Cup Series rookie Daniel Hemric of Richard Childress Racing joins me to make our 2019 playoff predictions — from the 16 playoff drivers to the champion.
The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon of Richard Childress Racing. This interview was recorded as a podcast but is also transcribed for those who prefer to read.
1. How often do you have dreams about racing?
I’ve had a couple of dreams about racing, and one in particular was about the Daytona 500. I had this dream where I looked in the rearview mirror and no one was behind me and I was coming to the checkered flag. I haven’t had those memories (about dreams) very often, but I did have that one, which is crazy. I thought about it leading up this offseason, and that was a dream and it all happened. It’s weirded me out for a while, but it’s a cool one.
I haven’t really had any more. I’ve had one or two others that I’ve brought up at just random tracks that I’ve been on. When you get to focusing on them so much and you’re on the simulator, you can see the track in your mind and your mind just never sleeps.
2. If you get into someone during a race — intentional or not — does it matter if you apologize?
I think reaching out to the person is fine if it wasn’t intentional. If you didn’t do it on purpose and it was just a mistake, you overdrove and you hit them, it’s like, “Hey man, I screwed up there. I was over my head.” And that’s a good time to let someone know.
If you did it on purpose, I think they know themselves pretty much already. And then there’s a conversation about why you did it — if it was to get back at them for something earlier or it’s just, “Hey man, I had to go. That was kind of the deal and I’m sorry for it, but you understand.”
3. What is the biggest compliment someone could give you?
I think the biggest compliment you could get is (about) the person you are. Like you know, you’re a good person. Where your morals are: “Man you get it, you understand it.” That’s a good compliment to me. I’m more proud of the person you are than the driver you are away from the track. I’m a competitor, I’m very competitive, but hopefully still the person is what shows more than the driver and what I do out on Sundays, because that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
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?
Who would be the guy I’d like to hang out with the most out of all these people? The cool thing is, I’m a huge Panthers fan, so all my Panthers buddies there, they’re awesome and real. Whoever I did ask to bring to the track, I would want them to be someone that I can just have like a friend. I want to be shell-shocked to be around them, but have them talk and hang out like it was another one of my boys, my buddies. So I’d want the relationship to be instant, whoever it was.
I don’t know why this popped into my head, but Will Smith seems like a cool person. I think that’d be pretty cool. That would be somebody I’m interested in having at the track. Seems like he’s nice, too. I watch some of his Instagram stories with his family, and he’s just him. That’s cool.
5. In an effort to show this is a health-conscious sport, NASCAR decides to offer the No. 1 pit stall selection for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for one month. Would you do it?
Oh yeah. No problem. I do a lot of things to my diet to keep discipline, just as a person. I’ve just gotten back on it, actually I was there for awhile, just slacking. But my diet is pretty important, and it’s mostly because I’ve talked to (Christian) McCaffrey, and he got me started back on eating right and just taking care of my body. I don’t eat bread, cheese, chicken — and if I do pasta, it’s gluten-free, wheat-free. I just started that, and I’ve leaned down a little bit.
Do you feel better?
Yeah. I feel better, and some of it’s just about seeing it and not eating it, right? Like just teaching yourself you don’t have to have that to function, you know what I mean? And that’s cool because I used to eat a lot of Chick-Fil-A just because it’s convenient. Chicken’s great, but that’s something that I just kind of cut out, just to be disciplined.
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.
This is gonna be tough.
I’m going back to 2016 for this one, and it’s the Michigan spring Cup race. Do you have any memory of this?
I think so. I’m hoping it is the package that we tried with the high spoiler and I was racing Matt Kenseth back and forth. I think I finished fourth in that one? Or sixth?
I have eighth here.
Eighth, OK. Is it the high spoiler package? There was one in there I was running really well, but we started in the back and we stayed out on fuel and took the lead, but eighth might be correct. Well it is correct, obviously, but I’m just wondering if it’s the high spoiler package.
It might have been the fall race. Are you good at remembering races in general?
Not really. Not really the finishing orders — I’m not good at knowing where I finish somewhere. I know the vicinity, and I can tell you the details of each race. Like if you bring it up, I can tell you what was going on during the race and what happened, but I don’t focus on the finish number usually. Unless it’s a win.
7. Who is the best rapper alive?
My era is Lil Wayne. I remember riding with one of my friends to go snowboarding every Thursday up in Boone and we would listen to Da Drought, we’d listen to that mix (tape) all the way down every day. We memorized all the lines, and it was pretty witty. I always loved that.
He just came out with The Carter V this weekend (this interview was conducted last month). Have you gotten to listen to it?
I haven’t listened to it, but I’ll be on it. Maybe tonight I’ll get on it after this race.
Because he says he’s the best rapper alive…
He is. (Sings) “Best rapper alive.”
8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?
I mean, it’s gotta be Kyle (Busch). I don’t know who he got punched by in Vegas, but I just picture his face when he had the blood running down and everything. That’s why (the answer), I guess.
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. Pick one to be your crew chief, one to be your spotter, and one to be your motorhome driver.
Wow, that is tough. I’ll let Taylor spot because I think a woman spotter would actually be a good thing. I’ve always kind of thought that. There’s not any I don’t think on the spotting (stand), and I think they would take a lot of the bias out and just spot and give you what they see. Because women are kind of like that. I feel like women take out bias sometimes, which is nice. And so a woman spotter I think would be a good thing. I think Taylor would do good up there.
I would get Tom Hanks to crew chief because I feel like he would make light of tough situations, but he would stay in the game.
LeBron would be the bus driver because when I was chilling, we could go shoot hoops.
10. What is the key to finding the best pre-race bathroom?
That is a tough one. It happens last second. Not gonna lie, I’m gonna give you this story because this will be entertaining for your followers.
So a couple races in a row, I was struggling to remember to go pee early enough. Like I would go to the bathroom, but I’d drink enough water during the time walking to intros and going through intros, and then I would go straight to my car.
