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Who is the driver to watch? NASCAR America analysts have their say

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New drivers in new places. A returning star. And one looking to be in a class all alone.

Those are just among the drivers NASCAR America’s analysts stated they’d be watching early in the season.

NASCAR America is back for a fourth season at 6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN. NASCAR on NBC analysts Steve Letarte, Kyle Petty, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and Parker Kligerman are ready for the start of the season.

With that in mind, they each talked about the drivers they will be watching early in the season.

Steve Letarte: I’m going to have a group of them. I look at Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott. The reason I list those three is we now don’t have Jeff Gordon, we now don’t have Tony Stewart, we now don’t have Carl Edwards. Who is going to step up? There is a vacancy in the star power of the sport. I don’t think who is the most creative on Twitter and who has the coolest commercials that will fill that space. People laugh, but that’s how people in Hollywood create stars. I think it’s who shows up on the race track with fireworks in victory and that person will become a star.

Kyle Petty: I’ll be watching Clint Bowyer to see how last year has affected him — non-competitive for a full year and now will be judged against Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch in the same equipment.

Jeff Burton: Everything I’ve heard about preseason testing is that Hendrick Motorsports has been stupid fast. Like not a little faster than everybody. A lot faster than everybody. I’m curious to see if that continues. I heard in Vegas that Chase Elliott was way faster than everybody else. I heard that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was way faster than everybody else at Phoenix. I’m curious to see if that can continue when it really counts.

Dale Jarrett: The top driver I’m going to be watching at the beginning, at the middle and at the end is Jimmie Johnson as he chases his eighth title. This is history that we’re talking about. I know that there will be people that will say it is a different format but that was the same way that every other driver went about winning their championship with different rules and things. I’m really anxious to see this and how Jimmie and his team perform because this is a new type of pressure. There was pressure getting to seven but now you’re talking about doing something that nobody else has done.

No. 2 on my list is Dale Earnhardt Jr. coming back. I don’t have any doubt that he’ll be back in top form at Daytona because that is his place, but how do things go from there? We’ll certainly be keeping an eye on him around any type of accidents.

Third, how does Daniel Suarez handle this situation that he really wasn’t looking at when he ended his year as the Xfinity champion? I’m sure he was expecting some races in the Cup series but not a full-time deal. How does he handle everything with that? He’s been outstanding to this point but will it continue? There’s a huge learning curve there with the different cars and the different people he will be racing against.

Parker Kligerman: I couldn’t settle on one driver to watch but rather a specific group. The 26-and-under age group. This group is spectacular and will garner intense attention all season. 

Austin Dillon – If he/ RCR can start the season strong like last year, especially at 1.5-mile tracks, I see Austin breaking RCR’s winless streak and being a player in the playoffs. New formats could hurt him in the playoffs though, as will he chase points for segments?

Kyle Larson – I look for very much the same performance as last year unless Ganassi has found a big advantage in the offseason. I don’t see them being much better, but no worse. They will make the playoffs. 

Daniel Suarez – This will be one of the most interesting stories to watch all year as we see if he can adjust to the Cup cars. No prediction, just will observe. 

Erik Jones – I feel with Daniel moving up now, Erik has something to prove. He let his similarly experienced but lesser-heralded teammate get the better of him for a championship. Erik won’t be successful focusing on one driver in a series like Cup, but I find it will be inevitable to compare the two. He won’t want to let Daniel better him again or these two could be in for a rockier relationship as the future of Toyota and JGR. 

Ty Dillon – He will be an X factor. He showed slight promise in his limited Cup starts, and Germain Racing has benefited from its RCR relationship but not to the level of JTG Daugherty. I wonder with what will obviously be increased support from RCR, what this team will be capable of? Nonetheless, he adds again to the incredible under-26 crowd. 

Ryan Blaney – I want Ryan to win a race this year. He without a doubt has the talent to do it. He has the race craft, and is one of the most calm drivers I have ever witnessed. Will his 21 team be able to cut out some of what seemed to be growing pains last year? He will also need to cut out slight mistakes late. The future is bright here in typical Penske fashion. Execution will be key. 

Chris Buescher – Wow, what a change of fortune. There will be growing pains here, but I look for Chris to be a solid top-20 car in points come the end of the season. Once again if he pulls something extraordinary again, we could be talking about a fringe playoff car. All I do know is with this addition and Ty Dillon, the top 20 in points has gotten insanely competitive. 

Chase Elliott – Must win a race. Can win a race. Will win a race. He will be a solid contender in the playoffs and garner the largest portion of the fan base out of this whole group. 

Joey Logano – Insane he is even included in this group. He will win races; many in fact. He will be a formidable contender in the playoffs if he and crew chief Todd Gordon can clean up some late-race strategy issues. As every year since 2014, I think they can be champs.  

Landon Cassill – Is actually 27 now, but I wanted to write “Do you even snap bro?” Also some curious things are occurring at that small Statesville, North Carolina, shop, looking ahead to 2018.

NASCAR America begins its fourth season at 6 p.m. ET on Monday, Feb. 13 on NBCSN

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.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

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