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Long: Amid anxiety over retiring NASCAR drivers, a new era emerges

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It’s easy to lament where NASCAR is headed with Dale Earnhardt Jr. retiring from the Cup series after this season.

Fans have bid farewell to Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards (well, he may return) since last year. Then came Tuesday’s news about Earnhardt.

And it won’t be long before seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and former champions Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick reach the end of their careers.

For long-time fans, this is crushing news. Drivers they have grown accustomed to seeing on TV nearly every weekend from late February to the middle of November are leaving. In comes a new crop of drivers that fans are not as comfortable with or knowledgable about.

Picking a new favorite driver isn’t made on a whim for many fans. If you’re going to pledge your loyalty, one has to be all in.

And that’s why this could be one of the greatest times in the sport for young drivers.

Now is your time Kyle Larson. Now is your time Chase Elliott. Now is your time Ryan Blaney.

Now it is time for all the young drivers to make their mark on the sport, reach out to the fan base and become the leaders who will guide NASCAR for the coming years.

From 2000-02, fans fretted about the transition NASCAR went through. That period brought Earnhardt, Johnson, Harvick, Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch into the series.

They combined to change the sport on the track — with how they raced — and off the track — with how they presented themselves.

Their roles increased as Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd and others retired. Many fans worried that the new drivers could never replace their favorites.

But it’s not about replacing. It’s about moving forward. Just as it is now.

No driver can replace Earnhardt. No one can or will be asked to shoulder so much of the sport as Earnhardt has throughout his career.

No driver can replace Gordon, who helped usher in the sport’s most popular era — not bad for a kid who was known to crash often his rookie year.

No driver can replace the cantankerous Stewart, who became a fan favorite for his gruff, tell-it-like-it-is manner and his fearlessness on the track.

That’s the thing. The young drivers just need to be themselves, not someone else.

They also must win. That will grow their fan base and give them a powerful voice for years to come.

They’re starting to gain power.

Consider the drivers age 26 and under. It includes Joey Logano, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Larson, Elliott and Blaney.

That doesn’t even include those in the Xfinity Series, which features William Byron, Ryan Reed, Daniel Hemric and Cole Custer, among others.

And in the Camping World Truck Series, there’s Christopher Bell, Todd Gilliland, John Hunter Nemechek, Harrison Burton and Kaz Grala.

No one could have anticipated that Johnson, who had one Xfinity win before moving to Cup, would go on to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most championships.

Somewhere in this group of young drivers there’s a multi-time champion. Maybe a couple of them. Maybe one who wins more than five championships.

Maybe one who changes the sport in ways one can’t even imagine.

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Kyle Larson moving on from Bristol finish, looking to win again at Richmond

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After losing the lead with six laps to go and finishing second to Kyle Busch at Bristol, a frustrated Kyle Larson headed back to his motorhome.

He was greeted by son Owen, who had a question for him.

“Did you get me some Skittles?’ ‘’ Owen asked.

Even though the candy sponsors Busch, Larson admits he managed to smile at his son’s request.

‘That wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but it kind of lightened the mood, so it helps to get over it a little bit,’’ Larson said Friday at Richmond Raceway.

The runner-up finish for Larson marked the third time he’s finished second to Busch in a Cup race (2014 Auto Club Speedway, 2017 New Hampshire and 2018 Bristol).

Larson enters this weekend having won the most recent race at Richmond. He took the lead from Martin Truex Jr. with five laps to go on pit road and held on in overtime to win in September.

“Typically this hasn’t been a good race track for me, but for whatever reason, the last time we were here we were about a top-three car all race long,’’ said Larson, who starts tonight’s race fifth. “Truex was really fast. But, I was a little bit lucky there at the end with a caution to beat him off pit road and get the win. I think that adds a little bit of confidence coming back here.

“Even though I’ve struggled in the past, I enjoy this track because it is different than what we typically go to.”

Larson enters the weekend with three top-three finishes this season, including the Bristol result.

