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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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Truex has solved puzzle of Martinsville, now wants a win there

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There was a point where Martin Truex Jr. wouldn’t have been blamed if he wanted to change his first name every time he raced at Martinsville Speedway.

He absolutely hated the place more often than loved it because the half-mile paperclip shaped track rarely showed him any love.

In Truex’s first 18 NASCAR Cup races at Martinsville, he had an average finish of 23.1 (and an average start of 18.1).

During that 18-race stretch, which began in 2006 and ran through 2014, Truex finished 20th or worse 11 times.

But somewhere, somehow, some way, a switch was thrown in 2015 and suddenly Martinsville has become one of Truex’s better tracks.

In his last four starts there, he’s finished sixth (in both 2015 races), 18th (last spring) and seventh (last fall). That most recent appearance also included his first pole at Martinsville.

Truex’s average finish in those four races is 9.25, while his average start in the same number of races is 5.5.

Is it any wonder that a track Truex once dreaded to go to has now become one he’s looking forward to returning to this weekend for Sunday’s STP 500. He’s hoping the next step there is a win.

“From my standpoint Martinsville has gone from a puzzle to a place where I continue to feel more comfortable,” Truex said in media release. “We’ve had some good runs there recently and this weekend will be a good test to see where we stand with our short track program.

“We know we can get it done at the intermediate and superspeedway tracks.”

Truex comes into this weekend ranked third in the NASCAR Cup standings. He won at Las Vegas, was fourth this past Sunday at Fontana and eighth at Atlanta. His worst finishes thus far in 2017 have been 13th at Daytona and 11th at Phoenix.

That’s an impressive season average finish to date of 7.4 (and an average start of 13.2).

Truex also is tied for most stage wins (with Kevin Harvick) with three and his eight playoff bonus points leads the Cup Series. He also ranks second in laps led with 225.

Still, Truex isn’t satisfied with what he’s done thus far.

“We’ve had a pretty good run so far,” he said. “However there’s still plenty of room for improvement. We might be a tick off here and there but overall not a bad start to the season.”

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NASCAR on NBC podcast, Ep. 72: Jeff Gluck on the Kyle Busch-Joey Logano video at Vegas

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Longtime NASCAR reporter Jeff Gluck joined the NASCAR on NBC podcast to discuss his viral video of the Kyle BuschJoey Logano confrontation and his foray into self-service journalism.

Gluck, who started his own website (www.jeffgluck.com, which has a revenue model based on reader donations) to cover racing in January, captured Busch’s march through the pits at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and subsequent swing at Logano after the Cup drivers were involved in a last-lap crash.

For several years, Gluck’s postrace routine has been to canvas the garage and pit area for incidents such as this, but he had no inkling that he would capture this moment.

He was headed toward the No. 2 Ford of Brad Keselowski (who lost the lead in the closing laps because of a mechanical failure) when he spotted Busch.

“I see this yellow blur out of the corner of my eye, not walking super fast, but walking faster in the same direction I was,” Gluck said on the podcast. “And I turned around and thought, “Kyle! Why is he going this way? The care center is not this way? Oh he’s mad at somebody.’

“But I didn’t know who or why. So, the bottom line is when you see Kyle Busch angrily walking down pit road, you take your phone out.”

Gluck lingered in the pits and talked to Logano and briefly contemplated waiting on Busch outside the care center before deciding to upload the video, pronto.

“There was a huge moment of hesitation,” he said. “I stood there for about 30 seconds and was a little shocked.

“Judging by the Twitter mentions, I realized it wasn’t on TV. I should probably post this right away.”

The video quickly garnered more than 1 million views on YouTube and spread around the world (emails seeking approval of use arrived from Denmark).

“Thor from Denmark,” Gluck said with a laugh. “(He) said, ‘Hi, your great video has made it all the way to Denmark. We have much interest in this! Can we play it on our local sports broadcast? He of all people doubled back to me a couple of times to make sure there were no rights issues.”

Other topics discussed:

–The aftermath of the video and the decisions he made on distribution.

–The progress of his eponymous site through its first two months.

–Why he thinks there was such an overwhelming reaction to his site (he attributes some of it to the 2016 election cycle).

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘Driven to Give Gloves’ program returns beginning at Martinsville

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For the second season in a row, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the Dale Jr. Foundation will take part in a “Driven to Give Gloves” program to benefit the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and four Patient Champions.

Nationwide has been a primary sponsor of Earnhardt in the NASCAR Cup Series since September 2014.

