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Fans welcome Dale Earnhardt Jr. back to Daytona with open arms and high spirits

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With due respect to Chase Elliott for winning the Daytona 500 pole position, he wasn’t the main attraction for the few dozen fans gathered in victory lane after qualifying.

“Let’s go Junior! Whoo!”

“Go Dale!”

“Junebug!”

Finally a voice cut through the din with authority.

“Welcome back!”

Earnhardt, standing beside Elliott while posing for photos between their Chevrolets, lifted his Mountain Dew in tribute as the throngs heartily cheered.

“I had a real good time in the (TV) booth and just to be able to be at the track and be a part of it one way or another,” said Earnhardt, who helped call The Clash race on FS1 (Alex Bowman finished third in his No. 88 Chevrolet) before qualifying second Sunday in his official return to NASCAR. “It feels great. The fans have been super supportive throughout the whole process. I know there are a lot of folks happy to see us all back at the track. The team’s really geared up.

“It’s good to come out of here with a good result today, and we’ll try to build on that. It doesn’t guarantee anything going forward, but it certainly shows we’ve got speed in a straight line.”

After missing the second half of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion, Earnhardt will return to racing Thursday night in the second Duel qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway.

Though he’s been in the car since Saturday, the 14-time most popular driver had made only single-car runs to prepare for qualifying.

Earnhardt admitted he is “antsy to get in the draft and get in some pack racing” when cars return to the track Thursday with a practice at noon.

“I don’t know how much (drafting) we’ll get to do on Thursday aside from before the qualifying race,” he said. “But certainly I’m going to get in that qualifying race and mix it up with them guys. Hopefully we’ll have a good run.

“It’s a great little race car. Our backup car is great, too. You’ve got to kind of think about that backup car these days because there’s the potential to get your car tore up before you ever get it to the 500. We’ve got two great race cars and feel good about our opportunity come Sunday.

“We just hope we can get some time to work on our car in the draft and understand where the balance is (and) just whether we got the car handling where we want it.”

After winning the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014, Earnhardt is anxious to punctuate his return with another victory. He admitted to being so competitive about his comeback that he was a tad disappointed to be knocked off the pole by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

“Yeah, that’s the funny thing about racing is you realize being out of the car how much you might have took it for granted and then you just want to get back in,” he said. “And then when you get back in, you just want to win. Then when you get real close, you’re disappointed. But in the grand scheme of things, this is awesome.

“To be back in the car and be running well and have such a good day and to see (Elliott) do so well … it means a lot.”

Danica Patrick has a Daytona 500 team: Premium Motorsports

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The first piece of the “Danica Double” has been fully confirmed.

According to the Associated Press, Danica Patrick will drive the No. 7 Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports in next month’s Daytona 500. The AP reported that the car will be locked into the field through a charter and will receive engineering support from Richard Childress Racing.

Patrick entered NASCAR driving the No. 7 for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series from 2010-12. For the Feb. 18 race, she also will be reunited with crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who helped guide Patrick to her career-best NASCAR finish of fourth in a 2011 Xfinity race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The car will be sponsored by GoDaddy, which announced last week that it would sponsor Patrick in both this year’s Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. Patrick has yet to reveal which team she will drive for in the Indy 500, which will conclude her racing career.

She already has made history in both events.

As a rookie in 2005, she became the first woman to lead the Indy 500 before taking fourth (and became the highest-finishing female in the race’s history with a third in 2009).

In the 2013 Daytona 500, she became the first woman to win the pole position and lead a race in NASCAR’s premier series.

New details of road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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CONCORD, North Carolina — The Sept. 30 Cup race on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s road course will be on a slightly altered 2.28-mile circuit.

The race, which airs on NBC, will serve as the conclusion of the first round of the playoffs. It is the first road course race in the 14-year history of the playoffs.

