Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s departure will be first among group that changed NASCAR

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They walked on to the screen in unison, fresh-faced, eager and so young.

They were the ones who would rock NASCAR’s establishment.

Now, they are ones moving one step closer to walking away.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement Tuesday that he’ll retire after this NASCAR Cup season foreshadows how one of the sport’s greatest collection of drivers will soon leave the sport.

From 2000-02, NASCAR’s rookie classes included Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Earnhardt.

Through a marketing campaign with Gillette, they were billed as the Young Guns. But they earned much more in the careers — wins, championships and accolades.

The six drivers have combined to collect 10 of the last 14 Cup titles and won 228 races, which includes nine Daytona 500s, eight Coca-Cola 600s, six Brickyard 400s and four Southern 500s (Earnhardt won two Daytona 500s).

Sooner than later, they will follow Earnhardt out of the sport.

Matt Kenseth

The 2003 champion, who is 45 years old, is the logical choice to retire soon. When Joe Gibbs Racing announced a press conference recently that involved Kenseth, fans speculated it was a retirement announcement. It was a sponsor announcement instead.

“As long as you guys have known me, if I was going to do something like that, I wouldn’t call a press conference for it,’’ Kenseth told the media that day. “I probably just wouldn’t show up at Daytona and just everybody say, ‘Was Matt racing this week?’ Or I’d send out like a four-word tweet.’’

The Hall of Fame will beckon when he retires. Kenseth, rookie of the year in 2000, has 38 wins, two Daytona 500 victories, a Southern 500 win and a Coca-Cola 600 win.

JIMMIE JOHNSON

The seven-time champion’s contract expires after this season but he’s given no indication of retiring. His next contract likely will take him to 2019 or 2020 and be his final driving contract in the sport.

Johnson, 41, said last month that he expects to have a contract extension announced “before long.’’

He’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection when he’s eligible. He scored his 82nd career Cup win Monday at Bristol. He has also won two Daytona 500s, four Coca-Cola 600s, four Brickyard 400s and 2 Southern 500s.

KEVIN HARVICK

The 2014 champion signed what the team called a “long-term” contract extension last year.

“I’m very happy to have my future secure with a team so dedicated to winning,’’ Harvick said at the time.

Another driver headed to the Hall of Fame after his driving career. Harvick, who is 41 years old, has 35 wins, which includes two Coca-Cola 600s and a Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and Southern 500 triumph. He also was the 2001 Rookie of the Year.

RYAN NEWMAN

His status was in question until signing a multi-year contract extension in October to remain at Richard Childress Racing.

The 39-year-old Newman won at Phoenix earlier this season. It was his 18th career Cup win. He has a Daytona 500 victory and a Brickyard 400 win. He has 51 poles, which ranks ninth on the all-time list. Newman beat Johnson to win the 2002 Rookie of the Year. Newman also likely will be a Hall of Fame selection after his career ends. 

KURT BUSCH

The youngest of the group at age 38. He won the Daytona 500 this year for his 29th career victory. The 2004 champion also has a Coca-Cola 600 win.

He likely will be the last of this group to retire and join them in the Hall of Fame. If he’s the last of this group to retire, he’ll close the chapter of a remarkable class.

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Podcast: Trevor Bayne needs to ‘rebuild his reputation’ as a driver

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In the wake of Wednesday’s announcement that Matt Kenseth would be returning to Roush Fenway Racing in a part-time capacity for the rest of the season, the odd man out was Trevor Bayne.

Kenseth and Bayne will share the No. 6 Ford with Kenseth making his 2018 debut May 12 at Kansas Speedway. What’s in store for them both beyond this season is unknown.

When Kenseth talked with NASCAR America’s Marty Snider after the announcement, he had yet to talk with Bayne about their new situation.

“I’ve known Trevor for a long time,” Kenseth said. “Trevor is a great, great guy. Nobody likes being in the spot he’s in necessarily right now. But I think after he thinks about it for a few days and what he really desires and what he wants out of it, knowing Trevor, I think he’s going to come in and work even harder and try to be better. So I’m looking forward to having that conversation.”

Bayne’s prospects going forward were discussed on the latest NASCAR America Debrief podcast episode with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte.

