Bump & Run: Is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s back against wall after slow start?

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Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte, who appear on NASCAR America from 5:30 – 6 p.m. ET today, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long, to answer this week’s questions.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished 30th or worse in five on the season’s first nine races and is 24th in the points. How much is his back against the wall a third of the way through the regular season?

Steve Letarte: Going into Talladega, it’s really hard to answer this question because Dale has to be looking at this as a huge opportunity to get to Victory Lane, and I think a win cures everything in the current format.

I don’t think it’s time to panic yet, but when NBC comes on the air on the Fourth of July weekend, which will be the last restrictor-plate race before the playoffs, if they’re still on the outside looking in without a win, I think the pressure heading into that weekend will be huge. Not pressing the panic button yet, but I think there’s more importance on this Talladega race weekend for the 88 than maybe in years past.

Jeff Burton: I’d say it’s very much against the wall. It’s putting him in a position of having to win. They’re getting to that position where they have to find a way to win if they want to get themselves in the playoffs. Points are becoming more difficult to get. I think it puts a lot of pressure on Talladega. I think it puts a lot of pressure on Daytona. I think it puts a lot of pressure where he typically is really good.

Nate Ryan: It’s must-win, and Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway might loom as his best opportunity for making the playoffs in his final season. Daytona in July also will offer another strong shot, but it’s hard to point at another track beyond those two as a strong possibility for a breakthrough victory. He can win anytime he starts at Talladega and Daytona (and probably had a car to win the 2017 Daytona 500 before wrecking). 

Part of the problem here is the struggles of Hendrick Motorsports. All four of its cars were out to lunch (and mostly outside the top 10) at Richmond. That will preclude the hope of success at most unrestricted tracks and also virtually negates any hope of Earnhardt making the playoffs on points. However, if the team quickly can hit on something and get it implemented in its Chevrolets, Earnhardt historically has run well at Dover, Michigan and Pocono. But there are other tracks (Sonoma, Watkins Glen, Darlington, Charlotte) where an out-of-the-blue win seems much less likely.

Dustin Long: There’s still plenty of time to make the playoffs. Hey, Tony Stewart missed the first eight races last year and made the playoffs, and Kyle Busch missed the first 11 races in 2015 and won the title.

It’s not about making the playoffs at Hendrick, though, it’s about winning championships. With the new points structure, his back is against the wall because he’s falling further behind drivers who have scored playoff points via stage wins or race wins. Those playoff points likely will play a key role in who advances throughout the playoffs. Earnhardt has work to do, but there is some time.

Denny Hamlin, noting the struggles Joe Gibbs Racing has had this year, said that this weekend’s restrictor-plate race at Talladega is “honestly, probably the best chance I have at winning until a few months from now.’’ Do you agree with his assessment?

Steve Letarte: I think that’s a veteran driver deflecting some of the pressure off his team or trying to motivate his team, I’m not sure which. I think they’re closer to winning than Denny is letting on, but he’s also the only guy behind the wheel that knows how his car is driving. Perhaps he’s trying to just define how aggressive he’s going to be at Talladega pre-showing up for the event. I don’t think Joe Gibbs Racing is that far off, but he did say a couple of months and not a couple of years. A couple of months is only the middle of the summer. I would expect to see Joe Gibbs Racing winning races before the playoffs.

Jeff Burton: Things change. I think if you look at the year as a whole, I think you could say that. Watch the last year with Jimmie Johnson. Good race car drivers and good race teams find a way to make things happen. So, yes, I think that’s a fair statement. Three weeks from now, we could be talking about Denny Hamlin winning two in a row. I never trust the pessimism of a driver.

Nate Ryan: Well, this is the guy who picked North Carolina to beat Gonzaga in the NCAA championship before this year’s tournament began.  

Hamlin knows the cars well and also is known for speaking accurately and bluntly when asked to provide an assessment. He probably is right that it will be until late summer – Joe Gibbs Racing probably is aiming for the Brickyard – before Toyota Racing Development and the team roll out the next generation of good stuff that will lift the organization back into weekly contention.

This season feels very similar to 2014 when JGR muddled through and won only two races (including one for Hamlin at … Talladega). That remains fresh in the drivers’ minds, and it probably informs some of why Hamlin is gauging the improvement over months instead of weeks.

Dustin Long: Yes. I think the three races after Talladega — Kansas, the All-Star race and the Coca-Cola 600 will be critical for Hamlin and Joe Gibbs Racing since all those races are on 1.5-mile tracks. The key is to show improvement to build throughout the summer.

Since JGR placed all four drivers in the top 10 at Texas in November (Carl Edwards won), the organization has not had a top-five finish in the four races at 1.5-mile tracks since. Admittedly, Kyle Busch was in place to finish in the top five at Las Vegas before the last-lap incident with Joey Logano but it’s clear JGR has work to do on these tracks.

Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hold the final two playoff spots after nine of 26 races in the regular season. Do you think either of them will make the playoffs?

