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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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Cup starting lineup for Sunday’s race at Atlanta

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Kyle Busch will lead the field to the green for Sunday’s Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and have Ryan Newman beside him on the front row.

Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing each placed all four of its cars in the top 12 of the starting lineup.

JGR will have Busch first, Daniel Suarez fourth, Erik Jones 10th and Denny Hamlin 12th. Stewart-Haas Racing will have Kevin Harvick third, Kurt Busch seventh, Clint Bowyer ninth and Aric Almirola 11th.

Reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr. will start 35th in the 36-car field after his car failed to pass inspection before qualifying.

Click here for starting lineup

 

Martin Truex Jr.’s car chief ejected after Atlanta inspection failures

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HAMPTON, Georgia – Defending series champion Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota was the first team to struggle with NASCAR’s new optical scan inspection, and the punishment was a key crew member.

Truex’s Camry failed to clear prequalifying inspection three times Friday, resulting in the ejection of car chief Blake Harris from Atlanta Motor Speedway. Truex will start 35th in Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500.

NASCAR vice president of competition Scott Miller said the car had multiple problems with body scans “for rear-wheel openings and rear-toe failures.”

Furniture Row Racing president Joe Garone said the team couldn’t get a handle on the new Optical Scanning Station. Many teams, including Furniture Row Racing, have replicas in their shops of the system, which relies on high-definition cameras and projectors.

“It’s a new process,” Garone said. “We’re working hard, collectively, the whole garage is to figure the boundaries out and how to get through, and NASCAR is working with their equipment the same way.

“It’s just tough. It’s tough. One time you go through, the next time you don’t. You go through again and some things pass that didn’t pass the time before. It’s just frustrating, but we’ll get it all worked out. It’s just a matter of time.

Crew chief Cole Pearn had a viscerally negative reaction at the station when told by NASCAR officials the car hadn’t passed on its third scan, seven minutes before qualifying was scheduled to begin.

Garone said the vibe within the team was “pretty volatile at the moment, because you’re trying to figure out what you actually did, especially when you feel like maybe the equipment itself is off a little bit. It’s also on our side as well. It’s just a weird set of circumstances. The tolerances are very tight. It’s difficult to get through and push where you need to and be conservative where you need to and figure it all out. It does change every time you go through.”

Miller took umbrage at the suggestion the new station wasn’t reliable (which was a frequent criticism of the previous Laser Inspection Station that the optical scan replaced).

“Of course they’re going to say that, but we had 20 people make it through on the first attempt and multiple people saying how consistent the rear-wheel alignment was vs. our equipment last year,” Miller said. “The only comments I had today on the rear-wheel alignment part was positive comments, not negative comments. We ended up with one (car failing to clear inspection). All I can say is I feel like we did our job.”

Miller said after the third failure, it’s NASCAR’s discretion to suspend a team member and the car chief was chosen because “we’ve tapped the car chief as an important individual.” Miller said if Truex had failed a fourth time, the team would have faced a 10-point deduction under a new penalty structure this season that is focused on race weekend punishments.

Miller implied the team had chosen to skip trying to clear inspection a fourth time to avoid risking further penalty, but Garone said the decision was made because “well, we’re out of time.

“That wasn’t a decision other than a timing decision,” he said. “You know what happens when you rush? The driver goes out, and he’s all amped up, and it’s just not worth doing.”

Truex, who will start 35th Sunday, also will serve a 30-minute practice hold Saturday.

Pole-sitter Kyle Busch, whose Joe Gibbs Racing team supplies Toyota chassis and has an alliance with Truex’s team, was surprised the No. 78 was the only inspection casualty Friday.

“I certainly would have guessed there would have been more; that they wouldn’t have been the only ones,’ Busch said. “I honestly have no clue on what happened to them. I don’t have that information from any of our guys. So I’ll have to figure out what they missed out on being able to get through the OSS.”

Denny Hamlin on Daytona 500 spat with Bubba Wallace: ‘It’s done’

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HAMPTON, Georgia — Denny Hamlin seems to be putting his brief feud with Bubba Wallace in the rearview mirror before Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

After qualifying 12th for the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 (and electing to skip the final round because his No. 11 team felt it wasn’t worth the tradeoff on tire wear), Hamlin told a small group of reporters that “I’d say it’s over with. Moving on. Trust me, it’s done.”

Was the Joe Gibbs Racing driver concerned about the fallout from Daytona?

“Doesn’t concern me,” Hamlin said. “I’ll just keep moving forward and try to do the best I can and let whoever tell their side and let it be.”

Earlier Friday at Atlanta, Wallace said he had been kicked out of a golf group that Hamlin is in because of their feud, which started on the last lap of Sunday’s Daytona 500. He also called Hamlin a “dumb ass” for estimating last week on a podcast that 70 percent of NASCAR drivers are using Adderall.

Did Hamlin plan to talk to Wallace?

“It’s done. It’s done. It’s done.”

Hamlin did briefly address Kevin Harvick’s comments that several veteran drivers are angry at him for the Adderall comment.

“I’ve talked to Kevin,” Hamlin said. “We’re good. Yeah. Trust me, it’s all done, guys.”

 

Kyle Busch zooms to first career Atlanta Cup pole

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Kyle Busch denied Ryan Newman a record-breaking eighth career pole at Atlanta Motor Speedway, nipping Newman to take the top starting spot for Sunday’s race.

Busch earned the pole with a lap of 184.652 mph. Newman ran a lap of 184.419 mph in the final round — a difference of 38-thousandths of a second.

Newman will start second and be followed by Kevin Harvick (184.388 mph), Daniel Suarez (184.229) and Brad Keselowski (183.856). Newman remains tied with Buddy Baker for most career poles at Atlanta with seven. Newman, though, will make his 12th career front row start at Atlanta.

This is Busch’s first career Cup pole at Atlanta and 28th in his career.

Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott all failed to qualify in the top 24 to advance to the second round.

“We’re way off,” Elliott told Fox Sports 1. “Not even close.”

Dillon will start 25th, Blaney 26th and Elliott 27th.

Martin Truex Jr. did not make a qualifying attempt after his car failed three times to pass inspection. Truex won seven of the 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks last season. He was eighth at Atlanta a year ago. Truex will start 35th in the 36-car field.

Click here for qualifying results

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