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Rick Hendrick playfully deflects questions about William Byron’s future

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LOUDON, New Hampshire – William Byron continued on his accelerated learning curve through NASCAR’s national series, but Rick Hendrick still wants to hit the brakes on discussing his bright prospect’s future.

“It’s early,” the team owner said with a broad smile after Byron finished third Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “Man, this is just, what, July? Just July.”

But Hendrick has at least one open seat (the No. 88 Chevrolet being vacated by Dale Earnhardt Jr.) in the Cup Series, and Byron, 19, has four top-three finishes in his past five Xfinity Series starts as a rookie for JR Motorsports. Last year, Byron scored a series-high seven victories as a rookie in the Camping World Truck Series, earning a contract with Hendrick Motorsports.

Is he making the case for being promoted to the premier circuit with Hendrick?

“I think a lot of things have to fall into place,” Hendrick said. “He’s doing a great job.”

So is he still too young or could he be a candidate?

“A candidate for what? Mayor?” Hendrick quipped with a laugh.

While he was reticent to discuss the job prospects of Byron, he gladly discussed his latest sublime performance. Bryon started seventh and finished third in the No. 9 Chevrolet, posting the sixth 10 top in the past seven races.

“That was a good race,” Hendrick said. “He did a great job; very impressive the way he works traffic and the feedback on the radio. Really good.

“The guys are giving him good cars, but he’s got a lot of talent, and he’s a quick learner. He’s fast. He goes right to the edge in a hurry. I’m real proud of him.

In an interview Friday, Jimmie Johnson identified Alex Bowman and Byron as options for Hendrick in replacing Earnhardt. The seven-time series champion expressed reservations similar to Hendrick’s about rushing Byron.

Byron was asked Saturday if he was ready for Cup.

“I have no idea, but it’s just good to be running like this,” Byron said. “It feels really good for our team. It’s cool to have Mr. Hendrick out here supporting us and everyone at JR Motorsports. It’s neat. It’s been a good couple of weeks.

“It’s really something to be proud of. I feel like we’re able to build on that and hopefully take it to Indy and keep progressing.”

Kyle Larson wins Stage 1 at Miami, Brad Keselowski leads Championship 4 drivers

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Kyle Larson won Stage 1 of Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, dominating by leading 67 of the stage’s 80 laps, holding a nine-second edge when he took the checkered flag.

Meanwhile, here’s how the four Championship 4 drivers finished after the first 80 laps of the scheduled 267-lap event: Brad Keselowski is second, Kyle Busch is third, Kevin Harvick is fourth and Martin Truex Jr. in fifth.

Truex, with six of his seven wins this season coming on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead-Miami, wasted little time to take the lead away from pole-sitter Denny Hamlin.

The first caution of the race came out on Lap 6 when Joey Gase appeared to blow a tire and hit the Turn 1 wall hard.

During the subsequent pit stop, the only Championship 4 driver to hit pit road for four new tires was Keselowski, putting him off-sequence of the other contenders.

The move worked, though, as Keselowski quickly climbed from ninth on the restart on Lap 9 to third by Lap 12 and second by Lap 14.

Larson, who also pitted with Keselowski, took the lead away from Truex on Lap 13 and held on for the remaining 67 laps of the stage.

On Lap 38, Jimmie Johnson blew a right rear tire and came to pit road for four new tires. Even though there was no caution, all four championship contenders pitted over the following two laps.

On Lap 58, Harvick passed Truex and into third place for the first time in the race, zeroing on Keselowski in second.

Johnson got into the wall again on Lap 60, even though there was no caution, and sustained moderate damage, pitting for four tires and fuel.

Kyle Busch passed Harvick to take over third on Lap 77.

Sixth through 10th were Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer.

Watch: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s fans on what the driver means to them

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The fan base of Dale Earnhardt Jr. is large and devoted.

Those fans, affectionately called “Junior Nation,” has voted Earnhardt as NASCAR’s most popular driver 14 years in a row.

Justin Hartley of NBC’s “This is Us” is a member of Earnhardt’s fan base. The actor narrates the above essay on the close relationship between the driver and his fans.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks to Bob Costas about his career, legacy before final Cup start

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Sunday marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s last start as a full-time Cup driver in NASCAR.

NBC Sports’ Bob Costas sat down with the 14-time most popular driver before the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to get Earnhardt’s thoughts before he climbed in the No. 88 Chevrolet for the last time.

Earnhardt addressed what he hopes his legacy will be after 20 years in the sport as a driver, including his impact on attitudes towards concussions in sports in general.

Earnhardt, who will join NBC Sports in 2018, also talked about what life has in store for him in the near future.

Earnhardt also made sure to credit his devoted fan base for making his career possible.

“I understand the driving force behind my success and opportunity in this sport, whether it be inside the car or outside the car, is all because of Jr. Nation,” Earnhardt said. “This year we’ve tried our best to show appreciation to them.”

Watch the above video for the full interview.


Furniture Row Racing going for Cup title after year of success, tragedy

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It’s been a historic year for Furniture Row Racing, the Cup team that has its base of operations in an old water bed factory in Denver, Colorado.

With Martin Truex Jr. piloting the No. 78 Toyota, they won a team record seven races and a series record six races on 1.5-mile tracks. Combined with a dominating performance under the new stage racing format, Truex has put the team in its second Championship 4 in three years.

But it’s also been a season of perseverance and tragedy.

NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan narrates the above video essay on the story of Furniture Row Racing’s 2017 season.