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

Book Review: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s “Racing to the Finish”

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s new book, Racing to the Finish, has a list price of $26.99. It’s a quick read — maybe about four hours — so you might be wondering: “Is it worth the cost?”

Well, let’s put it this way: If you had the chance to pay $26.99 to read Earnhardt’s previously top-secret notes from his iPhone — the ones he wrote to leave a trail in case something horrible happened — would you do it?

Because that’s a lot of what you’re getting in Racing to the Finish. Earnhardt reveals all sorts of details about his battle with concussions, including information he writes would probably be new even to his own sister.

Co-author Ryan McGee is able to smoothly weave Earnhardt’s words with the actual notes the driver kept on his phone, which were updated with every new symptom or development. McGee also talks to key witnesses like Rick Hendrick and Brad Keselowski, using their memories to supplement Earnhardt’s account while retaining the driver’s voice.

What’s eye-opening is this book goes far beyond the previously reported concussions, like the ones that kept him out of the car in 2012 and 2016. These include concussion symptoms even from years he kept racing — including his final season last year.

As it turns out, Earnhardt also experienced symptoms in 2014 and 2015 — well after he had become the sport’s unofficial spokesman for head injuries. During the times when he was publicly urging other drivers not to hide any of their concussions, Earnhardt acknowledges he was a hypocrite by not telling anyone — even the people closest to him — about what he was experiencing.

That underscores what a difficult and ongoing fight this is for athletes in a tough-guy sport that revolves around individuals, many of who don’t have good job security.

Despite being a relatively easy read, Racing to the Finish is not a fun one. This is a heavy topic, and those who are familiar with Earnhardt’s career don’t need foreshadowing to know what’s coming in the pages ahead. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant, but it’s also necessary to understand the reality of concussions.

And Earnhardt lays it all out there this time; it’s hard to imagine any details he decided to keep to himself. What’s the motivation for writing this? The primary goal is to help encourage others with head injuries to get treated — and Earnhardt makes it clear there is treatment and help, which didn’t seem to be the case a decade ago.

On a personal note, it was a bit difficult to learn the reality about some of the incidents Earnhardt describes. One of the notable events in the book is when Earnhardt starts to experience problems with his vision during a visit to the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio. I happened to shadow him that day for a USA Today story and interviewed him, yet I had no hint he was ailing. Perhaps that goes to show how good he got at regularly hiding symptoms, a ruse which he says extended even to his wife, Amy.

But that also highlights why it’s so important for NASCAR to get better at diagnosing concussions and making drivers spend extra time in the infield care center after crashes. If Earnhardt kept covering up his concussions — even in recent years when he was in the spotlight for them — who knows how many other drivers continue to do the same?

The bottom line on this book: There’s zero chance you’ll read it without learning something new about what Earnhardt experienced in recent years. You’ll also walk away with a greater understanding of an important topic that continues to be relevant not just in sports, but society in general.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. rides again, wards off old unpleasant feelings

As the laps wore on and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car kept running up front Friday night at Richmond Raceway, a familiar and unpleasant feeling began to come over him.

“A lot of those expectations I hated about this job started creeping back in,” he said. “And I’m sitting there going, ‘Nooo, don’t let this happen! Nooo! Don’t fuckin’ let this happen! Don’t get so freaking caught up in this that you make yourself miserable that you don’t win.'”

Pressure and stress were two sensations that robbed Earnhardt of so much joy in his racing career. And in his one-off return to NASCAR — fulfilling a sponsor commitment that helped his team survive — he wanted nothing to do with those feelings.

This was supposed to be carefree and fun, the opportunity to get out there one more time and even take a picture with newborn daughter Isla at his car before the race. A top-10 finish would certainly be enough to satisfy him, Earnhardt figured.

But as the competitive side took over and he realized he might actually win the race — he led a race-high 96 laps, after all — that happiness threatened to disappear.

As it turned out, Earnhardt didn’t win; a caution with 30 laps to go took away what seemed like a sure victory. One bad restart on the outside lane later, and he had to settle for a fourth-place finish.

But damn if he didn’t enjoy it.

“No expectations, no pressure, no points,” he said. “I could try any line I wanted. I could save the tires if I wanted to, and if it didn’t work, it didn’t work. I just felt a little more free.”

Earnhardt was asked about the last time he enjoyed himself this much in a race car. He thought for a moment, then replied: “When I was racing Late Models in the 90s, probably.”