It’s very routine. When you get done with intros, you need to go use the bathroom, then go take the pictures by the car. Well I was going to the car a couple times in a row (before the bathroom), and the pictures would start and the national anthem would start and it would kind of happen all at once.
Well, I would have to pee after the national anthem. So I was like running to find a bathroom after that. You really have to get ready (to race) at that time, it’s bang bang at that point. So I always look for a port-a-john, I try to hit it before I get to my car to get my pictures taken.
Well this time (at Bristol), I got to the car and everything happened quick. National anthem’s over and I had to pee and I was not gonna get in the car and pee during the race — because it’s hard to pee yourself when you’re strapped in. So I just actually peed myself right by the left rear tire.
I had two of my guys stand there. I was like, “I’m just gonna pee myself right now.” And I peed standing like right there with my suit on, and the suit, you could see it change color. Then I just got in the car.
Couldn’t you just pee on the tire?
Well, Bristol is 400 stories up, so I figured there’s just that one person up there zoomed in taking a picture of you getting in your car and might get a real good picture of me peeing on the left rear tire. I thought about peeing in between the wall there, but it’s just so high up there at Bristol, so I’m just like, “Screw it. Just let it rip now and it’ll all be good. It’s a long race. Sweat will kind of dissipate (the pee).” But yeah, that happened this year.
So you had to race 500 laps in your pee from the start.
Yeah, from the start. Yeah, you know it’s gonna be a long one when that happens.
11. NASCAR decides they would like the highlight reel value brought by the Carl Edwards backflips and want their own version. How much money would they have to pay you to backflip off your car following your next win?
I just don’t think I could complete the backflip, so I am going to take a risk of hurting myself. I could try it for $2 million, and it’s probably going to land in a back-flop, so I’m probably going to need surgery. Hopefully that covers it.
So $2 million plus medical.
Yeah, plus medical. There you go.
12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was with Chris Buescher. His question for you is: If you win at Charlotte again like you did in the 600, now that there’s artificial turf in the infield, will that alter your belly-slide celebration?
I’m definitely going to use the turf, that looks interesting. I wonder if it’s just gonna stick, though. Could be dangerous. Will definitely try it. All the football players are playing on turf, they get little burns. Hopefully I don’t get any turf burn or anything like that, but I’ll figure that out when it comes down to it.
It’ll still be worth it.
Yeah, for sure.
The next interview I’m doing is with Landon Cassill. Do you have a question I can ask Landon?
If someone would sponsor you to grow out your hair until it reached your knees, would you wear it that long and keep it that way for the rest of your racing career? Would you wear it to your knees until you were done racing?
So the question is the only way he’s going to get a sponsor is if he’s willing to do that, and would he do it?
Yeah. That, or even rock dreadlocks to the track, dread out his hair and just roll with it.
Previous 12 Questions interviews with Austin Dillon:
Just when you thought money was the only way to get an opportunity in NASCAR, along comes a trio of talent-first stories to provide at least some evidence to the contrary.
First there was Ross Chastain, whose ability to elevate his JD Motorsports ride earned him a chance with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity team — for whom he recently won the Las Vegas race. The rest of his story is still unwritten, but at least he got a shot.
Then, on Friday, two talent-first drivers were given the kind of opportunities that represent hope for the future: Daniel Hemric was named driver of Richard Childress Racing’s No. 31 Cup car and Ryan Preece was announced as the driver of JTG Daugherty Racing’s No. 47.
Both will compete for Cup Series Rookie of the Year and neither had to bring armored trucks full of money to do it.
That might be a small victory, but it’s still notable these days.
Hemric, a North Carolina native, grew up with NASCAR dreams while racing in the Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He became one of the country’s best Late Model drivers and has consistently contended in NASCAR’s lower ranks — albeit without a win.
“It just says it can be done,” Hemric said of making it to the top without millions of dollars behind him. “To any racer out there who thinks it can’t be done, today is a huge step to show it can be.”
Then there’s the story of Preece, who took a gamble on himself by borrowing money to secure two starts with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series team. In his own personal must-win situation, Preece finished second to Kyle Busch in his first race with JGR and then won at Iowa. That led to a pair of additional races in 2017, when he had two more top-five results.
This season, Preece won another Xfinity race — and $100,000 in the Dash 4 Cash, which allowed him to pay off his loans.
It also opened the door for even more opportunities with JGR and caught the attention of JTG Daugherty, which hired him on talent alone.
“If you are going to fall down that hole of ‘Money, money, money’ you will never make it,” Preece said. “I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s not. There were a lot of nights I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know what my future was going to be. I didn’t know if I could even make it to this level.
“I was going to try, though. I was going to try like hell.”
The effort resulted in a job at NASCAR’s highest level — and it might not have happened had he never invested in himself, first. As it turns out, that was a necessary part of Preece’s journey.
“The fact that he has been able to win in Xfinity against the best of the best, obviously that put him higher up on the list,” Geschickter said. “He was definitely on the radar anyway … (but) it didn’t hurt.”
Will stories like these suddenly become a trend? Not likely, as money continues to rule in today’s NASCAR. But that makes them all the more notable when a team rewards a driver with an opportunity based on talent — not how much money they can bring.
What happened: In an oddly timed social media post — in the minutes following Saturday’s final practice — Ryan Newman announced he will not return to Richard Childress Racing and the No. 31 car after five years with the team. Newman had one win with the team and made the playoffs three times, notably finishing second in the inaugural season of the one-race playoff format.
What it means: Newman likely either already knows where he’s going or has a good idea of his options. There are quite a few open rides now that the Silly Season dam has burst, including the No. 6 at Roush Fenway Racing and the No. 95 at Leavine Family Racing (depending on what Daniel Suarez does now that Martin Truex Jr. is reportedly heading to the current No. 19). It seems likely Newman would be able to bring at least some sponsorship with him — he’s had a half-dozen different companies on his car this season — so that may help his prospects. He’s still only 40 years old, which means he should have at least a few solid years left in him. And despite being under the radar most weeks, Newman still often brings consistent performances to a team.
