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Buddy Baker's Death Felt Across NASCAR Nation

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News from NASCAR’s second straight fuel mileage finish took a backseat Monday as one of the sport’s kindest, most well known spokesmen saw his battle with lung cancer hit the start/finish line. Buddy Baker, 74, passed away Monday just a month after stepping away from his gig on SIRIUS XM radio following news he had an inoperable tumor. Known as the “Gentle Giant,” the 6-foot-6 Baker scored 19 career Cup victories, including the 1980 Daytona 500, then transitioned to a role as booth analyst for races televised on The Nashville Network and CBS.

These days, it’s hard to find people as genuine and nice as Baker was to all who knew him. His passion was racing; it’s one he lived and breathed long after hanging up the helmet for Cup in 1994. The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck, the family’s racing school helped train several modern drivers while bringing them up to speed for stock car racing on tracks like Atlanta Motor Speedway, Rockingham and Charlotte.

A part-time colleague of Buddy’s on SIRIUS XM Channel 90, I never got to host with him but was a frequent guest on one of his shows, “Tradin’ Paint.” What stuck with me from those appearances was always the way in which I was treated. Here was this guy, named one of NASCAR’s “50 Greatest Drivers” in 1998 and he was doting on me like I was the special one. Always well researched, he’d ask thoughtful questions, the type that made you aware he read your columns. In fact, Baker was one of the most knowledgeable SIRIUS XM personnel the channel had, up to speed on the internal workings of the sport all the way up until his death.

You never knew much about Baker’s personal life because, well, you didn’t really need to. Racing was his life and the way in which he and father Buck helped it grow will be remembered decades into the future. Who won’t remember Buddy’s soft-spoken, pointed analysis of the 1990s that was the perfect balance for Ned Jarrett in the CBS booth? Baker’s voice, just like his height remains legendary and forever available for future generations to both listen to and get hooked on the sport he loved.

“Many of today’s fans may know Buddy Baker as one of the greatest storytellers in the sport’s history, a unique skill that endeared him to millions,” said NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France. “But those who witnessed his racing talent recognized Buddy as a fast and fierce competitor, setting speed records and winning on NASCAR’s biggest stages. It is that dual role that made Buddy an absolute treasure who will be missed dearly.”

One of those records still stands today as Baker won that ’80 Daytona 500 with an average speed of 177.602 miles an hour. Baker the analyst would have plenty to chat about regarding Sunday’s fuel mileage finish but the driver? He was all speed, speed, and more speed. That “go fast” mentality helped him on the superspeedways but he struggled on short tracks throughout his career, a weakness that kept him no better than fifth in the championship standings.

Perhaps the best example of Baker the person though is how he handled his death, armed with both courage and grace. While some crumble under the weight of terminal diagnoses, Baker took an optimistic approach, reminding listeners in his last SIRIUS XM radio broadcast to look on the bright side.

“What a blessed person I’ve been,” he said that night in July. “To have a long career like I’ve had, do not shed a tear. Give a smile when you say my name.”

I can’t imagine everyone held up his or her bargain not to shed a tear today. But there’s a whole lot of people gritting their teeth and smiling through it because they know that’s what Buddy would have wanted them to do.

Through The Gears we go….

FIRST GEAR: Logano Gets Over A Hump Harvick’s Still Stuck On

Sunday’s Watkins Glen race, known as one of NASCAR’s most aggressive, instead played out as rather tame. There was over a 30-lap green-flag run to the finish, turning strategy at the front into a game of fuel mileage for a second straight week.

At Pocono, Joey Logano led the most laps but ran out of gas towards the end, handing victory over to Matt Kenseth. This time, the racing gods looked favorably on Logano when dominant leader Kevin Harvick ran out of fuel with just a few turns remaining on the road course. Logano sped by, making up for his lost opportunity last week, earning his first Sprint Cup victory since February’s Daytona 500.

“It's nice that it played out this time,” said Logano, who also earned his first weekend sweep of XFINITY-Cup events. “It feels good to break through and not be the bridesmaid anymore, and actually get to have the checkered flag and have some fun.”

Logano, second in the Cup standings to Harvick, had also earned two runner-up finishes inside the last month. That harnesses the momentum a bit in a Chase format where you only get bonus points entering the postseason for winning races. Logano may be well ahead of Jimmie Johnson during the regular season, for example, but Johnson would earn the top seed in the Chase courtesy of the No. 48 team’s four victories.

The format makes it more important to cash in on chances to win; it’s a growing problem for what has otherwise been a dominant season for Harvick. Losing out on those final turns, the third-place finish didn’t do justice for a No. 4 car that led a race-high 29 laps during the event. It was his 13th top-3 result of 2015 but only two of those have resulted in victories and the precious bonus points needed to distance one from other championship contenders.

