Daytona 500

NASCAR: Optimism in high gear at Daytona for NASCAR’s top teams

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Optimism abounds after the opening weekend at Daytona International Speedway, especially for NASCAR’s top teams.

Teamwork at Joe Gibbs Racing appears as solid as ever despite adding rookie Daniel Suarez to the mix, evidenced by Denny Hamlin, Suarez, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch running 1-2-3-4 for much of the Clash at Daytona.

Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski look as if they could continue their recent dominance at restrictor-plate races, and with Stewart-Haas Racing switching from Chevrolet to Ford in the offseason, they now have a few extra friends — Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer — to help around NASCAR’s most famous track.

Hendrick Motorsports has the Daytona 500 pole again as well as another front-row sweep.

And the usual suspects — Hamlin, Logano and Keselowski — seem to be up front at every turn.

Combine all those notable nuggets, and the 59th running of “The Great American Race” on Sunday is setting up to be another unpredictable showcase event.

Some other things we learned from the opening of Speedweeks:

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HENDRICK HORSEPOWER: Hendrick Motorsports has the Daytona 500 pole-sitter for the third consecutive season and swept the front row for the fourth time in the last eight years. It’s a clear indication Hendrick has the horsepower — as usual — to be a factor in NASCAR’s opener.

Chase Elliott landed the pole for the second time in as many years, and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his triumphant return to racing by securing the No. 2 starting spot. Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of 2016 because of nausea and vision and balance issues after at least the fifth concussion of his career.

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TROUBLING TURN: Although much went right for Hendrick, the four-car team found cause for concern.

Seven-time and defending series champion Jimmie Johnson spun twice in Turn 4 during the Clash at Daytona on Sunday, adding to the team’s recent woes in the high-banked corner. Teammates Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had similar issues in the 2016 Daytona 500, both crashing in the final turn.

So what may have seemed like a one-year fluke is now a full-fledged trend for Hendrick.

“It’s a concern,” said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Elliott. “We have things in place to try to improve that, and we’re very aware of it.”

Earnhardt sounded like getting the turn straight would be a priority during the week.

“We’re looking at our notes from over the years,” Earnhardt said, pointing specifically to 2015. “We’ll look at what we did then and what we’re doing now and sort of go through the process of elimination, and that’s kind of what we’ve been doing until we fix it.”

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NEW RULES: NASCAR’s new rules received mixed results in the opening weekend.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson was parked with 14 laps remaining in the Clash for violating NASCAR’s new damaged-vehicle policy. Officials said Larson’s team had more than six crew members over the wall to work on his damaged No. 42 Chevrolet. NASCAR policy states that teams can’t continue in the race if they’re caught with too many men over the wall.

“I didn’t even know that was a rule,” Larson said. “It’s just confusing. We know now.”

NASCAR also got its first look at its new concussion assessment testing.

Drivers involved in a wreck that sends their car to the garage must report to the infield care center for an evaluation. Concussion assessment tests are administered if care center doctors believe there is a concern of head injury.

Former series champion Kurt Busch was the first to wreck under the new rule and praised the extra evaluation.

“There was an individual that met me out by the car, rode with me in the ambulance and again met with the doctors and just went through different sequences to check all of the different vitals and we were released,” Busch said. “It’s just a little bit of an upgrade. You can tell that they’ve made an effort and it’s nice to have that security.”

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PATRICK’S RUN: Danica Patrick did it again at Daytona.

Patrick has been solid at times at Daytona since her rookie season when she won the Daytona 500 pole and led five laps. She finished fourth at the Clash, a needed confidence boost following a dismal 2016. She finished 24th in the standings and failed to post a top-10 finish.

Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin crashed on the last lap, allowing Patrick to sneak through for the best finish of her NASCAR career.

“I will say that I got a little lucky, but there’s a lot of that in speedway racing,” she said.

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BOWMAN’S LAND: Alex Bowman’s final scheduled race for Hendrick Motorsports was a doozy.

He finished third in the No. 88 Chevrolet, his last time subbing for Earnhardt. Earnhardt was cleared to race in the 88 but let Bowman take a deserved turn for his sturdy job in part-time duty last season.

Bowman chatted with Kyle Busch on pit road after the race. Bowman worked hard to pass Busch over the final laps instead of teaming with him to chase the leaders.

Bowman said it was an honor to drive for Earnhardt and team owner Rick Hendrick. His NASCAR future is unknown.

“It’s definitely kind of like a bittersweet feeling,” he said. “I don’t really know what I have going forward, and I only know of one race for sure that I’m going to run, and it’s not a Cup race this year.”

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MONSTER DEBUT: Kurt Busch’s car was the center of attention of before the Clash. His car’s make? A Ford. The model? Try models, the bevy of Monster Energy girls who posed for pictures with bystanders.

Busch is sponsored by Monster Energy — but the energy drink company also took over this season as title sponsor for the Cup series.

Its debut was a monster dud.

Busch hit the wall a few laps into the race, the green squiggly M logo on the hood crushed as the car was towed to the garage.

Other than the Monster girls, there has been little promotion by the company. Monster isn’t selling drinks at concession stands, and there are no ads spread around the track.

There was a billboard in the fan zone promoting NBC’s television coverage that still had the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series logo plastered in the middle.

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MEDICAL IMPROVEMENTS: (USA Today)   —   The two white trucks perched alongside the track as Daytona Speedweeks kicked off this weekend marked one of the most visible changes to NASCAR’s safety protocol since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death on the same track 16 years ago.

The trucks — each outfitted with a doctor and paramedic — will be at each NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series weekend this season as part of a partnership with American Medical Response (AMR), announced earlier this month. The move brings NASCAR more in line with what the Verizon IndyCar Series and other major racing organizations have had for decades: dedicated traveling safety teams.

“You ask why now?” Jim Cassidy, vice president of NASCAR racing operations, told USA TODAY Sports. “We are always looking for improvements in the area of safety and this has been on our radar for a couple years. The drivers council meetings tend to focus a large amount on safety and competition. Through those conversations, we came up with a path that makes sense.”

This is the second full season for the 10-member NASCAR drivers council and founding member Denny Hamlin told reporters the addition of the safety team is a sign that series officials are “listening and they’re making changes on our behalf.”