News value (scale of 1-10): Four. This move was widely expected and is mostly a confirmation instead of a surprise. It would be bigger, obviously, if we knew where he was headed.
Three questions: Which driver will Childress hire for the now-vacant No. 31 car? Will Newman’s next team be a step down in competition level, or will he still have a chance to be a playoff driver? How much longer does Newman want to race?
The 12 Questions series of interviews continues with Daniel Hemric, who is in his second year driving in the Xfinity Series for Richard Childress Racing. This interview was recorded as a podcast, but is also available in transcript form below.
1. How often do you have dreams about racing?
It’s kind of self-induced when I do have dreams about racing. It’s probably the anxiety of not running like I want to run, where I really have to put a lot more emphasis on that racetrack on a given weekend, doing a lot more studying or doing a lot more simulation. Whatever it is, when I lay down at night and that’s the last thing I’m thinking about, that’s when I dream about racing.
It’s more frequent, in all honesty, at this level than what I’ve ever had in the past doing short track racing. In short track racing, I would go through spells where you’re one of the guys to beat every single weekend, you’re winning races on a constant basis. So when I’d have those dreams, it was about winning races.
It’s crazy — over time, I’d win a race after I’d dream about it. And then (the dreams) happened often and I would win often in those situations. I was like, “Man, that’s kind of creepy.” But it always worked out.
At this level, I’ve had one of those dreams where we ran good. You know how dreams are — they don’t make sense a lot of how it’s all tied together. But it’s kind of all correlated. When I have dreams about running well, it all translates, and when I have dreams about rough weekends, sometimes we’ll overcome some of that, but a lot of it plays out roughly the way the dreams do.
So kind of crazy how it’s all worked out over the past, but I need more of those winning dreams. That’d be good for this series.
You might need to go down to one of those psychic places and if you need some extra income or something, just pop in the store front.
You’re exactly right. Honestly, I wouldn’t even tell my wife (Kenzie) about it for the longest time. But it was starting to happen more and more and I’m like, “I’ve gotta share this with somebody, because it’s a lot to hold in.” It’s pretty wild.
2. If you get into someone during a race — intentional or not — does it matter if you apologize?
For sure. I’ve got a new spotter, Branden Lines, and he’s doing an incredible job. But during Atlanta qualifying, we thought Joey Logano was on his fast lap and he was gonna shut down at the flag stand after making his one lap in qualifying. And so I rolled off pit road, only to find out he was getting the green. So long story short, I ran the top of (Turns) 3 and 4 coming to green, Logano goes to the bottom and he was coming to the checkered, but it just worked out that he merged right behind me — I’m talking two or three inches.
It didn’t mess him up, it almost kind of helped him draft to the line and run even faster, but I made sure when I got out I was like, “Hey man, it was just a miscommunication.” That’s more of a driver ethic code, because if I didn’t say anything, if we’d been in the race running side-by-side, if I was him, I would have been like, “Hey, this dude pulled in front of me in qualifying, I’m not giving him a break.” So I think it’s good to knock that stuff out and get ahead of it.
3. What is the biggest compliment someone could give you?
Coming from where I’ve come from and doing it the way I had to do it, often I’ll go back short track racing and because the parents of the kids that are trying to figure out how to get their kid to this level or even further, they’re always saying, “What is our next step? What should we do?” That’s always the question: “What do we need to do with our son or daughter next?”
That’s a huge compliment to myself without them saying it because (it shows) somewhere along the line, whatever you did made an impact on that level and they have enough respect andreally trust what you’re saying and how you can guide them.
And the answer to all that is there’s no right way. You just gotta make the most of every opportunity. That’s how I try to tell everybody what their next step should be with their children.
4. NASCAR comes to you and says, “Hey, we are bringing a celebrity to the race and we’re wondering if you have time to say hi.” Who is a celebrity you’d be really excited to host?
I think some sports icons or coaches, because all of our deals are so team-related. I was watching the Carolina basketball game — I’m a big Tar Heels fan — and coach Roy Williams. The passion and everything he shows on the basketball court, good, bad, or indifferent, you see him throughout the season change teams and change players and how they approach and handle situations. So if I had the opportunity to host somebody, that’d be the guy. I think it’d be cool to hear his knowledge, his info of how he handles every team different every year. He’s having to conform to whatever makes those guys tick. I’d like to get a little background and host that guy for a week.
That’d be awesome — get him to talk to the team, come to the hauler and stuff.
Oh my gosh, if you couldn’t get fired up after listening to one of those speeches, you probably shouldn’t be here.
5. In an effort to show they are health-conscious, NASCAR offers the No. 1 pit stall selection for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for a month. Would you do it?
Absolutely not. No way. Would not happen.
I’m all meat, potatoes, and no, absolutely not.
Not one driver has said yes so far.
Well it’s still open. Sound to me like if nobody takes it, the No. 2 pit stall is just as good.
6. It’s time for the Random Race Challenge. I have picked a random race from your career and you have to guess where you finished. This is the 2016 Truck race at the May Charlotte race.
I would have been in (Brad) Keselowski’s truck. I remember this race now thinking back, because the race got rained out. It was supposed to be a night race, and we came back and raced earlier that day. Really hot.
How did I finish? We led laps early, me and Kyle (Busch) raced early in the race. I remember him running the top and me running the bottom. Probably the most fun race I’ve ever ran in a truck at Charlotte. It was so slick that day. Something happened, and we got off on pit cycle or sequence. So I’m gonna say…ninth to 11th. I can’t remember because we got off.
The answer is ninth.
Oh, how ’bout that? So the first one was right! Yes!
That’s pretty amazing. You started eighth, you led 15 laps, and you finished ninth. You finished right behind Christoper Bell and ahead of William Byron.
