing laser scan on first try!

I’m not suggesting I have the solution to all this, because I don’t. And I’m not criticizing the media, certainly; when I get back at Texas next week, I’ll be all-in with the bubble once again.

But if these are the storylines, NASCAR has some real work to do. It cannot afford to be stuck on the minutiae, because there aren’t enough people left who care that much. Simplify things, focus on what really makes people want to spend their time on the sport (great racing and interesting driver storylines) and everyone will be much better off.

5. What’s next?

Logano taking a guaranteed spot at Homestead means at least one of the Big Three is going to have to point their way into the final four. After Martinsville, Truex and Kevin Harvick are tied for the last two spots, 25 points above the cutline.

I think both will be OK, as will Kyle Busch. Harvick is probably going to win Texas, Phoenix or both; Busch might win one of those as well. That means Truex, with a pair of top-five finishes, should be just fine.

Aric Almirola, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch are already facing big points deficits after just one week. Are any of them going to win a race in this round? I actually think it’s more likely a non-playoff type like a Denny Hamlin or a Brad Keselowski will win, which would open up an addition points position for a Big Three member.

So as it turns out, perhaps all of the Big Three will make it to Homestead after all — just maybe not exactly how we expected.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Dover International Speedway…

1. Harvick’s championship to lose

Once again, in the midst of the best season of his life, Kevin Harvick had the fastest car on Sunday. At this point in the year, it feels inevitable the No. 4 car will continue to unload that way each weekend.

No, Harvick didn’t end up winning. But he should have. The No. 4 team has let too many wins slip away over these last few years.

That seems to be the only thing that could prevent Harvick and his team from winning the title this year: A self-inflicted error like the one at Dover. Otherwise, the equipment is currently unmatched.

Harvick already has a career high in wins (seven). His average finish is currently the best of his career (8.6, even better than his dominant 2015 season). He’s on pace to earn a career high in top-10 finishes (Sunday was his 25th; best is 28) and perhaps even set a new personal mark in top-fives (he needs three more).

In the meantime, championship rival Kyle Busch hasn’t been as fast lately. Despite having his own career year for most of the season, Busch has now finished either seventh or eighth in four of the last six races — with the exception being the Roval and a short track (Richmond).

Seventh or eighth isn’t going to cut it at this point in the season — at least at Homestead. Busch has acknowledged as much.

What about Martin Truex Jr.? While the No. 78 team has been good, they aren’t Harvick-level good right now.

Here’s what is going to happen: Harvick is going to survive Talladega, win at Kansas and Texas and show up at Homestead as the favorite for the final four.

Still, Harvick might not win the championship. Days like Dover are still very possible,  and that execution will need to be shored up before they get there.

But you can bet wherever it matters for the rest of the season, he’s going to be the car to beat.

2. Don’t blame Bowyer

For the second time this season, Aric Almirola seemed to have a potential win thwarted by a caution caused by his own teammate — Clint Bowyer.

As he did at New Hampshire, Bowyer felt terrible about it. But he shouldn’t take the blame.

OK, so Bowyer’s team knew he had a potential mechanical problem and sent him back out. But what’s wrong with that? This is the playoffs! As we all saw last week at the Roval, EVERY point has the potential to matter. If Bowyer could limp around the track without falling apart, that might have been the difference in making it to the next round.

Besides, Almirola and his team still had the chance to control their own fate in some ways. Almirola was the one who overdrove the corner on the restart and made contact with Keselowski. That’s not Bowyer’s fault. And Almirola’s team could have put him in a different position (he could have stayed out or taken two tires like the cars in front of him). That’s not Bowyer’s fault, either.

Of course the situation was highly unfortunate for everyone involved, but let’s not declare “Bowyer costs teammate a win!” when that’s not entirely the case.

3. For Chase, now what?

Instead of being outside the playoff bubble heading to Talladega — a possibility at times on Sunday — Chase Elliott is already locked in to Round 3.

So what will he do with that opportunity? How far can Elliott go?

Elliott will probably have to win in Round 3, because he’s going to be up against the Big Three and their Big Playoff Points to make it to Homestead. Crew chief Alan Gustafson said as much after the race.

The Hendrick cars still haven’t been spectacular at most tracks this season — and the same for Chevrolet overall, really. Racing journalist Geoffrey Miller pointed out this was the first win for the Camaro on a non-plate oval (Chevy’s other wins this season were at Daytona and Watkins Glen).

If that’s the case, Elliott probably isn’t going to win at Texas or Phoenix — so it all comes down to Martinsville. Can Elliott win Martinsville? Obviously, yeah. He almost did last fall.

Still, it’s going to be tough. It’s not like one or two drivers are good at Martinsville; a ton of them are. But if Elliott can put together a magical race and get the automatic bid to the final four, we all know Homestead is capable of some unexpected twists.

Elliott as the 2018 champ? Unlikely, though not impossible. Stranger things have happened in NASCAR, but not many.

4. Johnson, Hamlin headed toward winless seasons

It’s looking more and more like Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin will fail to win a race for the first time in their careers.

Dover might have been Johnson’s last, best shot this season — although we’ll never know, thanks to his bizarre mechanical failure on the pace laps. It’s so weird to think of Johnson as someone who can’t catch a break these days after he won seven titles and was Mr. Golden Horseshoe, but he sure seems to be a luckless driver in 2018.

Then there’s Hamlin. It’s much easier to picture Hamlin winning one of the final six races, since Joe Gibbs Racing brings competitive cars to a variety of tracks.

But Hamlin had a golden opportunity on Sunday and didn’t produce. He had fresher tires than Elliott and was starting on the front row for an overtime restart — something Elliott has struggled with in the past — and yet Hamlin was beaten straight up.

Hamlin earned some brownie points with Elliott fans, who have despised him since Martinsville last year. Was the possible blowback from another incident in Hamlin’s mind?

“After last fall, I was really making sure I didn’t make any contact, to be honest with you,” Hamlin said.

That’s unfortunate he felt that way, because perhaps racing more aggressively could have gotten him a win. On the other hand, can you imagine if Hamlin went full send and wrecked Elliott again while going for the lead?

Hamlin’s image might have never recovered from that, and a driver can’t afford to be that hated in today’s sponsor climate.

5. Talladega is going to be nuts

I’m happy Talladega is the middle race of Round 2 again this year, because it’s way too crazy to have it as a cutoff race. NASCAR doesn’t need to put eliminations on the line to have major drama at Talladega anyway.