“Our cars are faster than pretty much everybody else’s every week,” Harvick said after falling short. “The circumstances have definitely bit us quite a few times. But all in all, if you have the fastest car and you keep running in the top 5 and leading laps, eventually you’re going to wear them down.”

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Harvick hopes for a repeat of 2014, when the team overcame similar bad luck, stormed into the Chase and stomped all over the competition. But if, say, a blown engine bites them within the first round in September, we’ll be pointing to races like these as extra “cushion” the No. 4 team could have used to help from being eliminated.

SECOND GEAR: Stewart’s Sticky Situation

It was an emotional weekend for Tony Stewart, fighting through the first anniversary of the tragic death of Kevin Ward Jr. This tragedy, which occurred when Ward was struck by Stewart’s sprint car, has irrevocably changed the life of NASCAR’s three-time Cup Series champion. While ultimately cleared of criminal charges, the Ward family chose Stewart’s return to the region as the time to file a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court.

Stewart, who refrained comment on the case, still had it front and center in his mind. It’s a situation from which there are no winners. The driver will always face the demons of Ward’s death, as nothing will ever completely wipe out the reality of striking and killing another man. On the flip side, no amount of money given to the Wards will bring back what they ultimately desire – their son. It appears they also feel that Stewart should have faced charges, a pointed statement released Friday signifying the anger and pain they’re still going through.

"Our son was truly the light of our lives and we miss him terribly every day," they said. "Our hope is that this lawsuit will hold Tony Stewart responsible for killing our son and show him there are real consequences when someone recklessly takes another person's life."

As for the court of public opinion, it seemed the Watkins Glen locals rallied around the driver. Stewart qualified inside the top 10, racing at the track for the first time since 2012,and was introduced to cheers by the sold-out crowd. That the No. 14 team finished 43rd, the victim of a broken rear gear, was inconsequential to an owner/driver whose team is showing signs they might break out of a yearlong slump.

“[The weekend] was as good as it could be,” he said. “I’m happy to get to race here and I’m happy about the couple of weeks we have coming up.”

THIRD GEAR: Kahne’s Crash, Gordon’s Brakes Spice Up Chase Race

What in the world is going on with Kasey Kahne? On lap 50, a chain-reaction wreck that started when Sam Hornish Jr.’s car failed to come up to speed, left Kahne’s No. 5 Chevrolet a crumpled mess. It was the second straight crash for Kahne, now sitting 51 points outside the Chase with only four races left to make up the distance.

“I made it longer this week than last,” he deadpanned before turning a bit more serious. “At this rate, we’re going to need to win [to make the Chase]. I need to get a little better.”

Kahne claimed a great Bristol test has him highly confident he could win the night race there. Who would wind up an innocent victim should Kahne’s win knock someone else out of the Chase on points? None other than teammate Jeff Gordon, suffering through brake problems at the Glen to give him a second finish outside the top 40 inside the last three races.

“We can’t afford to have these types of finishes,” said the four-time champion, “If we are going to make the Chase.”

Gordon’s problems combined with Kyle Busch entering the top 30 Sunday (officially solidifying his status inside the postseason) makes it a tricky proposition for Jamie McMurray, Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Clint Bowyer. All five of those winless wheelmen are currently Chase-eligible but are jammed within 23 points of each other. Should another driver like Kahne, Stewart, Kyle Larson, or Greg Biffle win – someone positioned well outside the top 16 in points – that would knock one of those five drivers out.

Will it happen? Michigan has long been a Roush Fenway Racing stronghold (Biffle) even though they’ve struggled mightily there the last few years. Kahne claims he could win Bristol. Larson has shown signs of life the last month. You never know….

FOURTH GEAR: Swing And A Miss For Road Course Specialists

Defending Watkins Glen champion AJ Allmendinger, known as a road course specialist, was hoping to fight his way into this year’s Chase once again. But the No. 47 Chevrolet, after leading 20 laps fell back through the field with handling problems. A faulty battery put the nail in the coffin of a 24th-place result that leaves them with a disappointing 2015 season.

The ‘Dinger wasn’t the only road course expert hurting, though. Stewart and Gordon had problems while Boris Said was uncompetitive driving the No. 32 Ford for Frank Stoddard. Gone are the days where a specialist can earn a one-race deal and excel with Cup veterans; equipment means too much compared to driver talent. Should Said retire at the end of 2015, the days of “ringers” slotting in regular Cup rides may be officially over.

OVERDRIVE

Danica Patrick quietly earned a 17th-place finish at the Glen. It’s the first time she’s had back-to-back top 20s in Cup since April… Bowyer, sixth on Sunday now has two straight top-10 finishes since Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Rob Kauffman purchased a stake in Chip Ganassi Racing for 2016 – promising to take Bowyer with him… Logano’s 16th-place starting spot was the furthest back anyone had come to win a Cup race at the Glen since Steve Park in 2000.

(Top photo courtesy of NASCAR.com; above, right photo courtesy of @SiriusXMNASCAR)

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.