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Friday 5: Female pit crew members making their mark in NASCAR

On the morning of this year’s season-opening Cup race, Brehanna Daniels stood alone and shed tears.

A few hours later, she was joined by Dalanda Ouendeno on pit road, marking the first time two Black women changed tires for a team in the Daytona 500.

“It meant so much to me,” Daniels told NBC Sports. “From where I started, I was the only (Black woman). I’m just sitting there thinking like, ‘Dang, I don’t want to be the only one.’ … I was hoping for someone to see me and then actually want to be a part of the sport. Now she’s here. Even though it’s three years later, it still happened.”

Daniels made her Cup debut three years ago this week, joining Breanna O’Leary as the first female tire changers for the same team in NASCAR’s premier series. Daniels and O’Leary remain in the sport. Ouendeno joined them on pit road this season, but a pit crew diversity program does not have any females this year.

O’Leary and Daniels both were in the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development program in 2016. O’Leary made her Cup debut in June 2018 at Michigan. Daniels’ Cup debut came a month later at Daytona, teaming with O’Leary.

Since that night in Daytona — where spectators and media crowded the team’s pit stall to witness the two female tire changers in action — the journey has been challenging for Daniels, 27, and O’Leary, 29.

“Just like anything, it’s had its ups and downs,” said O’Leary, who has changed tires for Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series teams this year and trains with Chip Ganassi Racing. “There were even times in between then and now that I’ve questioned what I’m doing and wondering why I’m doing it. But it’s one of those things, I guess, when you have moments like that first Cup race I did or getting to do the 500 with Brehanna (in 2019) … all that makes it worth it.”

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 61st Annual Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 17: Breanna O’Leary, tire changer on the #52 Winn Dixie Chevrolet, looks on during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 61st Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2019 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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Daniels admits it would have been easy to quit when she started, but she wouldn’t allow herself to do it.

“I’ve always known that my hard work paid off and it continues to pay off,” said the former Norfolk State University basketball player. “I’ve always had that competitive drive, competitive nature. I like competing, so going out there and doing pit stops, you’re competing against other teams and trying to get better within yourself. I just want to get better and do better.”

Ouendeno, 23, joined Daniels at Rick Ware Racing this season after going through the pit crew diversity program. The Paris native played soccer at the University of Miami before joining NASCAR.

“When I first started the program, training to be on a pit crew, I didn’t even have my driver’s license because you don’t have to drive (to get around) Paris,” Ouendeno told NBC Sports. “I definitely learned a ton about cars. Now my friends come to me for car advice.”

NASCAR Xfinity Series Contender Boats 250

HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 27: Crew members Brehanna Daniels (L) and Dalanda Ouendeno (R) of the #74 Covert Scouting Cameras Chevrolet stand on the grid during the national anthem prior to the NASCAR Xfinity Series Contender Boats 250 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 27, 2021 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

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While Ouendeno has joined the sport, it will take time for more growth. Danica Patrick’s entry into NASCAR didn’t suddenly increase the number of women seeking to race stock cars. The same has been the case for female pit crew members.

Still, Daniels, O’Leary and Ouendeno each said they get a lot of support from fans.

“I have parents that reach out to me … they send me pictures of their kids working on a car,” Daniels said. “(They’re saying) ‘Look at my son trying to be like you,’ or ‘my daughter trying to change this tire.’ Just sending me pictures like that. That’s a big deal.”

This year’s Indianapolis 500 featured Paretta Autosport, which had female team members as a majority of its over-the-wall pit crew. O’Leary said that was important to see.

“I loved it,” she said. “It wasn’t a gimmick. These women earned their spot. They earned their positions to be where they were and to able to bring this team to competition at the Indy 500.”

Phil Horton, director of Athletic Performance at Rev Racing, oversees the pit crew diversity program. He says a dozen women have come through the program in about the last decade.

While there isn’t a woman in this year’s program, Horton noted that a program to train those for roles as a car chief or crew chief has a woman. That program also will include pit training.

Horton, a strength coach with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks before moving into NASCAR in 1998, said the diversity pit crew program goes to colleges to show male and female athletes potential opportunities in stock car racing.

“For the individuals that have decided to do that, it works,” he said. “It is definitely possible.”

2. Searching for those winning ways

Kevin Harvick, who won a series-high nine races last year, remains winless this season as the series heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN).

He’s scored four top 10s in the last six races but has not led any laps since Darlington on Mother’s Day. The struggles are something the team has fought since last season.

“You can look at it, starting back in the fall last year, we started to kind of lose our stride a little bit and the Hendrick cars got going really good there at the end of the year,” crew chief Rodney Childers said. “This year, we’ve just kind of been off a little bit all year long, no matter if it’s been a road course or a 550 (horsepower) race or a 750 (horsepower) race - kind of off all together.