“We’ve always advocated you have to be a little more consistent with doctors because you just never know,” Hamlin said. “Each race track has its own set of doctors, all well qualified, but maybe they don’t know our personalities as much as the traveling doctors do that go every week. I think it’s important that we have that steady staff that understands the patients and has a good relationship with them.”

The roots of modern U.S. traveling safety teams trace to the early days of CART, the open-wheel racing series that morphed into Champ Car before it merged with IndyCar in 2008.

Terry Trammell, who has been a trackside physician for more than 30 years, was one of the CART safety members credited with saving the life of Alex Zanardi after a gruesome 2001 crash that resulted in amputation of both his legs.

“I think the immediacy of care and the knowledge provided makes a difference,” Trammell told USA TODAY Sports.

AMR will staff the safety team with a small pool of about six physicians along with an unspecified number of paramedics that will rotate throughout the season. Larger tracks, like Daytona International Speedway, and road courses will have two AMR-staffed trucks, while intermediate and short tracks will have one.

NASCAR responded to the death of Earnhardt in 2001 by mandating head and neck restraints (HANS) , pushing out a stock car with safety improvements and working with tracks to add Steel and Foam Energy Reduction (SAFER) barriers that cushion wall impacts.

A member of last year’s drivers council, Earnhardt’s son lauded NASCAR for another move announced Friday. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who missed the second half of the 2016 Cup season as he recovered from another concussion, called the additional concussion screening that infield care center doctors now have access to a “positive step toward protecting our drivers” on Twitter.

Physicians in the infield care center, which will continue to be staffed by local medical professionals, can use the latest version of Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT-3) that measures memory and agility along with physical symptoms that could signal a person has been concussed.

While NASCAR would not comment on what might prompt a SCAT-3 test, it said its use would still be a judgment call by the infield care doctor.

“It’s just another diagnostic tool for the infield care center,” Cassidy said.

Cassidy said NASCAR will continue to rely on the ImPACT test, which is similar to SCAT, for baseline testing of each driver before every season.

A traveling team also has one major edge vs. local medical professionals when it comes to concussion diagnosis: familiarity.

“The advantage of having a traveling crew is that they know what’s normal and not (normal) behavior,” Trammell said. “They can tell if something is way off and if a driver is acting erratically.”

While the AMR doctor will be sharing information from the crash site and ambulance ride, that physician likely will return trackside if the race is not complete. There are contingency plans in case of a catastrophic accident when a member of the AMR safety team would need to stay at the infield care center or even an area hospital to tend to an injured driver, NASCAR spokesperson Tom Bryant told USA TODAY Sports.

In another change, every driver whose car goes behind the wall – regardless of the severity of damage – must go to the infield care center to be checked by a doctor.

It’s unclear whether the SCAT-3 test was used on any of the drivers who visited the infield care center at Daytona after wrecks during the Advance Auto Parts Clash on Sunday, NASCAR’s season opening race. Bryant said federal health privacy laws preclude the series from detailing the tests conducted and can only state whether a “driver has been evaluated and released, treated and released, or transported to a local medical facility for further evaluation.”

All the drivers involved in wrecks so far were treated and released, including Kurt Busch.

“There was an individual that met me out by the car, rode with me in the ambulance and again met with the doctors and just went through different sequences to check all of the different vitals and we were released,” Busch said. “It’s just a little bit of an upgrade. You can tell that they’ve made an effort and it’s nice to have that security.”

NASCAR: Elliott nips Earnhardt to win 2nd straight Daytona 500 pole

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — It’s impossible to tell the history of NASCAR without mentioning Elliott and Earnhardt.

As the series shifts into a new era, those distinguished names are out front again and will give the start of the Daytona 500 a throwback feel.

Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — teammates and sons of Hall of Fame drivers — will start 1-2 and should give a sagging series a sorely needed boost this week headed into its marquee event.

Elliott nipped Earnhardt on the final qualifying lap Sunday to win his second straight pole for the Daytona 500. Elliott turned a lap at 192.872 mph to just edge Earnhardt’s speed of 192.864 and become the first repeat pole winner in 27 years.

“I don’t really care who it is. I’m not going to feel bad about beating somebody,” Elliott said. “Dale’s a good guy. I’m happy to share the front row with him. Happier to beat him.”

Earnhardt, long NASCAR’s most popular driver, had the speed to beat in his triumphant return after missing the second half of last season with a concussion. He missed the final 18 races with nausea, vision and balance issues after at least the fifth concussion of his career following a June wreck. He was as sharp as ever in the No. 88 Chevrolet headed into his first race since last July.

“Ain’t much to it. The car does all the work ,” he said.

Elliott and Earnhardt gave Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet a 1-2 front row for the fifth time in the Daytona 500.

Elliott, the 21-year-old son of Hall of Fame driver and two-time Daytona 500 champion Bill Elliott, became the youngest Daytona 500 pole winner a year ago and proved in the No. 24 Chevy starting first last season was no fluke.

Elliott also made it three straight years for the No. 24 on the pole. Jeff Gordon won the pole in 2015 in his final season before he retired and turned the car over to Elliott.

The rest of the field will be set Thursday in the two qualifying races.

Elliott will lead the field to green and try and avoid the problems that spoiled his Daytona 500 debut.

Elliott’s run at a Daytona 500 victory last season ended in the grass just 19 laps into the race. The front end of his car lifted off the ground, and the rough ride caused enough damage that his car had to be towed to the garage.

Until the wreck, Elliott was the star of Speedweeks. He followed the pole with a win in the second-tier Xfinity Series race.

He’s back out front again and expecting a better finish.

“I hope we can just try to get to the end of the 500, next,” Elliott said. “We’ve obviously got to get through the Duels, first. But, just making it to the end and having yourself in position, obviously we’d love to have a shot to win this thing. It would be great and I think we have a car that can do it.”

Elliott’s speed earned team owner Rick Hendrick his 11th overall pole in the Daytona 500.

“My boss man is happy,” Earnhardt said. “I just talked to him on the phone, and he’s got to be thrilled with having his cars up front.”

The 42-year-old Earnhardt got married in the offseason, wants a family and said over the weekend that he would a like a “couple of months” to see how he feels before deciding to sign a contract extension.

Earnhardt starts second in the first NASCAR race under the Monster Energy sponsorship banner and the Daytona 500 is the first under the new format that divides the race into segments.