How ’bout that? I do remember that because that race in particular, it was cool because obviously Charlotte’s my hometown, and that’s where I got my breakout, really, was at Charlotte Motor Speedway. So moving into one of the top three series, being in a truck, you go there and it’s the first time to lead laps on the big track, it’s the first time to have a solid shot or run solid in front of the home crowd. So you picked a good one to remember.
So I should have made it harder.
No, that was perfect. At least you gave me some good memories, good vibes here as we start the weekend.
7. Who is the best rapper alive?
The only one I can really know and recite as a kid was Eminem. I can remember getting into a lot of trouble for saying a lot of stuff that he was rapping about.
Your parents didn’t like that?
My parents were not a big fan of that. I’m sure they have no idea how much I actually listened to it.
8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?
There’s no way to answer this and not get criticized in some way or some sort. This is not necessarily because I want to punch him in the face, but it seems like the fans in the garage, Logano’s done it or tried to do it, and that’s Kyle Busch. I love the dude, I think he’s good as gold and he’s great for our sport, but a lot of guys take jabs at him. So I think from the fans as a whole, that’s probably the biggest answer.
9. NASCAR enlists three famous Americans to be involved with your team for one race as part of a publicity push: Taylor Swift, LeBron James and Tom Hanks. Choose one to be your crew chief, one to be your spotter and one to be your motorhome driver.
That’s tough. I’d have to go with LeBron as the motorhome driver for the fact that he’s always in different cities, he knows the spots. He knows what’s going on, how to get there. If not, he knows the people to talk to to get us where we want to go so far for that weekend. So he’d be the motorhome driver, get everything set up. And he seems like a really diligent dude, like his stuff’s all nice and clean. That’s how he presents himself, so he’d be my motorhome driver.
Tom Hanks would definitely be the crew chief, without a doubt. I mean, you see him play any role or in anything he does, it’s incredible. So to know he’s got ability to just keep a group of guys working in one direction and pulling the rope in the same direction, I think that’d be a very interesting setup on top of the pit box.
And the Taylor Swift deal, would it be modern day Taylor Swift or early 2010s Taylor Swift? If it’s earlier Taylor Swift, I’d go with her being on the radio. Modern… not as big as a fan. I definitely need to know which one I have there.
10. What is the key to finding the best pre-race bathroom?
A great PR person. And luckily I have Jay (Pennell) over here. He makes it happen for me. He knows, as soon as I walk off the stage or get done riding the truck, he knows exactly where I want to go, so he’s usually got it picked out for me. That’s key.
11. NASCAR misses the highlight reel value brought by Carl Edwards’ backflips and decides a replacement is needed. I’ve been asking people much money would they have to pay you to backflip off your car after your next win, but backflipping is actually your celebration, so I don’t think they’d have to pay you, I’m assuming.
That’s exactly right. And actually from the time we do this interview to when we actually make that reality, we’ll give them from now to the end to draw a crowd, make sure everybody’s tuning in, because it will happen the first time I can break through victory lane in the Xfinity Series.
So we talked about dreams earlier. That’s a dream of mine, is to be able to do that off a race car at one of these top levels. Whether the fans like it or dislike it with me doing the same thing Carl did, Carl was a guy I legitimately looked up to in racing. To see him do that, I was obviously young, racing Bandoleros at the time, and I thought, “Man, that’s pretty cool.” And nobody else for the most part is going to be able to do that, so that’s something I latched onto because I’ve got tons of respect for the dude. So hopefully I can be the guy that can latch onto it whenever it does happen.
Are you confident in your ability to do one? I heard a rumor that a couple of years ago, during a FOX preseason shoot, your leg caught on something or you didn’t quite execute it and you fell?
I’ll tell the story. We’re sitting in the green room and it was a “Three questions about yourself” where you said two true, one false, and let the fans decide what’s what. (One of the true facts was) I can do a backflip, and two other random things. (The producers) were like, “Can you really do it?” I’m like, “Absolutely.” So I sit there, and they say, “We’re ready.” So I take one step back, and me taking the one step back when I jumped, my foot caught the drop-down green screen and I went on and hit the ground. Very embarrassing, to say the least.
But a couple buddies in the garage, they’ve seen me do it. I can stand on flat ground and knock it out. So being on top of a race car makes it that much easier; you’ve got way less rotating and all that stuff. So I’ve got 100% faith in myself to do it. I’ve just got to be able to get to the chance where I can do it.
12. Each week, I ask a question given to me from the last interview. Last week, I interviewed Alex Bowman.
I’ve never even spoke to that guy.
Yeah, he said he didn’t know you well. But he apparently used to come to Summer Shootout and watch you. So he was saying that he would see you kick some butt and your career was really on the rise and then he said it seemed like for a couple years there, your career sort of stalled out as you were trying to get this chance, and he could relate to that because his career stalled out, too. He was in a different level at the time when his career stalled out, but he was wondering how during that time, how you were thinking and feeling about what direction your career was going and were you worried and things like that.
That’s a great question. I’ve gotta make sure I thank him, that’s a great question. I guess thinking about it, our paths really sound similar in that aspect at two different points for sure.
For me, I was in a spot there after Legend cars, I was trying to break into the Super Late Model ranks. For the people that don’t know, there was no path. I didn’t know what was next, I had no goals of when I wanted to be at a certain point by when because I was already older than most of the people I raced against or been racing against.
There was a lot of stuff stacked against me, but as the years went by and I saw the people I’d been racing with over the course of time, they would either go take that next shot and fall short and give up on it, or they’d quit working for it. I didn’t know how to get there, but I knew that to stop working at it was not gonna get me there. I had to figure out a way to be in something if I wanted to get to this level.
Obviously, there was more people than I could ever begin to thank or even imagine to say their names on here to thank them for keeping giving me that next shot. But just staying in front of people, not really knowing what the end result was gonna be. It was just giving everything you had, no matter if it was going to sweep the floor for Jeff Fultz, because that was the only opportunity I had and he had Late Models in his shop that maybe I could get in one one day. Or going to work for Eddie Sharp and getting hooked up with the Gallaher family out of California that invested in me over the years and got me to the Xfinity Series.
