Jeff Gordon

Who are the candidates to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88? Here’s a short list

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With Tuesday’s news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving NASCAR after the 2017 season, Hendrick Motorsports would seem to have multiple internal and external candidates to fill the ride.

Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet would be the top-tier opening for 2018. The car is prepared in the same building as the No. 48 of seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson and is a teammate to Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne. Since taking over the No. 88 in 2008, Earnhardt has made the playoffs in six of nine seasons, notched nine victories and finished top 10 in points three times (he might have again in 2012 if he hadn’t been sidelined for two races by a concussion).

Some of the decision assuredly will depend on sponsorship (in a statement, Nationwide said it fully supported Earnhardt’s decision and would continue its relationship with the 14-time most popular driver beyond 2017), but here are a few names to consider — starting with two already in the Hendrick fold:

William Byron: Signed to a developmental deal with the team last August, he unquestionably is the future of Hendrick Motorsports along with Elliott.

Byron, 19, showed prodigious talent as a rookie in the Camping World Truck Series with a circuit-leading seven victories (he was robbed of the championship because of a mechanical failure while dominating Phoenix). He is only seven races into his Xfinity career but is a solid second in points with five top 10s and two top fives.

There will be questions about whether it would be rushing too much to promote him to Cup in his third full season in a NASCAR national series, but if he’s the eventual solution, why wait to promote him? Kyle Larson was moved into Cup after only a full season of Xfinity, and his development into the 2017 points leader has proved the pitfalls that surrounded Joey Logano’s entry into Cup as an inexperienced teenager can be avoided.

Alex Bowman: He filled in admirably for an injured Earnhardt with three top 10s in 10 races last year (qualifying on pole position at Phoenix and leading 194 laps). Bowman, who turned 24 today, also ran full time in Cup from 2014-15, so he has nearly 81 starts in the premier series as well as five top fives in 50 Xfinity starts.

Still under contract to Hendrick, his yeoman work on the driving simulator has drawn praise from the organization and its drivers.

But the Tuscon, Ariz., native still doesn’t have a resume that is eye-catching as Byron’s, and his upside might be a more difficult sell to sponsors.

Carl Edwards: Since stepping away from NASCAR in a stunning announcement three months ago, Edwards steadfastly has maintained he isn’t retired. While visiting Atlanta Motor Speedway to help rookie replacement Daniel Suarez with his former No. 19 Toyota, Edwards brought his helmet and firesuit just in case.

He seems open to driving in Cup again, though he is remaining coy about it. Asked by NBC Sports if the No. 88 was an opportunity he would consider, Edwards jokingly replied, “You may have it mixed up. I’m recruiting Dale to drive a tractor!” (He also added he was happy for Earnhardt, and that it would be a great ride for someone.)

With 28 victories in the Cup series and a megawatt smile and sponsor appeal, Edwards’ name figures to come up whenever there is an opening, even if he seems to be enjoying life on his farm in Columbia, Mo. He also was courted by Hendrick about a decade ago (which Jeff Gordon confirmed in 2011 when Edwards was in the midst of re-upping for the last time with Roush Fenway Racing).

–Any other qualified veteran: Hendrick could decide Byron isn’t ready for the No. 88 yet next season but is the answer for 2019.

Would it make sense to consider putting NBCSN analyst Greg Biffle (who has indicated he still would like to race) or another driver with winning credentials (such as David Ragan or Regan Smith, who has Hendrick and JRM ties) in the No. 88 to keep the seat warm for Byron in 2019?

Given that Hendrick waited a year for Kahne to join its ranks, and Stewart-Haas Racing did the same with Clint Bowyer, it isn’t an implausible scenario.

Long: Bristol could signal new era of short track racing

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BRISTOL, Tennessee — Drivers walked out of Bristol Motor Speedway after Monday’s Cup race smiling.

No fisticuffs. No frowns. No frustrations.

Bristol isn’t back to what it once was — a single-groove, shove-your-mother-out-of-the-way track — and may never be, but its two-lane racing left many drivers as wide-eyed as children.