Just check out the drivers from fifth to 10th in the standings: Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer. DUDE! That is a stacked lineup of some of the best plate racers in all of NASCAR.

Oh, and they happen to all need the points! There aren’t going to be any strategy plays or dropping to the back to be conservative among that group, because stage points are a big thing. 

The only thing to do is go like hell and hope they don’t wreck. That’s going to be verrrrrry interesting. I can’t wait.

12 Questions with Clint Bowyer (2018)

Clint Bowyer puts his winner sticker on the car after winning at Michigan this year. (Getty Images)

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Clint Bowyer of Stewart-Haas Racing. This interview is recommended as a podcast, but is also transcribed for those who would rather read.

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

I don’t really dream, Jeff. Helluva question.

Really? You just sail right through the night?

I can’t even remember my dreams. Don’t you ever wake up, and you’re like, “What the hell happened?”

Yeah, but sometimes I’m interviewing you in my dream. It freaks me out.

I don’t have that, Jeff. I don’t ever dream I’m interviewing with you.

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

Yes, but it means zero. You’re still going to get retaliated, and sometimes, with peers and things like that, it just depends who it is. If it’s somebody you’ve kind of had a run-in with before or you don’t get along or you don’t speak off the racetrack or something else, they don’t really know you, they don’t know that that was (unintentional).

I mean, a guy like Jamie McMurray. He’s gotten into me before and it was a situation, like that wasn’t on purpose. Pissed you off, it was a bad deal, but it didn’t mean anything to me and I knew he’d be calling and as soon as he did, I was like, “I get it. It’s all good. Shit happens.” Same goes on the flip side of that.

It just depends. If it’s a kid that’s been racing you hard and doing something stupid for four or five weeks and making it hard and over-pushing the envelope and it finally catches up to you, that’s the one that gets to you and makes you mad.

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

I think the biggest compliment now in life is, “Your kid’s a good kid” and “he was polite.” (Bowyer’s son Cash) went over to somebody’s house the other day and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe how polite he was.” You’re like, “Yes!” He didn’t get that from me, by the way.

But nonetheless, your pride comes from different things now. Once you have a family and kids and everything else, you know, yes — when somebody says you did a good job in the race car or something else, that’s meaningful. But when they say that about something that is your pride and joy gives you a compliment, it’s a good feeling.

4. NASCAR comes to you and says they’re bringing a celebrity to the track and they want you to host them. Who is a celebrity you’d be excited to host?

I think all of them. It doesn’t matter. If it’s a celebrity, it’s meaningful that they’re there, that they want to be there, that they’re choosing to be at our sport. So it’s always fun for me that we get to meet celebrities because I don’t view myself as worthy of being able to hang out with celebrities. I’ve always been starstruck and big-eyed. When you see somebody that you see on TV or grew up seeing on TV, I’m no different from anybody else. Like, “Holy shit, that’s whoever!” It still rocks you back on your heels and it’s a big deal.

If I had to pick somebody who the next celebrity would be or would blow me away, I don’t know. It would have to be somebody funny, because I like having fun in our sport, I like having fun in general. But when you are around people like that, you can kind of embrace the relationship a little bit more and show them the funny side of our sport. Get them in a car and put them in a situation and they’ll freak out or something like that. I like that aspect of celebrities and things like that.

That’s kind of a shitty answer to your question, but I’m serious, it doesn’t really matter who it is. If it’s a celebrity and they’re interested in our sport, they’re there, I want to be involved and I want to show them our sport.

5. In an effort to show this is a health-conscious sport, NASCAR decides to offer the pole for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for one month. Would you do it?

For a pit stall? Hell no! For a win or something? I don’t even pick stalls anyway — we just complain about them.

6. It’s time for the Random Race Challenge. I’ve picked a random race from your career and you have to tell me where you finished.

I’ll tell you right now: Fail.

This is the 2014 July New Hampshire Cup race.

No clue, buddy. Not one clue.

You finished sixth. You started eighth. You led 36 laps this race. Brad Keselowski won. So you don’t remember this race?

No. I don’t even know what car I was driving.

7. Who is the best rapper alive?

(Laughs) What? There’s no such thing. There’s literally no such thing.

I will say this, I was at the beach with my spotter Brett Griffin and his two daughters and they sang this Cardi B song in the back of the van and I had to stop the van, I was crying laughing so hard. And I don’t know if I was crying laughing so hard because of the fact it was awesome they were doing it or the fact that I knew that Brett was going to be in trouble with his wife because they are definitely getting thrown out of school because of the words in that song that they knew already at such a young age. He is definitely going to get an ass-chewing. And that’s really why I was laughing, because I knew at some point it was going to come full circle to him getting in trouble, because I know damn well they knew that song because of him, not because of his wife.

8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?

God, that’s easy. Everybody knows that’s Kyle (Busch). (Laughs)

That’s terrible though. You set me up for failure there! That’s bullshit.

You acted like you knew the answer right away! 

I’m going to give you 12 questions one of these days.

He’s not even the most common answer this year.


Yeah. Brad is.

It’s kind of the same 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.

How did you pick those three?

I’m running out of questions, here…

Your dreaming is real. This is your dream? Holy shit. Your dreams are out of control. You pick Taylor Swift, Tom Hanks, and who?

LeBron. Choose one to be your spotter, one to be your motorhome driver, and one to be —

The jack man.

No, your crew chief. You could do jack man if you want, mix it up.

I think LeBron would be big enough. You wouldn’t want Tom Hanks to be the jack guy, you know what I’m saying. Taylor Swift wouldn’t be a very good jack guy.


Well, we clearly couldn’t have Taylor Swift being the motorhome driver as a married man, because that wouldn’t last very long. One or the other wouldn’t last: You’d break down or your wife would break up.

That’s a good point.

(Laughs) So I appreciate you setting me up for failure once again on that.

But what are we gonna do with LeBron? Well Tom Hanks will be the spotter, you can understand him and he will be good. And then the crew chief, I guess LeBron’s in.

Well, you’re going to have to put Taylor there since you can’t have her as your motorhome driver. She’s going to be calling the shots.

Yeah. I don’t think LeBron could fit in the motorhome seat though, his head would be rubbing.

He might know how to grill or something cool.

Yeah, he makes enough money. All three of them make enough money that they aren’t going to drive your bus. That’s just the facts. But your dreams, I’m following along in your dreams here. They’re really screwed up, by the way.

