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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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Justin Allgaier, Cole Custer tied at top of Xfinity playoff standings

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Justin Allgaier and Cole Custer are tied for the top spot in the Xfinity playoff standings after the playoff opener at Kentucky Speedway.

Each driver has 2,057 points.

Allgaier finished third after bouncing back from losing a tire on Lap 19 and going two laps down. He was two laps down for 27 laps and one lap down for 30 before getting back on the lead lap.

Custer, who finished fifth, won the first two stages of the race, earning two playoff points in the process.

The top five in points are Allgaier, Custer, Elliott Sadler (-2), Daniel Hemric (-5) and William Byron (-6).

Click here for the points standings.

Results from Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images
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Tyler Reddick scored his first career NASCAR Xfinity Series win, leading a 1-2 finish for Chip Ganassi Racing on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

Reddick beat teammate Brennan Poole by 14.5 seconds in the playoff opener.

Reddick is the seventh different winner in the last seven series races. He led twice for 66 laps. Reddick had not led any laps until Saturday night.

Playoff contender Justin Allgaier rallied from two laps down after a right front tire went down early in the 200-lap race to finish third. Ryan Preece placed fourth. Rookie Cole Custer, who won both stages, finished fifth.

Click here for race results

Tyler Reddick wins playoff opener at Kentucky for first career Xfinity victory

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Tyler Reddick, a part-time driver for Chip Ganassi Racing, led 66 laps to win the Xfinity Series playoff opener at Kentucky Speedway.

In his rookie year in the series, Reddick earned the win in his 15th start in the No. 42 Chevrolet.

The 21-year-old driver beat teammate Brennan Poole, Justin Allgaier, Ryan Preece and Cole Custer.

“I don’t know if it was necessarily me making a statement, it’s just Chip Ganassi Racing making a statement,” Reddick told NBCSN. “(Crew chief) Mike Shiplett has brought me from ground zero all the way to here. All the guys at Ganassi have gone above and beyond in helping me become a better driver. To be here today is surreal.”

Reddick, who had not led a lap before Saturday night, took the lead for the first time on Lap 126 of the 200-lap race.

Reddick is the fourth Xfinity driver to get his first win this season.

Saturday’s win comes after it was announced on Sept. 14 that Reddick would join JR Motorsports full-time in 2018.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Cole Custer

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer

MORE: Race results

MORE: Points standings

WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: Justin Allgaier bounced back from losing a tire and going two laps down to finish third. He leaves Kentucky tied with Cole Custer at the top of the playoff standings. … Brennan Poole’s runner-up finish is a career-best result in 77 starts … Ryan Preece has finished in the top four in all three of his starts for Joe Gibbs Racing. … Ryan Reed finished 10th, ending an eight-race streak without a top 10.

WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT: Sam Hornish Jr. finished 31st, nine laps down after contact with Brandon Jones on Lap 53 caused him to hit the wall at the exit of Turn 2, forcing him to pit for repairs. … William Byron finished 18th, two laps down after he was forced to pit on Lap 101 for a loose wheel.

NOTABLE: The No. 2 of Ben Kennedy failed rear heights in post-race inspection. … Reddick is the seventh different driver to win in the last seven races this season. … Reddick is the seventh different winner in the last eight races at Kentucky.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “I was about the color of my car (red) there for a little bit.” – Justin Allgaier after finishing third following a rebound from going two laps down early in the race.

NEXT: Drive Sober 200 at Dover International Speedway at 3 p.m. ET on Sept. 30 on NBCSN.

Social Roundup: Sights from first Martinsville night race

Marty Snider
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The wait is over.

Night racing at Martinsville Speedway is now a reality.

After tests and practice sessions, the half-mile track in Virginia hosted the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 and its qualifying races Saturday night for the NASCAR Late Model Series, which was won by Timothy Peters.

In attendance at the race were Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Daniel Suarez, as well as NBCSN’s Marty Snider, who watched his son Myatt compete in the race.

Here’s a look at some of the sights and sounds from the historic night for NASCAR’s oldest track.