It was so much stuff that all ties together. There were so many things that didn’t make sense, but I always just tried to put myself in that situation. So in the middle of the career stall, it was just staying hungry. Knowing that I really didn’t know how to do anything else, I had to put 100 percent effort into every single day of whatever that was, and that’s how somehow I was able to keep going and got to this point.
I don’t know who the next interview will be with. Do you have a general question I can ask the next driver?
Recently there’s been a lot of hype around top-20 prospects, or who’s gonna be the next guy (because of a list compiled by ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass). Looking at that list, there was a lot of guys that either are currently still short track racing or trying to get to this level, but they’re still dabbling in some of that.
My question for the next person is, if they had the opportunity and they had made it, and they had their race team and they knew it was a successful race team and it was gonna run good regardless of who was in it, who’s that one driver at the short track level that you feel like could get the job done but they’d need that shot, whether that’s Alex Bowman or myself or anybody’s that got that shot and went on and prevailed. Who would that kid be, and what rank would he come from?
So like a kid right now that you see could have some talent that if you had a team, you would bring up?
Yeah, 100 percent. That’s the goal, is I want to get them talking about some other local short track kid specifically that they feel like may not ever get that shot. And he may get that shot, but getting the hype around his name would be a good thing for everybody.
Previous 12 Questions interviews with Daniel Hemric:
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 JeffGluck.com. Up next: Jay Pennell, manager of communications and content for Richard Childress Racing.
Can you tell us what you do with Richard Childress Racing, and why you were in victory lane at the Daytona 500?
I am the manager of content and communications for RCR. I primarily work with Daniel Hemric in the Xfinity Series and the No. 21 team. We’ve got a great partner with South Point Hotel and Casino on the car this year and we’ve got a great group over there.
I also handle a lot of our website stuff, help with our social media, and just kind of anything that really needs to be done. So luckily I was able to stay over on Sunday for the Daytona 500, I worked on some content and some videos and things we were putting out for our website and our social media outlets, and was doing that until about 50 laps to go.
Then we kind of sat down (as a PR team). We don’t typically put together plans or anything like that, but a group of us talked about, “Hey, if this does happen what are we gonna do?” Thank God we did that, because lo and behold, Austin Dillon won the race.
There was that initial, “Oh man, this is actually happening,” but then it was, “OK, we still have work to do.” So it was cool to go to victory lane, it was a lifetime experience and something I would have never imagined would be a possibility.
I’m not dreaming. That actually happened. #DAYTONA500 champions. Thanks to @austindillon3 & the entire @RCRracing organization for the experience. Work hard, kids. Don’t take no for an answer, chase your damn dreams & make it happen. pic.twitter.com/ckKvBpo6yR
— Jay W. Pennell (@jaywpennell) February 19, 2018
You talked about a lifetime experience. Was this always a path for you? Did you grow up as a race fan and say, “I want to work in NASCAR someday?” How did you even get started?
It was always something that was in my life for as long as I can remember. I grew in a town called Delanco, New Jersey, but my mom’s side of the family raced at Mobile (Ala.) International from about the 1940s until the mid-1990s. So I went down there as a kid when I was 3 or 4 years old and went and saw a race at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola (Fla.), went to Mobile and watched my family work on the cars in the garage and stuff.
I would have loved to have been in the driver’s seat or working on the cars, but that separation between New Jersey and Alabama was just a little bit too big. So every weekend we watched as many racing programs and races as we could. I taped every race on VHS. We had NASCAR Scene, NASCAR Illustrated, Stock Car Racing magazine — all these magazines and newspapers and outlets that my parents got me to really get me interested in it. I was definitely the kid that a lot of people made fun of for liking NASCAR in New Jersey.
I went to my first Cup race in 1991 in Dover, saw Harry Gant win in part of his Mr. September run, and I’ve just been hooked ever since. I think I’ve gone to at least one race every year except for maybe 1998, and just lucky to have had good people in my life that have supported me and encouraged me to keep doing what I’m doing. Just a lot of drive and determination to kind of make this now my career.
So it’s one thing to say, “I’m a huge race fan, I would love to work in NASCAR someday, it’s my passion,” and it’s another to make that happen. Out of all the people that I’ve met in all of NASCAR, you might be the one that really willed it to happen the most and made it happen without any sort of help whatsoever. So you had no journalism background?
Not at all. I went to Queens University in Charlotte, I got two degrees in history and American studies. I studied German history and American subcultures and countercultures and things like that, and really honed my writing skills and learned how to think and ask questions and just be very observant about things.
I still loved NASCAR and I’d still go to the races, but my interest had kind of waned a little bit. And then when Rusty Wallace was retiring, he was my favorite driver, so I really got back into it again.
When I got out of college, I worked at Ben & Jerry’s scooping ice cream and I had a bunch of other jobs, but I found an internship with the SportsBusiness Journal working on the resource guide and fact book. And when I found out that I was on the same floor as NASCAR Scene and Illustrated, it was one of the greatest things that had ever happened to me. (Longtime racing writer) Steve Waid was down the hall, Kenny Bruce was there, Bob Pockrass, yourself, there were a lot of people that I really followed and grew up reading that were on the same floor. And I just happened to have their email addresses now.
At the time, social media was such a new thing. I realized you could really utilize MySpace and social media to get your stories out there and tell other people who you are. So I decided to make another MySpace page dedicated solely to writing and to NASCAR. And so I would just take what I had grown up doing — which was watching racing and knowing everything I could about racing and trying to absorb it all — take these races and apply the writing skills that I had learned in college and put it together into some sort of race recap. And I would just e-mail blast every single person at NASCAR Scene and NASCAR Illustrated.
