NASCAR celebrates Jimmie Johnson’s seventh championship

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NASCAR’s 2016 Sprint Cup season closed with a mix of poignant moments, humor and a celebration of one of the greatest drivers in the sport’s history who declared he’s no Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt.

Jimmie Johnson ended his six-minute speech in Friday night’s Sprint Cup Awards at Wynn Las Vegas by harkening to a quote from Dale Earnhardt after Earnhardt tied Richard Petty with seven championships in 1994: “I might have won as many championships as Richard Petty but he will always be the King.’’

Then Johnson said: “I completely agree and must say I might have won as many championships as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but I will never be the King or the Intimidator. I’m just a guy from California who always wanted to race. Thank you all and have a great night.’’

Johnson’s speech ended the formal celebration of his seventh championship, which included 23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps introducing Johnson and fellow drivers congratulating Johnson throughout the 3-hour, 31-minute program.

But Johnson had to share the spotlight on this night. The sport also celebrated Tony Stewart’s retirement from the series as a driver.

A night after drivers roasted Stewart at the “After the Lap” event, drivers had a bit more fun in a video clip for Stewart. Kyle Busch later jokingly thanked Stewart for preparing car owner Joe Gibbs for Busch’s arrival, noting the headaches both have caused the owner through the years.

NASCAR surprised Stewart by having Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder appear and speak about his friend. Then NASCAR surprised Vedder by announcing a $1.8 million donation on Stewart’s behalf to the EB Research Partnership, which was co-founded by Vedder to find a cure for Epidermolysis Bullosa, a devastating skin disorder.

This also was a night that NASCAR said farewell to Sprint as series sponsor. Monster Energy becomes the entitlement sponsor next season.

And Dale Earnhardt Jr. was awarded his 14th consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver Award. After winning the award, Earnhardt confirmed he’ll wed Amy Reimann on Dec. 31.

The night also had its fun moments, from Denny Hamlin stating on stage: “I got to pee so bad. We’ve got to get this over with. It’s bad you all, I’m telling you.’’

Among host Jay Mohr’s better lines was one about Joey Logano, saying to the driver “you finished first at Talladega, which is amazing. Your jack finished 12th.’’

Mohr also made fun of Stewart’s retirement, saying: “Biggest story this season in NASCAR, in my opinion, was the retirement of a NASCAR icon, a superstar, a NASCAR legend. Brian Scott.’’

In the end, the focus turned to Johnson and all that he has accomplished.

“It’s an amazing task to just win one, let alone seven (championships),’’ Kurt Busch said. “Names like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. When you say names like those, you think of their amazing accomplishments and contributions to NASCAR racing. Welcome to that club Jimmie.’’

NASCAR America: A Matt Kenseth return to Roush Fenway Racing would mean …

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Roush Fenway Racing will make what it is calling a major partner announcement at 10 a.m. Wednesday, and a report states that it will include details on Matt Kenseth returning to drive for the team.

NASCAR on NBC’s Nate Ryan reported Tuesday that Roush Fenway Racing declined comment on SB Nation’s report that Kenseth would run select races for Trevor Bayne beginning May 12 at Kansas Speedway. Ryan reported that multiple principles, including a former Roush Fenway Racing driver will be at Wednesday’s announcement.

Kenseth, who turned 46 in March, won Cup Rookie of the Year honors with Roush Fenway Racing in 2000 and remained there through the 2012 season.

Kenseth left for Joe Gibbs Racing and raced there from 2013-17. He was replaced after last season in the No. 20 car by Erik Jones, leaving Kenseth without a full-time ride for this season.

NASCAR on NBC’s Kyle Petty said on NASCAR America that should the report of Kenseth’s return to Roush Fenway Racing be true, it would provide a nice homecoming.

“He knows the players,’’ Petty said of Kenseth. “He knows everything about the place. He grew up there. He came of age there. He won (a) championship. He won races there. So from all those pieces, it makes sense for a guy like Matt Kenseth to go back there just as it would if Jeff Gordon said I want to go back to Hendrick. It makes perfect sense. But only Matt can answer that question (of why).’’

Ryan noted it is not unusual for teams to put another driver in a car to benchmark that car’s performance.

Bayne is 26th in the points. The 2011 Daytona 500 winner has not finished better than 12th (Texas) this season. Every driver ahead of him in the points has at least one top-10 finish this season.

