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Habul donates $100,000 to Nationwide Children's Hospital
A father of a boy and two girls with another baby girl on the way, Kenny Habul balances being a successful business owner, race car driver and family man. While in Ohio last Thursday afternoon, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver and his family visited the Nationwide Children's Hospital (NCH) and made a $100,000 donation on behalf of everyone at his company, SunEnergy1. For more than half a century, Nationwide has partnered with NCH to provide life-saving care to children and their families. The third annual Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 at Mid-Ohio was part of the company's effort to raise awareness and more than $4 million for NCH and its wide-ranging, world-class research efforts. RELATED: Drivers form lasting bond with Patient Champions In his 11th career XFINITY Series start and second of the season, Habul qualified 15th and finished 28th. Last month, Denny Hamlin drove Habul's SunEnergy1 No. 20 Toyota Camry to New Hampshire Motor Speedway's Victory Lane.
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Initiative pairs drivers with kids, who are front and center on race weekend
Marks, Dillon pace field Friday at Mid-Ohio
RELATED: Practice 2 results Justin Marks sped to the top of the leaderboard late in Friday's final NASCAR XFINITY Series practice at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, piloting his No. 42 Chevrolet around the road course at 95.574 mph. That was just quick enough to unseat Ty Dillon from the top spot. Dillon, who led Friday's opening practice and was looking for a sweep, had a best speed of 95.538 mph, which looked like it would hold up. That ended up being good for second place. Marks hasn't raced an XFINITY Series car since the season-opening race at Daytona, in which he finished 34th in the No. 29 Toyota. Alex Tagliani (95.205 mph) was third in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, followed by Chris Buescher (95.152 mph) and Elliott Sadler (94.965 mph). Chase Elliott , who finished eighth in the final session, spent time in the garage so his team could swap his transmission after the driver reported a small vibration on his second run, according to JR Motorsports. Next on the docket for the XFINITY Series is qualifying, which takes place Saturday at 11:15 a.m. ET. The Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 follows at 3:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM). Opening practice RELATED: Practice 1 results A late mock qualifying run vaulted Ty Dillon to the top of the leaderboard in Friday's opening NASCAR XFINITY Series practice at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. In the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, Dillon topped Brian Scott 's best speed with approximately 90 seconds remaining in the opening 55-minute session with a pace of 95.660 mph. Scott, his Richard Childress Racing teammate, settled for second in the session at 94.937 mph. In a practice session that saw its leaderboard get topsy-turvy as teams made late runs in qualifying trim, Boris Said piloted the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to third place (94.825 mph). Regan Smith was fourth at 94.755 mph and defending race winner and series points leader Chris Buescher taking fifth (94.736 mph). Buescher enters Saturday's Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM) 24 points ahead of both Chase Elliott and Dillon. Elliott finished seventh in the first practice. Dillon, of course, was involved in a pit-road tussle with Smith following last week's race at Watkins Glen. They avoided each other in Friday's opening period of on-track activity. RELATED: Smith, Dillon get physical post-Watkins Glen Seven NASCAR XFINITY Series teams lost 15 minutes of on-track time as a result of recent minor infractions. The following XFINITY Series teams served 15-minute practice time deduction penalties during the opening practice: Richard Childress Racing No. 2 (driver Brian Scott ), Team Penske No. 22 ( Alex Tagliani ), JGL Racing No. 26 ( Tomy Drissi ), Richard Childress Racing No. 33 ( Brandon Jones ), Jimmy Means Racing No. 52 ( Joey Gase ), Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54 ( Boris Said ) and JR Motorsports No. 88 ( Ben Rhodes ). The seven teams were penalized for issues arising at Watkins Glen this past weekend (late exiting garage).
