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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Matt Kenseth: Brickyard 400 restarts ‘kind of ridiculous’

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Matt Kenseth came close to winning Sunday’s Brickyard 400, but ultimately finished fifth.

Kenseth called the race “kind of ridiculous” down the stretch because of the several restarts that brought about further havoc and wrecks.

Kenseth competed in his final Brickyard 400 for Joe Gibbs Racing. With his future uncertain and whether he’ll be able to continue racing in 2018, could Sunday have been the final Brickyard 400 of his career, much like good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is retiring after this season?

Check out the video above for Kenseth’s comments on the race.

Rick Hendrick on Kasey Kahne’s future: ‘Our plans are not set for the No. 5 car’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Brickyard 400 winner Kasey Kahne has a contract for 2018 at Hendrick Motorsports but possibly doesn’t have a job next season.

Team owner Rick Hendrick confirmed Sunday night that “our plans are not set for the No. 5 car” after Kahne ended a 102-race winless streak in the Cup Series.

“There’s nothing concrete or done, and that hasn’t changed,” Hendrick said. “We’ll see how things shake out the rest of the year.  There’s a lot of things involved, sponsors and a lot of things we look at.  We’re going to try hard.  But there’s no decisions made at this time.”

Kahne felt the 18th victory of his career helped him make a case for staying in the No. 5 Chevrolet.

“I think this shows I still want to win races,” he said. “It shows I gave it all that I can to get a win and shows that I’m passionate about driving stock cars, and that I can still win races, too.

“I have a deal through 2018 with Hendrick Motorsports. I hear a lot of things, but it’s tough to say exactly what’s going to happen. I don’t know at this point and time. I know me and Mr. H will figure it out. I think this shows that I want to be and still have the drive and passion to do it, so I’m going to keep trying hard I know that.”

During a Sunday morning pre-race news conference to formally introduce Alex Bowman as the replacement next season for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick said he planned to run four cars next season but deflected a question about Kahne’s status (“that’s for another day”).

Xfinity Series rookie William Byron, who is under contract to Hendrick, would be an option for the No. 5 Chevrolet, but Hendrick said “we’re not ready to cross that bridge yet” when asked about Byron’s Cup future.

Kahne is ranked 22nd in the points standings with only four top 10s in 20 races this season.

“When you’ve had a rough road, your confidence gets down,” Hendrick said. “He said, ‘I know I can do it. The harder I try, the more it seems like I have this rough bad luck.’

“Something like this (win) can be really good for any guy to have, the whole team, to have confidence.  … All I can say about Kasey is he shows up, he shows up on time, and he shows up on time with his game face on, and he puts in the effort. Sometimes it just takes a break.  But he’s done everything.  I know in his heart he wants to do it.  He’s trying, so … ”

Ryan Newman on Brickyard 400: ‘That’s not racing, just craziness’

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Ryan Newman was in the right place at the right time in Sunday’s Brickyard 400, finishing third.

It was Newman’s second-best finish of 2017 after his win earlier this year at Phoenix.

But Newman, who is never afraid to speak his mind, did just that after Sunday’s race. Even with his strong finish, he echoed the comments of several other drivers that the racing action — particularly restarts — by saying, “That’s not racing, just craziness.”

Check out what Newman had to say in the video above.

Joey Logano’s fourth-place finish is bittersweet as playoff chances dip

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Joey Logano had a bittersweet day in Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

He finished a strong fourth in the incident-filled 24th edition of the Brickyard 400. It was just Logano’s second top-five finish and third top-10 showing in the last 11 races.

But there was also bad news, too.

Kasey Kahne‘s win knocked Logano further back in his bid to rejoin the top-16 drivers eligible for the upcoming NASCAR playoffs. With Clint Bowyer dropping out of the top-16 and Kahne moving into playoff contention, Logano has slipped back to 18th place in the playoff-eligible standings.

As a result, Logano all but has to win one of the next six races to qualify for the playoffs — unless he can point his way in with continued strong top-five finishes.

Logano talked about the situation he faces with NBC Sports after Sunday’s race. Click on the above video to see what he had to say.