NASCAR: Chase contenders cause chuckles at “After The Lap”

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source: Getty Images
Chase drivers cut loose Thursday night in NASCAR After The Lap. Photo: Getty Images.

With a pressure-packed Chase for the Sprint Cup finally over, the 16 contenders for this year’s title got to cut loose a bit tonight in Las Vegas at NASCAR After The Lap.

The “ultimate driver tell-all” has produced some interesting moments in the past, perhaps the most interesting being the revelation of Jeff Gordon’s break dancing skills in 2011.

We didn’t get another boogie from Gordon or anybody else tonight, but there were still some really funny moments.

New Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick started the evening with a flashy entrance before speaking with host/ESPN reporter Marty Smith about winning a title in his first year with Stewart-Haas Racing (credit to Jeff Gluck of USA Today for the clip below):

“I think we expected to race for wins and be competitive, but I don’t think you can ever imagine it coming together like it has this year,” Harvick said. “I think with the format and winning early in the season and being able to really get a lot of our new team problems out of the way in the first half of the season – for us, it was important.

“As we got further into the year, we started proving to ourselves that we could win in pressure situations and that’s what it came down to with a couple of those at the end.”

That led into the first big group segment of the night, which included Smith asking about drivers’ specific ‘Welcome to NASCAR’ moments.

Jeff Gordon, who was pushing for a career in IndyCar racing in his early years, talked of how running a Busch Grand National car at Rockingham (N.C.) showed what NASCAR could hold for him.

Denny Hamlin (whose No. 11 car lost an engine during the afternoon’s Victory Lap parade down the Las Vegas Strip) spoke of getting a tongue-lashing from Tony Stewart at Chicagoland after racing door-to-door with J.J. Yeley early in the race.

“I was like, immediately, ‘Okay, I’m sorry, sir,'” Hamlin recalled.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. also had a great tale involving the first time he raced against his father, seven-time Cup champion Dale Sr., in a 1998 exhibition race in Japan.

After the two tangled on the track toward the end of the race, the Earnhardts had to share a trailer afterwards to change into street clothes.

Junior was feeling good about his efforts, but those vibes quickly disappeared.

“I had my head down taking my shoes off, and he threw a shoe at me,” he said. “He didn’t say a word the whole time I was in there, and he threw a shoe at me, and it must have been going 100 miles an hour. It hit the wall behind me and knocked a hole in the wall.”

As it turns out, the Intimidator had another reason to be mad.

“We had stole a set of tires from his pit stall in the middle of the race,” Junior explained, triggering a wave of laughs from the crowd. “Me and Tony [Eury] Jr. needed tires. Nobody could pit that last stop. A bunch of guys had used all their tires up and [Dale Sr.] had an extra set.

“…They didn’t come and get that last set of tires, and we stole them out of the pit, put ’em on our car, passed him and ran him in the wall, and he was really pissed off about that. We didn’t sit next to each other on that 13-hour [plane] ride home.”

Another memorable moment came when NASCAR’s current wearer of the black hat, Brad Keselowski, made his entrance for the second group segment to a chorus of boos.

Afterwards, the conversation settled on drivers’ first jobs. Keselowski replied that he washed motor homes for his father at the track, which led Kyle Busch to cut in and ask Gordon if he would let Keselowski – his sparring partner in last month’s post-race fight at Texas – wash his.

“Yes, I would,” Gordon said. “I’d have him start underneath.”

That was when Harvick, who had now returned to the stage, spoke up.

“Has anybody else noticed how happy Kyle is?,” he said. “He’s the one that’s been doing all the stirring. He’s so happy that they boo Brad more than him. He can’t hardly get over it.”

After a loud round of applause, Busch replied: “I feel like Dale Earnhardt Jr. anywhere I walk in now.”

Needless to say, a fun time was had by all.

Previous F1 competition doesn’t guarantee IndyCar success at COTA

Manor F1 Photo
Manor F1 Photo
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AUSTIN, Texas – Familiarity does not breed success, according to three NTT IndyCar Series drivers who have previous experience at Circuit of the Americas in the Formula One United States Grand Prix. Several other drivers, including IndyCar Series rookie Patricio O’Ward, competed in the LMPC IMSA race in 2017.

