Who are the candidates to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88? Here’s a short list

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With Tuesday’s news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving NASCAR after the 2017 season, Hendrick Motorsports would seem to have multiple internal and external candidates to fill the ride.

Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet would be the top-tier opening for 2018. The car is prepared in the same building as the No. 48 of seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson and is a teammate to Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne. Since taking over the No. 88 in 2008, Earnhardt has made the playoffs in six of nine seasons, notched nine victories and finished top 10 in points three times (he might have again in 2012 if he hadn’t been sidelined for two races by a concussion).

Some of the decision assuredly will depend on sponsorship (in a statement, Nationwide said it fully supported Earnhardt’s decision and would continue its relationship with the 14-time most popular driver beyond 2017), but here are a few names to consider — starting with two already in the Hendrick fold:

William Byron: Signed to a developmental deal with the team last August, he unquestionably is the future of Hendrick Motorsports along with Elliott.

Byron, 19, showed prodigious talent as a rookie in the Camping World Truck Series with a circuit-leading seven victories (he was robbed of the championship because of a mechanical failure while dominating Phoenix). He is only seven races into his Xfinity career but is a solid second in points with five top 10s and two top fives.

There will be questions about whether it would be rushing too much to promote him to Cup in his third full season in a NASCAR national series, but if he’s the eventual solution, why wait to promote him? Kyle Larson was moved into Cup after only a full season of Xfinity, and his development into the 2017 points leader has proved the pitfalls that surrounded Joey Logano’s entry into Cup as an inexperienced teenager can be avoided.

Alex Bowman: He filled in admirably for an injured Earnhardt with three top 10s in 10 races last year (qualifying on pole position at Phoenix and leading 194 laps). Bowman, who turned 24 today, also ran full time in Cup from 2014-15, so he has 81 starts in the premier series as well as five top fives in 50 Xfinity starts.

Still under contract to Hendrick, his yeoman work on the driving simulator has drawn praise from the organization and its drivers.

But the Tuscon, Ariz., native still doesn’t have a resume that is eye-catching as Byron’s, and his upside might be a more difficult sell to sponsors.

Carl Edwards: Since stepping away from NASCAR in a stunning announcement three months ago, Edwards steadfastly has maintained he isn’t retired. While visiting Atlanta Motor Speedway to help rookie replacement Daniel Suarez with his former No. 19 Toyota, Edwards brought his helmet and firesuit just in case.

He seems open to driving in Cup again, though he is remaining coy about it. Asked by NBC Sports if the No. 88 was an opportunity he would consider, Edwards jokingly replied, “You may have it mixed up. I’m recruiting Dale to drive a tractor!” (He also added he was happy for Earnhardt, and that it would be a great ride for someone.)

With 28 victories in the Cup series and a megawatt smile and sponsor appeal, Edwards’ name figures to come up whenever there is an opening, even if he seems to be enjoying life on his farm in Columbia, Mo. He also was courted by Hendrick about a decade ago (which Jeff Gordon confirmed in 2011 when Edwards was in the midst of re-upping for the last time with Roush Fenway Racing).

–Any other qualified veteran: Hendrick could decide Byron isn’t ready for the No. 88 yet next season but is the answer for 2019.

Would it make sense to consider putting NBCSN analyst Greg Biffle (who has indicated he still would like to race), another driver with winning credentials (such as David Ragan or Regan Smith, who has Hendrick and JRM ties) or a youthful driver with Cup experience and a win in a national series (hello, Parker Kligerman) in the No. 88 to keep the seat warm for Byron in 2019?

Given that Hendrick waited a year for Kahne to join its ranks, and Stewart-Haas Racing did the same with Clint Bowyer, it isn’t an implausible scenario.

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.