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Dale Earnhardt Jr. in ‘one hell of a hole’ in the points after Martinsville

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. thought Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway would be the “turning point” for his NASCAR Cup season.

Instead, Earnhardt said the No. 88 team is continuing to dig “ourselves one hell of a hole with this points situation.”

The Hendrick Motorsports driver shared his thoughts about his 34th place finish on Periscope a few hours after the race.

Earnhardt entered the event looking for his first top 10 of the season and he had the car to do it. Despite an average running spot of 14.5, Earnhardt was in the top 10 multiple times, even running in sixth at the end of the second stage.

But the team’s race unraveled multiple times before evaporating in radiator steam.

“Really disappointed today about how we finished because we definitely had a car that should have run in the top five,” Earnhardt said. “Haven’t been really that disappointed about where we finished before this season because we finished about where we should have. But this one sucks because anytime I finish where I don’t think I should have, I feel we didn’t do the job we should have done.”

The first dent in his day came on Lap 124 when Earnhardt went spinning down the backstretch as a result of contact with Ryan Blaney. Earnhardt’s car wasn’t damaged in the accident and he continued.

“I guess coming off Turn 4 at one point I squeezed (Blaney) into the wall,” Earnhardt said. “And I thought I about wrecked myself, because he about turned me into the fence. So I guess he got pretty pissed off about that. We come up off of Turn 2 and I spun the tires and had the car kind of sideways and he just kind of finished me off. He didn’t do me any favors there.

“Happy we didn’t hit anything when that happen. That would have pissed me off if we had hit something.”

It was the latest dust-up between the two drivers after they got into each other at Phoenix and Blaney cursed out Earnhardt on his scanner, which was highly publicized during the following week.

On Sunday night after the Martinsville affair, Earnhardt didn’t feel like talking to Blaney.

“Before I knew it, we were back in the top 15,” said Earnhardt, who picked up five stage points at the end of Stage 2 on Lap 260. “We had a fast car and it was fun as hell to drive.”

But that would be his high point.

During pit stops on Lap 394, Earnhardt and Aric Almirola were caught speeding on pit road, which sent them to the back of the pack.

“Everything was going decent until I sped on pit road and got ourselves back in the pack,” Earnhardt said. “I guess I can take a little bit of the blame for me getting torn up there at the end because we wouldn’t have been back there if we hadn’t sped.”

The No. 88 was torn up and Earnhardt’s day ended on Lap 418. That’s when a seven-car crash broke out in Turns 3 and 4. As cars ahead of him began getting collected, Earnhardt drove into back of teammate Kasey Kahne. The rear bumper of Kahne’s car broke through Earnhardt’s front end and “cracked” his radiator, causing a geyser of steam and an unrepairable car.

It also relegated Earnhardt to 25th in the points standings. He has 17 stage points heading to the last race before the Easter break, at Texas Motor Speedway.

“I’m glad we’ve got some speed,” Earnhardt said. “It gives me a little more confidence going into the next several weeks. We have dug ourselves one hell of a hole with this points situation with the way we’ve been finishing. We have to get our crap together. It starts this weekend, hopefully we get to Texas and get us a good run, damn.

“A little frustrating for sure. Martinsville’s a track I look forward to … I hate that I’m going to have to wait so long to get back there.”

Jeffrey Earnhardt, StarCom Racing part ways

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StarCom Racing and Jeffrey Earnhardt have parted ways, the team announced after Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway.

Earnhardt drove for the team in the season’s first five races. He finished 36th, 11 laps behind winner Martin Truex Jr. on Sunday. Earnhardt finished a season-best 21st in the Daytona 500 but did not score a top-30 finish in his other starts for the team, which is in its first year running the full schedule.

“I want to thank StarCom Racing for the opportunity to pilot the No. 00 Chevrolet,” Earnhardt said in a statement. “We are working hard on our sponsorship package and long-term plans, which unfortunately means taking a pause behind the wheel to take care of that business. I can’t thank Robert Stanners and the VRX Simulators group enough for getting our season started, and continuing to support my racing career. We anticipate that there will be some exciting news to be shared within coming weeks.” 

No driver for the No. 00 has been announced for this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. The team is leasing a charter from Richard Childress Racing this season and is guaranteed a starting spot for each points race.

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Jimmie Johnson breaks through with first top 10 of season

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Jimmie Johnson was finally relevant on Sunday.

The seven-time Cup champion started 33rd in the Auto Club 400, but was able to do two things he hadn’t done through the first four races of the season.

He earned his first stage points of the year, finishing fifth in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2.

A six-time winner at Auto Club Speedway, Johnson also earned his first top 10 of the season. His ninth-place finish snapped a career-worst streak without a top 10 at 10 races.

His last top 10 was October at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Johnson’s career-worst streak of races without a win now stands at 28.

“Each week we have been getting a little bit better,” Johnson said. “We are definitely not happy with where we are right now, but we are seeing the improvements, we have been seeing it internally.  We are making the cars drive better and better and we are getting more competitive. So, a strong day for the Lowe’s Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. We are not where we want to be but we are getting closer every week.”

