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Doug Turnbull's Race Blog

    There were many questions heading into this Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 race weekend. The majority of those centered around the first look at part of NASCAR’s new handling/horsepower package for the Cup cars. The predictions varied about some idiosyncrasies with drafting, but by Sunday morning, there seemed to be a common coda in the garage: restarts really matter and the long runs would look like the same Atlanta Motor Speedway races from the past. Those prophecies were spot on.  The restarts were bananas. Qualifying and practice made the Team Penske cars look like garbage, but they shot out of a cannon on the restarts on race day. Eventual race winner Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, and Joey Logano all seemed to ascend into the top 10 or 15 in the blink of an eye. Kevin Harvick, the defending race winner, also took very little time climbing from his 18th starting spot to the top 10. These drivers were among those that really made hay when the field was bunched up. A crew chief told me this morning these cars in this package take a lap or two to get wound up, similar to a restrictor plate.  But once the cars get settled in their positions, the running order did not change dramatically. The second place car seemed to have a better shot at catching the leader than did other cars behind them in traffic. Some drivers seemed to work the draft, even with lapped vehicles, to get that desperately needed push to add to their momentum. But making up lost spots over the course of a run was incredibly difficult.  Kyle Larson led a race-high 142 laps, but never could climb the whole ladder from outside the top 20. He finished 12th. Pole sitter Aric Almirola took the entire race to overcome his early speeding penalty. And if drivers made wrong moves on restarts, they were stuck in purgatory.  The tire fall off and multiple groove characteristics at AMS normally produced long green flag runs with little incident, which certainly was the case in Sunday’s race. But past races also saw drivers displaying more abilities to come on strong or fall off during runs. Tire management still played a huge role in the Cup race, but spotters and crew chiefs generally told drivers to not burn their tires up chasing a car they couldn’t catch in dirty air.  Dirty air played a big factor in Martin Truex Jr.’s not being able to catch Keselowski in the closing laps. Truex Jr. fumed over Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s lapped car holding the bottom lane and dirtying the 19 car’s air. This kept Truex Jr. at bay long enough for Keselowski to win. Keselowski said after the race that he probably could have only held Truex Jr. off for two or three more laps.  The coda in the garage leading up to the race was that Atlanta was a unicorn. The other tracks that would run this package (except Darlington) would have the front air dams to manipulate the air differently and those tracks would also have far less tire wear.  With the air dams and the lack of tire fall off at most of the other tracks, drivers may be able to hold their cars wide open for most of the runs. This could create some big packs with drafting and the restarts will almost certainly be wild. But we saw at AMS that clean air was absolutely king. Drivers seemed aggravated post-race at how little they really could do to determine their outcomes and make up spots on long green flag runs. The real real test of the package comes this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Will the front air dams make clean air less important? That is a must for this new package to be a success. 
  • If the NASCAR media corps took a shot for every time we uttered the word “package” Friday, we would be as drunk as we are sugar-buzzed in the QuikTrip-laden media center. The rules package for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is a radical departure from what the series has been running. At tracks greater than a mile, Cup cars are running a higher spoiler (to create more drag), a bigger front splitter (for more downforce), and engines with a greater tapered spacer (to choke horsepower down 200 counts to 550). This is all in hopes of keeping the pack closer together on race day, hopefully creating more meaningful passes for position.  After a few tests and months of speculation, the MENCS cars took to the track for practice and qualifying Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Since the cars were in qualifying trim for the bulk of the session, drivers still didn’t get a feel for how long they would be able to run laps wide open around AMS’ worn, 22-year-old surface. Only Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and his teammate Erik Jones ran 10 or more consecutive laps.  The Stewart-Haas Racing Fords of Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola led the session. Afterwards, drivers didn’t seem to agree on how the race or qualifying would unfold. Crew chiefs and engineers may very well hold those cards.  As qualifying for Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 got underway just after 5 p.m., the skies had darkened, the wind picked up, and the temperatures were far cooler than the lunchtime practice. Speculation about how the draft would come to play in group qualifying went mostly out the window. Cars generally laid down laps without drafting. But drivers, however, had to hit the track quickly, as the three rounds had shortened to 10, 10, and five minutes a piece. Some drivers did flirt with drafting. Hamlin and teammate Martin Truex Jr. ran about a car length apart in Round Three, timing into the show 3rd and 9th.  Momentum seemed to be the biggest decider. Drivers began using their warm up laps to gain speed on the high line and the fastest ones hugged the yellow line on the bottom of the turns on lap two. This netted Almirola his second-career pole (first since the 2012 Coca-Cola 600), with a speed of 181.473 mph. Kyle Busch won the pole year ago at 184 mph and speeds in 2018 topped 186 in Round One of that qualifying session.  For the decrease in horsepower, the decrease in speed is very small. This shows how much engineers and mechanics have already figured out to keep the corner speeds up and compensate for the rules change. While some smaller teams had decent qualifying efforts - Michael McDowell was 12th, Matt DiBenedetto 20th, Ty Dillon 21st, David Ragan 22nd, and Corey Lajoie 24th (he was 13th in Round One) - the cream generally rose to the top.  The Penske Fords were nothing like their counterparts at Stewart-Haas. Brad Keselowski was 19th, Ryan Blaney 26th, and Joey Logano 27th. And while SHR’s Almirola, Bowyer, and Daniel Suarez were 1st, 3rd, and 5th, defending AMS winner Kevin Harvick was only 18th.  Roush Fenway Racing looked very stout with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. placing 2nd and Ryan Newman 13th. And Richard Childress Racing is looking better than it has in a while, as Austin Dillon qualified 10th and was 3rd in practice. His rookie teammate Daniel Hemric was only 28th.  Teams will switch to racing trim for happy hour practice and prepare for Sunday’s race. But AMS is a different animal than other tracks, because of tire wear. Drivers speculated that next weekend’s Las Vegas race may see cars running wide open much of the time. In fact, many likened this package (drink) to how the Gander Outdoor Truck Series races. Skip around on this video and watch how that Truck race at Vegas played out a year ago. It was quite entertaining.  So whatever transpires Sunday, fans shouldn’t read too deep into it. Atlanta races totally different than other tracks and doesn’t run the front air dams that tracks like Vegas will. And by the time the Cup Series completes its West Coast swing in a month, drivers and crews will have more data to bolster their fleets and their strategy and change the complexion of the races soon enough.  Listen to the Performance Racing Network on GoPRN.com and the PRN app for live coverage of the Rinnai 250 Xfinity Series race at 1:30 p.m. Saturday and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at 1 p.m. Sunday. The Gander Outdoors Truck Series runs at 4:30 p.m. Saturday on the Motor Racing Network. Hear Turnbull’s interviews with Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Corey Lajoie, Reid Wilson, Matt Tifft, Daniel Hemric, and Austin Hill on a bonus episode of the “Five to Go” racing podcast. 
