May 24, 2024

Friday 5: How a lunch conversation helped Sam Mayer reach Victory Lane

Josh Wise works with Chevrolet drivers in various series from Late Models to NASCAR Cup, teaching, training and listening to them.

As Wise helps drivers improve performance — it can be anything from restarts and reaction times to physical and mental skills — he pays attention to what they say and think about.

“I can kind of see into the future a little bit based on the energy I’m getting from them,” Wise told NBC Sports.

So, it was no surprise to him that 20-year-old Sam Mayer scored his first Xfinity Series win last weekend at Road America. Wise sensed that Mayer was headed in that direction weeks ago based on their chats.

One lunch conversation stands out to both Mayer and Wise. It wasn’t as much about what Mayer could do behind the wheel to improve, but what he could do outside the car. He wanted to communicate better with his team.

“I have a saying that you race the way you live,” Wise said. “If a driver comes to me and is like, ‘I want to be a better communicator,’ I’m like ‘Oh man, we are going to get really good here pretty soon.’

“That’s an incredible request to me. You see how profound that is, right? … Now we’re going to make a real paradigm shift here.”

Wise gave Mayer the book “25 Ways to Win with People” by John C. Maxwell and Les Parrott. Mayer’s assignment was to read a chapter a week. He breezed through the 208-page book in a few weeks.

“It was about being a leader and understanding how to understand yourself so you can understand other people,” Mayer told NBC Sports. “At the time, when I was reading it, I was struggling with my own self-confidence.”

With a focus on young drivers in NASCAR and moving them up as quickly as possible, it’s easy to forget that they are still maturing. Tony Stewart often lamented how there was no guidebook for young drivers to help them with challenges on and off the track. They learned by their mistakes.

JR Motorsports announced nine months before Mayer turned 18 and was old enough to run in the Xfinity Series that he would drive for the team in that series in 2021.

Fond of setting high goals, Mayer looked to win one of his first three Xfinity starts, which would have made him the youngest series winner at the time. It didn’t happen.

Mayer recaps dramatic OT restart at Road America

Sam Mayer’s first NASCAR Xfinity win did not come easy, having to battle Justin Allgaier, Sage Karam and others on the final overtime restart at Road America, but he credits his team and the importance of track position.

He showed signs of what he could do, scoring six top 10s in 18 starts but also failed to finish six races (five because of accidents) that first year.

The following season, Mayer had 19 top 10s, made the playoffs and finished seventh in points but had still not won.

This season, he had 11 top 10s in the first 19 races but remained winless. The drought reached 70 races before Road America.

Should Mayer race until he’s 45 years old, those first 70 races will be a mere blip in his career, but living through that for someone used to winning can be challenging.

“I went through a lot of learning, whether that was on track or off track,” Mayer said. “I think all of the ups and downs made me a better person and a better racecar driver.”

Wise has seen that growth for years, starting when Mayer stayed with Wise and his family for a few weeks in the summer when he raced in the Carolinas.

Now, as Wise works with such young drivers as 16-year-old Katie Hettinger, the points leader in the Cars Tour Pro Late Model Division, and 17-year-old Connor Zilisch, a two-time winner this season in the TA2 (Trans-Am) Series, he crafts his plan based on experiences with Mayer.

“You could say the approach and even the environment that we work on needs to be tuned a little differently,” Wise said. “Sam was really on the front end of a lot of that.”

One of things Wise has done is have the younger drivers compete in series where it is challenging to win instead of a series they can rack up victories, raising expectations to unrealistic levels.

“We’re trying to teach them how to lose and get better,” Wise said. “It’s really important in our sport and for me with young drivers right now.”

It’s a lesson Mayer displayed last month at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He did not finish better than 15th in his first two starts. He called New Hampshire one of his worst tracks.

“I have no confidence there,” he said. “I have no understanding of the racetrack. It just feels horrible going there. I did my absolute best preparing for that one (this season).”

Practice and qualifying did not go as well as he hoped. He qualified 10th, last among the four JR Motorsports cars.

“I spent three hours before that race trying to get ready to go, put good mindsets in my head and how to race that racetrack.”

Mayer was running fifth in the final laps when contact from behind spun him and his car was damaged. He went on to finish 18th but felt good about the progress he made.

“It gave me a lot of confidence because I know I prepared to my absolute best,” he said.

With his Road America win in his home state of Wisconsin before more than 200 friends and family, Mayer is ready for what’s next in the Xfinity Series.

“My confidence is way through the roof,” he said. “Carrying that through the rest of the summer and into the playoffs is, obviously, really huge.”

2. Differing opinion

Jimmie Johnson was on 93% of the ballots cast for the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2024 — the fourth-highest percentage since NASCAR began releasing vote totals with the second Hall of Fame class.

It also continues a streak. There’s never been a unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame. While NASCAR did not release vote totals for the first class, none of the selections were unanimous. That first class has Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France Sr., and Bill France Jr.

That Johnson was not selected on four of the 57 ballots submitted Wednesday created an uproar on social media. Speaking on this week’s MotorMouths video, NASCAR on NBC analyst Kyle Petty said he didn’t have an issue with Johnson’s vote total.

