Dale Earnhardt Jr. does best to balance fan expectations vs. interactions

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Dale Earnhardt Jr, experiencing his own troublesome time in his final season of NASCAR Cup racing, has sympathy for Danica Patrick.

Last weekend a Facebook Live video showed Patrick lecturing fans and saying ‘I have feelings, too” after she was booed for not signing autographs at Pocono Raceway.

Earnhardt said on his weekly podcast, “She’s had a tough year. She’s under tons of pressure. She’s under a lot of pressure. I can completely relate to where she is mentally.”

Earnhardt later added, “I hate it for Danica because it paints her in a bad light, but she brought it on herself. … You never know when a camera’s rolling, whose watching. It’s certainly true in that case.”

In the latest episode of the Dale Jr. Download, the 14-time most popular driver addressed a big debate that’s come out of the video — is it a driver’s job to sign autographs?

Earnhardt discussed how signing autographs works as sort of therapy for him, especially in a season where he’s struggling to perform on the track.

“The thing is I have found that what makes me feel better is actually going and signing autographs because the fans talk to you and go ‘I saw your qualifying, I saw it wasn’t very good. No problem, you’re going to get them tomorrow,’ Earnhardt said. “That’s all you really want to hear, from whoever is going to tell you that. You’re feeling like crap, you’re disappointed. … Going and actually going to talk to the fans and hearing their reinforcement, their positive reinforcement is good for me. I kind of seek that out in those moments because I know once I go through that process of signing some autographs, talking and interacting, you kind of get your priorities readjusted, what’s important.

“They tell you what you need to hear. ‘Get over this. Tomorrow’s another day.’ I’ll dwell on things and make an ant hill a mountain and make a problem much worse than it really is in my head. So for me it’s good therapy to interact.”

Even though he is the most high-profile face in NASCAR, Earnhardt still gets to experience life as a fan when he encounters celebrities from other walks of life. So he understands when a racing fan is let down by an encounter with a driver at the track.

“When I meet a famous person, I just want to walk away feeling like ‘Man, I’m glad I pull for that guy’ or ‘Man, it was cool to meet him,’ ” Earnhardt said. “I hate to say it this way, cause I think it puts a little unnecessary pressure on that celebrity, but you just don’t want to be disappointed by the way they act, how they interact with you. It can be quick and small. I don’t think people or myself have to have five minutes or an hour of your time. But just don’t be an a****** or disappoint. I like to take pictures. If I see, even today, if I see a celebrity, I kind of really want a picture with them. So I can post it on my social media.”

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Ryan Blaney paces final Cup practice at Bristol

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Ryan Blaney posted the fastest lap in Friday’s final Cup practice at Bristol Motor Speedway with a lap of 128.554 mph.

He was followed by Kyle Larson (128.065 mph), Ryan Newman (127.784), Jamie McMurray (127.487) and Kyle Busch (127.258).

Chris Buescher, who will remain with JTG Daugherty after this season, was next on the speed chart with a lap of 127.098 mph.

Matt Kenseth had the best average over 10 consecutive laps at 125.930. Busch was next at 125.601 mph.

Click here for practice report

In the session’s only incident, Timmy Hill spun but did not hit the wall.

Qualifying is scheduled for 5:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Chris Buescher signs deal to remain at JTG Daugherty

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Chris Buescher has signed a multi-year contact to remain at JTG Daugherty in the No. 37 Chevrolet, the team announced Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“Really excited to be able to get everything worked out,” Buescher said. “We’ve been able to make a lot of progress this season.”

The team also announced that crew chief Trent Owens has signed an extension to remain with the team.

Buescher was loaned to the team before this season by Roush Fenway Racing because that organization had no room for him. With this new deal, Buescher will no longer be aligned with Roush Fenway Racing.

Roush also leased a charter to JTG Daugherty for the No. 37 car this season. That charter must be returned after this year. Car owner Tad Geschickter said the team had an agreement to purchase a charter.

“That paperwork is going to be submitted to NASCAR this week,” Geschickter said.

He also said that the team has “several years” on its agreement to remain aligned with Richard Childress Racing.

Buescher won the 2015 Xfinity championship for Roush Fenway Racing and was loaned to Front Row Motorsports in 2016 to run in Cup. He won at Pocono as a rookie to earn a spot in last year’s playoffs. Buescher finished 16th in the points.

The 24-year-old Buescher is 25th in the points heading into Saturday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). Buescher finished a season-best sixth last week at Michigan International Speedway.

The signing is not unexpected. Buescher said last month at Indianapolis that he and the team were working on a new deal.

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Tonight’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

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After two road courses, the Xfinity Series goes short track racing tonight with the Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

While Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes his first Xfinity start of the year, Kyle Busch attempts to get his second win of the week as he tries to complete a sweep of all three NASCAR races in “Thunder Valley.”

Below is all the info you need ahead of tonight’s race on NBCSN.

(All times are Eastern)

START: Kenny Hawkins, WJHL-TV News Channel 11 anchor and sports director, will give the command to start engines at 7:38 p.m. Green flag is set for 7:43 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 300 laps (159.9 miles) around the .533-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 85. Stage 2 ends on Lap 170.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: Qualifying is scheduled for 3:40 p.m. The driver/crew chief meeting is at 5:15 p.m. Driver introductions are at 7:05 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Jason Lovins will perform the Anthem at 7:31 p.m.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will broadcast the race at 7:30 p.m. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Countdown to Green. The Performance Racing Network radio broadcast begins at 7 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts a temperature of 81 degrees and a 32 percent chance of rain at race time.

LAST TIME: In April, Erik Jones led the final 21 laps and won his second Bristol spring race. Last August, Austin Dillon won the Food City 300 in an overtime finish. The only laps he led were the final four.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying is set for 3:40 p.m.

JGL Racing to honor Cale Yarborough with paint scheme at Darlington

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JGL Racing’s No. 28 will pay tribute to Cale Yarborough next month at Darlington Raceway as part of the track’s throwback weekend.

Dakoda Armstrong will pilot the car, which will mirror the paint scheme Yarborough had for the 1983 and ’84 seasons. Yarborough won the Daytona 500 both seasons. Yarborough became the first driver to run a qualifying lap at more than 200 mph at Daytona before crashing on the second lap. He came back to win the 500 in his backup car.

The NASCAR Hall of Famer won 83 races and three championships in his Cup career. Yarborough and Jimmie Johnson are tied for sixth on the career Cup victory list.

“Once again, we look forward to paying tribute to one of the icons of this sport,” said James Whitener, owner of JGL Racing, in a statement.  “We really look forward to this Darlington weekend every year and ways that we can make it bigger and bigger from our end.  Cale is one of the great champions in NASCAR history and to honor him at his home track of Darlington Raceway is pretty cool for me and everyone on this JGL Racing team.  We look forward to a fun-filled weekend in Darlington and a solid run in the No. 28 “Cale Yarborough Tribute” Toyota.”