Bump & Run: Don’t overlook these drivers

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There’s much to talk about just days before engines fire at Daytona International Speedway. But for all the conversations about enhancements to the points system, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s return and Carl Edwards‘ departure, there are other key areas you might be missing.

Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty, who will be on NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long to discuss drivers you might be overlooking and more in this week’s Bump & Run.

Who is one driver people might not be paying much attention to but should this year?

Dale Jarrett: Chase Elliott is not being talked about a lot this year, but I really expect a lot of him. I think that we’re looking at a two or three wins kind of season for him. I think that he showed that kind of potential. As we get closer to the playoffs, this will be someone who we just won’t be talking about will he make the playoffs, but what impact he’ll have. I really think that the things he was able to learn — and sometimes you learn a lot more by not closing the deal — I think that it was a great learning year, still a great year, as a rookie. I think he’s someone to pay attention to.

Kyle Petty: The driver I’m watching is Austin Dillon. I thought last year he made big progress. He became the RCR team leader on and off the track. He showed more maturity on and off the track. RCR needs to produce wins this year. I know they want to, but they are in a need-to situation to survive. I don’t believe people (fans) are paying attention to him because of RCR’s recent performance. I believe Austin will surprise people this year.’’

Nate Ryan: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. This is the fifth season in NASCAR’s premier series for the driver whom Jack Roush once said would be remembered as the greatest ever to run for Roush Fenway Racing. Stenhouse is five years’ removed from the promise of consecutive Xfinity Series championships. If he finishes outside the top 20 in points for a fourth straight year, it’s worth pondering what the future might hold (particularly given Roush’s seemingly tenuous sponsorship situation). Stenhouse previously was coveted by other powerhouse teams. If he can exhibit at least flashes of the potential he showed in Xfinity, it could help shore up his future prospects (even if they don’t include Roush).

Dustin Long: I’ll be watching Kyle Larson. He’s shown improvement and scored his first Cup win last year. The key is his team. Can it provide him the equipment to excel and put him in situations to take advantage of? With Stewart-Haas Racing now at Ford, there’s a chance for Chip Ganassi Racing to climb up to the No. 2 spot at Chevrolet behind Hendrick Motorsports. If this team steps up, Larson could score multiple wins.

How do you forecast the rookie of the year battle in the Cup Series?

Dale Jarrett: I think this comes down to two drivers who are both very talented. I think that Erik Jones may have got his thought process off a little bit and maybe cost him even a better chance at winning that Xfinity championship last year. I think he’s going to be an outstanding Cup driver. I really believe that he’ll put himself in position to win some races. Will he able to do that? We’ll have to see because it’s tough. He’s going to be racing basically a teammate, certainly a Toyota teammate in Daniel Suarez. You have to look at the teams they are with. Even though Jones’ deal is a new car with Furniture Row Racing, the experience he has surrounding him and the ability to work with everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing still will be a huge benefit. Suarez, I know he’s trying to grasp all of this. He’s such a talented young man. There will be a lot for him to learn, tracks, the different cars. It’s going to be a steeper learning curve for him, but I think he’ll give Jones a run for his money in that. I really believe at the and of the year that Erik Jones is the rookie of the year.

Kyle Petty: The rookie battle is up for grabs as far as I’m concerned. I know Erik Jones is a favorite and I believe last year he showed why. My concern is he’s driving a second car for a team that has just broken into that elite level of Cup racing. Can he and a startup new team help himself and Martin Truex Jr., or will his addition to the team as a whole take Furniture Row back a step? If that’s the case, advantage Daniel Suarez. He may not have had the year Erik did as a driver, but he won the Xfinity championship. Also he’s driving the 19 car that Carl Edwards was within a handful of laps of winning the Cup championship in. Driving for a team that’s “been there, done that” has its advantages! I’m a fan of Ty Dillon and believe talent-wise he stacks up against Erik and Daniel pretty evenly; equipment-wise, I’m taking a wait and see attitude.

Nate Ryan: Even though Daniel Suarez beat him for the Xfinity championship last year, the rookie of the year title is Erik Jones’ to lose. Jones is the most accomplished of the class and already has proven adept in Cup cars. He will be joining a formidable Furniture Row Racing team with a championship-caliber teammate in Martin Truex Jr. Suarez is in a Toyota of equal quality and made great strides last season, but his development will remain ongoing this year (just as it was in the 2015-16 Xfinity seasons). It might be a fair fight by the end of the season, but Jones will have the upper hand for at least the first half. Among the rest of the rookies, Ty Dillon will deliver respectable performances but won’t contend for top-15 finishes.

