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Dale Earnhardt Jr. prepares for 600th Cup Series start

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In the history of NASCAR, there have been 2, 537 drivers who have made at least one start in the Cup Series.

Only 24 drivers have made 600 or more starts.

On Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will join their ranks.

Eighteen years into his full-time Cup career, Earnhardt will take the green flag for the 600th time in the Auto Club 400.

It will make Earnhardt just the second active driver to reach 600 starts. Matt Kenseth is the other with 618 starts.

Earnhardt’s first Cup start occurred in the 1999 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the first of five starts in 1999. A year later, Earnhardt won his first Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway in only his 12th start.

In his 599 starts so far, the 14-time most popular driver has 26 wins, 148 top fives, 252 top 10s and 13 poles. His average finish is 15.6.

The achievement comes months after it originally would have taken place.

Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season as he recovered from a concussion. Had he not suffered the injury, Earnhardt’s 600th start would have been in last August’s night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver heads to Fontana this weekend looking to jump-start a season that’s gotten off to a rough start.

Earnhardt is 23rd in the point standings after not recording any top 10s or top fives through four races.

Sunday’s race will be Earnhardt’s 24th start at the 2-mile speedway. He’s earned five top fives at the track with a best result of second in 2013.
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Yes, there is NASCAR racing Sunday: Xfinity entry list for Road America

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Who says there’s no NASCAR racing this weekend?

Sure, the NASCAR Cup and Camping World Truck Series will enjoy the weekend off, but not the Xfinity Series.

Drivers in that series will be competing Sunday at what has become one of the most challenging and popular road courses on the Xfinity schedule: the twisting 4.048-mile road course at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

A total of 42 cars are listed on the preliminary entry list released Monday.

Only 40 cars will qualify to race in Sunday’s Johnsonville 180 (3 p.m. ET on NBC). This will be the third road course the series has raced on in the last four races.

One driver position and one crew chief position remain to be filled.

  • Team JD Motorsports has not named a driver for the No. 15 Chevrolet.
  • And the No. 172 Chevrolet, driven by John Jackson and owned by James Carter, has yet to name a crew chief for the race.

This will be the eighth Xfinity race at Road America since the series first visited there in 2010.

The winners since then have been Carl Edwards (2010), Reed Sorenson (2011), Nelson Piquet Jr. (2012), A.J. Allmendinger (2013), Brendan Gaughan (2014), Paul Menard (2015) and Michael McDowell last year.

Click here for the preliminary entry list for Sunday’s Xfinity race at Road America.

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NASCAR America: Erik Jones ‘has to be put on the radar for Darlington, Richmond’ (video)

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Like a stealthy cat sneaking up on a mouse, Erik Jones has been riding under the radar the last four races.

Few may realize that he’s had a pair of top-10s (8th at Pocono; 10th at Watkins Glen) and back-to-back career bests in his last two starts (tied his previous career best with a 3rd-place finish at Michigan, and then was runner-up Saturday at Bristol).

“It’s just been a consistent upward trend from the start of the year,” Steve Letarte said on Monday’s NASCAR America.

Not only did Jones finish second to winner Kyle Busch at Bristol, he also started from the pole and led 260 of the 500 scheduled laps (while Busch led 156).

“I thought he did such a good job,” Jeff Burton also said on Monday’s episode of NA. “He didn’t lose the race because of a mistake, they just got out-run by someone who’s real, real good at Bristol.”

With Darlington and Richmond still ahead to make — or miss — the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Letarte said Jones can readily win either of those races.

“We’re forced to put him on our radar for Darlington,” Letarte said. “Maybe, maybe not, it’s a tough race track. We’ll see, first time there in a Cup car.

“But Richmond, this is a short track racer going to a short track. I don’t know if Erik Jones can be ruled out at any of the upcoming two tracks.”

If the young Michigan native, who is also the leading candidate for NASCAR Cup rookie of the year, does win at either Darlington or Richmond, he could ultimately have a profound impact on the playoffs.

A win at either track would serve to potentially eliminate the likes of Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and maybe even Chase Elliott, who are all above the cutoff line to make the playoffs.

