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Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Winning Coke 600 in final attempt ‘would mean a lot’


CONCORD, N.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. “couldn’t have told you what year it was.”

It was 2011 and it was the Coca-Cola 600.

In his fourth year with Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt led two laps in the race. On his way to lead a third – the last lap – his No. 88 Chevrolet ran out of gas in Turn 3. He finished seventh as Kevin Harvick went to Victory Lane.

He’s had better finishes before and since, but that was the closest Earnhardt has ever come to winning a Cup points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“(That race) doesn’t really weigh on me that much,” Earnhardt said on Thursday. “It was tough to get over for a few weeks, but I believe (former crew chief) Steve Letarte might still talk about it today, but a lot of things, a lot of water under the bridge since then.”

Earnhardt said two weeks ago at Kansas Speedway winning tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 is the one box he’d like to check off the most during his retirement tour, which has 25 races remaining in it. Earnhardt will visit nine tracks he hasn’t won at.

“The 600 would be awesome,” Earnhardt said. “Any of them that we haven’t won at would be great. Any win this year, right, would be good. But if I had to pick Charlotte would be … winning the 600 would mean a lot.”

While the tracks in Daytona and Talladega carry a lot of weight in Earnhardt’s history, it’s the 1.5-mile track in his own backyard where he first got a taste of the sport he would one day be the face of.

Dale Earnhardt poses in Victory Lane with his two sons, Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and Kerry Earnhardt, right, after winning the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24, 1992. (Photo by Dozier Mobley/Getty Images)

“I grew up here and went to all the races here when I was a little kid,” Earnhardt said Thursday. “I used to go to the dirt tracks with Dad when I was very small, but the first memories of actually being at a Cup event were here. The Eury’s and the Earnhardt family would park up on the hill of the road course, about the tallest peak of elevation there.

“And we had these plastic cars, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough, and we would roll them down the hill of the road course and spend the whole weekend there watching Dad race the Xfinity race and the Cup race.”

The 14-time most popular driver watched his father win at Charlotte five times, including three times in the longest race in NASCAR.

But in 33 of his own Cup starts here, Earnhardt hasn’t driven into Victory Lane.

Even Earnhardt can’t quite believe it.

“I thought, considering we’ve had some decent success in the sport, I would have guessed I’d have got a win here in a point race at some point, but it just hasn’t happened,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve had some close ones, but the way we ran out of the gate as a rookie, we ran pretty good.”

Earnhardt made his Cup debut in the Coke 600 on May 30, 1999, starting eighth and finishing 16th. A year later, he claimed his first career pole in the race. Earnhardt led 175 laps before finishing fourth.

“I thought that this would be a good track for us, but since the repave (in 2006), for whatever reason it’s really been tough for me,” Earnhardt said. “We just really haven’t been able to hit on how to get around here. Either how to set the car up or what I’m looking for or what I need to be doing with the car driving it.”

Earnhardt has six top fives at Charlotte, the most recent coming in the 2015 Coke 600. In his 33 starts, he has an average finish of 19th, which is his third worst among active tracks.

Earnhardt’s bumpy retirement tour hasn’t smoothed out during the season’s two-week layover in Charlotte. Last week, Earnhardt’s final start in the All-Star Race ended with him 18th in a field of 20 cars. He start 19th in tonight’s race.

“We totally eighty-sixed all that stuff we ran last week and we put in Jimmie (Johnson’s) set-up, we’re just like him,” Earnhardt said.

If the No. 88 team should lean on anyone, its Johnson’s team, which has won at Charlotte eight times.

“(Crew chiefs) Greg (Ives) and Chad (Knaus) got real close this week and me and Jimmie have been in communication and Jimmie has come by the car a couple of times in practice already looking at notes and printing out our driver traces and trying to figure out whatever we can do to help me,” Earnhardt said. “One of the things about Jimmie that I’ve always thought was pretty cool was he was always open to looking at other drivers traces and adjusting how he drives.

“If he sees a guy go through the corner and does something different with the gas or the brake he will try it.  And he encourages me or any other teammate to do the same thing.  He comes over with these print outs and says this is what I’m doing with the gas and this is what you are doing and this is where the time is getting lost and maybe try this and that and the other, he is a super teammate.  I’m lucky to be able to work in the same shop with him.  He has certainly been an influence on my success and my enjoyment in the sport.”

