Jeff Gordon talks RTA, minimum speeds, and inaugural Brickyard 400 win

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The ongoing saga of the Race Team Alliance – the “collaborative business association” that nine of the sport’s biggest teams formed early last week – progressed a bit at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Race track magnate Bruton Smith slammed the RTA. Reigning Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (a member of RTA squad Hendrick Motorsports) defended it. And NASCAR president Mike Helton tried to downplay any chatter involving animosity between the RTA and the sanctioning body.

Additionally, RTA chairman and Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman said that the group was now open to taking in new teams – so long as said teams have attempted to qualify in 95 percent of the 72 Sprint Cup races that have been run over the past two years.

Now, another Hendrick driver has stepped up to voice his support for the RTA. Four-time Cup champ and current points leader Jeff Gordon said in a teleconference this morning that the group’s formation will benefit the sport in the long term.

“They need to be able to do business, and it’s turned into a big business, and it’s constantly growing,” Gordon said in reference to the teams. “I’m in support of it because if the teams are strong and more successful, then that’s good for us that are part of the team.

“It’s good for the sport, it’s good for the fans, and so, I think that this is definitely going to be something that we’re all going to learn from and grow from, but I think it’s something that definitely is only going to be good for the sport in general.”

Gordon also stressed that the RTA was truly a “team alliance,” not an owner alliance.

“Some people are saying that, but to me, it’s what’s going to make the teams more efficient, stronger, more profitable. And to me, that includes the drivers,” he added. “That includes all the employees on each of those teams; I think that it’s in a lot of ways covering us, as well. We’re aligned with the teams.

“I have a contract with a team and I want that team to be strong. Because I know if that team is strong, then that secures my position as a driver. It secures our sponsors and only helps us with our partners and our fans.”

In addition to the RTA, Gordon also touched upon yesterday’s crash involving Joey Logano and the lapped car of Morgan Shepherd.

The incident has brought up the matter of minimum speeds in Sprint Cup races, and Gordon indicated that he’d like to see that minimum raised at certain tracks.

“I don’t think [drivers] have any place out there if they’re running that slow – whether you’re a car that’s had damage and you can’t maintain the minimum speed, or is the minimum speed the proper speed,” said Gordon.

However, Gordon noted that at places like New Hampshire, the minimum speed can be hard to truly measure. A car can perhaps meet the minimum in clean air, but with traffic at a constant, clean air is hard to come by.

“How do we truly measure minimum speed because if you do it every lap that they’re getting passed by a faster car, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t make minimum speed,” Gordon said.

“So I think NASCAR maybe looks at sometimes once they get into clean air are they making minimum speed. And at a place like New Hampshire or Martinsville, they’re never in clean air, and I don’t think they’re ever going to make minimum speed.”

Mixed in between talk on those two subjects were memories of Gordon’s 1994 win in the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

This year’s running, which takes place on July 27 after Sprint Cup takes a weekend off, marks the 20th anniversary of that triumph.

“Most of the things that stand out to me was really about just the madness and craziness of how big that event was, how popular it was among fans – not just traditional NASCAR fans but new fans to the sport,” Gordon recalled.

“Even if you go back to the [pre-race] test that we had, the fans were just lined up on the fence around the garage area just wanting to see stock cars race at Indianapolis, and it was much of the same when it came to race day – just so many fans and you just couldn’t walk anywhere without getting mobbed.

“That just showed you the impact and significance of that inaugural event.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”