Drivers form lasting bond with Patient Champions
LEXINGTON, Ohio -- Perspective. A week ago, Regan Smith was caught up in a fiery post-race fracas with XFINITY Series championship rival Ty Dillon after an on-track mixup at Watkins Glen International. On Thursday, he walked with eyes wide and jaw agape through the neonatal intensive care unit at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, which cares for infants born as young as 24 weeks -- roughly five and a half months. Smith, a recent first-time father to a nearly 6-month old son, Rhett, and JR Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott toured the hospital on behalf of the Patient Champions program, which pairs drivers with children who have completed or are undergoing treatment at the hospital . "Talking about perspective, if (feuding with Dillon) is the worst thing we have going on ..." said Regan, before trailing off. "We're standing here in a hospital right now with kids that have a lot of serious things going on. It was a race. We'll move onto the next one. Naturally, there's a lot bigger things going on in the world." The program, which pairs 10 drivers with 10 "Patient Champions" from the hospital , is in its third year in NASCAR since the sanctioning body began racing at the road course in the XFINITY Series in 2013. Patients, who are afflicted with diagnoses ranging from Autism to Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis to Pre-B Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and everything in between, have a hand in designing their drivers' respective paint scheme themselves -- Smith's purple, giraffe-embroidered No. 7 Chevrolet is a sight, for sure -- and are recognized throughout the weekend at the race track. Front and center at the Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 driver/crew chief meeting on Saturday, the group of children received a 30-second standing ovation from some of the biggest names in the sport, before breaking off to the garage area to hang out with their paired driver and, yes, sit in their actual race cars. Through its The 1989 World Tour partnership, XFINITY gifted each of the Patient Champions with a Taylor Swift-themed canvas bag filled with an iPad mini, CD, signed photo, thumb drive, t-shirt and third row tickets to her show when she rolls into Columbus in mid-September As the race prepared to get underway, the Patient Champions held one of the most important jobs of any race weekend -- co-grand marshals. Giving the command to start engines is certainly a moment that will stick with these children throughout their lives. Visiting the hospital is one that is sure to linger in the minds of Smith and Elliott. "I think more than anything, it's just knowing that these kids have gone through a lot and continue to go through a lot and just being able to hang out with them and mess around and play with them," said Smith, who legitimately could not wipe the smile off his face after receiving a tin of cookies from his Patient Champion, Laynie Roll. "I think, for me, the NICU hit close to home. Just because we're not far removed from having a baby that small. I shouldn't say 'that small,' but having a baby of that age. To see some of the 24-week-old babies that are that premature, it's incredible to even think that 30, 40 years ago, it probably would've been a different outcome. As they've learned, as this hospital has grown and as we've gotten smarter as a whole, to see that they're able to have a baby that is that little surviving, some of them breathing on their own is incredible." For Smith, the experience was one that brought up many questions, invoking his inquisitive, curious side as the hospital's neonatology chief Dr. Edward Sherman brought he and Elliott through the department. The new father clearly has an invested interest in the well-being of children overall and wanted to make sure he brought as much joy as possible to every patient he came in contact with, enthusiastically drag racing toy cars in the lobby and later, painting wooden toy chassis in the arts and crafts room with patients. Elliott, still just 19 years old, maintained a reserved, tentative approach. The sobering experience was a lot to take in for anyone, let alone someone who just graduated from high school last year. It was a similar, somewhat intentional pairing to 40-year-old Brendan Gaughan and 20-year-old Dylan Kwasniewski 's visit last year. Needless to say, the reigning series champion walked out of Nationwide Children's Hospital differently than when he walked in. "I think (their strength) is the key to it all. Seeing these kids and what they go through makes you sit back and realize how fortunate we are to really do what we love to do," Elliott said. "Don't take anything for granted, because you don't know when anything can happen at any given point. That's just life. Just very fortunate to be here and come see things first-hand. This hospital and Nationwide , the things that they do for them to make this happen is huge. It's cool to see it and be a part of it. "I got to see this race weekend last year and ran the race and got to see … (last year's race-winner) Chris (Buescher) had a young boy on his car. I didn't have anybody on my car and we obviously didn't win that day, but it was cool to see the joy that brought. It makes you sit back and realize that a bad day at the race track could be a lot worse." ******* At the conclusion of the 2014 running of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 , Luke Benner stood in Victory Lane in front of a giant trophy with a No. 1 finger in the air. Standing next to him was race-winner Chris Buescher , who'd just picked up his first career NASCAR victory -- but let the spotlight shine on Benner, his Patient Champion. "It was a really humbling win for me," Buescher said Friday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. "(I did feel extra pressure to win) and