Both agreed the 2011 Daytona 500 winner will need to work to “rebuild his reputation” as a driver, with Letarte comparing Bayne’s potential future to the career of JR Motorsports’ Elliott Sadler and Earnhardt likening it to Justin Allgaier‘s.

“Trevor Bayne’s in a position much like Justin Allgaier was in years ago where he’s got a partner that believes in him in AdvoCare,” Earnhardt said. “If I’m him, I’m on the phone with them right now and talking to them, ‘Do you want to work with me in the future, we can go over here and look at this opportunity or look at this opportunity in Xfinity or the Truck Series,’ wherever it is. I would be trying to make sure I have a very strong relationship with them because that’s going to be the key to making any move to continue his driving career.

“He’s unlikely to get an opportunity that’s rewarding without some financial support.”

Earnhardt added: “He has to rebuild his reputation as a race car driver and that’s the only way to do it, is to go win races and run well.”

Letarte said he believes the situation between Kenseth, Bayne and Roush Fenway is “past awkward” given Bayne stats.

Bayne has run in the top 15 in 10.5 percent of the laps run this season. Bayne’s average finish is 23.9 — compared to 19.5 last year — and he ranks 25th in the series in average running position (23.0).

“I think if anybody finds this awkward, then shame on them,” Letarte said. “Let’s just be honest. Stats tell a pretty accurate story. Comparing your teammates, comparing the field, there’s a hundred different ways you can do this. If at any point Trevor Bayne is shocked or anything like that then shame on his own management team and Roush Fenway for leading him down this path of disbelief that everything was going to be ok. Should he be upset? Sure. Emotion comes into it. Is it going to be awkward the first time they meet? Yes. But I think Trevor Bayne should be and I will say is smart enough to realize, ‘the more awkward this is, the worse it probably is for me.’ ”

Letarte also assessed how he viewed Kenseth’s return for the future health of Roush Fenway.

“I love the fact that they didn’t try to put structure around everything,” Letarte said. “Not every road trip can be planned, A -to-B, every stop. Sometimes you have to say, ‘Hey man, it’s cold here, we’re heading south, we’re going to get on 85 and see where we go.’ And that’s what I heard from Roush Fenway. ‘Where we’re at is no good. We’ve been to the right and it’s no good, so we’re going to go to the left and that involves Matt Kenseth. But we are not going to put a lot of structure around this other than – we have a new partner with Wyndham Rewards, thank goodness for coming on board, we appreciate it; Matt Kenseth is going to drive some.’ What I heard: ‘I’m going to do more than just drive.’ Those are all the right things in my mind for a company the size of Roush Fenway’s to try and change directions.”

To listen to this week’s NASCAR America Debrief, click here for Apple Podcasts, here for Stitcher, here for Google Play, or play the Art19 embed below.

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NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr. reveals secret to Talladega success

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In Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Dale Earnhardt Jr. revealed the secret to his success at Talladega.

“I always made people feel like we were best friends until I didn’t need them anymore,” Earnhardt said. ”To win at plate races, you’ve got to be everybody’s best friend and then turn around and be the biggest jerk you’ve ever been in your life when it matters.”

Describing his 2003 victory in the Aaron’s 499 – his fourth straight win at Talladega SuperSpeedway – Earnhardt walked Jeff Burton, Steve Letarte and Rick Allen through a play-by-play of what he was doing during the final five laps.

Some highlights include:

“I’m getting ready to get some good help from behind. The 48 looks like he’s in trouble, but he jumps in front of the 22 and they get a real good push down the back straightaway. Now, I’ve got no help. I’m freaking out a little bit because their run looks pretty good on the outside.”

“Here, they’re trying to pin me behind the 16, but I wasn’t having anything to do with that and that hurt Ward (Burton) a little bit.”

“I pushed Matt (Kenseth) up way far, so the 48 is waiting, waiting, waiting. They’re thinking about side drafting each other a little bit, but they’re not too sure. Matt goes up there to side draft now, not really paying attention to me. Here I come with a great push from Elliott Sadler to get by them both. That was just luck that Matt wasn’t really paying attention there.”

“I stay in the gas. I never really rode the brake to back myself up to anybody. I always just waited on them to get to me. If I needed the pack to get closer, I would take a longer route; just drive higher in the corner.”

For more insight into Earnhardt’s secret to success, watch the above video.

