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Bump & Run: Will Hendrick struggles continue into playoffs?

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What’s your take on the performance of Hendrick Motorsports with the playoffs two weeks away?

Nate Ryan: Darlington was disappointing for the team, but it still is too early to tell. Hendrick didn’t lead any laps in the 2016 Southern 500, either, but when the playoffs opened at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks later, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson led 193 of 270 laps. It’s conceivable the team will flip the switch again.

Dustin Long: I’m with Nate. The performance has been disappointing, but then you look at what Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott did last year at Chicagoland Speedway and Johnson’s overall record and it’s hard to count this organization out. Still, it is troubling to see all of its cars struggling to find speed.

Daniel McFadin: HMS has 13 top fives this year —but none since Kasey Kahne pulled out a win at the Brickyard six races ago. They haven’t had the speed to be a consistent presence in the top 10 for months. At this point I’ll be surprised if Jimmie Johnson, who hasn’t finished higher than 10th since he won at Dover in June, is able to make a lot of noise in the first round outside of Dover.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even though there will likely be at least three HMS drivers to start the playoffs, it doesn’t mean that any of them will reach the final round. Sure, Jimmie Johnson has three wins, but no other top fives — and just four other top 10s. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see two, if not all three, HMS drivers fail to advance past the first round. 

Martin Truex Jr. has accumulated 52 playoff points with one race left before the postseason – a total far better than any other driver. Does this make him a sure bet to advance all the way to Miami and race for the championship?

Nate Ryan: It would be virtually impossible for him to avoid advancing to the second round, making the third round should be a top-25 cinch, and advancing to Miami shouldn’t be a tall order for this team. A poor finish in the third round probably still knocks out Truex, but he could average a top 10 and easily be racing for a championship for the second time in three years.

Dustin Long: Not a sure bet, but it will give him enough of an advantage to get to at least to the third round. I would be shocked not to see the No. 78 team racing for the championship in Miami.

Daniel McFadin: Truex should be able to waltz through at least the first two rounds, especially with his strong tracks Dover, Charlotte and Chicago waiting for him. But as the final four laps at Darlington showed, it doesn’t matter how good you’ve been in the first 3/4 of race. Anything could trip you up between Chicago and Miami.

Jerry Bonkowski: Truex has had an outstanding regular season and is definitely one of the favorites going into the playoffs. But, if he stumbles in the first round, he could make an early exit like Jimmie Johnson did in 2015. No one is a sure bet in this format, even Truex.

Sunday’s Southern 500 finished with more than 100 laps of green-flag racing. What’s your take on NASCAR being more selective on when it calls debris cautions?

Nate Ryan: It’s commendable. NASCAR should holster the yellow flag for debris whenever possible. Sunday’s finish was a good example of how a track with high tire wear naturally produces drama over the course of a long run without the necessity of re-racking the field with restarts.

Dustin Long: I like that NASCAR has been more selective. It changes the dynamics and strategy. You can still have chaotic finishes (Indy), but by letting the race go green, you can also get a finish like Sunday at Darlington with Denny Hamlin chasing down Martin Truex Jr. for the win.

Daniel McFadin: The lack of mysterious debris cautions is commendable, even if it may or may not have taken criticism from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a post-race Periscope session (and other complaints) after the June Michigan race for NASCAR to take stock of what it throws cautions for.

Jerry Bonkowski: On the one hand, I like that NASCAR is being more selective with debris cautions. But on the other hand, more than 100 laps of green-flag racing can be a detriment, as fans’ attention spans are short. Plus, it’s hard to beat a late-race restart for excitement and how the race ultimately plays out.

Darlington celebrates NASCAR’s 70th birthday by revealing 4th throwback weekend details

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Darlington Raceway on Thursday celebrated the 70th birthday of NASCAR in a big way, announcing details for the fourth annual NASCAR throwback weekend.

The track revealed the 2018 edition of the throwback weekend will celebrate “Seven Decades of NASCAR,” to be held Aug. 31-Sept. 2 at the legendary 1.366-mile track.

The weekend will include the Cup Series’ Bojangles’ Southern 500 and the Xfinity Series’ Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200.

NASCAR held its first of several organizational meetings on Dec. 14, 1947, at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida. That ultimately led to the official formation of NASCAR on Feb. 21, 1948.

The throwback weekend will honor and feature highlights of some of the biggest moments in the sport’s history over its first 70 years.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for Darlington Raceway and the NASCAR industry to celebrate the sport over a seven decade period during our 2018 throwback weekend,” Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp said in a media release.

“We have been era specific the past three years,” Tharp added, “so we felt it was important to recognize the 70th anniversary of NASCAR with our ‘Seven Decades of NASCAR’ celebration next season and give the teams, sanctioning body and others a wider brush to paint a picture capturing memorable moments we might not have celebrated in year’s past.”

