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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: Clint Bowyer’s parties are legendary

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Clint Bowyer parties are not only legendary, they have the same effect as a black hole on unsuspecting passersby, as Steve Letarte found out in Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America.

“The cab driver comes up, goes inside, decides he is going to clock out – stays at the party,” Bowyer explained. “(The fare) is in the car waiting on him. He’s still inside partying. So somebody (else) got in the cab and made several laps on the go-kart track that night.”

It was eventually returned – muddied and with ungrateful patrons.

The cab driver is not the only person to get sucked into the vortex of a Bowyer party. Pizza delivery men, famous singers, and countless others have made this mistake of wandering too close.

“I’ve known Clint a long time, so none of this is shocking to me,” Letarte said as he correctly answered every bizarre question aimed at him.

For more of what has happened at one of Bowyer’s parties, watch the video above.

NASCAR America at 5:30 p.m. ET: Clint Bowyer joins Dale Jr. at the Big Oak Table

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5:30-6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is joined at the Big Oak table by Clint Bowyer and Steve Letarte. Krista Voda hosts.

On today’s edition of Wednesdays with Dale Jr.

• Clint Bowyer, a few weeks removed from his victory at Martinsville, joins Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte at the Big Oak Table to discuss the season, short track racing, the move to Stewart-Haas Racing last year and snapping his 190-race winless streak.
• Have a question for Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Clint Bowyer? Hit us up on Twitter using #WednesDale to get your question answered on air.
• Bowyer’s Martinsville victory celebration included some Moonshine & Fire. We’ll put his personal party knowledge to the test with this week’s game “Did This Really Happen at a Clint Bowyer Party?”

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 5:30 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Bump & Run: Who will be next to challenge Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick?

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Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have combined to win five of the first eight races of the season. Who is most likely to break up their dominance?

Nate Ryan: Any of the Penske drivers. That team seems to be next in class behind Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Dustin Long: Ryan Blaney. Has shown a good bit of speed lately and seems to be close to scoring a win or two in the near future.

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Larson is poised to wreak havoc on the field if he can put together complete races without any miscues, like his spin in Bristol. He’s the defending Richmond winner, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can carry his momentum there.

Dan Beaver: If it’s possible to overlook the defending champion, that is what seems to be happening with Martin Truex Jr. With five wins and 14 top fives in his last 18 races, he needs to forget about his bad luck in the last two races and concentrate on all the things the team has been doing right.

Parker KligermanWhen I look at the current landscape, I feel the drivers that can break their stranglehold will either be driving a JGR Toyota or Team Penske Ford. 

Ryan Blaney (30-race winless drought), Jimmie Johnson (31), Joey Logano (35), Ryan Newman (40 races) and Kurt Busch (43) are in droughts. Who is the first among this group to return to Victory Lane?

Nate Ryan: Logano, possibly as early as Saturday. Blaney would be 1A as it’s only a matter of time for Team Penske.

Dustin Long: Ryan Blaney. He’s been strong lately, finishing eighth at Auto Club, third at Martinsville and fifth at Texas before crashing out of the Bristol race while in the lead. His time is coming. 

Daniel McFadin: I think it comes down to either Logano or Blaney with Logano likely to win at Richmond or Talladega. He’s finished in the top two in the last two Richmond races and he’s one of the best plate racers of this generation

Dan Beaver: As consistently strong as he has run, it is difficult to believe Logano has not already won. Along with Kyle Busch, he is the only driver with seven top-10s in the first eight races. Five of these were sixth-place finishes or better. Returning to the site of his last win, Logano could break through this week – and this time it will not be encumbered.

Parker Kligerman: I believe Ryan Blaney will win first. He is showing some serious speed and seems to be in great form. I feel that crew chief Jeremy Bullins and Ryan will want to start to assert themselves inside Team Penske as the title contender I feel they will be this year. 

After the perceived success of PJ1 before the resumption of Monday’s race, should NASCAR consider doing mid-race treatments with a traction compound to tracks?

Nate Ryan: Yes. While it’s worth pondering whether it might be unfairly tampering with the competition to reapply traction compound during a race, the circumstances of a postponement should allow it, and the ends certainly justified the means in Bristol’s case.

Dustin Long: NASCAR should do what is necessary to provide the best type of racing for the fans. 

Daniel McFadin: It’s a toss-up for me, but I think I’d rather they didn’t. It’s more interesting to have teams have to account for the loss of a racing element over time, just like they do with tires. That happened in Bristol and the race was great from beginning to end. Also, applying it mid-race just makes for longer races.

Dan Beaver: If NASCAR can find a way to substantially improve the action, they should do whatever is necessary. Many dirt tracks around the country take time to water the surface before the A-Mains to develop a second groove. NASCAR still has some lessons that can be learned from the grass roots.

Parker Kligerman: Why not? I feel until we find a way to stop hearing the words “loss of downforce” from following other cars, NASCAR should continue to look at all available tools to add in variables that can cause uncertainty for the teams and drivers and create changes in track state like we saw at Bristol to cause the most dynamic races possible. 

Kyle Busch aims for three straight wins this weekend at Richmond

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Kyle Busch seeks to match a mark set by Kevin Harvick earlier this season. If Busch can win the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway, it will be his third consecutive Cup victory.

Harvick dominated the field earlier this year with his three-race winning streak at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway. Kyle Busch finished runner-up to Harvick twice in that stretch. That kicked off a six-race streak of top-three finishes, including wins at Texas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway.

MORE: Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. discuss fallout from 2008 Richmond race

Busch’s recent stats at Richmond would not necessarily put him at the top of the list of drivers mostly likely to win this week. He has not finished in the top five there in his last three attempts and hasn’t won since 2012, which was his fourth consecutive victory in the spring event. Busch has not yet won a fall Richmond race.

Included in his more recent Richmond results is a pair of back-to-back runner-up finishes in fall 2015 and spring 2016. More importantly, he is bolstered by his current winning streak as well as his feeling about the track.

“I love Richmond,” Busch said in a press release. “It’s one of my favorite race tracks and one of my best race tracks. I love being able to go there and, of course, we put on some pretty good races there. We won four spring races in a row and I would have loved to have made it five or more. It’s a neat race track and it’s certainly an excitement track and there is a lot of action that happens there.”

Last week, Busch won for the seventh time at Bristol – adding to his record as the winningest active driver there. The skill needed there will not translate to Richmond, however.

“Richmond and Bristol are more than oil and water, more than day and night,” Busch said. “Bristol is an attack-type race track yet, when you attack, you can get yourself in trouble. Richmond is a very methodical race track and you have to be very – you’re very on edge there all the time, especially corner entry, getting into the corners. You’re always loose there and you have to be able to be loose there in order to carry the speed through the middle and have good drive off.

“We’re back to two night races at Richmond again and sometimes nighttime just feeds itself with not as much grip and makes it to where the bottom is the preferred lane. Daytime allows the race track to widen out and be hotter where, on a cooler racetrack, you’re looking for where the rubber is for at least a little while until the whole track rubbers in, and then you have to go back to the bottom, anyway.”

While Busch has slipped outside the top five in his last three Richmond starts, his career average there is the best among active drivers. With a 7.4 career average at Richmond, he tops second-place Harvick’s 8.5. The most impressive statistic about Busch this week is that he has finished all but one of 10,026 laps of competition in 25 starts.

Busch has won three consecutive races once before in his career – at Kentucky Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July 2015.

The last two times he has had back-to-back Cup wins, however, Busch finished outside the top 25 in his next attempt – most recently following wins at New Hampshire and Dover International Speedway with a 29th at Charlotte Motor Speedway last October.