Bump & Run: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s start; Repercussions of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s bump

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Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton, who will be on NASCAR America from 6 – 6:30 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long in discussing key subjects in NASCAR in this week’s Bump & Run.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 25th in the points and has not finished better than 14th in a race this season. While most figured it would take some time for him after missing half of last season, what kind of concern is there with how the No. 88 team has started the season?

Jeff Burton: My concern is that it seems to be a Hendrick problem as well. Chase Elliott, the way I see it, is by far the best-running Hendrick car. You have Chase and that team and the other three aren’t performing. That’s my larger concern. Where is the help coming from to get Junior and his team where they need to be? I think there’s real reason for concern. You look at where they are in points. You look at where they are running in the race. It hasn’t been good so far. Certainly got to find a way to be better. Everybody obviously wants to make the playoffs. Right now, their best shot is going to be pointing their way in or Daytona or Talladega. I haven’t seen anything that tells me they’re fast enough to win a race. Certainly time, but they’ve got to get going.

Steve Letarte: The goal, obviously, is to get off to a good start. The concern, more than about where they’re finishing, is how their speed stacks up. At Daytona, they had good speed. At Martinsville, they had good speed, but there have been some other tracks where they have been mired back there in maybe sixth to 15th. I don’t think there should be grave cause for concern at this point, but you never want to use your mulligans early. That’s what I look at. They’ve kind of used their mulligans early. Can he make the playoffs? It has yet to be seen over the course of the summer, but everyone with that type of resources are afforded a couple of hiccups, and I think this team has used most of those early in the season.

Nate Ryan: He ran well at the Daytona 500 before crashing, so he still could make the playoffs via Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway. There naturally must be some concern, but the mitigating circumstances here (Dale Jr.’s return from a half-season layoff; Hendrick Motorsports still working to find its groove across the board) should quell some of the angst about an inauspicious beginning to 2017 for the No. 88 Chevrolet. Earnhardt qualified well at Phoenix Raceway and seemed to be improving at Martinsville Speedway before a wreck.

Dustin Long: Dale Earnhardt Jr. understands his predicament, saying in a video after the Martinsville race that he’s in “one hell of a hole” in points. Worse, he’s not shown the speed teammate Chase Elliott has or even Jimmie Johnson has on a consistent basis. The benefit is that there’s still many races left before the playoffs. He has some time, but this team needs to show more in the coming weeks, or the pressure will build.

Kyle Busch was not pleased about how Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moved him out of the way and cost him a stage victory — and a playoff point — at Martinsville. Busch said “Race car drivers are like elephants, they remember everything.’’ What should Stenhouse expect from Busch?

Jeff Burton: The same that he was willing to give Busch. There is no rule that says you can’t do what Stenhouse did, but there is a consequence. When you make that move, it can come with a price. It’s a huge difference being the free-pass car and being on the lead lap at Martinsville. It’s a big difference, huge difference from wherever he started to being the last car on the race track. Now you’re worried about getting lapped again. I understand why Stenhouse did what he did, and I also understand why Busch is upset about it. The thing that always interests me about things like that is that everybody is watching. It’s not just the driver that you moved out of the way, it’s all the other drivers watching, saying, ‘Stenhouse is willing to move him out of the way, so he would be willing to move me out of the way.’ There’s no rule. Drivers have to develop their own code of what they think what is acceptable, but then they have to be willing to live by that code when it happens to them.

Steve Letarte: I think if you are Stenhouse, as you race around him, you have to understand there’s going to be very little give and take. I think Ricky is one of the first drivers, and we’ll continue to see it, it’s going to redefine how you race the leader. That’s what happens when you have a guaranteed yellow. You know you’re coming to the yellow. That’s not a move Ricky Stenhouse makes in the middle of a green-flag run, but he knows he’s coming to the end of the stage, and he wants to save his lap. I think it’s healthy for NASCAR when Ricky Stenhouse puts himself and the effort of Roush Fenway ahead of racing with great etiquette. He even said that was a turning point in the race for him. I think he needs to understand that he now has set the bar of what is acceptable racing, so I wouldn’t expect a lot of room when racing Kyle.

Nate Ryan: He probably will expect a bump or worse the next time they are racing for position, and Stenhouse likely won’t be grousing about it. He understands that turnabout often is fair play in racing.

Dustin Long: He should expect what he gave Busch and likely more. The key is Busch won’t pay Stenhouse back until it hurts Stenhouse like Busch felt losing the stage and one playoff point could hurt him.

With six of 26 regular-season races complete (nearly a quarter of the regular season), what’s something that stands out to you that people might not be talking about as much?

Jeff Burton: I think that Daniel Suarez has been very quiet in being effective. I know coming off of Martinsville, where he had a terrible weekend, it’s easy to forget that. No one is really talking about Daniel Suarez and how he replaced Carl Edwards. He replaced one of the biggest names in the sport. Cup is way harder than Xfinity. In my world, those seventh-place finishes at Auto Club and Phoenix and even in the races prior to that, he sneakily was effective. I personally like rookies whom you kind of look up to at the end of the day and say, ‘Hey, he finished eighth. He finished 10th.’ I think he’s done a better job than the points say.

Steve Letarte: I think the major shift in young drivers. Kyle Larson is highlighting that class, but his unbelievable start has overshadowed some really good runs. Erik Jones has been very good. Ryan Blaney has been very good.

Nate Ryan: The performance of rookie Erik Jones. Some insiders probably would say he has been as impressive as Kyle Larson through the first six races of his first full season in Cup.

Dustin Long: Clint Bowyer has been Stewart-Haas Racing’s top finisher in three of the last four races. After his dreadful year last year with an underfunded team, Bowyer is being rewarded for his patience.

Watch Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton on NASCAR America today from 6 – 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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.

 

Will Carl Edwards return? Denny Hamlin gives his odds of it happening

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What are the odds Carl Edwards returns to NASCAR after announcing in January he would not drive full-time?

“I would just be guessing, but I would say 50 percent,’’ former teammate Denny Hamlin said Friday at Richmond International Raceway — site of where Edwards scored one of his three Cup victories last season. “I think that Carl is a competitor. At his age (37), I’d find it hard to believe that he would just step away and not do it ever again.

“I think him leaving the window open in his press conference to say he’s not retiring, he’s just stepping away, I think it depends. I don’t know. Has anyone found out whether he’s having a good time right now or not? I think that would tell the story about whether he’s interested in coming back or not. From what I hear from all the retired drivers, it’s awesome for like a few months – then you kind of get bored a little bit.”

Earlier this week, Edwards responded by text to NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan on if he was interested in the No. 88 car after Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he would retire from the Cup series after this season.

Texted Edwards: “You may have it mixed up. I’m recruiting Dale to drive a tractor!”

Edwards also said that he was happy for Earnhardt and that it would be a great ride for someone.

Edwards announced in January that he would not race full-time in NASCAR this year, adding: “If I’m going to get back in a race car, which I’m not saying the R word (retirement) here, I’ve seen how that’s worked out for guys, but if I’m going to get back in a race car, I’m calling Coach (Joe) Gibbs first.’’

Edwards also said in January: “I don’t have any intention of going back to full‑time racing. I don’t have a plan to drive a race car right now. I just know how things work, and if it comes up and the right opportunity is there and at that moment, it’s the right thing, then for sure I’d entertain it. But like I said, the first person I’d talk to is Coach.’’

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