Edwards claims caution-filled Southern 500

Carl Edwards survived a caution-filled night to capture his first career victory at Darlington Raceway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver started 13th and struggled the first half of the race. A flat tire derailed his rhythm and put him two laps down. Fast pit stops and strong strategic decisions allowed him to gain one of his laps back. He returned to the lead lap after grabbing the free pass. After that, Edwards and his No. 19 crew put their nose to the grindstone to stay in contention.

Edwards fought against Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, and Denny Hamlin within the last 50 laps to secure the monumental victory. The battles produced tight racing and bounds of excitement. In the end, the final pit stop gave the Columbia, Missouri native an advantage, placing him first with eight laps to go. He took off, and the rest is—figuratively and literally—history.

“I feel like my team needs to be sitting up here with me,” Edwards said in the post-win press conference, adding, “They won this race for me tonight.”

The driver—who was a big advocate in the race’s low-downforce rules package—praised the end-result of the event. He stated he wants other drivers to see the enthusiastic racing he saw and push for the same rules to appear in 2016.

“I hope I never forget those last 25 laps. It was really fun,” he said with a laugh.

The weight of the win isn’t lost on the organization, either. Team owner Joe Gibbs said, “I don’t think you could draw up a bigger win for us.”

This is Edwards’ 25th victory in 398 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts and his second in 2015. It also marked Toyota’s 75th Sprint Cup win.

The Bojangles’ Southern 500’s return to Labor Day weekend was built up to the extreme, complete with a throwback motif. Teams and sponsors arranged paint schemes honoring some of the sport’s pioneers. NASCAR on NBC enlisted legends Ken Squier, Ned Jarrett, and Dale Jarrett to call a portion of Sunday night’s broadcast. Drivers wore vintage-style firesuits. The flashback idea wasn’t the only thing that made the crown jewel race worth watching; the use of the rules package and new tires added another element of unpredictability.

That element of the unknown led to eighteen cautions for a total of 89 laps, a race record. The increase in yellow flags led to another issue—lack of tires. Teams were given 12 sets of tires for the race, and it quickly became apparent that wouldn’t be enough. However, NASCAR refused to offer teams extra sets. Tire management was now the name of the game, and many didn’t play it well. That led to more cautions, making the event longer. The Southern 500 ended right before midnight on the East Coast, four hours and 28 minutes after the green flag.

Although the race was long, it was also full of entertainment and historic markers. The Southern 500’s return to Labor Day lived up to the hype and brought a first-time winner along with it.

For Danielle Trotta, dedication and mentors paved way to success

Danielle Trotta is the perfect role model for those trying to get into NASCAR and broadcasting. (Credit: FoxSports.com)
Danielle Trotta is the perfect role model for those trying to get into NASCAR and broadcasting. (Credit: FoxSports.com)

Danielle Trotta never backs down from a challenge.

She is known as the smiling co-host on NASCAR Race Hub, but the Westchester, New York native climbed to the top with determination. She knew early on what she wanted to do and how to achieve it.

“I just got really lucky,” Trotta told Up Top The Pit Box over the phone. “I did TV in high school. [Carmel High School in Carmel, Indiana] had a broadcast station, a radio channel, everything. It helped me get a huge leg up because I was doing reports at 16.”

Moving with her family landed her in Charlotte, where she attended college. She obtained a Journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and became a sports intern at WBTV, the local TV station. That’s when it became cutthroat.

Trotta said, “I worked really hard. That was probably the most work I have ever done. I was an editor, a photographer, and I eventually became the weekend reporter. The slot opened up, and I walked into [her boss’s office] and told him I wanted the position. I knew I could do it. He said, ‘But you have no experience.’ I said, ‘I’ll do it for free!’ So he let me do it.”

Three months later, she landed the job—and got paid for it. Those beginning years are where she learned some of the best tips and tricks. “[Being a sports intern and a weekend reporter] really taught me everything I use to this day. It was me and a few interns…you have to learn how to keep it together…and make it all come together.”

She covered various sports—including NASCAR—while at WBTV, and the SPEED channel hired her in 2010. To say she was nervous would be an understatement.

“I didn’t know the intricacies of the sport. Every night, race fans tune in, and they’ve been race fans for 20, 30, 40, 50 years. I felt vulnerable and overwhelmed. I cried in the bathroom during my first week.”

Eventually, Trotta realized “it just takes repetition” and found her place while co-hosting Race Hub. It’s been five years since she joined the program, and she’s happy with her job—but still seeking more. Hosting the pre-race show for the NASCAR XFINITY Series races was the answer.

