Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: 5 Relief Drivers in Unlikely Places

So, do you remember when you were in middle school and that one kid got a sniffle, and all of a sudden, the entire school was running rampant with sick students?

The NASCAR community might just need to be quarantined, because those pesky middle school germs have invaded and incapacitated the garage in full force. Brad Keselowski was victorious at Atlanta, despite fighting flu-like symptoms throughout the race weekend. With checkered flag in hand, a physically and visibly belabored Keselowski could hardly drum up a smile in victory lane. Along with Keselowski, Austin Dillon was struck by a harsh flu bug at Auto Club Speedway and Aric Almirola was the most recent victim last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

While all three had to visit the nurse’s office (infield care center) multiple times throughout the race weekends, Xfinity drivers Austin Cindric and Cole Custer were ready at a moment’s notice to replace Keselowski and Dillon should they become too ill to continue. While Cindric is Keselowski’s Team Penske Xfinity teammate, Custer and Dillon are a bit more of an odd couple.

Custer, a factory Ford driver, was standing by as a potential relief driver for a factory Chevrolet team. Um, how does that work? Well, when you are at a track that is over 3000 miles from NASCAR’s unofficial home base, its kind of hard to find available drivers. After the Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway in the greater Los Angeles area, most drivers boarded airplanes and where home in North Carolina that night, long before the Cup race had started. The Xfinity winner and native Californian Custer stayed behind to perform media obligations, and watch his Cup teammates on Sunday, and thus Dillon’s team had to turn to their rival manufacture for help.

Fortunately, Dillon was able to muscle through the entire event, and manufacture confusion and delusion with Custer was avoided. While Custer’s unusual relief duties were not needed, there have been plenty of wacky and weird scenarios where unlikely relief drivers have been thrust into even more bizarre rides half way through an event. Let’s take a look a few instances…

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

What happens when your driver goes missing half way through a race? Did he make a right turn instead of a left one? Did he get lost in the infield? Did he stop for a quick bathroom break? In 2007 at Texas, Kyle Busch was involved in a two car accident that relegated him to the garage for repairs. In the era before the damaged vehicle policy, Busch’s Hendrick Motorsports team tried their best to get their Chevrolet back on track and score as many points as possible. When they finally got the car back into race shape, Busch was no where to be found.

Frantic crew members spread out all throughout the Texas property to search for the driver, but he was not found. Ironically, the other driver involved in the accident, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was debriefing with his crew after later blowing an engine, and finally, the Hendrick team had a driver, nearly nine months before Earnhardt became an HMS employee, replacing Busch.

Eddie Bierschwale

Eh, who is this? Few fans have probably ever heard of Eddie Bierschwale. A mild mannered Texan, Bierschwale made sporadic cup starts throughout the 1980s and early 1990s and only recorded a single top 10 This driver’s obscurity may just be summed up by an exorbitantly hot day at Daytona in 1992. On lap 45 of the Pepsi 400, Bierschwale pulled off track, citing fatigue as his cause of retirement.

The then-55-year-old Richard Petty, in his final season, was also beginning to feel the effects of the severe heat. Petty’s team scrambled to find a relief driver in the garage. Unfortunately, there was only a handful of drivers who had already retired, and the only big-name competitor, Dale Earnhardt, had left the race track after suffering an early engine failure on lap 7. While owner-driver Jimmy Means was busy fixing his ailing race-car, the last driver left was Bierschwale. The virtually unknown driver was called upon to replace the most famous NASCAR icon. Although he got his 15 minutes of fame, Bierschwale pulled the King’s car behind the wall after 84 circuits around the 2.5 mile super speedway.

Michael McDowell

While driving for JTG Daugherty Racing, Bobby Labonte was fighting an aggressive stomach bug during the 2013 NRA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Labonte’s team had hoped to work out a deal with fellow Toyota competitor Mike Bliss. Labonte’s team believed Bliss would pull behind the wall early in the event. Once that happened, Bliss would relieve the ailing 2000 Cup champion. Instead, Bliss stayed out on the course, and JTG was presented with an issue as Labonte finally had enough and pulled behind the wall.

With no driver, they sat and waited… and waited… and waited. Finally, Ford driver Michael McDowell brought his Phil Parsons Racing machine into the garage and the JTG Toyota team finally had their driver. Unfortunately for McDowell, his big frame did not bode well with Labonte’s smaller seat. McDowell did his best to squeeze into the cockpit, but a very uncomfortable ride ensued, until the engine expired after 138 laps.

Dick May

In 1970s, Dick May was a journeymen driver from all the way up in Ithaca, NY, a rare geographical location for drivers to come from in his era. Never in top-notch equipment, May often found himself behind the wheel of many nebulous rides, including his own cars, but was still hailed as a conservative and reliable race driver. Yet, one day in Dover in 1975, he couldn’t quite figure out which car he wanted to drive.

May could figure out which car he wanted drive, because he actually pulled off an incredible feat, driving five cars in one day… not at the same time of course. As the hours rolled by, the hot temperatures took its toll on man and machine. After parking his car early in the event, May hopped into four other vehicles to relieve the ailing drivers. Even through all that, May was still unable to finish the race, as a broken throttle linkage forced him to retire from the race for a fifth time with five laps to go.

Denny Hamlin

So, how can a driver be a relief driver for his own car? That’s exactly what Denny Hamlin did at an Xfinity series event at the Milwaukee Mile in 2007. One this same weekend, the Cup series was racing in Sonoma, Ca and Hamlin was entered in both events. After qualifying his Cup car, Hamlin hoped on a plane bound for Milwaukee, and then was scheduled to board a helicopter which would get him to the track in plenty of time to take the green flag.

Unfortunately, you can’t land a helicopter when the helicopter pad at the track is being used as a parking lot. Hamlin and his contingent had to fly back to the airport and drive to the race track. With the delay, Aric Almirola, who at the time was a developmental driver for Joe Gibbs Racing, took the green in place of the delayed driver and was having the race of his young career. Hamlin arrived at the track by the first caution and strapped back into his ride, leaving an upset Almirola fuming. Almirola announced his departure from JGR less than a month later. Oh, Hamlin won that race, but Almirola was credited with the win because he started the car.

About the author

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Never at a loss for words, Zach Gillispie is a young, talented marketing professional from North Carolina who talks and writes on the side about his first love: racing! Since joining Frontstretch in 2018, Zach has served in numerous roles where he currently pens the NASCAR 101 column, a weekly piece delving into the basic nuts and bolts of the sport. Additionally, his unabashedly bold takes meshed with that trademarked dry wit of his have made Zach a fan favorite on the weekly Friday Faceoff panel. In his free time, he can be found in the great outdoors, actively involved in his church, cheering on his beloved Atlanta Braves or ruthlessly pestering his colleagues with completely useless statistics about Delma Cowart.

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