NASCAR: Xfinity driver Daniel Suarez, ex-NFL WR Willie Gault win Gridiron Challenge (VIDEO)

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A four-wide dash on the final lap ended with Joe Gibbs Racing Xfinity driver Daniel Suarez and former NFL wide receiver Willie Gault taking the checkered flag to win NBC Sports’ NASCAR Gridiron Racing Challenge presented by Toyota.

The 20-lap race ended a series of competitions involving six tandems of NASCAR drivers and ex-NFL players at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Before the serious business began, the day started with a laugh as Joe Gibbs himself jokingly gave the football greats something he figured they may need: Diapers.

The players then ran in single-car qualifying on the 1.5-mile oval to begin the Challenge. Rod Smith, another former NFL receiver, paired with JGR Sprint Cup driver Kyle Busch, ran the fastest time:

Then came the second event: A football throwing competition for the NASCAR drivers, where every ball through a target meant seconds taken off their respective player’s qualifying time.

Busch bested Suarez in their head-to-head match-up – probably a given as Suarez admitted beforehand that he had never thrown a football before.

As for the other match-ups, Michael Waltrip Racing’s Clint Bowyer topped JGR newcomer Carl Edwards …

… and Denny Hamlin defeated Matt Kenseth, even with the latter earning three points for putting a late throw through the deepest target.

Edwards may have lost his duel with Bowyer, but his five passing points allowed him and NBC Sports’ Super Bowl XLIX pregame analyst Hines Ward to claim the pole position for the 20-lap race.

For this final event, the players rode along in the passenger seat as their driver teammates raced at more than 180 miles per hour. On the last lap, Suarez went to the inside of Busch/Smith, Bowyer/Christian Okoye, and Kenseth/Doug Flutie as they all barreled into Turn 3.

As Bowyer slipped back, Suarez passed Busch for the lead in Turn 4 and went on to victory.

The ex-NFL stars all came away impressed not just with the speeds, but with the precision that’s needed to drive a race car. During the halfway intermission of the race, Smith had this to say about riding shotgun with Busch:

The Super Bowl XLIX pregame show on NBC will feature a segment of the Gridiron Challenge. Pregame coverage from Arizona begins Sunday at Noon ET.

NASCAR Gridiron Racing Challenge presented by Toyota
Charlotte Motor Speedway – Results

1. 18-Daniel Suarez/Willie Gault
2. 15-Clint Bowyer/Christian Okoye
3. 18-Kyle Busch/Rod Smith
4. 20-Matt Kenseth/Doug Flutie
5. 19-Carl Edwards/Hines Ward
6. 11-Denny Hamlin/Brian Mitchell

Hunter and Jett Lawrence walk a delicate balance between winning races and favoring the fans

Hunter Jett Lawrence fans
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ANAHEIM, California – Hunter and Jett Lawrence are two of the most popular riders on the Monster Energy Supercross circuit, with fan bases that established and grew immediately when they came to America to ride for HRC Honda. Connecting with those fans came naturally for the charming Australian brothers, but it has not come without cost.

“It’s cool they’re there and it’s one of the things we try to do is give the fan that interaction,” Hunter told NBC Sports during Supercross Media Sessions ahead of the 2023 season. “It’s why we do ride days, meet-and-greets, press conferences  – all that stuff, because it’s exciting for them. We are trying to bridge the gap so they get personal interaction. Because that’s all they’re after. It’s all about getting that fan to think, ‘I know that guy. I didn’t meet him, but I get him. I get his humor.’ ”

There is no artifice in either brother. Their fan appeal is directly attributable to who they are at their core. And it’s that very genuineness that has throngs of fans standing outside their hauler, waiting for just a moment of their time.

“It’s about being yourself – talking to people,” Hunter said. “It’s not like I turn it on or turn it off; it’s just about being yourself. This is who we are, this is who you get and this is how it will be. You can’t portray something you’re not. If you keep saying you’re an orange, but apples keep popping out, it’s only a matter of time [until they figure it out].”

The key word is ‘throngs’, however. One person wanting just a few moments of time is incidental. Dozens are an entirely different matter.

“It’s tough in Supercross because it’s such a long day,” Hunter said. “The recovery side of it’s tough to do everything. We get stuck outside the grid; we can’t be there for like 10 minutes. We’re stuck there for like an hour. It gets overwhelming at times.

“You feel bad because you want to sign everything, but you’re still here for a job. Every race day is like that. We do the best we can, but there are so many people who wait out front. They’re screaming for you. Even when we’re coming off the sessions, they’re already yelling before you put your bike on the stands. You don’t even get time to take you helmet off.”

It can be a double-edged sword. Personality is only one part of the equation. A much bigger part of the brothers’ fan appeal comes because of their success. Hunter finished second in the last two Supercross 250 West title battles and third in the past two Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championships.

Jett won the last three titles he competed for, including last year’s 250 East Supercross Championship and the last two Motocross contests.

“I think they expect me to have nothing else to do on a Saturday and that I have unlimited energy,” Jett said. “But, I’m trying to recover for the next race.”

It’s a matter of timing. Jett has gained a reputation last year for handing out hundreds of donuts before the races during Red Bull fan appreciation sessions. And after the race, once the business at hand has been settled, Jett is equally available to the fans.

“After the race it’s fine; I’ll stay behind.” Jett said. “My job is done on the racing side of things, but until that last moto is done, my main thing is dirt bikes. The fans come along with it. The fans are part of the job, but main job at hand is the racing side of things. After the race, I’ll stay there for an hour or so. It’s a lot calmer.”