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

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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: What should Joe Gibbs Racing do about Kyle Busch’s pit crew?

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The first race of Kyle Busch‘s 2017 playoff run did not go well.

After leading 85 laps and winning the first stage, Busch’s day was plagued by consecutive miscues by his new pit crew, which had just been swapped with the one for his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Daniel Suarez.

After pitting early in the stage because of a loose tire, the No. 18 was penalized for crew members going over the wall too soon.

Busch went two laps down and ultimately finished in 15th, one lap down.

On NASCAR America, Parker Kligerman and Kyle Busch addressed the situation Busch’s team finds itself in after one playoff race and what they should do. Both believe JGR should continue with the pit crews as is.

“Is this nerves? Here’s a team that Daniel has run sixth, seventh and eighth (with)” Petty said. “Now you’re asking them to pit for a car that’s running for the championship. The pressure ramps up. Everything’s a little more intense at the sharp end of the stick than when you’re lost in the crowd. Did that get them yesterday? It was just a mental let down. A mental mistake by the gas man to step over the wall. Over than that, I think they could’ve recovered and I think they will recover. This is one race.”

Said Kligerman: “I agree with the decision of going with the 19’s pit crew, because they used analytics. … I’m glad to seem them do that. They saw the numbers, they said ‘this team is better, let’s use them. This is what we’re going to go off of.’ But that doesn’t account for the human factor, which is that you are pitting for a different driver and drivers enter the box differently.”

Watch the video for the full discussion.

NASCAR America: Testing of tires during races ‘fairly common practice’ for NASCAR

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Eyebrows were raised during Sunday’s Cup Series playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway when NASCAR officials disappeared into a blue tent to test tires belonging to the teams of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., dunking them in water.

But Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said it is a “fairly common practice” Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.”

“It’s been going on for a few years,” O’Donnell said. “It’s something we’ve done just to make sure for the competitors, everybody’s on a level playing field. It helps us with Goodyear as well to make sure the tires are legit, which we’ve always found they are.”

It’s an issue the crew chiefs for Busch and Truex are OK with.

“Usually when you’re running good, they’re going to come take them,” Cole Pearn said Sunday. “That’s fine. They’re just doing their due diligence, doing what they should be doing. No issue there.”

NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman weighed in on the story and why fans need to know about NASCAR’s practices concerning tires.

“This is something fans haven’t known about,” Petty said. “This is something maybe the guys inside that square, fenced-in area called the garage area all know about and just take for granted. But the fan … they want to know. ‘Why are you guys doing this? What’s this all about?'”

Said Kligerman: “It’s good that they’re doing this because they’re checking on the fact that teams could be trying to cheat the rules a little bit by making the airs leak out of the tires, therefore having a car on the long run that would be really fast because it would keep the right air pressure.”

Watch the above video for more.

Report: Lawsuit reveals Farmers Insurance paid $666,000 a race to sponsor Kasey Kahne

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Almost a year after Farmers Insurance announced it would cease sponsoring Kasey Kahne following the 2017 season, a report by ESPN reveals that Farmers Insurance paid Hendrick Motorsports roughly $666,000 a race to sponsor the No. 5 Chevrolet in 2017.

ESPN’s report is based on documents in a lawsuit filed by Sports Marketing Consultants related to “a dispute on the percentage of commissions owed on the deal” between Farmers Insurance and Hendrick Motorsports.

Farmers Insurance, which has sponsored Kahne for six seasons, was the primary sponsor on the No. 5 car in 12 races from 2015-17. There are three races left on the 2017 deal.

Farmers was on the No. 5 when Kahne won the Brickyard 400 in July.

Great Clips announced it would also cease sponsoring Kahne in May. A few weeks after the Brickyard win, Kahne’s only victory since 2014, Hendrick announced he would not be back in the No. 5 next season.

Farmers’ initial contract ran from 2012-14, when it sponsored the No. 5 for 22 races each season. Farmers paid Hendrick $13.5 million in 2012, $14.04 million in 2013 and $16.348 million in 2014, according to the ESPN report.

With the decrease to 12 races a year beginning in 2015, the company paid $7.6 million that season, $7.8 million in 2016 and $8 million this season.

The report also describes various performances bonuses for Hendrick in the initial three-year deal, such as winning a race ($450,000-$550,000) and the Cup championship ($1,157,895).

Read the ESPN story for more details on the contracts.

MORE: Kasey Kahne has new crew chief for rest of playoffs

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Social Roundup: Jimmie Johnson helps out with Lowe’s Hurricane Irma relief efforts

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A day after opening the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Jimmie Johnson went to work helping victims of Hurricane Irma in Florida.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver traveled with one of his daughters to Naples, Florida, to work with his sponsor, Lowe’s, to help those whose lives were upended by the storm that impacted the state last week.

Johnson helped to install air conditioning units, clear away fallen trees and more in his efforts.

The trip to Florida comes after Johnson and his fellow Hendrick drivers established the Team Hendrick Disaster Relief Fund in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. With a goal of $500,000, the fund has raised just over $341,500 so far.

Below is a look at Johnson’s day in Florida.