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The backstory of why Alex Bowman was in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car Saturday night

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – During his December test at Darlington Raceway that cleared his return to NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gathered his No. 88 team in the hauler and broke some news.

He wouldn’t be running The Clash, turning over the wheel of his Chevrolet to Alex Bowman as a reward for filling in for him last season.

Unless his team said otherwise.

“I said, ‘They could put (Bowman) in the 5 (the car of Kasey Kahne, who wasn’t eligible Saturday), and if the guys really want me to run (the No. 88), I’ll run it,” Earnhardt said Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. “But otherwise I’d just assume let Alex run it. They said, ‘Yeah, I think Alex earned his shot, and he should be able to work with guys that he knows.’ Nothing against the 5 guys, but he hadn’t worked with them any.”

Bowman and Earnhardt both were eligible to run in The Clash – the former by virtue of winning the pole position at Phoenix International Raceway, the latter as a former winner of the event.

But Earnhardt, a NASCAR historian, didn’t feel worthy of him being in the race because he has “such strong feelings about The Clash being strictly for pole winners, and I didn’t feel good about how I was eligible.

“I don’t feel deserving of the opportunity to be in the race, because I think it should be strictly pole winners. So when Alex got it, I’m like, he’s trumped me in how to get into the race to begin with.”

Earnhardt planted the seed for putting Bowman in The Clash minutes after that Phoenix pole.

Earnhardt, who missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season while recovering from concussion symptoms, was at Phoenix standing with Hendrick Motorsports general manager Doug Duchardt and No. 88 crew chief Greg Ives.

“Your initial emotion is, ‘Man, he deserves it,’ ” Earnhardt said. “We’ve been on this mission to get Alex going and get his career where he wants it to be, and we had some real momentum last year with him getting an opportunity to drive that car. So when he got that pole, I looked at Doug and Greg and was like, ‘Man, you’ve got to put Alex in the car for The Clash,’ and I was kinda judging their reaction. It got a little closer, and they had made the decision that Alex would do it.

“I like the fact he’s in our car with our guys. Anything to give him an opportunity to showcase what he can do and learn is good.”

Bowman drove in 10 races for Earnhardt last season, posting a best finish of sixth at Phoenix (where he led a race-high 194 of 324 laps).

He also learned during the Darlington test that he would be making his Clash debut.

“We joked about it a lot, but it never even crossed my mind that I would be driving the No. 88,” he said. “Greg Ives was talking about Greg Ives Racing bringing a car, or something crazy like that. I just kind of let it go quiet. I didn’t want step on any toes, or ask anybody and have it seem like I was begging for something. I wasn’t really asking.

“Mr. Duchardt said I was going to drive the 88 in the Clash. I said ‘OK, cool.’ So, I am very thankful for the opportunity. Dale’s been so great to me. I wouldn’t be here without him. He is the one that pointed me out when he wasn’t feeling good. I feel like I owe a lot to him, and I am very thankful for him to put me in the car for this race.”

Earnhardt was in the Fox Sports booth Saturday night, and he was in the NBC Sports booth when Bowman raced at Talladega Superspeedway last October.

“(Daytona) and Talladega, more than anywhere else, that adds a lot of pressure,” Bowman said. “He is such a good superspeedway racer. I feel like I do a good job, but I don’t have the experience he has by any means.

“So just trying to do my best and really lean on him for advice when I can.T.J. (Majors) is so good at spotting these races, and these race cars that Hendrick Motorsports brings to these races are so good, I feel like we can be up front all night. But it definitely adds some pressure to have probably the best speedway racer of our time in the booth calling the race.”

Watching Friday’s Clash practice at his house in North Carolina, Earnhardt said he was slightly antsy to “be out there learning something” but added he wouldn’t want to race with another crew chief besides Ives.

“There’s plenty of opportunities to run this week, and I’ll get enough laps,” he said. “I’m not going to be short of laps, but I’m not that upset to not be running the race.

