Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray help spark healing journey for Felix Sabates

By GEORGE DIAZ

Tribune News Service

Felix Sabates is as ornery as ever, alive and kicking and resilient.

His peppy bounce is both physical and emotional. He survived a near-death scare last year. And he is in great spirits because of the work being done at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Sabates is a partner in the group, which is off to a rousing start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Kyle Larson is first in the standings. Jamie McMurray is eighth.

They are a troublesome twosome, which is exactly the business model Ganassi and Sabates are looking for to optimize results. They could have expanded to a three-car team but passed.

“Sometimes you get too big and you dilute resources,” Sabates said.

Instead, they are all in with Larson and McMurray.

“The best way to describe it is that we built all new cars toward the end of the year last year,” Sabates said. “We have new engineers. We have new people and the difference is that we have better people than we had before and we’re building much better cars. It’s very simple. Kyle didn’t become a better driver overnight and neither did Jamie.”

Sabates, now 71, is a bit of a crotchety old clunker. It’s a term of endearment. We’re both Cuban-born hombres in the NASCAR universe, with Sabates digging in way back when in 1987. That’s when he became a NASCAR team owner after purchasing a development team from Rick Hendrick. He signed Kyle Petty as his first driver

Thirty years later, Sabates is fortunate to still be in the grind after what happened in the summer of 2016. He woke up one day in late August and couldn’t breathe. Fortunately a nurse was at his home at the time. He remembers the nurse telling the ambulance driver, “You better put your foot on the gas.”

After that, it was a long blur for two months. He was in a coma for 29 days, suffering from double-pneumonia. At one point he nearly flat-lined.

“They had my whole family there not expecting me to make it through the night,” Sabates said.

It got so bad that Sabates said that Ganassi, NASCAR CEO Brian France and NASCAR president Mike Helton _ all close friends _ bought blue suits for his funeral.

“But Chip was the only one who bought a new one,” Sabates said jokingly. “I fooled them all.”

Did I mention crotchety old clunker?

“I am very blessed and very lucky that the Good Lord decided to keep me around awhile longer,” Sabates said, “so I can aggravate somebody.”

It took a while obviously, starting with the rehabilitation process. He had to learn to walk. He couldn’t move his arms either because of muscle atrophy. His memory was blank.

“I had to rebuild my life all over again,” Sabates said.

Sabates has “some good days and bad days” but happily reports he is 90 percent of the way back.

He was able to attend the Daytona 500 this year _ the only race he’s attended in 2017 _ but plans to be back here and there at the tracks, starting this week in Bristol.

“The day I cannot get over the pit wall with one leg I’m leaving,” he said. “I made it over the wall with one leg at Daytona, so I’m doing good.”

Nice to know the old guy still has game.

Keselowski verdict

It won’t be long now for Brad Keselowski and his Penske team as they wait for a decision on an appeal they filed following a penalty in Phoenix on March 19.

Crew chief Paul Wolfe faces a suspension of two additional races after Keselowski’s car failed post race inspection at Phoenix. A ruling should come by April 25.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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