The question now is did fans enjoy what they saw?

Short track racing has always had its charm with a history of beating and banging followed by driver confrontations. It was here where Jimmie Johnson, of all people, stepped out of his wrecked car and flipped the bird at Robby Gordon. This also was the track where Jeff Gordon once shoved Matt Kenseth after a race.

It’s moments like those why some people call for more short tracks in the series and a few still clamor for the return of North Wilkesboro. Of course, that will never happen.

Never. Forget about it. Stop talking about it. Move on.

Instead, is the new chapter of short track racing being set now? Might it be two-wide racing?

A different tire allowed drivers to run on the outside — the outside! — at Martinsville and pass on what has always been a one-groove track that required more fender than finesse.

Now comes Monday’s race, the second with the PJ1 VHT compound applied to the lower groove to add grip. The intent is to make the bottom groove the preferred line and force everyone there to create that bumping and banging to pass. It succeeded early before drivers began venturing up the track and worked in the top groove.

So instead of Martin Truex Jr. bumping Johnson out of the lead as they dueled with about 50 laps to go, they ran side-by-side. Johnson ran high and Truex ran low.

“It was a fun race track,’’ Martin Truex Jr. said after leading 116 laps but finishing eighth because of a late speeding penalty on pit road. “It was a blast.’’

Johnson also called the racing “fun” after earning his 82nd career Cup win.

“It is so fun to just duel it out,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports in Victory Lane. “To be at a track where aero isn’t as important, you can get in there close to people, lean on them, push on them, really race hard. It was a total blast.’’

It wasn’t just those running at the front all race who had a good time.

Ty Dillon, who finished 15th, felt the same way.

“I don’t know what the fans thought, but I think all the of drivers liked to be able to have that top and bottom, where if you’re car is good on the bottom, you can pass there, and if it’s good up top, you can make moves up there,’’ he told NBC Sports. “I enjoy this type of racing.’’

One thing drivers hate is being stuck behind a slower car. That’s what leads to contact and this is a contact sport — at least that’s what NASCAR Chairman Brian France has said. For many fans, that’s what they want to see on a short track.

Still, it was hard not to be thrilled with the racing in the final 100 laps where drivers ran multiple lanes challenging for the lead or spots near the front.

“I think you’re going to have bad-ass racing at Bristol no matter what you do,’’ Joey Logano told NBC Sports as he smiled. “This is the coolest place we ever come to. It’s fun. It’s grueling. It’s tough on the drivers. I think it puts on a great race for that reason. I don’t know what you do to other tracks.’’

Former driver Tony Stewart has an idea.

“Martinsville needs to be paying attention,’’ he told NBC Sports. “This (traction compound) will work at Martinsville as well. This is proof of it. It will work. The whole thing is getting the equation right. You do too much, you make that groove faster than the other one. It’s a battle back and forth of how to keep the lanes even.’’

If a tire helps create a second groove at Martinsville and a compound does the same thing at Bristol, is there more that can be done for other tracks, including Richmond, New Hampshire, Phoenix and Dover, among others?

Possibly.

Next month, the All-Star Race will have two tire compounds. The additional compound will be a softer tire that provides more speed but wears quicker.

If this test works well, a softer compound tire could be used in future races, providing what competitors hope is a back-and-forth movement on the track, creating action for fans.

“I don’t think we would have ever ended up with an option tire if the (driver and team) councils and RTA and all this collaboration didn’t start two years ago,’’ Johnson said. “In a couple years, I don’t know exactly the timeline, in a few more years, we’re all building trust and faith in one other in understanding how this stuff plays out, we’re going to hit on some stuff that’s going to work really well, between maybe stuff that’s on the track or maybe option tires. 

“We’re getting close to creating the right racing environment.’’

Is the “right racing environment’’ side-by-side? It certainly looks like it could be headed in that direction.