Dustin Long: I agree with my colleagues that Erik Jones is the favorite for all the reasons they’ve mentioned. That said, I’ll be interested to see how Daniel Suarez performs with the No. 19 team, noting what Kyle stated about that team’s experience and personnel. I think this could be among the more fascinating rookie races in recent years with Jones finishing with winning the crown.

Watch Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty on NASCAR America today from 5:30 – 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Cole Pearn to honor late friend with fundraiser for family next month in Toronto

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A testimonial to Cole Pearn’s best friend, who unexpectedly passed away in early August, as well as a fundraiser for his family will be held Friday, Jan. 5, at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Pearn’s lifelong friend, Jacob Damen, died unexpectedly after contracting a fast-moving bacterial infection on August 3.

Pearn, crew chief for the 2017 NASCAR Cup championship for Furniture Row Racing, will oversee the gala event, which will be held from 7 to 10 p.m. ET.

The evening will also include an appearance by 2017 NASCAR Cup champion Martin Truex Jr., silent and live auctions, the opportunity to meet both Pearn and Truex and other events.

All net proceeds from the evening will be given to the Damen Family Fund.

“We miss our buddy Jacob dearly,” Pearn said in a media release. “We all have family and friends that fill a space in our hearts that is irreplaceable.

“Jacob filled the hearts of his wife Carolyn, his sons Lucas and Nolan, his parents Jerry and Kim Damen, twin brother Tyler, sister Julia and countless friends.

“We are going to celebrate his life at the perfect spot, the Hockey Hall of Fame, to support his beautiful wife Carolyn and the two boys, Lucas and Nolan. I can’t wait to get home to celebrate with everyone.”

Click here for more details and to purchase tickets to the ‘Jacob Damen Friend and Fan Remembered’ event.

NASCAR Fan Appreciation Day scheduled for Jan. 20

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The annual NASCAR Fan Appreciation Day will return to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, next month.

The event is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 20, the day after the 2018 Hall of Fame class is inducted.

Fans will be able to take part in an autograph session with current national series drivers, Hall of Famers and members of the NASCAR Next class, as well photo opportunities and question-and-answer sessions with a number of NASCAR legends.

Admission to Hall of Fame will be free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis

Admission to driver autograph sessions is free but will require a ticket for participation. Fans can register for the driver autograph sessions at nascarhall.com beginning Saturday, Jan. 13 at 10 a.m. ET. A full driver autograph session schedule will be announced at a later date.

 and on Facebook

Ryan Blaney to guest star on NBC’s ‘Taken’ next year

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Ryan Blaney has a particular set of skills; skills that he’s developed through years of professional auto racing.

The Team Penske driver will get to display those skills next year on NBC’s “Taken” TV Series.

The show serves as a prequel to the 2008 Liam Neeson film of the same name.

Blaney, 23, will guest start on the second season of the series, which premieres Jan. 12. He will appear in an episode titled “Imperium” as a special agent who knows his way around a car.

Here’s the plot synopsis for the episode.

“When a dangerous weapons dealer smuggles his wares into New York City, Bryan Mills (Clive Standen) teams up with the FBI in a race to stop him before he reaches the safety of international waters.”

This won’t be Blaney’s first time in front of a camera playing someone else. He had two movie cameos this year in Logan Lucky and Cars 3.

Blaney was filming his role in “Taken” on Tuesday in Ontario. See his tweets from the set below.

NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Ingram update: Leaves ICU, moves to acute care facility

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NASCAR Hall of Famer Jack Ingram’s condition continues to improve following a serious car crash in his native Asheville, North Carolina on Dec. 3.

According to an online post by his daughter, Ingram was taken out of Intensive Care on Tuesday and moved into an Acute Care facility, which is not as serious as ICU is.

Ingram did suffer a small setback in his recovery, developing a slight infection that is being treated with antibiotics.

Added the note from Ingrid Jones, Jack’s daughter, “The acute care facility will work to start decreasing his pain meds, over time, and put him on less narcotics and more simple analgesics (like really strong Tylenol, but without narcotics).

“Also they will continue his therapies, physical and occupational, as he’s able. It is still hard to know what his long-term health future will be, but we think his color looks really good, and we have no doubts that he has the will and determination to see this through.

“So if it is humanly possible for him to overcome, he will.”

We’ll continue to have periodic updates on Ingram’s condition as they become available.