  • Sure, people complained about the type of racing NASCAR drivers delivered through most of Speedweeks. The single-file, follow-the-leader parades that were the Advanced Auto Parts Clash, the Gander RV Duels, and the Xfinity Series race were boring and even some drivers didn’t understand why more of their brethren weren’t taking chances passing on the low line. And then there was the bloodbath of a Gander Outdoors Truck Series race that saw only nine of 32 entries finish. And a litany of late race wrecks made the last ten laps last an hour in Sunday’s Daytona 500. But the Great American Race delivered a show on levels many weren’t expecting.  First, most of Sunday’s 207 laps (remember that seven were run in NASCAR Overtime) saw the pack staying two-wide and many rows deep. Passing the leader was still difficult, as the two lead cars could usually push themselves away from the pack enough to keep the challenging rows at bay. But, save a large portion of the 60-lap Stage 2, this Daytona 500 displayed the kind of racing many expect at this track and Talladega. Pit strategy, handling, and executing the precise moves also came into play, meaning the race would not crown some random winner. The Daytona 500 belched more storylines than a clogged interstate does smog on a summer day. First, Denny Hamlin’s second triumph in the sport’s biggest race helps silence the whispers about his future in the No. 11 FedEx Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, after a winless 2018 campaign. Hamlin ran near the front most of the day and did so with Chris Gabehart in his first race as the No. 11 team crew chief. Hamlin won the 2016 500 in Mike Wheeler’s first race in the same role.  The Joe Gibbs Racing angle may be the biggest story of the weekend and is certainly the most sentimental. Gibbs’ son, J.D., passed away at age 49 in January. J.D. ran the team for over two decades, until a neurological illness began diminishing him mentally in 2015. There was a tribute to J.D. Gibbs on lap 11, because that is the number Gibbs used when he raced part-time. To have not just a Gibbs car win, but the No. 11 of Hamlin’s is what Coach Joe called the greatest night of his occupational life. He has won three Super Bowls as a head coach and now three of NASCAR’s “Super Bowls”. JGR cars finished 1-2-3, only the second a time a team has done that in Daytona 500 history.  Speaking of, racing virtuoso Kyle Busch finished 2nd and was leading for much of the later part of the event. In fact, the No. 18 M&M’s Chocolate Bar Toyota led 37 laps. But Hamlin grabbed the lead right before the last yellow flag and held him at bay until the end. Busch has 51-career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins, placing him 11th-most of all-time and second only to Jimmie Johnson (83 wins) among active drivers. But Busch is now 0 for 15 in the Daytona 500, a race that has held many of the sport’s greats at bay. He has come close before and likely will again. Regardless, his frustration was awfully palpable post-race.  The race’s giant wrecks eliminated many entries, leaving only 19 running at the finish and 14 on the lead lap. But damaged cars still got good finishes. Erik Jones (3rd) drove up from 7th in the last two laps and came back from being a lap down and having heavy rear end damage. Johnson (9th) had the left rear shredded from his car as he came to pit road and Tyler Reddick got wrecked into him. The fuel nozzle was dangling. Then Johnson got damage on the other corners of his No. 48 Ally Chevy in the race’s other big wrecks. He rallied back to score a top 10 in his first race with new crew chief Kevin Mendeering. Kyle Larson (7th) was in about four different wrecks and Ryan Newman (14th) rode the last nine laps (two under green flag) on the inner liner of his tire that he cut down with the damaged part of his car. His damaged vehicle policy clock was down to 30 seconds and he wasn’t able to run a full lap at minimum speed to reset it.  And, as is often the case in plate races, underdogs shined. Matt DiBenedetto’s first race in the JGR-affiliated No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Toyota saw him lead the most laps in the race, but get turned by Paul Menard with ten laps to go, triggering the 22-car melee that eliminated both them and many others. Michael McDowell finished 5th, driving from the back to the front after a pit penalty. Rookie Ryan Preece must play darts or sew, because he drove right through the heart of two big wrecks to put his No. 47 Kroger Chevy in 8th. And Ross Chastain brought Premium Motorsports a 10th-place finish, also rallying from two laps down at one point. Chastain ran all three races on the weekend and placed well.  Conflict arose post-race, as Joey Logano (4th) confronted McDowell verbally for making the wrong move and costing both Ford drivers the win. McDowell told the media afterwards that his job isn’t to push Logano to the win. He also said that other Fords were not friendly to him during the race.  Saturday’s Xfinity Series race crowned a first-time winner in journeyman veteran Michael Annett. After a couple of years of struggling in good equipment, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that he and others had to get Annett into a more confident mind state. Annett had driven for years in backmarker cars and was arriving at races just absolutely thinking he couldn’t win. Annett said that he saw the trophy in the driver’s meeting and thought he absolutely could win this race. And the win was redemptive for crew chief Travis Mack, who left the Hendrick Motorsports umbrella in 2018 to partner with Kasey Kahne at the No. 95 Leavine team; he left mid-season and joined Annett.  Friday’s NGOTS race also crowned a first-time winner in Austin Hill, a youngster who was getting his first NASCAR opportunity in good equipment. He’s had doubters, since he supplanted 2018 NGOTS champ Brett Moffitt, due to funding. And while Atlanta and the coming races are the start of the real season, Hill proved he could make race-winning moves and earn his salt with Hattori Racing Enterprises.  The crowds were large all weekend. The Daytona 500’s grandstands sold out for the fifth-straight year, after the track renovation eliminated many seats. Still, the crowds came. The campgrounds were packed. The infield fan zone was bumper-to-bumper with flesh. And there were many Gen-Z and millennials, decked out in new race gear. Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney...fans are buying the shirts and hats.  Finally, owners, drivers, manufacturers, and NASCAR executives have made clear that a new era in the 71-year-old sport is on the horizon. A new schedule with possibly shorter races, less races, and more short tracks could start taking form in 2020. The Gen-7 racecar in 2021 is supposed to attract new OEM brands into the sport, because the bodies and engines will more resemble the consumer models. The new aero package that debuts at Atlanta Motor Speedway this coming weekend will reduce horsepower and bunch up the field, though reviews have been mixed on it in tests. And the newer drivers are continuing to mature into contenders.  The 2019 Daytona 500 was the beginning of a new season, but it also could be the beginning of the end of an era of sorts. Tapered spacers replace restrictor plates at Talladega in May, though the racing on these tracks will stay similar. The real racing season begins in just a few short days and how the aero package plays out will be pivotal in how the aforementioned steps advance. But the buzz leaving Daytona International Speedway is as good, if not better than it has been in years. Momentum is important in racing - both on the track and off of it. 
