Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR America: Scan All: Anger and miscommunication at Sonoma Raceway

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Some people like to call road courses the new short tracks in NASCAR and at the end of Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma, many cars backed up that assessment.

When there’s beat up cars, that means tempers flared, which makes for an interesting edition of NASCAR America’s Scan All. This week’s version gives you some of the best scanner traffic from Kevin Harvick‘s win at the California track.

Highlights include:

  • Israeli-born driver Alon Day, making his Cup debut, telling crew chief Randy Cox he can’t understand his accent. “You have to talk a bit slower so I can understand every word.”
  • “I needed a lot more help on that. The spotter doesn’t tell me ****.” – Danica Patrick after her Lap 14 accident with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  • “We’ve got your in-car camera here. That was fun to watch. A little scary, but fun to watch.” – Crew chief Ernie Cope to AJ Allmendinger after he went from 11th to first in one lap on a restart.
  • “This year just could not get any better,” the sarcastic response of Kyle Busch to receiving a pit road speeding penalty.

Watch the above video for more from Scan All.

The Ragged Edge: ‘Days of Thunder’ celebrates 27 years

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Back in the yesteryear of 1986, Paramount Pictures released a little movie called Top Gun.

Directed by Tony Scott and starring a young actor named Tom Cruise, the movie depicted a hot-shot, hard-headed fighter pilot named Pete “Maverick” Mitchell who competed for supremacy at an aviation school against a rival nicknamed “Ice Man.”

Backed by the sounds of Kenny Loggins, the Righteous Brothers and Cheap Trick, the two rivals clashed in the skies and on volleyball courts, all while Maverick flirted with a his female instructor, ‎Kelly McGillis’ “Charlie.”

The movie made a lot of money.

Three years later, they made the same movie … sort of. This time, Cruise was piloting stock cars in the world of NASCAR.

Twenty-seven years ago today, Days of Thunder roared into theaters on matched perfect and staggered special tires.

Once again directed by Scott and with the same golden color palate from Top Gun, Cruise portrayed Cole Trickle as he faced off with Michael Rooker’s Rowdy Burns, clashed egos with Robert Duvall’s Harry Hogge and did some more flirting, this time with his doctor, played by Nicole Kidman.

It didn’t make a lot of money, grossing $82 million domestically to Top Gun‘s $176 million.

But who cares?

Almost 30 years later, it’s still the closest fictional representation of NASCAR that’s ever graced the silver screen (we don’t need to mention a certain Will Farrell movie).

Was it completely faithful to stock-car racing?

Of course not, especially since there’s nothin’ stock about a stock car.

Did it have a have bizarre editing that made it look like a race was taking place at Daytona, Darlington and another track at the same time?

You betcha’.

Did the late Bobby Hamilton make his first Cup start driving a car used in the movie?

It’s true! Hamilton qualified third at Phoenix in the No. 51 Chevrolet owned by Hendrick Motorsports and even led five laps.

As absurd as the move could get, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel gave the movie a positive review. Decades later, Days of Thunder had enough authenticity to have an impact on those in the sport today.

“Makes you feel old, doesn’t it?” Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the New York Times in 2010, the movie’s 20th anniversary. “It was interesting to see our sport be put into the mainstream and be a part of that. I think it did a lot for our sport to be honest with you even though the critics weren’t solid on the movie and lot of people had different opinions about it. It got our sport a lot of exposure. The movie was fun to watch, regardless of whether it’s good or not.”

 (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)

Four years ago, Kurt Busch paid tribute to the movie by racing one of the paint scheme’s from the movie in the July Xfinity race at Daytona.

Then there’s his brother, Kyle.

Kyle Busch goes by the nickname “Rowdy,” which was the name of Rooker’s character in the movie.

Two years ago, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver, his crew chief Adam Stevens, Joe Gibbs and Busch’s wife, Samantha, put their best foot forward for a recreation of the Days of Thunder trailer to promote the Crispy line of M&M’s.

Though in this video, Busch assumed the Cole Trickle role.

He’s no Tom Cruise.

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Ryan: What was overlooked about Rodney Childers and Kevin Harvick after Sonoma win

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There was as much focus on what was said after Kevin Harvick’s victory Sunday at Sonoma Raceway as on how he won for the first time this season.

Crew chief Rodney Childers’ spicy shot at Martin Truex Jr. naturally drew the headlines (and as seen on Monday’s NASCAR America in the video below, it was grounded in some degree of reality, though Truex’s target is debatable), but it detracted from another takeaway.

It’s not only what Childers and Harvick were saying after Sunday’s victory at Sonoma Raceway. It’s how they were saying it.