Steve Letarte: I think one Roush Fenway car has odds to make the playoffs. I don’t think there’s room for two even though they hold those spots now. I think we haven’t seen everyone win who we will see win, and that is going to change the playoff picture. I’m not sure they have winning speed yet, but if they can continue to run like they are, show some consistency and really continue to move the ball forward is the key. Where they’re currently at is barely making the playoffs. If they continue to improve, maybe one of them can solidly make the playoffs.

Jeff Burton: I think the best chance for them to make the playoffs is to not have a lot of new winners. The more people that get in by points, the better chance they have of getting in by points. They have shown definitely an uptick in performance, but they haven’t shown winning speed. If you say they have to get in by winning, I think that starts to be problematic for them. I think one of them gets in by points. I think it will be difficult for both of them to get in by points.

Nate Ryan: One of them will: Stenhouse. His improvement is real, and he finally seems to have blended the raw talent with wise decision-making. His rally from an early spin to another top 10 at Richmond (fourth) shows the moxie in his game this season – just like his bump on Kyle Busch at the end of Stage 2 at Martinsville Speedway.

The key will be if Roush Fenway can keep building fast Fords to keep pace. Last year, the team fell off a cliff after May.

Dustin Long: Admittedly, it’s hard to see both making it at this point. That said, I like what I’ve seen from this organization. It is making steady progress.

Roush hasn’t shown the speed to contend for wins. Instead, they’ve taken advantage of some pit calls to score strong finishes. Key is to avoid trouble and bad days. If they can be consistent — and as Nate notes, they struggled after May last year — then Roush could have a car in the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Watch Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte from 5:30 – 6 p.m. ET on NASCAR America on NBCSN.

Atlanta Motor Speedway accepting lucky charms to help Chase Elliott earn first Cup win

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The president of Atlanta Motor Speedway is hoping history will repeat.

Ed Clark is doing whatever he can to get Georgia-native Chase Elliott to Victory Lane for the first time in the Cup Series.

To do that, he’s using the same marketing scheme he executed in 1983 in the weeks before Bill Elliott’s first Cup victory.

AMS is asking for fans to send lucky charms to the track, which will be presented to Chase Elliott during a special event there Feb. 13.

There’s no restrictions on what can be sent.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver is winless after 77 starts in NASCAR’s premier series.

Bill Elliott in 1983. (Atlanta Motor Speedway).

His father went winless in his first 155 starts from 1976-83.

Clark put together the original lucky charm drive ahead of the October race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he served as public relations director.

“The promotion we came up with for Bill in ’83 created an amazing amount of interest and support from fans all over the country,” said Clark in a press release. “We received package after package full of good-luck charms, and it seemed like everybody was pulling for him to get that first win.”

Three races later, in the season finale at Riverside International Raceway, the 28-year-old Bill Elliott claimed his first of 44 Cup victories.

Fans can send their lucky charms to Elliott by shipping them to AMS at 1500 Highway 19/41, Hampton, GA 30228, with attention to “Good Luck, Chase.” Fans can also participate by using the hashtag #GoodLuckChase across the various social media platforms with pictures and messages to Elliott.

The Cup season begins Feb. 18 with the 60th Daytona 500. The following weekend, the series visits Atlanta Motor Speedway.

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Go Fas Racing secures charter by partnering with Circle Sport Racing

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Go Fas Racing has secured a charter for Matt DiBenedetto’s No. 32 Ford by partnering with Circle Sport Racing.

The move comes after Go Fas Racing’s owner Archie St. Hilaire entered into a partnership with the Wood Brothers that allowed the Wood Brothers to retain the charter they leased last year from Go Fas Racing.

That move left Go Fas Racing without a charter. That matter was resolved with the partnership with Circle Sport Racing car owner Joe Falk, who recently split with TMG.

“This deal pretty much fills our plate for the 2018 season,” St. Hilaire said in a statement from the team. “We decided that the best long-term strategy for GFR’s original charter was to strike a deal with our good friends at Wood Brothers Racing, which left us seeking a charter for our own No. 32 car. I think this partnership with Joe Falk is mutually beneficial for both Joe and ourselves going into the future. Joe has been in the business for a long time and will add a wealth of knowledge to our programs in 2018 and beyond.”

Said Falk in a statement: “We have been talking about doing this for over a year and it was a big decision to switch to Ford, but we believe it will pay off. This is a performance business and we have not had the team to get good finishes. We are also working on running the No. 33 car in select events with young drivers such as Joey Gase to help get them prepared for a full Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season going forward.”

CHARTERS THAT HAVE CHANGED TEAMS FOR 2018

— Furniture Row Racing #77 charter sold to JTG Daugherty for No. 37 car

— Roush Fenway Racing #16 charter sold to Team Penske for No. 12 car

— Richard Petty Motorsports #43 charter leased to Rick Ware Racing for No. 51 car

— Wood Brothers Racing forms long-term partnership with Go Fas Racing owner Archie St. Hilaire that grants Wood Brothers full operating control of the No. 32 team’s charter it leased last year.

