Sunday, February 26, 2017

Rookie of the Year Contender: Erik Jones

While there are four drivers who will have the traditional yellow stripe on their bumper to note their rookie status this year, be cautious about thinking the stripe represents a lack of experience - these four drivers are anything but amateurs.  2017 marks each one’s first full time season in NASCAR’s top series, but these “new” kids on the track combine to already have nearly a full season of Monster Energy Series starts.

Erik Jones’ (age 20) ride for this year is the #77 owned by Furniture Row Racing. Jones is coming off a successful 2016 season in the Xfinity Series where he earned 6 wins and 15 top-5 finishes as a driver for Joe Gibbs Racing.   He has the most National Series wins of any of the four rookies with 13 wins between the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series.  Jones already has one ROTY honor to his name as he captured both this title and the Truck Series Championship Title in 2015 while driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports.  This accomplishment at just 19 years of age makes him the youngest Truck Series Champion to date.  In addition to these experiences, Erik already has three Monster Energy Series starts as he served as a replacement driver for Kyle Busch in 2015 when Busch broke his leg in the Xfinity season opener at Daytona. Watch out for Erik to be a serious contender throughout the year!

Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with Erik. Here is the interview:

“Can you describe what it felt like to have those first few laps of practice for something you have always dreamed about- the Daytona 500?”

It was a cool moment to finally get out on track and be at Daytona in a Cup car, let alone practicing for the Daytona 500.  It has been a neat week altogether. It’s my first Speedweeks – you only get to it once for your first time so I’m just trying to take it all in and enjoy it as it goes by but it’s definitely been a fun week and one I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.

“Do you have a favorite Daytona 500 memory as a fan?”

For sure, it would be 2007. It was my first NASCAR race I ever went to in person. Me and my family came down and sat in Turns 3 and 4 and it was just a fun weekend. It was the year that Kevin Harvick edged out Mark Martin.

“Other than how to get to Victory Lane, what is the biggest lesson you hope to learn from racing at Daytona?”

Just more superspeedway experience in general - especially in a Cup car. I’ve never raced a Cup car on a superspeedway. Superspeedways are something I’ve been trying to figure out because I struggle with them at times so just trying to figure it out and become a better superspeedway racer is definitely something I’m focusing on. I’ve always gone to Kyle (Busch) to help me learn. I have a close relationship to him, he gave me my first ride. I also talk to Martin (Truex Jr) some. I study with guys at JGR and all they do is study superspeedway racing so I’ve done as much as I can, it’s just a matter of going out there and applying it all.

“So we’re going to go for a lap around the track. Each turn has a different question. Turn 1 – do you like Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat better?”


“Turn 2 – do you have a hidden talent or a talent you wish you had?”

A hidden talent? I wish!! A talent I want to have? I would love to be able to be a good golfer.

“Turn 3 – What are your top 3 most listened to songs right now?”

Most listened to songs…um I don’t know. Let me look (pulls out phone). Let’s see…we’ve got “Bounce Back” by Big Sean, “Dirt on My Boots” by Jon Pardi, and “The Weekend” by Brantley Gilbert. That’s a pretty good mix.
“Turn 4 – what’s your favorite memory from the offseason?”

Just going home. I was home in Michigan for a month. We went on vacation to the Domincan – me and some of my friends – so that was a lot of fun but those two right there stick out. Being back in Michigan was nice, seeing all of my family and spending the holidays there.

“And the finish line – if a NASCAR genie told you to pick one race all season to win, which race would you pick?”

Daytona would be a big one. Let’s eliminate Daytona because everyone would say that. Beyond Daytona I would probably say the Southern 500. It’s tough between that one and the Bristol night race! Probably the Southern 500.

“Alright our lap is complete! Thank you so much!”

No problem. Thank you, it was fun!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

One Question, (Almost) Every Driver

What are you most looking forward to this season?