Just like the three-time series champion they drive for, you typically don’t have to guess where this championship pair stands on something.

Whether it was Childers playfully throwing shade at a rival, or an unusually light-hearted Harvick tossing off jokes between every other answer of his postrace news conference, there was a decided sense of relief about a win that helped ameliorate months of anxiety stemming from the move to Ford this season.

“I can say this now, but I had mixed emotions about how the year was going to go just because of the fact that we had a lot on our plate to switch over,” Harvick said. “And I think as we started the year, we had good performance, and we went through a little bit of a spell where it wasn’t as good as the first three or four weeks, and then the last month and a half has been really good.

“So it’s just a big undertaking, and one day I think when we get done with this year, I think everybody will actually learn all the details of all the things that it took to get to this particular point, but it’s a huge undertaking.”

There actually were many hints since nearly a year ago at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Childers said Harvick’s postrace anger was because of lackluster preparation stemming from an in-season overhaul as Stewart-Haas Racing began building its chassis. The Ford move “panics all of us out a little bit,” Childers said with the characteristic honesty that he shares with his driver.

When Childers is distressed with a rival, NASCAR or even his own team, he lets the world know in his blunt but understated style. When Harvick is angry, the message is more demonstrative but no less candid.

But they also like to deflect the attention away from their team through their outspokenness, lest the scrutiny finds them the way it did during the 2015 season when the defending series champion’s No. 4 had a weekly reserved parking space in the NASCAR R&D Center’s inspection bay.

During an episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, Childers said he intentionally backed off on Harvick’s speed during practices last season and diverted from the team’s ambitiously simple goal.

For a duo whose partnership is built on a relentless quest for perfection, it was a mistake, and they vowed to return to the basics this season. Despite the transition to a new manufacturer, the renewed dedication to winning every lap on the track seemed to be working at the outset of 2017. Harvick led the most laps in each of the season’s first two races and would have won at Atlanta Motor Speedway without an ill-timed speeding penalty.

It was followed by a four-race slump that resoundingly ended with a pole position at Texas Motor Speedway. Harvick since has posted top fives in six of 10 races as he and Childers methodically recaptured their mojo with a meticulous dedication toward improving.

It’s another facet of their working relationship that gets overlooked when controversy (which Harvick admittedly relishes) sometimes gets in the way as it did at Sonoma, but Harvick’s win was a testament to their preparation. Eschewing stage points after agonizing over strategy for days, Childers gave his driver a chance to win by pitting out of sequence, and Harvick took care of the rest once primary threat Martin Truex Jr. was eliminated by an engine failure.

“We were able to manage the car really after (Truex) fell out,” Harvick said. “I felt like he was the guy that we were going to have to race all the way to the end.  He had a great car, and once he fell out, I felt like we were 100 percent in control of the race.”

And now, it feels as if he and Childers have re-asserted control of their fortunes after a bumpy year

“There’s still a lot of room for growth,” Harvick said. “There’s still a lot of things we don’t know about our cars that we learn on a weekly basis, and that’s the fun part is to know the upside potential to this whole deal.

“Once we get it all ironed out and how great everybody has been from not only Stewart‑Haas Racing but Ford in putting all this together, I feel like we have way more room to grow than most any team in the garage because there’s so many new things for us and new people and still trying to work all the details out.”

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Five months before his 20th birthday, William Byron has eight wins and 15 top-five finishes in 38 starts in NASCAR’s top three national series.

Are those numbers worthy of promotion to a Cup ride with Hendrick Motorsports, which has the JR Motorsports driver under contract and at least one vacancy currently available for 2018?

Until a 2018 replacement is named for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet, Byron’s future is sure to generate debate. The conservative option would be keeping the Charlotte, N.C., native in the Xfinity Series for another season. An online racing prodigy who has competed in real-world conditions for roughly five years, Byron has far less experience with full-bodied cars than the competition.

Which is all the more reason to move him to Cup now.

Byron’s prodigious talent is allowing him to acclimate as quickly as other drivers who have been fast-tracked to Cup with roughly the same training (he should have just under 60 starts in Xfinity and Truck combined by the end of the season).

Kyle Larson, who had limited time in stock cars before coming to NASCAR, had three victories and 10 top fives in 43 starts across Cup, Xfinity and truck before moving full time to the premier series in 2014. Jimmie Johnson had one win and four top fives in 75 starts before his 2002 rookie season. Chase Elliott had five wins and 32 top fives in 80 starts before entering Cup last year.

The comparison trotted out most often as a cautionary tale is Joey Logano, who had one win and five top fives in 23 starts in NASCAR national series before entering Cup full time in 2009 with Joe Gibbs Racing. As exhibited in five seasons at Team Penske, Logano has all-world talent, but there were mitigating factors that spoiled his initial jump to Cup with Gibbs.

