Martin Truex Jr. loses Southern 500; clinches regular-season title

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — Steam rose from his car and sweat poured from Martin Truex Jr.’s face, while Denny Hamlin celebrated a Southern 500 victory Sunday night with a burnout.

It likely would have been Truex smoking his tires and saluting the crowd had his right front tire not blown while leading with two laps to go.

Instead, an exhausted and thirsty Truex — his drink container ran out with 100 laps to go and there was no chance during a green-flag pit stop for his crew to give him another bottle — had to settle for an eighth-place finish.

“It’s interesting, (crew chief Cole Pearn) said he wanted to wait two more laps to pit, and with two to go we blew a tire,’’ Truex said. “It’s crazy how those things work out sometimes. Sometimes it’s just not your night, you know. Tonight wasn’t our night.’’ 

Truex limped around the track for the final two circuits to record his sixth top-10 finish in the last eight races.

“I was so focused on trying to stay off the fence,” Truex said, leaning against his car. “The last 100 laps the groove in (Turns) 3 and 4 was so high, literally just scraping the right rear. I think I scraped it five or six times before I blew a right front and actually hit it. I did the best I could. Just come up short.’’

He took the lead on Lap 326 of the 367-lap race and seemed poised to score his second consecutive win in this event.  

It helped that his biggest challenger, Hamlin, missed pit road while leading on Lap 314. The one advantage Hamlin had despite the miscue was that he had fresher tires than Truex, who stopped on Lap 304. Still, Hamlin needed the race to go to the finish without a caution. The race went caution-free the final 100 laps.

The consolation for Truex was that he clinched the regular-season title, earning 15 playoff points. That goes with the two playoff points he earned for winning both stages.

With one race left until the playoffs start, Truex has earned 52 playoff points and could enter the postseason with at least a 20-point lead on his closest competitor. The advantage should help him advance to the second round and likely the third round.

“Bittersweet night,’’ Truex said. “Lot to be proud of. Clinching the regular season is really, really tough to do. To run at the level we have all season long and as consistent as we have, on pit road, on the race track, engines, just the whole nine yards, putting good setups under the race car for each and every race, just really proud for this team.’’

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NASCAR America: Importance of keeping NASCAR connected to grassroots racing

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The importance of grassroots racing to the future of NASCAR is a constant subject these days thanks to the likes of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson.

Now NASCAR America’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton get their chance to sound off on the subject.

On Tuesday’s episode, the panel of analysts discussed why keeping NASCAR connected to the short tracks and lower series across the country is vital to the sport’s future.

“We don’t have that national series running old short tracks that draws people to the race track but also draws them to the TV on Saturday and Sunday,” Burton said.

Earnhardt brought up an attempt by Bristol Motor Speedway to purchase the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee, last year.  The attempted failed.

“My heart was broken because I thought we had a real opportunity to bring one of the touring series, either the Truck or Xfinity, back to Fairgrounds,” Earnhardt said. “That’s where I think we’re broken or disconnected. The late model guys and the guys that are running on these local tracks don’t have the connection to the Truck Series or Xfinity Series. They need to take those series, Truck or Xfinity, back to the short tracks and bridge that link.”

The three analysts went on to discuss the short tracks and races that were part of their formative racing years.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Scan All from Auto Club Speedway

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Martin Truex Jr. was once again in championship form Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

That fact frustrated some drivers, especially Kyle Busch.

You can hear his frustrations and more in this week’s Scan All.

Here are some highlights.

— “I mean, he’s a (expletive) idiot for racing that hard 30 laps into a (expletive) race.” – Chad Johnston, crew chief for Kyle Larson after contact with Kevin Harvick wrecked Harvick on Lap 39.

Johnston’s tone cooled once Harvick owned up to his mistake.

“Harvick’s taking responsibility for that, so don’t sweat it,” Johnston said.

— “You did a hell of a job keeping it off that inside wall. I was watching on the roof cam and was like, ‘Oh Lord, don’t hit that one.” – Rodney Childers, crew chief of Harvick.

