As the clock ticks on one’s NASCAR career, respect can come naturally, with both fans and media truly understanding what you sacrificed and what you contributed throughout your Sunoco-fueled career.
With legends like Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty and Jeff Gordon, respect came hand-in-hand with popularity as they led the sport from one generation to the next.
However, as retired NBA player Julius Erving once said, “I firmly believe that respect is a lot more important, and a lot greater, than popularity.”
For upcoming Sprint Cup Series rookies Brian Scott and Ryan Blaney, the path to respect began before their debut Sprint Cup Series seasons in 2016, as they combine for 35 prior starts — just under a full season’s worth.
For Scott, the newly announced driver of Richard Petty Motorsports’ No. 44 Ford in 2016, more than 200 starts in the XFINITY Series, plus experience in the Camping World Truck Series before then, has scored him recognition among top Cup talent.
“I feel like when [Cup guys running in the XFINITY Series] see my car they know I’m driving it,” Scott said. “I feel like I’ve got a built-in reputation with a lot of the guys like Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick. All the guys that come down and race on Saturdays. I already know kind of how they race and they know how I race and I think that helps me tremendously.”
With father Dave’s long experience in the Sprint Cup Series, 22-year-old Ryan Blaney – who approaches his first full-time season with Wood Brothers Racing – says respect is “what it’s all about” at any level of motor racing.
“My dad always told me at a young age that you have to give respect to get it back,” Blaney said. “I’ve worked very hard at trying to give as much respect as I could without just pulling out of the way of other people. You have to do that no matter what level of racing you’re in. Whether it’s NASCAR or any other form of motor racing, you have to earn the respect of your competitors. I did that in the Truck Series and XFINITY Series. And in the Cup Series now, I’m still earning respect.”Blaney has led two races in his Sprint Cup Series career and piloted the No. 21 Ford to a top-5 finish at Talladega and a top 10 at Kansas Speedway in 2015.
“I think we got a little head start on it being able to race with the Cup drivers on a fairly regular basis last year,” Blaney said. “Hopefully that makes them a little more comfortable with me and this team going into this year.”
Fellow Ford competitor Ryan Reed will embark on his third season in the XFINITY Series in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 16 ride. Having a Daytona victory in 2015 behind him, Reed calls earning respect “an interesting game.”
“You definitely learn really quick,” Reed said. “You race with different guys, you’re constantly changing series. Once you get here, you’re kind of around the same guys week-in and week-out and you learn tendencies. It’s a balance.
“You have to earn the respect and you definitely can’t be a bully out there because you’ll get it back. But at the same time, you can’t take too much without giving it a little back. I think if you can be fast week-in and week-out and show that you belong there, then they’ll give you the respect you deserve.”
Also under the Roush roof is Trevor Bayne, a driver who is still living off the upset Daytona 500 win in 2011 with Wood Brothers Racing. Since then, however, the 24-year-old has traversed quite the learning curve in his transition from XFINITY to Sprint Cup.
“To me, it’s just experience and getting able to race around [Cup guys] and get comfortable around them,” Bayne said. “There were times last year I had to remind myself that the races were longer, settle down a little bit, this is not an XFINITY race. Running part time with the Wood Brothers helped me in that. But doing it every weekend was the next step.”
Whether it’s a bright rookie fantasizing about rubbing fenders with Tony Stewart or a seasoned champion who already has their name in the history books, respect can come in many – some highly dramatic – forms in the sport. It’s safe to say 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski falls into this category.
“The only really way to gain respect is to become the senior driver,” Keselowski said. “Win a lot of races and/or [not to] be complacent with losing. That’s how you earn respect in this sport.”
Looking down a different path in the conversation about respect is 1989 champion Rusty Wallace, who drove the Blue Deuce a few years before Keselowski’s second year with Team Penske began in 2011.
“When I came from the American Speed Association, all the Cup guys knew that I won the title and that I was the short track guy,” Wallace said. “I got a little respect because of that. But once I started running Cup and was having a tough go at it, nobody ruffed me up. I did have a lot of people help me. But then when I started gaining some momentum and I won my first race in 1986. They started saying, ‘This guy is for real. He is the short-tracker and he did win Bristol.’
Wallace, the once-short track king in ASA, believes getting “totally involved in your car” is key to not only earning respect and praise in the garage area but also to grabbing more checkered flags in your career.
“I really got involved in the setup of the car,” Wallace said. “When people talk about me they said I was the guy under the hood messing with the shocks, springs and all that. I think that one particular thing, being really active with the car, helped gain respect amongst my peers in the garage area.
“Don’t stand back and say, ‘Everybody do it for me.’ That’s not going to cut it. That’s not going to win you races. That’s going to gain you some respect with the media and the sponsors but that’s not going to produce checkered flags. You need to know your car. If you can know your car and you can give that good feedback to the team, you’re going to win more races than the other guys. That’s what I did and it worked for me.”
It turns out there are more ways to gain respect than you may think. At the end of the day, what you know can still be a crucial part of becoming not only popular but also respected.
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