Ask anybody in NASCAR this question. Whether they are a fan, a driver, or work in the sport you'll get the same answer. RACING. What other answer would you expect? I asked many of the drivers that attended NASCAR Media Day this question and there were some really good answers! (Spoiler alert: They all involve getting back to racing!)

Regan Smith-- "Well, I'm curious to see how many times I mess up Xfinity's name. It's a tongue twister. I've messed it up a lot already! On the racetrack itself, I'm looking forward to getting back out there and racing. I'm looking forward to working with Jason Burdett and seeing him grow as a crew chief. Our relationship was good before he came to work here and it's gotten better since he came to work for JR Motorsports. ...I watch how he interacts with the guys, how the guys interact with him it gets me more excited for the season and getting everything started."

Casey Mears-- "Really the whole season.We're probably as prepared as we ever have been as an organization. We haven't tested so I haven't been in the car since Homestead so just getting back into the car and working with my team again."

Cole Custer-- "Just getting back out on the track. Trying to go out and win some races is the main goal this season. It's a big deal (to race for JR Motorsports). It's a huge honor to race for Dale Jr and I can't be thankful enough to drive for them. We're really going to have a great year this year."

Michael Waltrip-- "Seeing Michael Waltrip Racing return to part of the story. In 2014, (Clint) Bowyer was close to making the Chase but we didn't have the performance to last long. So just to...see Bowyer to get to Victory Lane and to get to drive a car myself. To drive the Aaron's car here puts a big smile on my face. And then to watch (Brian) Vickers return and have a car he can win with."

Brian Scott--"I'm looking forward to the battle for the championship in the Xfinity series. I was really pleased with how the second half of our season went last year. I feel like we dropped the ball early on which took us out of the championship picture. I feel like we've got the pieces in place and we're going to to start out this year a lot better as an organization (Richard Childress Racing)."

Paul Menard--"Just getting back in a routine and going to the racetrack every week. That's we are kind of groomed to do. So just get back in the grind and get started again."

Tyler Reddick-- "Winning a championship. That's our only goal!"

Elliott Sadler-- "Competing week in and week out. I still get my blood pumping on competing and being in the middle of the mix and in the hunt to win a race, win poles, compete at a high level week in and week out."

David Ragan---"I like to take it one race at a time so the Daytona 500 is what I'm looking forward to most right now. After Daytona, you kind of reset your goals. Obviously Atlanta is an important race to me.And how the new rule package affects the cars. I'm a big fan of the sport of NASCAR and I think it is very important for the health of our sport for the competition to stay close and the racing seems to be as good as ever. I can't wait for Atlanta, Vegas, and Pheonix to see how this new rule package handles."

Chris Buescher--"This season is very nerve-wracking for Roush Fenway Racing as a whole. We go back to last year and we realize our performance was not where we intended it to be and we worked extremely hard through the off season - the whole shop has, the drivers have. Having Bubba Wallace Jr come on board has been very new to us and very helpful. This should be a breakthrough year for our whole organization."

Kyle Larson-- "Just getting going and hoping we're still competitive with the rules package. Everybody gets excited for the season to start! Once the season starts, hopefully we can get a couple of wins and be competitive every week."

Matt Crafton-- "Getting back to the racetrack because that's what I love to do. I always love coming to Daytona and going through the tunnel and getting the season started.

Justin Allgier-- "Last year was my rookie season and I was going to a lot of these racetracks for the first time with a Sprint Cup Series car and Cup Series drivers so for me, being 365 days into this I feel way more comfortable coming into the Daytona 500 than I was last year. And I think that that's what I'm most looking forward to - being more comfortable going into races."

Aric Almirola-- "We  want to do a lot of the same things we did last year but there is a certain number of things that we want to do better. We want to run more consistently. We had signs of speed throughout the year last year but we didn't do it consistently week in and week out. We want to do that this year. We want to get back to Victory Lane. We want to make the Chase, but when we get to the Chase we want to be perfect."

