For a time, it's a surprise Kentucky native John Eicher was not the most coveted employee in all of NASCAR.
Eicher, a 2000 South Laurel High School graduate, followed his older brother Jeff into a career in NASCAR. He joined the team then known as Roush Racing as a welder working in the race shop in 2003, the year when Matt Kenseth won car owner Jack Roush's first Sprint Cup championship. The next season, Kurt Busch gave Roush a second Cup championship.
Before the 2005 season, Eicher joined Joe Gibbs Racing and, wouldn't you know it, that year JGR's Tony Stewart won the Cup championship.
"It was a funny thing," Eicher said, "my first three years in NASCAR, the organization I worked for won the championship every year. I wasn't on the actual (winning) teams, but I did work for the company. It was pretty cool."
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Eicher, 32, is still with JGR. When the green flag drops on the Sprint Cup Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, Eicher will be in the No. 20 pit of Kenseth working as the gas man.
This is Eicher's third year serving as a gas man — literally the guy who puts the fuel in the car on pit stops.
Previously, he had served as a "catch can man," a guy who held a small can to catch overflow fuel on pit stops. However, NASCAR changed its rules to eliminate that position. So the 6-foot-5 Eicher bulked up so he could carry the (heavy) gas can on the stops.
"I was 6-5, 190 pounds as the catch can (guy)," he said. "I'm 6-5, 230 now."
During the week, Eicher, a married father of a 6-month-old daughter, applies his welding skills and works as a fabricator at the JGR racing shop. On weekends, he travels to races and serves as pit member both for Kenseth in the Cup Series and the No. 11 car of Elliott Sadler in the Nationwide Series.
In Kenseth's first season driving for JGR after he, too, switched from Roush, the No. 20 Toyota has already won three Cup races — Las Vegas, Kansas and Darlington.
That has Eicher dreaming of being part of another championship — this time, on a team that does the winning. "We're pretty impressed with Matt," he said. "We feel like we've got the total package this year."
Keeping fans safe
When Kyle Larson's car flipped upside down and into the catch fence during a wild scramble on the final lap of a Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway in February, the fencing was torn and parts from the vehicle flew into the stands.
Fourteen fans had to be transported to hospitals as a result.
This weekend at Kentucky Speedway, the track will have deployed a new invention it hopes will make the possibility of a similar incident ever happening in Sparta far less likely.
Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company that owns Kentucky Speedway and other racetracks, has invented a new steel clamp designed to help reinforce the catch fence (the fence at the top of NASCAR tracks designed to keep debris — and cars — from entering the stands).
Stephen Swift, the Kentucky Speedway vice president of operations and development, says the new clamp is designed to produce a "catcher's mitt" effect in terms of reinforcing the catch fence by creating support that runs both horizontal and perpendicular to the track.
Swift said SMI has also installed the new clamps at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Dale Jr. paint scheme
In Saturday night's Quaker State 400, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will run a paint scheme on the No. 88 Chevrolet SS to promote the National Guard Youth Foundation and its Youth ChalleNGe program, which is designed to provide a pathway to graduation for at-risk students.
"We're honored to be involved with the National Guard Youth Foundation and help raise awareness of the problem of high school dropouts in our country," said Earnhardt Jr., in a news release. "These are great kids, but they've fallen off the radar for any number of reasons. We have to give them the full attention they need and deserve. I've seen how the National Guard Youth Foundation and ChalleNGe do that and get them back on track, which is life-changing and so critical."
In Kentucky, there are Youth ChalleNGe academies in Harlan and Fort Knox, said Freddie Maggard, the community relations liaison for the Kentucky National Guard and a former University of Kentucky quarterback.