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

Ho ho! This is the key to success in motorsports. Everybody always asks, “What do you do pregame? What do you do before the race?” If you don’t do one thing before the race, you’re gonna wish you did that one thing the entire race. It’s three and a half hours out there, Jack. If you’ve got a Number Two issue on your hands for three and a half hours, you’ve got a hell of an issue on your hands. It’s a shitty situation. (Pretends to be upset with the question.) One more opportunity to set me up for failure!

11. NASCAR decides they would like the highlight reel value brought by the former Carl Edwards backflips and want their own version. How much money would they have to offer for you to backflip off your car following your next win?

I win the championship, I will do whatever you want. If you want me to do a backflip, get the pads out because I’m gonna need them. No way in hell am I gonna land on my feet.

This year?

Homestead. Done. You just bring it up and I will attempt a backflip. I probably need the roof to get the full rotation around and make sure I don’t land on my head because the door stop’s probably not enough, but I’ll go for it.

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was Rico Abreu. He wants to know: Why don’t more Cup drivers pull like a Larson or a Kahne or a Stewart and dive back into some of these lower series, whether it’s sprint car racing or Late Models or things like that?

Rico, if he can’t be a big enough star on his own and he needs Larson to come back and bring the crowd for him, there’s enough being said. (Grins)

Here’s the thing: I do contribute to that level. I don’t race in it anymore, but I own two Dirt Late Model teams. I feel like through that connection, I am connected and I enjoy that. I enjoy short track racing and I think that’s very, very important, it’s always been a good platform for me. Partners, we’ve always built good partners at that level and even brought them to the Cup Series.

I love short track racing. I mean, if I never made it to Cup and I always raced at Lakeside Speedway in the Midwest and raced at Iowa in the (IMCA) Super Nationals that just happened, I was plenty content. Had a good time, was successful, had a lot of fun and made a lot of memories with a lot of good people. That’s plenty good enough for me.

Do you have a question I can ask the next interview?

Can you tell me who it is?

The schedule’s up in the air right now, so it’s either going to be Justin Haley from the Truck Series or Ryan Blaney.

Which I literally have nothing in common with. Like I don’t even think we speak the same language. I don’t know Fortnite like these kids do.

I don’t know. My question for the next driver is: Are they OK with me beating them? How bad does it bother them when somebody as crazy as I am is able to beat them on any given Sunday? Does it make them feel like a lesser person? Does it embarrass them? Does it keep them up at night dreaming like Jeff Gluck?

Previous 12 Questions interviews with Clint Bowyer:

Nov. 3, 2010

Nov. 16, 2011

June 27, 2012

Aug. 28, 2013

Aug. 27, 2014

June 22, 2016

April 5, 2017


The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…

1. Beauty in bumping

A well-executed bump-and-run is NASCAR’s most magnificent work of art, full of intricacies and accepted by nearly everyone as a fair way to settle a race.

In one move, it sums up everything people love about stock car racing: Contact, close racing and aggression — but without any wrecked vehicles as a result.

Kevin Harvick’s bump-and-run to win Sunday night at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was absolute perfection, providing a textbook example that can be used for years to come.

Even the driver on the receiving end — Kyle Busch — calmly said the move was just fine with him.

“It was just a bump,” Busch said. “It wasn’t a big deal. He didn’t wreck me or anything like that. He did it early enough, but he did it way harder to push me out of the groove three lanes. It just takes you so long to recover here, there was just no possible way I could get back to him. I was in the way, so no harm, no foul.”

Busch’s only quibble? He wished Harvick would have raced him cleaner first before making contact. Busch said if the roles were reversed, he would have tried using lapped cars for a few more laps before deciding to play bumper cars.

“When you’re slower, you kind of expect it,” Busch said. “But you also think a guy is going to race you fair and pass you clean first. I don’t think he ever tried to pass me clean once he got there.”

But that’s exactly what Harvick anticipated Busch would be thinking, which is why the Stewart-Haas Racing driver decided to make the move at the first available opportunity.

“I needed to do it when he wasn’t expecting it,” Harvick said. “The more opportunities to get in his wheelhouse, his thought process, the less chance you have. He’s that good.

“If you wait until two or three to go, the entries are going to get shallower, he’s going to start grinding on the brakes a little bit harder. He’s going to put himself in a position not to get hit. He’s going to go on defense, start to really get aggressive, too.

“I wanted to do it earlier just to try to catch him off guard.”

There’s a fine line to executing the move — it means moving the other driver up the track enough to make a pass while escaping into the lead — “get away from him far enough because you know they’re going to be mad,” Harvick said — and all without causing a wreck.

Harvick did exactly that. And though it opens the door for Busch to do the same thing in the same situation, Harvick had no regrets about the decision.

“He still finished second, right?” Harvick said.

2. The Huge Three

NASCAR fans hate storylines that are overhyped, so there are likely some out there who can’t stand to hear one more word about the “Big Three.”

But as much as Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance has been discussed, this is the rarely hyped NASCAR story that might actually be underplayed.

Seriously, this is almost surreal at this point in the season. There have been 20 races this season, and three drivers have combined to win 15 of them. Fifteen! WHAT!? There are only 16 races left in the whole year! How many more are they going to get? That’s amazing.

Another crazy stat: The Big Three have 88 playoff points — not counting the points Harvick had taken away with a penalty — while the entire rest of the field only has 45 combined.

How is this even possible? Two of these drivers have teammates (and the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers are basically Truex’s teammates), and yet it’s still only three cars winning all the races. And they just keep doing it, even in races that seemed headed for a different outcome like Sunday.


3. Almost Almirola

Aric Almirola appeared more bummed and upset about failing to win at New Hampshire than he did after being wrecked out of the lead at the Daytona 500 in February.

How’s that possible? Well, Daytona was just the start of Almirola’s rebirth as a driver, the first race with a team that could finally make him a regular winner. There seemed to be much more to come.

But now — in late July, the 20th race of the season — coming close and failing to win stings worse.

“Everybody keeps talking about the Big Three, but I feel like we were stomping them pretty good today,” he said. “That’s why they are so good — they execute all race long. Unfortunately, we didn’t today.”

Almirola had the fastest car in New Hampshire — even Harvick said so — but “lost control of the race” on the final pit stop. His pit crew had a slower stop than Kyle Busch’s team, which put Almirola at Busch’s mercy for the restart. Then Busch went at the soonest possible moment, which caught Almirola off guard and left him spinning the tires as a result.

He ended up finishing third and initially seemed devastated. But Almirola said there’s more to come from his team.