“It’s definitely been tough. Everybody has been working really hard trying to get better. As you know, too, it’s tough to start reeling all that back in. You head down one direction and you’ve got to try to just keep after it and hopefully keep getting better every week. We’ve made some gains, but we haven’t just been knocking it out of the park as far as catching up, so we just have to keep working and hopefully get better.”

NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 - Qualifying

LEBANON, TENNESSEE - JUNE 20: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Grave Digger Ford, and crew chief Rodney Childers (R) talk on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 20, 2021 in Lebanon, Tennessee. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

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Childers said in March that the team had lost 70 counts of downforce because of rule changes this season. He was asked this week how much the team had gotten back.

“That remark back then was compared to last year when we were the best and everybody in the field lost some downforce,” Childers said. “I think some lost 30 counts. Some lost 45 counts and some lost 70 counts, and I think the 70 counts was Stewart-Haas, so that part sucks, but, overall, it is what it is.

“Our goal is to work through that and to try to get better. I wish I could tell you that we have more downforce than the beginning of the year, but we really don’t.

“We’ve probably lost some since the beginning of the year because every week that you go through tech there’s something else that is going on throughout the garage. Jay (Fabian, Cup Series director) will send out the (communications) and say, ‘We’re not gonna do this anymore and we’re gonna check this differently and we’re gonna do this.’

“Those things just keep adding up. So one week you might find something that adds seven or eight counts of downforce and then the next thing, you’re fixing something that loses seven or eight counts of downforce. So compared to the field, it’s hard to say where we’re at.”

3. Looking ahead

Matt DiBenedetto says he still does not know what his future holds beyond this season.

DiBenedetto is among the drivers who could play a key role in Silly Season this year.

Team Penske announced last year that Austin Cindric would replace DiBenedetto in the No. 21 ride with Wood Brothers Racing after this season. DiBenedetto’s contract is with Team Penske.

With Brad Keselowski expected to move to Roush Fenway Racing after this season, that could present an opportunity for DiBenedetto to remain within Team Penske.

“I’m just kind of in the wait-and-see moment and watching all the dominos fall is really my situation,” said DiBenedetto, who expects to hear about his status for next season by the end of the month. “I hope to stay within our family, Team Penske and Wood Brothers. I love driving for the Woods. I really feel like we’re on the brink of really having a lot of good things go our way.”

The Wood Brothers changed crew chiefs in June, replacing Greg Erwin with Jonathan Hassler. DiBenedetto heads to Atlanta 20th in the season standings, 74 points behind Kurt Busch for the final playoff spot.

Also, Erik Jones says he’s had talks with Richard Petty Motorsports management about next season.

“I’m pretty involved in what’s kind of happening,” Jones said.

At age 25 and a two-time Cup race winner, Jones could draw some interest.

“I’ve always felt confident in my abilities and what I can do,” he said. “I’ve been able to win races at the Cup level and that’s been awesome. I want to get back to that. I don’t want to not win races. All of our goal in the Cup Series is to win.

“I know I’m capable of that. I know we can get back to that. That’s the goal. I want to go back to winning races and doing that wherever that may be. If it’s at RPM, that’s awesome. I’d love to do that for RPM. They’ve been great to me the last year and gave me a home and it’s been a good experience for me.”

Jones has five top-20 finishes in the last seven races. He is 26th in the season standings.

4. Friendly foes

Friends Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin are dueling to win the title for the regular season. Hamlin leads Larson by three points heading to Atlanta.

Larson noted last weekend at Road America how much he and Hamlin are going for that title (and the five extra playoff points the champion gets over the runner-up).

But the racing hasn’t impacted their friendship, Larson says.

“I think I’ve always been really good about separating racing vs. off the racetrack,” Larson said. “Denny and I are really good friends and we golf a lot together. We travel together. I haven’t traveled with him as much this year just because I’ve been so busy.”

Larson flew with Hamlin to Road America last Saturday, giving Larson an extra day at home.

“You can rely on Denny for a lot of good things,” Larson said. “He’s a good friend and a good competitor, too. It has been fun competing with him and racing hard together. We’ve always raced really well together even before we were friends.”

Larson said the only incident they’ve had between them was at Auto Club Speedway last year.

“Other than that, we’ve never had any issues,” Larson said. “I’m an easy guy to get along with. I can separate racing from off the track.”

5. Back at the track

Dax Gerringer, an engineer with Kevin Harvick’s team, returns to the track this weekend for the first time since being injured in a dirt bike incident. He last was at the track at Richmond in April.

Gerringer was riding dirt bikes with crew chief Rodney Childers in Georgia when he was injured. Gerringer broke five ribs, suffered a collapsed lung and a bleeding spleen. Childers said Gerringer spent 11 days in a hospital.

“He’s doing better,” Childers said. “He’s been working from the shop. As you know, Dax has been around me for a long time and been good friends, so I hate that happened to him.”

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