NASCAR America: Furniture Row Racing no longer an underdog

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With his win Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, Martin Truex Jr. claimed his series-best fifth Cup win of the year. It’s also a career-best.

Four of those five wins have come at 1.5-mile tracks.

NASCAR America analysts Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman discussed the success of Furniture Row Racing, who just two years ago was considered the cinderella story of the playoffs when it made the championship race.

“Realistically, he could have won the last three races the Cup Series has run,” Petty said. “When you have that type of car, when you have that type of team and you’re that type of driver, anything less than coming home the (championship) trophy is a let down.”

Truex won two of the three races in the first round last year before being eliminated in the second round.

The dominance of the No. 78 team comes three years after Truex’s first season with the team, in which it finished 24th in the standings, led one lap all year and claimed one top five.

“We’re watching a guy that’s hitting his peak right now,” Kligerman said. “You’re definitely going to have a chip on your shoulder because he hasn’t always been at this level.”

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Long: Past, present come together for thrilling Daytona 500 finish

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — The kids paid homage to history and became part of it after Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Against a purplish sky, as day transitioned to night at Daytona International Speedway, the scoring towers blazed with the No. 3 and No. 43 in the top two spots. Not since April 1987 at Bristol have those iconic numbers stood together atop the results of a NASCAR Cup race.

But instead of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty in those cars, it was Austin Dillon piloting the No. 3 to the victory and rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. driving the No. 43 to a runner-up finish.

And in a nod to the sport’s rough-and-tumble days, the car ahead of the No. 3 on the final lap spun out of the lead after contact. A trail of sparks and smoke produced the lasting image of Aric Almirola’s car instead of it covered in confetti in Victory Lane.

Almirola, though, held no grudge against Dillon.

After all, that’s just racin’.

That’s what the public wants. The sport has faced a tug-of-war with fans ton how to make the racing more exciting. Older fans long for past days, recalling the rivalries but overlooking that the competition wasn’t always so balanced. New fans need more to keep engaged.

Stages were added last year to enhance the racing. It created chaos Sunday. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and youngsters Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Ty Dillon were eliminated through no fault of their own in a crash just before the first stage ended.

That was one of four multi-car crashes. Each time wayward cars avoided the path Dillon and Wallace took.

Then again, both Dillon and Wallace have taken their own paths through the years.

Dillon, the grandson of car owner Richard Childress, drove the No. 3 when he raced as a child. To NASCAR fans that number represented Earnhardt and became sacred after his death on the last lap of this race in 2001.

Childress admits he was “ready to get out of the sport” after the death of his best friend. What was left? His friend was gone.

“The relationship that him and Dale Earnhardt had was a friendship that you don’t find every day,’’ Dillon said. “I mean, it’s one of those friendships, a best friend that you trust and you love. I could tell how much as I grew older their friendship meant and still wears on him because he misses him.’’

Childress recalled a conversation he and Earnhardt had on a mountain in New Mexico during a hunting trip. The two men reflected upon their mortality. They agreed to go on if something happened to the other.

With that, Childress kept racing through the sadness and emptiness.

Then something came along to lift Childress’ spirits. His grandsons Austin and Ty. Both played sports but followed their father into racing. Childress backed them in the early days and groomed them, hoping they could carry Richard Childress Racing further.

As Austin Dillon progressed, he and Childress had a conversation about the No. 3. Dillon still used it but the closer he moved to NASCAR’s national series, the touchier the subject was for some.

“That was Dale’s number,’’ Childress reminded Austin.

“No it isn’t,’’ Austin told pop-pop. “It’s your number. You drove it, and that’s why I want to do it.’’

Childress was convinced that Dillon should continue to drive it in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series. The number had not run a Cup race since the Feb. 18, 2001, at Daytona. Until Austin did in 2014.

For Wallace, who has raced since a child, it is race that sets him apart.

He became the first African-American to compete in the Daytona 500 since Wendell Scott in 1969. Wallace’s achievement earned a tweet from Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton wishing him well.

“I got weak at the knees,’’ Wallace said.

Before he climbed into his car, Wallace was given the phone. Former Major League Baseball home run record holder Hank Aaron wanted to wish him good luck.

“Just knowing that people are tuning in and hopefully noticing the new face and the new change that’s coming to NASCAR and they get behind it and support it. Just exciting,’’ Wallace said.

