Ryan: ‘Erase the Chase’ is an idea whose time had come

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CHARLOTTE – It was time to erase the Chase.

No, Monday’s announcement by NASCAR didn’t eradicate the 10-race stretch that has determined the champion of its premier series for the past 13 seasons. The structure remains largely untouched aside from a new wrinkle that carries over points from the regular season to ensure less arbitrary title outcomes.

But Monday did mark the death knell of what had become the primary pejorative in a NASCAR vernacular littered with unwieldy and unappealing terminology.

They are seemingly innocuous words that stoke the most hateful, negative and ugly reactions from passionate fans who claim precious ownership of racing like no other sport.

The Car of Tomorrow.

The top-35 rule.

The Chase.

Each of these terms, however well-intended, became the third rail for hyperbolic fan outrage on satellite radio and social media

And each of them now has disappeared into NASCAR’s dictionary dustbin of history.

The Car of Tomorrow was reconfigured and then renamed as the clever “Gen 6” car.

The top-35 rule essentially was erased and then replaced by the more benign charter system.

And now …

“I think that for all the folks that have been asking us to get rid of the Chase for years,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said with a sly smile, “this is a great day for them.”

The Chase is dead.

Long live the NASCAR playoffs.

Slapping a new title on a championship structure that has been maligned during its 13-year existent won’t be a cure-all for those who never have been fans of the format.

This admittedly is a PR and marketing exercise. It will have no impact on competition or the opinions of those who already believe the Latford points system of 1975-2003 shouldn’t have been abandoned.

There are Jeff Gordon fans who remain steadfast in their opposition to the Chase because they believe it cheated their hero out of multiple championships.

And there are others who actually will lament the disappearance of “Chase,” because they believe the term helped differentiate NASCAR.

But in an image-conscious sport desperate for corporate sponsorship, the switch to “playoffs” still matters even without an iota of on-track impact.

This isn’t a rebranding a la the Gen 6.

It’s about appropriating an existing sports term that carries major-league cachet.

The mere utterance of “Chase” became a dismissive rallying cry for many who hissed its name while railing about the system.

It’s harder to sound so disparaging when complaining about the “playoffs” (unless you’re Jim Mora). In fact, it sounds silly.

“Playoffs” are synonymous with indelible moments and must-see drama.

They connote an appealing sports conceit with an elegance and simplicity that always eluded “Chase”.

“When they’re talking about sports, people understand playoffs,” NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell said. “We introduced a new word, i.e. the Chase, and we liked it at first, but when you really talk about it, when (Hendrick Motorsports president) Marshall Carlson is out talking to a sponsor, well, it’s ‘What’s the Chase?’  Well, it’s our playoffs.  And people immediately get that and they understand that.

“This is a big sport built on sponsorship for sponsors to understand, for fans to understand, and it’s a common word that most sports fans know.”

Some of us have been lobbying for ditching the Chase since NASCAR most recently overhauled it three years ago (and ratcheted up the action, intensity and pressure as a result).

But there always had been resistance to calling the Chase a playoff, despite how natural it seemed.

NASCAR heavily messaged the January 2004 news conference that introduced the Chase for the Championship. Reporters repeatedly were told by officials that “this is not a playoff” because “all of our events will continue to be Super Bowl-type races with 43 drivers competing.”

No one wanted to hurt the feelings of longtime fans asked to absorb a sea change that was antithetical to some core principles that were preached as gospel for decades.

There was major pushback on anyone who intimated that the Chase created two distinct seasons. When the Chase was introduced, NASCAR tirelessly emphasized there were no knockout rounds or points resets or anything analogous to how other pro sports handled their playoffs.

But things have changed. All that stuff has been happening in NASCAR since 2014.

There are eliminations. There are points resets (and still are with a few caveats). There is segmentation from the regular season.

It’s a playoff in every sense of the word – which is why the word changed.

The Chase is dead.

Long live the NASCAR playoffs.

Many of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s most memorable career moments

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Trying to condense 18 seasons, 603 starts, 26 wins, 149 top-fives, 253 top 10s and 13 poles into one highlight reel is a challenge, indeed.

In light of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement today that he’ll retire at the end of this season as a NASCAR Cup driver, let’s take a walk down memory lane of some of Junior’s most memorable races and accomplishments.

2000 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned his first career Cup victory at the same site he earned his first Xfinity win a few years earlier: Texas Motor Speedway. He would earn his second career win several weeks later at Richmond.