Although the course is the same – 20-turns and 3.41-miles – the cars are completely different. The highly-advanced, technologically-driven Formula One cars are advanced beyond the realm of anything allowed in the NTT IndyCar Series. It’s more about the driver in IndyCar, which uses an impressive, but simpler formula to help showcase driver skill more than technology in its races.

Money buys speed in Formula One, but an IndyCar team doesn’t need a $400 million budget to go racing. It can get by on $5 millions to $10 million a year and contend for plenty of race victories and championships.

Andretti Autosport star Alexander Rossi drove in five Formula One races with Manor in 2015. The above photo is from his only F1 contest at COTA that season. He was the first driver ever to turn laps at COTA shortly after it was constructed in 2012.

Rossi had his best F1 finish in the 2015 United States Grand Prix when he started 17thand finished 12th.

“When I’ve come here in the past, I came into the weekend fully knowing that there was no chance to ever really do anything from a results perspective,” Rossi said. “To could come here to a track that I’ve spent a lot of time at, not necessarily driven a whole lot, but spent a huge amount of time at. To come into this weekend’s race, competing on a level where we have as good a shot as any, to win the race would be pretty cool.

“There’s kind of an almost unfinished business box that we’d like to tick here in some way. I’m very excited to get the weekend started.”

Chilton raced the entire F1 season in 2013 and 2014 with Marussia. He started 21stand finished 21stin 2013. He started in the first 16 races during the 2014 F1 season but was out of a ride by the time F1 arrived at COTA that season.

Me and Alex probably had pretty similar experiences,” Chilton told NBC Sports.com “Obviously the more laps are better — but the car we were in, we weren’t doing much racing, so the sort of racing experience part isn’t going to help.

“It’s good to be back. I first came here in 2013 for the (United States) Grand Prix. I loved the track. I love the city. I really enjoyed the whole facility, the race track. It’s a pretty long track in an Indy car but it’s got lots of overtaking potential for us and hopefully we’ll put on a great show.

“It’s great to have an English band like Muse on Saturday night, as well.”

Marcus Ericsson of Sweden has the most experience at COTA of any driver in the field for Sunday’s INDYCAR Classic. He competed in 97 F1 contests from 2014-2018 before becoming an IndyCar rookie with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports this season.

Ericsson was 15thin 2015, 14thin 2016, 15thin 2017 and 10thin last year’s USGP.

“I’ve been here quite a few times,” Ericsson said. “It’s one of the best tracks on F1 and I think it’s great we are going here with INDYCAR. It’s going to be a great weekend.

“The racing should be very good. It’s already good on F1 on this track and from what I’ve done in INDYCAR, it’s going to be a really good show from everyone and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Ericsson emphasized that the his F1 experience does not necessarily give him any type of advantage in an IndyCar.

“I think for me I was here a couple months ago in F1 doing the race in ’18. I had all my reference points and then I did the first run and realized that didn’t really work,” Ericsson explained to NBC Sports.com “So I don’t know that the experience — it’s good to know the track, but then the Indy cars are very different cars to the F1 (car) so you have to sort of drive it quite differently and in the end, I think it didn’t really help the maximum amount in my opinion.

“The problem is we had two days of testing already in IndyCar. If we had come here straightaway without any testing it would be an advantage of one hundredth approximate. But now, if you don’t get the track in two days, I don’t think you would be in IndyCar.

“I don’t think it’s a big advantage now going into the weekend.”

But every little bit helps and if all of those little “bits” of information are added up, previous experience can provide a benefit in the race.

“For sure there’s things I can bring from my experience there that helps in INDYCAR, but the Indy car to drive today is different than the Formula One cars with the power steering and everything,” Ericsson continued. “I think it’s two different cars and what I found here on the test; things that worked in the F1 car didn’t really work in the Indy car. I think both cars of very difficult to be fast in but in different ways.

“For sure my experience in F1, it’s helped me to get into INDYCAR.”

James Hinchcliffe, who has never driven in Formula One, or at COTA, believes he has the best experience of any driver in Austin this weekend.

“I know where the restaurants are, so that’s cool,” Hinchcliffe said.