— “I don’t know what the (expletive) he’s got going on, but damn I don’t have that.” – Kyle Busch observing how much better Martin Truex Jr.’s car was performing

— “This thing went from absolutely horrible to even worse than that.” – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

— “I don’t even know what the hell we’re doing, what the hell’s going on and what we’re going to do next. It’s been the same all day. We haven’t made any ground on it.” – Kyle Busch as he struggled to keep pace with Larson and Truex.

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NASCAR America: Biggest storylines through five race weekends

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After five races in the Cup season, NASCAR America’s analysts assessed what the biggest storylines are ahead of this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton took turns sharing what’s stood out to them.

Jeff Burton started off by saying Kevin Harvick‘s success was the “easy answer.”

Burton discussed his surprise at Chevrolet teams underperforming.

“It reminds you in racing that you don’t really know what’s going to happen until it happens,” Burton said. “I’m surprised we haven’t seen more performance from the new Chevy body.”

Earnhardt was surprised at how big Martin Truex Jr’s margin of victory was on Sunday. He beat Kyle Busch by 11.6 seconds.

“I felt like in the first couple of races, maybe we got tricked into thinking the new inspections process had maybe leveled the playing field a little bit, even though Harvick won three in a row,” Earnhardt said. “Then Truex goes out and does what he did last year, maybe even better than he did last year.”

Letarte said his “big shock” for 2018 has been the “lack of change.”

“It’s the same players leading laps that we saw in 2017,” Letarte said. “Everyone is trying to catch up. I’ve always found it the hardest to continue to push your guys, continue to push your race cars when you’re already winning. It’s easy when you’re getting beat to motivate everybody.”

Earnhardt also observed how younger drivers have struggled to shine through five races.

“Across the board, the young guys still aren’t measuring up to the veterans yet,” Earnhardt said.

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Daniel Hemric to make Cup debut at Richmond Raceway in April

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Xfinity Series driver Daniel Hemric will make his Cup debut next month at Richmond Raceway, Richard Childress Racing announced Tuesday on Fox Sports 1’s “NASCAR Race Hub.”

Hemric, 27, will drive the No. 8 Chevrolet for RCR at Richmond on April 21. He will also compete in the Sept. 30 race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course.

A native of Kannapolis, North Carolina, Hemric will be sponsored by Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff in both races. The company serves as an associate sponsor on Hemric’s No. 21 car in the Xfinity Series.

“You only get one chance to make your Cup Series debut, and it is pretty incredible to know that I am able to do it with Richard Childress Racing and with a partner such as Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff,” Hemric said in a press release. “RCR and Smokey Mountain Herbal Snuff have been so influential in so many drivers’ careers – a lot of my heroes growing up. To know they will play a large role in the next step of my career and my initial Cup Series debut is very special.”

MORE: Daniel Hemric’s racing career saved by a Ford Mustang

“Since joining our organization, Daniel Hemric has shown his determination and dedication to this sport both on and off the track,” said Richard Childress in a press release. “Making his Cup Series debut is the next step in his career and we are proud to have him take that step with RCR.”

Hemric is in his second full-time season with RCR in the Xfinity Series. Last season he was part of the championship four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Through five races this season, Hemric is fifth in the standings.

“To make my debut at Richmond will make me feel at home, since I spent years coming up through the ranks at short tracks across the country,” Hemric said. “To do it again in front of my hometown crowd in Charlotte later in the year is an overwhelming feeling. Many people have laid everything on the line to get me to this point and I am extremely grateful to all of those people for putting me in position to get this shot in the Cup Series. These are going to be two very special weekends, to say the least.”

The Richmond race weekend won’t be Hemric’s first time in a Cup car. He was called on by RCR last year to drive Ryan Newman’s car in a Goodyear tire test on the CMS road course. He also practiced and qualified Paul Menard‘s car last November at Texas Motor Speedway.

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