The Top Five: Breaking down the Daytona 500

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

1. That’s racing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless he wanted to lose, of course.

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

2. A star is born

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

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

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

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

I mean, what other driver shows emotions like this?

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

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

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

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

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

3. For Blaney, wait til next year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


4. Logic doesn’t prevail

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

Honestly, it shouldn’t have been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Underdogs shine

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 Questions with Austin Dillon

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Austin Dillon of Richard Childress Racing. Dillon got his first career win earlier this season and is 13th in the point standings with two races to go.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I would say 60/40 working at it compared to natural ability. I really feel like you’ve got to work almost double what you do as far as natural ability, because it only carries you so far. And if you keep working at it, you kind of get the muscle memory right and you start making the right decisions under pressure more than you do just naturally. It’s more of a luck thing when it comes naturally.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

Well, I’ve got all the new guys covered as far as coolness goes. I’m a pretty cool guy — just ask me. (Smiles)

I like being real, having fun with my boys, I just like to have a good time. I feel like I’m a pretty honest guy to say it how it is and I want to make NASCAR better when I leave it. That’s another big part of it: I want to give something back to this sport when I’m done with it.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

Definitely just traveling to sponsor appearances. Usually there’s probably one or two every week, just keeping up with those.

And then staying fresh for when you’re asked similar questions throughout the week and you’re just answering the same ones. You’re trying to not get frustrated if you have a week where the same questions are getting answered.

So somebody asks you a question one day about how your season’s going, and the next day it’s like, “How’s your season going” again? That kind of thing?

Yeah, for sure. And if an event happens — like making the playoffs — and you have to do like seven interviews in a row in an hour-and-a-half period or something like that, it’s literally just like I’m repeat. I wish I could get everybody to call in at once and just do one really good interview and that’s where it’s tough, because you’ve got to go through and say the same thing to everybody — because that’s truly the answer. But by the seventh one I’m just dead. I’m like, “I’m OK, the car’s driving good, hopefully we can have a good race.” The first one, I’m pretty witty and fun, but then it gets a little monotonous.

I actually always wonder how you guys do that, because I feel like I’d want to have a recorder I take out and be like, “Here’s what I just told this person,” and just play it, you know?

Exactly, and I think it would be cooler. The ones that I like is when everybody listens in on a conference call, that seems to go pretty well. But when you have to go to different radio stations across the state or a couple of states, it gets pretty bad.

4. Let’s say a fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah. I mean, I will sign for anyone. I think the best way to do it for a fan is don’t let me leave the table at the end. If I’m eating, just let me finish and then I’ll sign it. Usually that’s what happens. They’ll like, “Hey, big fan, Austin, can I get an autograph?” “Yes, as soon as I’m done, I’ll come sign.” So that works pretty good, where I’ll come to them if they ask.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

That’s a good question. I think the media could do a better job covering aero advantages you see on other cars, like getting more technical with our sport and finding the differences between cars. Like if you visually see something on a car, putting it out there earlier than what it usually (gets discovered) to help create an even more fair playground.

Then another story is the penalties. There’s no one that keeps tally, I feel like, of minutes of sitting out on pit road (during practice). I wonder who has the most minutes sitting out on pit road this year for being late through tech. And I bet it averages out where the top couple guys are some of the best guys in the sport. So the guys that are sitting on pit road the longest for missing practices or whatever it might be, for rolling around (through inspection) too many times, I bet if you look at that and tallied all those minutes up, it would come out with the pretty good guys at the top.

So it’s actually sort of a good thing because they’re pushing it?

Either that, or it’s telling you that they’re cheating the most to get the most. Is cheating rewarding the guys that are up front?

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

My brother (Ty) about 10 minutes ago. We were talking about fantasy football. We made a trade.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Entertainers on the track, yes. Away from the track, some of them aren’t entertainers. I feel like some are boring. Some are exciting and funny and have personalities, but some just don’t in my opinion. But all of them are entertainers when it comes to being on the track. Some of the most boring guys out of the race car are some of the most exciting in the race car.

What do we have to do to get the boring guys off the track to be more exciting?

I think make them feel comfortable to where if they do mess up or say something wrong, they’re not just shut down instantly from a fan standpoint. You’ve got a lot of fans supporting one, two, three guys and then one guy steps out of his comfort zone that’s not supported by all the fans, (he shouldn’t have to) feel like he’s going to ruin his career due to a fan base booing him.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

Man, mine flies all the time. I’ve got to do a better job with that, actually. It’s just when I’m mad, that’s just what happens. I know one thing, if I see the middle finger, I really fly hot in the race car because I want to get to that guy, move him or do whatever I can. But I don’t know, I wish I would just wave more. That would be better.

If you wave, people are like, “That could mean something else.”

