Who will win today’s Daytona 500? NBC Sports analysts make their picks

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The wait is nearly over. The NASCAR Sprint Cup season opens today with the Daytona 500. Who will win? Here’s a look at what some NBC Sports analysts say.

Jeff Burton Dale Earnhardt Jr. … I believe Jr. wins the 500. His car is crazy fast and he knows how to manage a plate race as well if not better than anyone.

Steve Letarte — I won’t pick a winner for the 500 but my three favorites are Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. I think this is going to be a classic duel between all three manufactures.

Dale Jarrett — Dale Earnhardt Jr. … Best car with best restrictor-plate driver = Victory!!

Kyle Petty — Jimmie Johnson … He’s the team leader now. I liked what I saw in the Duels. He picked up spots on pit road with a perfect stop. I think this is his year.

Parker Kligerman Dale Earnhardt Jr. … He is a closer.

Mike Massaro — Dale Earnhardt Jr. … Over the course of his career, he’s displayed an unparalleled understanding of the draft and how to use it to his advantage. That, coupled with having a strong car, which he certainly does this year, will make him incredibly difficult to beat.

Kelli Stavast — Dale Earnhardt Jr. … In four plate races last year, he had two wins and four top 3’s. It’s only been two years since his last Daytona 500 win. He looked really fast in Thursday night’s duel race and even last year’s 500 winner Joey Logano admitted that he wasn’t sure how he was going to beat Junior on Sunday. Hard to pick against him.

Krista Voda — Denny Hamlin. … Denny has become one of those drivers who is always in the mix at Superspeedway races. While his performance at the Unlimited further cemented that notion, it was actually Dale Jr.’s words about Denny, and the similarities Dale sees in the moves they both make at Daytona, that made him my pick.

Nate Ryan — Kyle Busch … Joe Gibbs Racing’s long drought in the Great American Race finally ends as the defending series champion picks up where he left off with an overdue Daytona 500 win.

Rutledge Wood — Ryan Blaney. I think fate will shine down again on the Wood Brothers team with another historic win that I hope will create an exemption with the RTA & give a charter to whoever wins the biggest race of the year🙂

Dustin Long — Denny Hamlin. … I like what I’ve seen from his car this week and his driving style on plate tracks. It also doesn’t hurt to have a JGR car.

Jerry Bonkowski — Kurt Busch. … He is probably in the best place he’s been in personally and professionally in a long time. He kicks off a potential championship season with a win in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Daniel McFadin — Denny Hamlin. … Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday night it’s getting harder for him to hold the field off in plate races and Hamlin and JGR can only be denied so many times before they get it right.

Austin Wayne Self pushing Donald Trump, importance of voting with truck logos

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 21: Austin Wayne Self, driver of the #22 Trump Pence 2016 Toyota, drives through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series fred's 250 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 21, 2016 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
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Austin Wayne Self will carry a noticeable message on his truck Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Self’s No. 22 is an endorsement of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence. The Toyota is decked out in “Trump/Pence 2016” logos as well as Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

For Self, it’s his way of reminding everyone about the importance of voting in the upcoming Nov. 8 election.

“There’s no endorsements, no money coming in,” Self told NBC Sports about the truck’s logos. “It was between me, my father (who owns the truck), and the race team. I think it’s a really important election, probably the most important one we’ve seen in a long time, so that was really the main goal. Putting Trump on the truck was our opinion, that’s who we support. A lot of people agree with that, some people don’t, but at the end of the day, it’s been getting a lot of attention and it’s been fun to watch. And I think on both sides it’s made them realize how important it is to vote.”

Self is the latest driver to endorse Trump. In March, NASCAR CEO Brian France faced backlash after appearing and endorsing Trump at a rally in Georiga. He was joined by Bill and Chase Elliott, Ryan Newman, and David Ragan.

Self’s team has gone all out with their endorsement. Special fan autograph cards were made and there are plans to turn the truck into a die-cast collectible.