Asking an 18-year-old to supplant Tony Stewart, a Hall of Famer who wears his blue-collar roots on his sleeve, as the spokesman for a national home improvement chain was fraught with downsides from the outset. It didn’t help that Stewart remained in NASCAR as the driver-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, adding an unfair measuring stick.

The expectations wouldn’t be as crushing on Byron, who will have the full support from the retiring Earnhardt and automatically will be a better fit with whatever big-ticket sponsor is chosen.

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Also overshadowed in Harvick’s victory was that the addition of a third road-course race next season (at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the playoffs) already is having an impact.

Childers and Harvick decided to add the K&N race at Sonoma to the driver’s schedule just to shore up his skill set for turning left and right. Harvick’s twin victories last weekend might prompt an influx of Cup entrants in the K&N race next year.

“It all started when they talked about putting a road race in the (playoffs),” Harvick said. “You’ve got to have it right.”

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Adding stages (that were shorter than a fuel run) to a road-course race added another twist – namely, that it allowed some slower teams to gamble on amassing more stage points (or a stage win in the case of 13th-place finisher Jimmie Johnson) while stronger cars such as Harvick’s sacrificed stage results to be well-position for an overall victory.

Of the 110 available stage points, 63 were awarded to drivers who finished the race outside the top 10. Harvick and fourth-place finisher Kyle Busch compiled no stage points.

“I think some stage points here and there are great, but we felt like today we had a car that was capable of winning the race and we needed to put ourselves in position to try to win,” Harvick said.

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What was happening on Martin Truex Jr.’s pit stops that caused such trouble in removing the front wheel? It didn’t seem to be the result of a damaged fender, prompting speculation that it might have been the result of the way the shocks and springs were set up on a road course.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman also posited some interesting theories about indexing on this week’s Monday Morning Donuts podcast (around the 21:30 mark), as well as something interesting he recently noticed with how Team Penske is aligning wheels on pit stops.

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It wasn’t the first time AJ Allmendinger has been hampered by a mechanical problem on a road course, but Sunday’s 35th at Sonoma Raceway marked the No. 47 Chevrolet’s 10th consecutive finish outside the top 15 – continuing a plunge in its first season with a second car.

Allmendinger is ranked nine spots behind his ranking (18th) in the 2016 points standings through 16 races, and teammate Chris Buescher’s best finish is 11th. While the drivers are getting along well, the team hasn’t realized the short-term benefits of expansion yet. The struggles might be coincidental (as Allmendinger has said), but it’s been a reminder that going faster isn’t correlated with merely adding staff.

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After another star-crossed race marred by multiple crashes (which, again, weren’t entirely her fault), Danica Patrick appeared in AdWeek, penning a column about how her personal passions will drive her post-racing career.

The timing was incidental – magazine pieces such as these are planned months in advance – but given the many hits Patrick has taken this year and the uncertainty of her NASCAR future, it was a firm reminder of what could lie ahead as early as next year.

Bump & Run: Is Daytona last true shot for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make playoffs?

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Kyle Petty, Slugger Labbe and Dale Jarrett join Leigh Diffey from 5:30 – 7 p.m. ET today on NASCAR America on NBCSN. Petty, Labbe, Jarrett, Nate Ryan and Dustin Long discuss this week’s hot topics.

Does Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Speedway mark Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last true shot to win and make the playoffs?

Dale Jarrett: Certainly by what we’ve seen to this point, it would take something extraordinary for it to happen somewhere else. Even though they’ve run better. There’s nothing telling me that they’re at that point that they can go win one of these other races without pulling some type of strategy. Yes, I think that this is it. It’s going to take a win for him to make the playoffs. He’s going to have to make that push Saturday night.

Kyle Petty: I don’t believe it’s his last shot, but it may be his best shot. I say that not because he’s run well enough to win anywhere this year, they just seem to be a step behind everywhere. I say “best shot” because throughout his career he’s always stepped up at the “storybook, Hollywood script” moments to win. Can his last Daytona be another one of those moments? Yes. Will it? Only the Racing Gods know.

Slugger Labbe: Unfortunately I believe Daytona is the last opportunity (which a win at Daytona would be AWESOME) for Dale Jr. and the 88 team. We just haven’t seen the performance and confidence in this team to be perfect and on the same page on a given race weekend and being perfect is about what it takes to win.

