Is the lead still the best place to be in final laps at Daytona?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The best place to be in the final laps? It might not be the lead anymore at Daytona International Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., among those who have preferred to lead so he can block the pack, admitted he might have to change his approach after going from first to sixth in the final two laps of his qualifying race Thursday night.

“I thought leading these races might be the place to be,’’ Earnhardt said. “We’re going to have to rethink that after watching how this played out.’’

Three of the last five Cup races run at Daytona International Speedway have seen a pass for the lead in the final two laps, going back to last year’s Daytona 500.

Denny Hamlin got a significant push from Kevin Harvick and charged on the outside on the final lap of last year’s Daytona 500. When Matt Kenseth went to block Hamlin in Turn 3, Hamlin dived shot underneath and nipped Martin Truex Jr. to win.

Last weekend’s Clash saw Joey Logano win after Brad Keselowski made a move under leader Denny Hamlin in Turn 2 and they made contact when Hamlin blocked late. That allowed Logano to scoot by on the outside and win.

Thursday night, Earnhardt led but the outside line made a run that he could not block with less than two laps left.

Earnhardt knew he was in trouble when Austin Dillon, running behind Hamlin, cleared Kyle Larson. Dillon and Larson, battling for third, had been side drafting each other and that stalled both lanes.

“Once (Dillon) got clear (of Larson), you saw him take off,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s just like he’s shot out of a cannon.’’

Although the race didn’t end as Earnhardt hoped, he was pleased with his first race since missing the final 18 races last year because of concussion symptoms.

“I felt great out there,’’ Earnhardt said. “I felt like I was processing everything the way I needed to. I felt like I knew where everybody was at all times around me, even those guys you can’t see. You’ve got to have that kind of sense of understanding where your competition was at all times. I never felt I was behind on my decisions (or) behind on processing what I wanted to do and what I saw happening. Those are really good things. Seems like my brain is working the way I want it to.’’

Earnhardt said one of his favorite parts of Thursday was driver intros.

“The emotional part was probably coming through intros,’’ he said. “I know Jr. Nation is behind me, but it’s awesome when your competitors’ fans are supportive as well. It just felt good. Everybody was happy we’re back and hearing that is really, really nice.’’

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NASCAR America: NASCAR’s stars hit the track for the ‘Little 600’ (video)

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Like more than three dozen of his NASCAR Cup counterparts, Joey Logano is gearing up for the longest race of the year, Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

To warm up, Logano, NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Darrell Wallace Jr. and other NASCAR drivers headed to the GoPro Motorplex in North Carolina for the “Little 600.”

Check out how they fared in the above video that was on Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America.

 

Coca-Cola 600 starting lineup

Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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CONCORD, N.C. — Kevin Harvick will start on the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, marking the second consecutive race at Charlotte Motor Speedway he has led the field to the green flag.

Harvick, a two-time Coke 600 winner, earned the top starting spot Thursday night with a lap of 193.424 mph in his Ford. He’ll be joined on the front row by Kyle Busch, who won last weekend’s All-Star Race.

Chase Elliott starts third and is followed by Matt Kenseth and rookie Erik Jones.

Points leader Kyle Larson will start 39th in the 40-car field after not making a qualifying attempt. He hit the wall in practice and then his team couldn’t get through qualifying inspection until one minute remained in the opening round of the session. The team was unable to get Larson out of the garage in time to make an attempt.

Click here for Coca-Cola 600 starting lineup

Slugger Labbe: How do crew chiefs prepare for grueling Coca-Cola 600? (video)

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Veteran crew chief Slugger Labbe stopped by the NASCAR America studio in Charlotte on Thursday.

Labbe gave his perspective on how NASCAR Cup crew chiefs will prepare for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. While the race length will be the same as it has been for decades, one significant change will have crew chiefs developing strategy that they’ve never had to deal with in the 600, namely, four different race stages.

Labbe also gave his take on the positives and negatives of the Laser Inspection Station for both pre- and post-race inspections.

Check out the above video.

NASCAR: Remembering Martin Truex Jr.’s dominating 2016 Coca-Cola 600 win

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In one of the most dominating performances in NASCAR history, Martin Truex Jr. turned last year’s Coca-Cola 600 into a runaway one-man show, leading the field for 392 of 400 laps.

Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America took a look back at Truex’s record-setting win.

Check out the video above.