There have been numerous posts on social media about the logos, and Self will appear on “Fox & Friends” Saturday morning to discuss the truck. He’s also heard all of the positive and negative feedback, which he says doesn’t bother him because he respects the differing opinions.

“That’s the country we live in, we can speak up with our opinions,” he said. “I’ve definitely seen a lot about (the truck). I’ve seen some negative stuff but it doesn’t hurt my feelings at all; I enjoy seeing that. It kind of humbles me a little bit that they feel free to express their opinion.”

Self hopes this weekend will have a lasting effect.

“I think it’s opened up doors for me to express myself and what I stand for,” Self said. “It’s been exciting and, hopefully, it creates new opportunities for me because I’ve definitely enjoyed this.”

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NASCAR Saturday schedule at Talladega Superspeedway

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 21: Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Hellmann's 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 21, 2016 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
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Both the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and Sprint Cup Series are back on track today at Talladega Superspeedway.

The Truck Series will start the day with qualifying followed by the fred’s 250. It is the first elimination race in the Truck Chase and will cut the field from eight to six.

The Sprint Cup Series will end the day by setting the field for their second Chase elimination. The Hellmann’s 500 will be held Sunday.

Here is the Saturday schedule:

(All times are Eastern)

9 a.m. – Truck Series garage open

9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. – Sprint Cup garage open

10 a.m. – Truck Series driver/crew chief meeting

10:30 a.m. – Truck Series qualifying; single vehicle/two rounds (Fox Sports 1)

12:30 p.m. – Truck Series driver introductions

1 p.m. – Truck Series fred’s 250; 94 laps, 250.04 miles (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

4 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series qualifying; single vehicle/two rounds (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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Wheeling and dealing keeps Sprint Cup owners busy

Photo By Dustin Long
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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Deep in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage, well away from the championship contending teams, a race for survival takes place.

Owners seek partners. Others look to sell or buy a charter, the sport’s golden ticket that guarantees a revenue stream and a starting spot in every race.

The movement is taking place because of a performance clause with the charters.

If a chartered team finishes in the bottom three among the 36 chartered teams in the owner standings three consecutive years, NASCAR has the right to remove that charter. Although the first year with this system isn’t yet complete, teams aren’t waiting to act.

“Let’s face it, anybody in the bottom three is exploring all their options right now,’’ car owner Archie St. Hilaire told NBC Sports on Friday at Talladega Superspeedway.

St. Hilaire’s Go Fas Racing team ranks last in the standings among charter teams. He seeks a partnership. He is willing to lease his charter and partner with another chartered team if that will help his team grow.

That’s just among the many movements taking place. Leavine Family Racing is expected to purchase the charter from Tommy Baldwin Racing after this season. Leavine Family Racing has been partnered with Joe Falk’s Circle Sport Racing this year and used Falk’s charter.

Falk told NBC Sports that NASCAR viewed his action as leasing the charter. Owners can lease their charter only once in five years. That means Falk must keep his charter and partner with a team without one or sell the charter after this season.

“You’ve got too many sellers and not any buyers, so the price is dropping,’’ Falk said of the charters. “It’s dropped dramatically on what some people have been able to acquire one. Even if (a team has) an investor who is willing to put up the $3-5 million to buy one, it won’t work unless a sponsor comes along.’’

There’s even more movement that could take place. Premium Motorsports leased its charter to HScott Motorsports for the No. 46 team this year. That charter must be returned after this season. Furniture Row Racing is expected to secure a charter for next season for the No. 77 car that will have Erik Jones as a teammate to Martin Truex Jr. The Wood Brothers remain without a charter.

As all that swirls in the sport, St. Hilaire, who said his team has a $5 million budget, knows he must react.

“To really stay out the bottom three I think $10 million is a key number,’’ he said. “We’ve got to get that thing to $10 million to be competitive.’’

