Dustin Long

Sharing the joy

Hope was all they had, and some days it wasn’t enough.

So they cried. They cursed. They questioned their fate. No matter how many pleas to God they made or comforting hugs they received, hope could not always shield them from the devastating truth that they could not have a baby.

“I felt inadequate as a woman,’’ said a wife who suffered nine miscarriages.

Another wife — with a prisoner’s dedication — knows how many days it has been since she and her husband began trying to conceive. The number exceeds 1,000.

“It feels like you get farther and farther behind as the world keeps moving on,’’ the husband said. “That’s pretty crushing.’’

Kyle and Samantha Busch know such distress. They tried for years to have a child, but NASCAR’s baby boom went on without them.

After yet another negative pregnancy test one day, Samantha collapsed and bawled on a bathroom floor as Kyle consoled her. They had a list of names, the color for the baby’s room and the theme selected, but no child.

“I just … felt like a failure,’’ Samantha said.

The despair lifted for Kyle and Samantha Busch after trips to a Charlotte, North Carolina, fertility clinic. In vitro fertilization, where an egg and sperm are combined in a laboratory dish and transferred to the woman, led to the birth of son Brexton in May 2015.

“His smile makes everything better,’’ Samantha said.

Not every infertile couple can afford the life-changing treatment, which can cost between $15,000 and $20,000. Insurance doesn’t cover every procedure. That leaves some financially shackled couples with little chance of having children.

Facing such odds, one wife admitted that she had a “hard time (seeing) the light at the end of the tunnel. It was like the tunnel was closed.’’

After Kyle and Samantha Busch made it through their journey to have Brexton, they wanted to give infertile couples hope … and help.

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Sometimes the question comes on a couple’s wedding day. Other times it’s asked at gatherings with friends and family. Or it occurs at work, usually posed by someone with pictures of their children nearby. The response often is filled with laughs and jokes.

That only masks the pain.

Don’t be mistaken — it’s there. Some days the anguish can be buried and even forgotten, but it lurks, waiting for someone to ask: “When are you going to have a baby?’’

Then the searing pain returns, suffocating and boundless. It’s the fear of not fulfilling a long-sought goal, the anxiety of not passing along one’s genes, and the rage of not understanding why this is happening.

But few see that. Or the tears.

Fans, eager to celebrate another baby in NASCAR, often asked Samantha and Kyle Busch when they would have a child. More than a dozen children were fathered by Sprint Cup drivers in the three years before Samantha and Kyle had Brexton. It only seemed natural to fans that the couple, married on New Year’s Eve in 2010, would join the baby brigade. But when? So they asked.

“You don’t really understand the hurt you can actually cause someone by asking a friendly question about when are you going to have your children, when are you going to get pregnant or what’s the deal?’’ said Kyle Busch, the reigning Sprint Cup champion.

Samantha Busch could not understand why she and Kyle struggled to have a child. They were athletic, ate healthy and took care of themselves. But infertility is sinister. Appearances and attitudes don’t matter. That leaves couples to wonder what’s wrong as others celebrate births.

Infertile couples aren’t alone, even when they feel like it. About 12 percent of U.S. women between the ages of 15-44 have trouble getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In approximately 40 percent of infertile couples, the male is either the sole cause or contributing cause of infertility, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

As couples face the possibility they might not have children, they are often bombarded by news from those who have no trouble conceiving. It appears as a baby announcement on Facebook, a burgeoning belly on Instagram, or an emoji-filled message on Twitter.

Hannah Harris, who had nine miscarriages, said friends and family tried to hide their baby news from her.

“They thought it would hurt my feelings if they were happy,’’ she said.

Sometimes, friends and family avoided bringing their children when visiting Hannah and husband Damarlon, fearing that would upset them.

Hannah stopped that.

“That’s your kids,’’ she told them. “That’s your blessing. I’m happy for you. We’ll have ours whichever way it is, if it’s meant for us to have children or adopt.’’

Still, Hannah admits each time it was easy to question “Why me?’’

She didn’t show her feelings, but the pain was there.

* * *

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Samantha Busch could not wait. Although she and Kyle had been told it would take about two weeks to find out if she would become pregnant after their in-vitro procedure, she couldn’t wait another four days.

She took a pregnancy test in their Chicago hotel room in September 2014, shortly before Kyle would leave for media activities surrounding the start of NASCAR’s playoff.

There, in the bathroom, they awaited the results.

Two lines appeared.


Samantha sobbed. Kyle had tears in his eyes.

They called family, but Samantha was so overcome that she couldn’t talk to her mother. She handed the phone to Kyle to give his mother-in-law the news.

* * *

Three previous treatments had failed to help Will and Susan Carswell have a child. As they sat in a meeting with a financial adviser at the REACH Fertility Clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina, they were told that in vitro fertilization would cost between $12,000-$16,000. Their insurance would not cover it.

“How do people pay for this?’’ Susan said.

The financial advisor said that some couples seek a loan or withdraw some of their retirement savings to pay for the procedure.

Saddled with student debt and other bills, Will, a 29-year-old state police investigator, and Susan, a 30-year-old small business owner, could not afford additional loans.

Their path to having a child was blocked.

As they left to shed tears, Will saw a poster on the clinic’s wall. It was for the Bundle of Joy Fund, which provides grants to couples seeking infertility treatments but don’t have the money.

The grants are from the Kyle Busch Foundation.

Samantha and Kyle Busch started the fund after their struggles to have Brexton. They wanted to help infertile couples by providing financial gifts to pay for treatments.

As part of the application process, each applicant is required to write an essay on why they seek funding to have a child. The commentary can be poignant and profound.

“Every single one of those essays, you want to give them everything they want,’’ Kyle Busch said.

When they first awarded grants last September, they fulfilled the requests for all five couples who applied. The grants totaled more than $47,000.

Soon the need outgrew funding. There have been more than 50 applications each of the past two times grants were awarded. In January, five couples received more than $58,000 combined. In June, three couples received more than $34,000 total.

In each case, the needs of at least 45 couples could not be met.

“It’s not easy to sit there and help one family,’’ Kyle Busch said, “and then not be able to help another family.’’

* * *

Susan Carswell prayed on the 45-minute trip with husband Will from their Cherryville, N.C., home to the REACH Fertility Clinic in Charlotte.

They thought their June 22 meeting was for an interview for the Bundle of Joy Fund, another step toward possibly receiving a grant.

“I was just a bundle of nerves,’’ Susan Carswell said.

“I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to be better than the next guy,’” Will Carswell said. “’I’ve got to come up with something that makes me a little more noticeable.’’’

Will is not easy to forget, with a barrel chest ready to pop out of his polo shirt, arms as big as a child’s thigh and an easy-going manner that Susan said helped her during her darkest times with infertility.

Before he could figure out what he could do to stand out, he and his wife were escorted to a room where Samantha Busch awaited behind an office desk.

“When I saw her,’’ Susan Carswell said, “I thought … ‘This is a good sign.’”

She started to cry.

“I’m so sorry you guys have been trying for so long,’’ Samantha told them. “I know what that’s like and it’s an awful time.’’

Susan and Will Carswell nodded.

Samantha Busch then told the couple they would receive $12,600 “to start their journey.’’

Will shook his head and bowed it, resting it on his right hand, as he tried to contain the tears. Susan lurched forward in her seat. Will embraced his wife and said to Samantha in a muffled voice: “Thank you so much.’’

* * *

Hannah Harris had never heard the heartbeat. Nine previous times, the heart in the child she was carrying had stopped when doctors checked within the first eight weeks of her pregnancy.

Hannah, 32, and husband Damarlon, 31, had kept trying to have children because, as Damarlon said, “We always wanted to be young with them and grow up with them and not have them so late that by the time they were teenagers or in their 20s, we couldn’t really do anything, go out hiking or biking or shooting ball and stuff.’’

Each failure brought more doctor appointments, procedures, hope and misery. It became a cruel cycle as constant as the seasons. They were told without in vitro fertilization, they would never have kids of their own.