NASCAR ditched its knockout group qualifying format for Daytona for single cars making one qualifying lap.

After 42 drivers had a scheduled turn, the 12 fastest advanced to the second round. The two fastest drivers in the second round set the front row. There were 36 drivers guaranteed a spot because of the charter system.

Other things to know about qualifying:

WHO’S IN: Beard Motorsports driver Brendan Gaughan and Tommy Baldwin Racing’s Elliott Sadler secured spots in the Daytona 500 as the two fastest drivers from teams not locked into the 40-car field.

REPEAT POLES: Elliott joined Fireball Roberts, Buddy Baker, Bill Elliott and Ken Schrader as drivers with consecutive Daytona 500 poles.

WALTRIP FINALE: Michael Waltrip failed to advance to the second round of qualifying in his 30th and final Daytona 500. He said the race will be his last in NASCAR. Waltrip, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, will drive the No. 15 Toyota for Premium Motorsports. Premium bought a team charter from the defunct HScott Motorsports, guaranteeing the 51-year-old Waltrip a spot on the grid.

SUAREZ STRUGGLE: Daniel Suarez also did not advance to the second round in his first career Cup event. Suarez, the only non-American in the Monster Energy Cup Series, has become a sensation in his native Mexico. He became NASCAR’s first foreign-born series champion with an Xfinity Series title last season and Joe Gibbs Racing promoted him to the No. 19 Toyota when Carl Edwards abruptly retired.

RIGHT CALLS: Alan Gustafson because the first crew chief to win three straight poles since Ernie Elliott in 1985-1987.

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FULL RESULTS: Daytona 500 qualifying

1. (24) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 192.872 mph.
2. (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 192.864 mph.
3. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 192.691 mph.
4. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 192.571 mph.
5. (78) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, 192.308 mph.
6. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 192.213 mph.
7. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 192.189 mph.
8. (5) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, 192.090 mph.
9. (20) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 192.016 mph.
10. (31) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 191.996 mph.
11. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 191.767 mph.
12. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 191.453 mph.
13. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, 192.004 mph.
14. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 191.898 mph.
15. (19) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 191.877 mph.
16. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 191.804 mph.
17. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 191.779 mph.
18. (21) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 191.746 mph.
19. (6) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 191.718 mph.
20. (77) Erik Jones, Toyota, 191.693 mph.
21. (27) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 191.534 mph.
22. (41) Kurt Busch, Ford, 191.420 mph.
23. (1) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 191.396 mph.
24. (10) Danica Patrick, Ford, 191.318 mph.
25. (43) Aric Almirola, Ford, 190.990 mph.
26. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 190.973 mph.
27. (34) Landon Cassill, Ford, 190.335 mph.
28. (47) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 190.283 mph.
29. (32) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 190.054 mph.
30. (95) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 189.721 mph.
31. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 189.422 mph.
32. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 189.402 mph.
33. (75) Brendan Gaughan(i), Chevrolet, 189.294 mph.
34. (72) Cole Whitt, Ford, 189.107 mph.
35. (15) Michael Waltrip, Toyota, 189.080 mph.
36. (7) Elliott Sadler(i), Chevrolet, 188.561 mph.
37. (55) Reed Sorenson, Toyota, 187.332 mph.
38. (96) DJ Kennington, Toyota, 186.819 mph.
39. (23) Joey Gase(i), Toyota, 185.843 mph.
40. (83) Corey LaJoie, Toyota, 185.246 mph.

Failed to qualify:

41. (33) Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chevrolet, 184.767 mph.
42. (51) Timmy Hill(i), Chevrolet, 184.102 mph.

More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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NASCAR: Rain postpones start of exhibition Clash at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The first official NASCAR event of Speedweeks was postponed by rain at Daytona International Speedway.

The rain began during driver introductions Saturday night for the exhibition race. The Clash is the first event leading into the Feb. 26 season-opening Daytona 500.

NASCAR will stage the event Sunday at 11:30 a.m., just a few hours before qualifying for the Daytona 500.

Brad Keselowski is slated to start from the pole in a race comprised primarily of pole winners from last season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is being replaced by Alex Bowman in the race because Earnhardt felt Bowman earned the right by substitute driving for Earnhardt last season. Earnhardt missed the second half of the year with a concussion.

Earnhardt is instead an analyst for this race for Fox Sports.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Austin Theriault would have welcomed another restart in the ARCA season opener.

After all, he figured he had the field covered.

“I feel strongly we still would have been in good shape,” he said.

Theriault never got a chance to find out. He won at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday after a harrowing late accident damaged part of the energy-absorbing wall and halted the race. The 200-mile event was called with five laps remaining — with Theriault sitting in his No. 52 Chevrolet on the high-banked track.

“When you’re fast and you play a smart race, you’re hard to beat,” Theriault said. “Fortunately everything played out in our favor.”

While Theriault celebrated his second ARCA victory in three career starts, Justin Fontaine was headed to a hospital. The 19-year-old Fontaine sustained a mild compression fracture of his L1 vertebrae and will be kept overnight for evaluation and will be in back brace for the next three months.

“Justin is awake and alert following a hard crash at Daytona International Speedway,” Win-Tron Racing owner Kevin Cywinski said. “Justin is in good spirits, and we hope to be able to provide a further update on his recovery time when it’s appropriate.”

Fontaine thanked safety personnel for “their quick actions after the accident.”

“I just want to let everyone know that I’m OK and I’m thankful for the outreach of support,” he added.

Fontaine’s wild ride brought out the final red flag. He slammed into the outside wall, slid on his driver’s side door, flipped and then came to a stop on his roof. Fontaine was stuck in the car for several minutes as safety workers turned his car over and cut him out of the cockpit.

Eight-time race winner Bobby Gerhart, Codie Rohrbaugh and Derrick Lancaster also were caught up in the late melee. None of them was injured.

Terry Jones finished second, followed by Shane Lee, Dalton Sargeant and pole-sitter Tom Hessert.

Theriault passed Jones for the lead with eight laps to go, but the race was red-flagged after Fontaine’s crash damaged part of the SAFER barrier at Daytona. The energy-absorbing wall had to be repaired before the Monster Energy Cup Series exhibition Clash.

Theriault sat in his car for more than 10 minutes until the race was called. He then made his way to victory lane to celebrate.

