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Dale Earnhardt Jr. laments final Cup finish at Bristol, but still has playoff hopes

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. coined one of NASCAR’s most popular phrases – “It’s Bristol, baby” – when he won the summer night race at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2004.

Fast forward 13 years and following Saturday night’s race there, it’s now “It used to be Bristol, baby” for Earnhardt.

Earnhardt’s hopes of wrapping up his 35-start Cup tenure at Bristol didn’t turn out the way he planned, finishing 23rd, three laps down.

It was his second consecutive finish of 20th or worse and fourth in his last seven starts this season.

“We struggled,” Earnhardt said after the race. “We had a real fast car for like 10-15 laps and then we would just real, real tight, so we struggled all day trying to figure it out.

“We weren’t good and we weren’t going to fix it on pit road either. We’ve got a lot of tools on pit road to really get after it, but the problems we had we couldn’t fix with wedge or trackbar.”

Now, after nearly three dozen career Cup starts at NASCAR’s so-called Last Great Coliseum, amassing one win, eight top-fives and 16 top-10s, Junior will never pass this way again.

Sure, he’ll keep returning to BMS for many more years to come as a NASCAR On NBC broadcaster and NASCAR Xfinity team co-owner, but never again as a Cup racer.

I think I will much rather enjoy coming here and watching,” Earnhardt said with a laugh after Saturday night’s race.”

But there’s little humor at how his season has gone, and Bristol only added to the disappointment and frustration of what has been much of the 2017 season for him.

“This race track can be a lot of fun (but also) can be very difficult,” Earnhardt said. “There is never really no middle ground. We struggling, gosh, I just don’t know what to do. We were pretty quick for the first 20 laps, passed five cars and then we dropped like a rock.”

Earnhardt has now finished 20th or worse in 12 of this season’s first 24 NASCAR Cup races. He’s 22nd in the point standings, with zero wins, one top-five and just four top-10s this season.

If he keeps up that pace, Earnhardt’s final season as a NASCAR Cup driver has the possibility of ending up as one of the worst full-time seasons of his career (not including last year’s half-season due to injury).

If not the worst.

But NASCAR’s 14-time most popular driver is quick to not point a finger of blame for his team’s struggles at crew chief Greg Ives, his pit crew or race preparation and car building back at Hendrick Motorsports’ campus.

He even took to social media to reiterate it:

Granted, Earnhardt still has a chance to make the NASCAR Cup playoffs, but it’s an all-or-none proposition. He’s 22nd in the playoff standings with no stage wins or playoff points to date this season.

He has to win either at Darlington (21 career starts there with 0 wins, 4 top-fives and 10 top-10s) or the final playoff-qualifying race at Richmond (35 starts, 3 wins, 10 top-fives and 14 top-10s) to make the 16-driver playoffs.

The odds are long, but Earnhardt isn’t going to stop trying.

We’ve just got to get our stuff together as a team,” Earnhardt said. “The team works closely enough with me to know that I’m plugged in and they still see something in me that gives them confidence that if we can get the cars going and get everything working right, we can have some good runs.

“There is still some time to make that happen, but we’ve got a long way to go to catch some of those guys.”

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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.

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.