  • Austin Hill gets first win in first race with championship team  Daytona International Speedway is exciting not just because the weekend crescendos up to NASCAR’s biggest event of the year. The restricted engines roaring around the high banks on the 2.5-mile oval and the tight racing bring fans to their feet and trigger tight finishes and spectacular wrecks. This type of racing also crowns underdog, first-time winners and does so, again, for the biggest race in each of NASCAR’s top three series.  Enter 24-year-old Austin Hill. The Winston, GA driver took the reigns of the No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota from last year’s Gander Outdoor Truck Series championship winner Brett Moffitt, as the team needed the funds Hill brought. That move brings with it pressure, critics, and expectations.  Hill was at a crossroads just four years ago, he said, after scoring five wins in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and one in the West. Hill and his family started a part-time NGOTS team in 2016 that became a full-time endeavor with Young’s Motorsports in 2018. Those years netted a handful of top 10s and mid-pack average finishes, but no victories and really no shots at any. When HRE approached Hill about 2019, he said he didn’t know what his plans would be and he certainly has taken flack for being an unproven driver replacing the reigning champ in Moffitt.  But flukey Daytona didn’t crown a flukey winner. Though Friday night’s thrilling NextEra Energy 250 was a bloodbath - only nine trucks finished the double overtime event - the pack stayed tight. The twitchy trucks raced two-wide for most of the night’s 56 green flag laps (55 were run under yellow). And Hill led a race-high 39 laps (green and yellow), precisely blocking the high and low lines and keeping his competitors at bay. Hill started 10th and first assumed the lead on lap 62, ceding it twice to Ben Rhodes, and holding it for the last 12 laps.  Hill wasn’t just a proficient blocker. When Rhodes got turned by rookies Sheldon Creed and Gus Dean coming to the white flag, triggering an eight-truck melee, Hill dove low and barely missed it. His wife, Ashlyn, holding their five-month-old Kensley, paced nervously behind the pit fence, watching the ISM Vision big screen. The HRE pit crew erupted in cheers when Hill avoided the major wreck. But the race wasn’t over.  “Nervous is an understatement,” she said, adding she just wanted her husband to finish the race at that point.  Hill still had to survive two more restarts and a surge from runner-up Grant Enfinger, who had just gotten back on the lead lap after damage from a lap 55 wreck. Hill had gotten a little too far out front on the final restart, but spotter Mike Herman told Hill to crack the throttle and draw back just enough to both block Enfinger and his teammate Matt Crafton and catch their draft, without them passing him. Enfinger said he had to get out of the throttle when he had that run to avoid wrecking all of them. Herman guided Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories in 2017: at Talladega in May and the July in Daytona.  And Hill had to save an immense amount of fuel, as the race went 11 laps longer than scheduled. In fact, it was the longest race in distance in NGOTS history. Hill’s crew chief Scott Zipadelli told him to keep up with the pace car, continue cutting off the engine, and assured him they would not be pitting. Zipadelli said after the race that he was fine taking that risk, because pitting would have put the No. 16 back in the pack and they probably would have wrecked. The front row was the safest spot.  Hill held a tight pack at bay for laps 110 and 111 to win his first race in any NASCAR national series. He’s now locked into the Truck Series playoffs, won an RV from Gander Outdoors (the new title sponsor of the series, after Camping World acquired the brand), got some bonus money, and simply can now race for wins.  But Hill said in his post-race press conference that his biggest memory of the night would be that his siblings, wife and children were all there for it. They didn’t attend very many races in recent years and did they ever pick a weekend to come.  Smithley and JD Motorsports together again, racing with heavy hearts Garrett Smithley’s genesis in NASCAR was supposed to be a cup of coffee with hopes of a big sponsor showing up and keeping him in the game. The Peachtree City, Georgia 26-year-old suddenly is making his 100th start in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this weekend, driving a car that has become synonymous with him: the No. 0 Chevy for JD Motorsports. Smithley affectionately calls the effort “Number Nuthin’”- but his time in the car has taken plenty of effort.  Smithley often is cold-calling and finding his own sponsors to stitch together deals and funding to keep his team on the track and himself as the driver. This side of the garage often sees drivers with the most money win the spots. So Smithley’s early time in the car was in question at any moment. He has only missed one race with JD Motorsports, due to funding, since. And now he is back for another full season and not just because of the sponsorship.  “It started as a three-race deal,” Smithley said, while eating dinner with his family outside their RV in the Daytona Infield Friday. Smithley took the wheel from veteran driver Eric McClure after the 2016 Daytona season-opener. But team owner Johnny Davis told Smithley that McClure was supposed to return to the car at least for a race or two. That never came to be, as McClure was winding down his career and Smithley, meanwhile, was eeking out good enough finishes to keep his small team in the top 20 in points.  Smithley said the team got to midway in the ‘16 season and they were in the top 20 and Davis made the decision to keep him in the car. Smithley kept the car in the top 20 and team got an $85,000 bonus. Drivers in the middle of the pack have plenty of incentive to race hard for, say 17th-place. Each race pays bonuses to teams, based on their owners points. That is huge for teams so sparse on funding.  Small teams can score big at plate races like Daytona. Smithley’s only top 5 finish was 5th a year ago. Two of his other three top 10s have come at Daytona or Talladega. So their plan for the Flex Tape Chevy is to ride in the back, survive the carnage, and then drive to the front.  Then the real season starts at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Smithley will drive the No. 0, but also is working on a deal to get into a Legends car. “I started my career racing Legends cars at Atlanta Motor Speedway and I want to bring it full-circle at my hometrack,” he said. He also is working on plans to enter one of the two other races that weekend, but those have not been finalized.  On a somber note, Smithley and his family are mourning the loss of John C. Ward, who died on Tuesday. His cousin’s father-in-law will have a sticker above the passenger window.  And a long time employee of JD Motorsports passed away this week, Smithley and his family said. Longtime car painter Bryan “Hippie” Dorsey suddenly got very sick early this past week, went to the hospital, and died on Thursday morning. So the entire four-car organization will have that on their minds as they race. Cockrum racing to honor his mom this weekend  Chris Cockrum has been coming to Daytona Speedweeks as a driver all but one of the last 11 seasons. First in ARCA, then in the NGOTS, Cockrum now has opened each of the last five seasons in the NXS. But 2019 is completely different for the 32-year-old from Conyers.  In September of last year, Cockrum’s mother, Lynn, got very sick and went to the hospital with what they thought was a respiratory problem. It turned out it was cancer in her lungs and she coded one night, lost brain activity, and died a few days later. The family was stunned.  Driving for Rick Ware Racing’s No. 17 entry, Cockrum will carry familiar colors, but will also have his mom’s name above the passenger door and on the rear bumper cover. The back of the car reads, “In Loving Memory of Lynn Halstead Cockrum We Will Always Love You and Miss You Mom!”  For those that have felt this kind of loss, they know how hard returning to places is. Cockrum’s father, also named Lynn, always nervous and intense about his son’s racing efforts, has that same tenor, but also has a nostalgic look in his eyes. Chris has just a slightly different tone in his voice. And they have more family and friends with them this weekend than they normally do.  “You just have to keep your mind screwed in,” Cockrum said, when asked how he stays focused. “If I let my mind get off of the main focus at all, I lose track.”  Cockrum’s mom was the glue that held their race weekends together. She would buy or cook food for the race team and the family and friends staying in the RV. She insisted I stay with them in the RV when she found out I was going to camp in my car. And when the boys, including Chris’ younger brother Andrew, were amped up and frustrated about the racing, she was always the cool breeze that soothed the mood and centered everyone. They will all be looking upward for that calm this weekend.  While Cockrum’s car and many other small teams struggled in the post-practice inspection line, Cockrum has decent speed this weekend and, like Smithley, hopes to ride around and avoid the Big One. He failed to qualify for this race a year ago. His best finish is 21st, back in 2015. But just as the NGOTS showed Friday night, surviving may be the name of the game and if Cockrum can change his luck and avoid the big wrecks, he could have a big day. As long as he is safe, his mom is sure to be looking down and smiling.  Follow Doug on all weekend for updates on Twitter: @DougTurnbull and Instagram: @FireballTurnbull . 