It really worked, because I was able to go to Steve Waid and get some critiques and get some advice on how to take a four-hour race and make it into a 200-word story. It was really one of the greatest experiences and just kind of a luck of the draw deal. So it was really that first step I needed in this path down this career.
People reading are probably thinking, “Well, then that led to some job.” But it didn’t. Nobody helped you there in terms of, “We’re gonna give you a chance,” so you had to make your own chance, which involved unpaid writing for small websites.
While I was doing the MySpace blog, I went to the groundbreaking of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. I was sitting there, taking notes, and I think Robby Gordon was sitting in front of me or something. This guy happened to be sitting behind me, watching what I was doing, and after everything went on, he came up and talked to me. His name was Ray Everett, and told me, “Hey man, there’s your interview right there.” So I went to talk to Robby and did all that and came back and talked to this guy and he said, “Hey, I’m starting this website, it’s called HardCoreRaceFans.com, we haven’t launched yet, but if you’re interested, I’d love to have you come on.”
So I did that and helped them design the website and planned out how we were going to do coverage and initially we did a lot of stuff, sort of like Jayski used to do — where we take other people’s articles and post them on there and give them credit and link back. And then we started writing our own stuff.
It was really before you had citizen journalists (being welcomed in NASCAR). We got denied credentials at Charlotte, Atlanta, Bristol, Darlington. We were really trying hard to get into these racetracks so we could have coverage and we were not a reputable source, so we were getting turned down. So that made our jobs pretty tough, but we just kept at it and kept at it and eventually we found a spot in the sport. NASCAR came out with the citizen journalists media corps, and they really kind of provided help that we had already gotten ourselves. So it was kind of nice that we had already done all that leg work and really didn’t get a whole lot from them. What would have been helpful is like sponsors and things like that, but you know, it was what it was.
I moved on from there to Frontstretch.com and AllLeftTurns.com and I think at one point I’d raised my hand in the media center and had three different outlets I had to say. There were people who helped, but I think one outlet — I won’t say which one it was — I wrote almost every day, I edited at least twice a week and I got a check for like $75 at the end of the year.
So by this time, I’ve got a family, I have a child that was born, I have a house, so I’m working basically as a full-time writer, traveling to races when I can and still have at least three or four other jobs on the side. So it was a lot.
I remember the days, you were at Ben & Jerry’s at Charlotte. You’re scooping ice cream for customers and trying to write a story when you were helping me at SBNation.com. I’d be talking to you and say, “Oh, can you write this story?” And you’d be like, “Yeah, I just got a couple of customers right now.” From what I could tell, you literally had the laptop there trying to write between scooping ice cream. Is that right?
Yeah, very much so. I was the manager there and I worked at Ben & Jerry’s for about 10 years, but I would open up my laptop and I would keep TweetDeck up and I’d have my email going and I’d be writing stories. There were actually times where I’d have to close the door and lock the door (to keep customers out) because I had a phone interview to do. So I’d have to go and I’d pull out the phone and I’d do my phone interview, and I’d record it and I’d go back and open the door and I’d have to sit there and write it.
It was a cool experience. I’m sure it would have been a lot easier to do it other ways, but I loved what I did and it just shows that if you have a passion for something and you really want to do something, you’re going to find a way to work hard enough to make it happen.
The funny story about the Ben & Jerry’s deal is, at one point, I was managing the Ben & Jerry’s in Gastonia, North Carolina, so it’s not very far from Belmont Abbey College. Belmont Abbey College has a motorsports program, and these kids would come in all the time and talk to me about racing, because I guess they knew who I was through SB Nation and Twitter and all this other stuff. Well, I’d say about four or five of those kids are now PR reps in the NASCAR series. One went to victory lane in the Duels and one went to victory lane for the Xfinity race.
And you remember them from when they were students coming in the ice cream shop?
So Ian Moye, who now works with Ryan Blaney, I knew he kind of looked familiar and he reminded me a couple of years ago. I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s really cool.” There’s a really big group of them, so it’s funny. Small world.
Along the lines of you not getting paid, you’re also not getting paid travel-expense wise. So how were you getting to these races and covering so many races? What did you have to do to get there?
Go in debt. (Laughs) I would drive my car everywhere. I called it the Hotel Kia, so I would drive my car to the racetrack. We’re here at Atlanta, and you go out the tunnel and there’s a parking lot right across the street from the tunnel and I’ve slept there four or five years covering race weekend. Slept in my car during Talladega. One time I drove all the way from Charlotte to Homestead, slept in my car down there just for a day or two.
Luckily, places like Talladega, if you have a race ticket or way into the track, you can camp for free, so a lot of camping, staying with friends, staying with other media folks who were nice enough to let me stay there. Luckily, I could write this stuff off on my taxes a little bit in terms of milage, but a lot of it was out of pocket. The money side, it’ll come eventually.
But that was probably the biggest actual sacrifice, was I had these day jobs. I was lucky enough to make my schedule or work with the people who I was working with to have the time off.
The real impact came paying for car repairs. I think one time, I was leaving Talladega and the alternator died. I’ve had flat tires before (during race travel). It’s a big expense, but it’s totally worth it if you want to make it to where you want to make it.
How many years of covering racing was it where you were sleeping in your car before you started getting your travel paid for?
I think it was from 2007 until the Chase started in 2011.
So at least 30 races total — probably more — where you slept in your car the whole weekend?
Yeah, and you make a lot of friends out there in the parking lots and the campgrounds and things like that. It really kind of connected me to the fans, it gives you new perspective. It was always nice when somebody like Old Spice came to Talladega and gave away a bunch of deodorant. You’re like, “This is great!” It’s those little things like that you take advantage of.
But every time now we fly out every weekend with Victory Air and we’ve got a wonderful travel agent, Ms. Leslie at RCR, and you definitely don’t take those things for granted when you’ve slept in your car for years and years and years.
What was your big break? How did you get from sleeping in the car and being totally on your own to where you were finally being welcomed in as a professional?