“Our focus is to win the championship,” said Theriault, who drives for Ken Schrader Racing. “I think we made that clear tonight. We have a long season to go, though, and a lot of work to do. We always want to get better, and Daytona’s kind of a different animal, obviously.

“Once we get to Nashville (in April), we’ll have a better idea of maybe what we have to work on and what we’re good at and we can go from there. But our intention’s to go for the championship.”

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

NASCAR beefs up concussion testing before season begins

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. was confident NASCAR took the right step Friday when it beefed up its concussion protocol by adding a consistent screening rule at all venues.

“Good to see progress being made and implemented. Health and safety is top priority,” Earnhardt tweeted .

Earnhardt, long NASCAR’s most popular driver, was sidelined for the second half of last season with a concussion. Earnhardt missed the final 18 races with nausea, vision and balance issues after at least the fifth concussion of his career following a June wreck.

In the 16 years since his father’s death at Daytona, NASCAR has introduced a series of measures designed to keep drivers safe, from helmet and restraint systems to impact-absorbing SAFER barriers along concrete walls, all designed to cushion the blows of high-impact wrecks.

NASCAR made baseline concussion tests mandatory for all drivers in 2014, but expanded the protocol this year just nine days before the Daytona 500 with a consistent screening tool and additional neurological support in the hope of keeping drivers healthier.

Drivers who are involved in a wreck that sends their car to the garage will now be required to report to the infield care center for an evaluation. Under the old rule, a driver went to the care center only if their car had to be towed from the track.

NASCAR’s standards will also require infield care center physicians to use the SCAT-3 diagnostic tool in screening for head injuries. NASCAR has already announced plans to use a traveling safety crew and a rotating roster of physicians. The new program will provide on-site support for neurological evaluations.

The safety crew will come from American Medical Response and ensure that a physician and paramedics are in the safety vehicle at all Monster Energy Cup events. AMR will also provide a small group that will travel to each race, and a physician who will serve as NASCAR’s primary doctor.

NASCAR has identified 50 total concussions in the three national series since 2004.

Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin nodded in approval as he read the concussion news release on a mobile phone on the concourse of Daytona International Speedway.

Hamlin said drivers had raised the issue of clarifying the protocol during their council meetings.

“I think there was some confusion last year,” Hamlin said.

Matt DiBenedetto was cleared to race at Phoenix International Raceway in November after NASCAR held him out of one event because of a possible concussion. He missed one Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, where he was involved in a crash during the Xfinity Series race one day earlier.

DiBenedetto said at Texas he felt fine and that NASCAR’s doctors “wanted to err on the side of caution.”

Cup drivers advocated for more defined concussion testing akin to other sports such as the NFL.

“They sometimes have to protect us from ourselves,” Hamlin said. “But we also want to make sure we’re racing on the track with people that are 100 percent. I’m all for that. I think it’s important we keep safety first.”

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Alex Bowman will race 75 laps in the car that belongs to NASCAR’s most popular driver, hang up the firesuit and head home.

When will he return?

Bowman has no idea if he’ll return to Cup racing in 2017.

A year after making a string of solid starts, Bowman is outside the NASCAR picture following Saturday’s opening exhibition Clash race at Daytona International Speedway.

The 23-year-old Bowman has no rides lined up in any NASCAR series and knows the Clash may be the last time he competes for Hendrick Motorsports. Bowman was a stout as a substitute last season for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. With Junior sidelined with a concussion, Bowman made ten starts and shared the 88 Chevrolet with four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. Bowman won a pole at Phoenix — which earned him a spot in the non-points Clash — and had three top-fives.

Bowman was courted by other teams, and certainly could have landed a ride that would have left him a backmarker. Bowman had been down that road and had no top-10 finishes in 71 starts over the 2014-2015 seasons with BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing.

No deal could pull him away from Hendrick .

“I was kind of surprised that a winning Xfinity car or something like that didn’t open up,” Bowman said. “I feel like I want to be part of a winning organization whether I am driving; just working for the team; doing testing or doing the simulation stuff.”

Bowman made nine starts in the second-tier Xfinity Series for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports team and has five top-fives in 50 career starts.

Earnhardt has been cleared to drive, and could have returned to race for the first time since July. Earnhardt graciously declined his spot and let Bowman take the wheel. Earnhardt instead will help call the action in the Fox Sports booth.

“It’s owed to Alex,” Earnhardt said.

Bowman, who couldn’t find the necessary sponsor funds for an Xfinity ride, couldn’t wait to hear Earnhardt call his race.

“I feel like we can be up front all night,” he said. “But it definitely adds some pressure to have probably the best speedway racer of our time in the booth calling the race.”

Earnhardt has missed races because of concussions in two different seasons. Should Earnhardt, or any of the other three Hendrick drivers, be forced to sit out a race for any reason, Bowman is on-deck and ready to ride.

“I think if something did come up, that I would think I would be the one that would get called for it,” he said.

Bowman spends time testing in the Hendrick race simulator and was vague about his future race plans.

“I do have a couple of races, not in the Cup Series, but in some other stuff coming up,” he said. “Excited about that. I can’t really talk a whole lot about it, but I will be racing some stuff. Really, I will be hanging out at the shop and coming to the race track when I can, just trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I can.”

Until then, he’ll sign some autographs in the Daytona garage, embrace his role one more time as super sub, and try and find the win against NASCAR’s elite that has so far eluded him.

All with a tip of the helmet toward Junior.

“Dale’s been so great to me. I wouldn’t be here without him,” Bowman said. “He is the one that pointed me out when he wasn’t feeling good. I feel like I owe a lot to him, and I am very thankful for him to put me in the car for this race.”

NASCAR overhauls race and playoff format

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)    —-   When the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season kicks off Friday at Daytona International Speedway, there will be the usual firsts and lasts.

Key issues to keep an eye on:

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: NASCAR’s most popular driver 14 times running will climb back into a Cup car in competition for the first time since July, when the effects of concussions knocked him from the remaining 18 races. The series badly needs Earnhardt — his name, talent and fan base. When he is running up front, there generally is more fan engagement and interest around the son of late seven-time Cup champion and Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Sr. And that means more interest in NASCAR. And with longtime fan favorites and champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart retired and no proven replacements in sight, Earnhardt carries a lot of star power — and a fervent Junior Nation — with him.

