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Truck Series championship: Three men and a millennial

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Matt Crafton, Timothy Peters,  Johnny Sauter and Christopher Bell.

One of these things is not like the other.

That would be Bell. The Camping World Truck Series rookie is the only participant in the championship race born after Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

The 21-year-old native of Norman, Oklahoma, is the only representative of the “Millennial” generation that is headlining NASCAR’s lauded “youth movement.”

Tonight’s Ford EcoBoost 200 may well be the last stand of the veteran Truck driver.

With help from wins, consistency, and the inaugural Chase format, Crafton (40 years old), Sauter (38) and Peters (35) fended off a wave of drivers who can barely grow a beard.

Sauter, who has three wins this season, is “not surprised” the final four has three veteran drivers.

“Ultimately, I think the veteran guys just probably through the course of the year raced a little bit differently than some of the younger guys, I would say, maybe a little bit smarter,” Sauter said Thursday during Championship 4 Media Day. “That just comes with experience, taking care of your equipment, things like that. So I’m not surprised by any means to sit here and know that we’ve got three of them, three veterans, running for the championship.”

Bell enters the finale with one win (Gateway), nine top fives and 16 top-10 finishes. Tonight’s race will be his 30th series start. The next closest among the title contenders is Sauter with 197 starts.

“I’ve always been the young guy,” Bell said. “It’s nothing new to me right now. Whenever I won the USAC championship (in 2013) … me and Bryan Clauson were the two guys at the end of the year that were racing for the championship. He was the veteran, I was the rookie.

“I’ve been in this situation before, obviously not at this magnitude. But I do have experience at, I guess, championship racing and pressure moments. So I’m excited to get the pressure on Friday and try and do my best to conquer it.”

One thing Crafton and Bell have in common, born 18 years apart, is they weren’t initially enthusiastic about the Chase format that’s put them 134 laps away from a NASCAR title.

“I wasn’t a fan of the Chase at all, but right now in the year that I’ve had with five DNF’s, to still be in contention for a championship, that’s unheard of,” said Crafton, a two-time champion. “You still have to be very consistent.”

Said Bell: “I was actually disappointed whenever I heard that NASCAR was going to the Chase format for the trucks because I felt like being at Kyle Busch Motorsports, we were going to be able to contend for the championship and be able to perform week in and week out, win the championship in the normal way.”

But unlike his teammate, fellow rookie William Byron, wins didn’t come in bunches.

“To be able to sit here in the final four, one race away from a championship is something that I wouldn’t have seen coming if you would have asked me in April or May,” said Bell. “It’s awesome to be in this situation.”

Sauter agrees. The native of Necedah, Wisconsin, has been competing in NASCAR since 2001 and has never won a title. With a chance to top his runner-up result in the Truck series in 2011, Sauter knows the end of his career is near.

“You know, when I say I’m running on time, I’m no fool,” Sauter said. “The landscape is changing. Having said that, it’s a younger man’s game. That seems to be the new trend. I personally feel like, you know, I’m running out of chances. That obviously weighs in the back of my mind a little bit. But at the end of the day, I’m going to give 100 percent. If it works out, great.”

While tonight’s race could be the last glorious chapter for a generation of Truck drivers, it could be worse. If not for an engine problem with 12 laps left in last weekend’s Phoenix race, Crafton, Peters, and Sauter would likely be competing against 18-year-old Byron.

At least with Bell, they can all get a season-ending beer together.

NASCAR America: Matt DiBenedetto on Indy success with small team

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Matt DiBenedetto has just three top-10 finishes in his three years of competing in the NASCAR Cup Series. But two of them have come this year in two of the biggest races in the sport.

DiBenedetto, who drives the No. 32 Ford for Go Fas Racing, finished ninth in the Daytona 500 in February and eighth in Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

DiBenedetto, who was also celebrating his 26th birthday, joined NASCAR America to discuss his run at Indy and what is considered a successful race for his team, which has 15 crew members.