“It was important to me in 2015 to move up and get into the garage. I had to be where the sport is [to report on it]…this is my dream job, and I’m excited to grow with FOX. I always like to challenge myself—and my bosses—to give me new sports.”

That determination burned within her since the beginning, but it took two special people to help unleash it. One of them was Delano Little, the sports reporter and news anchor at WBTV who acted as her “cheerleader and motivator.”

“[Little] brought me into the business and raised me from a little puppy,” she said with a laugh. “He was the man who helped build that foundation [for my career]. He showed me that, if I wanted to be in this business, I had to really work for it.”

Her other mentor was Steve Byrnes. The two worked together on Race Hub, where her co-host helped her learn about NASCAR.

“[Byrnes] really took me under his wing when he didn’t have to. I was always able to call him and ask about the business and the sport. He taught me that there are always ways to grow and better yourself.”

Byrnes passed away in April 2015 after a long-fought battle with cancer. The entire sport—including Trotta—is still trying to cope with his absence.

“It’s been tough to lose him,” she said, adding, “He was a great dad and husband, and he was always happy to help others. Every time I talk to someone, they mention that Steve helped them with this or taught them that. It really speaks to the kind of person he was.”

That helpfulness is something Trotta tries to carry within herself. Her years of experience provide her with advice worth sharing.

She encourages young people to start early, saying, “I was in TV competitions at 15, where I had to report stories against other high school students. It’s never too early. Go to a college that sets you up for success. It is crucial to get an internship at a TV station. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I didn’t have that internship [at WBTV].”

Her other tip is to take risks, noting how she got her weekend reporting position at the Charlotte TV station.

“I walked into that office and said, ‘Give me a shot,’ and they did. There were hundreds of audition tapes of people who wanted that job, but I got it. That’s the power of getting your foot in the door.”

With persistence, Trotta worked hard and burst onto the NASCAR scene—and she’s here to stay.

Harrowing Daytona finish highlights safety, sportsmanship

(Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
(Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

As Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line, Austin Dillon hurled into the catchfence.

Daytona International Speedway—a restrictor plate track—is as prestigious and dangerous as they come. The mix creates an allure one can’t ignore. The high speeds and close racing make for the type of weaving and cutting a skilled seamstress would take pride in.  The historic venue has been a stage for the most prideful moments in the sport of racing.

It’s also been the platform for the fiercest ones as well.

Sunday night was one of those moments.

The start of the Coke Zero 400 was late. Excruciatingly late. Weather shoved the sort into late-night infomercial territory, and many knew that peculiar things tend to happen in that realm. With the green flag waving around 11:45 p.m. ET, the masses settled in for a night full of adrenaline, speed, and nail biting.

In some way, they all hoped this would be worth the all-nighter. Drivers and crews desired a trophy and Chase berth by dawn. Spectators wanted their money’s worth, unsure of what that might entail.

Regardless of all wishful thinking, the festivities began.

Earnhardt was the clear favorite; starting from the pole, the No. 88 shot out front every possibly chance. His fellow Hendrick Motorsports teammates were also fast, yet no one was in the two-time Daytona 500 winner’s zip code. As the race progressed, he leaned on Denny Hamlin to draft him. Hamlin—who made risky moves work all night—obliged, and the two led a six- to seven-car breakaway in the race’s last 50 laps.

Slicing and dicing is a crucial part of restrictor plate racing, and it must be done with precision. A driver has to get it right, or things will get messy. That happened multiple times throughout the night, with two large wrecks taking out various contenders. Smaller incidents paused the action, giving everyone the opportunity to breathe and regroup.

As the laps dwindled away, urgency intensified. Minutes and hours ticked away. Time was running out—for the competitors who wanted to make a move and for the supporters who needed to clock in.

It came down to a green-white-checkered finish. The field restarted side-by-side, and they remained that way until the width expanded. As Earnhardt pulled away, followers scrambled to gain positions.

The white flag waved. At any other track, it was half past “go time,” but this was the moment Daytona—and the GWC rule—was designed to create. Its result, however, was not part of that plan.

Hamlin got loose and spun next to the finish line. The No. 11 came back and tapped Dillon, who proceeded to go airborne. More cars collected underneath the No. 3 as it flew into the catchfence. Debris rained into the stands as the machine bounced back onto the racing surface. Brad Keselowski’s car was skidding sideway down the frontstretch and slammed into Dillon’s side, putting the Richard Childress Racing car on its hood.

