NASCAR Cup Series
NASCAR Issues Big Penalty to Brad Keselowski, RFK Racing
Mar 24, 2022
After three and a half hours of spotting at Atlanta Superspeedway, it finally hit Branden Lines just how exhausted the race had left him.
Jeff Burton once told him that spotting a superspeedway should leave him absolutely drained and it was a sign of doing the job right. On Sunday, Lines did his job and then some in guiding William Byron to Victory Lane in a race that challenged the eyes in the sky like never before.
"When you're in the middle of the race, you don't think about it because you're just doing the job," Lines told Racing America on Thursday night. "You get the information out, take a breath and move onto the next turn or restart. You're in the moment, so you don't have time to think about it."
But boy, did he feel it afterwards, though.
Lines said he was still 'frazzled' come Monday night but maybe the celebration had something to do with it too. This was a big win for a lot of reasons, but especially for Lines, because it was his first at the highest level after 23 years of working on spotter stands all across the country.
For almost two decades, the son of ASA racer L.J. Lines was amongst the elite at his craft in Super Late Model racing. He guided Chris Gabehart to his CRA championship in 2007 and won the Snowball Derby with Erik Jones in 2012. That conversation with Burton came while Lines was working with Harrison for several years.
When Daniel Hemric went on his run of marquee victories and the Southern Super Series championship, it was Lines keeping his best friend safe and out of trouble. For years, Lines was content being a Super Spotter and racing on Saturday nights, but said he would make the jump to Sundays only if Hemric made it and asked.
It wasn’t quite that easy or straightforward, but that’s exactly what happened in 2019 when both made their full-time debut at the highest level after a year of working together in the Xfinity Series.
"Back then, you never think you're getting out of Late Models," Lines said. "And that's not saying anything bad about it. I love short track racing, but everything has to line up just right to be up there on Sunday.
"But I got the 10-race deal with Daniel the year before and Danny (Stockman) took a liking to me and we were off and running. I never sought out to be a Cup Series spotter. If it happened, it happened, and I felt that way because there are just so many moving pieces to making that happen."
Even when Hemric went back to full-time Xfinity Series competition, Lines stayed in Cup and was paired with fellow short track ace Ryan Preece the past two seasons at JTG Daugherty Racing. When the organization downsized to one car, Lines didn’t have anything else lined up.
He had already started taking bookings to return to full-time short track racing when a text came in from No. 24 crew chief Rudy Fugle:
Are you available if there’s an opportunity?
"Who could say no to Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 24 car," Lines said. "Then I’m talking to William seven days later. Then comes all the tests and the mock races at Charlotte. It was a great opportunity to hit the ground running."
It certainly helped that Lines had worked with Byron before, too.
Coincidentally enough, he first worked with Byron in ARCA and Late Models only because NTS Racing felt Lines didn’t have enough speedway experience to spot for Hemric full-time in the Truck Series. Kyle Busch Motorsports reached the same conclusion when Byron moved up to Trucks too.
"They were probably right at the time, and it worked out," Lines said. "What we do is so specialized, and the 40 spotters up there are the absolute best."
Technically, Lines previously won a Cup race as a third spotter with Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team at Watkins Glen in 2016. Gabehart, then an Xfinity Series crew chief with Joe Gibbs Racing was amongst the first to text him on Sunday to remind him of the caveat.
But this one was different, of course.
Not only was Lines the only spotter for his driver, but the win also came in a first of its kind intermediate race where spotters most certainly played the most important role.
"I apologized to him after Saturday after he came back from Hickory," Lines said. "I just couldn’t talk fast enough. I had to do a better job of prioritizing the kind of information I was giving him."
Byron said Lines very obviously put in the work that night and found a new approach that worked. A race like Sunday was exactly the reason Fugle wanted Lines to join the team.
"I'm really proud of Branden," Fugle said. "I've known Branden for a really long time going back to Erik Jones' Late Model and Truck days and kind of been friends with him since. So, getting a chance to work with him has been really exciting because of his passion for the sport and how much work he puts in the week.
"He just works really, really hard, and he and William just have a great relationship and communicate well. He talked more here than you do at Daytona and Talladega because when you get in that top riding lane in Daytona and Talladega, you know what to expect, and the runs aren't as quick. Here the runs were gigantic, and they were so fast, so the spotter had to be on it, and Branden did a great job."
It made cautions awkward sometimes, because Rudy would jump on their second channel to check on Lines because of the dead air.
"I’m not sure what else there IS to say," Lines recalled of the conversation with Fugle. "We just talked for 30 minutes straight (under green). But it’s all good now. It was just a new experience for everyone."
Byron now has three Cup Series wins and says he is finally comfortable with his place at Hendrick Motorsports. He struggled to communicate with Chad Knaus over their three years working together, leading to the reunion with Fugle, who he worked with at Kyle Busch Motorsports.
The addition of Lines completes what Byron called ‘the triangle’ that every team needs to win on Sundays -- driver, crew chief and spotter and how their communication is key to making adjustments over the weekend.
"I have people that I've known for most of my racing career, so I think that's very, very cool and you don't see a lot of that," Byron said. "But for someone as young as me, I feel like it's really critical because my comfort level with them is very high. I can tell Branden whatever I think, and I can tell Rudy whatever I think."
That trust is something that means a lot to Lines, too.
"What stands out to me, is that he just battled for 500 miles and the second sentence over the radio is thanking me," Lines said. "That he thinks we're in that kind of position together as a team this early is incredible."
So now the sky is the limit for the No. 24 team.
They’re fourth in the championship standings and are most likely locked in the playoffs barring 17 regular season winners. That a 20-year short track spotter has a chance to compete for a Cup Series championship this season means a lot to Lines, but he isn’t even allowing his mind to get that far year.
"We’re locked into the All-Star Race," Lines said. "I’ll think about that a little bit because that’s new to me not having to go through the Open. That’s going to be a lot of fun. But I’m not thinking about Phoenix. Would that be storybook? Absolutely. But I don’t get too strung out. I try to take things one race at a time.
"I’m thinking about (Circuit of the Americas) and Richmond the next two weeks. I want to go back-to-back. You can’t put the cart before the horse, but I think winning raises the expectations. I believe the only pressure is the pressure you put on yourself, but we have expectations now."