“You’ve got to keep it in the perception of your versions of wins are a little bit different than everybody else’s version,” DiBenedetto said. “We look at it as who we’re racing around. I would say on a regular week where there’s not a ton of chaos like Indy was, a top 20 is a really good day. A top 25 is if we just do our job.”

Watch the video for the full segment.

Chase Elliott, AJ Allmendinger unveil Darlington throwback schemes

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Both Chase Elliott and AJ Allmendinger have revealed the paint schemes they’ll drive in the Sept. 3 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Elliott will use his No. 24 Chevrolet to pay tribute to the car his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, drove in his first Cup start.

The light blue look was on his No. 9 car when he started in the Feb. 29, 1976 race at Rockingham Speedway.

The car was revealed on Facebook in the below video.

AJ Allmendinger will pay tribute to two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte with his No. 47 Chevrolet.

The car will resemble the No. 44 Piedmont Airlines Oldsmobile that Labonte drove in during the 198 Cup season when he competed for owner Billy Hagan.

NASCAR America: Felix Sabates: ‘I’m lucky to be here’ after near-death experience from illness last year

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For nearly a month last year Felix Sabates was at death’s door.

The fears were so great that Sabates might not wake up from a coma he spent 29 days in, Chip Ganassi bought a blue suit for the possibility he might have to attend his co-owner’s funeral.

But the 71-year-old made a full recovery through a rehab process that included learning to walk again.

NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty and Sabates have a special relationship. Petty drove the No. 42 car for Sabates’ SABCO Racing for eight years in the 1980s and 1990s, winning six of his eight Cup races for the millionaire owner from Cuba.

Sabates sat down with Petty to discuss the ordeal, which began in January 2016 when Sabates began feeling ill during the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I came home and woke up the next morning and I (couldn’t) breath,” said Sabates, who drove himself to the hospital. “The minute they saw me I was in intensive care.”

Sabates was in the hospital for two and half weeks before he was released, but Sabates “should’ve know I wasn’t cured.”

The Chip Ganassi Racing co-owner returned to his usual grind until it caught up to him in August.

“My blood pressure was through the roof, my oxygen level was 55, which you should be dead then,” recalled Sabates, who has no memory of a three-month stretch. “They thought was I was brain-dead. They were pretty much going to disconnect me. So 4 o’clock in the morning, they took my tubes out.”

That’s when Sabates began the process of waking up.

“I’m lucky to be here,” said Sabates, who aside from being back at the track is also back to playing golf.

“I used to worry about little things,’ Sabates said. “Now I don’t even worry about big things.”

The full feature will air Sunday on Countdown to Green, which begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN before the Cup race at Pocono.

NASCAR America: Ryan Blaney glad Team Penske news is finally out in the open

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On Wednesday it was finally announced that Ryan Blaney would move from Wood Brothers Racing to Team Penske full-time next year in the Cup Series in the No. 12 Ford while Paul Menard will take over the No. 21 Ford.

NASCAR America’s Dave Burns caught up with Blaney on Thursday. Blaney was happy that his 2018 plans were finally public knowledge.

Blaney also acknowledged how a technical alliance between the two teams helped Wood Brothers Racing return to a competition level that allowed Blaney to get his first Cup win this season earlier this year.

“That was a big deal,” Blaney said. “That was getting us to where we could run a full-time season. That was really helpful not only to me but to (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins, will be coming with me to the 12 car.”

Blaney has been driving for Team Penske part-time in the Xfinity Series since 2012.

“It’s been nice to get the news and tell everybody finally about what we’re doing,” Blaney said. “But mainly we’re trying to finish this year out strong with the Wood Brothers, getting their 100th win, that’s really big. That’s on my bucket list for this year and getting as far as we can in the playoffs.”

The No. 21 team returns to Pocono Raceway this weekend, the site of Blaney’s first Cup win last month.

Watch the video for the full interview.