The alterations shorten the original 2.4-mile, 13-turn layout of the circuit. The track is now 2.28 miles and 17 turns after the removal of two of the last three infield turns. There will be more than 35 feet of elevation changes between Roval Turn 4 – the lowest point in the track – and Roval Turn 9, the highest point.

A chicane has also been added to the backstretch right before the entrance of Turn 3 of the oval. The track is adding 440 temporary rumble strips.

The distance for the race will be announced at a later date.

NASCAR held a test on the road course last October with Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Hemric and Jamie McMurray. Busch suggested the elimination of those turns in order to “speed up the track.”

“There are a lot of slow sections with Turns 5, 6 and 7,” Busch said. “Those are good rhythmic corners. … (But) a 3,500-pound car going 35 mph too many times isn’t too exciting.”

Truex was part of Monday’s presentation and gave his thoughts on the change.

“The lap times were so long that we were going to be looking at a race that was, I don’t even know how many hours,” Truex said. “Way too long. Basically taking out those two turns cut out quite a bit of lap time off the laps. It’s more so like a regular road course like Watkins Glen … we’ll be in kind of that realm.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said that the race could be held at night if pushed back for various reasons. The race is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. ET.

“We’re working with the track who we believe will have something in place,” O’Donnell said. “Goodyear will be ready with rain tires if we had to make some adjustments.’’

There will be a Goodyear tire test in March and an open test for Cup teams in July.

O’Donnell said NASCAR is “comfortable” with the current layout of the course and that no changes are expected to be made following the tests.

NASCAR on NBC analysts Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton took a few laps around the new layout and shared their thoughts on Facebook Live.

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ThorSport Racing partners with Ford in Truck Series

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ThorSport Racing has partnered with Ford in a multi-year deal in the Camping World Truck Series, the team announced Monday.

The team’s announcement comes a week after it revealed the mutual decision to part ways with Toyota.

“With 23 years in the NCWTS, we look forward to our new partnership with Ford Performance in NASCAR,” team owner Duke Thorson said in a press release. “Our pursuit of wins and championships remains at the forefront of our objectives.”

ThorSport, based in Sandusky, Ohio, had been paired with the Toyota for six years, winning two titles with Matt Crafton.

“We’re excited that ThorSport Racing has decided to switch to a F-Series truck for the 2018 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports in a press release. “ThorSport is a proven championship-level team in the series, and we look forward to providing them the aero and simulation technical support that will ensure they remain at the top level of the Truck Series.”

In 2017, Brad Keselowski Racing fielded the only two full-time Ford entries in the series. That team shut down following the end of the season.

Crafton will be returning to ThorSport for his 17th season – and 14th consecutive – with the team. The rest of the team’s driver lineup will be announced at a later date.

The Truck Series season begins Feb. 16th at Daytona International Speedway.

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D.J. Kennington to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500 with Gaunt Brothers Racing

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Canadian driver D.J. Kennington will try to qualify for the Daytona 500 with Gaunt Brothers Racing for the second year in a row, the team announced Monday.

Kennington, a native of St. Thomas, Ontario, will drive the No. 96 Toyota sponsored by Lordco Auto Parts and Castrol.

The team, sponsor and driver combination made the 2017 edition of the race, making Kennington the first Canadian driver to compete in the Daytona 500 in 29 years.

Kennington started 28th and finished 36th following a multi-car crash at the start of Stage 2.

“Last year was an awesome experience for my sponsors, Lordco and Castrol, and me,” Kennington said in a press release. “We knew once it was over, we wanted to do it again. (Team owner) Marty (Gaunt) and everybody at GBR is pulling out all the stops for us this year. I’m looking forward to getting back behind the wheel of the Lordco/Castrol Toyota Camry and seeing the difference a year makes.”

The 40-year-old driver has five Cup starts with a best finish of 26th in last November’s race at Phoenix.

Gaunt Brothers Racing does not own a charter, meaning Kennington is not guaranteed a starting spot in the Feb. 18 Daytona 500.

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