“I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life,’’ said Hannah, who cried that day, aware that insurance would not cover such treatment and they could not afford a loan.

Hope returned when they found out about the Bundle of Joy Fund and applied, although Hannah recalled thinking: “Why would they pick us out of everybody?’’

They received a grant last September.

“I honestly don’t remember anything after they said $12,000,’’ said Hannah of the gift.

Her husband does, especially when they got back to their car.

“Oh my God! Oh my God! Can you believe it?’’ Hannah screamed. “Am I dreaming right now? Will you pinch me?’’

A month later, Hannah was pregnant.

At eight weeks, she went in for another doctor’s visit.

“We heard the first heartbeats,’’ Hannah said.


* * *

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Darmarlon II — Little D as he’s called — arrived first at 9:29 a.m. on June 4. His sister, Aniyah, followed a minute later. They were born at 34 weeks and two days. He was four pounds, 11 ounces and 17.5 inches long. She was four pounds, 15 ounces and 18.5 inches long.

The son was named for the father. The daughter, well, Hannah wanted a name that ended like her name. She came across a version of the daughter’s name that meant “God answers.’’

God had answered Hannah’s prayers.

The babies are the third and fourth to be born since Kyle and Samantha Busch began awarding grants through the Bundle of Joy Fund. Three other couples are expecting.

“It’s awesome to hear when a Bundle of Joy baby is born,’’ Samantha said. “I think what’s so great about it, Kyle and I look at Brexton and we think what these families are going to go through.’’

Will and Susan Carswell will get those experiences. After 1,095 days, they found out last month that Susan was pregnant.

That last day was the longest. She had tests that morning to see if she was pregnant. The results were expected early that afternoon but didn’t come until hours later.

“It was one of the worst days,’’ Will said of waiting for the test results “and it turned into one of the better days of my life.’’

Their baby is due in April.

“We’re just excited,’’ Susan Carswell said. “I’ve always struggled with patience. I want that baby here now where I can take care of it.’’

* * *

What starts with tears of despair turns to tears of joy for couples who receive a grant from the Bundle of Joy Fund. Tears return upon a positive pregnancy test. Then come the major milestones. Hearing the heartbeat. Feeling the baby kick. Seeing the child for the first time.

After the birth, the moments build — the child grabbing dad’s finger, gazing at mom’s face and mom and dad seeing their child’s personality unfold. Each day becomes a new adventure, a new experience and more reasons to be thankful.

Some day, Samantha Busch says, maybe son Brexton and all of the children born through the Bundle of Joy Fund can get together to “have a play date.’’

That’s her hope.

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    Special reserve

    DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Brian Vickers came to terms last month that his NASCAR driving career could be over.

    Sunday, he’ll start the Daytona 500.

    It might also be his last NASCAR Sprint Cup race. The 32-year-old doesn’t know. Stewart-Haas Racing hasn’t said who will drive the car after Sunday’s race, although Ty Dillon is expected to be in it for a few races.

    Such is life for a substitute driver, whose employment often depends on how quickly the primary driver’s injury heals, suspension ends or sponsor selects a different replacement driver.

    It is a vagabond existence where opportunities sometimes appear with only a few hours notice. There can be little time to fit into a seat specially made for the other driver who isn’t the same size, little time to learn the names of the crew and little time to sort through the nuances of dialogue with the the team’s crew chief and engineers.

    Then there’s understanding the car that is set up for someone else and, in some cases, driving for a manufacturer that the replacement has never driven for previously. Each manufacturer’s cars and engines have their own unique quirks.

    The substitute driver, though, has taken on a greater role. In the last four years, the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and former champions Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch have needed temporary replacements.

    NASCAR can waive — and has on a case-by-case basis — the requirement that drivers must start every race to be eligible for the Chase. Kyle Busch won last year’s championship after watching three other drivers compete in his car for the first three months of the season.

    Even as the role of the substitute driver has grown, the level of success is limited. Jamie McMurray remains the last driver to win as a replacement driver, doing so in 2002 at Charlotte when he filled in for an injured Sterling Marlin.

    Vickers will drive in Sunday’s season-opening race for Stewart, who suffered a burst fracture of his L1 vertebra during an ATV accident January 31. This will be Vickers’ third race since the end of the 2014 season after missing most of last year because of a recurrence of blood clots.

    “It’s a big seat to fill,’’ Vickers said of driving for Stewart, a three-time series champion, “but I’ll do my best.’’

    * * *

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    Regan Smith has filled in four times for drivers in the past four years, often on last-minute notice. As he recounted one of those experiences, he suddenly stopped and recalled another time he served as a substitute driver.

    “I forgot about that one,’’ Smith said, smiling in the disbelief that he had overlooked one such role. “I’ve done a lot of this. Holy cow.’’

    It’s easy to see why:

    • Smith drove two races for Dale Earnhardt, Jr., when a concussion sidelined Earnhardt in 2012.
    • Smith filled in for Stewart at Watkins Glen the day after Stewart was involved in a sprint car crash that killed a competitor.
    • Smith drove the first three races of last season for Kurt Busch after NASCAR suspended Busch for an off-track matter, placing 16th twice and 17th in the other race.
    • Smith drove for Kyle Larson last spring at Martinsville the day after Larson fainted at an autograph session. When Smith started, it was his first laps at Martinsville in two years. He finished 16th.

    Smith was driving for another team when Earnhardt was ruled out in 2012. Smith received a phone call at about 6 a.m. as he was making coffee. Steve Letarte, who was Earnhardt’s crew chief at the time and now a NASCAR on NBC analyst, told him to get to the shop.

    Smith was going to join JR Motorsports, which is affiliated with the Hendrick Motorsports, the following season, and figured Letarte wanted him there to go over some testing Smith would do for the team.

    Letarte told Smith he would be driving Earnhardt’s car that weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, beginning later that day.

    “Their gauges were different than mine and I missed something simple that I should have seen,’’ said Smith, who finished 38th after an engine blew because of his oversight. “The way the systems were I didn’t know what was going on. That’s a prime example of it costing us what would have been a top-10 run.

    “Fast forward to Kansas (the following week) … I understood what was different.’’

    Smith finished seventh at Kansas.

    Another early call sent Smith scrambling back to Watkins Glen in 2014, hours after Stewart’s sprint car incident the previous night. Smith had not raced a Sprint Cup car in more than a year but had driven in the Xfinity race at Watkins Glen the day before. The problem was Smith had already returned home to North Carolina when he got the call at about 8:30 a.m.

    He flew up with car owner Rick Hendrick and helicoptered with Hendrick to the track. Smith arrived at the track about 90 minutes before the command to start engines.

    Smith’s first laps in the car were when the race began. He used the early portion to adjust to the brakes and how the car handled. He was involved in a late accident and finished 37th.

    “The Dale story was the craziest one,’’ Smith said, noting the arrangements had been worked out between his team and Hendrick Motorsports before he was told he was needed.

    “Here you are hopping into the car of the most popular driver and arguably one of the most visible figures in auto racing history,’’ Smith said. “He’s got a lot of fans that you’re trying to please. There were people that paid tickets to see that car and they’re still going to cheer for that car because it’s their guy’s car no matter who is in it. I get some of the louder cheers that I’ve ever gotten.’’

    * * *

    Sometimes even the simplest things can be challenging for a substitute driver.

    Shortly after Kyle Busch suffered a fractured left foot and broken right leg the day before last year’s Daytona 500, Joe Gibbs Racing hired David Ragan to fill in for Busch.

    Regan, who did not have a full-time ride, suddenly was with one of the sport’s elite teams with Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards as teammates. It would arguably be the best ride of Ragan’s career. One problem, though, was finding his way around the race shop.

    “That first time I showed up, it took me 30 minutes to figure out which door to go into and which section,’’ Ragan said. “I think I went into the engine shop first and finally I was able to meet Adam (Stevens, the team’s crew chief) and those guys.’’

    He went on to record a fifth-place finish at Martinsville, his best in nine starts in Busch’s car, and used that to land a ride in the No. 55 car at Michael Waltrip Racing the rest of the season.