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Sam Bass selling art, guitars and more in bankruptcy auction

Photo: Sam Bass Art Gallery
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Sam Bass, NASCAR’s first authorized artist, is selling off art, guitars and various racing items as part of two separate bankruptcy auctions scheduled for the next month.

The auctions are being held with the Iron Horse Auction Company. Bass’ bankruptcy case is with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Winston-Salem.

The first auction, beginning April 25 and ending May 3, is an in-person and online auction. The live portion of the auction will be held at 10 a.m. on May 3 at Cabarrus Arena in Concord, North Carolina.

The second auction, held from May 2 – 9, is online only.

The auctions include:

More than 250 original works of Bass’ art, with many never available for purchase previously.

More than 85 custom, autographed and relic guitars.

More than 25 amplifiers.

Race run body panels from NASCAR stock cars with autographs from Dale Earnhardt Sr, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson.

Earlier this month, Bass began dialysis and announced he is in need of a new kidney.

Bass, responsible for Jeff Gordon’s famous rainbow DuPont paint scheme and many others, suffers from Type 1 diabetes. In 2008, he lost the lower portion of his left leg. In 2014, a blood infection led to septic shock and he needed four surgeries in three weeks to survive.

A GoFundMe page has been set up to pay for Bass’ medical bills with a goal of $350,000. At press time, the campaign had raised $8,095  in the last six days from 30 donations.

The site says:

“Sam, who has had diabetes all his life, is now on dialysis awaiting a kidney and pancreas transplant.
The bills for the years of kidney failure have been overwhelming.
Sam, who relocated his gallery, is now in the process of selling many works just to take care of these medical needs.
Those of us in the stock car community have enjoyed Sam’s amazing artistic talent over the decades.
Now it’s time for us, the racing family, to give back – to pay it forward – to help a friend, a brother live out a longer life to draw and paint the racing talent of the future.
Please help all you can. All donations will go toward Sam’s mounting medical bills.”

Donations also can be given through Motor Racing Outreach if the donation is specifically noted to be made for Bass.

For more information on kidney donation, go to the National Kidney Registry site.

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Where Are They Now? ‘Handsome Harry’ Gant still is rolling

Photos: Getty Images
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Tony Stewart retired at 45. Jeff Gordon retired at 44, returned to help out Dale Earnhardt Jr., and retired again at 45.

Jimmie Johnson, 41, says it’s unlikely he’ll be racing by the time he reaches 45. Don’t be surprised if 42-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t far behind his teammate.

Then there are drivers such as NASCAR icon Harry Gant. “Handsome Harry” retired from the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series in 1994 at the age of 54 and then returned to drive 11 races in the Camping World Truck Series two years later at the age of 56.

“My last win at Atlanta in a Busch car, I was 54,” he said, adding with a laugh, “Then I didn’t want to quit.”

He retired again at the end of the 1996 season and spent his “retirement” racing on short tracks across the country until he was 70 in 2010.

Now, the 77-year-old Gant officially is retired from all forms of racing, but he’s as busy as he was when he was behind the wheel. These days, Gant tends to a herd of 100 Black Angus cattle on his 300-acre ranch in Taylorsville, North Carolina, rides his motorcycle around the country and is enjoying the good life.

He still follows NASCAR racing somewhat, but where the sport was the end-all and be-all for Gant for 30 years – from his first race as a sportsman driver at Hickory Motor Speedway in 1966 – now Gant is more of a casual observer.

“I watch the races on TV when I can,” he told NBC Sports. “I like to watch the Truck and (Xfinity) races. I don’t go out of my way, but if I’m not doing anything, I’ll watch it then.”

Then, he adds with a laugh, “Sometimes, I’ll go to sleep at night watching the night races.”

STILL A FAN FAVORITE

Since his last Truck race in 1996, Gant has attended only two NASCAR Cup races in person. One was a few years ago at Texas Motor Speedway, and the other was late September when he took part in the Throwback Weekend festivities at Darlington Raceway.

Harry Gant, right, with lifelong friend and NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett.

One of the biggest highlights of that weekend was when Gant swung back behind the wheel of his legendary Skoal Bandit car and took a parade lap, which drew huge applause.

