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July 11. 2013 10:28PM

Allen Lessels on Motor Sports: Daugherty's fast break to NASCAR


Former NBA basketball player and ESPN NASCAR analyst Brad Daugherty jokes around with NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon prior to the first Gatorade Duel race at Daytona International Speedway in 2009. (McCLATCHY INFORMATION SERVICES)

LOUDON -- Brad Daugherty lost a coin flip when he showed up to play basketball as a freshman for Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina and thus didn't get to wear his favorite number in college.

No coin flip was required when Daugherty got to the National Basketball Association as a center and the No. 1 pick out of North Carolina in 1986.

"I wasn't worried about the money or anything else," Daugherty said. "I wanted to make sure I had the No. 43. If I had the 43, I knew it was going to be good."

It turned out better than good.

He wore the No. 43 proudly through five All Star seasons and a highly productive career shortened by back problems and that, in the end, was how a number honoring NASCAR legend Richard Petty came to be retired by the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers.

Daugherty's racing roots run deep, starting way back at the long-gone Asheville Speedway in his hometown of Black Mountain, N.C., and continuing through high school and college and his time in the NBA.

These days, he's an ESPN analyst for NASCAR events, does some auto racing away from NASCAR in his spare time and is looking for ways to better the results of the JTG Daugherty Sprint Cup team he co-owns.

This weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway he'll wear the analyst hat for the "NASCAR Countdown" pre-race show that airs prior to the CNBC Prime The Profit 200 Nationwide race on Saturday and will join fellow analyst Rusty Wallace and host Nicole Briscoe in the ESPN Pit Studio during that race.

He'll turn his attention to his team for Sunday's Camping World RV Sales 301 Sprint Cup race when TNT takes over broadcast duties for the day.Bobby Labonte generally drives the Kingsford Charcoal Toyota for JTG Daugherty and is driving here and the team sits 30th in points and is looking for more.

"We'll work on some things to try and make the race team a little stronger," Daugherty said. "We've had a tough year, a tough two years really. We need to start getting some Top 20s. We feel like we're a Top 20 team. But we've got to improve. It's a hard fight and a battle. Obviously, these big teams occupy a lot of spots."

One of those big teams is Hendrick Motorsports, which ties up four spots in the top 14 in points going into Sunday's race with Jimmie Johnson (first), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (fifth), Kasey Kahne (12th) and Jeff Gordon (14th).

Johnson has clearly established himself as the guy to beat, Daugherty said.

"If you're going to win a championship, you have to beat them," he said. "Period."

Daugherty wants to move up.

"We're realistic about our expectations," he said. "We just don't think we're living up to expectations."

Daugherty, who had worked on cars growing up, got into the ownership side of things soon after turning pro in basketball.

He and longtime buddy and driver Robert Pressley put together a late model team in 1987 and later moved it up to the Nationwide Series.

"It was different then," he said. "We had two motors, two race cars and the total package probably cost us $25,000. We raced the whole basketball offseason, dragging it up and down the East Coast. I'd get up in the morning and get my exercise in. We'd go racing on Thursday and come back on Sunday and I'd work on my basketball on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and take 1,000 shots a day."

The basketball worked out pretty well and Daugherty has fond memories of going up against Larry Bird and Co. at the Boston Garden.

"We sent Larry packing," he said with a laugh.

He and the Cavaliers closed out Bird's season and career in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 1992.

"We had some great matchups with them," he said. "It was a thrill to play every night. I was playing against a great center just about every night. You had to have your 'A' game. You couldn't be sick or tired when you were up against (Hakeem) Olajuwon or Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) or Robert Parish or David Robinson."

Now, he's a basketball guy — a seven-foot African American basketball guy at that — in the ESPN booth talking about racing.

That catches some people off guard, he said.

"When you do something and have some notoriety with it, a lot of people want to put you in a little box and if you do something outside that box, it's a problem," he said. "I find it pretty funny. I'm an NBA All Star and in NASCAR and sometimes people say, 'What in the world are you doing?' But I love racing. I grew up racing."

And Daugherty — a Richard Petty fan, as was his father before him — is racing still.
alessels@unionleader.com on Twitter: @allenlessels


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