There was a true sense of glee behind his smile Friday night. He didn’t just get out on the Richmond track, survive and make laps. Earnhardt proved to himself he still had his driving tools — even the peripheral vision and sense of where the other cars were, which he worried would be gone after a long layoff.

“The sport is elite, the drivers are elite,” he said. “This ain’t a hobby. You just can’t assume you’re going to miss eight months or 10 months and come right in here and win or run in the top five.

“I ran this race last year (while) racing in the Cup Series and I ran ninth or some shit. So it’s not easy to come in here and run well.”

But he did, and he also had enough fun to try it again sometime next year — perhaps again at Richmond or even Atlanta, he said. There’s just one catch: He wants to make sure his new job at NBC Sports is always the priority. And he felt a step behind with broadcasting on Friday because he was so focused on his own racing.

“Imagine (the racing media) showing up on race day without being here all weekend and trying to cover the race without all the knowledge you gain on Friday and Saturday,” he said. “That broadcast deal is something I want to work for a really long time, so I don’t want to take anything away from that.”

Book review: “Leading the Way” by Steve Letarte with Nate Ryan

Steve Letarte probably could have written an entire book about leadership, motivation and team-building. But armed with a compelling story — his years as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief — Letarte and co-author Nate Ryan smoothy weave in leadership lessons instead of hitting readers over the head with them.

Letarte’s new book, Leading the Way, allows readers to go through his experiences and learn what to do — or what not to do — right along with him.

The crew-chief-turned-TV-analyst doesn’t try to make it out like everything he did was perfect. Quite the opposite, actually. He’s blunt about his missteps, but uses each one as even more of a lesson than the successes.

Business leaders — or those who attend Letarte’s speaking engagements — would find the book valuable. But it will also appeal to NASCAR fans (not just Junior Nation) because it provides insight into the inner workings of a race team.

The book is a quick read — just over 130 pages — and you could probably go through it in a couple sittings. However, I found myself stopping at the end of several chapters to think about the examples Letarte had just put forward and wondering how I could apply it to my own life.

Leading the Way never seems to get bogged down. Ryan, the “as told to” author who essentially took Letarte’s own words and put them in order, makes sure passages and transitions flow while expertly retaining Letarte’s voice.

You can practically hear Letarte reading the words aloud, which likely is the whole point.

Notification of bias: Nate Ryan is one of my good friends and I like Steve Letarte a lot, so I already wanted to like the book before I read it. But I genuinely enjoyed it.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Chicagoland race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s thrilling race at Chicagoland Speedway…

1. THIS is why we watch

Yes! Wow, that was so fun. I would have never imagined Chicagoland would put on such an entertaining and exciting race, but NASCAR sure needed a day like that. What we witnessed Sunday was the kind of race you’d show your non-NASCAR friends and say, “See? It’s worth watching!”

Those stand-up-and-scream-at-the-TV finishes have been all too rare lately, especially in this predictable and oft-dry season. But Chicago was a reminder of why so many of us invest our time watching NASCAR. The payoff for those who tuned in for the race was very high, and viewers got rewarded with one of the best finishes in a long time.

When you get a race with lead changes and passing and contact and drama on the final lap, that’s thrilling enough. But when it happens on a 1.5-mile track, it’s oddly even more of an adrenaline rush than on a short track — because you don’t really expect it.

Are we going to see this every week? No, of course not. That’s why a bunch of important people wanted the All-Star package to be used in Cup. So let’s just be appreciative and thankful for seeing a good intermediate track race — and getting the reminder they do exist and can put on an outstanding show under the right circumstances.

2. Totally fair

Kyle Busch’s aggressive bump of Kyle Larson was 100% fair game. Larson said as much in his classy interview after the race, but that won’t keep some people from loathing Busch even more now (I’ve already seen this in my Twitter mentions).

Had it been a driver other than Busch, fans would have been cheering like crazy during his postrace interview. Can you imagine if Tony Stewart had done that? People would have said it was one of the coolest things ever.

Instead, fans showered Busch with boos and jeers. But at least that made him turn to the camera and do the crying face acting, which was hilarious and instantly meme-worthy.

Seriously though, Larson hit Busch in a last-lap battle for the win. You don’t think it’s fair game for Busch to nail him back? C’mon. That’s just silly. That’s pure NASCAR right there, and it’s what distinguishes stock cars from the other forms of racing.

3. Larson’s stock rises

This has been the season of Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. — a whopping 13 wins in 17 races between them! INSANE! So the fact Larson has even been a factor in some of these races is super impressive. He arguably doesn’t have as good of a car as the Big Three and yet can battle with them anyway. Imagine if he was driving a Stewart-Haas Racing car!

