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Fast forward: Martin Truex Jr. ready to make new memories in Daytona 500

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Shortly after losing last year’s Daytona 500 by one-hundredth of a second, Martin Truex Jr. shrugged his shoulders and drew a heavy sigh before the words slowly exhaled with his breath.

“Just going to have to watch that on the highlight reel for the rest of my career, rest of my life,’’ he said with a forced smile.

As the calendar returns to February and “The Great American Race” approaches, Truex knows those final moments against Denny Hamlin will be shown more often, and he repeatedly will be asked about the closest finish in the race’s history.

“I don’t dread it yet,’’ Truex told NBC Sports during last week’s NASCAR Media Tour. “I don’t mind seeing (video of the finish). I think even for me it was exciting. It was a cool moment to be a part of it.

“I really wish I was the other side of that moment but still a cool thing to be a part of. I feel like someday I’m going to win that race, so seeing that is kind of just a reminder of how close we’ve been, how close we are and (how) one little different decision there, or one slight change of that last part of the straightaway, or that half of the straightaway, and it could have changed the outcome into something that you won’t forget.’’

It was unforgettable, just not in the celebratory fashion for Truex or Matt Kenseth, who led 40 3/4 of the final 41 laps. Kenseth led until he darted from the bottom lane in Turn 3 to block a charging Hamlin.

When Kenseth moved up the track, Hamlin cut down and squeezed between Truex and Kenseth. Hamlin and Kenseth made slight contact, sending Kenseth off pace and toward the wall. Truex crowded Hamlin and briefly led coming to the line before Hamlin nipped him by the nose of his car.

“I’ll be honest with you,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports, “I still YouTube the last five laps of the Daytona 500. I’ve watched it back a few times, even from different guys’ in-car cameras to see what exactly caused that last lap to be so magical for us. For us to go from fourth or fifth to the lead in one lap was definitely the best lap  I’ve ever driven.’’

That final lap symbolized Truex’s greatest season in Cup — a strong run that had an incomplete finish.

He won four races (he had won three in his first 10 seasons). Among his victories was the record-setting performance in the Coca-Cola 600 where he led all but eight of the 400 laps. No driver in NASCAR history has led so much in a single race.

Truex opened the playoffs by winning at Chicagoland. To further mark himself as a favorite, he won at Dover, the final race in the opening round.

But then his season unraveled. Truex finished 13th at Charlotte in the opening race of the second round. A clutch issue on the final pit stop ruined what likely could have been a top-five finish.

A fueling issue the next week at Kansas caused him to pit early, and the yellow came out while he was on pit road, dropping him to 20th. That altered his team’s strategy the rest of the race, and he finished 11th.

Truex’s title hopes ended the next week at Talladega Superspeedway when the pole-sitter’s engine blew and he finished 40th. Suddenly, a driver many expected to compete for the championship in Miami was out of contention.

“We’re definitely not over it,’’ Truex told NBC Sports about last year’s playoff woes. “I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s motivation. It keeps us hungry.

“The biggest thing we learned is there’s no room for error. Talladega was tough to have that happen out of the blue. It was a huge shocker, but it was a reminder that you need to attack. Kansas and Charlotte, two of our best race tracks and we didn’t perform as well as we should have. It’s just a reminder that you have to be on every single week and there’s no room for not getting the job done.’’

But after his strongest two seasons (five wins, 16 top fives and 39 top 10s in 72 starts), Truex knows he and his team will have to be better to have a chance at an elusive title. He’ll have help this year with the team expanding to two cars and adding rookie Erik Jones.

“We performed at a high level, so that isn’t really the question,’’ Truex said. “I guess more than anything, how do we perform at that high level again is probably more difficult.’’

The task will begin later this month back at Daytona.

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NASCAR America: Dale Jr.’s aggressiveness at Sonoma pays off, will need it at Daytona

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Dale Earnhardt was very aggressive in his final Cup start at Sonoma Raceway, and while it may have resulted in his Lap 14 accident in Turn 11, it also helped produce his third top 10 of the year and his second in a row.

“I think being offensive is better than being passive on a road course, nothing wrong with that,” said NASCAR America analyst Max Papis, who also broke down what caused Earnhardt’s bizarre spin early in Sunday’s race that also involved Danica Patrick and Kyle Larson.

“You’ve got to commit, usually the pass has happened before you actually arrive at the corner,” Papis said. “He thought that was a good opportunity, (then) committed. ”

NASCAR America’s analysts also discussed Earnhardt’s upcoming start at Daytona, which likely will be his final Cup start there. The track may be his best shot to earn a win and a spot in the playoffs.