Darrell Wallace Jr-- "Winning!! Just like every season but I've got a whole new plate here. There's a lot of things to get adjusted to."

Ben Kennedy-- "I'm really looking forward to working with this group of guys. Everyone we have on our team is really awesome and really diverse. Also being with TRD and being able to use those resources, I'm really looking forward to that. Honestly, I mostly looking forward to just seeing what we can do on the race track."

Greg Biffle--"Winning! We had a tough year last year and performance wise just weren't where I wanted to be and we feel like this year we've learned a lot and we feel like we can be more competitive."

Erik Jones-- "I think I'm looking forward to just getting to run full time. Being part time the past two seasons has been tough in a lot of ways so being in the truck more. Getting to run Xfinity races - that will be fun! I'm looking forward to getting more experience there as well. Just an exciting year all around, getting to run a lot of races and hopefully picking up some wins along the way."

Landon Cassill-- "We have a new engine program with my team so I'm really excited how the performance is with the racecar."

Alex Bowman-- "The thing I look forward to most is just being with a new race team - Tommy Baldwin - and having Bono (Kevin Manion)as a crew chief, having really good racecars and good horsepower. I feel like we can really exceed expectations."

Jeb Burton--"Just to get out there and earn respect. I wnnt to get some good runs and get some good finishes and take BK Racing to the next level."

Behind the Scenes: NASCAR Media Day

Media Day is one of the coolest days in NASCAR to me. There are so many journalists, PR reps, and NASCAR employees packed into one room to hear what the best drivers in the sport have to say. You've seen all of the Media Day quotes from all of your favorite drivers (probably multiple times) but you've probably never had a real inside look at what Media Day is like.

Media Day takes place in the Daytona 500 Club building in the infield of Daytona International Speedway. There's many different moving parts to the day - drivers walking around the building to their different appointments and journalists moving from driver to driver.

Up to four drivers were available at one time to the print media at four different stations so it was nearly impossible to hear every single driver!

The drivers that drew the biggest crowds of the day (not surprisingly) were Danica Patrick, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jr, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, and Jeff Gordon.


But the action didn't stop when the drivers were done with their print interviews. They also rotated through a red carpet for interviews for the TV and radio outlets, the Fox Sports table that was live on TV, and ESPN.

Most things including the print media and the TV/radio media took place in the giant room on the first floor of the Daytona 500 Club. 

Upstairs, photographers and TV stations filmed and photographed the drivers for things like headshots, TV spots and commercial breakaways. 

And in the middle of all the action? The trophy all of the drivers will be after next week.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

What Does Chase Elliott's Championship Mean for NASCAR?

           Chase Elliott is proving to the NASCAR world that he and other drivers his age are ready to be competitive with veterans in NASCAR’s national touring series. Chase Elliott clenched the Nationwide Series championship this weekend – another step in his climb to the Sprint Cup Series. And so many drivers his age are right behind him as they are at different stages of breaking into the three national series-Ben Rhodes, Darrell Wallace Jr, Ryan Blaney, Cameron Hayley, Cole Custer, Erik Jones, Jeb Burton, Kenzie Ruston, Gray Gaulding, and John Hunter Nemechek – just to name a few.  Drivers that were once the young guns in NASCAR – Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards – are now the veterans in the sport. Chase’s championship shows the NASCAR world that this new crop of drivers is ready to compete with veterans.

            This youth movement isn’t coming - it’s here. The truck series race at Phoenix is proof of this transformation as over 15 of the drivers in the race were 22 years old or younger. In Nationwide and Sprint Cup, the number of youth drivers trying to make a name for themselves is growing – Dylan Kwasneski, Kyle Larson, Ryan Reed, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, and Ty Dillon. In the coming years, these are going to be the names you hear every weekend competing for wins. They are going to be the names that are setting records and winning championships.

