Dale Earnhardt Jr. offers frank assessment on recent issues, NASCAR’s reaction and potential impact

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. questions what type of message NASCAR could be sending if it doesn’t further penalize Austin Dillon a week after not punishing Kyle Busch for swinging at Joey Logano.

Earnhardt made his comments Tuesday on his podcast, the Dale Jr. Download.

Earnhardt spent about 10 minutes on the topic, which branched out to how he would punish Dillon and NASCAR’s fluid enforcement of such issues through the years.

NASCAR parked Dillon after he pinned Cole Custer’s car against the wall in last weekend’s Xfinity race at Phoenix Raceway. Dillon retaliated for contact by Custer that wrecked Dillon. Custer apologized on the radio afterward and on social media. NASCAR is expected to reveal Wednesday if there will be any other penalties with the incident.

“This isn’t nothing against Austin or Kyle for that matter,’’ Earnhardt said on his podcast. “The only thing that I worry about really isn’t what the fans think about the penalties or to penalize or not to penalize, (or) whether the sponsors have a problem with their car getting penalized or not penalized, what I worry about is what do you want to happen in the future? Like next week, six months from now, a year from now.

“How do you want the next guy, the next driver that is in this situation, that is in Austin’s position, how do you want that driver to react? Do you want him to think that it’s OK to smash into this car?’’

A point that Earnhardt made in his podcast is that Custer is competing for the Xfinity points title, while Dillon is not.

VIDEO: When will Dale Jr. break his winless streak?

“Austin is a Cup regular in a series that is a privilege for the Cup regulars to run in,’’ Earnhardt said. “They’re limiting the opportunity for the Cup regulars in that series. It’s a privilege to be in that series, and I have an opportunity to run in it, so running into one of the regulars, I know you’re mad, should have probably punched him. Just don’t run into him.

“If punching is OK, obviously going and punching or karate chopping or karate kicking or roundhouse kicking somebody on pit road is fair game, but smashing into their car on the race track in between the flags has never been good.’’

Earnhardt’s comment was in reference to Busch’s actions after the Las Vegas Cup race earlier this month. After contact from Logano caused Busch to spin and go from a likely top-five result to a 22nd-place finish, Busch walked up pit road to Logano and swung at the driver.

Earnhardt also worries that if series officials allow drivers to be more confrontational, how that might impact younger drivers racing elsewhere with dreams of competing in NASCAR.

“These kids that drive these (Late Model) cars are usually as young as 13 years old, right?’’ Earnhardt said on his podcast. “Incredibly impressionable. If they’re seeing this on TV on Saturday and Sunday, they’re going to take that into their mind thinking that is how you do it, that’s OK, that’s acceptable. We don’t want these kids growing up with that mindset that, yeah man, I’m going to smash into this guy because I felt he wronged me.’’

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Earnhardt also said he would have a unique penalty for Dillon.

“You don’t have to go overboard on fines,’’ Earnhardt said. “Parking Austin wasn’t the thing to do. I would have probably fined him $5,000 and made him go do an appearance for an Xfinity race. Make him think about it during his out-of-market appearance promoting another Xfinity race, maybe next time he won’t do this. Plus, you get some free marketing out of it. You got a driver on the clock promoting the next race for free. It’s good for everybody.’’

If nothing else, Earnhardt said some sort of penalty would be good.

“Even if it is a slap on the wrist, at least it is sending a message that we really don’t want this to happen,’’ Earnhardt said. “I talked to NASCAR a little bit about this. Their position is that they don’t want a bunch of buddies out there racing around. They don’t want everybody all friendly and letting each other go and slapping each other on the back and all that stuff to the finish line. They want personalities. They want drama, but I think the drama belongs in between the flags.’’

But how NASCAR oversees the drivers has changed through the years, he admits.

“It seems like the sport goes through this ebb and flow of we’re going to let them have at it and let them do whatever they want, and then they flow into a couple of years of we’re going to penalize everything, we’re going to have a six-tier penalty system … and then it flows back to there’s too many penalties, we’re just going to let them do whatever they want to do.

“We keep cycling in and out of that, and we can’t really find some sort of happy, consistent medium. I don’t know. I’m disappointed when I see what happened with Kyle and Joey, and if Austin and all those guys, if some sort of repercussion isn’t delivered. It’s just disappointing.’’

Go here to listen Earnhardt’s podcast, which covers several other topics.

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Saturday’s NASCAR Cup, Xfinity schedule at Richmond

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Today is the midpoint of the racing weekend at Richmond International Raceway.

The NASCAR Cup Series will have two practice sessions, while the NASCAR Xfinity Series will have qualifying and then race in the Toyota Care 250.

Here’s how today’s schedule shapes up (all times are Eastern):

6:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

7:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Cup garage open

9 – 9:55 a.m. – Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

10:05 a.m. – Xfinity qualifying; three rounds/multi-car (FS1)

11:15 a.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

11:30 a.m. – 12:20 p.m. – Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

12:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

1 p.m. – Toyota Care 250; 250 laps/187.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Starting grid for Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond

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The Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway will begin Sunday with Matt Kenseth and Ryan Blaney on the front row.

They will lead a 38-car field to green in the ninth race of the Cup season.

Filling out the top five is Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

Click here for the full starting grid.

Denny Hamlin: Joe Gibbs Racing’s rebound won’t happen ‘overnight’ or ‘in a month’

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With NASCAR visiting a track where Joe Gibbs Racing has won the last three races, one of its drivers admits the issues that have plagued the team so far in 2017 won’t be remedied quickly.