“We’re peaking,” he said. “As the 10 team, we’re peaking at the right time. You’ve seen the speed we had at Chicago (when he almost won) and we’re putting things together. … We’re starting to get what we need out of the race cars.”

4. Teammate blues

Speaking of Almirola, Clint Bowyer was gutted after hesitation to get off the track with a broken car potentially cost his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate a victory.

“It just sucks,” Bowyer said. “I hate that for my teammate (Almirola). He was dominating the race.”

With Almirola leading the race and Harvick running second, Bowyer was called into the pits to serve a one-lap penalty for pitting outside the box. Upon returning to the track, Bowyer radioed to the team and said something broke on his car.

At that point in the race, there was going to be no salvaging the day — Bowyer was already two laps down due to the penalty and broken part. As such, the No. 14 team should have brought Bowyer into the pits immediately.

What was the purpose in staying out? Bowyer is already secured in the playoffs this season with two wins and points mean little for him.

But for whatever reason, Bowyer was kept on the track. By the time the team finally decided to make the call, it was too late.

“I was trying to nurse it around,” Bowyer said. “Something in the left rear was broke and…Brett (Griffin, his spotter) told me, ‘We’re having trouble, let’s just get off the track,’ and I was kind of thinking the same thing. Literally, as he was saying that and I’m thinking it, something broke on the right side and away it went. That sucks. I hate it for him.”

Bowyer has been involved on the wrong end of a team orders situation before, but surely this wouldn’t have been viewed in the same category. Calling a car in for repairs — or to the garage — while a teammate is leading under green would be a perfectly acceptable move in future situations.

5. Points picture

The battle for the non-win playoff spots grew less dramatic this week after the three Hendrick bubble drivers all had top-11 days while Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished five laps down in 30th place.

Jimmie Johnson (14th in the playoff standings) and Chase Elliott (15th) now have whopping 97- and 95-point leads over Stenhouse for the final playoff spot.

Alex Bowman, who finished 11th, is up by 28 points over Stenhouse.

The next-closest drivers to pointing their way into the playoffs? After Stenhouse, Paul Menard is 29 points behind Bowman and Ryan Newman is way back (-74 points). Everyone else behind Newman (like Daniel Suarez, William Byron and Jamie McMurray) pretty much have to win at this point with only six races until the playoffs.

The most likely wild card possibility could be if AJ Allmendinger (25th in points) wins in two weeks at Watkins Glen and moves the cutoff line up to Elliott’s position.

But that could generate even less drama heading into the final regular season races, because Bowman is 67 points behind Elliott.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Michigan race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s rain-shortened race at Michigan…

1. Ford Sure

From Friday onward, there seemed to be no doubt this would be a Ford-dominated weekend. And…yep! It definitely was. Fords accounted for seven of the top eight finishers — including a Stewart-Haas Racing podium sweep (the first by a single team since 2008, according to ESPN).

We hear all the time about how much this track matters to manufacturers, which is pretty much a cliche at this point. It’s like, “Yeah, OK, we get it. Michigan is important to the OEMs.”

But it really is SO important to those who work in the auto industry, which makes an ass-kicking of this magnitude quite special to Ford.

“Man, it’s just an unbelievable start to the season with the wins and success we’re having,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports. “(We) come here to our home track with our employees here watching with their friends and family — to have this performance and strength across all of our teams, to win the race, it’s just tremendous for all the company.”

Ford has been having a great season (eight wins in 15 races plus the All-Star Race), but Michigan was the most dominant of Ford days.

So why this track? Perhaps the most crucial factor at the sweeping 2-mile oval was the engines.

“It’s a real honor to drive the Roush‑Yates engines when you get to a place like this because you can be a lot easier on your car,” Harvick said. “Doug Yates and those guys, they like to make big horsepower on the big end of the motor and put a lot of effort into this particular race weekend.”

Kurt Busch said Michigan is about bragging rights, and he can see the importance when all the bigwigs from various departments show up. And aside from just the engine, it’s hitting on every facet that truly elevates an organization.

“It’s a team effort to not have any weaknesses,” he said.

2. Boy oh Bowyer

Clint Bowyer’s career renaissance continued with his Michigan win, and there are likely more to come before the season is over.

A year like this one following a long slump makes for some fun stats, including:

— Bowyer went from October 2012 to March 2018 (nearly 5.5 years) between wins. Then it only took less than three months until his next win.

— Bowyer has almost as many wins this year (two) as he had top-10s in 2016 (three).

— Bowyer has now led 308 laps this season, which is more than double the previous four seasons combined (145).

No wonder the guy is so happy lately.

“We’re going to drink a little bit tonight, by the way,” he said. “That’s going to happen. I know you guys are questioning it. It’s going to happen tonight.”

3. No Hail Mary

Another wild-card type race, another lost chance for a driver outside the top 16 in points to steal a playoff bid. There was no Chris Buescher or Aric Almirola stealing a rain-shortened win this time, as a driver who already had a win just got another one.

Kasey Kahne crew chief Travis Mack had his driver stay out initially, but then called him to the pits before the final restart when the rain didn’t come in time.

Aside from that, it seemed surprising no one actually tried to pull some crazy strategy — especially in the win-and-in era. What do some of these teams have to lose?

I asked Bowyer crew chief Mike Bugarewicz about that, but he seemed to think the strategy wouldn’t have worked.

“In one sense, if you do that, yeah, maybe you win the race,” he said. “But I think if you’re that far off — if you’re a 24th-place car — I don’t know you’re going to compete with the top five cars (on a restart), to be honest. Maybe you can hold them off for a lap.

“Look at Harvick on the inside of us. We felt like we were a very competitive car. Him on four tires, it was a battle from that point coming to the start/finish line on the first lap. I think a guy staying out with no tires, already kind of struggling in the race, would have been a real challenge to try to pull that off.”

Maybe so. But based on the success of Kahne and Paul Menard using track position and clean air to run up front earlier in the race, you would have thought somebody would go for it with the rain about to arrive at any second.


4. NASCAR got it right in the rain

A rainy weekend like this one makes for intense scrutiny on NASCAR calls, but officials pretty much nailed it.

OK, there was that mixup at the end of the race where the pace car came down pit road when it wasn’t supposed to. But that didn’t affect anything about the race, since officials were just trying to end it at that point.

Other than that, all the calls were correct — even in tough circumstances.

Let’s start with Xfinity. Officials got past the end of Stage 2 despite a soggy day, then restarted the race after a caution as rain started to fall — a ballsy move, to be honest. It could have ended badly if the field had wrecked in the wet, but instead the fans at least got a battle for the win before the race-ending weather caution.