            Chase’s championship isn’t only good for these drivers, but it’s good for the fans too. Most people look around at a NASCAR race and think that there are a lot of fans at the track. When I look around, I see plenty of adult fan, but not enough teenage fans. How do we get younger fans interested in NASCAR? It’s a question with no simple solution – but fresh, young competitors will help. Veteran fans are re-energized by the presence of the younger drivers.  Younger fans like to see racers they can relate to and inspire them to keep chasing their dreams, whatever they may be.With this new crop of drivers, comes a new crop of fans just like them – young and energetic.

            Chase Elliott is the youngest NASCAR national series champion ever. His last name was already legendary, but Chase is going to create his own legend. Some of the young drivers breaking into NASCAR may not have well-known names yet, but someday they will. NASCAR veterans look out…the future of our sport is here.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

NASCAR Next: Gray Gaulding

            He’s not old enough for a driver’s license, but he has already proven himself on some of NASCAR’s premier tracks. 15 year old NASCAR Next driver, Gray Gaulding, started his racing career competing on dirt bikes when he was just 3 years old. When Gaulding was 9, his family (Mom, dad, and two sisters- McCall and Kennedy) moved to North Carolina to allow him to chase his racing dreams. Gray recognizes he wouldn’t be where he is today without their support and says he “can’t even explain how much they’ve sacrificed for me to become a race car driver.” The next phase of his racing career included racing Bandelaro and legend cars before moving to late models in 2011 as a developmental drive for Kevin Harvick, Inc. In 2013, Gaulding competed in 19 K&N Pro series (East and West) races and won the West series finale in Phoenix, making him the youngest driver to win a race in the series. This year he will run a full K&N East schedule for NTS Motorsports in the #20 Krispy Kreme/TruMoo Milk Toyota as well as make his debut in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. 
            I recently had the opportunity to interview Gray at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Gray is looking forward to all of the opportunities he will have in what promises to be an exciting 2014 season. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. I’ll be able to do a lot of learning.” Gray sees his biggest challengeas learning to drive the tracks he will visit for the first time this year. He describes his driving style as “driving every lap like it’s my last.” He also credits his crew chief and crew members with helping him achieve the balance between being overly aggressive and being on edge enough to know what his car needs to contend for the win. 
            Gray has to achieve balance in his racecar just like other drivers, but he also has an additional challenge-balancing high school and his racing career. Having to live in both worlds is another way for Gray to connect with fans of our generation since many of us balance school with passions such as sports and activities. Gray is completing his high school career with a combination of virtual and traditional classes. “I do my virtual program when I’m on the road, but I go to school when I’m home during the week.”Gray admits, “it gets hard sometimes trying to do appearances and balance school work” but he makes it work because “racing is [his] dream.”
            Since Gray’s life is not a “normal” teenager’s life, he thinks people might be surprised to know that he likes “to hang out and be a typical 15 year old.” He loves to stay fit by playing basketball and working out. Gray is consistently in the gym whether at home or on the road because he recognizes that training not only enhances his performance in the car but that it is also “just good to be healthy.” While he knows it’s just as important to eat healthy as it is to stay active, sometimes Gray treats himself to an oatmeal raisin cookie, frosted MiniWheats, or a burger from In-N-Out! 
Those who already follow Gray’s racing career won’t be shocked to learn that his go-to snack is courtesy of his sponsors- a Krispy Kreme doughnut with a glass of TruMoo Chocolate Milk! And just like most every other teenager he likes social media, games on his phone (“If I have free time, you will catch me playing [Hill Climb].”), listening to music (rock and rap), watching TV (preferably Race Hub as it is his “all time favorite!”), and sports (“I’m a huge Dallas Cowboy fan!”)! Like many boys his age, he looks forward to the day he can finally get his driver’s license! But unlike many boys his age, he already owns a dream car- an ISF Lexus given to him by Toyota as a perk of being a Toyota driver! Gray hopes that one day his garage holds a Camaro and a Lamborghini!