Earnhardt will wear four different colored versions of his skeleton-themed racing gloves throughout the season, beginning this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. After four month-long cycles with the gloves, they’ll be auctioned off to raise money for the work done by the researchers and physicians at the hospital.

“The Driven to Give Gloves Program is a great way to showcase our partnership with Nationwide and to support Nationwide Children’s Hospital,” Earnhardt Jr. said in a press release. “This program is really a unique opportunity for us to work with Nationwide while also fulfilling the mission of The Dale Jr. Foundation, which is to help children in need. I am proud to be a part of this and proud to raise money and awareness for Nationwide Children’s Hospital and all the incredible things they are doing for kids.”

At the end of each month, Earnhardt will sign the gloves for auction at his foundation’s eBay store with all of the proceeds going to benefit care and research. The Driven to Give Gloves program has raised more than $100,000 since 2014.

Here are the races each set of gloves will be worn at and the research field and patient they will recognize.

· April – (Martinsville, Texas, Bristol and Richmond) – Blue Gloves (Autism) 10-year-old Tristen Cooper: Tristen was diagnosed with Autism as a toddler and first went to Nationwide Children’s Hospital for eye surgeries. Soon thereafter, Tristen was being followed by the Hospital’s Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders. Recently Tristen has also become a patient of Nationwide Children’s Center for Colorectal and Pelvic Reconstruction, Gastroenterology, and Interventional Radiology. He loves monster trucks and NASCAR and is quite the baseball player, winning a silver medal in the baseball throw at the 2016 Special Olympics Summer Games in Columbus.

· June – (Dover, Pocono, Michigan and Sonoma) – Red Gloves (Safety Awareness Month) 5-year-old Ailee Gilliland: After sustaining facial burns at the age of 2, Ailee was taken to the Burn Unit at Nationwide Children’s Hospital for treatment. She spent a week in the unit and returned for another soon after. In the three years since, Ailee has spent thousands of hours going to outpatient appointments and occupational therapy. She has undergone three plastic surgeries. Today, Ailee is a typical 5-year-old who loves princesses, gymnastics and school. She is a happy, fun-loving girl who can make anyone smile with her silly outgoing personality.
· July – (Daytona, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Indianapolis and Pocono II) – Pink Gloves (Therapeutic Recreation Awareness) 10-year-old Maddie Delaney: When Maddie was just 2, she underwent a six-hour spinal surgery to release the built-up tension in her legs caused by cerebral palsy. She spent almost an entire month on the inpatient rehabilitation floor at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. But, through it all, Maddie never gave up and maintained a positive, upbeat attitude. Her enthusiasm for life is contagious and she inevitably brightens the day of everyone she meets. Maddie is currently pursuing her black belt in Tae Kwon Do, will soon start horseback riding lessons, and enjoys swimming, singing and acting.

· November – (Texas II, Phoenix II and Homestead-Miami) – Gray Gloves (Diabetes) 10-year-old John Roger Curry:
At the age of 2, John Roger, who goes by J.R., was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. He started out with four shots and at least 10 finger pokes a day – that’s 1,460 shots and 3,650 finger pokes in a year. In the beginning, he had a really rough time adjusting to his condition. But, eventually, he got used to the process and became accustomed to the needles. Recently, J.R. switched to a pump, which gives him a lot more freedom and his parents are able to monitor the readings. J.R. doesn’t let his diabetes stop him from doing what he loves. He plays soccer, baseball, basketball and is even a race car driver.

Looking at top 10 race start totals among active, full-time NASCAR Cup drivers

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Last Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his 600th career start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, finishing 16th in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

That achievement made Earnhardt just the second active driver to the reach the mark, following Matt Kenseth, who has 619 starts after the Auto Club 400.

How do those numbers compare to the rest of their competitors? Who is the next driver that will reach a big start mark?

Here’s a look at the top 10 active full-time Cup drivers when it comes to starts in NASCAR’s premier series:

Matt Kenseth – 619 starts

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 600 starts

Kurt Busch – 581 starts (would make 600th start on Aug. 19 in the Bass Pro Shops / NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway)

Kevin Harvick – 579 starts (would make 600th start on Sept. 9 in Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway)

Ryan Newman – 553 starts

Jimmie Johnson – 548 starts

Jamie McMurray – 515 starts

Kasey Kahne – 473 starts

Kyle Busch – 431 starts

Martin Truex Jr. – 410 starts