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No doubt about it: Dale Jr. is back to his old self, drivers say

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With apologies to The Who, meet the new Dale Jr., same as the old Dale Jr.

That’s what some of Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s fellow drivers said during media sessions Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

When asked if Earnhardt has gotten back into the groove after missing the second half of the 2016 season (18 races) and a slow start in 2017, Kurt Busch and seven-time and defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said there’s no question.

“My little brother was out for 11 races in 2015 and you could see a little bit of the rust the first couple weeks, and I think we all saw that with Junior the first couple of weeks,” Kurt Busch said. “But by Vegas and especially with what he did at Texas last week, he’s back.”

Earnhardt finished fifth at Texas, his best result since a runner-up finish at Pocono in June

While Earnhardt had time away due to concussion-like symptoms, he also needed time back behind the wheel to return to his old self.

“There are things that you need to do personally and then there are things the sport has done while you were gone because there are notes that we have from nine months ago that we look at and kind of giggle like, ‘Oh, wow. We ran that setup? We haven’t done something like that in a long time,’ ” Busch said of Earnhardt.

Busch then added, “For him to take off half a season, yes, there’s things he needed to do, but also the team was evolving and he needed to adapt to those setups as well as what he needed to do personally. Yeah, you’re right. We see things on track and he was making moves at Texas and I’m like, ‘Yeah, he’s back.’”

Someone who has an even closer perspective on Earnhardt’s comeback is Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

Earnhardt said during Speedweeks in Daytona that he acknowledged his comeback could take time.

“He is right with that,” Johnson said. “When you miss that much time from the car, the sport changes. Your sensitivity to what you feel in the race car kind of fades and to be as sharp as you need to in order to find five-hundredths of a second to be competitive it’s tough and it takes reps.

“I see where he is coming from and why he made that comment in February. I can’t say that it’s crossed my mind watching him this year. He seems very comfortable in there, but to go to Texas two weeks ago and for him to run as competitive as he did at a treacherous track, I mean your sensitivity to the car and sliding the tires needed to be as sharp as ever.

“I think that is a great indication of him finding that last little bit and he is ready to go to Victory Lane.”

One other way Johnson knows Junior is back is he’s returned to his previous role as a practical joker, including how he ribbed Johnson for having to take intravenous solution after winning at Texas.

“Yeah, the three IV bags did wonders,” Johnson said. “After leaving the media center … I started my off-weekend quickly that night and proceeded to chase out the pain with as many margaritas and beers as I could down in Mexico.

“I recovered well, but unfortunately came back sick from Mexico and I’m just on the tail end of that now.

“If you are going to play, you are going to pay, I guess at the end of the day (laughs). I just started catching wind of (Earnhardt’s) harassment. I’m waiting for my moment to strike back.”

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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.