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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Dale Earnhardt Jr. credits Jimmie Johnson for top 10; congratulates Austin Dillon for Coke 600 win

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CONCORD, N.C. – On the night the number synonymous with his legendary father returned to victory lane, Dale Earnhardt Jr. found some consolation in his final Coca-Cola 600.

Earnhardt placed 10th in the circuit’s longest race, his best showing since a fifth in the April 9 race at Texas Motor Speedway. He improved a spot to 23rd in the points standings after a dismal showing by his No. 88 Chevrolet in last week’s All-Star Race.

“The car got better last couple of runs,” Earnhardt said. “We made a lot of changes, and some of them (were) working pretty good.  We would have liked to have run a little bit better than that for sure.  We think we should be running in the top five every week as a team, so that is still not really good enough, but compared to last week it’s a huge improvement.”

Earnhardt credited some of the improvement to teammate Jimmie Johnson, who finished 17th after his No. 48 Chevy ran out of fuel while leading with two laps remaining.

“He was communicating with me all week, calling me, talking on the phone,” Earnhardt said. “He would come across the garage and get in my window even during practice.  Get out of his car and come talk to me.  What a great teammate. I hated to see him run out of gas.”

But he was happy to see the win by Austin Dillon in the No. 3 Chevrolet that was driven by his father. Richard Childress Racing sidelined the number from February 2001-14 after the seven-time champion’s death on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

“Congratulations to Austin, man, that is awesome for RCR and Richard,” Earnhardt said. “Anytime they can win, it’s pretty cool.”

Earnhardt will get one more shot to win at Charlotte. In 34 starts at the 1.5-mile oval, he has a career-best third in the 2015 Coca-Cola 600.

Martin Truex Jr.: VHT ‘a huge factor’ in Coca-Cola 600 — but wouldn’t work as well elsewhere

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CONCORD, N.C. — Though the rain paid a visit to the Coca-Cola 600, the traction agent applied high in the corners of Charlotte Motor Speedway was a “huge factor” in NASCAR’s longest race, according to Martin Truex Jr.

Truex, who led a race high 233 laps, lauded the VHT chemical used to improve racing at the 1.5-mile track after a dud of an All-Star Race.

“I think last weekend the middle groove, middle to high middle, was nonexistent,” Truex said after finishing third early Monday morning. “It was the slickest part of the racetrack.”

But that changed Sunday. Following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, NASCAR and the track reapplied refresh coats of VHT to the upper grooves in the turns after consulting drivers and crew chiefs. Even after a downpour swept over the track on Lap 143, Truex said the traction compound was a factor for 375 of the race’s 400 laps.

“It was the main groove,” Truex said of the higher grooves. “Where typically there is the least grip (there) on this racetrack, it was the most tonight. It definitely played a factor. It changed the race quite a bit. I think the downforce rules this year changed it quite a bit as well. The bottom of the racetrack is so bumpy and so slick, I’m telling you after 10 laps it’s all you can do to make laps without crashing down there.

“It definitely changed the race tonight. It made it a lot of fun. I thought it was a good addition.”

Winner Austin Dillon thought the VHT – also known as PJ1 TrackBite – benefited the race. But the Richard Childress Racing drive would like to see a change in where the agent is applied to the track surface.

“The middle groove had a lot of speed, took away from the bottom,” Dillon said. That’s usually dominant here. The bottom got good again. After the rain, the bottom was pretty dominant. As the race went on, I could actually see the VHT leaving the track. It was getting clean higher and higher.

“We’ve got something there as far as trying it. It’s not a bad thing. I really think we should try it more often. I think the next thing you look into is the placement of it. I feel like we needed more on the very top because the middle was really dominant, but you couldn’t really get into the top of it like you needed to. That would be my next shot at it. It’s not a bad thing at all. I like it.”

What’s next?

The chemical has been used on the concrete high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway and the asphalt of Charlotte and been mostly praised.

Should it be tried at any other tracks on the NASCAR circuit?

“I don’t think so,” Truex said. “I think this track is so unique, the pavement here, the geometry of the racetrack, the bumps that are in it. It’s almost got a concrete feel the way the bumps are. They’re really, really small, high‑frequency bumps, almost like a washboard, kind of the feeling you get at Dover (International Speedway). Most asphalt tracks are not bumpy that way. They’re more of a swell. The car kind of goes through swells, a place like (Chicagoland Speedway) or Atlanta (Motor Speedway).

“It’s very, very different here. The pavement is different than anywhere we go. The bumps in the racetrack are way different than anywhere we go. I think both of those things kind of contribute to us needing to do some different things here to change-up the racing.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends Kyle Busch’s surly mood after the Coca-Cola 600

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CONCORD, N.C. – A second-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 left Kyle Busch in an irate mood, which is perfectly fine, according to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

A seemingly agitated Busch, cupping his face in his hands after sitting down, entered the media center at Charlotte Motor Speedway Center shortly after 12:30 a.m. Sunday. It was roughly 10 minutes after Austin Dillon scored the first victory of his career in NASCAR’s premier series by stretching his final tank of fuel for 70 laps.

Was Busch surprised that Dillon made the checkered flag? What did it mean for a driver to get his first win?

“I’m not surprised about anything,” Busch snapped. “Congratulations.”

He dropped the mic on the dais. There were no further questions. (The video is available above).

Shortly afterward on Twitter, Earnhardt took up for his peer (whom he replaced at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008).

Busch, who hasn’t won since last July at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (a span of 28 races) gave more elaborate answers shortly after exiting his No. 18 Toyota, which finished 0.835 seconds behind Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet.

He apparently didn’t realize until late in the race that his pass of Martin Truex Jr. (who led a race-high 233 laps) with a lap remaining was for second instead of the victory.

“This M&M’s Camry was awesome tonight,” Busch said. “It was just super fast. I mean we had one of the fastest cars all night long and then (Truex) was probably the fastest. There at the end, somehow we ran him down. You know he got a straightaway out on us, but there that last 100 laps we were able to get back to him and pass him so you know that was promising for us there at the end in order to get a second-place finish, but man just so, so disappointed.

“I don’t know. We ran our own race. We did what we needed to do and it wasn’t – it wasn’t the right game. We come up short and finish second.

“It’s a frustrating night, man. There’s nothing we could’ve done different.”

Others took a different view of Busch’s tirade.

But some agreed with Earnhardt’s stance.

After defending Busch, Earnhardt also poked some fun at him later Monday, too.

 

Martin Truex Jr. takes Cup points lead after Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte

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CONCORD, N.C. — Martin Truex Jr. took over the Cup points lead with a third-place finish in Saturday’s Coca-Cola 600.

The Furniture Row Racing driver, who led a race-high 233 laps, also extended his lead in the playoff standings by winning the second stage and bringing his total to 16 points.

Kyle Larson, who had led the standings for eight consecutive races since Phoenix International Raceway, fell to second in the rankings after crashing and finishing a season-worst 33rd. Larson trails Truex by five points in the race for the regular-season championship (and 15 playoff points).

Click here for the points standings after Charlotte.