Yeah, it could mean something else. And sometimes, I’ll throw the peace sign out the window and I don’t know if that’s just worse than the middle finger, like “See ya, guy.”

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Oh, for sure. I think certain guys you put in your head that have given you a break at certain periods of time. Tony Stewart was one of the best at it. If he was having a bad day and you were coming forward and he knew you were there, he would get out of your way pretty quick. But I’ll tell you what, if you didn’t have that same way of driving style on the way back when he was coming through, he would let you know really quick. So I think I knew in the back of my mind, “OK, he let me go really quick, I need to let him go.”

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I don’t know if this counts, but Donald Trump Jr. sat behind me once. Gary Player, I sat with him at a dinner. I don’t know. I’ve eaten with Dale Jr. — he’s pretty famous.

Man, I’m trying to think of somebody outside the sport who would be really cool. Oh, Jimmy Carter — former President. I ate lunch with him. So that was pretty cool.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

My (fiancee, Whitney Ward) says compassion. I need to have more compassion, so I’m working on that.

Like just for other people in general or what?

Yeah, I’m kind of black and white on certain situations, so I should be a little better — just a little easier, I guess, on certain people.

12. Last week I interviewed Danica Patrick. She wanted me to ask you: If you could live on Earth forever and eat the steak that’s on Earth and have your current life that’s on Earth and be happy, would you rather do that or would you rather take a risk and go to another planet where it’s potentially way happier? You don’t know what it’s going be, but you’ll be way happier than where you are now. Would you stay in your current Earth situation or go to this other planet?

And I’m happy with the steak where I’m at right now though? But it could just be way better at the other one? The potential is way higher, but it could also be bad.

Correct, yes. That’s what I understood from the question.

Man. I’m not a huge food guy — like food does not make or break me because I can eat about anything. So I would have to know more details when it came to if my fiancee was with me, if my family was gonna be there, if it was just for me. If my family’s still (on Earth) and I’m leaving them, I would stay. I would be eating the same ol’ steak, chilling. But if I could take my whole crew with me, if there’s an opportunity, I’d probably push for the opportunity.

The next interview is going to be with Landon Cassill. Do you have a question I can ask Landon?

If he could bring three sponsors into this sport to make it better, what would they be and why?

Social Spotlight with Brendan Gaughan

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their social media usage. Up next: Brendan Gaughan, who is currently 12th in the Xfinity Series point standings for Richard Childress Racing.

One thing I saw recently was, you got so mad after Mid-Ohio that you didn’t want to post on Twitter. You’re like, “I gotta keep myself from posting.” How often does that happen?

With me, not very often. I tend to normally keep most of my emotions in check, but I was pretty hot after Mid-Ohio. Nowadays everyone in the world wants to vent so quickly. It’s very easy, and sometimes you have to remember that sometimes easy isn’t the right thing to do. So yeah, I stayed off Twitter for a couple of days because I wasn’t real excited about what I would have said.

That was probably a smarter move, because I’m pretty notorious for screwing my life up with my mouth, and for a change, I kept it quiet. I like to say I’m pretty proud of that. I’m only 42 years old, and I finally got there.

So in general, when you’re not having that self control, are you on Twitter everyday?

I don’t tweet everyday. I take a peek at it and look around. Nowadays, like everybody, I get most of my news off of my Twitter account. You follow the things you are interested in and you get the information you want you see the news you want. So I definitely do look through it to get some of my news, some of the social commentaries of things.

But I’m not a guy that posts everyday or something like that. When I do post, it’s normally about personal life and some racing stuff or answer people that ask specific questions. I like being able to respond to fans with it. It’s fun to give them a little bit of access to where they can get ahold of you so quickly, so easily.

You don’t respond to all of them, like if someone says, “Hi.” Sorry. Hi, yes. There. If somebody comes with a real question or something, it’s enjoyable to interact with the fans on social media.

Compared to earlier in your career when that wasn’t an option, how much has this enhanced your enjoyment of the racing? Has that made the fan experience more fun for you?

Well, I mean, actually for the most part, it’s made it less fun, if you want the truth. Here’s the problem that I have with social media, and I try to tell the kids this: I am glad that I did not grow up in this era, because of the ugliness that is on social media, how easy it is for people to be ugly.

But what’s funny is, you look at people who we like to call haters. You look at the haters that are on an Internet site or on Twitter, and you look at their (accounts). They generally have nothing nice to say about any facet of life.

So you go through, you look at a guy that’s saying something nasty about you. And he knows absolutely nothing about you, but most of the time it’s just kind of like what all the old psychology books tell you: If they hate you, it’s because they’re probably jealous.

And so you look at some of the stuff. They’re bashing on a football team, they’re bashing on a cheerleader, they’re bashing on some actor. They don’t have one positive thing to say. And so if that gives this poor guy who’s living in his mom’s basement at 35 years old some peace and happiness, then you know what? If it makes him happy for a moment of the day, let him have it. Because that guy needs happiness way more. I have it in my life.