    Although Ragan needed to be acclimated to Joe Gibbs Racing’s shop, Erik Jones didn’t have that problem. A Joe Gibbs Racing driver, he competed in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series, but he also filled in for three of JGR’s four Cup drivers at different times.

    Jones replaced Denny Hamlin at Bristol after Hamlin suffered neck and back pain before rain stopped the race on Lap 22. Jones was at home watching the race when he got a text that he might be needed. He gathered his gear and rode a helicopter to the track, arriving in time to take over the ride after the four-hour delay.

    Jones later drove Kyle Busch’s car at Kansas Speedway, the final race before Busch returned. Jones drove two races for Matt Kenseth after NASCAR suspended Kenseth for wrecking Joey Logano at Martinsville.

    “When I did the substitute for Matt, it was his seat, his insert,’’ Jones said. “We didn’t have time to pour an insert for me. It wasn’t all that comfortable.

    “The seat wasn’t where I wanted. I had a lot of aches and pains (after driving Kenseth’s car in the Texas fall race) the day after that I wouldn’t normally had. Back, sides, shoulders. A lot of things were just kind of aching and hurting.’’

    He wasn’t complaining, though.

    “You’ll do a lot of things to drive a race car,’’ Jones said. “As long as you can reach the pedals and see over the wheel, I think a lot of guys will drive them.’’

    * * *

    Fourteen months ago, doctors told Brian Vickers to get his affairs in order and call his family before heart surgery because he might not survive it.

    His heart was rejecting an artificial patch placed in 2010 to fix a hole. Doctors were not sure if they could remove the patch.

    “They said going in to get it out, it may knock it loose, and if it becomes loose, I’m doing to die,’’ Vickers said.

    Having gone through that, along with blood clot issues that kept him out of the car three separate times since 2010, has changed Vickers’ focus. He’s looked at life beyond racing.

    Until he was selected to fill in for Stewart during Daytona Speedweeks, Vickers was in training to go with friends to Alaska later this year, to climb mountains and ski, reaching heights of 16,000 feet for eight days. He also has plans in September to scale all 10 peaks along the Grand Teton range in three days.

    Still, the chance to race again has him excited. His father sensed it when Vickers called him that he would be driving Stewart’s car.

    “I love racing,’’ Vickers said. “I love what I do. But I also love life. There’s so much more to life than racing. I’ve learned that the hard way. I mean, I’ve been in the sport, I’ve been out of the sport. There’s a lot more out there.’’

    He’s raced since he was 10 years old. Vickers missed his high school prom to race at Bristol Motor Speedway and attended his high school graduation only after qualifying for an Xfinity race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    He’s won three Sprint Cup races and an Xfinity title, but now the focus is on the Daytona 500.

    “This is pretty special,’’ Vickers said. “I wasn’t sure if I would ever be in the Daytona 500 again. Here I am.’’

    For how long, remains the question. That’s always the question for a substitute driver.

    Overnight delivery

    It began like most nights. Bedtime for 2-year-old Hudson Mack meant a story and prayers.

    She flipped the pages and laughed at the pictures, as Travis Mack read his daughter’s favorite nursery rhyme, “Five Little Monkeys,’’ the tale about what happens to those when they jump on the bed.

    Moments like these made Travis’ gamble to move to North Carolina to be a NASCAR mechanic worthwhile.

    The Louisville, Ky., native left after his driving career stalled 12 years ago. Jeff Gordon’s team quickly hired him as a mechanic and he later joined Chase Elliott’s Xfinity Series championship crew. Travis is entering his second year as the car chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s NASCAR Sprint Cup team — among the favorites to win Sunday’s Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

    Travis’ decision to move also led him to Lyndsay. They married five years ago in March, had one baby and had another due February 5.

    But what happened between the time Hudson closed her eyes on Feb. 2 and opened them the next morning is filled with unanswered phone calls, a confused 911 operator and an anxious search for a shoestring before an ambulance ride to the hospital.

    * * *

    Lyndsay’s contractions began around 11 p.m. on February 2. They were 20 minutes apart. Everything seemed on course for a morning trip to the hospital and delivery. That’s how it went with Hudson.

    Travis was resting and Lyndsay didn’t bother him. The contractions weren’t too painful, so Lyndsay surfed Facebook and watched TV. She later decided to iron her hair. She had washed and dried it earlier and didn’t want to go to the hospital with “frizzy hair,” she noted in an email.

    “I asked her why is she fixing her hair at 1 in the morning,’’ Travis said. “I think she realized that the baby was going to be coming, so she wanted her hair to look good for the hospital pictures.’’

    Travis fell back asleep but got up around 2:30 a.m. when his wife’s contractions were about 15 minutes apart. He called their midwife. She suggested Lyndsay relax in a bathtub of warm water. As she soaked, the contractions quickened. Before long, they were five minutes apart.

    “It’s time to go,’’ Travis told his wife.

    But no one could reach Lyndsay’s mom. She was supposed to watch Hudson if they left for the hospital at night.

    “I must have called her about 20 times while I was getting the bags packed,’’ Travis said.

    No answer.

    He tried a neighbor.

    No answer.

    Then from the bathroom, Lyndsay screamed: “Something ain’t right!’’

    * * *

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    Travis Mack always wanted to be a doctor or surgeon. While in college, he served as a nurse’s assistant at a Louisville hospital in outpatient surgery. Most of his duties were routine, but he once carried a cooler containing a man’s severed arm to surgery. He also witnessed an artificial heart transplant.

    His passion, though, was racing.

    His driving career ended in October 2004 when he was clipped in the right rear, hit the wall head-on and flipped his stock car in a race at Salem (Ind.) Speedway.

    “That’s what kind of motivated me to move away from home,’’ Travis said. “I used all my money to start that race. I didn’t have anything, and I didn’t have a race car anymore. Nothing was keeping me back.’’

    He also was serving as car chief for Frank Kimmel’s ARCA team. Travis was there for three of Kimmel’s record 10 championships in the stock car series that many use as a stepladder toward NASCAR.

    A few weeks later, he met with Kimmel to discuss his future. When Travis mentioned his thoughts about going to Charlotte to look for a NASCAR job, Kimmel encouraged him to chase his dream immediately. Travis left work and called his parents.

    “I’m packing my bags and heading to Charlotte,’’ he told them.

    Travis quickly put together a résumé and left the next day. He called numerous shops asking for an interview. He got one at Hendrick Motorsports for 5 p.m. that day. Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, later called, asking if Travis could be there earlier. It was earlier than Travis calculated he would arrive but he said he’d be there.

    He made it to the shop about five minutes before the interview, changed clothes in the car and ran into the building. Knaus and Robbie Loomis, crew chief for Jeff Gordon at the time, hired him.

    * * *

    Lyndsay’s water broke while she was still in the bathroom. Then, she told Travis: “I think I can feel the head.’’

    The baby arrived moments later at about 3:15 a.m. on February 3. She cried. She was OK, but Travis worried about his wife’s bleeding.

    Travis wrapped his new daughter, Teagan, in white towels and clutched her in one hand. In the other hand he had two cell phones. He called 911 with one and tried reaching his in-laws and neighbors with the other.

    The 911 operator transferred him to another dispatcher in his area.

    As the baby cried, Travis said on the speakerphone: “We just delivered our baby in the bathroom of our house.’’

    The 911 dispatcher responded: “You found a baby?’’

    “No ma’am. We just delivered a baby,’’ he said. “The baby is crying and breathing. Tell me what to do with the umbilical cord. My wife is bleeding.’’

    The dispatcher told Travis to tie the umbilical cord with a shoestring. He handed Teagan back to his wife and asked: “Do you have any shoelaces?’’

    He ran to the closet and started to look through his wife’s shoes for a shoelace to take. He had just cleaned out his side and only had his good shoes in there.

    “She feels like it was a long time, but it was a split-second decision of what shoes do I pull the shoestrings out of,’’ he said later.

    Travis rushed back and tied the umbilical cord with the shoestring. The 911 dispatcher kept asking about the baby.

    “The baby is fine. Tell me what to do with my wife,’’ Travis said.