2000 – Junior earns his first – and only one to date – NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

2001 – In an emotional celebration, Junior wins the Pepsi 400 at Daytona and dedicates his third career Cup win to his father, who was killed less than five months earlier in the season-opening Daytona 500.

2001 – In the first NASCAR race following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins an emotional and stirring MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 at Dover International Speedway.

2001 to 2003 – Junior wins four straight Cup races at Talladega Superspeedway, which would become his most prolific track with six overall wins to date there. Here’s his four wins in a row at ‘Dega:

2001 – EA Sports 500 — Junior wins the race and earns a $1 million Winston No Bull 5 bonus.

2002 Aaron’s 400

2002 EA Sports 500 — and the final $1 million Winston No Bull 5 bonus

2003 Aaron’s 499

2004 – Junior earns his first of what would be two Daytona 500 victories. “I’m a Daytona 500 champion. I can’t believe it,” Junior said in Victory Lane.

2010 – Earnhardt wins the Subway Jalapeno 250 Xfinity Series race at Daytona. This race was all the more memorable because Junior drove a retro-looking No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing that paid homage to his late father, who was sponsored by Wrangler.

2014 – Earnhardt earns what would prove to be the second and final Daytona 500 win of his career, with now-NBC NASCAR analyst Steve Letarte as his crew chief.

2015 – Earnhardt records his most recent Cup win in the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix Raceway (ceremonially renamed Jeff Gordon Raceway for this race). It was also Earnhardt’s third career win at Phoenix.

 

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Who are the candidates to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88? Here’s a short list

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With Tuesday’s news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving NASCAR after the 2017 season, Hendrick Motorsports would seem to have multiple internal and external candidates to fill the ride.

Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet would be the top-tier opening for 2018. The car is prepared in the same building as the No. 48 of seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson and is a teammate to Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne. Since taking over the No. 88 in 2008, Earnhardt has made the playoffs in six of nine seasons, notched nine victories and finished top 10 in points three times (he might have again in 2012 if he hadn’t been sidelined for two races by a concussion).

Some of the decision assuredly will depend on sponsorship (in a statement, Nationwide said it fully supported Earnhardt’s decision and would continue its relationship with the 14-time most popular driver beyond 2017), but here are a few names to consider — starting with two already in the Hendrick fold:

William Byron: Signed to a developmental deal with the team last August, he unquestionably is the future of Hendrick Motorsports along with Elliott.

Byron, 19, showed prodigious talent as a rookie in the Camping World Truck Series with a circuit-leading seven victories (he was robbed of the championship because of a mechanical failure while dominating Phoenix). He is only seven races into his Xfinity career but is a solid second in points with five top 10s and two top fives.

There will be questions about whether it would be rushing too much to promote him to Cup in his third full season in a NASCAR national series, but if he’s the eventual solution, why wait to promote him? Kyle Larson was moved into Cup after only a full season of Xfinity, and his development into the 2017 points leader has proved the pitfalls that surrounded Joey Logano’s entry into Cup as an inexperienced teenager can be avoided.

Alex Bowman: He filled in admirably for an injured Earnhardt with three top 10s in 10 races last year (qualifying on pole position at Phoenix and leading 194 laps). Bowman, who turned 24 today, also ran full time in Cup from 2014-15, so he has nearly 81 starts in the premier series as well as five top fives in 50 Xfinity starts.

Still under contract to Hendrick, his yeoman work on the driving simulator has drawn praise from the organization and its drivers.

But the Tuscon, Ariz., native still doesn’t have a resume that is eye-catching as Byron’s, and his upside might be a more difficult sell to sponsors.

Carl Edwards: Since stepping away from NASCAR in a stunning announcement three months ago, Edwards steadfastly has maintained he isn’t retired. While visiting Atlanta Motor Speedway to help rookie replacement Daniel Suarez with his former No. 19 Toyota, Edwards brought his helmet and firesuit just in case.

He seems open to driving in Cup again, though he is remaining coy about it. Asked by NBC Sports if the No. 88 was an opportunity he would consider, Edwards jokingly replied, “You may have it mixed up. I’m recruiting Dale to drive a tractor!” (He also added he was happy for Earnhardt, and that it would be a great ride for someone.)

With 28 victories in the Cup series and a megawatt smile and sponsor appeal, Edwards’ name figures to come up whenever there is an opening, even if he seems to be enjoying life on his farm in Columbia, Mo. He also was courted by Hendrick about a decade ago (which Jeff Gordon confirmed in 2011 when Edwards was in the midst of re-upping for the last time with Roush Fenway Racing).