Earnhardt, 42, has said he is excited to return to the car and is feeling like himself after doctors cleared him in December to get behind the wheel.

He also has credited his new bride, Amy Reimann, whom he wed on New Year’s Eve, as someone who influenced him positively while he was sidelined.

“She just helped me mature as a person,” Earnhardt said. “She showed me a lot of things that were important. She helped me sort some priorities out in my life and get some things in a row.”

Only time will tell if he and crew chief Greg Ives remain in lockstep or need a few weeks — or months — to get their feet under them again. Meanwhile, every little nudge and bump that Earnhardt absorbs in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will have Junior Nation — and NASCAR — holding its breath.

New rules: No, not the Bill Maher kind. Get out your abacus. Or calculator. Or slide rule. The two most significant offseason changes involve race segments and points.

Every race — yes, even the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl — will be divided into three segments. As always, an overall race winner will be declared, but there also will be winners of the individual segments. The segment winners will also get some TV time as NASCAR makes another attempt at building its brand with Millennials. And points will be awarded not just for the final running order, but for the top 10 at the end of the first and second segments.

In another wrinkle, all the bonus points collected in the regular season will carry into the 10-race playoffs — the Chase nomenclature went out with former sponsor Sprint — bringing more weight to performance during the first 26 races. And those bonus points will carry over through the elimination rounds and can be built upon with more stage and race wins.

Among other changes:

— There will be no bonus points for leading a lap or for leading the most laps.

— The number of laps in each of the first two segments will be the same in a race, and the end of the second stage will be approximately at the halfway point of the race.

— Drivers will now earn bonus points that will be called playoff points and carry with them through the 10-race playoffs. Drivers will earn five playoff points for every race win and one playoff point for every segment win.

— The playoffs will remain divided into three three-race rounds with four drivers eliminated after each round to set up four finalists for the season finale, where the four finalists will not be eligible to earn segment victories.

— The exhibition duels during Speedweeks at Daytona next month will now be worth 10 points to the two race winners.

daytona-500-2017-v2

Johnson’s drive for eight: After winning a seventh title in November to tie Richard Petty and Earnhardt Sr. for the most Cup titles, many labeled Jimmie Johnson NASCAR’s greatest of all-time. After all, he has won in an era that has seen more competitive racing under various points and elimination rules. He and crew chief Chad Knaus have adapted to — and conquered — them all.

Now, they must do it again to make history. Johnson, 41, must perform under a different points format that is aimed at rewarding consistency throughout the 26-race regular-season and a different race format.

With 80 wins in 543 starts and an average finish of 12.1, Johnson knows the rewards that come with reliability. It would be foolish to count him out, even if he gets off to a slow start.

He looks refreshed, as anyone who follows him on Instagram will tell you, after an offseason spent frolicking in the snow with family and friends in the Colorado mountains.

Toyota: Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip has said he is making his final Cup start at the Great American Race. It will come 10 years after Waltrip and his team helped bring Toyota into the NASCAR Cup family — in a very inauspicious manner.

Michael Waltrip Racing was found to have added an illegal substance to the engine manifold during qualifying for that year’s 500, incurring harsh penalties that put the team owner on the brink of bankruptcy and embarrassing the car manufacturer before its first race.

Now, Toyota is coming off its first manufacturers’ championship in Cup and arguably has the dominant team again in Joe Gibbs Racing, with 2015 champion Kyle Busch, 2003 champ Matt Kenseth, defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and rookie Daniel Suarez, the 2016 Xfinity Series champion who is replacing retired Carl Edwards. And that’s not counting Furniture Row Racing’s two-car contingent of Martin Truex Jr., who made the final four in 2015, and rookie Erik Jones, the 2015 Camping World Truck Series champion.

What a difference a decade makes.

The run-up to NASCAR’s biggest race kicks off Feb. 17. USA TODAY Sports

Stewart-Haas Racing: Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, has vacated the No. 14 — but not the building.

While his NASCAR career as a driver has ended, his responsibilities as a co-owner remain. Expect him to be atop the pit box and around the garage as he helps guide the four-car team to a switch from Chevrolet to Ford.

Meanwhile, Clint Bowyer will step in as the fourth driver, joining 2014 champion Kevin Harvick, 2004 titlist Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick. Bowyer and Patrick are seeking sponsorship for more than a handful of their races, which could add pressure to up their performance on the track sooner rather than later.

____

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Racing: Bold move lands Wayne Taylor Racing, Jeff Gordon Rolex 24 win

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Ricky Taylor used a gutsy move to fiercely grab a victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona that had seemingly slipped out of reach.

The Wayne Taylor Racing team was among the most dominant in the twice-round-the-clock endurance race but found itself trailing Action Express in the final hour in a battle of brand new Cadillacs. His shot at the celebrated victory was down to one final attempt at a pass of Filipe Albuquerque, and Taylor dove inside of him entering Turn 1 of the road course.

Taylor seemed to have the inside lane, but it wasn’t clear if he could complete the pass. Contact between the two cars sent Albuquerque spinning, and IMSA reviewed the action to see if Taylor warranted a penalty.

No penalty was issued after the review, and the Taylor team won its first Rolex since 2005 — when team owner Wayne Taylor was still a driver. It marks the first victory for brothers Ricky and Jordan Taylor — two of the most talented sports-car racers in America — and longtime Taylor co-driver Max Angelelli. Their fourth driver? None other than retired NASCAR great Jeff Gordon, who won the first Rolex watch of his career. Gordon ran this race once before, in 2007, with the Taylor team.

Angelelli, who is a co-owner on the team, has insisted this is the final race of his career. He’ll stay busy helping Cadillac develop its new program, which had a rousing debut and dominated the race. The manufacturer went 1-2 overall and proved to be no match for any other cars in the prototype class.

Albuquerque, of Action Express Racing, was not at all happy with the second-place finish.

“I don’t think I lost the race, to be honest, because I don’t race like this,” he said. “He hit me in the back. You can see in the car, so I spun. He didn’t even wait for me. He just took off.

“So if the officials don’t agree that it’s a penalty, OK, that it can be a fair play by Wayne for the fight. But it didn’t happen, so it’s what it is.”

He wasn’t sure if Action Express would protest.

