Dale Earnhardt Jr. confident but ‘aware’ he’s running out of time to make playoffs

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — This is the race many have waited for, some figuring it will be Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s best chance to win and make the playoffs in his final Cup season.

If he doesn’t win tonight’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m., NBC), some suggest he won’t win any of the remaining nine races and will miss the playoffs.

Earnhardt knows there are doubters. What would he tell them?

I don’t think I’ve done much on the racetrack in the last several weeks to change your opinion or anyone else’s opinion if they had that,’’ Earnhardt said after winning the pole Friday. “With Greg (Ives, crew chief) and my team, I’m confident in them that we can show up anywhere and surprise everybody.

“If we don’t happen to come out of here and win this race, the urgency will pick up as it would as every week goes by, but I’m confident in our ability to get a win. We can go to Pocono and win. We can go to Michigan and win. I don’t see why we couldn’t go to those places and win. We were pretty competitive at both of those tracks, just to name a couple.’’

Earnhardt also understands the challenge he’ll face if he doesn’t win tonight at Daytona, a track he has 17 career total victories, including two in July (most recently in 2015).

“We are running out of time, and I’m aware of that,’’ Earnhardt said.

Teammate Chase Elliott says he sees a different Earnhardt this weekend.

“I won’t say he has a chip on his shoulder – but I do think he has been very, very determined this weekend on making sure his car is driving exactly like he wants it,’’ said Elliott, who starts second. “He doesn’t want it good. He doesn’t want it great. He wants it perfect, and I think he has made that very apparent in our post-practice meetings. So yes, I think he is very determined to run well here.’’

The problem is if Earnhardt doesn’t win at Daytona, where does he win since he won’t make the playoffs via points?

  • At Kentucky, he has two top-10 finishes in six starts and has never finished better than fourth (2012)
  • At New Hampshire, he is winless in 33 career starts. His best finish is third but it was in 2004.
  • At Indianapolis, he is winless in 16 career starts. His best finish is fourth in 2012.
  • At Pocono, he has two wins in 34 career starts. His wins both came in 2014. He finished second there in the 2016 June race.
  • At Watkins Glen, he is winless in 16 career starts. His best finish is third in 2003.
  • At Michigan, he has two wins in 35 career starts. He has five top-10 finishes in his last six starts there.
  • At Bristol, he has one win in 34 career starts. He finished second in the spring race there last year.
  • At Darlington, he is winless in 21 career starts. He finished second there in 2014.
  • At Richmond, the final race before the playoffs begin, he has three wins in 35 career starts. He has two top-10 finishes in his last seven starts there.

“I know what I need to do on the race track and I will try and go out there and do that this weekend and drive the race that I need to drive,’’ Earnhardt said of what he faces Saturday night. “Hopefully, that has me in position at the end of the race.’’

If he wins, it would be quite a celebration at a track that means so much to Earnhardt.

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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:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. 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)