It was apparent that even though he hadn’t raced in 20 years, Gant was still a fan favorite at the “Track Too Tough To Tame.” He received some of the loudest applause of the NASCAR greats who attended and was swamped by fans welcoming him back as if he never had left.

Yet Gant also noticed something. While he enjoyed the attention, Gant admitted that the NASCAR of his era is not the same NASCAR of today.

“It was very strange being there because I really didn’t know anybody there,” he said. “I didn’t know any of the crew guys, crew chiefs, drivers, didn’t know anybody except just a few older people I knew and older fans.

“It’s a somewhat different ballgame when I was racing. It’s hard to put your finger on anything, there’s just so many little things that were different back then.”

Gant’s former crew chief, Andy Petree, brought back the old gang together in this tweet last year from Darlington:

SHORT-TRACK SUPERSTAR BEFORE HE CAME TO WINSTON CUP

While it was in NASCAR Cup and Xfinity races that Gant earned the most notoriety, he was a short-track driver first and foremost.

Sure, he earned 18 wins in the Cup Series and finished a career-best second in the season standings in 1984 and won another 21 races in the Xfinity ranks. But Gant earned more than 300 wins in the lower tiers of NASCAR racing, including the Sportsman championship in 1972-74. He also finished runner-up three times in what is today the Xfinity Series (1969, ’76 and ’77).

He paid his dues and served his racing apprenticeship before he cashed in with the then-Winston Cup Series.

“Back in the day, you had David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty – all them drivers – they started out not as young as they do now,” Gant said. “I started racing when I was 24 in a hobby car at Hickory.

“When I got to Winston Cup, I ran for Rookie of the Year in 1979 (at the age of 39 and competed against fellow rookies Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte), and when I first ran for (longtime sponsor) Skoal, I was 41 years old (1981).

“I was 42 before I won my first race in Cup (1982 Martinsville).”

TODAY’S YOUNG DRIVERS NOT PAYING ENOUGH DUES

Gant said that young drivers of today are jumping to the Cup Series much earlier than his era. In so doing, the young guns are not able to build the same type of large and loyal fan bases that drivers developed from their early days of Sportsman racing before moving up to Cup.

“We raced a lot of years, early years, with Sportsman cars, things like that,” he said. “Now, you see a guy who’s 20, racing in a Truck and then racing in NASCAR Cup, they haven’t had enough time to get a fan base. That’s what I think right now the problem today is the fan base for the new guys coming in to race.

“The other part of the problem is you have young guys that aren’t really car guys. Like me, I have always been into cars from the age of 18 or 19 years old, racing short tracks, dirt cars, sprint cars, all them things. I think the young people now don’t really associate with the young people that race, and the models of cars don’t matter to a lot of them.”

Gant still likes NASCAR racing but readily admits, “It’s just a lot of difference. Unless you were there, you can’t really pinpoint everything. Everything is more business-like today than it was.

“And the cars are so much different, looking at it on television. The cars are so much lower. I did not like running with restrictor plates that came out the last few years I raced. It puts you in a box, just like it is now. All the cars are the same in horsepower and the bodies are all the same.

“Back when I was racing, I liked the way it was. We had a stock car. We’d go to Daytona, and it’d be a Monte Carlo, Pontiac, Chevrolet or whatever was running.”

GANT REFLECTS ON HIS TOP CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Of his career, Gant said there were two high points that stand out to him, both markedly different from each other. First was in the Modified Series, while the other was in the Cup Series.

“We had so much fun racing prior to Winston Cup racing,” he said. “The first big race was when I won the Modified race at Daytona, and then also won at Charlotte. Winning at both those tracks were probably the biggest things of my career. A lot of people ask, ‘What about your Winston Cup career?’ Well, you wouldn’t have been there if you hadn’t won somewhere else to start with.”

As for his Cup tenure, it was winning four Cup races in a row in September 1991, along with two Busch Series wins in the same month. He earned his other famous nickname as a result; “Mr. September.”