NASCAR America: Matt Kenseth and Roush Fenway Racing fit perfectly

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Matt Kenseth assuming the driver duties of the No. 6 may be only a part of his future with Roush Fenway Racing.

“Obviously my driving is not the long-term answer for the 6 car,” Kenseth said to NBC’s Marty Snider during Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America. “Probably will be for the foreseeable future, but not a long-term answer. So I’m looking forward to seeing who the next guys are. Seeing if I can help Trevor, if I can help Ricky – and see if I can be a part of the company, making it better.”

And it was that last comment that raised the eyebrows of the panelists.

“We’ve heard Jack talk recently in the press about how he’s on a transition out of the company,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “He’s looking for somebody or some kind of group of people to come in and carry this company forward. And this could be the first domino, I guess, in that transition.”

Jeff Burton, who raced for Roush from 1996 through August 2004 knows the passion former drivers for the organization still have.

“I wasn’t surprised that Matt said ‘I’m still a part of Roush Racing,’ because of the way Jack runs that program,” Burton said. “When you’re one of his drivers, you’re one of his drivers. He gives you a lot of rope and it makes you take ownership in that company.”

Kenseth’s value to the organization does not only come from the results he will give them on the track, but rather in how he helps them identify potential issues that need to be fixed. As an 18-year veteran, he is the franchise driver they have been looking for – basically since he left Roush after the 2012 season.

“I will raise my hand as one of the people that were very concerned we wouldn’t see a Roush Fenway in four or five years,” Steve Letarte said. “Because, I know they have been trying to get better, but going about it in a way that didn’t excite me. I heard a lot of the same names, a lot of the same people.”

“I was concerned the ingredients were already in the bowl at some point and it didn’t work. When you look at Matt Kenseth, I think he can come in there on a Tuesday and say ‘guys, it’s not motor, it’s aero. Guys, it’s not aero, it’s pit stops.’ He has nothing to prove in his career like the two young drivers do.”

When Kenseth announced his retirement last year, he said he would only return if the opportunity was the right one.

“It’s not just about driving,” Kenseth said. “If it was just about driving, I probably would have been at Daytona. But there’s a lot of other things in the organization. I feel they are definitely on the upswing from where they were two years ago. Even last year, to now. I feel like the cars are running better. I think we’re going to run OK, and I think I can help the organization keep getting stronger.”

Watch the above video for more commentary.

NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr. explores concussion recovery in new book

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A year to the day after announcing he would retire from full-time NASCAR competition, Dale Earnhardt Jr. revealed an upcoming book about his experiences with concussions, notably the one in 2016 that nearly ended his career.

“Racing to the Finish: My Story” is co-written by ESPN’s Ryan McGee and is scheduled to be published Oct. 16. You can pre-order it now.

Earnhardt revealed the book Wednesday on NASCAR America and explained the inspiration behind it.

The 15-time most popular driver missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season after he began experiencing concussion-like symptoms during the July race weekend at Kentucky Speedway. The symptoms stemmed from a wreck at Michigan International Speedway three races earlier.

Many of the details in the book come from a journal Earnhardt began keeping during his first concussion experience in 2012.

“I don’t think nobody outside (wife) Amy and my doctor knows exactly everything that went on, and how bad it was” Earnhardt said. “There’s a couple of reasons I wanted to write this book. My fans ask me all the time about why I retired early from driving when I probably had a couple of more years. I think this will answer all those questions.”

Earnhardt hopes the book will also help those who have gone through similar situations and felt “helpless.”

“There’s some really, really bad moments, very dark moments,” Earnhardt said of his recovery. “There’s some helpless moments. You want to give up. Luckily, I had a really good doctor that I could call at any hour of the night and talk me off this ledge and help me understand that this is going to get better and tell me that you’ve fixed this in someone else.”

Earnhardt was open during his recovery process, posting videos of himself taking part in exercises to show what he was doing to get back to full strength.

“When I was writing all those notes, I didn’t know why I was writing them other than I was scared of what I was feeling and what I was going through,” Earnhardt said. “If something were to happen to me where I couldn’t articulate these experiences, there they would be.”

Even before his 2016 concussion, Earnhardt revealed he would donate his brain to CTE research.

Watch the above video for more.