Follow Gray’s career on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Cheer the 3

Cheer the 3. What does it mean to you?  For many in my dad’s generation the 3 is Dale Earnhardt. For my generation the 3 is Dale Earnhardt…AND Austin Dillon. How the next generation answers that question is yet to be determined, but Richard Childress’ decision to put the 3 back on the track insures that Dale Earnhardt’s legacy will be remembered by NASCAR fans for years. 

For many fans, the 3 car was what brought them into NASCAR and made them fall in love with the sport. The same is true for me.   My dad was, and still is, a loyal Earnhardt fan.   He was in the stands when Dale Earnhardt finally won the 1998 Daytona 500.   And when Earnhardt died, I have been told it was like a family member had died. Although I was only two years old in 2001 and do not remember watching Dale Earnhardt race, I have come to understand why people feel such an attachment to the number since I have been a fan of NASCAR for my whole life.   I know that the sport I love would not be what it is today without Dale Earnhardt.   

The 3 was Dale Earnhardt’s coat of arms.  And before him, it was Richard Childress’.  Now it is being passed down to Austin Dillon. He will create his own legacy in the car and also pay tribute to Dale Earnhardt while doing so. Racing the 3 is a way to honor Dale Earnhardt, not a way to replace him.   Austin Dillon driving the 3 car is a thread to connect the past, present, and future of NASCAR.  How will future generations know of the legacy if we keep the number’s story off the track?  Every time the 3 rolls through Turn 4 of Daytona International Speedway in February, everyone’s minds will turn to Dale Earnhardt.  

My generation knows the legacy of the Earnhardt 3 because we learned it from our parents and from watching and reading about NASCAR.   It is my generation’s responsibility to pass down the history of the sport to future generations.  Some day when we are watching a race with our kids and they wonder why we get emotional when Austin Dillon’s 3 takes the checkered flag, we’ll tell them the story of Dale Earnhardt.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

NASCAR Next: Meet Ben Rhodes

          The Charlotte race weekend was a big one for me as I experienced NASCAR’s past, present, and future! In one weekend, I had the opportunity to interview one of NASCAR’s greatest legends-Richard Petty- and some of NASCAR’s future stars – Ben Rhodes, Gray Gaulding, and Ryan Gifford. Ben, Gray, and Ryan are involved in the NASCAR Next program, a program that features race car drivers who have a promising NASCAR future ahead of them and promotes these drivers to fans and teams. One of my goals as a teenage journalist is to promote the sport to my generation. I think one of the best ways to do this is to feature young drivers that people my age can relate to and follow their development in the sport. After all, these are the drivers that are our sport’s future and we will be able to say, “We knew them when…”
          Ben Rhodes is a 16 year old Louisville, Kentucky native who had a busy year in 2013, driving both the #41 Alpha Energy Solutions car in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series for Hawk-McCall Motorsports and K&N Pro Series East car for Turner-Scott Motorsports. Along with 6 victories in the All-American Series, he finished third (behind Kyle Busch and David Ragan) in the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown. He also finished in the top-10 in five of his seven K&N East races. Ben plans to race full-time in the K&N series in 2014, running for both Rookie of the Year and the championship.
          Here’s a chance to get to know Ben!

ML: Tell me a little bit about your racing career up to this point.

BR: I started out racing go-karts when I turned 7. I raced those for about 6 years, and then moved on to Bandolero, then Legends. I won about 43 races in 2011 in Legend cars and then moved into Late Models. I had zero wins my first year in Late Models. My second year-this year- I have 5 wins and I’m racing part-time K&N. A lot of progress and a lot of work to get where we are now.

ML: What are your plans for next year?

BR: Next year we are going to drive full time K&N for Turner-Scott Motorsports and a few truck races are on the radar. I’m looking forward to it!

ML: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in your racing career?