Then came Sunday. Everyone woke up a bit surprised with a drastically changed overnight forecast (which is why NASCAR hadn’t moved the race up with the 24-hour policy). A Monday race was starting to look like a foregone conclusion.

But officials waited out the rain, dried the track as fast as possible and then got the race started. There was an initial hiccup at the end of Stage 1 — NASCAR said pit road would be open before quickly realizing there weren’t enough laps in the stage to do so, then restarted the race with one lap to go in the stage.

NASCAR’s Richard Buck later said that was in line with policy. First of all, pit road is closed with two laps to go in a stage; second, teams had asked NASCAR to avoid situations under caution that would result in a strategy shakeup. That’s the fairest thing for everyone, which actually makes sense.

And finally, NASCAR called the race at the right time. With rain arriving again, there’s no chance the track could have been dried before darkness fell (Michigan doesn’t have lights).

Sometimes it seems that NASCAR makes questionable decisions, but I agree with all the ones they made this weekend — particularly under pressure.

5. Up Next

With no underdog taking advantage of a rain-shortened race at Michigan, there are seemingly three wild card races remaining of the 11 regular season events on the calendar: Sonoma, Daytona and Watkins Glen.

After an off-week next weekend, it’s time for Sonoma. It’s tempting to think an AJ Allmendinger type could win there, but recent Sonoma winners who are still active have been names like Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex. So actually, it may be one of the familiar faces in victory lane instead.

That would be another blow to the playoff hopes of drivers mired deep in the standings — Jamie McMurray (19th), Daniel Suarez (21st) and Ryan Newman (22nd) among them — who could really use a road course win to propel them into the final 10 races this fall.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Dover race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway…

1. You see where this is going, right?

There have been plenty of NASCAR seasons when one driver stomps everyone and shows up as the team to beat every week. For example: Martin Truex Jr. last year.

But this year seems a bit different: There are two drivers on two different teams who seem evenly matched — and are collectively destroying the competition.

Of course, we’re talking about Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who have combined to win seven of the 11 races so far. After nearly one third of the season, the duo is on pace to win 23 races! Crazy.

It’s just been a tag-team butt-kicking, and they’re not always on at the same time.

But together, the drivers have accounted for more than half of the playoff points awarded so far — and that’s after Harvick lost some with his encumbered win earlier in the season.

This is a battle that is shaping up to continue all summer. And you know what? While it might not be ideal for fans who don’t like either driver, it’s a hell of a lot better than just one guy dominating week after week.

2. Stewart-Haas is the best team

Sorry, Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row. You’ve been dethroned.

Though the Fords in general have been strong, it’s clear Stewart-Haas Racing in particular is the team to beat so far. SHR has the fastest, most consistent cars among all four of its entries — with three top-five finishes at Dover to emphasize that point.

Harvick has been great, but it’s not just him. Clint Bowyer (second on Sunday) has won a race and shown potential for more. Kurt Busch has become a regular face in the top 10 again and Aric Almirola is making people say, “Damn! Aric Almirola can drive!”

One key to the team’s success, aside from moves like Tony Gibson coming off the road to help guide collaboration in the shop, is the drivers apparently require similar things from the car. Bowyer said the various setups “are all relatively the same, and it shows on the racetrack.”

That’s a pretty important factor, because it means only one driver or crew chief needs to find something for all of them to benefit each week.

“When you can get four cars that are running as well as these four did today, it’s an awesome feeling,” Tony Stewart said.

3. Suarez on the rise

Doesn’t it seem like Daniel Suarez often gets left out of the top young drivers conversation?

Sometimes it feels like it’s all about Chase and Blaney and Bubba (and maybe Larson, if you consider him young enough to be in that group).

But after a horrible start to the season which saw him sitting 26th in the point standings after seven races, Suarez has put together an impressive four-week stretch: 11th, 10th, 10th and now third at Dover.

Suarez’s best career oval finish boosted him to 17th in the standings — suddenly just seven points out of a playoff spot.

“Once you get to this level, it’s always tough for (drivers),” Joe Gibbs said after the race. “We brought him up a year early. I think he’s just now getting confidence as he goes.”

Suarez said it was a combination of both driver and team getting better at the same time. And he’s learning every week, he said.

“If I have confidence and the team doesn’t, it doesn’t work,” he said. “Momentum in this sport is huge. In the last five or six weeks, we’ve had good speed and consistency — and that’s something I’m very proud of for my team and myself.”

It feels like Suarez is starting to emerge as a driver who can consistently run in the top 10 — and on a good day like Sunday, perhaps battle for wins.

4. What about the 48?

Dover is Jimmie Johnson’s best track, so it was a good weekend to watch how his team performed and see if the 48 is any closer to a turnaround.

The verdict? Eh, maybe.

Johnson got to third place for awhile on Sunday before a pit call cost him track position he never fully regained. He finished ninth, which isn’t great by his standards — but it was the best result by a Chevrolet driver.

And maybe that’s the fairest way to judge Johnson right now. He might be the greatest driver in history, but even the best can’t just take a 10th-place car and manhandle it to a win.

If Johnson gets outrun by Chase Elliott or even Kyle Larson every week, then it definitely makes people wonder if he and Chad Knaus have lost their magic. But Johnson is actually the top Hendrick driver in the standings now (12th) and the second-best Chevrolet to Larson. He has four straight top-12 finishes.

That’s not to say his team is in championship form at the moment. But he might not be as far off as it has seemed at times.

5. Stage 1’s odd ending

NASCAR made an unusual call on Sunday at the end of Stage 1 that is worth further examination.

Typically, NASCAR lets TV go to a commercial at the conclusion of a stage and then opens pit road as the commercials end. That has been part of the rhythm of stage racing since it began last year.

But at Dover, with many cars close to running out of fuel thanks to a strategy play, NASCAR opened pit road as soon as it could. That allowed drivers to make it safely to pit road with a little gas left in their tanks.

That was helpful to those teams, to be sure. But should NASCAR factor team strategy into their decisions? There’s no rule that says NASCAR can’t open pit road in that situation; it just hasn’t happened in other races.

NASCAR said it changed course primarily out of concern for the potential shitshow (my words, not theirs) it could cause if a dozen cars suddenly ran out of fuel at the end of the stage. NASCAR wouldn’t have had enough wreckers to get the potentially stalled cars to pit road, and then might have been in an even worse situation if pit road was blocked for a time. Because then other cars then would have run out of gas and created one of those only-in-NASCAR circus moments.

