Aric Almirola

Richard Petty Motorsports puts road racer in No. 43 for Sonoma

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Road racer Billy Johnson will drive the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford this weekend at Sonoma Raceway, the team announced Monday.

Darrell Wallace Jr., who has driven the past two races for the team for the injured Aric Almirola, will return to the car next weekend at Daytona. Wallace will continue in the car until Almirola returns. Almirola says he hopes to be back at either New Hampshire or Indianapolis in July.

Johnson, who competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, will make his first Cup start. He has five Xfinity starts, scoring a career-best finish of eighth at Montreal in 2012.

Johnson has worked with Almirola on his road racing at the Ford Performance racing school at Miller Motorsports Park. Johnson has worked with more than 20 Ford drivers on their road racing skills the past six years.

“It is going to be awesome. It will be my first NASCAR Cup race and to debut in the 43 car, one of the most iconic numbers to ever race in NASCAR, is a huge honor,” said Johnson in a statement from the team. “Richard Petty Motorsports is a great organization. To have the chance to make my Cup debut for the King is surreal, and I appreciate them putting me in the car.’’

Said Brian Moffitt, CEO of Richard Petty Motorsports: “It’s been important for us to put ourselves in the most competitive spot while Aric is recovering. We’ve worked with Ford and Smithfield to put the best driver available in the car each week. Both Regan (Smith) and Bubba (Wallace) have done a great job for us the last five weeks. We feel that Billy’s experience on a road course will help us be competitive this weekend.”

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Danica Patrick suffers another hard hit in a season of hits

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For the fourth time in the last eight races, Danica Patrick failed to finish because of an accident.

Her car slammed into the inside backstretch wall after a late restart Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, marking her second hard hit in the last five races. Her car was destroyed in a crash May 13 at Kansas Speedway (the same wreck that left Aric Almirola with a T5 compression fracture expected to sideline him until next month).

Patrick’s No. 10 Ford was one of five cars involved in the crash with 10 laps left at Michigan.

The field was going down the backstretch when Kevin Harvick was sandwiched between Ryan Blaney on his outside and Daniel Suarez on the inside.

Contact between the three sent Suarez down the track. Darrell Wallace Jr. hit the left rear of Suarez’s car, which made an impact with Patrick that sent her car sliding toward the inside backstretch wall.

“I went into (Turn 1) and got super loose,” Blaney said. “I hate that it took a couple cars out off  (Turn 2). I got really free for some reason. It caught me off guard, which made it look bad. We had a decent enough car to run up there once we got track position.”

Said Patrick: “I knew when there was a caution with about 15 laps to go that there would end up being another one. I had a good run and went for it and just got hit.”

Patrick finished last in 37th for her sixth DNF, five because of crashes. Blaney, who won last week at Pocono, finished 25th after running as high as second. Harvick placed 14th. Darrell Wallace Jr. finished 19th in his second Cup start as a substitute driver for the injured Amirola.

The crash was the latest hard hit for Patrick in a Cup career that has been full of them (recently documented here by NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan).

At one point this year, Patrick exited three races in four weeks — Bristol, Talladega and Kansas — because of wrecks.

Sunday’s accident marked the end to a tough week for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver, who made negative headlines with a viral Facebook Live video that captured her lecturing fans at Pocono after they booed her for not signing autographs.

Patrick later admitted that she “had a moment,” and that she should have just continued walking.

That was in the midst of reports that Patrick may not be with Stewart-Haas Racing after 2017.

Following her finish at Michigan, Patrick is 30th in the points standings. She is two spots and 12 points behind Almirola, who has missed the last four points races.

MORE: Nate Ryan looks at looming Silly Season movement.

 

Aric Almirola looks to be back in No. 43 car in July

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MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Aric Almirola says he hopes to be back in a car next month, returning about two months after he suffered a T5 compression fracture in a May 13 crash at Kansas Speedway.

Almirola told NBC Sports on Tuesday that doctors were encouraged by what they saw in a scan of his vertebrae last week. He is scheduled to have another scan June 28. That will give doctors a better idea of when Almirola can return to driving the No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports.

He’s hoping it will be New Hampshire (July 16) or Indianapolis (July 23), if not sooner. Darrell Wallace Jr. is driving the car until Almirola returns. Wallace finished 26th Sunday at Pocono in his first race in the car. Regan Smith drove the No. 43 for three races, including the Monster Energy Open, before Wallace took over the ride.

Almirola was injured May 13 when his Ford slammed into Joey Logano’s Ford with such force that it lifted the car’s rear about 6 feet in the air before it slammed to the ground. Almirola was kept overnight in a Kansas City hospital before returning home.

He is undergoing laser therapy, massage therapy and swimming as part of his rehabilitation. His range of motion has returned, as he exhibited Tuesday by swinging his arms high above his head and squatting — things he couldn’t do after the accident.

Almirola said the bone split all the way around. The laser therapy helps regenerate that area. Swimming also works his back and helps with his range of motion.

The key, Almirola admits, is not doing too much during his recovery.

“You want to start doing everything you used to do,’’ he told NBC Sports. “I feel great standing here. I want to go up in the gym and I want to grab the 60-pound dumbbells and go sit down and start bench-pressing, but I can’t do that. I feel like I could right now because there’s no pain. I physically can’t do that. The torque on my back, the load on my spine, I can’t take that right now.