The analysts believe the aggressiveness that was on display at Sonoma will be necessary for Earnhardt to pull a win out at Daytona.

Earnhardt’s year got off to a rough start in the Daytona 500. He was leading the race when Kyle Busch lost a tire in Turn 3 on Lap 105, spun and collected Earnhardt, Matt Kenseth and Erik Jones.

Earnhardt was near the front at Talladega in May late in the race when he was forced to pit for a loose tire with less than 15 laps to go.

That leaves the 14-time most popular driver with just two more chances to win a restrictor-plate race, the format he’s earned 10 of his 26 Cup Series wins.

“They’ve got to find a way to give him a car where he can be aggressive Dale Jr.,” Jeff Burton said. “What makes him so good at Daytona and Talladega is that he doesn’t hesitate. He’s the guy setting the tempo, he’s the guy forcing the issue. … He can’t drive with caution, he can’t drive worried about if ‘is my car going to stick?’ He’s got to stick it in there and know it’s going to stick. He hasn’t had that the last several plate races.”

Watch the above video for the full discussion.

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Daytona

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NASCAR returns to Daytona International Speedway this weekend with the Cup and Xfinity Series.

Cup teams will compete in the Coke Zero 400, which will air at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday on NBC and the Xfinity Series holds the Coca-Colca Firecracker 250, which will air at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday on NBCSN.

Here are the entry lists for both races.

Cup – Coke Zero 400

Forty cars are entered into the 17th race of the Cup season. That would make it the sixth race this year to have the most possible cars in the field.

Darrell Wallace Jr. will be back in the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports. Brendan Gaughan will drive the No. 75 Chevrolet for Beard Motorsports.

Ryan Sieg will drive the No. 83 Toyota for BK Racing in his third start for the team.

Kurt Busch won the last trip to Daytona, leading only the last lap of the Daytona 500 after multiple leaders ran out of gas in the closing laps. Brad Keselowski won last year’s Coke Zero 400.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Coca-Cola Firecracker 250

There are 43 cars on the preliminary entry list for this race, including four full-time Cup drivers. They are Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Joey Logano.

There is no driver announced for the No. 93 Chevrolet owned by RSS racing.

Ryan Reed won the February Xfinity race at Daytona after being involved in two crashes and leading nine laps. Aric Almirola won last year’s July race after a caution on the last lap forced NASCAR to review video and loop data and determined him the winner over Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the entry list.

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch can afford to lose interim crew chief for Daytona

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Kyle Busch may have yet another view in his ear this weekend when he races in the Coke Zero 400.

Interim crew chief Ben Beshore may be suspended for the race after two unsecured lug nuts were found on the No. 18 Toyota after the Sonoma race.

The possible loss of Beshore comes after Busch’s usual crew chief, Adam Stevens, was suspended four races for a wheel falling off Busch’s car following a pit stop at Dover.

Daytona will be the fourth race of that suspension. NASCAR America’s analysts discussed the impact of the possible suspension for Busch, who is still looking for his first win since July of last year.

“They’re not making mistakes, they’re just finding themselves in difficult positions,” Dale Jarrett said. “This is certainly another one of those, going to a race track Kyle Busch can win at. But who you have on that pit box means a lot as for performing all through a race.”

Said Jeff Burton, “The frustration level is mounting, obviously. Kyle Busch is expecting to win races. … I think if you’re going to lose your crew chief, this is probably the race you want to lose it for. Going to Daytona, you pretty much have a plan going there. The pit strategy will be interesting with the stages, but if I was going to a race track, this would be the race I’d feel most comfortable without my crew chief.”

Watch the above video for the full segment.

Eddie Pardue named crew chief for Jeffrey Earnhardt’s No. 33 car

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The Circle Sport/The Motorsports Group announced that Eddie Pardue is the new crew chief on its No. 33 Chevrolet effective immediately.

Pardue, who was the team’s head of engineering, will lead the effort on Jeffrey Earnhardt‘s car this weekend in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. This will be his first Cup race as a crew chief since 2008, when he led Greg Biffle in one race at Auto Club Speedway. He has three wins in 338 races as crew chief in the Xfinity Series dating back to 1998.

The former competition director for Red Horse Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, Pardue replaces Pay Tryson, who has been released from the team.

Tryson directed Boris Said at Sonoma Raceway, where he finished 29th. Earnhardt has been in the No. 33 in every other race. His best result in his first 15 starts was 26th in the Daytona 500.

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