Monday, August 15, 2022

NASCAR Crash Course: Tyler Reddick’s long road to getting over the hump

Tyler Reddick had come oh-so-close to victory in the NASCAR Cup Series, entering this past weekend’s race at Road America with five career runner-up finishes. Now, he’s the sport’s fifth first-time winner this season in a record-setting year.

To win at Road America, Reddick passed the sport’s premier road course racer, Chase Elliott, who spent most of the day cruising out front. He was gapping Reddick by about a second until some trouble with a wheel on the final pit stop cost the No. 9 team their advantage.

Finally, months of bad luck for Reddick began to balance out.

“It was nice to be coming off pit road right there off the bumper of the 9 car,” Reddick said, “And just me and him go at it and may the best team win.”

Reddick found a way from there, pressuring Elliott before ultimately making the winning pass in Turns 5 and 6. Pulling away to win by 3.3 seconds, Richard Childress Racing made a statement that they’ll be heard from down the road just days after picking up Reddick’s option for 2023.

“It wasn’t a matter of if he was going to do it; it was when,” owner Childress said of the victory, claiming “When you beat Chase Elliott, you beat one of the best.”

It was a popular win for a driver whose talent is well known in the garage area, one that led to bear hugs from from rivals like Austin Cindric and respect from both Elliott and Kyle Larson.

“I know he’s been super close to that first win,” Elliott said. “I’ve been down that road, and it can be a rocky one.”

Indeed. From a flat tire while dominating Auto Club Speedway in February to getting spun out on the last lap of the Bristol Dirt Race, Reddick has been gracious in defeat while leaving those races feeling defeated.

Even Road America has taught Reddick a lesson in humility.

“It’s really crazy that this is the place I got my first win,” Reddick said. “Because this place four years ago had me questioning everything.”

Reddick was running the No. 9 car for JR Motorsports back then, racing his first full-time season in the sport’s Xfinity Series. Coming down the back straightaway, he lost track of his speed despite putting the car in neutral and plowed into the sand trap at this 14-turn track’s “Canada Corner.”

It was the start to a disastrous weekend, one that ended with Reddick blowing out the rear gear after missing a shift. The 34th-place finish was a gut check going forward, giving him more DNFs (four) than top-five finishes (two) at that point in the year.

“It could have went one way where I was pretty much giving up on the thought of — I don’t think I had it,” Reddick said. “But I had a lot of good people around me that believed in me, got me back where I needed to be, and from that point on, things have been a lot better.”

That bounce back included five top-five finishes in that year’s final 10 races, the first of two NASCAR Xfinity Series championships that caught the eye of current owner Childress. From there, it’s been a four-year build to this moment, as Reddick worked hard at his craft while suffering through some heartbreaking near misses that tested his patience.

“There’s a lot of things I could have done differently over those five second-place finishes I had to where I could have won the race,” he said. “So I try to look back at that and learn from it. So hopefully when I’m in position to win a race again, I don’t make those same mistakes.”

It’s a lot easier to avoid them when you have the confidence of becoming a NASCAR Cup Series winner.

Traffic Report

Green: Chase Elliott/Kyle Larson. The last two NASCAR Cup champions are starting to hit their stride. Elliott’s average finish over the last two races is 1.5, leading 78 laps in the process, while Larson has two straight top-five finishes despite crew chief Cliff Daniels serving a four-race suspension.

Yellow: Kevin Harvick. There are signs Harvick is breaking out of his nearly two-year slump. Sunday’s 10th-place finish at Road America was his seventh top 10 in the last nine races, giving him 10 for the year (point leader Elliott has 12). Problem is, mid-pack drivers like Tyler Reddick keep winning, knocking Harvick out of a playoff spot as soon as he seems to secure it.

Red: Brad Keselowski. A hard hit to the outside wall led to a long pit road stop for repairs, extending the nightmare of Keselowski’s first season as driver/owner of RFK Racing. The 2012 Cup champion remains winless on road courses for his career (0-for-34).

Speeding Ticket: Denny Hamlin. Hamlin was busted not once, but twice for charging through too many pit stalls. That’s now 26 pit penalties in total for a driver having a rollercoaster season (two wins, poor luck and a long list of self-induced mistakes).

Oops!

The major topic of NASCAR conversation this week will revolve around Noah Gragson. An up-and-coming driver in the sport’s Xfinity Series, this talented driver often lets his temper get the best of him.

For most of 2022, he’d cleaned up his act, maturity on and off the track launching him into the championship conversation. But this incident, intentional contact with Sage Karam has him the center of controversy again with a vicious wreck that left a ton of innocent, underfunded victims in its wake.

“Down the straightaway, he just flat out turned into me,” Karam said. “It’s totally unnecessary. It’s very dangerous, he put a lot of drivers at risk… out of safety, I just think that was completely wrong.”

The wreck left Karam’s owner, Tommy Joe Martins, calling out JR Motorsports on Twitter in a public back-and-forth.

Ultimately, NASCAR spoke to Gragson and eventually handed him a major monetary and points penalty. For his part, Gragson pushed back, feeling like the payback was justified after previous contact between the two had him going off course.

“People’s stuff got torn up,” he admitted. “But three times [getting run off the track] is a bit ridiculous.”

So are 13 wrecked race cars.

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