“I have read comments from media people and it has been sad to me to read some of the comments that we should name the four that voted against Jimmie and then kick them off the board,” Petty said.

“When did we grow up to live in a world where if my opinion is one way and your opinion is something else — and I don’t like you — I vote you off and you’re off the island. That’s it. It’s either my way or the highway, and that’s what we’re saying by making those comments, by ridiculing four people who have an opinion.”

HOF Class of 2024: JJ, Knaus, D. Allison, Guthrie

Kyle Petty, Parker Kligerman, and Dustin Long react to the NASCAR HOF Class of 2024, comprised of Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus, Donnie Allison, and Janet Guthrie, with Petty reacting to JJ not being a unanimous selection.

Petty, a former Hall of Fame voter, likened voting for Hall of Fame members to a political election.

“When I walk into a presidential polling or presidential booth, I pull that lever and I vote my conscience,” Petty said. “These people voted their conscience. We should not criticize these people.

“I think that’s the sad part for me. The sad part of this whole thing is not that Jimmie didn’t get in unanimous, Jimmie is good with it. … I just don’t like the way we have taken the focus from celebrating Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus and Donnie Allison (in the Hall of Fame).”

Here are the highest vote totals since the second Hall of Fame class:

96% — Jeff Gordon (2019 class)

94% — David Pearson (2011 class)

94% — Robert Yates (2018 class)

93% — Jimmie Johnson (2024 class)

88% — Tony Stewart (2020 class)

87% — Bill Elliott (2015 class)

85% — Cale Yarborough (2012 class)

85% — Benny Parsons (2017 class)

81% — Chad Knaus (2024 class)

3. Fast service

Ty Gibbs’ pit crew had an 8.54-second pit stop during last weekend’s Cup race at Richmond, the fastest stop for Joe Gibbs Racing.

The team times a pit stop from when the car is jacked up on the right side to when the jack is dropped on the left side during a four-tire stop.

It was one of three consecutive stops below 9 seconds, according to Chris Burkey, athletic director at Joe Gibbs Racing. They had the 8.54-second stop at Lap 128 under green, an 8.61-second stop on Lap 171 under green and a stop of 8.84 seconds on Lap 234 under caution. Strong performances for a team that is 18 points behind Michael McDowell for the final Cup playoff spot with four races left in the regular season.

Gibbs’ crew consists of front tire changer Blake Houston, rear tire changer Michael Hicks, tire carrier Jake Holmes, jackman Derrell Edwards and fueler Peyton Moore.

Burkey notes the role of those team members working behind pit wall, making sure the hoses don’t get tangled on the car and tires are rolled properly to the crew. He also credits Gibbs for stopping precisely where he needs to in the pit stall so the crew can perform at its capability.

“Ty, he’s done a really nice job here as of late, just his consistency and his speed and smoothness coming in the box,” Burkey told NBC Sports.

On that fastest pit stop, Burkey noted that the team spent 3.04 seconds on the right side based on the time the car was jacked to when it was dropped. He said the right front tire was changed in 2.87 seconds and the right rear was changed in 3.19 seconds.

The stop also was quick because the team did not have to wait on fuel. Fueling the car is the slowest aspect. With teams pitting when tires wore, which was halfway through a run at Richmond, it didn’t take as long to refill the car.

So, how much faster can pit stops be?

“That’s the ongoing question, right?” Burkey said.

Teams have standardized air guns and the fuel flow is standardized. Athletes can be bigger, stronger and faster but there remains the physics of running around a car.

Burkey noted that the front tire changer was done in 8.32 seconds on that fast stop, so a quicker time is possible.

“Every individual element and time element for every individual, it matters,” he said. “Where can we shave that time from right side top to left side drop? Can we cut down the stop with the jack man going from maybe seven steps to five?”

The search for speed isn’t just on the track.

4. Still looking for a win

Nine drivers who won a race last year have yet to win entering Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network).

Those nine drivers are: Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Chase Briscoe, Austin Dillon, Erik Jones, Austin Cindric, Daniel Suárez, Bubba Wallace and Alex Bowman.

Harvick has won five of the last seven races at Michigan, including last year’s event.

Harvick and Wallace are in a playoff spot with four races left in the regular season, while the other seven winners from last season are not. Should Harvick leave Michigan 181 points ahead of 17th in the standings, he’ll clinch a playoff spot. He enters the weekend 182 points ahead of 17th in the standings.

5. Tough competition

Six races remain in the regular season for the Xfinity Series, beginning with Saturday’s event at Michigan (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock).

Sheldon Creed holds the final playoff spot. He leads Parker Kligerman by 22 points.

Creed has 527 points, which is 56 more than the driver at the cutline had at this time last year. Kligerman has 505 points and that total also is more than last year’s cutline total at this point in the season.

Eight drivers have secured playoff spots with wins: Austin Hill, John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer, Justin Allgaier, Sam Mayer, Chandler Smith, Sammy Smith and Jeb Burton.

Those in a playoff spot via points at this time are: Josh Berry (+107 on the cutline), Daniel Hemric (+74), Riley Herbst (+25) and Creed (+22).

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