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One chance: Tonight marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final opportunity to make playoffs

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RICHMOND, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t dealing with fairy tales as he looks ahead to tonight’s race at Richmond Raceway.

The sport’s most popular driver — winless in his last 44 starts — must win to be eligible to contend for a championship in his final full-time Cup season.

“If we had to line-up and race,’’ Earnhardt said Friday afternoon, “I think we’ve got about a sixth- to 12th-place car.

“We could run a fast lap that was a top-10 lap in the first two practices in race trim. After about 30 laps, we were behind the Penske guys on speed and we were behind all the Toyotas on speed by a tenth (of a second) or two. Our teammates don’t look any better. So, I don’t know that we can look in that direction to lean on those guys too much.

“We tried some things in the second practice that won’t get us front-end speed, but we did some things that I think will help our car on the long run. We’ve got to just hope that’s going to work for us in the race.’’

If it does, Earnhardt will follow in the path of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who each qualified for the playoffs in their final full-time seasons in Cup.

If not, then Earnhardt will have 10 races left in a Cup career that has seen him win 26 series races, including two Daytona 500s, and finish in the top five in points three times.

As he gets closer to his final Cup race, he is being asked to reflect more on his career. Friday, he was asked how he wanted to be remembered as a driver.

“I hope that people thought I was good and had some talent,’’ Earnhardt said. “Doesn’t matter to me where on the scale I rank, I just hope people credit me with having some ability.  

“I hope they see me as someone that raced my competitors with respect. That I raced hard, but with respect. There are guys out there that I enjoy racing against, and I hope that is the way people view me, my competitors at least. It’s a big body of work. Looking over my Xfinity races and all the Cup races, I think there is a lot to chew on there and a lot of substance. 

“I feel pretty confident that I made a good impact on the race track as a driver – visually and on paper. Definitely enjoyed a lot of years. There were some bad ones, but I don’t know a lot of drivers that haven’t had some down years. I feel really, really lucky that I had a chance to rebound from that. I didn’t know if we would make it back to victory lane but we got ourselves righted and we won a few more races over the last several years. I think I am a pretty good race car driver, and I hope that people acknowledge that part of it.”

If Earnhardt wins tonight, he would rank it among his top victories in a career that has seen him win in the first Cup race after 9/11 and the first Cup race at Daytona after his father’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

“It would be one of the biggest top-five wins of my career if we were to do that considering the circumstances of win and get in and we’d be in the playoffs and all that good stuff,’’ Earnhardt said.“So, that would be fun.’’

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Martin Truex Jr. wins Stage 1 of New Hampshire playoff race

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Martin Truex Jr. won the first stage of the NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for his 19th stage win of the season.

Pole-sitter Kyle Busch led the race until Truex passed him coming to the start-finish line to start Lap 41. Truex led the final 36 laps of the 75-lap stage.

The top 10 after 75 laps is Truex, Kyle Larson, Busch, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.

Jones was the only non-playoff driver in the top 10.

There were no cautions in the stage.

Joey Logano, who started last after multiple inspection failures kept him from qualifying, finished the stage in 13th.

Playoff driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made contact with the wall during the first 10 laps and finished the stage in 22nd.

Stage 2 will end on Lap 150 of the 300-lap race.

 

Don’t stand for anthem? Richard Childress says get on the bus afterward

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LOUDON, New Hampshire — While many NFL players kneeled during the “The Star-Spangled Banner” before games Sunday, NASCAR crews stood along pit road for the national anthem.

More attention has been paid to the issue since President Donald Trump said in a speech Friday that NFL owners should fire players who kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner.’’

Several NFL players have not stood for the anthem before games to protest the treatment of blacks by police. Former quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the trend last year when he played with the San Francisco 49ers.

Car owner Richard Childress was asked before Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway what the policy was for his team if someone kneeled for the anthem.

“Get you a ride on a Greyhound bus when the national anthem is over,’’ Childress said on pit road. “Anybody that works for me should respect the country we live in. So many people gave their lives for it. This is America.’’

Richard Petty told USA Today: “Anybody that don’t stand up for (the anthem) ought to be out of the country. Period. If they don’t appreciate where they’re at … what got them where they’re at? The United States.”

Car owner Joe Gibbs said he didn’t talk about the issue with his team before the race.

“You’ve got an athletic event and that’s what we’re going to have,’’ Gibbs said.

Car owner Chip Ganassi said: “I like Mike Tomlin’s answer.’’

Tomlin is the coach of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers. All but one of his team’s players stayed off the field for the anthem before its game Sunday.

Tomlin told CBS Sports before the game: “We’re not going to play politics. We’re football players, we’re football coaches. We’re not participating in the anthem today. Not to be disrespectful to the anthem, to remove ourselves from the circumstance. People shouldn’t have to choose. If a guy wants to go about his normal business and participate in the anthem, he shouldn’t be forced to choose sides. If a guy feels the need to do something he shouldn’t be separated from his teammates who chooses not to. So we’re not participating today. That’s our decision.”

Last year, Austin Dillon talked about how the sport displays patriotism.

“I don’t know how it would go over with the fans – we’re a very patriotic sport,” Dillon said if someone in NASCAR would kneel during the anthem. “I think our sport does a good job of showing that every Saturday, Sunday of showing patriotism and what the flag means. Not only that, we have a lot of military out here each and every weekend.

“I’ve got SEAL guys that will personally text me and say, ‘Hey, thank you for not moving around (during the anthem). … It means a lot to them just to stand at attention.”

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Joey Logano looks to rebound from rough weekend, Chase Elliott eyes win (videos)

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It’s been a rough weekend already for Joey Logano.

He failed pre-qualifying inspection four times and was not allowed to make a qualifying attempt, as a result.

Then, NASCAR kept Logano from participating in the final practice Saturday, also being penalized because of failing qualifying inspection.

We caught up with Logano before Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Check out his thoughts for today’s race in the video above, as well as Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett’s thoughts.

Also, check out Chase Elliott, who finished second at Chicgaoland, and his thoughts about today’s race as he once again chases his first potential win for 2017 in the video below.

Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman at New Hampshire: It’s all about getting a win (video)

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Matt Kenseth remains winless thus far in 2017.

A few hours later today, Kenseth hopes to break that winless streak with a visit to victory lane at the conclusion of the ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Kenseth was interviewed before the race by NBCSN and admits that while earning points is important, winning is much more important today.

Will he be able to do it?

Check what Kenseth had to say in the video above.

And then there’s Ryan Newman, who had a disappointing 23rd place finish at Chicagoland and looks to get back on track today.

Check out what Newman had to say in a pre-race interview on NBCSN below.