But it’s tough though, for these kids. They’re 18, 19, 17, and they come into the sport, and there’s so many things that can quickly be said, be seen, be found and it’s tough. You have to be very mentally strong, because no matter who you are, you’re gonna get nasty things said about you.

At 18 years old, man, without having the mentors — I was lucky, I had great mentors in my life and got to come into this later after I had learned a lot of life experience. So I feel comfortable with it. But man, a lot of these kids, it’s gonna be tough for them to really stay happy sometimes. So I always tell some of them to stay off it. But we can’t; it’s too much part of our business model now.

You have thicker skin and you’re used to dealing with critics over the years. But an 18-year-old, like you said, is not necessarily equipped to be thrown into the fire on that aspect. So what do you say to them? What’s your advice?

I mean, everybody’s different. You can’t wrap one answer to the whole world. If it’s somebody that’s very personal and likes to interact, then you tell them to keep interacting and when the negative stuff comes in, just roll right on by it. If you’ve got somebody that’s a little shier or doesn’t like it, then don’t respond to most things and just use it for your business model.

You gotta play it by every person’s personality. And if you’ve got somebody who’s snarky and a moron like me, likes to go back and forth sometimes, it’s fun to pick on the haters. It’s an amusing day. You can always tell when I’m really bored, days that I try to do some of that.

So it is one of those time sucks — that’s all we talk about in this day and age, the time sucks are amazing. Candy Crush and Facebook and Twitter. Really, it’s a giant time suck.

How do you personally deal with the haters? Do you pull out the block button a lot?

No, I only block if you say nasty things about kids, family, get really ugly and dirty. I don’t tend to respond or listen to fake accounts, the “Not So-and-So” accounts. I pay zero attention to them. As a matter of fact, most of them are muted. I use the mute button a lot because then you don’t have to see, you just don’t have to deal with it.

And they don’t even know.

But that’s an easier button because you don’t have to see it, you don’t have to worry about it, and even the ones that are positive, most of them that are fake. The Orange Cone, that’s the only (account like that) I pay attention to. But for the most part, I tend to mute most people who remain anonymous. That’s part of the problem with the world today — it’s way too easy to be anonymous.

That’s for sure. So in general, even if you’re not looking at social media the entire time, are you on your phone all the time? Is it in your hand a lot?

Yeah, I think I’m one of those guys who’s guilty of it being surgically attached to me. It’s pretty bad, but my wife gets mad about it and I get mad the kids are using it too much. Then it’s in my hand when I’m saying, “Don’t.” So it’s a little bit hypocritical on me, but it’s fine.

You and I are old enough to remember the days before we carried these in our pocket, before we had everything in the world at our fingertips. My family had an Encyclopedia Britannica with all the addendums. So I remember doing book reports, and that’s where you went. Nowadays, you just pick the phone up and you can find out just about anything, and it’s made it really easy for some.

I’ve been racing for 20-plus years in NASCAR, and I remember before you left (for a race), you had to get a road atlas and try to figure out how you’re getting from the hotel to the airport to the track. You had to figure it all out ahead of time.

So it’s fun. Even the haters are fun. What I get amused about with social media is you get the guys that are haters that want to say nasty things, especially in our world. You get race car drivers at local tracks that want to say what they want to say.

I do have one favorite one, and I’ll leave his Twitter account unnamed. He is a guy who’s always just trying to say nasty things about a lot of different drivers. But I’m one that he loves to do it with. I even said back to him one day, “My favorite part about this is I know you’re going to walk up to me at an appearance one day and say you’re a big fan.” And he’s like, “Blah blah blah.”

Well, I found out the racetrack he raced at and I found out who he was. Amazingly enough, he actually won a (contest) from one of RCR’s sponsors years ago. Like to come to a racetrack and be a guest — and this is a guy who bashes Austin (Dillon), bashes me, bashes all of us. And he won a (contest), and he showed up with a picture, sat in the autograph line for me and said he was a big fan. And I signed it to him saying, “Told you you’d sit in my line and be a big fan.”

So it’s amazing. That’s the one thing I would say about me: You know if I like you or not, I’ll let you know. I’m not gonna hide it. (Social media) allows personalities to come out, and when you do get those people who are keyboard warriors, as soon as they’re in person, that warrior stuff really goes away.

It’s so difficult to say something mean to somebody’s face, so once you have that personal interaction with them and you know there’s a real person on the other side of it, it’s not so easy.

I’m a psych minor in college, and one of my favorite experiments was learning about the study between what people would do if they pushed the button and you heard somebody screaming in the other room. If you didn’t hear them, everybody pushed the button, just about. If you did hear him, less (people pushed it). If you could see him, (even) less. If you were in the room with him, (even) less. And it’s amazing what breaking that barrier down (can do). And that was a study from the 60’s.