  • On a morning that started in the high 20s in Metro Atlanta, Atlanta Motor Speedway officials had to sigh. There would be no ticket voucher “Good Weather Guarantee” for the free Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Pit Party in Norcross. But that worry subsided when fans showed up in force an hour before the 10 a.m. kickoff time Saturday.  The rap on NASCAR for the last 13 years has been the declining attendance and television ratings. The 2018 season’s returns didn’t turn around that notion. But events like Saturday’s show that potential for a comeback for the 71-year-old sport is a possibility.  QT, Coca-Cola, and AMS arranged a DJ, tons of giveaways, food samples, a driving simulator, a tall inflatable slide, face painting, and drivers Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez to sign autographs. This soiree on the corner of Jimmy Carter Boulevard and Brook Hollow Parkway, just west of I-85, drew in many passersby, sure. But it also pulsated on the calendars of the diehard north Georgia race fans, who had to choose between this party and the CRA Speedfest super late model race a couple hundred miles south in Cordele with Kyle Busch and Harrison Burton.  21-year-old Diego Castoneda took an almost two-hour bicycle ride from Lawrenceville, in the freezing cold, to be the first in line for driver autographs at 9:30.  'To have all these cultures in NASCAR is huge, because not many drivers get an opportunity in this sport,' Castoneda said, when asked about the significance to him of having Suarez, a Mexico native, in NASCAR. He put Wallace’s autographed hero card in a trapper keeper notebook full of driver cards. 'It's an honor to get every driver you can. You never know when they're going to be big or when they are going to retire. Some of these autographs are going to be valuable. For me, it's just an experience.' Castoneda was one of hundreds who waited in the long lines for, first, Wallace and then Suarez. He is the rare Generation Z NASCAR fan. He said his dad had him watching races from the age of eight and similarly had the goal of getting each driver’s signature.  The 25-year-old Wallace, NASCAR’s only black driver, got generational in his media session, noting that his “Young Guns” class has a certain understanding of and with fans.  'I think the younger generation coming up through is changing the game a little bit, giving the fans something more to latch onto,” though Wallace notes that this will take time, as he and his cohorts adapt to the highly competitive Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. “You've got the dominance from the older guys, obviously. But it takes seat time for us to get comfortable.'  Wallace is a big believer in the power that social media has in engaging fans. He starred in a Facebook Watch documentary before his rookie season a year ago and is very active on Twitter and Instagram. 'We try to do as much as we can with the fans. Me, personally, I love doing stuff like this and when it's in-market [in the same city as a NASCAR track], you go out to dinner and you run into fans. It's just all about being engaging with them.'  Steve Letscher loves Wallace’s vibe. The white 47-year-old doesn’t stand out as the top candidate to have Wallace’s unbridled millennial persona as his favorite driver. But Letscher diverted a two-day drive from South Dakota to Charlotte, to arrive for the Wallace appearance. He had Wallace sign 10 diecasts, each of a different paint scheme from his rookie campaign.  'I got about an hour outside of Kansas City and it was pretty early in the afternoon and I thought that since I had so many cars for Bubba, that I could make it down here and get some signed from him.” Letscher blew off seeing a friend in Shreveport to come to Atlanta, after learning of Wallace’s Georgia appearance on his Twitter page. “So I decided at the very last minute to keep driving yesterday afternoon. I was up 15 hours yesterday. I stopped about a half hour north of Nashville last night at about midnight, got about three hours of sleep, got up, got a shower, got on the road, and got here at about 11:30.' After the Pit Party, Letscher will further show his dedication by driving to Charlotte to hang with his buddies for a week at the NASCAR Hall of Fame ceremonies. He has about 1,600 diecast race cars in his basement, he says.  Letscher thinks that the key to outsiders getting passionate about drivers is the wheelmen’s personalities. Undoubtedly, fans in the last 15 years have complained of the lack of color drivers show. The likes of Wallace, Suarez, Ryan Blaney, Noah Gragson, and others are trying to bring that back.  Suarez, who just turned 27, is not necessarily high on the overall NASCAR popularity charts. But he begins his third Cup season with a large legion of Latin American fans, as he is the only full-time NASCAR driver from Mexico. Telemundo and Mundo Hispanico covered him at the event. And several hispanic fans circled behind Suarez with enthusiasm, as he spoke to the media.  'For me, as a Mexican driver in the United States...you're always missing something [not] racing at home. I used to race in Mexico for a long time and I was used to racing in front of my family and a lot of friends. That was a hell of an experience. I've been missing that for a while,” Suarez explained fluently in his second language. “Now, for the last few years in Cup, more people are getting to know myself and things I am doing in the sport. It feels so good to come back to places like here in Atlanta where there are a lot of Hispanic people and places like Texas, California, Phoenix - all these places. I say this a lot: I don't get to race at home, but these places feel like home. I'm just very happy to be here to spend a few hours with a lot of great friends and I look forward to getting back here in a month.'  Suarez says he has a chance to attend Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta and just may do it. And, like Wallace, he loves chances to actually talk with fans. 'It feels so good. I wish we were coming to Atlanta more often, instead of just once every year. It feels so good to be back and to spend some time with the fans. When I am in the racetrack, it is a little bit harder to have these 10 to 15 second conversations with the fans, because you are going. You don't have a lot of time to do this stuff; you have to drive the racecar and focus on that. I really enjoy times like these, where I am not thinking about the racecar, I'm not thinking about the race. I'm just thinking about having a good time with them and that's what it's all about.” Fans at the Pit Party had a great time, young and old, dancing to top 40 and hip-hop music from the last few years. Lines for each attraction stretched dozens deep. There wasn’t one mullet or country song played - not that those aren’t a large part of the racing experience. This was a jumping, energetic event that never lulled and saw a large cross-section of age, color, class, and style.  Newly-minted AMS GM Brandon Hutchinson looked impressed, as did his deputies. But when I told VP of Marketing and Promotions, Dustin Bixby, I was surprised at the turnout, I was even more surprised with his answer.  “I’m not! I know Atlanta has a ton of race fans.”  Hutchinson’s and Bixby’s jobs over these next four weeks will be to get this fan base charged up enough to drive to Hampton for the race weekend. If Saturday served as any indicator, the tide may be turning.  The Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race highlights the February 22nd-24th race weekend with all three NASCAR national series in action at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Get tickets and learn more at AtlantaMotorSpeedway.com. 
  • Maybe the age of opinion echos has just manifested itself again or maybe those with the perpetual sour taste about the state of NASCAR in their mouths simply have it again. But after a thrilling Ford EcoBoost 400 that saw statistically the four best drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series compete for the Championship 4 and race near each other all 400 miles, this same crowd couldn’t see the forest for the trees. This year’s championship race delivered.  The sport’s “Big Three”, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr., combined to win 20 races and did almost all of that damage in the first two-thirds of the season. The championship would undoubtedly go thru them. But as Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, and eventually Aric Almirola started tallying wins, the spotlight on the other three dimmed. However, none of this winning group really emerged as “the guy” to slay the three-headed dragon. So this seemed to set up the Homestead-Miami race as one that obviously Harvick, Truex Jr., or Busch would win.  There is a reason races aren’t run in simulators. Busch or Harvick should have put on a clinic Sunday, as Truex Jr. and the soon-closing No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota had seen their recent performance wane a bit. But Logano, who had been consistent but not front-running all season, secured his Homestead ticket by running Truex Jr. hard to the finish and taking the Martinsville win from him. And suddenly, the No. 22 team looked like a contender. But certainly Harvick, who had dominated the Texas race (with an illegal spoiler), and Busch, who had won the previous week at Phoenix, would be firing on all cylinders in Homestead. As it turns out, all four championship drivers were in some respect.  As you may remember, Busch, Truex Jr., and Logano started in the top 5 and Harvick had to climb up from 12th at Homestead. Harvick took no time driving up into the top 10 and took the lead after the first pit stops to win Stage 1. And then these four stayed right on each other all race long, with pit stops becoming a game of cat and mouse. The stops continuously cost Busch precious time and sunk an already ill-handling car deeper in the pack. But the 2015 champ kept clawing back.  Harvick had the race won after the last green flag stop. Truex Jr. had the speed on that long run at the end, but Harvick and Logano came to pit road one lap before him and Harvick was poised to win the championship. But Busch, with no chance to win conventionally, stayed out on old tires, hoping and praying for a caution to freeze him in the lead.  When Keselowski (Logano’s teammate) got into Daniel Suarez (Busch’s teammate) and brought out a yellow, Busch got the miracle he needed and his crew delivered him the lead from the first pit stall. Here’s your game seven moment: the Championship 4 would comprise the first two rows for the 15-lap shootout. Wouldn’t betting money land on Busch? He’s widely regarded as the best restarter in the sport and the driver with likey the most raw talent. With a championship on the line, the pendulum had swung in favor of Busch.  Busch got the break, but couldn’t capitalize. With equal tires and nearly equal track position, Truex Jr. and Logano dusted him and pulled away. The 2018 title would come down to last year’s MENCS Cup winner, whom Logano roughed up for a Martinsville win and who said Logano would not win the war. The war would be decided by them.  The two drivers had made contact incidentally, racing close in the race, but this battle came down to man vs. machine vs. the weather/time-worn track. Logano made a champion’s move on Truex Jr. on the fourth lap of this final run. Logano sailed the No. 22 high into a turn to a degree that made announcers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton think he missed the corner. And Logano wrested the lead away and never looked back. If the race had 30 or 40 laps remaining, Truex Jr. would have won. Or maybe Harvick. Busch finished well back in 4th. But it was Logano, who rivals Busch in the boos he gets from fans, who now joins the Big Three as a single-Cup championship winner.  For those who thought they saw bad racing on Sunday, the broadcast didn’t do any favors. NBC did a poor job covering any battles on the track that didn’t involve the lead or the Championship 4 drivers and they need to address this. Also, despite there being multiple grooves, the aero-factor definitely spread the field out. But tire wear and the difference in setups allowed drivers to make up these differences over a long run. Neither the Camping World Truck Series race Friday (race and championship won by Brett Moffitt) or the Xfinity Series race Saturday (race and championship won by Tyler Reddick) had any cautions that weren’t stage breaks. That usually prompts fans to give bad marks.  The drama Sunday may be seen as manufactured by some, but it was real. The four title contenders raced each other hard all 267 laps. And while there were some lulls in this race...like most any race...the drama and tension were palpable in those closing laps. Each move felt like it would decide the title. Not two drivers, but four decided the Monster Energy Cup and their battle was one for the ages. Or at least I hope. Could we as fans let this one live in the canon of great battles or will the sour tastes and negative fog taint this one also? Hopefully the former.  Watch the race rewind and fast forward to 10 minutes to see that final restart. 