If Johnson’s help turns into the desired win for Earnhardt, it will be only his second top 10 finish of the year. His first came with a fifth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway, a sister track to Charlotte.

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NASCAR America: The challenges of Martinsville Speedway

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What Martinsville Speedway lacks in size compared to other tracks it makes up in difficulty say drivers and NASCAR America’s analysts.

Landon Cassill joined Carolyn Manno, Parker Kligerman and Jeff Burton on Thursday’s show and discussed the challenges of the half-mile paperclip track.

“It can be fun when it’s going well,’’ said Cassill, who will make his Cup season debut this weekend in the No. 00 for StarCom Racing. “That place, if you’re car is not handling well, you can end up going backwards and just by the time you’ve got some clear race track the leader is right behind you. So it can be frustration. I tend to like Martinsville.’’

Kligerman calls racing in the pack at Martinsville Speedway “the most aggressive racing I’ve ever been a part of in my life.’’

Jeff Burton said: “It’s … one of the hardest race tracks we go to period because you have to do it lap after lap after lap and it’s so easy to get, quite simply, just really, really mad at the guy you’re racing with because he’s hitting you and he’s banging on you.’’

Cup drivers have their description of the track. See what NASCAR America’s analysts and Cup drivers have to say about the track that hosts Sunday’s Cup race in the video above.

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Richard Childress Racing reinstates Xfinity crew chief Nick Harrison

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Richard Childress Racing has reinstated Nick Harrison to crew chief  of the No. 3 Xfinity team after he served a five-race suspension for a violation at Daytona International Speedway. 

Harrison’s first race back will be April 8 at Texas.

Harrison was suspended after the No. 3 car of Austin Dillon had a rear suspension violation in pre-qualifying inspection. Harrison and the team’s car chief were ejected by NASCAR after the violation. RCR imposed the suspension.

“I’m looking forward to being back with my team and winning races after my five-race suspension,” Harrison said in a statement from the team.

Brandon Thomas served as the interim crew chief while Harrison was out. Austin Dillon finished a season-best fourth for the team last weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Martinsville breakdown, Aric Almirola and Bubba Wallace

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and features host Carolyn Manno and Parker Kligerman in Stamford, Connecticut, and Jeff Burton and Landon Cassill from Burton’s Garage.

Among the topics today:

  •  Prepare for paint swapping, bent fenders, and bruised egos. It’s time to go short-track racing at Martinsville Speedway! Jeff, Parker and Landon will tell you what to expect this weekend at the famous half-mile. We’ll also see what it takes to succeed there, as Parker takes us for some quick laps in the NBCSN iRacing Simulator.
  • After making the switch to Stewart-Haas Racing in the offseason, Aric Almirola is off to the best start of his Cup Series career. Currently 10th in the standings, he’ll tell Marty Snider about his early season success.
  • Since finishing second at the Daytona 500, rookie driver Bubba Wallace has cooled off. Now he faces his first Cup Series start at Martinsville in the iconic No. 43 car, and he’s feeling confident — it’s where Wallace scored his first truck series win nearly five years ago. We’ll examine the struggles he might have to work through this season and also hear his reflections on his early years of racing in the latest edition of “A Driver’s Drive.”

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/ If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Weekend schedule for NASCAR at Martinsville Speedway

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NASCAR returns to its backyard this weekend after the three week West Coast swing.

The Cup and Camping World Truck Series visit Martinsville Speedway in Southern Virginia.

The weekend is capped off by Sunday’s STP 500. It will be the first Cup race broadcast on Fox Sports 1 this year.

Here’s the full weekend schedule complete with TV and radio info.

(All times are Eastern)

Friday, March 23

8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck garage opens

11:05 – 11:55 a.m. — Truck practice (No TV)

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. — Truck practice (Fox Sports 1)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. — Final Truck practice (FS1)

Saturday, March 24

7 a.m. – 8 p.m. — Cup garage open

7:30 a.m. — Truck garage opens

10:05 – 10:55 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

11:05 a.m. — Truck qualifying; multi-truck/three rounds (FS1)

12:15 p.m. — Truck driver-crew chief meeting

12:30 – 1:20 p.m. — Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

1:30 p.m. — Truck driver introductions

2 p.m. — Alpha Energy Solutions 250; 250 laps/131.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5:10 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 25

9:30 a.m. — Cup garage opens

Noon — Driver-crew chief meeting

1:20 p.m. — Driver introductions

2 p.m. — STP 500; 500 laps/263 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)