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Dale Earnhardt Jr., Charlize Theron taking part in Daytona 500 pre-race ceremonies

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The 60th Daytona 500 on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET on Fox) will be a star-studded event as NASCAR’s premier series gets its season officially underway.

While the recently retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be in the “Great American Race” for the first time since 1999, the 15-time most popular driver will have a hand in getting the race underway.

The NBC Sports analyst is the grand marshal for the race he won two times (2004, 2014). Earnhardt will give the command to start engines.

Once that is done, the 40-car field will pull off pit road.

Leading the field will be two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Peyton Manning. The former player for the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos will serve as the honorary pace car driver.

This isn’t the first time Manning has taken part in a NASCAR race. He was the honorary official for the 2016 spring Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

When the 200-lap race finally begins, it will be Charlize Theron standing on the starter’s stand. The actress, who appeared in last year’s Atomic Blonde and stars in the March 9 film Gringo, will wave the green flag as the honorary starter.

Chipper Jones, a former player for the Atlanta Braves and recently voted to the Baseball Hall of Fame, will serve as an honorary race official.

Jones, a native of Pierson, Florida, will be introduced at the drivers’ meeting, participate in pre-race ceremonies, ride in one of the parade cars and take part in question-and-answer sessions in fan hospitality areas and the UNOH Fanzone.

Fans in attendance will also get to experience a flyover by the United States Air Force Thunderbirds F-16s. This is the eighth straight year the Thunderbirds have conducted the flyover.

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Podcast: Front Row Motorsports explains how it improves with smaller budget, unique sponsor deals

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Running a Cup Series team is not a cheap endeavor.

One person who knows this is Jerry Freeze, the general manager of Front Row Motorsports.

Owned by Bob Jenkins, the two-car team runs the No. 34 of Michael McDowell and No. 38 of David Ragan and has a technical partnership with Roush Fenway Racing.

Freeze sat down with Nate Ryan on the NASCAR on NBC podcast to discuss how FRM works with smaller budgets and its unique business-to-business sponsorship deals through Jenkins’ trucking company, MDS Transport, and restaurant business, Charter Foods.

Freeze calls Love’s Travel Shops, which sponsors half the races on McDowell’s car, a “textbook example” of such a deal. Their partnership began in 2013.

“Bob owns a trucking company with about 300 over the road truck on the road,” Freeze said. “They’ve got to get fuel somewhere. That’s kind of how the Love’s Travel Shop deal started for us.”

Freeze describes it as a “slightly smaller scale” version of the relationship between Team Penske and Shell.

Unlike larger teams, Front Row doesn’t yet have an optical scanning station at its shop like the one cars are inspected with at the track.

“We went into it thinking, ‘We’ll never need to have one of those, NASCAR’s got one, we can go over there whenever we want,'” Freeze said.

The team also relies on the scanner located at Roush Fenway Racing. But it’s a challenge to take cars to Roush, with its shop in Concord, North Carolina, about an hour away from Front Row’s in Statesville.

Buying its own scanner is beginning to look like a “necessary evil” for Freeze, who said he’s heard it would cost $300,000.

“I think if you’re really going to try to optimize the car through each step of what you do, that might be the way to go,” Freeze said.

When it comes to becoming more competitive, Freeze and Jenkins have been encouraged to invest more resources and money into the team by moves NASCAR has made to lower costs, including requiring teams to use engines in multiple races, spec radiators and the controversial common pit guns.

“It put it in a place where, yeah, it’s still pretty tough for Front Row to get to, but it’s not as high as it use to be,” Freeze said of the engine rule. “With spec radiators, we were spending $9,000 for radiator in the past. Now a spec radiator is, I don’t know, a third of that.”

Freeze also addressed the future of one of the team’s three charters, which is leased to TriStar Motorsports this season.

“You can’t do that forever with the way the rules are set up,” Freeze said. “We’ll have to make a decision, either we’ve got to operate (it) ourselves or maybe we sell it to TriStar some day, I don’t know. … Even though we weren’t in a position to run three cars and we’re still not today, it’s kind of nice to have in your pocket just in case something came along that was just phenomenal and we needed one.”

Click on the embed above to hear the podcast. It also is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.

August Cup race at Michigan to be called Consumers Energy 400

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The Aug. 12 Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway will be sponsored by Consumers Energy as part of a multi-year deal, the track announced Thursday.

Consumers Energy is Michigan’s largest energy provider, providing natural gas and/or electricity to 6.7 million of the state’s 10 million residents.

The company takes over for Pure Michigan, which sponsored the race from 2011-17.

“We are excited to expand our collaborative relationship with Consumers Energy,” said track president Rick Brenner in a press release. “We strive to work with Michigan-based companies like Consumers Energy who continue to give back to the community. We are looking forward to working together to provide our guests an awesome experience each August for many years to come.”

Consumers Energy will also sponsor the inaugural MIS Charity Dinner on June 9 and the track’s 50 Years of Racing Exhibit in the fan plaza for both of the track’s race weekends.

The MIS Charity Dinner, which benefits the Henry Ford Allegiance Health Foundation Patient Immediate Needs Fund and the MIS Cares Fund, will feature a strolling dinner, dessert and drink stations, live and silent auctions, music, a photo booth and more. The event will also feature a question and answer session with Dale Inman, Rusty Wallace and Leonard Wood.

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Weekend schedule at Richmond for Cup, Xfinity

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NASCAR heads to its third short-track race of the season this weekend at Richmond Raceway.

Kyle Larson won the Cup race at Richmond last fall and Joey Logano won there last April.

Here is this weekend’s schedule at Richmond:

(All times Eastern)

FRIDAY, APRIL 20

7 a.m. — Xfinity garage opens

8 a.m. – 9 p.m. — Cup garage open

8 – 8:45 a.m. — Xfinity practice (No TV)

9:40 – 10:25 a.m. — Final Xfinity practice (Fox Sports 1)

11:05 – 11:55 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network)

12:35 – 1:25 p.m. — Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

4:05 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (FS1)

5:10 p.m. — Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting

5:30 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (FS1, MRN)

6:30 p.m. — Xfinity driver introductions

7 p.m. — ToyotaCare 250 Xfinity race; 250 laps/187.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

SATURDAY, APRIL 21

1 p.m. — Cup garage opens

4:30 p.m. — Driver/crew chief meeting

5:50 p.m. — Driver introductions

6:30 p.m. — Toyota Owners 400 Cup race; 400 laps/300 miles (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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NASCAR America: Short tracks are Clint Bowyer’s favorites

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It was a question that needed to be asked, although the answer was not a surprise to anyone. What is Clint Bowyer’s favorite type of track?

“Short tracks are obviously my favorite,” Bowyer answered. “I think they’re probably everybody’s favorite. That’s what we grew up doing. That’s probably where we feel most comfortable.”

“I love back-to-back short track races because the drivers don’t have time to forget about who they’re mad at,” Steve Letarte interjected.

But Bowyer’s love of short tracks is not limited to Martinsville, where he snapped his long winless streak earlier this year. He is even more excited about coming to Richmond Raceway this week.

“I feel like Richmond is the perfect-sized race track.”

Bowyer went one step further, suggesting there is a way to add more tracks like Richmond to the schedule.

“I feel like, some of these mile-and-a-half tracks, we need to just use as parking lots and build Richmond in the infield,” Bowyer said.

For more of what Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to say about short track racing, watch the video above.