Still, both drivers — essentially teammates with Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports in an alliance — were not the main story entering the 60th running of this race.

Dillon didn’t have time to ponder such things before Sunday’s race.

He was trying to console his wife about 90 minutes before the race. Dillon couldn’t understand why his wife cried as they prayed with family members in their motorhome.

‘’Are you okay?’’ Dillon asked Whitney. “What’s wrong?’’

Dillon’s words were not soothing.

“She kind of got mad at me for like, why are you crying,’’ he said. “She stormed off. So I walked back to the bathroom, like, ‘Babe, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?’’

“I get emotional when it comes to you,’’ Whitney told him.

“That’s good, but it’s okay, I’m going to be okay, it’s all good,’’ Dillon reassured. “We had it out there for a second, and I was like, ‘Look, before I get in this race car, my mind has got to be right, so tell me you love me.’ And she’s like, ‘I love you. That’s why I’m crying.’ ’’

Then she told him something else.

“This one is not going to be easy,’’ she said of the race.

“You’re not going to lead every lap and be up front much, but you’re going to do it when it’s clutch, you’re going to win when it matters, on the last lap,’’ she said.

It wasn’t just Whitney’s words with him. He had a lucky penny in his car — just as Earnhardt had in the No. 3 car when he won the 1998 Daytona 500.

Dillon got the penny earlier this week while doing an autograph session outside the garage. A child in a white Ford hat came through the line. Dillon, a Chevrolet driver, took off his hat, signed it and gave it to the child.

“I’ve got to be your favorite driver, right?’’ Dillon told the child he estimated to be 8 years old.

The next day, Dillon saw the child wearing his hat outside the garage fence. Dillon approached him. The child gave Dillon a penny that he put in his car.

Between Whitney’s words and the penny, Dillon only led only the final lap. Actually, he led less than half a lap, taking the lead after the contact with Almirola.

“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him,’’ Dillon said. “I guess that was my other option, give up a Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing. I don’t know, I’m glad he’s not mad. If he needs to do it to me at Talladega for everybody to feel good, I’ve got a Daytona 500 championship trophy, ring, whatever. I don’t care. I’ve got the 3 back in Victory Lane.’’

Back where Dillon was in 1998 as a 7-year-old, celebrating Earnhardt’s win that day and collecting all the sponsor hats the team wore.

Sunday, they were in Victory Lane for him. Childress and the team laughed, sprayed champagne and celebrated a night they hadn’t enjoyed after the Daytona 500 since last winning it in 2007.

As the team members posed for pictures with their sponsor hats, they didn’t raise their index finger to signal they were No. 1 as they cheered.

They didn’t raise two fingers for the number of Cup wins Dillon now has.

They raised three fingers.

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Keeping pace with ‘The King’? Hard to do after second at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – For perhaps the first time in NASCAR history, “The King” wasn’t signing autographs.

“No, ain’t got time now buddy,” Richard Petty, smiling broadly but striding briskly below his famous black cowboy hat, said to a fan holding up a sharpie and program as he entered the pit lane at Daytona International Speedway, urgently searching for his famous No. 43 Chevrolet.

The 80-year-old’s purposeful pace finally slowed as he reached crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, who informed Petty why his car was nowhere to be found – because driver Darrell “Bubba” Wallace was involved in a postrace crash with Denny Hamlin.

“Did we beat him?” Petty asked.

“Yeah, we beat him,” Blickensderfer said.

Petty smiled while dropping his shades off his nose, turned on his heels and made a beeline back down the pit lane and into the garage, where he waved to throngs of fans cheering from the Fan Deck above while turning down three more autograph-seekers.

He paused briefly to escape the path of a wrecker towing the battered No. 43 back to the hauler and then tore off again for the care center.

Most you’ve walked in a while, King? “You got that! Damn right.”

He disappeared inside the care center and then emerged with Wallace, whom he gave a bear hug. He chatted briefly with family members and kept smiling while staring up at the scoring pylon before wandering over to some waiting reporters with a playfully gruff, “What do you want?”

Not a bad start to the season, huh?

“Almost,” Petty said. “(Wallace) was laying in there, and they was checking his blood pressure, and I walked in and said, ‘What was the last thing I told you?’ ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Don’t tear up my car.’ He just went out. I think his blood pressure went to 330!