“If there’s a race going on, it feels weird when I don’t run the Xfinity race here. It feels weird, you can’t help but not have some kind of a little part of you wanting to be out there and seeing the guys out there running and maybe your cars are out there running and (thinking), ‘Man, I would have done something different right there.’ It’s hard not to feel that way a little bit.”

Atlanta Motor Speedway to delay repave at least a year

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The cries of drivers have been heard. Atlanta Motor Speedway will not repave its track as previously scheduled. Instead, track officials will evaluate the surface following the 2018 race there.

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns the track, had planned to have the track surface repaved beginning in late March. It would have been the first repave there since 1997.

Engineers examined the track after the March 5 race to determine if the track surface could last another year with modest repairs. Track officials also consulted with Goodyear and others.

“There’s no question that the surface is worn out, but probably the most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C., was the biggest influence,” Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports of the drivers. “They kind of put the pressure on. I understand.”

After winning there, Brad Keselowski made his pitch not to repave the track.

“Drivers hate repaves,” he said. “We want to see the surfaces last as long as they can.  But the reality is nothing lasts forever, and this surface has made it a really, really long time, 20 years, I think, this season, and they should be really proud of that.

“My hope is they can get another year or two out of it, and I understand if they can’t, and you have to kind of leave it to their expertise and so forth.”

Clark said that work will need to be done to the track before next year’s race.

“The worst part is down the frontstretch in front of the grandstands,” Clark told NBC Sports. “There’s a lot of issues there. We’re actually going to have to cut a few areas and patch … to make it last through 2018. We consulted with Goodyear on that. They don’t think, as long as it is on the straightaway, it is a big issue from a tire standpoint.”

Clark said that the track surface will be sealed in October and should have the patching done before then.

“Let them go ahead and slip and slide one more time in 2018,” Clark said.

Clark said that while anything can change, he doesn’t foresee being talked out of a repave job too many more times.

“You have to see how the weekend goes and what happens,” Clark told NBC Sports. “We had to patch some places after the Saturday events this year, small places. Hey, if we could go two more, great. All you’ve got to do is walk out there and look at it. It is absolutely worn out. But if the drivers say, hey our choice is to race on this surface as it is.

“There comes a point (when a repave is needed). We do have a few drainage issues we do need to correct, some other things when the time comes. Right now, we’re going to get through 2018 and evaluate and see if that is the time or when is it.”

Clark said that when the track is repaved, Goodyear has expressed interest in having two test sessions to determine the proper tire for that 1.5-mile track instead of the customary one because of the track’s challenging surface.

Clark warns that with the excitement of Tuesday’s news, the day is still coming when the track will have to be repaved.

“I can’t see this going two more seasons, maybe only one,” Clark said.

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NASCAR America — My Home Track: 50 States In 50 Shows — Arkansas

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we continued our series of My Home Track: 50 States in 50 Shows as our trucks rolled into Arkansas!

We visited two short tracks in the state that produced President Bill Clinton and Basketball Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen.

Plus we talked to NASCAR Hall of Famer and Arkansas native Mark Martin about racing in his home state.

NASCAR America: Is there cause for concern with Jimmie Johnson’s performance thus far?

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It’s no secret that Jimmie Johnson is off to a slow start in 2017.

The defending and seven-time NASCAR Cup champion has a starting average of 21.8 and a finishing average of 18.8 in the first five races of this season.

He has just one top-10 finish (ninth at Phoenix), along with 34th at Daytona, 19th at Atlanta, 11th at Las Vegas and 21st Sunday at Fontana.

And let’s not forget he’s 17th in the NASCAR Cup standings heading to one of his strongest tracks, Martinsville Speedway, this Sunday.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, we discussed this: After such a slow start to the season, is there a cause for concern over Johnson’s performance?

NASCAR America: Mark Martin is definitely a Kyle Larson fan

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin shared his experience of racing in his home state of Arkansas, as well as the excitement he feels watching  Kyle Larson compete in the Cup series.