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.

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.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

 

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.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

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.