I think when everything ended with SB Nation, it ended so soon to the start of the season that I was kind of out of options and I really didn’t know if I was going to continue. I really kind of didn’t want to go back to sleeping in my car and doing all this stuff because it was a lot of work and a lot of time away from the family — not only traveling like we do all the time but then also doing the regular jobs. I think I started my own blog at that point and just tried to do that.
Luckily, my sister found this job someplace on some job board and it was for GMR Marketing to do social media for the Speed Channel. I luckily went in and interviewed and had some good references and somehow landed the job. And so I started the first race of the Chase in 2011 — thrown to the wolves, you know. I remember I got to fly down and stay in a hotel. It was great!
So I did that for a couple of years and helped run Speed’s social media. We covered obviously NASCAR stuff, but we covered Barrett-Jackson and sports car stuff. It was really good experience because it got me into a corporate kind of atmosphere to see you have to go to an office and you have a desk and you’ve got co-workers. That was all kind of new to me. You have a salary. You have insurance. Those are things where you were struggling and you were worried about, but now you have them and that it was really nice.
So then, that becomes FOX Sports and then you kind of just ended up on there. But then that ends, and it looks bad for you yet again because it’s like, “Oh no, now has my path ended?”
I will say that when the Speed stuff ended, I was lucky enough to go work on the Miller Coors account with GMR. So I spent honestly, it was maybe a month or two on that account and then one of the folks over at FOX called me and said, “Hey, we’d love to have you come on.” And that initially started as somebody to help with social and upload stuff to the website, and that morphed into writing, and then the next thing you know I was writing with Tom Jensen as probably the No. 2 NASCAR guy on that website.
That had to be a pretty unbelievable time at that point in your life.
It really was. When your name and your byline is on the front page of FOXSports.com, it’s a pretty cool deal. You feel like, “Man, I’ve really kind of made it.” And during that time, I was lucky enough through (veteran writer) Ben White, who’s somebody I grew up reading and really admire, landed a book deal and was able to write a book (Start Your Engines: Famous Firsts in the History of NASCAR). That was a really cool part of my life and a really cool time.
The way the media had changed at that point, and the way that we were covering things, I wanted to do something different. I’d go out in the garage and spend a lot of my weekend working on a story. I’d write it and pour my heart and soul into it and I’d post it and then nobody would read it. And then we’d write something about social media and it’d just catch on fire. So I was getting a little frustrated with that and wanted to do something different.
I had something else lined up, so I left FOX, the other thing fell through, and then here I am again, up a creek without a paddle trying to figure out what I’m going to do.
Luckily through all the hard word I’ve had through the years, hooked up with NASCAR.com, did some freelance stuff up there, rewrote a lot of the content on the NASCAR Green website. And while I was doing that, I found out that RCR was looking. So, talked to folks like Jeff O’Keefe who’s now with Toyota and Traci Hultzapple who works with Ryan Newman on our team, and just gave them my resume, sent in my resume to the folks up there.
At the same time, I was talking to IndyCar about doing their social media. And their first question was, “How soon can you move to Indy?” Which is a big move. So I had about four or five interviews with IndyCar, and that would have been a cool experience, but I really wanted to stay in Charlotte, wanted to stay in NASCAR. I told RCR that. I interviewed one day and later that week they offered me that position, and next thing you know here I was again.
This has been a whole crazy experience, and it just goes to show that certain doors will open at times you don’t think they’re going to, but you gotta work hard to kind of kick them in every once in a while.
You’ve been at RCR for a couple of years now, and ultimately you started this season in victory lane at the Daytona 500. Did you take any time while you were there to sort of reflect and say, “Wow, not too many years ago I was sleeping in the parking lot here in my car just trying to get a chance?”
It’s really incredible. I mean, as many times as I’ve been to that track, I never thought that would be a possibility. I could remember as a kid, I had this VHS tape and it was like the highlights at Daytona. It starts with this little kid running around these with little Matchbox cars on the ground. Next thing you know, he’s running Late Models and next thing you know he’s in victory lane. It’s kind of what I thought about. Like man, this is cool, because I remember I used to get so hyped about the Daytona 500 on race day when I was like 8 years old, and here I am standing in victory lane.
You think of folks who are no longer with us like my grandmother, my aunt, my mom’s cousin, folks down in Alabama, and just like, “Man, this is really cool.” You also think of folks that helped you get there, folks like yourself, like Ray Everett, Joe Donatelli who helped me with All Left Turns and hooked me up with Playboy to write an article about NASCAR. It’s just cool that all those people got you to where you are, and helped you along that way.
I think I had one of those moments last year too with Hemric when we were going for the championship in Homestead. Like I probably couldn’t talk to anybody on the grid at Homestead because it was just like so emotional. Like, “Man, we might win a championship here.” So that was really cool.
People are reading this and they’re thinking, “Man, I’d love to do it but it’s not in the cards for me, I just can’t make it happen.” What do you tell those people? Can anybody who really wants to who’s reading this work in NASCAR and make it, in your opinion?
I think so. If you think you can’t make it, you’re not gonna make it. You have to just never take no for an answer. It’s funny that we’re doing this at Atlanta because this was actually the first racetrack I came to to work at with HardcoreRaceFans, and Curtis Key, who owned a Truck team at the time, hooked us up with Truck passes so I could only be here until Friday. I used to have to sneak into the media center, and one of the things that Ray Everett told me then was, “Just walk in like you own the place.”
And so it’s kind of how I’ve carried myself through this whole deal. Sometimes you gotta kick doors in, sometimes you’ve gotta be patient to let somebody else open it. You just have to work hard. I don’t think that’s just NASCAR, I’m thinking of just in life: You have to work hard for anything that you want, and never give up on your goals. If you do that well enough and you’re good enough to people, you’ll make it happen. It might not be what you envisioned it would be, but you just gotta take whatever opportunity comes your way.