Memorable moments to be celebrated include several that took place at Darlington itself, including Ned Jarrett’s record-setting 14-lap victory in the 1965 Southern 500, Ricky Craven’s record-setting photo finish win over Kurt Busch in 2003, and Jimmie Johnson’s 2012 Southern 500 win, which gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career victory, among others.

Cup winners of the first three throwback weekends have been Carl Edwards (2015), Martin Truex Jr. (2016) and Denny Hamlin (2017).

As has been the case for the first three throwback weekends, the track will once again issue commemorative tickets for the Southern 500.

“We have produced commemorative tickets for our fans every year of the throwback program, which is an important part of our platform,” Tharp said. “We appreciate how much the fans have supported Darlington Raceway and want them to walk away from our weekend with a special keepsake that recognizes our rich history and honors the stars of our sport.”

Front Row Motorsports adds Michael McDowell, expands technical alliance with Roush Fenway

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Front Row Motorsports will field entries for David Ragan and Michael McDowell in 2018 while expanding its technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing, the team announced Thursday.

McDowell joins the Bob Jenkins-owned team after four years of driving the No. 95 Chevrolet for Leavine Family Racing before being replaced by Kasey Kahne.

The native of Phoenix, Arizona, McDowell replaces Landon Cassill as Ragan’s teammate.

McDowell, 32, has 249 Cup starts since 2008, but only two full-time seasons under his belt. He made one start for Front Row at Watkins Glen in 2013.

“Since I first drove for Bob at Watkins Glen, we’ve kept in touch and have felt like there might be an opportunity to work together again, and the timing worked out perfectly,” McDowell said in a press release. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a teammate, so I’m really looking forward to working with David, whom I’ve become pretty good friends with over the years. As a team now, we go into the season knowing we have five or six races that put us in position to get a win and earn a spot in the playoffs.”

Ragan returns to Front Row for his fifth season. Ragan earned the organization its first Cup victory in 2013 at Talladega. Ragan has two wins, 15 top fives and 39 top-10 finishes in his Cup career.

“Bob Jenkins and I have developed a good relationship over the years, both professionally and personally,” Ragan said in a press release. “I believe in this team and am proud to have been part of its growth and its successes. I’m excited that Bob and Ford have agreed to take the program to the next level, and I’m happy I’ll be here to help the team continue to grow.”

Crew chief assignments have not been finalized. FRM will announce sponsor partners and driver car numbers at a later date.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘Last Ride’ diecast is Lionel Racing’s bestselling ever

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has set a new benchmark for Lionel Racing’s most purchased diecast in its 25-year history.

Lionel Racing, NASCAR’s official diecast producer, has announced that the diecast of Earnhardt’s “Last Ride” No. 88 Chevrolet in the Cup season finale last month is now its bestselling diecast in company history.

The “Last Ride” car is based on the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet that Earnhardt drove in his rookie Cup season in 2000.

The previous bestseller was another Earnhardt diecast, for his 2014 Daytona 500 win.

Lionel Racing says that QVC’s “For Race Fans Only” show that featured Earnhardt and unveiled the car helped contribute to sales. But even without QVC, sales of the “Last Ride” diecast outpaced the 2014 Daytona 500 diecast by more than 10,000 units.

“The demand for this car has been simply astounding,” Lionel Racing President Howard Hitchcock said on the company’s website. “The fan response to this diecast is a true measure of how much Earnhardt has meant to both casual NASCAR fans and serious diecast collectors.”

Lionel Racing has also revealed the top-10 selling diecasts for the year, which you can find below. Earnhardt has six cars on the list. Chase Elliott has two and Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney each have one.

Casey Mears likely to split 2018 between NASCAR, Global Rallycross and Stadium Super Trucks

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Casey Mears still plans to compete part-time in NASCAR in 2018, but he’s also looking to expand his racing horizons.

The veteran NASCAR driver told The Checkered Flag recently that he also expects to race in the Red Bull Global Rallycross series, as well as Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks series.

“Right now I’m talking to a few NASCAR programs to do maybe limited stuff,” Mears told The Checkered Flag. “I don’t have anything that would be a full-time ride in a NASCAR series.

“I’ve been speaking with Robby Gordon in the Stadium Super Truck program. I think that’s a really cool up-and-coming-series and I’d definitely like to be involved with the GRC. It looks like a lot of fun.

“I think there’s enough difference between all those that it could leave room for doing a bit of both so we’ll see how it works out.”

Mears did not race in the Cup Series in 2017, having lost his ride at the end of 2016 to Ty Dillon in the No. 13 Geico Chevy. He has amassed 488 starts and one win (2007 Coca-Cola 600) in his Cup career, along with 13 top fives and 51 top 10s.

However, he did compete on a part-time basis in 2017 in the Xfinity Series, making 14 starts, with season-best finishes of ninth place at both Richmond and Road America. He also has 107 Xfinity starts with one win, 16 top fives and 34 top 10s.