So now the phone is just a live model of that psychological experiment. It’s really easy to say things when people are not in your face, and when they get there, they’re your biggest fan.

Speaking of actual fans, it does help keep you close to people who are your closest fans. I know there’s this one woman, @dianeinla, she’s a huge fan of yours.

Diane’s my old scorer! She was my scorer back when we had scorers. She was an old scorer for us and she was a great lady who still is a fan, still comes to races. She’ll be at Road America with me.

And of course, we would be remiss if we did talk about positive fans and didn’t say Raeann (Plumley), the lady with the tattoos. Everybody knows Raeann as the tattoo lady, and she is very active on social media. That poor thing, she gets picked on a lot on social media. I love Raeann.

I talk a lot about the negatives, but a lot of the positives — there are a lot of great people in the world too, and you can really keep up. As a matter of fact, a girl who’s a big fan of mine, her name is Cherri Montgomery, she’s out there in Arizona. She’s a handicap girl, who back in the Winston West days, she used to show up with Cabbage Patch Kids of Ron Hornaday, of me, of Mike Snow, my old PR guy. And she has all these Cabbage Patch Kids and she’s this sweet little handicapped girl.

Just (last week), she had to go back to the hospital and had a bunch of problems. I don’t keep in touch with the family that often, but on social media, they were able to get ahold of me and say, “Cherri — she’s struggling today.”

So I tweeted her this afternoon and just tweeted her a message of, “Hey, love you, miss you, you’re doing fine. Get up, walk, never give up. I don’t wanna hear this (excuses) crap. And then watch the race tonight.”

And they sent a picture to me two minutes later of her walking down the hallway. So there’s so many great things that come from social media, too, so you can’t ever let the negativity ruin something that can be so good and kind.

We talked mostly about Twitter, but do you use other forms of social media regularly?

You know, it all started because NASCAR really embraced social media before anybody in the professional sports world, and I wouldn’t have known anything about it except for they wanted us to start trying to use Twitter. That was six years ago, seven years ago or something and started using that.

I do Instagram; I do not have Facebook. So anything out there saying that’s me on Facebook, that’s not me. That’s all I really do social media-wise: Instagram and Twitter.

Last safety stop. Awesome dive and Operation Dog Tag was a success ???? #lakenormanscuba #scubadiving

A post shared by Brendan Gaughan (@brendan62) on

I’ve got too many jobs. It’s amazing how so many people have time in their lives. I have too many jobs; I gotta actually go to work. This next week, I’m in Mesquite on Monday at the CasaBlanca, our casino. On Tuesday, a new company I’m starting, we’re doing a big deal at the South Point in the hotel towers. Wednesday, I’ve gotta do a deal with my liquor company. So I’ve got too (little) time to spend to spend any more on social media.

Any last thoughts as far as the future goes? Like we’ve talked about how it is now. What do you think is next for social media?

God only knows, man. The technology world is so quick nowadays. One minute a computer is new, and the next minute it’s archaic and you’ve already got the next thing. So technology goes so fast now, it’s amazing that Facebook and Twitter are still making it. Who knows what the next one is going to hold: holograms and God knows what else. It’s an ever-changing world and the people who keep up with it will keep growing.

This interview was brought to you by Dover International Speedway. The cutoff race for the first playoff round takes place at Dover on Oct. 1. Here’s a link to buy tickets (and make sure to come say hi at the tweetup).

12 Questions with Daniel Hemric

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Daniel Hemric of Richard Childress Racing’s Xfinity Series team. I spoke to Hemric at Richmond International Raceway. This interview is available as a podcast and is also transcribed below.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

I feel like for myself, the natural ability was always there, but given my upbringing and having to work on my own cars and build my own race cars and do all that stuff, I had to work at it — like work extremely hard at it.

As you get to this level, it seems like that is even more of a difference. So even if the natural ability is there, you’re also talking about, what, the top 120something best guys at this in the world? So you gotta have both sides of that in order to succeed.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years, and now Dale Jr. will be retiring. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

I consider myself kind of like an old-school asphalt racer of those guys’ style because of just working on my own stuff and having to do it a different way from hard work and knowing the ins and outs of a race car — not just the showing up part of the racing. And that’s something that I felt has kind of set me (apart) to hopefully have fans from Dale Jr. and Tony Stewart.

Those (fans) who are looking for someone to attach themselves to: Do it with a guy that’s had to come up in kind of the same route in order to work hard to get to where they’re at. I try to pride myself on that, and hopefully it gives all the other kids opportunities that were in the same situation I am, fighting tooth and nail for their lives in order to have the opportunity of getting into a race car.

For me to be able to do that, I hope to help other kids do that someday and hopefully (fans) get attached to that.