“I don’t agree with this, with the decision, because it was clearly on the back,” he said. “He was on a clean move. I think everyone saw that. Everyone knows that. I think the public knows a lot and the fans they saw it. … Let’s wait for them.”

It wasn’t the only questionable moment of an intense final hour that saw two classes engage in door-to-door battles for the win.

Albuquerque was the leader on a restart with 56 minutes to go, but lapped cars separated him from Ricky Taylor before the flag. Mike Conway, in an Action Express sister Cadillac that was 20 laps down, appeared to block Ricky Taylor on the restart to allow Albuquerque to build a strong lead.

Ricky Taylor got a chance to pass him with about 15 minutes ago, and he was as fearless the first time as he was on the race-winning pass. Taylor again dipped inside and tried to force a drag race, and the two Cadillacs bounced off each other before Albuquerque surged ahead. Taylor had to frantically work to close the gap and didn’t get his next chance at the win until there was just under 7 minutes remaining.

His father watched from a monitor in the pits and threw his hands over his face when the cars collided and Albuquerque spun.

“I knew it was going to stick. It was a really good move by Ricky,” Wayne Taylor said. “Thank the officials also from IMSA for calling it the way they did because you could have called it either way. Clearly, Ricky was quicker and getting held up like that at the end was not a nice way to end.

“At the end of the day, we’re happy because Ricky was quicker all the time. He made a silly move, but we knew were going to win this race.”

Gordon didn’t carry a very significant part of the load in victory. He drove twice for a total of three stints, his last one at night in a heavy rain that he’s not accustomed to managing. With so much poor weather into daybreak, the team left most of the heavy lifting to the Taylor brothers.

Still, it’s a coveted Rolex watch for Gordon in a trophy collection that includes four NASCAR champions and three Daytona 500s.

“I haven’t been this emotional for a win and an experience like this for a very long time,” Gordon said. “The reason is because I know what this means to this team, Wayne, these kids, Max. Oh my gosh. This is amazing — Daytona has always been special, but this one sent me over the top. I’m just blown away right now.”

NASCAR: Taylor-made move lands brothers, Jeff Gordon win in Rolex 24

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — He’s one of the top racers in America, and almost always overlooked, even on the day the boldest move of his career gave him the biggest win of his life.

Ricky Taylor used a gutsy pass with less than 7 minutes remaining in the Rolex 24 at Daytona to fearlessly grab the win for Wayne Taylor Racing. After, he stood in the background in victory lane.

He had an American flag draped over one shoulder, a Rolex watch crammed under an elbow, and was content in the shadow of his extrovert brother, Jordan, NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon and retiring veteran Max Angelelli.

On the day the limelight should have been his, Taylor’s move Sunday put Gordon in a group with Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Jamie McMurray as the only drivers to win both the Daytona 500 and this prestigious sports car race.

Team owner Wayne Taylor, father of the two workhorses on the team, was ecstatic for his quieter older son. Jordan has a personality larger than life, and even if the brothers are equally talented, Ricky never gets the credit he deserves.

“I don’t think Ricky has had a fair evaluation of his talent and I think today, if he doesn’t get it after today, then I don’t know what to say,” Wayne Taylor said.

The team was in the top three for 23 hours but found itself trailing Action Express in the final hour in a battle of new Cadillacs. His shot at the celebrated victory was down to one final attempt at a pass of Filipe Albuquerque, and Taylor dove inside of him entering Turn 1 of the road course.

Taylor seemed to have the inside lane, but it wasn’t clear if he could complete the pass. Contact between the two cars sent Albuquerque spinning, and IMSA reviewed the action to see if Taylor warranted a penalty. IMSA said there was no offense.

Wayne Taylor said it was about time his oldest son showed what he’s made of inside a race car.

“I think he needs to be bold,” he said of the 27-year-old. “God, if there’s anything anyone can teach him is to take some (gosh darn) credit, you know? Stop just being nice because this is an unfair business.”

The Taylor team won its first Rolex since 2005 — when Wayne Taylor was still a driver, and it marked the first victory in the event for his sons, who grew up in Orlando and have been coming to this race their entire lives. The lineup included longtime Taylor co-driver Angelelli, who was adamant this was his final race, and Gordon, who won the first Rolex watch of his career. Gordon ran this race once before, in 2007, with the Taylor team.

Chip Ganassi Racing also won its seventh class race . But team Taylor was the story.

With so many feel-good elements to this victory, it was easy to overlook Ricky Taylor. He praised what he learned from working with Gordon, reflected on his longtime mentorship with Angelelli and was relieved to have given his father a victory that might ease the burden in a constant search for team funding.

But that move? Well, for that he seemed quite pleased with himself.

“There was only one way to win, and it was to go for it,” Ricky Taylor said. “From my perspective, it’s Max’s last race. There’s a lot of emotions going on. I wanted to win terribly. We were either going to make a move and do something and win or sit there in second and wait for, wait until next year, basically. I didn’t want to do that.

“A lot of people want to be the quarterback on the last down of the Super Bowl. I know I have three other guys who can do just as good a job, so I would have been just as happy to let Jordan stay in the car. But they said it was my turn, and I was ready to take it.”

Albuquerque, of Action Express Racing, was not at all happy with the second-place finish.

“I don’t think I lost the race, to be honest, because I don’t race like this,” he said. “He hit me in the back. He didn’t even wait for me. He just took off. A true racer in my opinion, in the end, deep inside, I would feel a little bit ashamed with the win.”

Ricky Taylor was baffled by Albuquerque’s assessment.

“Wait for what?” he asked. “Any driver would have done what I did.”

Angelelli, meanwhile, will step outside of the race car with another Rolex for his collection. He’ll stay busy helping Cadillac develop its new program, which had a rousing debut and dominated the race. The manufacturer went 1-2 overall and proved to be no match for any other cars in the prototype class.

Gordon didn’t carry a very significant part of the load in victory. Still, it’s a coveted Rolex watch for Gordon in a trophy collection that includes four NASCAR championships and three Daytona 500s.

“I haven’t been this emotional for a win and an experience like this for a very long time,” Gordon said. “The reason is because I know what this means to this team, Wayne, these kids, Max. Oh my gosh, this is amazing. Daytona has always been special, but this one sent me over the top. I’m just blown away right now.”

NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr. relishes chance to return on his terms

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)    —-   CHARLOTTE – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not one of the most incomparably interesting figures in sports simply because of an extremely interesting backstory.

In brief summation: he followed his late father and one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR history into the family business, fought to escape that long shadow by leaving the family team and grew into a man in the harsh glare of scrutiny and expectation. He won the Daytona 500 twice and rounded into a championship contender late in his career. That career could have ended last season because of concussions.

Earnhardt, 42, is one of the most a compelling figures in sports because of the perspective his experience brings to both the mundane and momentous, and his willingness — almost a cathartic need — to share.

“Junior,” recently married, rejuvenated and eager judging by the pop in his stride, had much to share on Wednesday during the NASCAR media tour, another one of those seemingly pedestrian chores he’s undertaken in 18 seasons at the sport’s highest level. Attending an October race as part of his concussion rehabilitation allowed him a further glimpse, he said, of what he missed.

“I got a chance to be at Dover and watch the drivers come in that morning for practice and it was an eye-opening experience,” he said. “It was an out-of-body experience almost to watch all that happen. Looking at them and knowing that was me. I got to see the drivers from a different point of view and got to see the sport from a different point of view.

“Being out of the car made me anxious to get back in.”

Earnhardt, who missed half of the 36-race schedule last season, could step out of a car at a test next week at Phoenix feeling not right and have another decision to make. Or that could happen during Speed Weeks at Daytona in February. It may never happen again, but the nefarious nature of concussions will always cast doubt. But for now, he’s healthy and ready to return, he said. And he’s thankful for the opportunity to make a decision.

“I got real close to not being able to compete and it being someone else’s decision whether I competed or not,” he said.”People have asked me since I turned 40 when I would retire, and all I wanted to do was make that choice myself. I don’t know when I’m going to stop racing, but I want to able to make that choice and not have it made for me. All that stuff really showed me how much I have going for me and how fun this really is.”

So much fun that he seemed disappointment when a stringently enforced schedule had him deposed from the stage as he was just limbering up on Wednesday.

“I would have stayed longer,” he said.

Earnhardt plans to stay a lot longer this season, and he realize what it means to him.

NASCAR overhauls race and playoff format

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR is taking a progressive approach to modernizing its series with a radical new format.

It’s complicated and confusing to explain.

But the panel that spent the last seven months on this overhaul promised it’s going to be the best thing to happen in NASCAR in a very long time.

“Wait until you see it on the racetrack,” said 2012 champion Brad Keselowski. “If you are watching right now, please trust us. When you see this on the racetrack, this is going to be the best racing you’ve ever seen.”

The overhaul announced Monday assigns three stages to every race. The top 10 drivers at the end of Stage 1 and Stage 2 will be awarded points on a 10-through-1 scale. The third portion of the race will be for the overall victory, and although traditional point scoring will be applied for that stage, the win will be worth 40 points. The rest of the field will be scored on a 35 to 2 scale, and positions 36th to 40 will only receive 1 point.

All bonus points accumulated through the 26-race regular season can be used in the 10-race playoff, which will no longer be called “The Chase.”

“You still have the start of the race, you still have the end of the race, and in between, there’s going to be a lot of moments,” said Denny Hamlin, leader of the driver council.

“I think that there’s a lot of different things within this — you don’t necessarily need to know how a watch works, you just need to know what time it is. I think you’re going to see better racing on the racetrack, and that’s all that matters.”

NASCAR worked with a wide range of industry stakeholders to come up with the changes. Heavily involved were the television networks, retired drivers Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton, current drivers from the driver council and team and track executives. Monster Energy, which signed last month as the title sponsor for NASCAR’s top series, was only informed of the changes in the last few weeks.

The new format begins with the Feb. 26 season-opening Daytona 500.

“As a driver, I’m happy to be rewarded for performing well throughout the event, not just for how I finished,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver. “It’ll tick you off if you’re in that car for enough races and you’re whooping everybody’s butt all day long and then you get beat by somebody who’s running 20th all day, just by circumstance, how the cautions fall late in the race.

“So it’s going to be great to be rewarded as a driver for consistently performing well throughout an event.”

NASCAR was energized by the changes, particularly the stages that will allow for a commercial break that doesn’t occur during green-flag racing. Segment winners will be interviewed during the breaks, and NASCAR likes that it creates a pause that gives fans a chance to reset. It comes as the series is desperately trying to improve both attendance and television ratings, and Fox Sports estimated it will air 20 percent more of actual racing action because of the commercial breaks.

Race distances will not change under the format, which will apply to all three national series. Had NASCAR run the system this past season, Jimmie Johnson still would have won the title, but Martin Truex Jr. would have advanced one more round through the playoffs based on his two victories in the first round.

Among other changes:

— There will be no bonus points for leading a lap or for leading the most laps.

— The number of laps in each of the first two segments will be the same in a race, and the end of the second stage will be approximately at the halfway point of the race.

— Drivers will now earn bonus points that will be called playoff points and carry with them through the 10-race playoffs. Drivers will earn five playoff points for every race win and one playoff point for every segment win.

— The playoffs will remain divided into three three-race rounds with four drivers eliminated after each round to set up four finalists for the season finale, where the four finalists will not be eligible to earn segment victories.

— The exhibition duels during Speedweeks at Daytona next month will now be worth 10 points to the two race winners.

“You can get confused if you want to get into the weeds on math,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing. “This is really about introducing two breaks and rewarding your favorite driver for racing up front. What I’ve heard loud and clear from the fans on Twitter, ‘I want my driver rewarded for every race.’ That’s happening, and it’s as simple as that. It’s rewarding drivers for their effort all race long.”

A look at the five honorees set to join NASCAR Hall of Fame

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)   —    Five new members will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Friday night in a ceremony in Charlotte.

A look at the drivers and team owners that make up the class of 2017:

Rick Hendrick

Born: July 12, 1949

Age: 67

Hometown: Palmer Springs, Va.

Claim to fame: Owner of the most successful team in NASCAR history with 12 championships at the premier level, including a record-tying seven by Jimmie Johnson and four by Jeff Gordon. Hendrick Motorsports drivers have earned a combined 299 victories across NASCAR’s top three national series (Cup, Xfinity, Trucks) through 2016.