–Any other qualified veteran: Hendrick could decide Byron isn’t ready for the No. 88 yet next season but is the answer for 2019.

Would it make sense to consider putting NBCSN analyst Greg Biffle (who has indicated he still would like to race) or another driver with winning credentials (such as David Ragan or Regan Smith, who has Hendrick and JRM ties) in the No. 88 to keep the seat warm for Byron in 2019?

Given that Hendrick waited a year for Kahne to join its ranks, and Stewart-Haas Racing did the same with Clint Bowyer, it isn’t an implausible scenario.

A look at Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s most popular tweets

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s NASCAR racing career has been long and memorable and will end after the 2017 season.

But his social media career has been short, insightful, news breaking and often times hilarious.

After years of dragging his feet, the 14-time most popular driver joined Twitter on Feb. 24, 2014 after his second Daytona 500 and NASCAR hasn’t been the same.

In hindsight, Earnhardt’s social media use has been a captivating look at the twilight of his racing career, which began with arguably one of the biggest wins of his career.

Here’s a look at Earnhardt’s eight most retweeted tweets.

  1. Feb. 24, 2014 – The morning after his second Daytona 500 win, Earnhardt poses with a statue of his late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., that is outside Daytona International Speedway. It’s been retweeted 26,629 times.

2.  Feb. 24, 2014 – Just after 2:30 a.m. ET, the NASCAR and Twitter world changed forever when Earnhardt posted his first surprise tweet from Victory Lane after winning his second Daytona 500. It was Earnhardt’s first Cup win since the June 2012 Michigan race and only his second Cup win since 2008. It’s been retweeted 20,026 times.

3. Feb. 18, 2015 – Fourteen years after his father was killed in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt acknowledged the anniversary. It has been retweeted 10,788 times.

4. January 19, 2017 – Earnhardt is an unabashed fan of sports outside of NASCAR, including of the NFL’s Washington Redskins and the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. Earlier this year, Earnhardt couldn’t attend a Hornets’ home game. So he decided to give his tickets to one lucky winner. 7,925 people retweeted his post hoping to win.

5. Feb. 25, 2017 – The day before what would turn out to be his last Daytona 500 start, Earnhardt shared a video that had been posted by the official NASCAR Twitter account. Backed with the song “My Old Man” by the Zac Brown Band, the video is a fond remembrance of his relationship with his father. Roughly 7,600 people shared his sentiment.

6. Dec. 11, 2014 – This tweet takes a little bit more of an explanation. Ten months after joining Twitter, Earnhardt tagged rapper J. Cole in a tweet, mentioning he was “funny” with a hashtag #ShitChangedMyLifeBro. The hashtag is a reference to one of J. Cole’s songs, “Note to Self.” Cole referenced Earnhardt in the song after he saw in an ESPN interview that Earnhardt listened to one of his songs before races. The Twitter interaction led to 7,601 retweets and an ESPN: The Magazine cover story.

7. April 29, 2014 – Two months after joining Twitter, Earnhardt very simply wished his late father a happy birthday. It was retweeted more than 6,800 times.

8. Aug. 10, 2014 – Few personally know the tragedy associated with auto racing more than Dale Earnhardt Jr. On Aug. 9, 2014, sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. was killed when a sprint car driven by Tony Stewart struck the 20-year-old. Ward had approached the racing lane on foot following a crash at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York. The following morning Earnhardt tweeted his condolences to Ward’s family. It was shared 5,579 times.

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Richmond International Raceway

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NASCAR makes its first visit of the year to Richmond International Raceway this weekend as the Cup and Xfinity Series compete on the .75-mile track.

Cup teams will hold the Toyota Owners 400 while Xfinity teams gear up for the ToyotaCares 250.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for both races.

Cup Series – Toyota Owners 400

There are 38 cars on the entry list for the Cup race.

Last year, Carl Edwards won this race with a bump-and-run on teammate Kyle Busch on the final turn. Busch had led 78 laps in the race before Edwards, who led 151 laps, powered his way to the victory.

Denny Hamlin won the fall race from the pole after leading 189 laps.

Click here for the full entry list.

Xfinity Series – ToyotaCares 250

Five Cup drivers are among the 42 cars entered into the race, including: Ty Dillon, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson.

The race is the third Dash 4 Cash race of the year, meaning Cup drivers with five years or more experience are not eligible to compete in the race.

Last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won this race after leading 128 of 149 laps. Kyle Busch won the fall race after leading 197 of 250 laps.

Click here for the entry list.