    He was told an ambulance was on its way.

    Travis continued to call a neighbor for help. They eventually answered the phone.

    “Send Missy over now,’’ Travis said.

    The neighbor, disoriented after having their sleep interrupted, didn’t seem to grasp the gravity of the situation.

    “Send Missy over NOW!’’

    Travis hung up.

    * * *

    Firefighters and an ambulance arrived at the same time.

    As they entered the house, Travis told them to be quiet. Hudson was still asleep.

    Medics controlled Lyndsay’s bleeding. They allowed Travis to cut the umbilical cord and she delivered the placenta. Soon, she was ready to be transported. Lyndsay walked toward the stretcher at the front door but turned to let the family’s dog, Bristol, out of the house.

    “What are you doing?’’ Travis yelled. “Quit worrying about the dog and get on the stretcher.’’

    The emergency personnel chuckled.

    Now, the issue was how to transport Teagan. Earlier that day Travis took apart the baby car seat and cleaned it but hadn’t put it back together. He figured he had a couple more days.

    It sat in pieces on the dining room table.

    Travis quickly put it together and recalls the ambulance driver saying he’d never seen a car seat assembled so fast.

    Lyndsay was loaded into the ambulance, Teagan was in her baby seat and Travis joined them on the trip to the hospital. It was about 4 a.m.

    On the way, he FaceTimed his mother, awaking her. He said they were on the way to the hospital. His mother asked how his wife’s labor was.

    Travis flipped the phone around and showed his mom the baby.

    Still groggy from being awaken, his mother said: “Whose baby is that?’’

    “That’s ours.’’

    “You already had it?

    “Yes, we had it at the house.’

    “Are you kidding me?’’

    Travis turned his phone and showed his mother the ambulance driver, who waved, and then Lyndsay.

    At the hospital, the staff applauded as Lyndsay was wheeled by while breastfeeding Teagan.

    They were taken to delivery.

    “Why do we have to go to delivery,’’ Travis joked. “We did that.’’

    Teagan was examined. The healthy baby weighed 8.5 pounds and was 19.5 inches.

    Later that morning, Hudson was brought to the hospital to see her parents and meet her little sister.

    Travis and Lyndsay had repeatedly told her that a baby was inside her mom’s belly, preparing her for what was to come. When Hudson first met Teagan, she said: “Mommy’s belly.’’

    Coming home

    DARLINGTON, S.C. — Todd Hardee sits in an upholstered chair accented with a floral design. The owner of Kistler-Hardee Funeral Home chats in a room that dates to 1823. A time capsule, which features a sword, flag and flask of whisky from that era, is nestled in a column out front, but no one is sure which one. When the time capsule was discovered in the 1970s during a remodeling project and then returned, the two people who knew its location agreed never to tell and are no longer alive.

    In this genteel setting less than two miles from Darlington Raceway, Hardee’s calm facade dissolves. His blue eyes widen and a smile creases his face. A longtime NASCAR fan — Richard Petty remains his favorite driver — Hardee is thrilled that the Southern 500 returns to its traditional Labor Day weekend spot for the first time since 2003.

    “This may sound selfish, this may sound brassy or this may sound Southern, but Labor Day is our damn race day,’’ Hardee says. “That’s ours. We got it back, and we want to keep it.’’

    Almost immediately, the 51-year-old catches himself and says softly with Southern politeness, “That probably did sound a little bad, didn’t it?’’

    Before a response can be uttered, Hardee adds without apology but with conviction: “Labor Day is Darlington.’’

    Watch the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on NBC

    From 1950-2003, Labor Day weekend in Darlington meant the Southern 500. From the beginning of rock n’ roll through man walking on the moon to 9/11, NASCAR’s premier series raced on the egg-shaped track the same holiday weekend. Fans turned Darlington into one of the state’s largest communities. They held a parade. They crowned a Miss Southern 500. TV stars came. Clint Eastwood even showed one year.

    “It was Mardi Gras in September,’’ says 66-year-old Nita Huntley, a Darlington native whose mother took her to the first Southern 500.

    When NASCAR began “modernizing tradition,’’ the race was moved to November in 2004. Then to Mother’s Day weekend. Then to April. The pageant already had been discontinued. The parade disappeared. The excitement faded.

    Even those who attended the race after the date change admit it felt different. No one needed a jacket when the race was held on those sultry Labor Day weekends, but one came in handy on the other dates. The weekend also felt compressed instead of being held on a three-day holiday period. Such minor differences needled local fans, reminding them this wasn’t the way they had grown up.

    After Labor Day stints near Los Angeles and Atlanta, NASCAR is back at Darlington Raceway. The city’s celebration feels like a favorite son’s homecoming. Checkered flags and American flags decorate the town square. The parade returns. And there will be fireworks.

    This is a reunion and reawakening. It’s a chance for residents to reminisce about adventures — or misadventures — in the infield, sitting in the old covered grandstands, which magnified the roar of cars and made ears ring, or all the traffic that arrived. It’s about rejoicing over the track reclaiming its birthright. This also is a time to introduce a new generation to what Labor Day weekend means in Darlington — the return of the town’s identity.

    * * *

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    The mayor is solving another problem. A mother and daughter have a question about logging on to a computer in the Darlington County Library. Tony Watkins, in his third term as mayor, is seated at the reference desk helping them. This is his office when not overseeing a city where one can find an egg salad sandwich for $1.50, antebellum homes and fewer than 7,000 residents.

    Watkins, whose thin silver hair and tall build radiate respect, resolves the computer issue and asks his supervisor permission to step away from his desk. Soon, Watkins is reminiscing about Labor Day weekends when so many people came to the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway they didn’t have a place to stay.

    Married for 47 years and a Darlington resident for 49, Watkins recounts when his father owned a movie theatre on Pearl Street near the town square. On the night before the race, the theatre stayed open late. Multiple features played, giving people a place to escape the heat and even sleep for a bit. The movies varied but one played year after year — “Quicksand” with Mickey Rooney. The 1950 film tells how the life of Rooney’s character spirals out of control based on a decision he makes and those that follow.

    “It was just the worst B movie you can ever imagine,’’ Watkins says, leaning back as he laughs.

    Reality would prove to be worse.

    Watkins became the mayor two months after the final Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. He was still in his first term when NASCAR took one of Darlington’s two race dates for the 2005 season, a crushing blow for the community’s economy and spirit.

    We have history,’’ Watkins says. “We have tradition. We have old antebellum homes. Great place to live, but we know this. We know that Darlington Raceway put Darlington, South Carolina, on the map. That’s something that maybe we took for granted. To think of losing one or maybe even a second race is almost like losing your identity, and it does something to your city.

    “It was almost like a panic.’’

    North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C., held its last Sprint Cup race in 2004. North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway fell off the schedule after the 1996 season. Between those years, NASCAR added races in California, Illinois, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Nevada and Texas. The question was if Darlington would disappear from the schedule with talk of further expansion beyond the sport’s traditional Southeast base.

    Darlington Raceway survived. It had more history than Rockingham and more prestige than North Wilkesboro. Darlington Raceway held the sanctioning body’s first 500-mile race in 1950, a year after NASCAR’s first event. Seventy-five cars started. Eighty-two ran the next year. There were 50 cars in 1954 when the temperature soared to 101 degrees. That race lasted 5 hours, 16 minutes, 1 second.

    The track was as unforgiving as the weather. The sport’s best often excelled. Drivers elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame won all but six Southern 500s from 1963-90. Among those winners were Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott.

    That helped make Darlington special. So did the the ties to the community. It’s hard to ignore the track when one can open a door or a window and hear the cars. Many residents have tales about going to the race when they were younger. One repeated story was how they often attended the race for free, aided by a friendly ticket taker they knew. Call it the benefit of living in a small community.

    While a Walmart is scheduled to open next spring in Darlington, some things have remained constant through the years. The city’s population has changed little since the last Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend. The lunch counter remains at the Carolina Drug Store. When ordering a meal at Jewel’s Deluxe, you write it on a sheet of paper and hand it to the waitress because that’s the way it has been done for decades.

