Calipari talks basketball at Speedway appearance

mstory@herald-leader.comJune 29, 2013 

SPARTA — Before John Calipari was scheduled to serve as honorary pace car driver at the NASCAR Quaker State 400 on Saturday, the Kentucky men's basketball coach talked a little hoops at Kentucky Speedway.

He also spoke about his "white-knuckle" training for the pace car drive, which included a tutorial from NASCAR driver Kurt Busch.

Alas, Calipari, like the rest of the drivers, was rained out Saturday. It was unclear whether or not Calipari would be able to return for another try Sunday.

On Thursday night, Calipari watched two of his freshman players from last season, Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin, get chosen in the first round of the NBA Draft. Noel, who had been touted as potentially the No. 1 overall pick, "slipped" to No. 6 (taken by New Orleans and then traded to Philadelphia).

"I wish Nerlens would have gone one, but six is fine," Calipari said. "He's gonna have to prove himself anyway."

Calipari said he tried to prepare Noel for the possibility the center was not going to be the No. 1 overall pick.

"I told him before — I didn't know he had a mike on — I said, 'Listen to me, are you prepared if you are the number one pick?' And he said, 'Yeah,'" Calipari said. "Then I said, 'What if you slip? There's a good chance you are not going to be one and you are going to slip some. Are you prepared? You've got to stay positive, got to stay upbeat.' And he just said, 'I'm good.'"

Goodwin, who did not seem certain of going in the first round leading up to the draft, was taken late in the opening round, ending up with Phoenix as the No. 29 pick. Calipari said he tried to get the Brooklyn Nets to pick the 6-foot-5 guard with the No. 24 pick.

"I told the Nets he was not getting by 30. I wasn't positive about it, but I felt good about Phoenix," Calipari said. "Think about it, (Goodwin's) 18 years old. ... It's a good deal. You can say, 'Well he should have come back (to UK).' Well, he was picked 29th."

Calipari said if last season's other two UK freshmen, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, had not decided to return to Kentucky for their sophomore years, "We'd have had four guys in the first round (of the draft) — off an NIT team. So how bad a coach am I?"

Looking ahead to next season for UK, the Kentucky coach was asked if there was any chance junior-to-be forward Kyle Wiltjer might return to the Cats. The 6-10 junior has announced he is exploring the possibility of transferring.

"I don't know," Calipari said. "He and I texted each other today. So I'll probably text him to see where he is with things."

'White-knuckle' practice

Rain kept Calipari from driving the fast lane Saturday.

The postponement meant Calipari would have to give up another day of his family's vacation if he is to return Sunday.

Late Saturday night, Calipari tweeted his thanks to sponsors and Kentucky Speedway and said, "Hope the race goes great tomorrow."

The UK coach also tweeted, "Disappointed I didn't get to drive the pace car tonight because of the weather but still had a blast. After getting behind the wheel for the test drive, I really, really want to drive the pace car one day."

Calipari's pace car tutorial from 2004 champion Busch provided quite a thrill.

Initially slated to ride shotgun as the honorary pace car driver, Calipari was asked to drive the Ford Fusion leading the 43-car field to the green flag.

His crash-course instruction included 90-mph splits in the rain around the 1.5-mile oval by Busch, which had the coach "white-knuckled" and holding on tightly on the passenger side as the car came within inches of the outside retaining wall. Fortunately for Calipari, he would only have to drive a more comfortable 45 mph ahead of the field.

"When I went 45 (mph), I wasn't nervous," Calipari said, "but when he (Busch) was going 90 and 100 (mph) in that rain, all these grooves are great, I'm thinking, 'Oh, my gosh.'

"I had one arm on the mirror grabbing it, and the other hand was on the window. He was flying, for me. These guys are used to it, but it was fast. And it was raining."

Calipari's jacket

Calipari warmed up for his appearance Saturday by displaying a specially designed "driver's jacket" he was to wear in the pace car.

Calipari posted pictures of the jacket on his Twitter account, then mingled with fans before the race.

The jacket — black with blue sleeves — displayed Calipari's name beneath a UK logo on the right front breast, with the words "8-Time National Champions" beneath that. On the opposite side, beneath some sponsor logos were the words, "Players First."

The back of the jacket contained the words "Refuse to Lose" and several more sponsor logos. The arms displayed the years of Kentucky's eight national championships.

Calipari said the jacket will be auctioned for charity.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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