“I think we are slowly getting better, we’re gaining more knowledge trying to figure out what it is that we need to work on,” Denny Hamlin said Friday at Richmond International Raceway. “It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen this week, it won’t happen in a month. Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better.”

Entering the Toyota Owners 400, Joe Gibbs Racing has yet to win race through eight events. All four of its drivers sit outside the top 10 in points. Hamlin was the last active JGR driver to win, winning last years’ regular season finale at Richmond.

The 2016 Daytona 500 winner is 15th in the standings and has yet to finish in the top five. By this point in each of the last two seasons, Hamlin had three top fives and one win.

“It’s always taken me a long time to get over winter break,” Hamlin said. “For whatever reason, it’s taking 10 races or whatever into the season to kind of hit my stride. I’m not really sure what it is. I try just as hard at the beginning as I do at the end. It just seems like that break in the offseason, it takes myself a little while to get over that hump, get in the flow of things. I’m not really sure.”

JGR is still learning about its new 2018 Camry bodies, which Toyota introduced this year. Furniture Row Racing, which is in a technical alliance with JGR, has one win with Martin Truex Jr. (Las Vegas), who is also third in points. Erik Jones is 13th in the standings with just one top 10.

Truex and Jones claimed the top spots in Friday’s only Cup practice session.

“We all get the same information,” Truex said Friday. “I guess at the end of the day it’s how you use it, how you put it to use. I think our team, (crew chief) Cole (Pearn), (engineer) Jazzy (Jeff Curtis), (competition director) Pete (Rondeau), our guys in general are just – right now we’re just clicking. We have a lot of confidence. Things are going well.”

Through eight races, there have been six different winners. NASCAR America analyst Steve Letarte has called this Sunday’s race “pivotal” for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I think our competition also did a phenomenal job over the off‑season of getting better,” Hamlin said. “They just showed up this year with just more raw speed than what they had at the end of last year. It’s the same drivers, same crew chiefs, but their cars are faster. That makes their job a whole lot easier. But these are the trying times, you could say, that defines your character. It makes you work hard. We were on top for probably a year and a half, every week having four out of five of the fastest cars each week. Sometimes we won, sometimes we didn’t. But we’re going to get better. We’re not on top right now, so we’ve got to work extra hard to get there.”

One piece of the JGR puzzle who has had to work harder is Daniel Suarez.

The defending Xfinity Series champion enters the ninth race of his rookie season 22nd in points. The biggest road block for him has been working with two crew chiefs. His initial partner, Dave Rogers, took an indefinite leave of absence following the West Coast Swing. Since then, the No. 19 team has been led by Scott Graves, who was Suarez’ crew chief last year during his title campaign.

“It’s been a lot going on for sure,” Suarez said Friday. “I felt like we were going in a good direction maybe a month and a half ago and then we had some changes that were out of our hands and I feel like we had to start again on these processes in the Cup car. Scott, he’s a very smart crew chief, he knows a lot and he has won two championships in a row in the Xfinity Series, but in the Cup car it’s different and he knows that and I’m learning that. I believe now we are learning together instead of I’m just learning myself.”

All of these comments were made Friday morning and afternoon. In the evening, Matt Kenseth did his part to turn things around for JGR by winning the pole for Sunday’s race.

It’s the first pole for JGR since the Kenseth claimed it last fall at Kansas Speedway.

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Matt Kenseth wins first pole of year for Toyota Owners 400

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For one afternoon at least, Matt Kenseth changed the conversation about Joe Gibbs Racing’s early season problems by winning the pole for the Toyota Owners 400.

Kenseth won his first pole of 2017 with a speed of 121.076 mph around Richmond International Raceway. It’s also the first pole for Toyota this season.

It’s Kenseth’s 19th Cup pole and his second at the .75-mile track (spring 2013). Kenseth’s previous best start this season was fourth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“Those guys did really a job adjusting between rounds,” Kenseth told Fox Sports 1. “We had enough speed in out Circle K Camry that we only had to do one lap in each of the first two rounds to get into the third round. … This year has not been a good year for us, obviously so far. … We haven’t been getting any stage points, we’re buried in the points back there. We finally got a decent finish last week (at Bristol).

“Hopefully this week we can start up front, stay up front and collect some stage points.”

Kenseth will try to extend JGR’s win streak at Richmond to four races.

Ryan Blaney qualified second with a speed of 120.854 mph.

“The last lap of the last section we moved up (the track),” Blaney told FS1. “I wish I had done it both laps of the last session. so I knew how hard to go. I was in there little bit shallow the second lap and I knew I regretted it right away … I guess a bunch other cars did that and they picked up. I don’t know where (Kenseth) ran. It was a solid effort.”

It will be Blaney’s third start from second this season, which is a fact that annoys the sophomore driver in the No. 21 Ford.

“I really want to race the Clash at Daytona, that’s like my biggest thing right now,” Blaney said. “It’s upsetting me that we can’t get a pole.”

Filling out the top five for Sunday’s race is Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

In his first race since announce his retirement following this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 12th.

Other notable starting spots: Chase Elliott (14th) Brad Keselowski (15th), Denny Hamlin (16th) Jimmie Johnson (17th) and Kyle Larson (18th).

Austin Dillon will start last as a penalty for failing pre-race laser inspection five times last week at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Click here for full qualifying results.