    “Granted, we might have got a new fast food restaurant or they might have paved a road,’’ says India Rogers, 28, a Darlington native who went from working in Jewel’s Deluxe to owning it. “But I feel like when you come to Darlington, you get the original Darlington.’’

    * * *

    Harold Brasington III’s briefcase carries the history of his grandfather’s track in photos, documents and photocopies, but even more special are the memories.

    Had it not been for the original Harold Brasington’s desire to bring a NASCAR race modeled after the Indianapolis 500 to the fields of Darlington, there would not be a discussion about the race returning there this weekend, more than two dozen teams going with retro paint schemes and even Kyle Larson, born in 1992, growing a 1970s-era mustache to go along with the weekend’s throwback theme.

    Brasington, a tall man often seen in photos bending or leaning down to others, called himself a daydreamer in a note to fans in the inaugural Southern 500 program. One would have to be to build such a grand track in a small community. But Brasington — or Mr. Harold as some still refer to him these days — also had to be resourceful. He squeezed one end of the track to preserve a neighboring minnow pond, thus creating the odd-shaped, 1.366-mile track.

    While he left the track’s ownership group a few years after the speedway was built, he later returned for the races, bringing along his grandson to chat with former drivers before the event.

    “He would drive in the tunnel on race day and pull up in the pits and he would say, ‘Stay in the car,’ and talk to some of these old timers,’’ Harold Brasington III. “I would sit in the car and pout because I wanted to get out and look at the race cars, but the pits is not a safe place.’’

    MORE: NASCAR legend Pearson remembers Darlington  |  PHOTOS — Darlington Raceway through the years

    Brasington III later got his chance to look at the cars when he sold programs while in the Boy Scouts. A fan of Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough, the younger Brasington admits, “I didn’t sell a lot of programs. I was busy watching my guys race.’’

    Along with the heroes who came to Darlington, the Southern 500 always meant more to local residents, especially in those early years. Labor Day was a time when tobacco warehouses would fill for auction, when work in the fields neared completion, when hunting season approached and school began. Brasington III, 47, recalls that period in a youth’s life as a “magical time.”

    While the tobacco warehouses have been converted into something else, Todd Hardee hopes he can instill what the Southern 500 means to his first grandchild, Jayce Tailor, born in June and create the sense of awe Brasington III recalls about this time of the year.

    “I’m always going to have my memories of what the racetrack was,’’ Hardee says. “I want to take the opportunity to build his memories.’’

    Harold Brasington did more than create a place for cars to race. He provided a place for memories to develop, be nourished and linger, taking those back to a time long past.

    * * *

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    Elle May Clampett from “The Beverly Hillbillies” showed one year. So did Matt Dillon from “Gunsmoke.’’ As did Alan Hale Jr., better known as “The Skipper” from “Gilligan’s Island.”

    From 1960 to the early ’70s, the Southern 500 parade was a destination for celebrities.

    Joey Saleeby, 60, met some of them. He grew up in a home on the corner of Hoole and Warley St., which was where the grand marshal’s vehicle often was stationed before the parade started. Saleeby, whose family owned Joe’s Grille for 63 years until he sold it this summer, recalls some of the celebrities taking what he called a pit stop in his home before the parade. Saleeby has a picture of Donna Douglas, who played Elle May Clampett, with the family dog, a terrier named Tippy. Milburn Stone, who played Doc Adams on “Gunsmoke,” sat at the family’s kitchen table and drank coffee before the parade. “He was one of the nicest people,’’ Saleeby says.

    Many others appeared in the parade including George Lindsey, who played Goober on “The Andy Griffith Show,’’ and singers Marty Robbins and Buck Owens. Pictures from the 1960s and ‘70s show crowds shoulder to shoulder and lined behind one another in the town square. The parade returns Saturday night for the first time in a decade. Trent Owens, crew chief for Aric Almirola, and a Darlington native, will serve as grand marshal.

    “I laughed at first,’’ Owens said when he was asked to be the grand marshal, “and then I figured it was for real. I used to go to the parade all the time. I never saw myself as being the grand marshal of the parade.’’

    The nearly two-mile parade route will end in the infield at Darlington Raceway — a place once so well known for its rambunctiousness that a jail was placed there for race weekend.

    Bobby Kilgo, who owns a law firm in Darlington, recalls the spectacle, the free-flowing Falstaff Beer and sleeping overnight in his Volkswagen bug. While it’s only coincidence, maybe there’s something to Falstaff Beer, the third largest brewery in America in the early 1960s, ceasing production in 2005 — the season Darlington’s schedule was reduced to one Sprint Cup race and the Southern 500 was not used in the lone race’s name.

    This is a time for the community to celebrate instead of lament what happened. The return of the parade is significant, says Robert Garland, assistant fire chief, who formerly oversaw the parade.

    “A lot of people … grew up with the parade,’’ says Garland, sitting in a booth of the Dairy Bar, a hot dog/hamburger joint in Darlington that does not take credit cards. “In this fast-paced world driven by dollars, things seem to get pushed aside and tradition is one of them. To bring this back, to me, is bringing back a tradition that is worth reminding. It brings you back to what you grew up with and what it meant to Darlington.’’

    And what a race on Labor Day weekend means.

    Fast Learner

    It was a simple text message from his girlfriend, one of many between the couple, but this one struck Brad Keselowski. As he returned home Tuesday from a tire test at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, one sentence lingered. It made him ponder his past, present and future.

    Paige White had taken their 6-week-old daughter to the pediatrician that day and texted that the baby had gained 1.5 pounds since the last visit.

    Keselowski’s mind raced after the news.

    For a driver who has won a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, 17 races and $43 million in career earnings, the growth of his first child made him reflect upon his development. It continued after he got home that night.

    “You see them grow up, you see them get bigger and every step is measured, but as an adult it’s much harder to measure growth … because it’s not always in a tangible form like it is with a baby in weight, length and so forth,’’ Keselowski said, leaning back in a chair in his spartan office at Team Penske.

    Look deep enough and Keselowski’s evolution is evident. Bruised by discouraging personal encounters, burdened by past failures, Keselowski raced with what his mother called a “desperation” that left a path of disgruntled drivers and crinkled cars early in his NASCAR career. That drive also made him a champion.

    The daredevil on the track remains. The youthful racer, though, has morphed into a 31-year-old who seeks more on the track and off. Once so focused on wins that he didn’t fret about friendships with drivers, Keselowski has been open about bridging a gap with a frequent foil. Once so outspoken that he earned a private meeting with NASCAR Chairman Brian France in 2013, Keselowski concedes he’s “a bit more reserved” these days.

    He’s also grown more confident. Keselowski is not afraid to state that his “life goal” remains to win another series championship.

    “I want to be capable of being a Hall of Fame racecar driver, and I don’t think one championship is enough,’’ he said. “I’d (also) like to win a race at every racetrack.’’

    He’s won at 12 of the 23 tracks that will host Sprint Cup races this season. He has not won a Cup race at Daytona International Speedway — where the series races Sunday night in NBC’s return to broadcasting NASCAR.

    Another championship would make Keselowski the 16th driver in series history to have multiple titles. All the multi-season champions who are eligible will have been inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame by next year when Terry Labonte is enshrined.

    Winning at least one race at each track ranks among the sport’s most difficult accomplishments. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who has 92 career wins, has not won at every track on the schedule.

    Keselowski’s personal goal, though, is loftier than his professional goals.

    He wants to “live long enough to see my own children’s children have children.’’

    That would make him a great-grandpa.

    “If I could live that long, I’d be happy,’’ said Keselowski, dressed in shorts and a Team Penske athletic shirt before a workout. “I’ve spent a lot of time on that, Paige would probably tell you perhaps too much time, defining how I’m going to do that.’’

    As he talks, he recalls how Humpy Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, once described Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the most “complicated uncomplicated” man he’d met, the point being that Earnhardt has a had a complicated life yet managed a simple approach to all that he’s faced.

    “Sometimes I feel like I’m the most simple complicated man,’’ Keselowski said.