The desire to avoid that makes sense on many levels. On the other hand, if cars were going to run out of fuel, that’s not NASCAR’s fault. That’s part of the race; some drivers and teams would have played it better than others, and those who didn’t would suffer. Fans would understand that.

So if possible, NASCAR should avoid straying from its typical procedure — it looks bad, because some teams will always benefit more than others when that happens.

How I Got Here with Kristine Curley

This is the latest in a weekly feature called “How I Got Here,” where I ask people in NASCAR about the journeys to their current jobs. Each interview is recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed on Up next: Kristine Curley, communications coordinator for Toyota Racing.

Before we trace your career path, what is your current role with Toyota? What do you do?

I help coordinate all our social media — with help from our partners — across a bunch of series. Not just NASCAR, but also NHRA, Formula Drift, POWRi, some of the lower series, ARCA. So there’s a lot, and it’s a lot to coordinate all that.

Then I also kind of serve as a liaison, because I’m on the marketing side now with corporate communications and the PR, make sure we’re all working in lockstep. I always say social media has a marketing and a PR presence, and it’s melding those two and making sure they’re all working together. So we’ve got a great team, and I’m super proud working with some people that I’ve known in the garage for a long time. So that makes things easy. Relationships are 100 percent key in this sport, as you know.

You mentioned that you’ve known people in the garage for a long time…

Are you saying I’m old, Jeff?

No, you mentioned that! But that’s a good place to start, because you were already very established by the time I got to know you and came into this career. So I really don’t know that much of your background or how you got to NASCAR in the first place.

It’s a tangled web of a story.

Well let’s get into it. How did the web begin?

So I graduated from the University of Kansas — Rock Chalk — with a journalism degree. My sisters always say, “You were lucky. You knew exactly what you wanted to do when you went to college.” And I did. I was in was the magazine sequence, which back then, was not really a sequence in journalism school. We were one of the first universities that had it. I really wanted to do broadcast journalism.

I graduated from KU, and then I wasn’t ready to go into the real world, as I like to say, so I went to be a ski bum for a year. Well that year turned into three and a half years. And so while I was there working five jobs — including adjusting people’s ski boots in the ski shop and working in a restaurant at night — I figured I’d better keep my skill sharp with writing.

That’s one thing I will say: Writing is important. I don’t care what you’re doing, you have to write, and you have to be able to communicate. And so I think that is the best advice I’d give everyone: Read and write and keep your writing as sharp as you can. Because whether it’s social media or whether you’re writing a press release or whether you’re writing talking points for someone, you have to know how to speak.

So anyway, I went to work in the ski resort town in Crested Butte and I thought, “I’d better do something so that at the end of this, when I’m looking for a job, I’ve got something to show for it.” So I basically started the sports page of the local little Crested Butte paper. We used to have the extreme skiing competition there, so I’d do that and I’d find little things to cover.

Then I fancied myself a columnist. I’ll never forget, (former Florida State football/basketball star) Charlie Ward was coming out (of college) and trying to decide what sport he wanted to play. So I wrote that he should be a football player. And I remember my dad was like, “What in the world? Why would he be a football player?” That was my first taste of writing a column and having someone not agree with me — my father! Is there anyone that’s gonna bring you down to earth than your dad or your mom?

(Being in Crested Butte) had forced me to get out there and hustle and do things. I also got some odd jobs writing for like the Chamber of Commerce and things like that, so at the end of the day, when I went to the real world, I had something. So I went back to the real world and I wanted to get into television.

Wait, so you just said, “I want to go back and I’m just gonna try and go to a TV station?”

Right, exactly.

That sounds tough.

And I didn’t have a broadcast degree, I had a magazine degree. So I went back to Kansas City where I’m from, and I’m like, “I guess I better start calling around to the TV stations.” I didn’t have a tape, didn’t have anything. So I called around to the TV stations and got ahold of a gentleman in the sports department at a place where at that time they were the number one TV station. And (former quarterback) Len Dawson was the head sports guy.

Anyway, the producer there (John Crumley) was just the most amazing man. To this day, he is still one of my mentors. I don’t remember what I said to him, but I basically talked my way into the sports department and basically said, “I’ll carry cable for free.” And in the meantime, I was also writing for the Kansas City Star — very poorly, I will say — but the gentleman who was there (Tom Ibarra) was also a mentor of mine and to this day we still talk.

And you had your clips from Crested Butte? You just said, “Hey, let me do some stuff, I’m from here?”

Correct. They didn’t have a position. Again, talked my way into it. Covered (future UCLA star) JaRon Rush; I would cover local high school sports. I’d go in and write my stories. And in the meantime, I wanted to break into television, so again, talked my way into the sports department there. I would go cover the games, go get sound afterwards, so I’d have to go into the locker rooms.

So you just had a microphone and camera or something and they’re like, “Hey, go get us stuff?”

So for the Chiefs games, I would go and we’d cover the game and I would write down time codes like, “Touchdown at this time,” and then we’d go get sound in the locker rooms. Same with college sports. Sometimes we didn’t have a camera to go cover it.

I remember that Tim Duncan, who is one of my favorite basketball players, they were playing at Mizzou, and no one would get a camera. There was this old cameraman who no one got along with. Well, I loved him. He was the nicest guy. I said, “Hey, listen, I know you’re off. We don’t have a camera, but it’s Tim Duncan. Can you go? Let’s cover it, and we’ll get sound.” He’s like, “Yeah.”

So we go up to the game and Tim was a superstar then at Wake Forest. The only reason you went to the game was to get sound from Tim Duncan, right? Well, we’re waiting around, waiting around — and in college, you weren’t allowed to go in the locker rooms. So I’m like, “Where is everyone? Why am I the only one standing out here?” Finally I looked at my photographer. I’m like, “Do you think he’s in the locker room and everyone’s in there getting him?” He’s like, “Well, it looks like it.” I’m like, “I don’t know what to do.”

I was scared to death. Am I just gonna walk in? What if I do — will I get in trouble? But I’m like, “If he’s in there and I don’t get the sound, then that’s on me.” So I said, “Alright, we’re going in. I’ll go in first and if someone stops me, we’ll just be like, ‘I’m so sorry. We thought everyone was in here.'”