  • This is a re-post of my blog post just after the Atlanta Motor Speedway Labor Day weekend race in 2014, the first after the passing of Captain Herb Emory. Four years to the day after his passing, please enjoy the memories and thank you for Remembering Captain Herb.  A banner at the United Against Mouth and Throat Cancer tent, an organization that provides free screenings in the Atlanta Motor Speedway Fan Zone outside the Hampton, Georgia track, had a banner that read “Remembering Capt. Herb Emory.” That was a theme for the entire NASCAR race weekend at AMS. Conyers driver Chris Cockrum piloted the No. 87 Advanced Communications Group Ford in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race. Track President and GM Ed Clark and his staff arranged for a display case with Captain Herb’s WSB Skycopter Lounge hat to mark his spot in the AMS Media Center, which they also named after the late Marcy Scott. TEAM Georgia, the safe and sober driving coalition Captain Herb helped found, presented his wife Karen with a community service award named after the late champion of safe driving. Several fans showed up with “Captain Herb Memorial Ride” t-shirts from the May event in the Captain’s Douglas County community that raised money for Toys for Tots. Emory, as many Atlantans know, died of a heart attack while helping at the scene of a crash in front of his house in April. WSB listeners, people from the Atlanta community, and straight up people we had no idea knew about Captain Herb poured out support and continue to in the months since that tragedy. But we hadn’t had an Atlanta race weekend since his passing - and it was hard sitting in the Marcy Scott Media Center next to a space with a clear box that used to be filled with his bellowing laugh and big smile. Seeing the empty space next to the fence outside of the Media Center, where the WSB tent used to proudly sit each race day morning, signaled the end of an era. We didn’t do a racing show this weekend, but instead decided to remember Captain Herb’s legacy with a series of reports and interviews with some luminaries from the long-running “Allan Vigil Ford 120,” which eventually changed names to “The Speedshop.” (These reports ran through the weekend on News 95.5/AM750 WSB and you can listen to them all in links at the end of this post). Captain Herb's race show stood out for several reasons. It highlighted Georgia-based racers, covered some local short tracks, and had that old school personality that new era radio and racing lacks. Captain Herb played pranks on the air, but just as easily made new drivers to the scene feel at ease. Instead of clicking off the same vanilla, polished interviews that many pull off so well, he would inject his affable, mischievous personality into them and bring out that certain guest's own character. That personality extended into the nickname business. My nickname is 'Fireball'. Jason Durden, a longtime fixture on Speedshop, is Jason 'Banjo, Spongebob Squarepants, Dale Jr.' Durden. Performance Racing Network booth anchor Mark Garrow, who delivered the 'FastCar Newsdesk' for several years already had the nickname 'Guru' - but Captain Herb had to assign his own moniker. 'He'd call me 'The Doctor of Love' and we had fun with that,' Garrow laughingly reflected, also saying he enjoyed the mix of people whom Captain Herb’s smile and authenticity drew into that WSB tent each race weekend. Atlanta Journal Constitution motorsports writer Rick Minter gave insightful racing analysis on Speedshop for many years and says that Captain Herb was so enthusiastic and credible about racing, because he took an announcing job at the now-closed Seven Flags Speedway in Douglasville. 'That showed he was true to the roots of racing. A good, all-around motorsports enthusiast,' Minter says when reflecting on the show. 'He made just as sure Dixie Speedway was covered as he did Daytona International Speedway or Atlanta Motor Speewday.' And when fans tuned into Speedshop, they knew exactly where each driver stood with him. 'He didn't make any doubt about who his heroes were and who he didn't like. He was like the number one fan in Atlanta. It's almost like a 110 appliance plugged into a 220 outlet when the show came on the air. You can't not be excited when he's that excited.' Minter also says that Captain Herb was ahead of his time in comparison to other local media in covering the local ties to a national sport. Captain Herb's appreciation for the Georgia drivers was a staple of Speedshop during race weekends. Former NASCAR driver Bill Lester moved east from California to race in the Camping World Truck Series in the 2000s. Captain Herb reached out to Lester, inviting him to the annual Toys for Tots drive he hosted at Fred's BBQ House in Lithia Springs and often put him on or mentioned him on his show. This flattered the new guy in town. 'He kind of brought me under his wing,' Lester, now an Arkansas resident, says. 'I'm surprised that anybody took notice.' Lester says that friendship put him at ease in his new world of stock cars in a new part of the country. In 2006, Lester became the first black driver to start a Sprint Cup Series race since the 1980s, making his debut at his adopted home track AMS.The WSB tent outside of the Media Center was one stop on Lester's crazy morning on that historic day and he says he's so thankful for all Captain Herb and the AMS staff did to get the word out about his feat. Georgia resident Rex White won the 1960 Sprint Cup Series championship and will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015. Many greats of White's era are either dead or forgotten. But Captain Herb never forgot the driver of the famous No. 4 'Gold Thunder' car. 'He was always great to talk to. He always made it so easy to be interviewed,' White said just before an appearance at the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame display at AMS over race weekend. Bill Elliott is the most renowned of the Georgia drivers. Elliott remembers fondly shooting the bull with Captain Herb and seeing him at Allan Vigil Ford, a dealership and sponsor they both shared. “The Speedshop” saw its prominence when Elliott's career was in its doldrums in the late 1990s. Elliott says that didn't turn Captain Herb away from Driver 94. 'He was always a friend, someone to talk to, someone to bounce ideas off of.' Elliott is the 1988 Sprint Cup Series champion and will be inducted with White into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. When asked what Captain Herb would think of seeing both drivers go in at once, White summed it up best - though stammering a bit. 'He'd be flabbergasted.' Indeed he is looking down with a smile. Elliott’s 18-year-old son, Chase, is blazing a winning trail in his rookie NASCAR Nationwide Series series. His success has been supreme in 2014 and he fittingly won his first-career NNS pole Saturday for his first NNS race at AMS. He finished 5th. Elliott took his first victory in the series on April 4th at Texas Motor Speedway. He won again the next Friday night at the circuit's toughest track, legendary Darlington Speedway. Captain Herb died the next day, April 12th. 'I think that was special,” the older Elliott says. “I'm sure [Captain Herb] had that in his head with whatever else he had going on that day.' David Ragan has been the banner carrier for the Georgia gang in recent years, with two wins each in both the Sprint Cup and the Nationwide Series. Captain Herb befriended him as a teenager running Legends cars and Bandeleros on AMS' quarter-mile track and interviewed him at the media days the track would set up. 'We've got a long history. Some of my first interviews were with Captain in the late '90s,' Ragan told me in his team hauler before Sprint Cup practice Saturday afternoon. He said he missed Captain Herb not just for his racing show that he had each week and also each Atlanta race weekend, but for shows elsewhere. 