Five thoughts after Sunday’s 60th running of the Daytona 500…
1. That’s racing
I’m sort of baffled by the outrage over Austin Dillon driving through Aric Almirola — after Almirola admitted he saw Dillon coming and threw a last-ditch block. There’s no sound reason behind the anger here, other than fans can’t stand Dillon and his perceived silver spoon background — while Almirola would have been a likable winner and feel-good story after last year’s broken back and transition to Stewart-Haas Racing.
I get that Dillon irritates fans (he doesn’t care, by the way; Dillon believes in the “as long as they’re making noise” philosophy), but geez. Seriously, folks? Take the emotion out of it for a second.
Dillon had a huge shot of momentum from a Bubba Wallace push when the Almirola block happened, and it was on the last lap of the freaking Daytona 500. So what was Dillon supposed to do, let off the gas and cut Almirola a break?
“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him, and not had this Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing,” Dillon said.
But even if he did lift, Dillon probably would have gotten turned by Wallace behind him.
After all, that’s what seemed to happen when Ryan Blaney blocked Chase Elliott in the first Big One (Elliott lost momentum, got loose and spun off Brad Keselowski, starting a pileup). And when Denny Hamlin blocked Kurt Busch in the last Big One, Busch lost his momentum and got turned by the air off Blaney’s nose.
As we saw throughout Speedweeks, superspeedway racing has evolved into a risky, ballsy game of chicken when it comes to blocking. Almirola had no choice but to throw that block — in hopes Dillon would somehow blink — and Dillon had no choice but to drive through him.
Unless he wanted to lose, of course.
“I had such a run,” Dillon said, “and I had to use it.”
2. A star is born
NASCAR got stuck in some political debates last year, which prompted outsiders to once again bring up stereotypes about the sport’s fans.
But the majority of race fans aren’t racist. How do I know? Because Bubba Wallace is quickly becoming one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR.
Fans at Daytona gave Wallace a loud cheer before the 500, and his high profile in the media this week (including a feature on ESPN, a six-part docu-series on Facebook and then some air time in front of the largest audience NASCAR has all year) allowed fans to take a closer look at whether they like him or not.
It certainly seems like they do. And it has everything to do with his personality, which is refreshing, energetic, fun, raw and real.
I mean, what other driver shows emotions like this?
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) February 19, 2018
If Wallace can do anything in the 43 car and is even halfway competitive, it will be massive for NASCAR. His profile only grow if that’s the case.
But Richard Petty Motorsports has a lot of work to do judging by last year’s results, and if Wallace doesn’t run in the top 10, he risks becoming another Clint Bowyer.
Fun guy, hilarious, great personality, people love him, but…
At the tweetup on Sunday, fans emphasized they seek the perfect combination of personality and results. A driver needs both to truly be a superstar.
Those who deliver in both ways are the types of drivers NASCAR needs to succeed. Wallace certainly has the personality; now we’ll see whether he can produce on the track.
3. For Blaney, wait til next year
This really seemed to be the Ryan Blaney 500, especially after so many other contenders wrecked out. It looked like Blaney had the strongest car and could do anything with it. He led 118 laps in playing the typical Keselowski role, a dominating performance on a day when no one else led more than 22 laps.
Blaney was leading a single-file line with 10 laps to go when William Byron spun in his damaged car, which brought out a caution that ultimately cost him the race after the ensuing restart.
“That stunk,” Blaney said of the caution. “That grouped everyone back together. I tried to block as best I could, but it’s just so hard when they’re coming so much faster than you.”
Still, a green-flag finish wouldn’t have guaranteed a Blaney win. He had the best car of those remaining, though that doesn’t mean everyone would have stayed in line. But he’ll always wonder.
“It definitely was going to get tough there, and it was starting to brew up to where people were going to start to go,” he said. “With five to go, it was probably crunch time — and we were five laps away from that.
“But I thought we could control the lead pretty good, and it just didn’t play out that way.”
4. Logic doesn’t prevail
I don’t know if this will go down as one of the best Daytona 500s ever, but it was certainly one of the most entertaining.
Honestly, it shouldn’t have been.
With drivers knowing their cars were less stable than in previous years thanks to the new rules package, it seemed running single-file (like in the Clash) would be the smart way to go.
It certainly would have been very boring, but logic dictates that’s what the drivers should have done in order to still be racing at the finish.
Instead, the drivers got all crazy over the end of Stage 1 and took out a bunch of great cars. Then more wild moves finally bit them just after the halfway point.
“It looked like everybody thought that was the finish of the Daytona 500 and it was really only lap 59 coming to 60,” Jimmie Johnson said of the first incident. “… I’m not sure everybody was thinking big picture and really using their head through that.”
I’m sure they weren’t. But I can’t really figure out why. Drivers had privately predicted a single-file race, perhaps even with several groups of six-to-12 car lines spread across the track. Then they would all go hard for the win at the end.
Instead, it seemed like the opposite happened in the first two stages. It was weird. Super entertaining, but weird.
Perhaps the start of a new season left everyone too antsy to use the patience required to make it to the finish, or maybe racers just can’t help themselves from racing hard — even when it’s not necessary at the time.
5. Underdogs shine
Speaking of those who patiently bided their time and made it to the finish, there were some surprise names who had solid results after others wrecked out.
Chris Buescher previously had only one top-10 finish at a restrictor-plate track in nine starts, but he finished fifth on Sunday.
Michael McDowell finished ninth to record his sixth career top-10 finish — five of which have come at Daytona.
Justin Marks had a surprising run in his first career Cup race at Daytona and finished 12th despite being one lap down.
Also, David Gilliland made his first Cup Series start since 2016 — and recorded a 14th-place finish, his first top-15 since the 2015 Daytona 500.
And finally, despite all the drama and questions about whether it could even get the car on the track, BK Racing got a 20th-place finish with Gray Gaulding. Not a bad day for a team that just filed for bankruptcy protection.