“I feel like our short track program has become really competitive over the last few years,’’ he said. “Aside from Martinsville, I don’t even know if our package is good or bad there; I think I’m just not very good there. But, for us to get a couple top-two finishes here at Richmond now the last couple of years, at a track that I struggle a lot at, I think says a lot about our short track program. Even Bristol, I think Bristol is my best race track, but a few years ago I would just kind of run around eighth to 12th. But now lately, I’ve been able to lead the most laps and get close to wins.’’

Larson’s Bristol race also included a spin after contact with Ryan Newman but Larson doesn’t blame Newman for the incident.

“I get along with Newman,’’ Larson said. “The line that I run in (Turns) 3 and 4 throughout a run is really fast, but I can get myself in trouble if people poke their nose in on me. That’s the second time I’ve gotten spun by running that line, so I think I just need to be a little more cautious. I don’t think he did anything wrong there. It was getting somewhat toward the end of the race. You’re trying to race for lead-lap spots. So, I cut it a little too close, I think, and ran across his front end.”

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Results, point standings after Xfinity race at Richmond

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Christopher Bell led a race-high 120 laps to win the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond Raceway. It’s his second career Xfinity win.

Bell beat Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Noah Gragson, Elliott Sadler, Matt Tifft and Austin Cindric.

Elliott Sadler won the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus.

Click here for the race results.

Points

Elliott Sadler continues to lead the point standings through eight races. He has a 29-point lead over Bell.

Completing the top five is Tyler Reddick (-31 points), Daniel Hemric (-38) and Justin Allgaier (-48).

Click here for the point standings.

Christopher Bell wins Xfinity race at Richmond

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Christopher Bell fended off teammate Noah Gragson to break through and win his first Xfinity race of the year Friday night at Richmond Raceway.

Bell led the final 79 laps around the .75-mile track to score his second career win. He had finished in the top five in four of the first seven races this season.

“That was pretty special there, buddy,” Bell told Fox Sports 1. “Had to work for it. My teammate was really good and I knew throughout both practices that both of our cars were going to be really strong. Joe Gibbs Racing has been producing really, really fast Camrys for last couple of weeks and it’s really shown.”

Gragson placed second in his first career Xfinity start. He bounced back from an uncontrolled tire penalty early in the race.

He hounded Bell for much of the last 15 laps, but could never pull even with him.

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Gragson told FS1 of his first series start at the short track. “I found a little something in the track, a little speed there at the end of the second stage on old tires. I kept it in my memory bank until the end and I told me team, ‘I got something, when it’s time to go tell me when.’ About 18 to go, I told them, ‘Can’t wait any longer, I don’t have any more patience.”

Gragson, who drives full-time in the Camping World Truck Series, led 10 laps.

The top five was completed by Elliott Sadler, Matt Tifft and Austin Cindric.

With his third-place finish, Sadler won the $100,000 Dash 4 Cash bonus.

Bell, Sadler, Tifft and Cindric will be eligible for the third Dash 4 Cash bonus next week at Talladega.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Daniel Hemric

STAGE 2 WINNER: Elliott Sadler, first stage win of season

MORE: Race results, points

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Austin Cindric earned his first career top five after starting from the rear for an unapproved adjustment … Matt Tifft earned his fourth career top five … Ryan Truex placed seventh to give Kaulig Racing its fourth top 10 of the year. It earned five last year … Jeremy Clements placed eighth, earning his first top 10 since he won at Road America in August.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: After winning Stage 1, Daniel Hemric lost his right front tire with three laps to go in Stage 2, but made it to the end. He finished 29th, four laps down … Justin Allgaier spun after ramming into the back of Spencer Gallagher with 86 laps to go. Chase Briscoe was also received damage in the incident. Allgaier finished 14th. Briscoe placed 26th.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “My wife’s already spent it.” – Elliott Sadler to FS1 after winning the Dash 4 Cash bonus.

WHAT’S NEXT: Sparks Energy 300 at Talladega Superspeedway at 3 p.m. ET on April 28 on Fox.

Starting lineup for Cup race at Richmond

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Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott will start on the front row for Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway.

Truex won his third pole of the season.

The top five is completed by Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

Kyle Busch, who is trying to win a third consecutive race, qualified 32nd.

Click here for the starting lineup.