“Even in a part-time basis, what could he bring?’’ Petty said of Kenseth. “He brings so much. It’s an intangible. I think we saw it when he went to Joe Gibbs Racing. What did he bring there? That team just, all of a sudden, just took off. Was it all Matt Kenseth? No, but it’s part Matt Kenseth, it’s part that knowledge, it’s part that experience, it’s part that desire to run up front, win races and build something and I think Matt felt he had built something that first go around.’’

Kenseth scored the 39th Cup win of his career in November at Phoenix. A week before that win, Kenseth talked to Ryan on the NASCAR on NBC podcast about realizing the end of his career seemed near.

“But like I said, I feel like the way things have gone that for whatever reason — reasons I don’t understand that I think will become really, really clear in the future — that it’s just not meant for me to race next year,” Kenseth said. “I think it’s that simple. Everything lined up this way because I wasn’t going to make the decision myself, so someone made it for me. It’s just not supposed to happen.”

Car owner Joe Gibbs said Tuesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he would look forward to a return by Kenseth to Cup.

“I’ve got to tell you I would love it,’’ Gibbs said. “What a great guy, a great person, a great representative for the sport and for sponsors and extremely competitive. I would love that, and I hope that is going to be the case. I hope he can be there on a steady basis.

“It would be a thrill for us to have Matt back. I think he’s a real credit to the NASCAR Series and love the family. I think that would be great for us. I hope that’s going to be the case. I hope he gets to run a bunch of races.’’

For more, watch the video above.

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Deontay Wilder named Geico 500 honorary pace car driver

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Talladega SuperSpeedway has a reputation for delivering blows to the competition, so it is only fitting that the honorary pace car driver for the Geico 500 will be a man known to deliver knockouts to his opponents. Reigning World Boxing Council (WBC) World Heavyweight Champion and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, native Deontay Wilder will pace the field before the initial green flag Sunday.

Wilder, 32, has a record of 40-0 with 39 of his wins by knockout.

Known as the “Bronze Bomber” because of the 2008 Bronze medal he won in the Beijing Olympics, Wilder found boxing as a way to provide for a daughter diagnosed with spina bifida. He immediately found that he was a natural by scoring a technical knockout over Ethan Cox in November, 2008.

Wilder has held the title since January 2015 after defeating Bermane Stiverne in his only bout that was not decided by a knockout. Wilder scored a unanimous decision and has defended his belt seven times since.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Update on Matt Kenseth report, Matt DiBenedetto visits

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and features Matt DiBenedetto, who is coming off a 16th-place finish at Richmond Raceway.

Marty Snider hosts and will be joined at the Big Oak Table by Kyle Petty, Nate Ryan and DiBenedetto.

On today’ show:
  • NBCSports.com’s Nate Ryan joins the show with the latest news following last night’s report from SB Nation that said Matt Kenseth is returning to the Monster Energy Series in a part-time role with Roush Fenway Racing.
  • Go Fas Racing driver Matt DiBenedetto will be our special guest! The leader of ‘DiBurrito Nation’ will discuss his solid run last weekend at Richmond and reveal his throwback scheme for this year’s Southern 500 at Darlington. But one question remains – will Matt bring fresh-baked treats from his Mom’s kitchen to the Big Oak Table?
  • We’ll have footage from the latest Dale Jr. Download, as Junior sits down with Kasey Kahne’s crew chief, Travis Mack – who tells the incredible story of how he unexpectedly delivered his own baby at home!
  • And our Tuesday tradition continues … We’ll listen in on all the action from drivers, crew chiefs and spotters on a Saturday night under the lights in Scan All Richmond!
If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Preliminary entry lists for Cup, Xfinity at Talladega

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Forty cars are entered for Sunday’s Geico 500 Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Joey Gase will be in the No. 00 car for StarCom Racing.

Brendan Gaughan is back in the No. 62 this weekend for Beard Motorsports.

Timothy Peters is set to make his Cup debut in the No. 92 for RBR Enterprises.

Cole Custer is listed in the No. 51 car for Rick Ware Racing but a team spokesperson told NBC Sports that Custer will not be driving the car.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won this race a year ago in overtime, beating Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch.

Click here for Cup entry list

Xfinity Series

There are 41 cars entered for the Sparks Energy 300 Xfinity race.

The race is a Dash 4 Cash event, so no drivers who earn points in the Cup Series are permitted to race in this event.

Noah Gragson, who finished second in his series debut last weekend at Richmond, is back in the No. 18 for Joe Gibbs Racing this weekend.

Shane Lee, who finished 14th in his series debut two weeks ago at Bristol, is back in the No. 3 for Richard Childress Racing.

Aric Almirola won this race a year ago, finishing ahead of Elliott Sadler and Joey Logano.

Click here for Xfinity entry list