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CUP: ‘Dad Hat’ Off For Larry McReynolds

Larry McReynolds has carved out highly successful careers as celebrated NASCAR crew chief, and “countrified” TV racing analyst. It’s a combination that has made McReynolds one of the most recognized and respected personalities in domestic motorsports.

But drive a stock car?

“I couldn’t drive a nail,” McReynolds deadpanned during a recent ARCA test session at Texas Motor Speedway, where son Brandon re-introduced the term “racing dad” to the family lexicon. Brandon made his belated ARCA Racing Series debut last Friday in the ARCA Talladega 250, finishing 24th in a car fielded by Eddie Sharp Racing…and watched over from atop the ESR hauler by Larry Mac.

“I think in normal, everyday life, Brandon’s the genius 18-year-old that all 18-year-olds are,” McReynolds said. “But he realizes that when he’s in that race car he needs to look, watch, listen and learn and pay attention to people that have experience.”

Brandon started 18th and soldiered through an eventful debut at Talladega Superspeedway in the No. 6 Eddie Sharp Racing Toyota Camry carrying sponsorship honoring his godfather – the late Davey Allison – one of several Sprint Cup stars Larry bonded with as crew chief.

“When I evaluate Brandon, I absolutely – and it’s a challenge – I absolutely take my ‘dad hat’ off and I throw it all the way in the corner,” the elder McReynolds said. “With what we’re trying to do now, it’s too much work, it’s too much money, it’s too much everything just to want to see him do it because he’s Brandon McReynolds, my son. I look at him through the eyes no different than I would evaluate any other driver. No different than my evaluation of Danica Patrick. I look at him as a race car driver and not my son.”

An overheating engine, the result of nose-to-tail contact with the car of Texan James Buescher, spoiled Brandon’s initial thrill of racing on the high-banked, 2.66-mile layout 40 laps into the event.

“The three-wide racing at Talladega is like nowhere else. It was certainly exciting,” said Brandon, who despite falling nine laps down, worked the draft with the leaders during the closing stages of a race won by 18-year-old pole-sitter Dakoda Armstrong.

“Everyone knew we were out there, and I’m happy about that,” said Brandon, anticipating his next start in the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown at Southside Speedway in Midlothian, Va., today. “I’m looking forward to competing against some of the best NASCAR and short-track drivers. We’re really working hard to put deals together to run more races in the ARCA Racing Series.”

Like any number of aspiring drivers, McReynolds’ ARCA track time is being dictated by funding. “Yeah, it’s sponsorship-driven,” Brandon said. “Eddie Sharp’s given me a real good opportunity. Obviously, it takes money to do it and everybody’s fighting the same battle right now as far as money and trying to put sponsorship dollars together and make it happen.

“But it definitely helped being around the race tracks (as a kid). Dad, man, it’s amazing the things he can tell you even though he didn’t drive the race car. He really knows what he’s doing.”

Larry Mac recalled a conversation with Brandon as they flew to North Texas for that open ARCA test. “It’s funny, because I told him even though I’ve worked on cars there (TMS) as a crew chief from 1997-2000,” Larry Mac said, “I’ve learned a lot more about that track – and to be quite honest, all the race tracks – moreso from the broadcast booth. Because I see things up there that I never did see standing on top the pit box or standing on top the hauler back in the days of being a crew chief.”

Brandon spent last season standing on the gas in the United Auto Racing Association All-Star Series for Late Models, logging four wins and seven-top five finishes.

“I started out running Bandoleros at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, pretty much a sister track to Texas,” Brandon said. “I struggled really bad when I first started out. I was horrible and dad’s like, ‘Listen, man, if you ain’t going to do it I’ll hop in the thing and make it go fast.’ So I was like I’d better get on my ‘A game’…this is Larry McReynolds and he knows how it’s done.”

Larry Mac, 51, scored 23 Cup wins as a crew chief – highlighted by Daytona 500 victories with Allison in 1992 while at Robert Yates Racing and in 1998 with seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt of Richard Childress Racing. McReynolds joined Fox Sports’ NASCAR broadcast team as color analyst at the end of the 2000 season, and also appears in the same capacity on SpeedTV’s various programs.

Brandon graduated to the Allison Legacy Series in 2005 before moving into UAR. “That was awesome,” Brandon said. “That really taught me how to race, how to play out a long race. It’s 150 laps everywhere we go, tire conservation, stuff like that. As I said, Eddie Sharp and the ARCA stuff, he’s given me a good opportunity to come and cut my teeth in this series.”

Again discarding his “dad hat,” Larry Mac said Brandon definitely was ready for an ARCA ride this spring. “NASCAR, I respect their protocol,” McReynolds said. “Right now for NASCAR he would be approved for only 1-mile and under (tracks) whether it’s (Camping World) Trucks or Nationwide. Very small amount of race tracks. This (ARCA) gives someone you think has pretty good experience a chance to go run at a bigger race track.

“I’ve learned a lot about the ARCA Series this year because of what little we’ve dabbled with him doing some testing at Daytona and testing at Texas. I think it’s a great rung in the ladder to transition from Late Models to the NASCAR series. It’s a great stepping stone. The competition is good here. The thing I like about it is it has many of the same elements you’re going to have to encounter in Trucks and Nationwide – bigger race tracks, faster speeds, the feel of the way these cars are being set up today, pit stops, fairly longer races…it’s all the nuances for the most part you’re going to have to encounter in Trucks and Nationwide.”

In Sharp, the McReynoldses perhaps have found the perfect mentor, tucked away in Denver, N.C.