Additionally, his racer mentality is a really cool part of his personality and story. Did you expect him to get out of the car and rip Busch for being dirty, or perhaps whine or make a sarcastic personal comment? He didn’t do any of that.

In fact, he did the opposite. He essentially let Busch off the hook and took the high road, then even went to victory lane to congratulate the winning driver! That certainly raised Larson’s respect level in a lot of fans’ eyes.

Look, it’s fun when drivers get angry and punch each other after the race. You can get good videos of that and post them to YouTube, and lots of people will watch.

But it’s also neat to see competitors go all-out during the race and then treat each other respectfully afterward. It’s not like Larson was OK with losing, but he knew what happened was just part of racing — so he didn’t pout about it.

4. Dale’s Debut

Apparently there was a new broadcaster in the NBCSN booth. I’m having trouble coming up with the name. Let me watch the replay of the finish real quick.

(Watches replay)

Oh yeah — SLIDE JOB!


Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s debut for NBC was refreshing and interesting. He had some good lines (“It’s like driving off a set of stairs,” he said of the Chicago bumps) and shared solid insight (“It does feel good, but it’s early,” Earnhardt said of Aric Almirola, pumping the brakes early in Stage 2 when the rest of the booth was getting excited).

But the best part was Earnhardt’s genuine enthusiasm for what he was seeing. There was nothing forced or fake; he wasn’t trying to sell anything to the viewers or convince people it was a good race — he was simply passing along his passion (or hitting Steve Letarte in the shoulder). It felt more like you were watching the race with a buddy rather than being talked down to by a professional broadcaster.

That said, I’m worried people are setting Earnhardt up for failure. NBC promoted the crap out of his debut, and everything leading up to the race was all about the guy in the booth — not anything to do with the cars or current drivers. So the expectations for what Earnhardt can bring to the broadcasts is very, very high.

That’s unreasonable. No matter who the broadcaster is, people aren’t going to tune in on a large-scale basis just to hear someone talk. I mean, the ratings didn’t even go up for Earnhardt’s final race last season at Homestead (they actually went down 20% and had a decline of 1.4 million viewers over the previous year)! So how can Earnhardt be expected to stop NASCAR’s ratings slide just by his presence as a broadcaster?

Everyone should just let Dale be Dale. Appreciate his insight and voice in the booth, which will fit seamlessly into the NBC broadcasts. But don’t expect he’s going to save the sport at this point. No one individual can do that.

5. Points Picture

With nine weeks to go in the regular season, there are still a whopping 10 spots available to make the playoffs on points.

Brad Keselowski is the current leader among those who haven’t won yet, followed by Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney. Aric Almirola is also comfortably inside the playoffs at this time.

The cutoff right now is Alex Bowman. Those above him in points are Jimmie Johnson (+52), Chase Elliott (+45) and Erik Jones (+18).

Those on the outside are Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-23) and Paul Menard (-28). Daniel Suarez is the next-closest, but he’s pretty far out of it (-74 points).

Next week is Daytona, which represents an opportunity for someone like a Jamie McMurray or Bubba Wallace to steal an unexpected playoff spot.

Making sense of the crazy Xfinity Series race at Daytona

A few thoughts after the 100th race under the “Xfinity” Series banner…

— Whoa! We’ll remember that one for awhile. The first two-thirds of the race were completely wild, with Joey Logano, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott swapping the lead and throwing insane blocks on each other.

Then, the race got clunky and borderline comical with a rash of yellows — including a Big One and a record five overtimes.

To top it all off, Tyler Reddick and Elliott Sadler ran side-by-side to the finish and ended up in a near-tie, with Reddick winning the closest finish in NASCAR history!

“That was insane,” Reddick said. “I guess (the winning side-draft) was just enough and just soon enough.”

— So, about that margin of victory. The official number was 0.000, but that’s only because NASCAR’s scoring only goes to the thousandth of a second. But there had never been a margin that close since the advent of electronic timing and scoring in 1993.

“That’s, like, a tie, am I right?” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who owned the cars of the top two finishers. “Either way, fine with me.”

The previous closest finish had been in a 1995 Truck Series race at Colorado National Speedway. The famous Kurt Busch/Ricky Craven finish at Darlington in 2003 had a .002 margin of victory.

— Before all the chaos, the race was shaping up to be one of the best restrictor-plate races ever.

That’s because of the ballsy moves and blocks being thrown by Elliott, Logano and Larson that made it look like they were going to wreck the whole field at any moment.