it probably had something to do with the fact that they said 'We're on the car now and we expect you to win, so you better.' They were not shy about what they were hoping to get out of the weekend. "They've been awesome. The whole Benner family has been a lot of fun to deal with and be around. To create a friendship and follow Luke's progress … they (came) back this weekend even though we have a new Patient Champion on the side of our car. We'll have William Schaffer on board and his family out here this weekend, but we'll also have the Benners, so we (had) a lot of kids running around our area trying to keep everything going forward. It'll be exciting that there's that little bit of extra pressure but at the same time, there's 10 of us that have the extra pressure so it evens out, I'd say." And that's what it's all about. Creating a special bond between patient and driver -- a mutually beneficial relationship that truly represents the communal spirit that makes NASCAR such a unique sport and experience through and through. It's clear that the sanctioning body, its teams and, most importantly, its drivers value and care for its fans and the relationships bonded -- especially with those in need. Even for Nationwide , which gave up its entitlement sponsor position of the series at the conclusion of last season, to remain so visible and charitable is nothing short of incredible. "These are kids that have gone through a lot, but because of the hospital and what they can do there, they can come out of it as a success story and they're special, unique kids that can talk through the challenges and what they've overcome," said Jim McCoy, director of sports marketing for Nationwide . "For us to highlight those stories in a national way through a race, putting (the patients') face on the car, having them come out to the race track and just enjoy time not thinking about whatever ailment that they have, it brings a lot of meaning to what we do and why we look forward to this race every year." All in all, while Saturday's race was won by Smith, the ones that walked away champions were Aiden VanWagner (Patient Champion of Elliott Sadler ), Alexandra James (Patient Champion of Ben Rhodes ), Dominic Clarke (Patient Champion of Darrell Wallace Jr .), Evan Kern (Patient Champion of Chase Elliott ), Kylee Leonard (Patient Champion of Alex Tagliani ), Laynie Roll (Patient Champion of Regan Smith ), Michael Galiher (Patient Champion of Ryan Reed ), Owen Mattie (Patient Champion of Brian Scott ), Roger "Mikey" Allen (Patient Champion of Brendan Gaughan ) and William Schaefer (Patient Champion of Chris Buescher ). Roll, race-winner Smith's Patient Champion, received an extra special experience, as she helped Smith celebrate in Victory Lane after the race at Mid-Ohio. "To come out here, they get to experience something that they're not going to get on a daily basis or in any normal sport," Buescher said. "You're not going to get the all access, come in the garage, sit in the cars, be on the pit box during the race. It's all stuff that is very unique to our sport and is very close up and all the Patient Champions get to do that this weekend." "It's very cool that we were able to carry it on."
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Buescher heads to Ohio seeking separation in standings
He has the best average finishing position overall, and the points lead. Now he hopes to build a little separation between himself and the rest of the field. Heading back to Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where he scored his first career NASCAR XFINITY Series win last year, Chris Buescher likes his chances. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has been atop the series points standings since earning career win No. 2, at Iowa, in a span of near one dozen races. Next up is Saturday's Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 at Mid-Ohio (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR). It's the second of three road-course stops in the span of a month for the series. Given his success at Mid-Ohio, and a third-place run this past weekend at Watkins Glen, it's little wonder Buescher, 22, is looking forward to the next few weeks. "I really hope that road courses will be a strong point for us," Buescher said. "I feel really comfortable going back to Mid-Ohio obviously. Road America (where he finished 18th a year ago) was the one where I needed a little bit more work. "I think we should be able to run top 10 very easily there. I like road racing ... I seem to hang in there and we seem to be able to put fast Roush Fenway race cars on the track." Road America, coming up at month's end, falls later on this year's schedule than in recent seasons when the race there was held in June. Buescher doesn't lead the series as far as average finish on road courses is concerned. In the past two seasons, he ranks fourth (12.8) along with Ty Dillon . Chase Elliott (5.3), Elliott Sadler (7.8) and Brian Scott (8.8) have been a bit more consistent. But Buescher, crew chief Scott Graves and his No. 60 crew have been getting better. Not that there haven't been hiccups, but the team has yet to finish outside the top 20 this season. They've been good, but not great, as the Watkins Glen finish attests. "I like where we’re at right now," Buescher said. "We have speed in our road course cars. The (Team) Penske cars showed up better than us (at Watkins Glen) though. They were very fast, class of the field. That being said, they always run fast at that particular track. "Mid-Ohio, I don't feel like there was a car there that really had something better than us last time around. If we can repeat that, maybe we can improve on it a little bit. I’m pretty comfortable where we're at." Elliott, the defending series champion, trails Buescher by 24 points (724-700). Dillon (also 24 back), Regan Smith (minus-57) and Sadler (minus-58) round out the top five.