“I have to be aware of what my limitations are because I don’t want to set myself back. I’m doing so well in the recovery process. It’s about getting my range of motion back, getting my mobility back, getting my cardio back. I’m going to have to slowly work on my strength until the bone is all the way healed because I don’t want to re-injure or do something to slow down my recovery and put myself four to six weeks further behind.’’

Almirola also has been getting help from his children, Alex, 4, and Abby, 3. They’ve made sure he’s not exerting himself too much.

“We’ve been going on a month of telling them, ‘No, daddy can’t do that, I’m sorry my back is hurt,’ ‘’ he said. “Now, they’re just accustomed to it. I think it’s going to be weird for them now when my back is actually healed.

“Now, they’re so used to not getting a piggyback ride upstairs because my back is hurt. Now, they automatically respond, ‘Oh daddy, don’t pick that up, your back is hurt.’ ‘’

Almirola can’t wait until he can pick his children up.

“It will be awesome,’’ he said. “I miss that.’’

Watch the above video for Marty Snider’s interview with Almirola.

UPDATED: NASCAR entry lists for Michigan (Cup, Xfinity), Gateway (Trucks)

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Michigan International Speedway will play host to both the NASCAR Cup and NASCAR Xfinity series this weekend.

Meanwhile, the Camping World Truck Series will race Saturday night at Gateway Motorsports Park just outside of St. Louis, Missouri.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for each race:

NASCAR Cup Series – FireKeepers Casino 400

A total of 39 cars are entered for Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400. All driver spots are filled, with the exception of the No. 51 Chevrolet of Rick Ware Racing. All crew chief spots are filled.

Also, it was announced Tuesday morning that Ryan Sieg will replace Gray Gaulding behind the wheel of the No. 23 BK Racing Dr. Pepper Toyota for Sunday’s race.

Among the notable elements of the race is it will be the second straight Cup start for Darrell Wallace Jr., who is filling in for the injured Aric Almirola.

Joey Logano dominated this race last year, leading 138 of the 200 laps. Meanwhile, Kyle Larson earned his first career Cup win at MIS last August.

Click here for the entry list for the FireKeepers Casino 400.

NASCAR Xfinity Series – Irish Hills 250

As for Saturday’s Irish Hills 250 NASCAR Xfinity Series race, a full 40-car field is set.

All driver and crew chief spots are filled for this race.

Among NASCAR Cup drivers entered are Ty Dillon, Brad Keselowski, Paul Menard, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin.

Daniel Suarez won this race last year.

Click here for the entry list for the Irish Hills 250.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series – Drivin’ For Linemen 200

There are 28 Trucks entered for the 17th Truck Series race at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

There are two vacant spots for drivers and four vacant spots for crew chiefs on the entry list:

Drivers are needed to fill the No. 44 and No. 199 Trucks, while crew chiefs are needed for the No. 0 of Jennifer Jo Cobb, No. 136 of Kevin Donahue, No. 44 (driver still unnamed) and No. 63 of Kyle Donahue.

Christopher Bell is the defending winner of this race. Bell comes into the race looking for a second straight victory after winning last Friday at Texas Motor Speedway.

Click here for the entry list for the Drivin’ For Linemen 200.

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Ryan Blaney gives Cup Series fifth first-time winner in two seasons

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The NASCAR record books have changed a lot in the last two months.

When Ryan Blaney took the checkered flag to win Sunday’s Pocono 400, it continued an avalanche of first-time winners in the Cup Series.

Blaney is the third first-time winner in the last five races and the fifth in the last two years.

The current stretch began May 7 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won at Talladega, claiming his first victory in five full-time seasons on the circuit.

Two races later in the Coca-Cola 600 on May 28, Austin Dillon ended his long wait by successfully saving enough fuel to win the longest race in NASCAR. In the process, he also took the No. 3 to victory lane for the first time in the Cup Series since 2000.

Two weeks later, Blaney took Wood Brothers Racing to victory lane for just the third time since the turn of the century.

But the current trend of first-time winners began in Pocono last year on August 1. Chris Buescher, then driving for Front Row Motorsports, was in the lead under caution when rain and fog forced the race to be called on Lap 138. Unlike the other recent first timers, Buescher’s win came in just his 27th Cup start.

Three races later, Kyle Larson began to establish himself in the Cup Series by winning at Michigan International Speedway. The victory came in Larson’s third full-time season in the Cup Series.

Before their wins, the Cup circuit experienced a relatively long drought of first-time visitors to victory lane.

Before Buescher, the last first-timer was AJ Allmendinger at Watkins Glen International in August 2014, a stretch of 70 races between first-time winners.

A month before that, Aric Almirola was the winner of the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

And before Almirola, the Cup series went two full seasons without a first-time winner. That drought was after five drivers broke through in 2011.

Trevor Bayne started off that year in the biggest way possible, winning the Daytona 500 in just his second Cup start. He would be joined that year by Regan Smith (Southern 500), David Ragan (Coke Zero 400), Paul Menard (Brickyard 400) and Marcos Ambrose (Watkins Glen).

With Blaney’s win, it puts a little more pressure on his fellow “young guns” to win. NASCAR is still waiting for the breakthrough of 2016 Rookie of the Year Chase Elliott and rookies Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon and new arrival Darrell Wallace Jr.

“Ryan took that (first win) crown from us,” Jones said Sunday after finishing third. “It is great for the sport, honestly. I’m usually not very happy to see other people win, but I was happy to see Ryan win. It was really cool for him, and just really cool to see him get the win. I know how excited he probably is right now, and it really makes the other young guys, me, Chase, Daniel (Suarez), all feel like we do have a shot to go up and do it.”

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