Do you think knowing the car in and out so well can give you an advantage when you’re giving feedback to your crew chief, whether it’s for race setups or during a race?

Yup, I feel like that’s something my crew chief Danny Stockman and I actually live and breathe off of. The new package in the Xfinity Series, the new car for myself — we’re at Race No. 8 here in Richmond, and we’re kind of both learning on the go. So just the little stuff I’ve done, especially when we go short-track racing that has helped me in other style of vehicles, I feel like has applied and continues to apply as our relationship becomes better and better.

So I like to think that it gives me a little bit of the upper hand compared to a lot of the other younger guys as they’re trying to make a name for themselves here in the series.

The backside of that is sometimes you get in a situation where you’re trying to do too much of that, knowing the race car and stuff, so you’ve got to know when to disconnect from that.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

I think from other levels, short-track racing to get to this level, there was never any time. I know a lot of guys say, “Oh, we never have enough time to do what we want to do during the week.” I kind of disagree with that because I remember the sleepless nights, building race cars all night, getting up and driving the truck to the racetrack.

So for me, it’s knowing what to do with the time, not having to come home every night to clean your fingernails and scrub your hands just to go to dinner with the wife and go back to the shop. It’s knowing what to do with that spare time that has allowed me to take on some other endeavors in life.

So you have too much time, or you have more free time than you’re used to?

Yeah, I wouldn’t say too much, but I have more free time than I’ve been accustomed to over the last 10 to 15 years, trying to make a name for myself in racing. But it’s allowed me to take on some other sports and pay attention to other world news and stuff like that. It’s something I never did growing up, so I’m trying to reconnect with stuff that I’ve lost out on in the past.

What’s something you’ve picked up with your additional time?

Golf is one thing that I never saw myself doing, but a round of golf is four to four-and-a-half hours, no matter how you want to look at it, so that’s something I’ve tried to take to. And it’s also helped in racing a little bit, just how you can mentally take yourself in and out of the game really quick. So I’ve tried to connect to that.

Throughout that, I’ve made some great relationships: I’ve had the pleasure of playing with Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) and (Kyle) Larson a couple of times, and Christopher Bell’s a good golf buddy of mine, so all of us kind of go in together and it’s something I’ve really enjoyed.

In golf, you only have yourself to blame if something goes wrong, and you can get mad at yourself in a hurry, you know?

Yeah, I had an old golfer tell me something just two weeks ago that made me think about it. Golf’s four-and-a-half hours, but the backside of that is you’re only playing for 90 seconds. Your backswing and your full swing is three-tenths of a second, so in 90 seconds, you can completely be in left field or at where you need to be. So I thought that was a pretty good analogy.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Absolutely. I feel like with where our sport’s at today, having those one-on-one encounters is gonna go further than maybe doing some meet-and-greets with large groups of people.

First off, if somebody notices me, that’s a plus in itself. I’m trying to do what I’m trying to do here. But on the backside of that, if I’m taking the time to make their encounter that much more special, it can lead to them trickling your name throughout other people (and) their family, which can lead to a big following. So come see me.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I think it’s everything behind the scenes. For me, I get a chuckle over a lot of the sponsorship stuff and how late some of these deals get put together.

A lot of people from the outside in, just the casual fans of the sport, don’t realize that there’s been plenty of times in all three garages, Truck, Xfinity and Cup, where cars are getting wrapped during the midnight oil and all that stuff, and (fire)suits are getting embroidered and all that stuff that makes the deal go around. A lot of people don’t get to see that side of it, so people in the background, they don’t get all the credit they need.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

The last driver I texted…here, let me look to be sure. I don’t wanna lie to you.

Brad Keselowski (his former team owner in the Truck Series). He’s the guy I always try to shoot a text to here and there, especially going to a new racetrack for the first time. And having a great relationship with him from running his truck, he’s always there to help me with what to look for and what not (to look for), so he’s the guy I always text.

So is he still willing to give advice?

Yeah, Brad’s honestly given some of the best advice, in my opinion. I know that I have a ton of depth in my RCR group as teammates, but Brad — doing all the things he’s done in the sport and being so successful in doing it a lot of the same way I’ve tried to come up doing it — he understands the trials of trying to jump in and not only go fast and perform, but do it at new places and do it in a quick manner.

It’s a lot to take in, so he kind of helps prep me on what to look for, what not to look for and how to get the balance of the race cars right. Just helping me do what I can do in the seat and trying to let the crew guys worry about the race car.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Note: I forgot to ask this question. My bad!

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

You know, I think I’ve thrown two or three middle fingers out the window over time, I’d say more so in lapped traffic, going through those situations.

But when you’re racing a guy really hard and he’s not giving you any room, even for position or for the lead lap, I find a casual deuces out the window is more of a, “Hey, watch this, watch me drive away from you,” remark. I feel like it makes more of a remark than a middle finger.