    Say again?

    “You asked what my life goals were, and I could only name two, but how I want to get there is super complicated,’’ he said.

    “There are just two simple goals, to win a few races, to win a championship. And to have a healthy, happy family that puts me in a position where I can grow each and every day. It’s really extremely simple. I’m not looking for anything more complicated than that out of life. But how to get there is complicated, so that makes me a very simple-complicated person. At least in my own eyes.’’

    * * * * * *

    Dawn Nicholas didn’t doubt that her younger brother could rise to NASCAR’s highest levels. Even when all looked lost.

    “It was like he was born with this vision in his life and he stuck with it,’’ she said, standing in what will be the lobby of the new race shop for Keselowski’s Camping World Truck Series team.

    The walls are bare. Construction dust and supplies dot various areas where vehicles will be assembled, massaged and manicured. Soon the building will house an organization that has won three of the first nine Truck races of the season.

    The building’s rise is evidence of Keselowski’s determination. He always had the skill. Ten-time ARCA champion Frank Kimmel, recalls Keselowski’s dad, also a former ARCA champ, telling him often that the youngster was “really special” as a driver. Yet, local short tracks across the country are littered with talented drivers who don’t make it any higher whether because of circumstances, lack of funding or they didn’t want it bad enough.

    There were plenty of times Keselowski could have failed and just been one of those local short track racers instead of winning Sprint Cup and Xfinity titles.

    “I didn’t particularly enjoy that,’’ Keselowski said of his early trials, “but it definitely made me a stronger person and defines part of who I am.’’

    Two races into the 2006 Truck season, Keselowski was out of a ride because his family’s team was out of money.

    Kay Keselowski says the youngest of her five children should not hold himself responsible for the team’s demise.

    “As a young person, he felt like, ‘I can do this, I can save my family team,’” Kay Keselowski said. “It was doomed. There was no way for that to work out. He takes that responsibility. Every time I hear him say it, it breaks my heart. None of it was his fault. He did everything he could with what we had to work with.”

    Keselowski got a few rides with underfunded teams that year and then had a full-time ride in what is now the Xfinity Series in 2007. That team ran out of money less than halfway through the season.

    He kept looking for rides but admits he thought about a possible career in the military, following friends and family. Just in case.

    Keselowski’s break came in June 2007 when he filled in for one race after another driver was suspended for an on-track incident. Keselowski started on the pole at Memphis and led 62 laps before finishing 16th after contact from another competitor spun him.

    Earnhardt, impressed by Keselowski’s performance there and in other races, hired the youngster days later to drive for JR Motorsports.

    Challenges remained. Although he finished third in points in what is now the Xfinity Series in 2008, Keselowski had no finishes better than 22nd in the first three races of 2009.

    Keselowski knew he had to win to get a Sprint Cup ride because he wasn’t surrounded by corporate backing. As the economy worsened, teams looked for drivers who brought sponsorship more than those with only a helmet.

    He scored a dramatic Sprint Cup win that year at Talladega, but he knew he needed to do more.

    That year also featured a series of on-track incidents with Denny Hamlin that mushroomed in the final two Xfinity races. Hamlin said he got into Keselowski’s car at Phoenix International Raceway and Keselowski returned the favor. Hamlin spun. Hamlin called Keselowski a “complete moron’’ and vowed to spin him at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the next race.

    Hamlin spun Keselowski the following week.

    “I think you get older, you get wiser and you figure out what it takes to be successful at this level of racing,’’ Hamlin said. “I felt like (Keselowski) raced with a chip on his shoulder, as well as he felt like he needed to prove himself and get himself in a good ride. Once he got to that top level, I thought that his attitude and the way that he raced on track changed.’’

    They raced for the win at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in March without incident. Hamlin won and Keselowski was second.

    “The respect he paid me at Martinsville was two guys racing for a win,’’ Hamlin said. “Maybe you rough someone up or rub them a little bit, but you don’t take them out. He did all those things and, obviously, if I’m in the same situation as him, second to him, I would do the same and pay that respect back in that type of way.’’

    * * * * * *

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    Hamlin isn’t the only driver who has had a conflict with Keselowski through the years. Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards also have had high-profile spats with the Rochester Hills, Mich., native that went beyond one race.

    Keselowski has shared stories about his relationship with both drivers in revealing blogs.

    He recounted how he got to know Edwards when Edwards was racing in the Truck series and Keselowski worked on his family team. Keselowski noted that members of his family’s Truck team taped a picture of Edwards inside Keselowski’s locker “because they said I just wanted to be like Carl.’’

    Keselowski admits he was naive at the time but recalled Edwards saying he’d help Keselowski but nothing ever happened, leaving Keselowski disappointed.

    In a blog about his relationship with Kyle Busch, Keselowski recounts the jealously he felt when Busch got a Truck ride through Roush Racing’s tryouts and Keselowski was not offered a chance.

    Keselowski noted how he decided to approach Busch to talk one weekend at a Truck event in 2001 and was put off by Busch’s indifference toward him.

    Keselowski wrote: “That first experience with Kyle impacted a lot more than my interactions with him. It shaped the way I dealt with other drivers from that point forward. In some ways, it probably still does.’’

    In both cases, Keselowski sought to be friendly with competitors, only to be disappointed by reality. Maybe Keselowski expected too much. Maybe other factors intervened. Whatever the cause, the incidents wounded Keselowski.

    “I’ve always been cautious with how I deal with other drivers,’’ he said. “When you get on the racetrack, one of your worst enemies is to look in the mirror and see somebody and either one, be intimated by them or two, feel like you owe them something as a friend or any dynamic because that always makes you race a different way that’s maybe not advantageous to your or your team.’’

    Yet, in his blog about Busch after Busch was injured at Daytona in February, Keselowski wrote: “Somehow, we’ve never had much of a relationship at all. I’m not sure why, and quite honestly, I wish things were different.’’

    Earnhardt, a close friend, understood Keselowski’s point in that blog.

    “I felt the same way when me and Kyle weren’t getting along,’’ Earnhardt said. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t like showing up at the racetrack and that being in the background, festering and having to talk about it and he would make a comment and I would have to answer to it or I’d make a comment. It was just going on and on and it was so annoying. Me and him found some middle ground. I’m sure Kyle and Brad will too.

    “You’d rather have respect and common understanding of each other. You don’t have to be best friends. You can race each other harder and more competitively when you respect each other.’’

    While Keselowski and Edwards have mended their differences, Busch and Keselowski have not. Although they share many similarities — aggressive young drivers and owners of Truck teams, among other things — Busch and Keselowski could be destined to be like former champions Richard Petty and Bobby Allison. Petty and Allison were known for their fierce rivalry and didn’t truly become close friends until well after both had quit racing.

    * * * * * *

    Brad Keselowski saw a hole. So he went for it. That’s his job. Go for the win. It was a green-white-checkered restart at Texas Motor Speedway in November. As Keselowski made his move, he and Jeff Gordon made contact, cutting Gordon’s tire. Gordon spun, losing any hope of winning. Jimmie Johnson went on to win the race. Keselowski finished third.

    Gordon stopped his car near Keselowski’s on pit road after the race and expressed his displeasure about Keselowski’s move. After a brief encounter, Keselowski was pushed back toward Gordon by Kevin Harvick. That triggered a melee between the teams that resulted in three of Gordon’s crew being suspended and one of teammate Kasey Kahne’s crew being suspended. NASCAR did not penalize Keselowski or any of his crew.

    On the plane trip home that night, Keselowski turned to girlfriend Paige White, the daughter of a short-track racer, and asked her about the post-race incident.

    “I knew how I felt but sometimes you just want someone else’s opinion that is close to you and won’t b.s. you, and Paige isn’t the type to b.s. me,’’ Keselowski said. “She doesn’t tell me what I want to hear. I respect that. I looked over and asked if I handled it right. She looked over me and said, ‘Yeah, I think you did.’ I haven’t second-guessed, not one day since.’’

