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Travis Pastrana looks to ‘figure out’ NASCAR with Truck Series return

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CONCORD, N.C — On a warm day at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Travis Pastana received similar greetings from old friends and competitors.

“I’m glad you’re back in the game!” yelled one burly Red Horse Racing crew member over the constant roar of the Camping World Truck Series garage Tuesday afternoon.

A few hours later, the action sports star would climb back into a NASCAR vehicle for the first time in two years.

Photo by Daniel McFadin

At 33, Pastrana plans to compete in the Sept. 30 Truck race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the same track he made his last start at in 2015. He’ll be driving the No. 45 truck owned by Niece Motorsports that’s also been driven by T.J. Bell this season.

Pastrana was in Charlotte for a one-day test despite being a very busy man. He has his popular Nitro Cirus stunt tour and is competing full-time in world rally for the first time since 2010 and leads the points. He also has a family with two daughters to raise.

So why dip back into NASCAR? Why spend six hours in May testing for a race in September?

Four years after his lone full-time Xfinity campaign with Roush Fenway Racing, Pastrana has an itch. A question that he needs to find the answer to.

“I’ve been able to figure most racing things out and be competitive,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “Everyday at some point, I go ‘why couldn’t I figure out NASCAR? What do I need to do?’ I haven’t had the time to do it right.”

It helps that truck races are a viewing priority on TV for Pastrana’s 3-year-old daughter.

“She’ll watch an entire race,” Pastrana said. “Which is shocking because she doesn’t sit and watch anything. She’s always kind of bouncing off the walls. She likes the Trucks, especially Matt Crafton because she knows Matt a little and (Crafton’s daughter) Elladee is around her age. … We went down to Florida last year to see the finals and the truck race.”

Pastrana showed spurts of potential in 2013 in the Xfinity Series. Driving a colorful No. 60 Ford for Roush, he earned a pole at Talladega and qualified on the front row three times. In 33 starts, he collected four top 10s.

After a career filled with various action sports championships, Pastrana had viewed NASCAR as the next mountain to conquer.

“NASCAR’s been challenging because I’ve made a career and a living out of being able to take risks that no one else was willing to take,” Pastrana said. “I never cared about motorcycle set up. I just go out there and I ride. Your body is the setup. Even in rally, the course has so many different corners and different jumps, you’ll never have the perfect set up, so it comes down more to the driver.

“In NASCAR, it comes down to what you know about the truck. We’ve been working a lot, learning about the truck, learning about the cars. When I came into NASCAR, I didn’t know a lot about NASCAR. I thought it was a cool sport. Now, since then, I’ve learned a lot more about the sport, not to say I’m going to be great by any means, but I feel like I’ve got a much bigger appreciation and understanding for what it takes.”

Before his Xfinity tour, Pastrana had made a handful of K&N Pro Series starts. His competitors at the time included Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Darrell Wallace Jr.

Now those twenty-something drivers are rising stars in the Xfinity and Cup Series. Unlike Pastrana, they were raised on and have mastered this discipline their entire lives.

“I know I wouldn’t have made it (to Cup),” Pastrana admits. “With the time that I had, I know what it takes to get to the top of the sport. I was hoping that my other sports would translate better. They didn’t. Ok, that means we’re doing this seven days a week. Every minute of every day is thinking about NASCAR. Without a wife, kids, a business in Nitro Circus, that would have been an awesome challenge. But for me, at the point I was at in my life, I can race with my money and other people’s money, but I don’t have the time with my own equipment to do this. We’re doing the rally championship. It’s six rounds, so I can be 100 percent committed for those six rounds.”

Two weeks ago, the Annapolis, Maryland, native used a viral video made with his friends and family to announce his intentions to compete in the Las Vegas race.

Come Tuesday, Niece Motorsports’ small operation, along with some of Pastrana’s friends and former Roush crew members, scrambled around their garage stall to prepare the truck for what could be Pastrana’s only on-track action before September.

But as The Nitro Circus’ schedule slows down, there may the opportunity for another race, possibly at Chicagoland.

“We’re trying to drive as much as I can this year,” Pastrana said. “I’m doing the first full rally championship since 2010. For me, I’m doing a lot more pavement stuff, lots of go-kart stuff. Just trying to figure this stuff out a little bit, every chance that I can to come out.”

Optimism can’t produce horsepower, though. At the end of the marathon test, the combined effort of Pastrana and Bell and their rag-tag team could only muster a top speed of 174.396 mph, the slowest of the session by six mph.

But unlike the other 19 teams present at the test, Pastrana was the only driver there not taking part in their “day job.” He was just having fun, while studying up for the real test on Sept. 30.

“I’m not saying, ‘hey, I’m coming back in full-time,’ Pastrana said. “I’m racing one race, mostly to help my rally, but also to keep my foot in the door and say, ‘look, eventually I’d like to figure this stuff out because I haven’t figured it out and it bugs me.'”

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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.