Nationwide returning to No. 88 car, Axalta adding more races with hiring of Alex Bowman

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Nationwide will return as a sponsor of the No. 88 car next year with Alex Bowman taking over the ride for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday.

The team also announced that Axalta will sponsor the car in 15 races, an increase of two from this season. Axalta’s contract goes through the 2018 season. Axalta has been with Hendrick Motorsports since 1992 and a sponsor of the No. 88 car since 2016.

“Our relationship with Nationwide is unbelievable,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said in a statement. “They have a true passion for NASCAR and our fans, and to have them extend with us is gratifying for our whole team. It’s also a credit to the way Alex carried himself last season and built lasting relationships. We’re fortunate to work with partners like Nationwide and Axalta that have built impactful, enduring programs around the countless opportunities our sport provides.”

Nationwide’s contract was to have expired after this season. The company is serving as the primary sponsor for Earnhardt in 21 races this season.

Nationwide joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2014 as a corporate partner and became a majority sponsor of the No. 88 Chevrolet and Earnhardt in 2015.

“We are thrilled to continue our relationship with Hendrick Motorsports and welcome Alex to the No. 88 Nationwide team,” said Terrance Williams, chief marketing officer at Nationwide, in a release from Hendrick Motorsports. “Rick Hendrick and the No. 88 team have been exceptional partners for the last three years, and we look forward to our joint commitment and engagement with the NASCAR community, both on and off the track.”

Hendrick Motorsports announced in January 2016 that Mountain Dew would serve as a primary sponsor of Earnhardt’s car for three races through 2018 while also serving as a primary sponsor for Chase Elliott’s car in two races annually and Kasey Kahne’s car for one race per year.

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Bump & Run: 2017 NASCAR accolades

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Who is your driver of the year?

Dustin Long: William Byron. While Martin Truex Jr. had the best season, I’m just amazed at what Byron has done with such little experience. Yes, he’s been in top equipment but he’s still had to wheel the car. What Byron already has done makes me wonder just what is to come.

Jerry Bonkowski: Martin Truex Jr. No other driver came close. One of best feel-good stories in NASCAR since Alan Kulwicki won the Cup championship in 1992.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr.. Eight wins, his first Cup title and too many career-best stats to list in the most memorable driver campaign over a full season in recent years.

Who is your rookie of the year?

Dustin Long: William Byron. See previous answer.

Jerry Bonkowski: William Byron. Has made it look easy thus far in his career. Now comes the real test with his promotion next season to Cup racing and Hendrick Motorsports.

Daniel McFadin: William Byron. Won the Xfinity title with four wins, the most among series regulars and once again proved how quickly he can adept to a new level of racing.

Who is your crew chief of the year?

Dustin Long: Cole Pearn. Was strong throughout the season and finished it with a split-second pit call that put Martin Truex Jr. in position to win the championship and close out a fantastic season.

Jerry Bonkowski: Cole Pearn. Overcame adversity several times, kept his cool most of the time, planned strategy methodically and if he or team made a mistake, admitted it and moved on. I truly believe he and Martin Truex Jr. have another one or two more championships in them. 

Daniel McFadin: Cole Pearn. In the first year of the stage format, he figured it out quicker than anyone and schooled the field all season long with Martin Truex Jr.

After seeing this playoff format for the first time, is there anything with it or related to it you’d consider changing for next year? Why?

Dustin Long: I’m fine with how it went. Let’s be careful of changing things for change’s sake.

Jerry Bonkowski: While I like the stages format, I feel that each race should be broken down into three stages of equal length. In other words, if it’s a 267-lap race, it should be divided equally to where each stage is 89 laps. Also, I’d like to see lap counting stop after each of the first two stages and resume on the ensuing restart, unlike what we see now where the second and final stages oftentimes log six or seven laps under caution before a restart for the next stage. 

Daniel McFadin: I like this format immensely after just one season. The only change I would like to see is making sure caution laps after stage conclusions don’t count. Starting a stage with four to five laps already ticked off takes away from the fan experience and gives less race for drivers and teams to work with.

Virginia’s Motor Mile Speedway to end short track racing, drops NASCAR sanction

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Motor Mile Speedway has decided to not renew its NASCAR sanction for 2018, ending its reign as a circle track.

The .416-mile paved oval track in Fairlawn, Virginia, will undergo a significant transformation starting next year which does not include short track racing. A NASCAR Home Track, it has hosted the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series for a number of years and hosted a number of then-Busch Series races nearly 30 years ago.

While it may return to host some select racing events in the future, track officials in a news release announced it will soon host “a variety of entertainment and sporting events.”

“We have tried to make the speedway successful, but with a downturn in interest, it’s increasingly difficult to make it work,” Speedway co-owner David Hagan said in a media release. “We are looking at a variety of events to bring new life and excitement to the property.

“The schedule could include everything from concerts, mud runs, festivals, camping, and even new racing events at some point.  You name it and it’s probably come up at our table.”

Located about an hour southwest of Roanoke, Virginia, the speedway sits on a 170-acre parcel of land. While the speedway will cease holding races, it’s adjacent drag strip will continue to operate for sportsman racing.

Click here for the full media release from the speedway.

NASCAR issues three lug nut penalties in final penalty report of season

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NASCAR has issued three penalties to crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts following the championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jason Ratcliff, crew chief on the No. 20 Toyota driven by Matt Kenseth, has been fined $20,000 and suspended one Cup points race for two unsecured lug nuts.

Ratcliff will be moving to the Xfinity Series to serve as Christopher Bell’s crew chief next season. The suspension is series specific. So he will be available to crew chief Bell in the season-opening race at Daytona.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief on Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Ford, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

In the Camping World Truck Series, Phil Gould, crew chief on Ryan Truex‘s No. 16 Toyota, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

Watch: Denver-area fans celebrate Martin Truex Jr.’s championship

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Barney Visser’s Furniture Row Racing is the only Cup team headquartered west of the Mississippi River, claiming Denver, Colorado, as its home.

Since the team began competing in NASCAR in 2005, the team has built up a dedicated fanbase in the city.

Those fans were rewarded when Martin Truex Jr. won Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 and claimed the team’s first Cup championship.

One watch party in the area took place the Quaker Steak & Lube in Westminster, just north of Denver.

A fan has shared video of the moment Truex captured the championship.

Above, you can watch the Furniture Row Racing fans in attendance celebrate during the final lap of the race.