'I even thought about it at Bristol. He'd always come up and do a little Saturday show.' Ragan, like Captain Herb, never forgot his local racing roots and always made a point to stop by the WSB tent for his ritual race morning Speedshop appearance. Captain Herb's impression on Ragan was so deep, that the Captain’s locally famous 'Mayberry Patrol Car/Aunt Bea' Ford Galaxie - a replica of the one on 'The Andy Griffith Show' - made Ragan want his own. 'I specifically looked for one and bought one just because of Herb.' He wanted it so much he specially ordered it and had it shipped from Kansas. As Ragan's career progressed and he moved to North Carolina, Cockrum and his family became close friends with Captain Herb and made regular appearances on Speedshop. The Cockrum family was so impressed by Captain Herb's outreach, they carried 'CaptainHerb.net' - the Captain’s homepage for racing and traffic news and community events - on the rear bumper cover of his Camping World Trucks and his Nationwide Series car in the few races he was able to run. Cockrum invited Captain Herb and Karen to Daytona to see the No. 07 Advanced Communications Group truck back in February. 'I can say I took this man to his final race,' Cockrum told WSB, while choking up in his race team's hauler before Nationwide Series practice Friday. He showed up in a beautiful car with a 'WSB blue' background and 'WSB gold' accents and lettering with some red, soundboard-light graphics on the back. Cockrum says it had to happen that way. 'When he passed away in April, it really rocked my world. So I automatically circled this date.' The sight of the car moved Karen Emory to tears, as Cockrum and his family hugged consoled her and Durden, who accompanied her to the race and has been a staple for her since the love of her life’s passing. Before Saturday's race, just before TEAM Georgia and Durden presented Emory with the 'Captain Herb Community Service Award,' Emory took a pin she had earlier removed from Captain Herb's old leather bomber jacket and pinned it on Cockrum's driver's suit. 'Something that's been on a jacket for 20 or 30 years...I couldn't think of a better person to receive something from than Captain Herb,' a sweat-drenched and exhausted Cockrum said after Saturday’s race. He finished laps down in 29th, driving an ill-handling machine for backmarker team Rick Ware Racing. But the rookie kept the car out of trouble, so the crowd could see the 'Remembering Captain Herb' lettering circle 1.5-mile AMS track again and again. The staff at AMS helped handily in promoting Cockrum's being in the race with the 'Herb car.' But they dealt with a big gap and loss of their own. The aforementioned Marcy Scott was the engine behind the marketing and promotions staff, processing hundreds of requests by the vast media presence at the track and arranging events and marketing to spread the word about the races. Those that worked with her will never forget her drive and passion and those new to the game will always remember it with the Media Center in her name. Doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer a few years ago, but she overcame that and seemed well. Then the cancer showed up again in her brain last year. She passed away in November and missed last year’s race, even though she begged for Clark, her boss for eight years, to participate. He explains her impact. 'She was so much a part of our race weekends - the promotion, the planning, and the execution. We miss her - we think about her daily.' Much like Captain Herb’s untimely death, Scott’s drew the sympathy from many areas, especially the full-time national media, whom she helped facilitate their coverage needs. Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass, widely known as the hardest-working reporter in the NASCAR media corps, reflected on Twitter about how she forced him out on the dance floor at the NASCAR banquet a couple of years ago. She was more than a hard worker, she was a friend and mentor. She certainly worked hard to make sure we could pull of our show on WSB and had to shoosh us more than once when we would cut up in the back of the Media Center. Clark also had a longtime friendship with Captain Herb...about 23 years (the length of his time at AMS) to be exact. 'This is the first NASCAR weekend that I'm experiencing without him” he somberly reflects. “He was a friend not only to us, but to so many in the entire Metro Atlanta area.' Besides holding his place in the Media Center, Clark took the remembrance a step further and had 'Capt. Herb' painted in the infield grass. That gesture was a total surprise to us at WSB and to the legions of dedicated Captain Herb fans who saw it from the grandstands. 'Herb may not be with us here physically, but he's a part of this weekend, just like he always has been.' That Captain Herb grass painting had a great seat for the whole weekend - especially its ending. Sunday's Cup winner Kasey Kahne saw his win and ticket to NASCAR’s Chase slip away after a late caution. But another caution allowed him to catch up and have a chance to race hard with Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin and take that needed win, the biggest of his career. He did celebratory burnouts right next to the grass tribute. That's a way to cap it off. Summer storms threatened all AMS weekend, but barely slowed any on-track activities - a big relief for a track that has suffered both weather and ticket sales problems in recent years. NASCAR is moving the track’s Labor Day race to Darlington and AMS will now assume the 2nd race date of the season on March 1st. Fittingly, this short tradition ends in a time of remembrance for the passing of a titan in the Georgia racing community and another staple in the circus that is NASCAR. To Captain Herb Emory and Marcy Scott - Godspeed to you from Georgia’s altar of high speed. Remembering Captain Herb audio:  Ed Clark piece on Captain Herb and Marcy Scott  Ed Clark full interview  Bill Lester and Mark McKay piece  Bill Lester full interview  Rick Minter and Mark McKay piece  Rick Minter full interview  Mark Garrow piece Mark Garrow audio, part 1 Mark Garrow audio, part 2  Chris Cockrum piece Chris Cockrum full interview, part 1 Chris Cockrum full interview, part 2 Chase Elliott/Chris Cockrum piece David Ragan piece David Ragan full interview Rex White piece Rex White full interview Bill Elliott piece  Bill Elliott full interview   
  • The wait is over. Chase Elliott has won his first-career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. He held off 2017 MENCS champion Martin Truex Jr. in a thrilling finish in the Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen Sunday. His win came in his 99th career start, just over halfway thru his third full-time season with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. That may not be exactly the fairytale Elliott imagined when he dreamt of becoming a Cup star like his father. But both William Clyde Elliott’s, son and father, had to suffer some near-misses before their Victory Lane kisses. Each driver started with a family racing team. Chase with his affluent and established father’s Bill Elliott Racing stable and Bill with his brothers Ernie and Dan and father and car dealer George. The Elliott matriarch, Mildred, was both a moral and financial mainstay on Bill’s team. Chase’s mom, Cindy, was and is still a marketing and PR maven.  Chase had a bigger leg up starting out than Bill did, very simply because of Bill’s Hall of Fame success and comeuppance in a time when NASCAR was booming. Chase blazed through go karts and Legends cars to being a late model campaign at age 13. He won in the first two months of the 2009 season and won the Georgia Asphalt Series championship as a rookie. The fairytale was in place.  