So you’re like “peace out?”

That’s exactly right.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Yeah, I think so. I feel like in the Truck Series, the racing was root and gouge. And the way the downforce in the trucks are, without getting too in-depth with the aero stuff, you can’t really get much room, so you find a lot of those enemies and things you want to pay back.

But in the Xfinity Series, having RCR and pretty much six cars, at the racetrack, we’re around each other a lot. So a guy like me and Austin Dillion spend a lot of time racing each other this year, and he’s a really smart racer at letting me go at times. We’ve both found each other in the situation of playing give and take throughout the course of the year.

Yeah, it’s crazy; you never forget all that stuff and it does go a long way.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I’d have to call it lunch, but I had a casual lunch in the hauler in my first year in the Truck Series (when) I was teammates with Travis Pastrana. It was such an interesting, crazy excitement, and the guy’s just always wound up.

I had a hard time eating and following where we were going with our conversation, but man, he’s such a cool dude and so down to earth, it was definitely an experience to sit down and have some time with that guy. Hopefully I can do a couple more of those.

It’s crazy how some of the bigger people in life don’t have the larger-than-life personality. I remember that Pastrana was so chill.

He was so chill, and if you can keep him on focused on what we’re talking about, it’s as good as it can get.

As we’re talking here, my mind goes one other place. It wasn’t a dinner, but just recently I had the opportunity to go to one of the top five biggest tennis matches in the world. I know nothing about tennis, but hell, I looked right, and three rows over sitting next to me is Bill Gates. I thought, “Man, here’s a kid from Kannapolis, North Carolina and Bill Gates is sitting less than 20 yards from me. Where am I at? How have I gotten here?” So that was pretty cool.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

You know, I keep going back to the short track side of things, but you work all the time, and the healthy eating is hard to follow suit. At this level, working on yourself, studying races, doing all that stuff — that’s just stuff that I live for and thrive on, and working out I love. But I feel like I work out so I can eat what I want. I love food, I just wish I could figure out a way to get a more healthy lifestyle that way.

What are some of your guilty pleasure foods?

In downtown Mooresville, there’s JJ Wasabi’s Japanese restaurant. That’s my go-to. My wife Kenzie (Ruston) gets mad because I probably eat there three or four times a week and have no shame over it. But that’s my go-to.

12. The last interview was with Elliott Sadler. His question is: Should (NASCAR) draw a pill and invert a certain number of starting starts right before the green flag? So the polesitter would come out and draw a pill and then they invert X amount of spots. Would you be down with that?

Yeah, Elliott coming from a short track background (like) myself, that’s normal at a regular Friday or Saturday night local show. To go up and have six or eight Coke cans sitting on the wall and have a fan come down and flip one over and there’ll be a Sharpie number, you know, one through six or eight, and that’s where you’re gonna start whether you’re the fastest qualifier or eighth, you could be on the pole.

I don’t like the (full) inversion, but I like where you pick your random spot and you don’t know where or who you’re gonna be around. So I’d be all for that at some of the races, where we’re looking to amp everybody up a little bit.

I don’t know who the next interview is with, but do you have a general question that I can ask another driver?

I’d like to know maybe from one of the guys who maybe haven’t had to come up through it like Elliot Sadler or myself or Brad Keselowski — maybe one of the guys who had financial backing at a younger age — how do they transform from being that guy to being a guy who’s known for his own ability and not that paycheck?

So basically, how do you overcome the money guy perception?

Yeah, how do you overcome the perception of, “His daddy got him there,” or, “His sponsor got him there,” to, “This guy here means business, he’s gonna be here for a long time.”

This 12 Questions interview is sponsored by Dover International Speedway. If you’re planning to attend the Dover race next month, please consider using my ticket link. Thanks!

12 Questions with Ryan Newman

The 12 Questions interview series continues with Phoenix race winner Ryan Newman, who spoke with me earlier this month at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

50-50. I guess you want to me to elaborate.

If you don’t mind.

I think you have to have a natural ability, otherwise you just aren’t ever going to get it. It’s no different than any other sport or any other pastime or any other job. But at the same time, in order to be as good as other people, you have to work at it. And that all depends on how gifted you are from the beginning. So the most gifted don’t have to work at it as much.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have all retired in the last couple years —

Carl didn’t retire. He has not said the ‘R’ word.

He’s gone for now.

He quit.

He quit.

When you quit, you stop. Which means you might come back. So he hasn’t retired.

So let me rephrase this. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards are not here —

Correct. Even though I just saw Jeff in the bus lot.

OK, let me try this again. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards might be here, but —

They’re not driving. They aren’t driving this weekend.

They might be driving a rental car though, to you use your logic.

They aren’t driving a race car. They aren’t competing on the racetrack this weekend.