Earnhardt gave some insight into their thinking after the race.

“All of them out there feel like they’re the best plate racer that’s ever lived and they drive in that fashion,” he said. “If someone is leading the race and you’re not, it’s almost an insulting thing. The comfort in those (Xfinity) cars allows those guys to be more aggressive.”

— There’s still some confusion on the bump-drafting rule in the Xfinity and Truck Series. Drivers were warned in their pre-race meeting with NASCAR not to lock bumpers “in order to advance your position,” and Sadler interpreted that as meaning “to pass.”

But NASCAR black-flagged both Sadler and Elliott when they locked bumpers at one point — this despite not passing a car at the time.

“I’ve got a misunderstanding of the rule,” Sadler said. “I thought you couldn’t lock bumpers to gain a position.”

Sadler said he needs to get a clarification, because if they wanted to enforce it the way he was penalized, then “You could black-flag every single car in the field.”

— Despite six Cup Series drivers being in the race — and dominating much of it — the top seven finishers (and 10 of the top 11) ultimately turned out to be Xfinity Series regulars.

That’s fitting, considering Xfinity was promoting its 100th race as series sponsor.

“It’s ‘Names Are Made Here,’ right?” Reed said. “I think this is a testament to that being true.”

Though Cup drivers are restricted more than ever this year in their Xfinity participation, this seemed like one race a Cup guy would win. So in that sense, the season is off to a good start.

— The five overtimes were likely the most in NASCAR history for a national series race.

“Was it only five? I thought it felt like a dozen,” fourth-place finisher Kaz Grala said.

When NASCAR began the green-white-checkered rule in 2004, there was only one attempt. Then it was expanded to three attempts in 2010 and stayed that way until 2016, when the GWC rule was converted to “overtime” with the overtime line.

After the overtime line was moved to the start/finish line last year, the rule was changed to allow for unlimited attempts. But that hadn’t really occurred in any race until Saturday, when the overtime periods kept piling up.

— The race was 357.5 miles long, which was the second-longest race in Xfinity/Busch/Grand National Series history. Only the 1985 Miller 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was longer distance-wise.



NASCAR driver popularity in the Dale Jr. Era

Since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Most Popular Driver award 15 straight times, there’s no dispute which driver was the most liked by fans in the last decade and a half.

But who were the other popular drivers during that time? Well, we actually know the answer to that question because the National Motorsports Press Association (which administers the award) has released a top 10 of the voting each year since Earnhardt first won it in 2003.

Only seven of the current 10 most popular drivers will return next season — Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. That’s in alphabetical order, because the NMPA no longer releases the order of the final voting (they used to not only release the order, but also the vote totals).

Who will the other three be? It seems fairly wide open at the moment.

That’s because only two active drivers — Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — have ever made the top 10 in the past and failed to make it this year.

All other active drivers — including the likes of Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer — have never appeared on the top 10 list.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve compiled a spreadsheet of all the data dating back to 2003. But first, a few observations:

What happened to Harvick? This is the biggest mystery from the voting. Harvick was the third-most popular driver in 2003 and 2004, then dropped to the bottom half of the list over the next decade — but was still in the top 10 for every year from 2003-13. But he has now missed the top 10 in three of the last four years (starting with the year he won the championship, oddly enough). Perhaps it’s because he’s been more affected than anyone with old-school fans abandoning the sport (assuming his fan base early on had a large portion of Dale Sr. fans after he took over that ride in 2001). What are some other theories?

— Truex on the rise. Martin Truex Jr. never made the top 10 in voting until the past two seasons — this despite being a full-time driver since 2006.

— New faces emerge. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson both made the top 10 in voting for the first time this season. Chase Elliott has made it in each of his first two years.

— Streak continues. Of the remaining active drivers, who has the longest streak of making the list? It’s a tie between Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, who have both appeared every year since 2004. But while Johnson has typically been in the bottom half of the voting when the order has been revealed, Kahne is usually toward the top (and got as high as second in 2013).

— That 2014 list! Seven of the 10 drivers from 2014 are no longer in the sport full time. Of course, that’s a bit misleading since Josh Wise made the top 10 that year based on the Reddit push. But the other six drivers (Earnhardt, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart) took up a combined 68 spots in the top 10 over 15 years — and that’s going to be hard to replace.

Here’s the spreadsheet I compiled if you want to look at the raw data. “Yes” signifies they appeared in the top 10 that year; in years when the NMPA released the order, the driver’s position in the top 10 is noted.