Buescher, Roush haven't talked Cup plans -- yet
LEXINGTON, Ohio -- Team owner Jack Roush sparked rumors that XFINITY Series points leader Chris Buescher could soon be competing for a Sprint Cup Series title in a Wednesday night interview with SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, noting that the 22-year-old is "ready" for Cup racing and there's consideration for putting him in a car "sooner, rather than later." This was all news to Buescher. "(We've talked about) absolutely nothing. That has caught me so off-guard," Buescher said Friday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, site of Saturday's Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM). "My dad called me and asked me about it and I said 'I don't know what you're talking about right now.' And then the radio interview … came up, and it's nice to hear. It's awesome being recognized or being considered to move up." It's easy to see why Buescher would garner consideration from the longtime Roush Fenway Racing owner, given that his career has taken off at a tremendous rate since picking up his first career national series victory in this very race a year ago. A 2014 season that started with him failing to qualify for the season opener at Daytona hit its stride midway at Mid-Ohio with a win, sparking a streak of dominance that has seen him lead the series' regulars with an average finish of 8.4 in 2015. RELATED: Buescher seeks separation in standings at Mid-Ohio While it's hard to resist the temptation to think about where he could be racing next year, Buescher is keeping his expectations tempered. "Sooner rather than later is a very broad statement," said Buescher, the only XFINITY regular with multiple wins this year. "I don't know when that would be, by any means. My progression has typically been a little slower than a lot of the guys that I've grown up racing around, when you look at a lot of the guys that are in this series, they typically don't spend as much time in each series as I have. I'm OK with that, though. I like the fact that I've been able to get a lot of seat time in each division that I've run and been able to move up when I feel like I'm ready." Set in motion from Kyle Busch 's injury to start the season, Buescher has six Sprint Cup starts under his belt this year, which have mostly come when he hopped in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports ride previously inhabited by David Ragan , who filled in for Busch in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18. His average finish in six races is 26.7, but he's managed to finish better than where he started in every race except last weekend at Watkins Glen. Buescher also mentioned there are no current plans for him to get any more Cup seat time this year, but didn't rule out spot starts as necessary. Either way, he knows the extra laps behind the wheel amidst the stronger competition are just as important as finishing position right now, and he's willing to put in the time to learning the ropes. "I've had a lot of fun doing the Cup races with Front Row Motorsports . I think it has been a very big learning experience. I've learned a lot going through it. I realized it's not a 'drop in, good to go, go win a race,' it's going to be a learning curve for me," Buescher said. "I'm ready for the challenge, but it will be a challenge and lot of learning that will go along with it, whenever it may be ... I think I'll be ready for it. We'll find out sooner than later." For now, Buescher is focused on pursuing a championship in the XFINITY Series. In that regard, the series points leader says that the on-track incidents with teammate and championship hopeful Darrell Wallace Jr . are a thing of the past. "We've got everything rolling along pretty smooth right now," he said. "We've taken care of all of our issues. We feel like, or we know that the best way to make all of our teams competitive is to work together and we've had meetings to to basically very firmly say that and get that out there. It's all good and we've all been over-working on sim before this race; watching video, trying to review; going around on some pace car rides this morning with all of our teammates. We feel good about where we're at right now. "Obviously it wasn't so much fun earlier, but it's on the right path. We feel like we're focused on going out there are getting more wins for our organization. This year's been really good for us on the XFINITY side. We're the only organization that has any XFINITY regulars with any wins, which is pretty special to me, I would say."