The team, which has had seven different drivers this year, has a best finish of 19th by Bobby Labonte at Talladega in May. Labonte is in the car this weekend.

St. Hilaire acknowledges his team is young. His joint venture with Fas Lane Racing began in 2014. Still, he wants better results.

“I need to peak that fun meter a little more,’’ St. Hilaire said. “Thank God I don’t live off this business. I do it for fun, and I’m not having a lot of fun right now,’’ he added with a chuckle.

Even so, St. Hilaire remains committed to the sport and hopeful his team’s performance can improve.

“It’s nothing money can’t fix,’’ he said. “Money buys speed in this business, no doubt about it. We just need an affiliation, which we’re shopping like hell for.’’

St. Hilaire said he hopes to have an idea in the next month what direction he’ll go.

“All options are on the table to make the team better,’’ he said. “We’re going to go racing. I just got to look at how and where.’’

That’s similar to what car owner Tommy Baldwin told NBC Sports this week, saying he was “exploring all my opportunities’’ for the team’s future.

“If you don’t have the money to keep up with the Joneses, you’re going to be left behind,’’ Baldwin said. “If you told me eight years ago when I first started this team I would be pretty much in the same spot as when I started, I would have told you that you were crazy. This sport has taken off so much here as far as how smart we’ve all gotten. It’s not that we don’t know how to do it, it’s just that we don’t have the money to apply the proper resources to do it.’’

Any deal likely will not be finalized until after the season and some might not get done until January, depending on how quickly teams move. Falk notes that he and Leavine decided to partner last December. NASCAR announced the charter system Feb. 9. Falk was granted a charter but Leavine’s team did not qualify. That made their pairing even better for this season.

So why doesn’t Falk sell his charter to Leavine? Falk admits he wants to have some hand in a team, while he said Leavine wants 100 percent control. Falk admits they still might be together next year if a sponsor can be found for a second car.

If not, Falk will be looking for a partner.

“Still something might pop up at (Richard Childress Racing) where they need another car,’’ said Falk, who has been aligned with Childress. “I’ve got a lot of things working. I’ve also got some things you wouldn’t expect. There’s a lot of stuff going on right now.’’

One thing he said he might consider is partnering with Curtis Key of The Motorsports Group, which does not have a charter for the No. 30 car.

“I truly don’t know what I’m going to do,’’ Falk said. “I wish I did. Curtis Key and I are from Chesapeake (Virginia). We’ve known each other our whole life. I don’t really have a problem going over there to help Curtis. We have to have sponsorship.

“At the end of the day, Curtis Key has everything sitting there, he’s got a very nice shop and his cars all come from Stewart-Haas. He’s got a relationship with Hendrick. I’ve got a relationship with Childress. It would be easy to make it work, but we cannot make it work without sponsorship.’’

Jimmie Johnson fastest in final Sprint Cup Series practice at Talladega

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 21:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Pro Services Chevrolet, sits in his car during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Hellmann's 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 21, 2016 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Jimmie Johnson was fastest in final Sprint Series practice Friday at Talladega Superspeedway with a lap of 196.386 mph.

Johnson was followed by fellow Chase drivers Matt Kenseth (196.338 mph), Chase Elliott (196.334 mph), and Carl Edwards (196.330 mph). Alex Bowman, a non-Chase driver, was fifth fastest at 196.330 mph.

Johnson was the only Chase driver in the top 10 in speeds who is locked into the next round of the Chase. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Elliott, is outside of a transfer spot by 25 points.

The rest of the top 10 in final practice were Kasey Kahne (196.330 mph), Paul Menard (196.302 mph), Ryan Reed (196.266 mph), Kyle Busch (196.262 mph), and Martin Truex Jr. (196.250 mph). Reed is attempting to make his Sprint Cup Series debut on Sunday in the No. 99 for Roush Fenway Racing.

Click here to see the speeds from final NSCS practice

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