Quote: ”I think it’s the passion and being able to compete, and it just fuels you getting up and coming out here and trying to do it again.”

Richard Childress

Born: Sept. 21, 1945

Age: 71

Hometown: Winston-Salem, N.C.

Claim to fame: A hard-scrabble racer who was winless in 285 starts at NASCAR’s highest level, he ceded the wheel of the No. 3 car to an up-and-coming hard-charger named Dale Earnhardt in 1981. Together they won six championships and set the foundation for Richard Childress Racing and a NASCAR legend.

Quote:  “You look at life, I’m sure y’all have heard that old song, don’t blink, 100 years goes by fast.”

Mark Martin

Born: Jan. 9, 1959

Age: 58

Hometown: Batesville, Ark.

Claim to fame: Adorned with the double-edged descriptor of best driver to never win a NASCAR championship, the popular Martin claimed 40 wins in the Cup Series and 49 wins in what is now called the Xfinity Series. Despite winning neither a title nor a Daytona 500, his body of work convinced voters of his qualification after finishing as a championship runner-up five times.

Quote: “There are so many things in the world I don’t know, it’s ridiculous, but I knew racing pretty well.”

Benny Parsons

Born: July 12, 1941. Died: Jan. 16, 2007

Hometown: Wilkes County, N.C.

Claim to fame: His drama-filled title run in the 1973 Cup series helped mint the former Detroit taxi driver as an everyman champion and weekly threat. A Daytona 500 winner and the first NASCAR driver to pierce 200 mph, he later became a popular broadcaster.

Quote: “Benny Parsons was the kindest, sweetest, most considerate person I have ever known. He was almost too nice to be a race car driver, and I say that as a compliment. In my 30 odd years of racing Benny Parsons, I never knew of anyone being mad at Benny.” — Darrell Waltrip (2012 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee)

Raymond Parks

Born: June 5, 1914. Died: June 20, 2010

Hometown: Dawsonville, Ga.

Claim to fame: The former moonshiner is regarded as NASCAR’s first team owner, running the car used by Red Byron to win the sport’s first championship in 1949.

Quote: Raymond Parks, on how to make a small fortune: “You take a huge fortune, and then you go racing.”

NASCAR: Parsons, Martin, Hendrick selected to NASCAR Hall of Fame

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — To Benny Parsons, auto racing was everything.

From driving to announcing, he was an icon in the sport and became one of the most beloved figures in the NASCAR community.

Parsons, who died in 2007 at age 65, was rewarded for his accomplishments and impact on the sport when he was selected into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday.

Fellow driver Mark Martin and car owners Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress and Raymond Parks also were voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“Benny was one of the first drivers to make the smooth transition from the racecar to the broadcast booth,” said Doug Rice, PRN president and longtime TV co-host with Parsons. “His down-home style and vast experience made him an instant fan favorite and it gives me great joy to see him elected in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.”

Parsons, the 1973 NASCAR premier series champion, was the first driver to eclipse 200 mph in 1992 at Talladega Superspeedway. He was referred to by some as the “everyman’s champion” and was known for his consistency.

He won 21 times in 536 starts but finished in the top 10 in more than half of his starts (238).

Parsons’ biggest victory might have been in the 1975 Daytona 500, and he is recognized as one of NASCAR’s top 50 drivers. Following his racing career he made seamless transition into television and was a commentator for NBC and TNT until he died of lung cancer.

“This is the biggest honor of Benny’s life,” said Parsons’ widow, Terri. “It summarizes everything he has ever worked toward. Every job he has ever had be it as a race car driver in all divisions, host of a NASCAR radio shows, NASCAR color commentator for TV networks each were just as important to him as the next. He lived his life for NASCAR fans.”

Martin, who was driving up to see the Indianapolis 500 in his motor home when he heard the news, said he was “humbled to no end” to be a part of a class that includes Parsons. Parsons was instrumental in Martin getting into NASCAR when he was just a teenage dirt track driver growing up in Arkansas.

“He gave me great advice,” Martin said.

The 57-year-old Martin went on to win 96 races across NASCAR’s national series competition, including 40 on the Sprint Cup level. Still, he’s known as the best driver to never win a championship, finishing second in the Sprint Cup standings five times.

But he never let it define him.

“I don’t have a Daytona 500 trophy and a championship trophy,” Martin said. “I would ask the question ‘how would my life be different if I had one?’ I truly believe my life wouldn’t be different. But my life will be different from now on because I’m in the Hall of Fame now. That is my crown jewel.”

Hendrick won 14 owner championships, and Childress 11 across NASCAR’s three series.

Parks was the first car owner to win a title. He died in 2010 at 96.

Hendrick, the founder and owner of Hendrick Motorsports, has won 11 of his titles on the Sprint Cup circuit — six with Jimmie Johnson, four with Jeff Gordon and one with Terry Labonte. He owned drag racing boat teams before founding “All-Star Racing,” the team would evolve into Hendrick Motorsports in 1984.

While humbled by the Hall honor, Hendrick said he has no thoughts of slowing down.

“We have accomplished so much and I am appreciative of so much, but with as competitive as we are, I still want more,” Hendrick said.

Childress’ name is synonymous with Dale Earnhardt, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class. Earnhardt won six championships with Childress’ cars and 67 races between 1984 and 2000.

Childress said he didn’t expect to get voted in.

“I was told the only way you were going to get in is if you retire or you die,” said Childress. “I sure like the first one better.”

He said celebrated by honor by opening a bottle of his own Childress cabernet wine.

Childress started out as a driver, purchasing his first racecar for $20 at the age of 17. He formed Richard Childress Racing in 1972 and continued racing until 1981 before turning his focus to being a full-time owner.

“Only in America could a kid with a $20 racecar and a dream wind up in the Hall of Fame,” Childress said.

Parks was one of stock car racing’s earliest team owners. He began as an owner in 1939 with drivers Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall and his cars went on to dominate in the 1940s. Red Byron won the first modified NASCAR title in 1948 and his first premier series title in 1949 in a Parks-owned car.

Martinsville Speedway founder H. Clay Earles won the 2017 Landmark Award for outstanding contributions to NASCAR.

_____

The 2017 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, from left, Benny Parsons, Rick Hendrick, Mark Martin, Raymond Parks and Richard Childress, is displayed after being announced in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, May 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

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