Sure enough, everyone was in there. So I was like, “Gosh darn it.” At this point there’s a mob (of media around Duncan). Well, I was so mad that I wormed my way to the front, got down in front of Tim on one knee. I remember I was balancing because I had to get down low enough, I remember he looked down at me and laughed, but I just looked up at him and asked questions, got my microphone in there, got the sound and we left. I was petrified, you know what I mean? But I was just like, “You’ve gotta carry yourself, you’ve got to know what you’re doing,” and at the end of the day we got sound.

Back during that time — not to make it sound like it was ancient times — but were women in the locker room as accepted as they are now? Did you have any obstacles that way?

I wouldn’t say there were obstacles. Actually, one of the other anchors at the station was a woman and she was one of the first ones. But whenever I got those opportunities, I looked at it this way: Someone gave me a chance, and the last thing I’m gonna do is make them look bad by giving me this chance. So for my friend John Crumley at the station, the only thing that would make me feel worse about what I was doing is if I disappointed him. And so I knew that I had to go carry myself in that locker room in a certain way. I was there to get sound, and it’s intimidating.

I remember Jason Whitlock at that time a columnist for the Kansas City Star, and he’s like, “Why do you walk in these locker rooms (with) your nose always in the air?” And I said, “Exactly. I have to walk in here like I belong, I have to conduct myself professionally, I have to get my sound and I’m getting out of here.” It’s not a very friendly place to come, and it is intimidating, but at the end of the day, I have a job to do and I’m gonna do it the best that I can and do it professionally.

At the end of the day, the guy who is the head publicist for the Chiefs was on my resume. He was one of those guys that was really hard to get to know, but at the end of the day, making those right relationships and Bob Moore was certainly someone to this day who helped open some doors by just having his name on my resume.

How did you go from that point to the PR side and into racing?

That’s an interesting question. So I’m at the TV station and at this point I’m just gonna say, I wasn’t gonna make it on the air.  I should have gone to broadcast school. I was at a crossroads.

I was producing, and one of the things that I really enjoyed was producing a live football show that aired right before Monday Night Football for us. I was actually nominated for a local Emmy for it.

I remember one of the shows, I had to sit in the booth — and I am deaf in one ear. So when you’re in the booth, you have to have your headphones on so you can hear back … to the station and still be talking to your people on air. Well I couldn’t, because I can’t hear out of one ear, so I’d have to switch (the headset) over to talk to people. But I loved it. You had to come up with stories.

All of that led me to do a better job as a PR person. (In the racing world) I always looked at things from a producer side when (TV people) would come to me for story ideas. Like I would know, “You know what, if we got this, this is gonna be a good sound bite” or “This is good B-roll,” because I really enjoy producing. I like coming up with the stories.

People make fun of me, but I love to watch pregame. Like last week, we were at our (Kansas) alumni association watch party and they didn’t have the pregame sound up. I was like, “Can we turn the sound up?” Because I love to see the stories. That’s what gets you excited about sports — you can identify with the athletes.

I was at a crossroads, and so it was like, “Do you want to go be a producer?” I was working at the ABC affiliate, which is obviously associated with ESPN, and my mentor’s like, “Do you really wanna do that?” I’m like, “I don’t know.”

So I took a little one-year break, and that one-year break…I kind of got lucky, let’s put it that way. I decided I didn’t want to do television producing as a career, so I was still kind of looking around. In the meantime, one of our friends owned a company, which to this day is brilliant. She managed a bunch of non-profits — because if you work for a non-profit, you usually are short-staffed. But she’d come up with this model where you would move people around from the different charities to help with the other charities’ events.

So they wouldn’t have to go big on staff.

Correct. And so the charity that I was in charge of, I wrote grants and I did the newsletter and PR and all that stuff, was the ALS Association. And the ALS Association in Kansas City was one Kansas City athlete’s charity of choice.

Think back — who is probably the biggest athlete to come out of Kansas City?

I’m blanking.

George Brett.

Oh, duh. Now that I think of George Brett, I think of ALS stuff too. That connection sounds familiar.

Anyway, it just so happened to be the year he got elected to the Hall of Fame (1999). And when he did, the city wanted to do something for him and he had said, “I want it to benefit a charity.”

So we did a week of events that were amazing. One of the big events was a roast of George with (former Dodgers manager) Tommy Lasorda, Larry King and Bo Jackson. Chris Berman and Bob Costas were the emcees.

It wasn’t my event to run, but I helped. And one of the things I did was help Berman and Costas with their script and the setup of how we were gonna do it. And I was like, “You know what? I really like working with athletes and talent.” I came out of that and I said, “Now I know what I think I should do.”

So that’s when it hit you. You were like, “I really enjoy the star part of this and helping them do something.”

Right. And I’ve been lucky to meet a lot of people, but at the end of the day, they’re just people like us and we all have a job to do. But I really enjoy it because of all of that experience.

So I was like, “OK, what am I gonna do?” Enter my mentor at the TV station, and the assistant news director he was friends with had gone to one of the big advertisement firms in Kansas City. One of their new clients was Sprint, and they were getting in racing.

I remember I was in the middle of all of this stuff with George Brett. I had an interview, I remember he asked me, “Can you handle death?”

(Gets choked up and pauses to collect herself.)

And I was like, “Yeah. This sounds exciting.”

In the interview, they asked you, “Can you handle death?”

Yeah, and I didn’t know what he meant by that. He’s like, “Can you travel and all that stuff” and I said, “Love to travel.” I didn’t quite get what he meant. And so I started working with Adam Petty. (Speaking through tears) And let’s just say I grew up a lot in the year that I worked with him. (Editor’s note: Petty was killed in a 2000 crash at New Hampshire at the age of 19.)

But what I learned is how this sport is a family. And so after Adam passed, I decided I wanted to stay in the sport just because of the people. Like if you’re not happy and you don’t work with good people, it’s not fun. So I made a decision that I wanted to stay in the sport, and there are amazing people. Again, relationships are 100 percent key.

Adam Petty and Kristine Curley (photo courtesy of Kristine Curley).

Was that a hard decision for you, or was it sort of obvious at the time to stay in the sport?

A little bit. Kyle (Petty) finished out the year in Adam’s car, and so Kyle asked — I helped finish out the year with Kyle in the car. I think after that is when I was like, “What do I want to do?” And so an opportunity presented itself to stay in the sport, and I decided it was time for a change. I’d have to move to Charlotte for it, and I thought, “I’m gonna just try it. And if I don’t like it or it’s too hard, then I’ll get out of it.”

Seventeen years later of working with drivers, and it was good and I’ve worked with some amazing drivers.

Then I went to work with Bill Elliott and Ray Evernham.