Nate Ryan: The answer seemed yes … until Michigan and Sonoma. Those are Earnhardt’s first consecutive top 10s this season, and that is meaningful for a streaky driver who always has thrived on confidence and momentum. If he doesn’t break through at Daytona, don’t expect a win at Kentucky, New Hampshire or Indianapolis … but if the No. 88 can continue a string of solid finishes, it doesn’t seem out of the question that Earnhardt still could sneak into victory lane at Pocono, Michigan or Bristol.

Dustin Long: I agree with Kyle that a win by Dale Jr. this weekend would mark another one of those “storybook’’ triumphs, but I think he can win elsewhere. It just keeps popping into my head that a storybook moment would be for Dale Jr. to win at Indianapolis, a track Hendrick Motorsports has had much success. After Indy, though, his chances will be limited to a maybe a couple of tracks.

What has been the biggest surprise this season?

Dale Jarrett: How intense the racing is in the early and middle parts of these races. I knew that the stage racing was going to change things, but it’s really opened up something totally different to me. To sit and watch an entire race now and see drivers pressing hard and the crew chiefs making decisions at times to gather playoff or more points, whatever it is that they are looking for there, and then putting themselves in a position that they have to try to find their way back to the front to try to win the race. That’s something more from teams that have the luxury of doing that that have won races, but it’s pretty entertaining.

Kyle Petty: Too many surprises to name only one. First-time winners, drivers that haven’t won, Kurt Busch at Daytona, how much stage racing has changed how teams/crew chiefs/drivers race. After this coming weekend, I may have to add “see answer to question #1.”

Slugger Labbe: How stage racing has changed our sport for the better, between known cautions (stage ends) that require different strategies and limited tire allotments. There have been races that have been just downright hard to predict, what is right or wrong, until they throw the checkers, and also the effects of the playoff points that are rewarded for stage victories!!

Nate Ryan: That there are 11 winners representing eight teams through the first 16 races – and that none is from Joe Gibbs Racing.

Dustin Long: I wouldn’t have guessed that Richard Childress Racing would have two wins and Roush Fenway Racing would have one victory while Joe Gibbs Racing remained winless with its driver lineup.

Kyle Busch is winless in his last 32 races, a streak that dates back to his win last year at Indianapolis. Does he win before next month’s race at Indy?

Dale Jarrett: I have to believe he will. There’s not a track that we will be going to between now and then that he doesn’t perform at a high level at. They continue to put themselves in position. I think at some point in time things will work out. Could be this weekend. I really believe it will happen certainly within the next four races.

Kyle Petty: Yes! Kyle wins before Indy. Honestly he should/could have won two or three races already this year. Driver, crew and pit call mistakes have kept them out of victory lane. They’ve beaten themselves. I believe with the tracks that are coming up that Kyle’s frustration ends.

Slugger Labbe: YES!! KB and the 18 team have been to me one of the best performers so far in 2017. They just need to seal the deal. Speed is not an issue, but they need to clean up a few things. I think it would be great for the garage to see KB win Daytona with a third-string crew chief. This team has had a shot at seven victories so far in 2017: Phoenix, Martinsville, Talladega, Charlotte, Dover, Pocono and Michigan. For KB to have a mic drop and a few F-bombs, I think he has done a remarkable job so far. Amazing that we are halfway through season and NO JGR team has been to victory lane yet!

Nate Ryan: He has three top fives in the past six restrictor-plate races between Daytona and Talladega, so I’ll be picking him Saturday night.

Dustin Long: Yes. The drought ends at Kentucky.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. kicks off JR Nation Appreci88ion campaign

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s JR Nation Apreci88ion tour begins this weekend as he makes what is scheduled to be his final Cup start at Daytona International Speedway.

Earnhardt, the 14-time most popular driver who is retiring from full-time Cup driving after this season, will pay thanks to fans in the final 20 races of the season.

The JR Nation Apreci88ion Tour will have a heavy presence on social media with the #Apreci88ion hashtag. Earnhardt will release weekly videos recollecting memories and milestones achieved at each of the tracks. JR Nation Appreci88ion merchandise will be available at his souvenir trailers at the track and at ShopJrNation.com.

“My expectations were very low when I started racing – I just wanted to pay my bills,” Earnhardt said in a statement. “If I could pay bills and make a living by racing, that was a win.

“Now some 18 years later, I look at what became of it, and I just feel grateful. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of so many people, especially fans. So as I visit tracks for the last time in this role, that is my motivation. I’m going to drive as hard as I can for the people who made an 18-year Cup career possible.”

Watch Earnhardt’s final Cup ride at Daytona at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC.

Also, catch a replay of his 2004 Daytona 500 win from 7-9 p.m. ET Thursday on NBCSN and join the conversation on Twitter by using #NASCARThrowback.

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