BR: Really there’s been a challenge in every series I’ve been in. In go-karts there was always somebody that I kind of became rivals with. In Legends cars I had a big rival. Every track we went to he was just as fast as me. I’ve learned a lot from every person I’ve raced against. It made me a better person and better on the track too. For example, they would try to hang me out to dry on the outside. They would try to set you up so you would fall to the back. I had to learn how to set them up and counteract it. It was cool to learn all that.

ML: Where were you and who told you that you were a NASCAR Next driver?

BR: (looks at PR representative, Stix) What was it? A week ahead of Iowa when we found out we were on NASCAR Next? (Stix nods) About a week ahead of the first Iowa race, which was an East-West combo, so the majority of the NASCAR Next people were going to be there. They told us a week ahead of time, we showed up, they had the announcement, then it was official. We got all the goodies! We got the shirts, a couple of hats, and our schedule later in the mail-where we were going to go and all the cool events we got to take part in.

ML: What is your favorite opportunity you’ve had as a NASCAR Next driver?

BR: Probably the Chicago trip! That’s been our biggest and best event so far. We got to look around the city a little bit, then we went to the track and met some of the firemen and safety crews. We went to the Contender’s Live Event (an event in Chicago with all of the Chase drivers). That was pretty cool!

ML: What Sprint Cup or Nationwide driver do you admire and look up to the most and why?

BR: Growing up it was Jeff Gordon because my family knew him. My uncle worked on his sprint car growing up, building engines and stuff.

ML: How do you balance school and racing?

BR: I go to a small school so that helps! Everybody knows each other. I know all the teachers. They’ll send me emails. They will give me my work ahead of time if I ask for it. I can really go up to them and ask them about anything and they’ll be there to help. It’s really great people at my school. They help out in any way that they can. They support me one-hundred percent. I can miss 30 days like I did last year and as long as I keep my grades up they’re okay with it.

ML: I don’t think I could miss that many school days and get everything done to pass all my classes!

BR: Yeah, it was kind of rough!

ML: Do you have time for any other hobbies?

BR: Not really- between getting home after long weekends and trying to make up my school work from missing Thursday and Friday of the previous week and everything else that happens during the day. I go home, I work out, do my homework and if I’ve done all that I like to spend time with my family-even if it is late at night. 

ML: What’s your favorite TV show?

BR: (thinks for a minute, then laughs) Oh man….I don’t know! Anything to do with racing!

ML: Favorite singer or band?

BR: I can give you a genre! Hard rock- stuff I listen to when I work out to get me pumped up!

ML: Favorite junk food?

BR: There’s so many! Does Taco Bell count as junk food?

ML: Sure!

BR: Taco Bell, doughnuts, Little Debbies!

ML: What’s your favorite movie?

BR: It’s hard to pick favorites! I have a selection of favorites!

ML: What kind of movies- funny, scary?

BR: Funny movies and action movies I guess!

ML: What car do you have in real life?

BR: I got an old F-150 when I turned 16. It’s not bad! It gets me from Point A to 
Point B.

ML: What’s your favorite fast food?

BR: Probably Subway. I eat Subway all the time!

ML: Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram?

BR: Twitter. That’s the only one I really know! (laughs)

ML: Favorite app?

BR: Oh, this is hard! I look at iFunny a lot!

ML: What’s one thing about yourself that would surprise most people?

BR: I’m a relaxed driver on the streets. I’m a racecar driver so I like to go fast, but I go the speed limit on the street!

ML: Do you have a Sprint Cup driver that you pull for every weekend?

BR: I like a lot of drivers. I like Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose –I used to drive for him in late models and he’s hilarious!

ML: Do you follow any other sports? Football, baseball?

BR: Nope! Just racing!

I enjoyed getting to know Ben in person after following his career for the past year! I have a feeling that we’ll all be cheering for him in NASCAR for many years to come!

For more on Ben Rhodes, follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, as well as on his website,!