The mangled machine stopped at the end of pit road. Earnhardt’s pit crew rushed to the damage, falling to the ground and peering into the cockpit. The entire NASCAR community held their breath as more people flocked to the scene.

The sight of every crew member standing and giving a thumbs up filled every viewer with relief and emotion—and then fear.

Four fans sought treatment in the infield care center, while one went to the hospital in stable condition. There are two reasons no one was injured more seriously—the catchfence and the Daytona rising project. The tall, reinforced barrier did its job, keeping Dillon’s car inside the track. The expensive reconstruction plan pushed the grandstands away from the fence, placing a wide walkway between the fans and the action.

Praise is necessary. So is action.

There will be outrage over the incident; columns about danger will come out of the woodwork, and some mainstream media will broadcast this in a crooked way. A lot of good can come out of this accident if logic prevails.

The image of Earnhardt’s crew members rushing to Dillon’s side is the personification of sportsmanship. While their driver claimed victory, they chose to provide aid. Fellow competitors are thankful he survived such a terrifying accident.

Sunday night serves as a reminder to those who drive and those who observe. This is a dangerous sport. These athletes put their lives on the line to do what they love, and fans seek enjoyment from their risky lifestyle.

There is much to take away from that night, yet one is quite prevalent—there is always room from humanity and improvement in sports.

The King talks progress, race team, and NASCAR’s future

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JULY 03:  NASCAR Hall of Famer and team owner Richard Petty looks on during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 3, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, FL – JULY 03: NASCAR Hall of Famer and team owner Richard Petty looks on during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 3, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Although the sun set on Richard Petty’s racing career 23 years ago, he is still The King.

It is a nickname he carries with pride. His thoughts hold weight in not only NASCAR but the entire racing community as well—and for good reason. In an ever-changing sport, the seven-time champion provides a steady voice flanked with wisdom.

“[NASCAR] wants to keep growing and keep the fans interested,” Petty told Up Top The Pit Box regarding the sport’s future. “We want to have them come to the races and watch it on TV. There is so much going on in the world for people to do and to watch. The younger generation is growing up on the X Games and other extreme sports. We want to keep their attention and have them watch us, too.”

The Hall of Fame driver competed during a vastly different era of racing, acquiring 200 overall wins, 712 top-10 finishes, and 123 poles. It’s so different that comparisons to modern day action fall mute.

Petty said, “You just can’t compare [the two eras of racing]. Today, there is so much technology and stuff like that. The cars are so different. We were racing strictly stock cars, and now we have specifically prepared race cars.”

“Everything is just different, but so is the world, too. Things just progress.”

Progress is a crucial part of sports, and it’s something the champion focused on during his career. His thought process was simple—be better than the time before.

“[I wanted] to be better each lap. If the guy in front of me was going faster, I wanted to be faster than him the next lap. And that’s really how I judged myself, how to be better than yesterday.”

When asked if any missed opportunities haunted him, Petty answered, “I’ve won races and come home and couldn’t sleep because I was thinking of something that didn’t go right or as we hoped and planned. There were other races where I finished fifth or sixth and slept like a baby…I knew I got the best out of the car that day and did the best I possibly could.”

The legend wants to instill that mindset into his team, Richard Petty Motorsports. The two-car operation is working to make The Chase, NASCAR’s playoff system that consists of ten races. Driver Aric Almirola made the cut after winning last year’s July event at Daytona International Speedway. Almirola is currently 15th in the point standings, but the team’s owner thinks a win is in the cards.

“I think Aric can win this year. [The No. 43 team] is more consistent this year, and we’re right near The Chase. We just need to give him good cars because he’s proved to be capable of running up front.”

RPM’s other driver, Sam Hornish Jr., is 24th in the rankings, searching for the winning spark. “[The No. 9 team] is getting their chemistry. We’ve made a crew chief change, and we just need to keep going. Sam did a great job at Sonoma [Raceway], and he was good [in the Daytona 500 earlier this season].”

While Almirola and Hornish compete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Petty fields driver Dakoda Armstrong in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. When asked about moving Armstrong up anytime soon, the owner assured, “Dakoda does a good job for us in the XFINITY Series. Right now, we’re concentrating on being a two-car Cup team.”

The former championship-winning driver and current team owner is a trademark in the world of racing, and the sport is in his blood.

“When NASCAR started, my daddy [driver Lee Petty] was at the first race. I was going to races after that and have been ever since.”

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m just too old to start something new now.”

New Sprint Cup rules package set to debut at Kentucky Speedway

NASCAR will introduce a new rules package July 11 at Kentucky Speedway, executive vice president Steve O’Donnell announced Tuesday afternoon.