“I felt like we couldn’t be beat,” he said. “We were coming up on the end of the year, and I could not wait to start the next season then.”

SOON TO BE BACK ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Gant once again is preparing to take part in the 23rd Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America, which starts May 13 in Portland, Oregon, and finishes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 19. Gant has been part of the Charity Ride each of the previous 22 years.

“We’ve been just about everywhere you can go,” Gant said.

But Gant will be far from the oldest driver on the Ride. Fellow former NASCAR racer Hershel McGriff will take part again in at least one or two segments of the Ride at the age of 89. McGriff competed in a short track race in California as recently as five years ago at the age of 84.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

THE HARRY GANT FILE

Harry Phil Gant — also known as “Handsome Harry” and “Mr. September” 
–Age: 74
–Home: Taylorsville, North Carolina
–NASCAR Cup stats: 474 starts, 18 wins, 123 top fives, 208 top 10s, 17 poles.
–NASCAR Xfinity stats: 128 starts, 21 wins, 52 top fives, 71 top 10s, 14 poles.
–NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: 11 starts in 1996, four top 10s.
–Notable: Holds record as the oldest driver ever to win a Cup Series race (52 years, 219 days) and as the oldest driver ever to earn his first career Cup win (42 years and 105 days).

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Five drivers (plus three) with Formula One ties that we’d like to see race the Daytona 500

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Fernando Alonso’s entry into the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 is the latest mega-crossover in a race that has been famous for them for decades.

With a few notable exceptions (wins by Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt and a 1993 one-off for Al Unser Jr.), the Daytona 500 hasn’t featured as many interlopers from other circuits.

While some major hurdles would need to be cleared to put together a car and team for the 2018 Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway, it would be a PR win for NASCAR to add some international flavor to the Great American Race.

Here are five drivers (plus three additions) with Formula One ties that we would like to see race in NASCAR’s crown jewel.

  1. Lewis Hamilton: Based off his attendance at the 2015 Cup finale to watch Jeff Gordon and his car swap with Tony Stewart, the prospect obviously entices him. And with apologies to Alonso and everyone else on this list, Hamilton’s presence at Daytona easily would have the most resonance for NASCAR. His friendship with Gordon and Stewart ensures he would receive a wealth of good advice on drafting tips, and if he were driving a Hendrick- or Stewart-Haas Racing-prepared car, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t contend given the proper training.
  2. Kimi Raikkonen: There’s unfinished business for the incomparably laconic Finn. Raikkonen has said he wants to run a Cup race to put a cap on his 2011 foray into truck/Xfinity at Charlotte Motor Speedway (a planned debut in NASCAR’s premier series at Sonoma that year was dashed by a testing wreck). Based on how he impressed at Charlotte (15th in his first career race on an oval), Raikkonen surely would acquit himself quite well on Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval. And his effervescent congeniality no doubt would win over the media center with every mumbled quote.
  3. Nico Rosberg: Hey, what else does the reigning Formula One champion have going on at the moment? Rosberg seemingly would have the most ample time for focusing on learning how to drive a stock car, and the 31-year-old also remains at the height of his powers (23 victories in F1 from 2012-16)
  4. Rubens Barrichello: He has the big-league oval experience from his 2012 season in IndyCar, starting 11th and finishing 10th in the Indianapolis 500.
  5. Mark Webber: The man whose Twitter handle is “@AussieGrit” seems to have the right temperament for tackling a 500-mile race, and he also seems friendly with a few NASCAR blokes.

UPDATE: Naturally, our alert readership brought some notable misses to my attention, so here are 5a and 5b:

Daniel Ricciardo: He ran a No. 3 go-kart as a tribute to “The Intimidator” … which has earned him an open invite from Dale Earnhardt Jr. to race a JR Motorsports car on a road course.

–Haas F1: Obviously, acquiring a ride probably would be easiest for drivers Romain Grosjean (who wanted to run Sonoma last year with Stewart-Haas Racing) and Kevin Magnussen.