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Long: Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch is what NASCAR needs

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For as much as Kyle Busch’s sweep of the Truck, Xfinity and Cup races at Bristol Motor Speedway turned some fans off, it was what NASCAR needed.

Even better, Busch understood.

After he won Saturday night’s Cup race, Busch goaded booing fans by putting his fingers to his ears, prompting more catcalls.

He walked to the back of his car and raised three fingers — for his three wins last week — as the boos (and cheers) grew louder.

And he smiled, a winner’s grin but also one of somebody who proved the doubters wrong. Again.

Part superstar, part showman.

The good guy to his fans, Busch also can be cast as the villain to the rest of the fanbase. He’s accepted that role, embraced it and learned how to egg on the haters in the stands and the trolls on social media. 

Sports is about us against them. While fans have their favorite drivers and teams, there remains the need to root against someone or some team. Without that distinction, sports would be as anticlimactic as a youth game — pick the sport: baseball, football, basketball, etc. — where no score is kept. That’s called recess.

Without Kyle Busch, who would make sane people insane and cause alcohol-fueled fans to do things they tell their children never to do? The new drivers haven’t been around long enough to anger the fan base. Maybe Kurt Busch could fill the role because anyone with the name Busch is more inclined to be booed. There are other drivers who have their detractors but not as much as Kyle Busch based on the visceral reaction he gets at many tracks.

“The best of the best that have won here have been booed … for a long, long time,’’ Busch said after his second Cup win of the season. “So I’m fine with that.’’

Busch follows a history of drivers that fans loathed (and some loved). Before Busch, it was Tony Stewart. He inherited the mantle after Dale Earnhardt, who took it from Darrell Waltrip and so on.

Earnhardt made the image of a villain into a cottage industry. For every boo and middle finger he received, he just smirked and kept on winning, infuriating his haters and thrilling his fans.

When Earnhardt was introduced before races, many fans didn’t sit. They stood to cheer or show how much they despised the seven-time champion.

Rarely was the anger as intense as the 1999 Bristol night race when Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte out of the lead on the final lap. Earnhardt said he “meant to rattle his cage.’’ Didn’t matter. Boos cascaded down the packed stands. Several minutes later, the track replayed the radio broadcast of the final laps on the P.A. system and when it came to the moment Earnhardt turned Labonte, a heavy chorus of boos reverberated throughout the stands from fans not yet ready to leave.

At 32 years old, Busch can grow more into such a role for years to come. And win more than his one championship.

Having not yet reached his prime, Busch is likely to keep winning — Saturday was his 40th Cup victory to tie Mark Martin for 17th on the all-time wins list. At his current rate, Busch will climb into the top 10 wins list before he retires. Busch can further irritate fans by also winning Truck and Xfinity races.

Us against them.

Yes, Busch will make fans cheer and boo for years to come.

“I’m sure they’re still booing, whining and crying all the way home tonight,’’ Busch said well after his win Saturday night. “They’re driving home mad, so people be careful.

“But, you know, my people get to go home safe and secure and slow and steady and patient because they get to celebrate.’’

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NASCAR America live 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Kyle Busch sweep recap, Erik Jones

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Today’s edition of NASCAR America airs from 6 to 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Kelli Stavast joins Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte from NBC Charlotte.

On today’s show:

  • For just the second time in NASCAR history, a driver was able to win in all three national series in a single race weekend. In both occurrences, the feat was performed by the same driver, Kyle Busch, and at the same venue, Bristol Motor Speedway. Busch collected his first sweep in 2010, and came back to do it again this past weekend at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile. We’ll hear from Kyle after his victory on Saturday and examine how this affects the current playoff picture.
  • Erik Jones did everything in Saturday’s Bristol Night Race but win. It was a great weekend for the rookie NASCAR Cup driver from Furniture Row Racing. The leading contender for Cup rookie of the year earned his first pole, led a race-high 260 laps, but finished second to Kyle Busch. How soon will it be before Jones gets to victory lane? Our panel discusses that.
  • Eclipse fever has spread to NASCAR. We’ll take a look at how drivers and tracks appreciated this natural phenomenon today.
  • We interview Kyle Larson at today’s announcement of a new sponsor at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com.

If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.