OK, that’s fair. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

There is no pitch. You either enjoy racing and you like to watch a good race and you pull for the winner, or you don’t. That’s how Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Carl gained their fans. It wasn’t because they just combed their hair a certain way. Really, it’s not. It’s about who you are and how you win.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

It’s a loaded question, because the “hardest” can be the hardest physically or the hardest mentally. To me, it’s more about all the other things that go along with it. As much as I looked forward to signing my first autographs when I started at Penske, it’s not that I hate it now, it’s just that I dislike it. It’s just too redundant; I don’t like redundancy. So I’d say probably redundancy in what I do is probably the thing I dislike the most.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

After I’m done eating, absolutely. That’s what it’s all about. But I enjoy my meal just like they do and don’t want to be interrupted.

So if you have food on your plate, come back a little later.

Right, yeah. There’s a lot of people that get it and there’s a lot of people that don’t get it. And the ones that get it, we appreciate.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

I would have to say the depth of what it takes to put on a race. So you talk about the cars, you talk about the spoilers, you talk about the aero package or the restrictor plate or whatever else, but you don’t talk about everything that goes into making it happen — every facet of our shop, the people, what goes into it. It’s more than just a race car showing up on a hauler and 15 guys making it happen. I think that depth is always lost and will probably be always lost to the extent that it needs to be detailed.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

I think it was Stewart.

Does he still count as a driver? You might dispute that logic.

He’s still a driver. He drives.

He’s not a NASCAR race car driver.

No, you said driver. You didn’t say (NASCAR).

See, right there — Monday. (Newman shows a racing cartoon they texted. It’s a picture of a small desert island and one of the guys has a sprint car. The caption says, “Almost every other guy I know would have built a boat.”)

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Yeah. I think the byproduct of what we do is entertainment; therefore, we are entertainers. I don’t think it’s our intention to go out and be an entertainer.

I like your logical approach to these answers. You just break it down very precisely.

Well that’s what questions are for — logical approaches.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I use it when necessary.

How often is necessary?

I’m still confused on if you get penalized for it or not. I think it has to be direct. Is that the rule now? Maybe you can clarify.

I don’t think you can get penalized for using your middle finger on the track. If you use it outside the car, I bet they might say something.

You’re still flipping it out the window, so you’re broadcasting it. If you’re flipping off the official, then…

Well, the official, yeah.

Either way, it’s still in the car. There’s a little gray area in there still. They leave it open to potential income.

So if you got some clarification on the rule, you might use it more often.

I don’t like to use it, so…but yes. I would at least like to know what it wouldn’t cost me.

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

Oh yeah. I mean, that list is way shorter than the other list, but yeah. I remember watching races, when Stewart won his championship there at Homestead, it just seemed like everybody was like, “Go for it, man — it’s all you.” Not to say that was wrong, but there’s times when it definitely looks like your payment comes back to you all at once.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I don’t know. My wife. (Laughs)


11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

That’s a real good question. I would have to say if I could control my own social media without getting in trouble for controlling my own social media, that would be good.

You’re looking at Traci (Hultzapple), your PR rep.

(To Traci) Right? I mean, you’d like that, but then you wouldn’t like that.

12. The last interview was with Dale Earnhardt Jr., and his question is: “Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?”

Punchable, as in you just want to punch them in the suckhole? I think the majority — and when I say majority, I mean the fans — would say Kyle Busch.

Would you like to punch Kyle in the face?

I have no reason to punch him in the face, but I think if you just go off the majority, then he’s the one.

The next interview is with AJ Allmendinger. Do you have a question I can ask AJ?

AJ, if you could build a racetrack — either a road course or an oval — what would the ideal racetrack be in your mind?

The Top Five: Breaking down the Phoenix race

Each week, I’ll give some race analysis through a post called the Top Five — notable storylines from the just-completed event. This week: Phoenix Raceway.


Well, how about THAT? Luke Lambert’s strategy call — which seemed like a total Hail Mary to most of us — actually worked, and Ryan Newman ended up with his first victory since Indianapolis in 2013. That’s 127 races ago! Heck, Richard Childress Racing hadn’t won a race since Kevin Harvick left the team for Stewart-Haas Racing.

Did anyone see this coming? Certainly not me.

So was Lambert making an educated guess or just taking a total gamble? Well, Lambert had looked at the data — and Newman was the best car on long runs throughout the race. That gave him faith the tires would hold up enough to give Newman a shot.

“I figured our best opportunity to win the race was to put the car out front and see if Ryan could make it wide enough,” Lambert said. “I can’t say I felt confident we would win the race, but I felt confident we’d at least have a shot. And I felt we wouldn’t be able to do anything else to give ourselves that opportunity.”