“I like working with young kids, and I’ve kind of developed a knack for helping young drivers come along,” said Sharp, 45, himself a former racer. “And it’s made sense. ARCA…I like the schedule. It’s still grassroots racing, we just get to go to a lot of neat places. And to be honest with you, I like the development side of it. I like working with these young drivers.

“You know, everybody that comes through my program is excited. It’s like working on a cruise ship – I mean, everybody that’s onboard is happy. Everybody that’s here wants to be here. Everybody that’s here has aspirations to move on. It’s tough and it’s hard work and there’s a balance.”

Sharp previously helped former Formula One driver Scott Speed transition from open-wheel to stock cars, to the point where he now is a Cup regular with Red Bull Racing. Sharp currently is trying to help 24-year-old Brazilian Nelson Piquet Jr., another F1 refugee, make the same transition.

“There’s a lot of managing expectations,” Sharp said, “but where else is Nelson Piquet or Scott Speed or Brandon McReynolds or Justin Lofton…where else are they going to get good seat time? With all the testing bans and everything in NASCAR, these kids got to get experience. You can’t just show up at a Nationwide event or a Truck event and expect to compete with those people. And the financial situation of our economy right now, a lot of people don’t have the luxury to learn.”

Sharp’s teams are housed in a 60,000-square-foot compound located on five-and-a-half acres outside of Charlotte. “We’ve got a state-of-the-art facility,” Sharp said. “It’s a small Cup team. We have everything we need, and we do what budgets and stuff allow. Sometimes we run four teams, sometimes we run one.

“I used to road-race, ran the ASA Series back in the mid-1990s. And I think that’s what helps me relate to these kids. Because everything they’re feeling, everything they’ve done, I’ve done. So every mistake they’ve made, I’ve been there. I understand when they crawl out of a race car and say, ‘I’m not happy. I’m not comfortable.' I know what they’re saying. That helps. It’s just not, ‘Shut-up and drive.’ It’s, ‘Let’s fix it.’ They respect me for that. And it’s my job safety first, and then give the best race car that I can, you know?

Prior to competing at Talladega, Brandon impressed both Larry Mac and Sharp during a dedicated offseason testing program that began in December.

“The biggest thing Brandon has impressed me with is he adapts quickly,” Larry Mac said. “He adapts to different race tracks, he adapts to different cars, he adapts to different conditions. But the thing that has impressed me the most – and as being the owner of his race car for 11 years – what really impresses me is he don’t get himself in trouble. He really races smart.

“He’s smart enough to realize the competition in almost any series that you’re not going to take a 10th-place car and win the race. You might can take a 10th-place car and finish eighth, but if you take a 10th-place car and try to win the race with it, more than likely you’re going to be one of the next cautions that’s coming out. He really stays out of trouble.

“And he’s like a sponge. I saw this probably more at the Daytona test than I had ever seen it before in any of his other racing. Eddie was working very closely with him even in single-car runs about lines to maximize the speed. I know one time Eddie told him, ‘Next time through Turn 4, don’t pinch it off as much, let it float up about half-a-lane.’ Next time through there, he let it float up about half-a-lane and the stop watch reflected about a tenth-of-a-second gain.”

Sharp noted that both Piquet Jr. and Brandon – as different as Brasilia is from Birmingham – are dealing with what he termed the “sons of success” burden.

“Brandon’s got an amazing amount of maturity for his young age,” said Sharp, who ran his first ARCA event as a car owner in 1999. “Immediately, you can tell by a guy’s tone in his voice when he’s out there and how quickly he gets up to speed. His third lap on the track (at TMS in March) was third-quick. It’s pretty impressive what he’s done. And the fact of Larry Mac – with who he is and his reputation – it’s amazing that he put his faith in me with Brandon. That’s the ultimate compliment, that a guy with his credentials, who could have taken him anywhere…I take it personal.”

Indeed, Sharp has been tagged as the “Rick Hendrick of ARCA” for his ability to attract and develop talent. “That’s awful big shoes to fill,” Sharp said, “but I have been compared to that at this level. And I don’t think a guy like me, who’s just grown up working hard and built this thing from scratch, could get a bigger compliment than being compared to the Hendrick name. I’ve heard that and I’m very, very proud of it. But I by no means ever could put myself on that list.

“Would I love to go to the next level? Do I have aspirations to go to the next level? Maybe, if the situation’s right. But I think being a big fish in a little pond some days isn’t a bad place to be.”

Clearly, Brandon McReynolds remains aware of the expectations that come gift-wrapped with his “big fish” surname.

“I’m real good buddies with Coleman Pressley, who’s dad, Robert, raced in the Nationwide Series for a long time,” Brandon said, "and guys like Corey LaJoie (son of two-time Nationwide Series champion Randy). And a lot of times you walk around the garage area and it’s, ‘Oh, that’s Larry Mac’s kid.’ Or, ‘That’s Robert Pressley’s kid…’ You’re automatically expected to exceed expectations. And those expectations are really high.

“It’s tough sometimes but I think it just makes us work harder at what we’re doing. I know me, Coleman, all of us, we really put a lot of focus on our racing. I know other things are important like school and family and stuff like that, but racing has always really come first. Those expectations, when the bar is set higher, it just gives you a higher goal whether it’s football, baseball, whatever. Even though he’s Larry McReynolds, I want to make sure he’s happy. But there’s other people that look at you like, ‘Man, tomorrow you’ve got to put-up or shut-up.’ So hopefully, I get the job done.”

John Sturbin covered college sports, baseball as well as the NHL and Dallas Cowboys while working at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He was their fulltime motorsports beat writer from 1995 to 2008.

John can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

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