Photos by Chris Gordon.
Ryan Ellis rarely misses a Capitals game. A former college hockey player, the Ashburn native is a diehard fan. But as the Caps closed out the Flyers in Game Six of the first round, Ellis wasn’t watching, or even tracking, the game. Instead, he was making his second career start in the top-tier NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at his home track at Richmond International Raceway.
“That’s the track I grew up watching Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt race at as a little kid and say ‘Oh, it would be cool to sit a little closer next year, not knowing that 15 years later I would driving at it.” Ellis said. “I always wanted to. That’s the only thing you ever think of, but you never really expect to get the chance because you can never expect anything in this sport.”
You would think NASCAR and hockey don’t mix, but they do. NASCAR is a southern sport built on cheap beer, rivalries, and relatively unsophisticated V8s speeding past you at ear-splitting levels. Hockey is a graceful northern game featuring cheap beer, rivalries, and relatively unsophisticated people punching each other in the face. In the stands at Richmond, as Ellis raced in the Toyota Owners 400, there were dozens of people in Capitals gear to be found, including some in full jerseys.
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Last year, we profiled Ellis before he made his debut in the Sprint Cup Series. It was a big break for the Virginian, as picked up sponsorship from the Reston-based ScienceLogic (and a tiny bit from RMNB). It was a one-time deal. The race was delayed until late on the Eastern Time Zone and ultimately rain-shortened. Nevertheless, much Ellis’s fanbase, disproportionally made up of Capitals fans, cheered him on as raced to the finish. ScienceLogic came back for more, giving Ellis three races of full sponsorship in 2016 with the opportunity for more.
“It was so cool to race at Richmond because not only is it my hometown track, and I grew up watching racing there, but I had 75 to 100 guests from ScienceLogic not only in the pits, but in the stands and in the suite, and my family, friends, just a lot of people,” Ellis said. “It was almost overwhelming how much support we had that I felt like I didn’t have enough time to spend enough time with anybody. I wanted to make sure everyone knew I was thankful for having them there and ScienceLogic for the sponsorship because I couldn’t have done it without them, obviously.”
Driving the #93 BK Racing Toyota Camry, Ellis started the race in 37th after qualifying was rained out and the field was set based on practice speeds. BK normally races two cars, the #23 of David Ragan and the #83 of Matt DiBenedetto, one of Ellis’s close friends. As BK’s third driver, Ellis was left piloting on an old chassis dating back to the days of Red Bull Racing, which ceased operating in 2011. Nevertheless, he moved up in the field before suffering a late race spin due after being rear ended by Landon Cassill. Michael Annett, who, oddly enough, has a Hockey Database page after playing two seasons in juniors with the Waterloo Blackhawks was the cause of the incident after missing a shift, which forced Ellis and the rest of the cars behind him to hit the brakes. Annett ended up finishing one place ahead of Ellis at the finish line.
“I actually thought about that while we were racing,” Ellis said of Annett’s hockey career. “It’s kind of weird how the two guys who play hockey are freaking racing each other the whole race.”
In the end, Ellis finished where he started, placing 37th at the 0.75 mile long oval. That’s on par with where his teammates finished last year before they upgraded their cars for 2016 after purchasing much of the equipment and hiring many employees from the now defunct Michael Waltrip Racing. After the race, Ellis’s mom Jane greeted him to celebrate — but it had nothing do with NASCAR.
“The first thing my mom said to me after I got out of the car was ‘The Caps won!’ Ellis said.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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