The changes, which were slated to be used at the Sprint All-Star Race in May, will include a shorter spoiler (3.5 inches, down from the current 6 inches), less overhang on the front splitter (down by 1.75 inches), and softer tires (increased grip). Downforce will be reduced overall. Practice time on July 8 will be lengthened for teams to get comfortable with the adjustments.

O’Donnell, who also serves as NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, assured, “We’ve had an extensive testing plan with the industry over the last 19 months. We feel confident and we wouldn’t implement this if we didn’t feel confident as an industry to implement it at Kentucky.”

A rumor about the package surfaced last week, fueled by Lee Spencer’s story on Motorsports.com. The story states the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team used the changes at the Darlington Raceway test.

Although this is currently a one-race deal, O’Donnell expressed interest in using the rule package at other tracks—if it is successful.

“We certainly want to see more lead changes on the race track. We’ll evaluate not only that but a number of different factors coming out of Kentucky and seeing what we can learn and potentially implement down the road.”

He also added that the package is not final or “an abandonment of any rules package.”

Teams and drivers are very open to the idea, yet the executive vice president said the sanctioning body is still looking into making improvements as needed.

Only a Matter of Time: Truex claims long-awaited win at Pocono

Martin Truex Jr. hugs girlfriend Sherry Pollex after winning the Axalta 400 at Pocono Raceway. (Credit: @NASCAR on Twitter)
Martin Truex Jr. hugs girlfriend Sherry Pollex after winning the Axalta 400 at Pocono Raceway. (Credit: @NASCAR on Twitter)

Martin Truex Jr. is finally a winner.

The No. 78 team cashed their ticket in Sunday afternoon at Pocono Raceway, claiming victory after finishing in the top-10 in 12 of the last 13 races. His consistency wasn’t lost on anyone; media and fans alike waited for this moment to arrive.

The Richmond International Raceway scandal left Truex out of the Chase and with a bad taste in his mouth. After leaving Michael Waltrip Racing, his future looked bleak. He joined Furniture Row Racing, a one-car team that helped Kurt Busch get back on his feet. During 2013, Busch earned 11 top-10s and finished 10th in points. The New Jersey native decided to align with FRR and start all over.

It wasn’t going to be easy; 2014 was a difficult time for the No. 78 team, earning only one top-5 finish all season. The on-track struggle, however, wasn’t the only obstacle. Summer brought the news that Truex’s long-time girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She underwent surgery, and the treatments soon began. November brought the end of a trying season.

Changes were made, including a crew chief switch. Cole Pearn stepped in, who became the second crew chief from Canada. This turned out to be exactly what the team needed.

Truex’s win at Pocono is the third of his career, propelling him to third in the point standings and the Chase. As he rolled his Chevrolet into victory lane, Pollex was there to give him a hug that brought tears to everyone’s eyes. The win gave her something to smile about, even with eight months of chemotherapy still ahead.

Pocono was full of cautions and great racing, but nothing could top such a deserving win. It was only a matter of time.

The No. 78 team will try to ride the momentum into Michigan International Speedway, the two-mile track next on the schedule. There hasn’t been much success there for Martin Truex Jr., but this season is a season of change for him. Kevin Harvick, who finished second at Pocono, will definitely rival whatever the newest Chase driver can put down.

Action is abundant in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and it’s time to get excited.

Busch to make All-Star return, receives Chase waiver

Kyle Busch is finally back.

After months of healing and rehabilitation, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was cleared to return to competition. He is set to make his comeback during Saturday night’s All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The news came Tuesday morning, along with a video Busch posted to Twitter.

The driver broke his leg in the NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Daytona International Speedway, the season-opening race for the second-tier series. After he wrecked, his car went into an inside wall with no SAFER barrier. Busch has been out of a car since that incident, which was nearly three months ago.

NASCAR announced Wednesday morning that Busch will receive a waiver for The Chase, excluding the requirement of starting all regular season races. To make the playoff field, however, Busch needs to win a race and be in the top 30 in the point standings.

“Our decision to grant [Busch] a waiver that allows him to continue running for a championship is one we discussed extensively,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, in an official press release. “The spirit of the rule never was designed to punish drivers who are unable to compete due to extenuating circumstances such as recovering from a racing accident.”

This will be a big month for Busch, whose wife Samantha is expecting their first child any day now. The baby boy will add to the emotional resurgence his father is currently weathering.

Welcome back, Kyle Busch.

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