Inside the car, Newman recalled the sketchy restart last fall here — and realized there was a chance he could get taken out if he wasn’t careful. So his first priority was to just get a good enough start to have some clearance going into Turn 1 — and deal with whoever was behind him after that.

But with Kyle Larson in his mirror on fresh tires, Newman thought he might be toast. The No. 31 car, though, was stronger than expected (after all, it had been running top 10 prior to the strategy call).

“We had a good car, and it was the first time all day we put some clean air on it,” Newman said. “It was just a matter of putting those things together and showing y’all what we had.”

Larson the amazing

Kyle Larson is the latest example of the 2.5-year rule for new Cup drivers. Basically, young drivers either figure out how to find speed within the first 2.5 years of their career — or perhaps never get any better.

Everything seemed to click for Larson midway through last year, and he’s been a much more reliable contender ever since. These days, he’s one of the best drivers in the series — and the points leader!

Larson has now finished second in four straight non-plate races. That’s Homestead, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

And despite getting close to wins, Larson said the runner-up results aren’t getting tiresome — yet.

“I’m sure if I ran second for the next eight weeks, yeah, it’s probably going to grow old,” Larson said. “But it’s so cool to be one of the fastest cars every week. … I just hope we can continue to work hard, be consistent, be mistake‑free on pit road and on the racetrack. If we can just keep doing that, the wins are going to come.”

Everything isn’t great

When Kyle Busch’s team informed him Joey Logano’s tire had blown with five laps to go, Busch said, “Trust me — I know.”

Afterward, Busch was asked by why he said that.

“I knew there was a going to be a tire blown because we haven’t made it past 44 laps in any run today without one being blown, right?” Busch said, practically biting his lip to stop himself from saying more.

It had to be a bitter pill for Busch to swallow — his recent nemeses Joey Logano and Goodyear essentially combined to cost him a race (although it wasn’t either of their faults directly; Logano melted a bead with excessive brake heat).

But just when it looked like Busch would go from puncher to victor in a week, it was he who ended up getting socked in the gut once again.

That’s the brakes for Logano, Dale Jr.

Two of the recent Phoenix race winners — Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — were expected to be contenders on Sunday. But that never materialized.

Logano couldn’t recover from a speeding penalty after he developed brake problems, eventually blowing a tire that caused the final caution. And Earnhardt had similar issues with his brakes, meaning he had to tiptoe around the track.

“The car just got to where I couldn’t get into the corner the way I needed it to,” Earnhardt said. “The last half of the race, the brake pedal was just almost to the floor. A couple of times it was on the floor going into the corner — pretty scary.

“The whole last 50 to 60 laps, I was pumping the brakes on all the straightaways to keep the pedal up so I would have some brakes for the corner and lifting really early. We just couldn’t run it hard enough to get up there and do anything with it.”

Toyota young guns shine

Despite seeing Busch’s win chances vanish, it wasn’t all bad for Toyota. The manufacturer’s two rookies — Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones — both got their first career top-10 finishes after different strategy calls on the last pit stop.

Suarez finished seventh after taking two tires and Jones finished eighth after taking four. Regardless of how they got there,  the results were much-needed confidence for Suarez and validation for Jones’ consistently speed to start the year.

“We didn’t have the speed, and the communication wasn’t great,” Suarez said of the first couple weeks. “We’ve been working hard trying to build chemistry, communication, and we have for sure been getting better.”

That communication was key to improving the car while also gaining track position on Sunday.

And Jones had to power through feeling sick, as he received two bags of IV fluids Saturday night after the Xfinity race.

“We’re going to have ups and downs, good weeks and bad weeks from here on out, but this is definitely a good week and one we can soak up for a minute,” he said.


Brendan Gaughan recalls time with Allen Iverson

When Allen Iverson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last fall, he mentioned Brendan Gaughan along with a lengthy list of thank-yous.

Gaughan was teammates with Iverson for two years at Georgetown University, a reserve whose primary job was to make Iverson miserable in practice.

“It went bad for him and bad for me some days,” Gaughan recalled during Daytona 500 media day on Wednesday. “I was allowed to hold my own with him (in practice); we had certain rules that didn’t apply to games.”

Gaughan said one of Iverson’s crossovers literally broke his ankle at one point — at least in the form of a bone chip and torn ligaments.

“I made sure he paid for that, though,” Gaughan said with a smile.

Gaughan downplayed how much impact he had on Iverson’s Hall of Fame career, but is proud of the player who he still calls a friend.

“I like to say (the success) is all because of me, personally,” he said with a grin. “But I don’t think I can take much credit for that.”

Gaughan isn’t about to try and prove himself on the court today, though. A driver who talks trash and wants to take Gaughan on in a game of one-on-one is likely to be turned down.

“I got to guard one of the NBA’s greatest point guards of all time, so I’ve got nothing to prove against any NASCAR driver who thinks he can pick up the basketball,” he said.