Johnson and his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates had to overcome starting from the rear Sunday.

All four cars were among 13 that failed to get through qualifying inspection on Friday, preventing them from making a qualifying attempt.

Chase Elliott finished 16th, his worst result this year not related to a DNF for a crash.

Alex Bowman finished 13th, tying his best result of the season.

William Byron placed 15th.

Bowman and Byron remain without top-10 finishes this season.

Kyle Larson earns best finish of season after early contact with Kevin Harvick

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For the first time since June 2016, Kyle Larson was not the winner of a Cup race at a 2-mile speedway.

In Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Larson was knocked down a peg by Martin Truex Jr., finishing second for his best result through five races this season.

It ended a run of four consecutive races the Chip Ganassi Racing driver had won at either Auto Club or Michigan International Speedway.

Despite finishing one spot better than he started, the runner-up result was not a given for Larson.

He kept his No. 42 Chevrolet in one piece after contact with Kevin Harvick on Lap 39 that put Harvick in the wall. The two had been battling for third place when Harvick’s failed attempt to side draft brought the two together.

“It was a pretty tough race from the start,” Larson said. “Obviously, Kevin and I had our issue there down the backstretch, just racing hard, side drafting each other for a few laps. I think he came down to maybe side draft down me, got in my right rear, it spun him pretty quick.”

Larson thought Harvick would be mad at him, even though Larson knew he wasn’t at fault. But Larson “was able to chill out some” after being told Harvick was taking the blame.

Larson went on to finish sixth in the Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2.

But Larson had to pit a second time during the Stage 2 caution for a vibration, giving up eighth place.

“I haven’t exactly seen what broke,” Larson said. “Sounded like brake duct or something fell in between the wheel.  Yeah, I don’t know if that was something the pit crew guys hit and broke or whatever. I’m just glad I could feel it under that caution and was able to pit. That would have ruined our day, had I not.”

After fighting back to race among the leaders, Larson passed Kyle Busch for second with 19 laps to go. But Truex was roughly six seconds ahead.

“It was good to get all the way to second,” Larson said. “Would have liked to be one spot better, but we couldn’t even see Martin.”

Larson has finished in the top three in three of his five starts at Auto Club Speedway.

Larson has three top 10s and two top fives through five races. He is seventh in the points heading to Martinsville Speedway.

The No. 42 has been one of the few Chevrolet teams to consistently run up front with the new Camaro body since the Daytona 500. He was one of three Chevy drivers to finish in the top 10. Jimmie Johnson placed ninth and Austin Dillon finished 10th.

“It’s nothing I’ve found,” Larson said of the new body. “Our race team has a lot of smart people within our organization. Any time we had a rules change over the last three or four years, the one‑off weekends like Darlington or Michigan, our team would do a good job, we’d be fast those weekends.

“I think they just did a lot of homework on this new car. For whatever reason, we seem to be a little bit better than the other Chevy teams, which we were kind of last year, too.”

Larson was the only Chevrolet driver to win more than three races last season.

“I’ve been happy to see how we’ve started so far,” Larson said. “But we still have a little ways to go to win.”

Kyle Busch says he wasn’t approached for postrace interviews

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Kyle Busch was ready to answer questions after finishing third Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said there weren’t many.

Now he wants to ensure there will be in the future, lobbying for an expansion of postrace driver media availability.

In a series of tweets after the Auto Club 400, the 2015 Cup champion explained he was parked at the end of the pits because of unsecured lug nuts on his No. 18 Toyota. He apparently was approached there only by a reporter from the Motor Racing Network.

During its postrace coverage, Fox Sports said none of its reporters had talked with Busch, who has faced criticism before for electing to decline postrace interviews after tough finishes. His mic drop after finishing second in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 also caused controversy with Busch later explaining he is wired to be emotional.

Busch also wasn’t brought to the media center for the postrace news conference. NASCAR’s PR staff typically brings the winning team, runner-up and a third driver of its choosing that often is the best storyline (which is sometimes the third-place finisher).

Though Busch and Kevin Harvick would have seemed to be involved in the best storylines Sunday after race winner Martin Truex Jr. and runner-up Kyle Larson, fourth-place finisher Brad Keselowski was chosen as the third attendee.

“I’m not really sure why I’m here,” Keselowski said with a smile. “I finished fourth.”

Busch also seemed surprised he wasn’t chosen to attend the media center news conference.

He later advocated for mandating that the top three always are brought to the media center and also called on more clarity for postrace media obligations.

NASCAR declined comment on Busch’s remarks.

For the record (according to a Toyota release), here is what Busch responded when asked postrace about where Truex was beating him on the 2-mile oval: “Everywhere. Just thought we were closer than that but obviously not. We were right on top of (Truex) yesterday. The first run I thought we were really good and showed some strength but from there on out showed no strength.”

Armed with an apparently strong WiFi signal for his trip home to North Carolina, Busch was in a chatty mood on Twitter.

As Busch’s Twitter interactions grew (both with haters and fans) in the hours after the race, it caught the eyes of others in the NASCAR industry who were both amused and impressed.