Bill succeeded on the short tracks, but struggled when he first got to Cup. This was in a different time, when really almost anyone with a car could enter and make the fields of races. Elliott’s scrappy, but ingenuitive literal band of brothers got the No. 9 Ford to the racetrack for part-time schedules from 1976-1982. But Bill didn’t get his first top 10 until his 16th start (the 1977 Southern 500) and often fell victim to the most common occurrences in races of the era: attrition. With so many levels of cars and so little of the polished sophistication and advancement of today’s generation, just finishing a 500-mile race was a miracle. Finishing on the lead lap was nearly akin to winning. So when the light switch of consistency flipped on, Bill’s results suddenly exceeded what was expected of smaller teams in those years.  Chase had great equipment through his ascent, but ran into a bit of a roadblock in 2011. At just 15-years-old, the high school sophomore signed a driver development deal with Hendrick Motorsports at a time when those were no longer en vogue. Along with his heavy pro and super late model diet, Elliott would now compete full-time for Hendrick in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.  The heavier K&N cars, higher experience level, and fact that Elliott was with a new team against more experienced ones in that series meant that his results were far more pedestrian than they had been in late models. Elliott had zero wins and only six tops 10s in 12 races in 2011 and just one win in the series in 2012 (the combined East and West series race at Iowa Speedway). He finished 9th and 4th in the points in his two years in K&N. Max Gresham won the 2011 championship. Kyle Larson did so in 2012.  Elliott kept burning up the local short tracks through those years and ran a partial schedule in ARCA and the Camping World Truck Series in 2013, garnering a quick win in each. He also won crown jewel paved short track races: the All-American 400, Winchester 400, and World Crown 300. He was rolling and ready to jump.  When NAPA Auto Parts left Michael Waltrip Racing, they partnered with Chase and JR Motorsports for the 2014 Xfinity Series campaign, a season where Elliott won three races and the championship with ease. On the eve of his 2015 campaign, Hendrick motorsports tapped the 19-year-old as Jeff Gordon’s replacement in the legendary No. 24 Chevy for 2016.  Elliott also drove five races in Cup for Hendrick in a NAPA No. 25 in preparation for his 2016 Cup career. He had a disastrous debut at Martinsville, but put together some solid runs aside from that. His 2015 NXS campaign netted just one win and a second-place points finish to champ and older young gun Chris Buescher. But Elliott remained extremely consistent in the No. 9 Chevy and carried momentum into the anointed 2016 Cup Series campaign.  Fairytale: commence. Elliott won the pole for the Daytona 500 and garnered extraordinary hype. But he got loose in the tri-oval early in the race and wrecked, as he raced three-wide in the middle. The rookie remained consistent, however, scoring his first-career top 10 the very next week at his hometrack, Atlanta Motor Speedway. Elliott went on an incredible run of top 10s and top 5s in the spring and early summer, then got into some scrapes and poor finishes. But he then scored his first of eight-career runner-up finishes at Michigan in August. Winner Kyle Larson passed him with 10 laps to go.  Elliott made a deep run into the 2016 Playoffs, but a wreck on a restart at Charlotte Motor Speedway swept him up and took him from championship contention. All in all, however, 2016 was a great rookie campaign and his numbers in 2017 were better. But a pattern had developed.  Elliott just wasn’t great at holding his position on restarts. He lost a World Crown 300 at Gresham Motorsports Park early in his Super Late Model career on a late race restart. And he famously lost several races in 2017 late in the going. Elliott finished 2nd in three out of four races to start the 2017 playoffs, including a Dover race he had in hand.  At Dover, Elliott had a comfortable lead, but didn’t change his line as Kyle Busch ate into the cushion. Busch passed Elliott with two laps to go. Elliott also led late at Martinsville, before Denny Hamlin infamously used him up and spun him out of contention for the race and likely the championship.  Then two races later on a late race restart at Phoenix, Elliott took the lead from Matt Kenseth, who made his Cup debut subbing for Bill in 1998. The restart, by the way, came as a result of Elliott and Hamlin racing hard, Elliott pinching Hamlin into the wall and giving him a tire rub, and Hamlin wrecking. Payback. Elliott led for 19 laps and then Kenseth got by him with 10 laps to go for his sentimental last win in the No. 20 car. Elliott was out of the Playoffs.  Hendrick Motorsports’ performance has been sluggish in 2018 and Elliott’s results have followed that arc. But the No. 9 team, rebranded for 2018 but with his No. 24 crew, has often beaten its four stablemates. Elliott got his 8th-career runner-up at Richmond in the spring, though he didn’t lead a lap. And while the No. 9 hasn’t been a factor most of the year, it has shown some life the last three weeks. Elliott was 5th at New Hampshire, 7th at Pocono (another race that he faded on the end race run), and then won Watkins Glen. He won Stage 2 in each race. Elliott was rapping on the winning door yet again.  Sunday’s race didn’t seem like Elliott’s at first, though the No. 9 started 3rd. Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota was on a rail, dominating Stage 1 until strategically pitting just before the green-checkered flag. Martin Truex Jr. won the stage and hung in the top 5 all race long. Busch, Elliott, Truex Jr., and Denny Hamlin all duked out the top 4 spots for much of the day, but Elliott won Stage 2 outright. He then lost the race off of pit road in a strange pit sequence that saw him almost run over a crew member and Busch have to pit again for a fueling issue. Busch’s miscue gave Elliott the lead on the restart and set up an epic Stage 3 showdown with Truex Jr.  As Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota closed in on Elliott’s No. 9, one could almost hear the “Jaws” music. Elliott Nation, just like any Georgia or Atlanta sports fan, was waiting for the choke once again. On a tricky road course, the chances for foibles are plentiful. Elliott almost cashed it in on Turn 1 of the final lap - he wheel-hopped. He broke down what happened in the Hendrick Motorsports post-race press release.  “I started wheel-hopping and I had two options – knock it out of gear or spin out,” he recalled of the split-second, clutch decision. “We were coming to that white flag, I felt like I had a pretty nice gap, just don't mess up, and I messed up, of course. I had to knock it out of gear and I completely missed Turn 1. Luckily, I had a big enough gap that he couldn't get up next to me.”  Elliott has infamously been hard on himself after his failures to execute. But he acknowledged that those hard times got him to where he is now.  “You have to realize that you were in those positions for a reason, A; and B, if you were in them at one point in time, you can get back to them and learn from whatever it was that prevented you from ultimately getting a win and try to correct it to do so.”  Recalling these moments and the early career of who is now the heir to the moniker of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver gives a pathology of where Elliott is now. He no longer has to answer the question of how much pressure he is under to win. Really, he has gotten that question since he was in grade school. And Elliott has always had to live in the shadow (or glow) of his father’s greatness and expectations based upon the smoothly paved road to his career.  The Apostle Paul writes in the Bible about trials wisely in Romans chapter 5, verses 3-4: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”  Elliott and his Alan Gustafson-led team have certainly persevered through their hard times. That’s gained them the character of these losses - loss being something Elliott even surprisingly experienced in some of his formative racing years. And with that character - and now a win - there is hope for more Victory Lane champagne and, with a guaranteed playoff berth, even a championship.