    She has provided a good sounding board for Keselowski, encouraging him to share some of his deeply personal stories in blogs and to enjoy his wins more, something he’s struggled with at times. He once wrote in a blog that he has had difficulties letting “my emotion all the way out” after wins because he understands how many drivers never get the chance to make it to NASCAR or win a race in the top series.

    “I want him to celebrate his wins,’’ White said. “I want him to be excited and happy with his team about that. Just when he says those things, it makes me think he doesn’t get excited like he feels guilty or something. I hope … he feels a little differently about wanting to celebrate if it’s because he has me to celebrate with or I’ve encouraged him to do that I don’t know.’’

    The celebrations, now, last beyond the photos.

    “We get home, it doesn’t matter what time, if he wins the race it’s like, ‘Let’s watch it,’ and so you pop popcorn and make it like a movie,’’ she said. “We’ll stay up all night and watch the race.’’

    * * * * * *

    Keselowski unlocks his office at Team Penske and is greeted by two of the surfboard trophies from his most recent Sprint Cup win in March at Auto Club Speedway.

    He led only one lap that day but passed Kurt Busch for the victory to all but clinch a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

    The trophies cover his desk — one cannot have a conversation sitting across from each other because they are so tall and wide. It takes two people to move one of the trophies on to a cart to be delivered to crew chief Paul Wolfe’s office. Keselowski reflects on the ups and downs of his career, the lessons — sometimes painful — from the journey and sees the crucible that forged the man he is today.

    “I look back 10 years ago and the first thing I think is, ‘Gosh, I wish I could time travel,’‘’ he says. “If I could time travel and do it all over again but kind of know what’s going to happen before it happens — which you can’t — I always catch myself in the middle of that daydream. I don’t know if things could have gone any better than they did.

    “Every struggle is a blessing that maybe you don’t realize at the time, as long as you have … a positive mental attitude to tackle the struggle, to see the opportunity and to capitalize on it.’’

    For all the change he’s experienced through the years, there is something, he says, that remains the same. It’s an honest assessment.

    “My ambition hasn’t changed one bit,’’ he says.

    The Chase is on

    On a breezy, overcast Florida day, a teenager stood among a crowd hiding a secret. Nearby was his blue-and-gold race car, massaged by obsessive crew members and decorated by a company lured back to NASCAR because of a car salesman’s pitch that this was no lemon and the kid was no typical 18-year-old.

    The teen’s pedigree and past success made it easy to boast. Now it was time to deliver.

    Friends and family stood nearby on pit road at Daytona International Speedway in February 2014. Few, if any, were aware that this kid felt anything but confidence. Nerves took over. A question crept into his mind.

                “What am I getting myself into?’’

    He admits he still asks himself that sometimes. It’s understandable given the ride his young career has taken him on, as Chase Elliott made his Xfinity Series debut just 13 months ago.

    Bill Elliott’s son seeks to qualify Friday for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race. He’ll do so for Hendrick Motorsports at Martinsville Speedway, a track that can be as narrow as a New York City side street and have as much traffic. At the same place Richard Petty won a record 15 times, a footnote to history could be made. Years from now, this is where they might say it all began.

    The son of a Hall of Famer and heir to one of the sport’s most famous rides, Chase Elliott is on the cusp of leading the sport into the future. With a country crooner’s deep voice and Georgia drawl set against dark eyes and acne-free complexion, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t turn 20 until after this season.

    In the car, he’s deft, deliberate and determined, winning three races and the Xfinity title last season and anointed to drive Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 car next year. Chase’s greatest challenge, though, might not come from Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick or Tony Stewart, but how he handles the attention as the new face of the sport amid an emerging crop of racers.

    * * *

    Darlington Raceway was built when the American flag had 48 stars, John Wayne towered in movie theaters and more than one-third of the country lived in rural areas. As Harold Brasington constructed his track from South Carolina peanut and cotton fields, neighbor Sherman Ramsey made it clear that his minnow pond was not to be disturbed. Brasington complied, narrowing one end of the track, turning what was to have been an oval into an egg-shaped speedway.

    Darlington Raceway remains one of the sport’s most revered places — a Wrigley Field or Fenway Park of NASCAR. Winning at the track “Too Tough to Tame” provides a reward money can’t match — the satisfaction of conquering a speedway whose Victory Lane is as exclusive as the hottest nightclubs.

    The track also can be moody. Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough scored five Darlington victories but flew out of the track in 1965, his car resting on its side at the bottom of a hill. Petty, a three-time Darlington winner, tumbled down the frontstretch in 1970, his left arm flopping outside the driver’s side window in a savage crash that led to the advent of window nets.

    Such history greeted Chase Elliott when he arrived last season — 29 years after his father won the Southern 500 and collected a $1 million bonus — to race there for the first time. Years ago, the meeting for rookie drivers featured a highlight reel of mistakes and crashes previous newcomers made. A rookie’s goal was to avoid making the following year’s reel. Winning was not much of a thought.

    It was to Chase. He ran second in the final laps of last year’s Xfinity race there when the caution waved. The leaders pitted. A slow stop dropped Chase to sixth heading into the two-lap shootout.

    Car owner Rick Hendrick watched his young driver to see how he’d react. Hendrick vowed nearly a decade earlier not to do another driver development program after watching fuzzy-faced drivers wreck so many of his cars. Then he saw Chase drive. Hendrick saw unlimited potential. He signed Chase, then 15, to a contract in 2011.

    Chase needed only six starts to win his first Xfinity race, taking the checkered flag last April at Texas Motor Speedway. A week later, he was in position to win back-to-back races. Then came that bad pit stop.

    Hendrick, listening to Chase’s radio channel, heard the youngster calmly tell his team he’d take care of matters. Bill Elliott admires his son’s coolness in the car and admits he didn’t always have that demeanor when he drove.

    For Chase, it came naturally.

    Humpy Wheeler, a former Charlotte Motor Speedway president who has been a part of motorsports for more than half a century, marveled at Chase’s talent racing Bandolero and Legends cars as a youth. While those cars didn’t handle well and competitors were erratic, Wheeler admired how smooth, consistent and unflappable Chase was.

    Those traits stayed with the youngster as he grew. Former champion crew chief Ray Evernham recalled when he and Bill Elliott drove dirt late model cars at a Georgia dirt track during a private test. At the end of the day, Elliott put Chase, who was about 12 years old, in his dirt late model to run some laps. Chase topped Evernham’s best lap and soon exceeded his father’s best time. Elliott told Evernham that the kid did that everywhere they ran.

    While he’s fast, he isn’t reckless. He was listed as being involved in a caution just three times in 33 Xfinity races last season, although Chase says: “I’m involved in way more than I like to be.’’

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    Talent scout David Smith, founder and editor-in-chief of Motorsports Analytics, ranks Chase as the No. 1 Sprint Cup prospect. Smith lauds Chase as a “high-IQ driver’’ but also notes the smooth, aggressive driving style that allowed Chase to gain positions and go on to finish in the top five in nearly half of his Xfinity starts last year. That’s a performance akin to six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

    Like Johnson, Chase looks for ways to improve. He laments his 12th-place finish at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year when his teammate, Kevin Harvick, contended for the win.

    “I didn’t take the right approach,’’ Chase says of that Indy weekend. “The way I went about practice to make our car drive a certain way wasn’t the way we needed to be in the race. I kind of led us down the wrong path.’’

    Everything was going right at Darlington until that final pit stop. Two laps remained. Chase trailed Kyle Larson, Elliott Sadler, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick on the restart. Sadler and Larson were on the front row but gambled with only two tires on the final pit stop. The other four drivers each had four fresh tires. Starting on the outside of row three, Elliott was in the preferred line. Both Busch and Harvick were saddled on the inside line and needed to force their way to the top groove to have a chance to win.

    Chase knew he needed a strong restart. He cleared Harvick for fifth in Turn 1. He moved past Busch on the outside for fourth along the backstretch. He passed Larson for third in Turn 3.

    Chase shot by Kenseth for second before beginning the final lap. When the back end of Sadler’s car wiggled off Turn 2, Chase pounced, taking the lead down the backstretch to win in his first start at Darlington and become the track’s youngest winner at age 18.