That was immediately after the Pettys?

Yep. One of the things I was always intrigued with my father was a lawyer, and law always intrigued me. In fact, in journalism school, (law) was a weed-out class. It was a class everyone had trouble with. And I remember, one of my friends, she was straight A’s and had the hardest time with it, and I loved that class. Didn’t even really had to study for it. Like my mind just thought that way.

And I remember Cindy Elliott (Bill’s wife and Chase’s mom) was talking about, “Our sport needs some good agents.” And she was like, “Maybe we should send you to law school.” I told her that (recently) and she laughed, like, “Did I really say that?” I’m like, “Yes.” And to this day, I’m like, “Why didn’t I (become an agent)?” That is my one regret. My path certainly would have been different. But I didn’t do it, I stayed in PR and did that for a long long time.

So you were doing Bill Elliott’s stuff. How did it come to be that Jimmie Johnson was next?

So Bill retired. And I will say, working with Ray Evernham back then helped me prepare for the next step (with Chad Knaus). But anyway, yes, after that, Bill retired and again, it was, “Do I wanna stay in the sport?” A friend of mine who was doing Jimmie’s PR for the first two years was going to come off the road and work for Jimmie. He said, “We think you’d be great.”

I met with people from Lowe’s who become another mentor for me — the person who hired me. And I said, “Listen, here’s the deal: You can look at my resume, but at the end of the day, 90 percent of this job in this sport is through the relationship you have with the drivers. And they have to trust you that when you go to them and say, ‘I need you to do this AM radio station,’ or ‘I need you to do this’ that there’s a reason for it, and there’s a reason something’s on the schedule. That you vetted through it and talked through it and you give them the tools that you need to succeed on it.”

So I said, “Alright, give it a try, we’ll see.” This was a point in time where I was either gonna stay in the sport for a while or I’m gonna go try something else. So ended up staying with Jimmie for 10 years, and then went to work with Clint Bowyer, two totally (different personalities). (Laughs) But again I had to learn how each of them are very different.

And Bill was very different. An interesting thing — Bill back in the day would much rather do an interview one-on-one.

Instead of a big group session?

Correct. I think he’s just more comfortable that way. And he’d very much rather sit and talk like that. That’s just more his style. I think big groups were not his thing. Other drivers would just prefer to just get everyone there together, except for if it’s a special one-on-one request, but again, it’s knowing that and understanding what it is that is gonna set them up to succeed that’ll get you a good interview.

Can you just give us a sense of what it was like during the Jimmie years? You were there for his whole rise in some ways and were there for like six of the championships. So that had to be an unreal time in your life, experiencing all this and seeing all of it first-hand of what’s gonna go down as a legendary period in NASCAR history, I imagine.

Yeah, it was great. I will say this, and I don’t mean this to sound ungrateful. Winning is great; winning is absolutely why we are in sports. But I will say I would go back and work with Adam where I never won a race in a heartbeat. I’ve told Jimmie that, and he knows that. Because winning is important, but it’s the people that you work with who are important, and I’ve been lucky to work with some of the best, and I don’t know how I lucked into that.

Each of them to this day — Kyle Petty is still a dear friend, Jimmie is a dear friend, Clint is a dear friend. You can tell I’m a crier, but I shed a few tears for him (winning at Martinsville). Martin winning last year, amazing, both him and Sherry (Pollex).

Again, when you are surrounded and get to work with good people, what more could you ask for, right? And those people take a vested interest and care about you.

I always tell my family, if something ever happened and I needed to get home, it might not be the driver I work with, but there’s someone there in that garage that would get me on their plane and get me home. And I think that’s the thing that keeps people (in the sport).

It’s a grind. This sport is a grind, and it will tear you down and it will wear you down sometimes. But it’s also a family. Sometimes we’re a little dysfunctional, but at the end of the day, we care about people and we want to make sure that those people are taken care of.

So yes, it was certainly amazing to be able to win championships, and I’ve been lucky to win a few. You meet a lot of people, so that’s amazing. But again, I don’t mean to sound like it’s not a big deal,  but I only have one picture hanging up of me with an athlete. And it was with Buck O’Neil, the old Negro Leagues player who passed away a few years ago. He was just an amazing, cool guy. And of all the people that I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and there have been a few, he’s the only one that I have a picture of myself with hanging up. Now if I met Willie Nelson, that picture might be up too.

Kristine Curley and Buck O’Neil (courtesy of Kristine Curley).

So you talked about how other women might be listening to this and hoping to maybe do what you’ve done someday. It’s quite a path that you’ve had and so many people you’ve gotten to meet, like you’ve said. What’s some of your top advice that you’d give to somebody who’s just trying to make it on their own path?

My biggest advice is, you have to be professional and you have to carry yourself sometimes or carry yourself to a higher standard maybe than is expected. And that’s OK, right? One of the things, I was sitting next to a co-worker the other day and he heard me speaking to someone, and I got off the phone and he gave one of the nicest compliments anyone could ever give me. He’s like, “I want my daughters to meet you, because the way you talked to that person, I could tell that they were being disrespectful to you, but the way you held your ground and the way you spoke back to him, I want my daughters to feel empowered that they can do that, too.”

And of course, anyone that’s listening to this knows I cry, so of course I cried at work. I’m like, “Well thank you. There is no higher compliment that you could give me as a woman than to say that.”

But it’s hard. It’s not easy. Back when I was doing stuff at the TV station, I was covering the Chiefs, and we’d be out sometimes — my friends and I — and some of the Chiefs players would be out. My friends would be like, “Let’s go over and say hi.” I’m like, “No, because they’re out on their personal time and they don’t need to see me and I don’t need to see them because when I go into that locker room, they need to know I’m there doing business.” And sometimes that’s not fun, sometimes you want to go.

In my head, I always had to keep things very scheduled, very professional. Like for Jimmie, there’s always so many things we had to do, right? Sometimes we had to be down to the minute, like, “You’ve got seven minutes (for an interview)” — but at least I’m giving you seven minutes, right? I’d come to you: “What are your questions? What do we need to prepare them for so when we get into the interview, you’re getting what you want and Jimmie or whatever driver it is are expressing their true selves?” So again, it’s setting everyone up to succeed.

Thank you so much for being willing to do this.

I don’t think I’m worthy of a podcast, but if there’s one little girl or high school, college, whatever someone who’s struggling — just don’t give up. Keep calling, keep after it, be professional when you do it. But all it was was me picking up the phone and asking someone to give me a chance.