News

  • It's been a major distraction for drivers on Florida’s Turnpike in Osceola County. They don't know if she has a home, but a dog, whom some are now calling Ozzy, certainly has a lot of people watching out for her. >> Read more trending news  Dispatchers at the turnpike’s Traffic Management Center have spent months doing everything they can to catch the dog before she or a driver gets hurt. On Friday, Florida Turnpike officials said she was captured. She is very calm and quiet. There's a whole team of people watching hundreds of cameras along the turnpike and keeping an eye out for anything that may be dangerous for drivers. But consistently since May, in one particular part of the road, they kept seeing the same dog over and over. Road Ranger Jonathon Hester patrols a stretch of the turnpike near the Yeehaw Junction. “Our No. 1 job is safety,' Hester said. He's usually routing drivers around wrecks or helping with a flat tire. But lately, he's been determined to find the furry fugitive. 'This one has just evaded us for a long time and we keep trying to find him,” Hester said. For about two months, dispatchers were seeing the yellow Labrador between mile markers 196 and 205 on the turnpike, headed southbound. 'And just kind of runs up and down the roadway. It's a big distraction for the motorists driving by,” Hester said. “People see it and slam on their brakes.' Officials said they have no idea where she came from. 'It's possible it could've come from a vehicle crash,” Hester said. “A motorist could've been traveling with this dog, and crashed and the dog got scared and ran away.' Because she's been living on the road in Osceola County, they have affectionately named her Ozzy. Osceola County Animal Control let Hester borrow a trap in an effort to catch Ozzy. Now that the dog is caught, they plan to scan Ozzy for a chip to see if she has a home. If not, Ozzy may be up for adoption.
  • The Jacksonville Game Center has been burglarized twice in less than a month with thieves making off with nearly $10,000 worth of Magic the Gathering cards.  >> Read more trending news  Store owners told Action News Jax that both times, the thieves busted through a wall to get in. Hector Ortiz is a regular at the game center. Action News Jax caught up with him as customers and staff were preparing for their Friday night Magic the Gathering tournament. “The place is pretty packed, we have anywhere from 20-plus players,” Ortiz said. “It’s like a second home. A lot of people come to get away from issues.” So, when these crimes occur, Ortiz said the customers take it as a personal attack. “The first time it happened was really heartbreaking,” Ortiz said. Action News Jax first reported three weeks ago when thieves busted a hole in the wall to take more than $5,000 rare Magic the Gathering cards. The owner said they came back again overnight Friday. Surveillance video showed the glow of their flashlights. The owner said this time, they left another hole in the wall and stole more than $3,000 in those same, valuable cards.  He said they busted through the wall at the restaurant next door. Friday, Hunan Wok had a board up in the window where the thieves broke their glass to get in.Ortiz had a message for the thieves. “Just grow up,” Ortiz said. “It’s not necessary. You’re attacking us for a quick buck. Just go out there and get a job, man.
  • A woman is in jail facing felony charges after Clayton County authorities said she allegedly sneaked a firecracker into a courtroom and threatened to blow up the place.  >> Read more trending news  Whitney Jefferies, 32, was arrested Monday night after a judge saw the threat the woman allegedly posted on social media, Channel 2 Action News reported.  Judge Michael Garrett said Jefferies was in the front row in his courtroom. He told Channel 2 she seemed agitated that it was taking so long for her case to be called.  Later, he saw a video she posted on her social media page in which she held up a firecracker and said she was going to blow the courtroom apart, the news station reported.  It is not clear how Jefferies got the firecracker into the courtroom, and Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill has not commented on the situation. Deputies went to Jefferies’ condo in Morrow to arrest her, Channel 2 reported. Nobody answered when agents first knocked on her door, according to the news station.However, deputies realized someone was inside the home when a pizza was delivered to the house later that evening, Channel 2 reported.  Deputies went back to Jefferies’ door and brought her out in handcuffs, the news station reported.  Jefferies was booked into the Clayton jail, where she remains held on a $35,000 bond. She face three charges, including making terroristic threats and possession of a destructive device.
  • A Charlotte, North Carolina woman and her Australian boyfriend were murdered while they were traveling the world, officials said. >> Read more trending news  Chynna Deese, 24, and her boyfriend, Lucas Fowler, 23, were found shot and killed on a remote western Canadian highway Monday near their broken down van, WSOC-TV reported. Officials said they were exploring Canadian national parks and heading to Alaska. Police said this does not appear connected to any other crimes. Friday night, WSOC-TV interviewed Chynna's mother Sheila Deese, who said despite not knowing how her daughter died, she's comforted in knowing her daughter and Fowler were together until the end. 'It is a love story, a southern girl goes out of the country, meets this Australian and they were just the same personality,' Sheila Deese said. Canadian Police said they don't know if Deese and Fowler were targeted or if this was random. They said they are working with the FBI to find the couple's killer. 
  • A 77-year-old convicted murderer who was released from prison after being deemed 'too old' to kill again was convicted this week of fatally stabbing a Maine woman. >> Read more trending news  Albert Flick was found guilty Wednesday of killing 48-year-old Kimberly Dobbie in July 2018 outside a Lewiston laundromat. The attack happened in front of Dobbie's 11-year-old twin boys. 'I'm glad the verdict is done and over and I'm glad he'll never be able to walk the streets again,' said Dobbie's friend James Lipps, NBC News reported. This is Flick's second murder conviction. Flick was convicted in the 1979 death of his wife, Sandra. Similar to Dobbie's death, Flick stabbed his wife as her daughter watched, CNN reported. Flick was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the 1979 murder. He was released and was released in 2000 after 21 years for good behavior, The Washington Post reported.  By 2010, when he was in his late 60s, Flick had been convicted of assaulting two other women. Despite his record, the judge in the 2010 case sentenced him to four years. “At some point Mr. Flick is going to age out of his capacity to engage in this conduct,” Maine Superior Court Justice Robert E. Crowley said, according to the Portland Press Herald. “And incarcerating him beyond the time that he ages out doesn’t seem to me to make good sense.” Judge Crowley retired in 2010. He hasn't responded to media requests for comment. Flick is scheduled for sentencing August 9. He faces 25 years to life behind bars. “I firmly believe this could have been prevented,” Elsie Clement, whose mother was stabbed to death by Flick in 1979, told the Press Herald last year of Dobbie's death. “There is no reason this man should have been on the streets in the first place, no reason.”
  • Public school students in New Hampshire will be provided with free menstrual products thanks to the passage of a new law. SB 142, signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Chris Sununu, will require public schools to provide feminine hygiene products in women’s and gender-neutral bathrooms in high schools and middle schools starting January 1, The Concord Monitor reported.  >> Read more trending news  “This legislation is about equality and dignity,” Sununu said. “SB 142 will help ensure young women in New Hampshire public schools will have the freedom to learn without disruption – and free of shame, or fear of stigma.” The idea for the law came from 17-year-old Caroline Dillon, a high school student in Rochester, N.H. The high schooler was inspired to act after learning in U.S. History class about 'period poverty,' where those who can't afford feminine hygiene products miss work or school during menstruation. “It was sad to think about,” Dillon told The Monitor. “Girls in middle and high school would never dream of telling somebody that they have to miss school or use socks because they can’t pay for pads.” Dillon approached state Sen. Martha Hennessey with her idea, and Hennesey became a main sponsor of the bill. Educating some lawmakers was initially awkward, Dillon said. Most lawmakers are men, and wanted to avoid words like 'menstruation,' 'tampon' and 'feminine hygiene products,' The Monitor reported. “They would say ‘the thing’ or just try to avoid saying it all together,” Dillon said. “I would say to them, ‘If this makes you uncomfortable, think about how uncomfortable it is to be in this situation yourself. If you can't really picture it yourself, think about any woman in your life: your mom, your daughter, your aunt – think about how uncomfortable she feels – you are in the position to make it so these women don’t have to feel that way.’ ”  Dillon's efforts were ultimately successful. Funding for the new measure will come from school districts' budgets, according to CNN. Districts can partner with nonprofit organizations to provide the feminine hygiene products. Opponents of the bill said its amounts to an unconstitutional unfunded mandate,  USA Today reported. Similar laws currently exist in New York, Illinois and California.