    At the track that gave Chase’s father the nickname “Million Dollar Bill” for that 1985 Southern 500 win, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bestowed a moniker upon Chase that night.

    “I like to call him,’’ Earnhardt said, “the new Elvis.’’

    * * *

    NAPA was on its way out of NASCAR in 2013. It had terminated its three-year contract with Michael Waltrip Racing two years early after NASCAR penalized the team for attempting to manipulate the Richmond fall race with a suspicious late-race caution and then having two of its drivers pit in the final laps to lose positions to help teammate Martin Truex, sponsored by NAPA, earn a wildcard spot in the Chase.

    Rick Hendrick, whose automotive group is one of the country’s largest with 94 auto dealerships, pitched NAPA executives with the fervor of a car salesman about remaining in the sport and sponsoring Chase Elliott.

    “Mr. Hendrick is sitting there pretty much guaranteeing the performance that Chase is capable of doing,’’ said Kelley Earnhardt Miller, co-owner of JR Motorsports, who also was in the meeting with Chase and his parents. “We sold him hard that we could win and do well with him. We didn’t sell them the (notion of winning a) championship. We weren’t that crazy.’’

    Still, it wasn’t enough.

    “It took him being an Elliott to have that brand recognition,’’ she said. “They just weren’t going to sign up with … somebody else. Just with everything they had been through they had turned a lot of people off internally that they had to turn back on.’’

    Sponsoring Chase Elliott also meant getting Bill Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — who have combined to be NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver 28 of the last 31 years. NAPA, which declined an interview request, had Elliott and Earnhardt appear alongside Chase in a TV commercial last year. NAPA’s latest commercial features Chase and Earnhardt.

    Chase’s growing popularity is aided by his connections to some of the sport’s biggest names. As Elliott’s son, he’s likely to attract fans who once favored his dad. Racing for Earnhardt’s team allows him to reach many of Junior Nation. Taking over Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 car next year, will help tap into Gordon’s fan base. Chase already has about 150,000 Twitter followers and a similar number of likes on his Facebook page.

    “He clearly has the makings to be a rock star,’’ said Zak Brown, chief executive officer of Just Marketing International, a sports marketing company that specializes in motorsports with clients in Formula One, NASCAR and IndyCar.

    Fanatics, Inc. (which sells NASCAR merchandise on NBCSports.com, NASCAR.com, its own site and at the track) reports that online sales of Chase’s merchandise are up 137 percent since the Daytona 500 compared to this time a year ago. Although Chase ranks just outside the top 10 in sales at Fanatics among NASCAR drivers, he is the highest-ranking full-time Xfinity driver.

    Howard Hitchcock, president of Lionel Racing, says that the 1:24-scale Action Racing Collectables-branded die-cast of the car Chase will make his Cup debut with this weekend has the potential to be one of Lionel’s top-five selling cars this year. The last time a driver’s debut Sprint Cup car ranked in the top five in sales was 2012 when Danica Patrick’s car ranked third.

    The company had about 5,000 of Elliott’s debut car produced. That trails only the 1:24 scale die-cast made of Earnhardt’s Nationwide Insurance car this year. About 7,800 of that car have been sold.

    Chase has value in other ways. He gives younger fans someone they can cheer for. Eleven percent of NASCAR’s fan base is between the ages of 18 and 24, according to Scarborough Research last year. In 2011, that group represented 10 percent of the sport’s fan base. Scarborough Research also stated that 36 percent of NASCAR fans have children under the age of 18. Kelley Earnhardt Miller said she was struck by how many younger fans went to one of Chase’s appearances last month at a NAPA store near Daytona International Speedway.

    “When you have somebody who is very marketable and an elite performer and young, he authentically reaches that younger demographic and they’re going to be pulled into watching him,’’ said Rod Moskowitz, principal and CEO of Fuel Sports Management, which represents Chase along with such drivers as Kasey Kahne and Denny Hamlin. “Naturally, (for) companies that are targeting not only the younger demographic but the NASCAR demographic, he’s an ideal fit.’’

    * * *

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s much-ballyhooed Cup debut in 1999 came with its own slogan: “The Countdown to E-Day.” The 138-day buildup inflated by Budweiser’s promotional power only added to the anxiety Earnhardt felt leading into his bid to qualify for the Coca-Cola 600.

    “That stuff right there put a lot of pressure on me,’’ said Earnhardt, who qualified eighth and finished 16th in his Cup debut. “That made me quite nervous, to be honest with you. Leading up to it I felt like I had this heavy obligation to deliver some kind of performance that I didn’t know whether I was capable of doing.’’

    There is no catchphrase around Chase Elliott’s Cup debut this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. The short track also has a more casual atmosphere than Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    “He’s a short-track guy, so he doesn’t have to feel a lot of pressure,’’ Earnhardt said. “I don’t think there are a ton of expectations coming from outside. I think that people expect him to just make the race, get in there and run laps. I don’t think he has to feel a lot of pressure on the performance side.’’

    Expectations are high for Chase because some may view him as the leader of a new generation of racers. He doesn’t view things that way.

    “The only responsibility I feel is that of myself and the job I have and not look at it much past that,’’ he said. “At the end of the day, you just have to sit back and realize that no matter what your last name is, who your granddad is, who is your dad is, uncle, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t get the job done, you’re not going to be around long.’’

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    Chase isn’t the only young driver making his mark in the sport.

    Last month, 24-year-old Joey Logano was the oldest winner among NASCAR’s top three series at Daytona. Xfinity winner Ryan Reed is 21 years old and Camping World Truck Series winner Tyler Reddick is 19 years old.

    There are many others. Ryan Blaney (21 years old) is running a partial Sprint Cup schedule with the Wood Brothers. Kyle Larson (22) and Austin Dillon (24) are both in their second season in Cup. The Xfinity Series features points leader Ty Dillon (23 years old), Chris Buescher (22) and Darrell Wallace Jr. (21), among others.

    With a number of Cup drivers age 40 or older, there will be a significant changing of the guard, beginning with Gordon’s departure after this season and Chase’s arrival.

    That doesn’t mean that every young driver will excel immediately.

    Logano went from can’t-miss talent to nearly out-of-work Sprint Cup driver within four seasons. After being touted for years — first by Mark Martin and later by Randy LaJoie, who said Logano was the best thing since sliced bread, earning the driver the nickname “Sliced Bread” — Logano struggled in his first season in the Cup at age 18.

    “You think you’re the best thing out there and all of a sudden you get your ass kicked every week and it’s not so much fun,’’ Logano said. “You have to understand that you’re not that good, and then you’ve got to figure out how to be better.

    “Learning more about racing and being a student of the sport were the biggest things that I went through, which was interesting because I never really had to work on being a better race car driver before I got here. It probably took a couple of years just to figure it all out.’’

    Logano says Chase may not have as much of an adjustment period because he was around the series as a youth and can lean on his father for help and advice.

    Kevin Harvick, thrust into a Cup ride at Richard Childress Racing a week after Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001, said Chase needs to have people help manage expectations.

    “I used to fight, ‘Well, Dale did it this way, Dale did this for me,’ ‘’ Harvick said. “That will be a little bit of a struggle (for Chase). It will be ‘Jeff did this’ or ‘Jeff did that.’ I didn’t think I should have to be doing the same things because you weren’t the same people.’’

    When Harvick made his Cup debut he was 25 — six years older than Chase is.

    For all the hopes or expectations that Chase can help push NASCAR forward, he’s still a kid. It’s easy to forget that with the savvy marketing, as well as his polished look and beyond-his-years maturity.

    There are signs, though, of his youth. Last year, the team removed candy from its hauler because of Chase’s sweet tooth. When Chase told Kelley Earnhardt Miller that he was going on a trip with friends in December, her immediate response was: “Is your mom going with you?’’

    “No,’’ he told her. “Just me and my buddies.’’

    She further quizzed him on his plans.

    “I’m asking him all these questions,’’ Earnhardt Miller said, “because I’m thinking he’s just this kid.’’

    One who could become a face of the sport.