— Go Fas Racing forms partnership with Circle Sport Racing owner Joe Falk for his charter for the No. 32 team.

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Kasey Kahne looks to run 20-30 races outside NASCAR this year

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Kasey Kahne, who competed in last week’s Chili Bowl Nationals, says he plans to run two dozen or more races outside of NASCAR this season.

Kahne, who is in his first season with Leavine Family Racing, made the comments Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.’’

“I’ve always tried to stay close to the type of racing that I learned how to race in and the type of cars that I learned how to race in and those fans and race tracks that I’ve spent a ton of time at and have really enjoyed over the years,’’ Kahne said of racing sprint and midget cars on dirt. “I’m still a huge fan of that type of racing because that’s where I came from and want to be for a long, long time.

“We have two (World of) Outlaw teams again this year, Daryn Pittman and Brad Sweet, and I feel like I can run 20 to 30 races depending on the schedules and how everything works out. I’m really looking forward to that because that’s something that I wanted to do for a long time and I could do it and then I couldn’t do it.’’

Kahne, who was with Hendrick Motorsports the previous six seasons, was asked if he was prohibited from racing such cars.

“When I signed up, I wasn’t at all and they said I could do whatever I wanted and enjoy it,” Kahne said. “A year later, I was restricted from everything and wasn’t able to do that anymore and then the last year they were pretty cool about it, but it was always kind of feeling like you were making somebody mad. I won’t have that because Leavine … they know that that’s what I love to do and that’s what I want to do. I don’t want it to affect the No. 95 in anyway. That’s the first priority to me. When we’re not doing that, it’s OK, nobody is going to be mad if I go and try to do a little racing. It makes me feel pretty good to be in that situation again.’’

Kahne is just one of a few NASCAR drivers expected to run in other series this year. Kyle Larson, who raced a midget car in New Zealand before competing in Chili Bowl Nationals, has said he’s allowed to run 25 such events a year. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. says he plans to run some midget races this summer.

Kahne also has been busy getting prepared for his new ride. He has a one-year deal with Leavine Family Racing, which is aligned with Richard Childress Racing. Travis Mack, who had been at Hendrick Motorsports, will be Kahne’s crew chief.

Kahne cited performance — he had one win and nine top-five finishes in the past three seasons with Hendrick — and business as a reason for the change.

“I’m perfectly fine with it because I’m glad I’ve moved on and am doing something different at this point and really looking forward to Leavine and my future and the new things that I have going on,’’ said Kahne, who finished 15th in the points last year after making the playoffs with his Indianapolis victory. “I don’t look back on any of it as a bad thing.’’

Asked if he feels reinvigorated with the changes, Kahne told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio: “I feel just to kind of start over is never a bad thing, especially with our performance. I was never happy the last three years, I haven’t been that happy as far as racing went because we could never really figure it out. Just to have a new group, start over, try to do things together and see how good we can do. To me, that’s exciting and new and fresh and I look forward to that.’’

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Todd Gilliland to drive No. 4 for Kyle Busch Motorsports; father to fill-in at Daytona

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Todd Gilliland will get a helping hand driving Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 4 Toyota this season before he turns 18 on May 15.

The two-time K&N Pro Series West champion will miss four of the first six races to start the year because of NASCAR’s rule that drivers under 18 years old are restricted to tracks 1.25 miles or less in length or road courses.

Gilliland will miss the season-opener at Daytona (Feb. 16), Atlanta (Feb. 24), Las Vegas (March 2) and Kansas (May 11).

After starts at Martinsville (March 24) and Dover (May 4) to begin his Rookie of the Year campaign, his first race on a 1.5-mile track will be at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 18.

Team owner Kyle Busch will drive the No. 4 at Atlanta and Kansas.

In a video released by the team on Twitter, it announced that Gilliland’s dad, David Gilliland, will open the season at Daytona.

The former Cup driver will make his first NASCAR start since 2016 in the NextEra Energy Resources 250.

A veteran of 398 national NASCAR races, David Gilliland’s last Truck Series start was in 2015. He has 10 Truck starts. One of those was at a restrictor-plate track (Daytona, 2015).

That’s not the only race the elder Gilliland will try to be part of that weekend.

He will attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500 with Ricky Benton Racing, which has fielded the No. 92 in the Truck Series since 2010.

Gilliland will attempt to qualify the No. 92 Black’s Tire and Auto Service/Carquest Auto Parts Ford into the “Great American Race.” If he’s successful, it will mark the Cup debut for the team.

Gilliland made seven starts for the team in 2015.

“After talking with our partners, we felt the time was right to make a move into the Cup Series,” team owner Ricky Benton said in a press release. “Getting David back on board was also key. Having a veteran driver with his experience and success on restrictor-plate tracks – with whom (crew chief Mike) Hester has familiarity – gives us a leg up as we try to make the race.”
Gilliland has made 16 starts at Daytona in the Cup Series, including seven in the Daytona 500. His best finish was third in the 2011 Daytona 500.

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