“I wasn’t going to blame him. That’s for dang sure.”

Wallace, who placed a career-best second as the highest-finishing African-American in the 60-year history of the Daytona 500, later recounted his version of events.

“My heart is still pumping over that, sitting on the cot in the infield care center,” Wallace said. “(Petty) walks in livid, and he first thing he said, what’s the first thing I told you, with a very stern attitude and look, and I’m like, ‘Ummmm,’ and he says, ‘I told you not to wreck the car,’ and I was like, ‘I didn’t do it.’  So we shared a good laugh, and he come in and gave me a big hug after that.

“To see the smile on his face, I think you had to be there to experience that moment.”

The smile never left Petty’s face, which lit up when asked to describe Wallace’s performance.

“They’d make pit stops because they was adjusting the car, and he’d run himself back up to sixth, seventh,” Petty said. “He probably passed more cars than anybody. But he was in the race all day long. That was good. It was a good day for us.”

Particularly for a team that is hunting for sponsorship. Wallace scored Richard Petty Motorsports’ best finish since Aric Almirola’s July 2014 victory at Daytona.

“This shouldn’t hurt anything,” Petty said. “If we could have won the race, it would have been better, but second is the best thing besides winning. He was in the race all day long. That made us feel good.”

The seven-time champion seems to be in great spirits ever since hiring the 24-year-old Wallace, who said he served as Petty’s “Uber driver” for a Saturday night dinner.

“We were just making small talk, no cameras there,” Wallace said. “He’s been here since Day 1 running on the beaches, and ever since this was built, and just hearing all that just was like, ‘Wow.’ First of all, I wasn’t even born yet, wasn’t even a thought yet.  My parents were just born.  Just kind of showing his age there, and just hearing what he had to talk about.”

After Wallace excelled in a four-race audition substituting for an injured Almirola last season, RPM hired him last November. Petty has said Wallace puts the team in step with the new generation of fresh faces in Cup this season.

Does he also provide the car owner with extra energy?

“I’m trying to give him energy,” Petty said. “I’ve got plenty!”

Someone told him he had just proved that on his dash through the pits.

“Nobody could keep up,” he said with a wink.

Late Daytona wreck keeps Martin Truex Jr. from picking up where he left off last season

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Last season, Martin Truex Jr. won a series-high eight races en route to capturing his first career NASCAR Cup championship.

Truex hoped to pick up where he left off at the end of last season with his first career win in the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t his day, as Truex finished 18th in the season opener.

But that’s not to say he wasn’t close. On the contrary. Truex was running second with seven laps left, but was shuffled back after being involved in a wreck with two laps left in originally scheduled 200-lap distance.

And there went his winning hopes.

MORE: Bubba Wallace gets pre-race good luck call from baseball legend Hank Aaron

While his team managed to get him back on-track, the damage was done and he finished two laps down to the leaders.

“Not the day we were looking for,” Truex said. “It was our day for a while and then it wasn’t. It’s just the way it goes.

“Superspeedway racing – a lot of it is out of your control. That last caution in hindsight, we probably should have gotten tires. Tried to come up from the back because we were sitting ducks upfront.”

That he was running second so late in the race is a testament to the efficiency of Truex and his team. Earlier in the race, the No. 78 Toyota had fallen two laps back due to a punctured oil cooler, front end damage and a flat right rear tire after being caught up in a wreck.

But Truex managed to work his way back onto the lead lap and was in position to make a great comeback – only to fall short at the end.

“We didn’t have enough speed to keep up with some of those guys up front. I’d get back there but didn’t have the speed to get by them. It was just one of those deals where we needed it to stay green to be in a good spot. It just didn’t work out in the end.”

But there were some bright spots: he earned 11 championship points for finishing fifth and sixth in the first two stages.

“It was our day for a while and then it wasn’t,” Truex said. “It’s just the way it goes.”

Social Roundup: NASCAR community congratulates Austin Dillon on Daytona 500 win

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Austin Dillon led only one lap to win Sunday’s Daytona 500. He’s the ninth different driver to win the race in the last nine years.

Not long after the 27-year-old driver took the checkered flag, NASCAR’s corner of Twitter began congratulating him.

First up is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was the grand marshal for the race. He left the track when Alex Bowman was collected in a Lap 198 crash, but he still sent Dillon his warm wishes.