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A special night for Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains soured by competitor’s comments

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TALLADEGA, Alabama — Sixteen years later, the sting and anger remain with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The night of one of his greatest triumphs in NASCAR — if not his greatest — remains soured by questions that all was not legit when he won the July Daytona race, the first Cup race there since his father’s fatal crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

While Earnhardt celebrated his win that July night, Jimmy Spencer raised doubts about the legitimacy of the emotional victory.

“I knew going in that the 8 car (Earnhardt) was going to win this race,’’ Spencer said after the event. “Something was fictitious and he was really fast the other night. They were fast down here in February. It’s not ironic that the 8 car would win with what happened here in February.’’

A few days later, Earnhardt challenged those comments: “It’s really bothered me pretty bad. That’s like the biggest race of my career. That was my biggest win. Aside from the wins that I had when my father was there, that is going to be a day that I’ll always remember. For somebody to question its credibility, question my credibility, I feel like that’s a slap in my face, a slap in my father’s face and a slap in (crew chief) Tony Eury’s face.

“I never drove any harder in my life. I went out there and got the lead and I was blocking all night long.’’

Even now, Earnhardt can’t forget Spencer’s comments.

When Earnhardt sees Spencer’s diecast cars in the office of a JR Motorsports employee, Earnhardt’s thoughts return to what Spencer suggested.

“I see those diecasts, that’s the only thing that I think about,’’ Earnhardt said Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. “So it bothers me today. A lot of times, myself included, you don’t think before you speak, but that was an incredible night for us in 2001 when we won that race. I just felt like even if he did feel that way, I was disappointed that he would do that and say that.

“For us to come back here the next race and win and have success over the next several years was sort of was like “Hey, it wasn’t a one-race fluke or illegal car, that’s just how good our program was at the plate tracks.’’

Earnhardt’s victory came during a three-plus season stretch of dominance by Dale Earnhardt Inc. The team won 10 of 13 restrictor-plate races between the 2001 Daytona 500 (won by DEI’s Michael Waltrip) and the 2004 Daytona 500 (won by Earnhardt).

Spencer wasn’t the only driver who seemed to raise questions about Earnhardt’s win in the July Daytona race. After the race, Johnny Benson said: “You don’t go by yourself on the outside and and make that kind of time up. But it’s OK. It was good that Junior won.’’

Earnhardt told the New York Times he received apologies from both Spencer and Benson shortly after the event.

“Johnny Benson came up to me, and he was really upset because some of what he said was taken out of context,” Earnhardt told the New York Times. “Spencer pretty much blatantly said what he said.’’

Nothing has changed for Earnhardt since.

“Of course, you know it’s Jimmy Spencer, it’s the kind of thing he does,’’ Earnhardt said. “I never really liked that too much and haven’t forgotten about. It’s hard to forget something like that.

“It was nice to keep winning and show people that that was legit. That was like for me, that’s the stuff movies are made of, to come back after you dad passes away and win that race was the greatest thing that I could imagine happening for me or anyone else, all his fans, all our family.’’

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Michael Waltrip finds family he befriended hours before Las Vegas tragedy (UPDATE)

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Michael Waltrip joined in the chorus of voices from the NASCAR community in sending out thoughts and prayers to the victims of Sunday night’s horrific tragedy in Las Vegas.

But Waltrip’s thoughts and written words were much more poignant and hit home a lot more because he had originally planned on attending the Route 91 concert’s final night, a show that featured country music stars Big and Rich, Jake Owen and the main headliner, Jason Aldean — who was onstage when the shooting began.

Waltrip decided to skip the concert and went to bed early in his Las Vegas hotel, not far from the Mandalay Bay, only to be awoken by a phone call from his frantic daughter, checking to make sure he was okay after news of the shooting broke.

Still in Las Vegas, Waltrip took to Instagram Monday afternoon to recall a chance meeting with a fan and father Sunday morning who sought a photo of Waltrip with his family, as they were in Las Vegas and planned to attend that evening’s concert to celebrate his daughter’s 21st birthday.

Waltrip had been in Las Vegas for the Fox Sports 1 telecast of the Camping World Truck Series race Saturday night. Now he’s wondering if the father, daughter and the rest of the family he met earlier in the day are okay.

Tuesday, Waltrip provided an update:

Read Waltrip’s touching and heartfelt Instagram post:

Yesterday morning in Las Vegas, at the MGM, I met a man who was a fan. He asked me if it was ok if his daughter took a photo of us. They were in Vegas celebrating her 21st birthday. The whole family was in town, wife and sister too. Daughter was happy and excited to be headed to the concert. Route 91 was the reason she chose Vegas for her 21st. As they walked off I smiled and I was a bit sad too. My daughter Macy turned 20 just a couple days before and I couldn’t be with her. His daddy daughter time made me a bit envious. At 4:45 this morning I was awaken by my phone ringing. It was Macy. ‘Are you ok dad?’ She asked. I was. I didn’t attend the concert as I had planned to. I called it an early night. After we shared our ‘I love yous’ and hung up the phone the first thing I thought of was the dad I met with his daughter. I prayed they were ok. I have no way of knowing if they are safe or not. I can’t stop thinking about them. So much joy, such beautiful family time and then….. This is my personal story to the unthinkable attack last night. I know there are many more who are hurting. I pray for everyone. To the first responders that helped save lives and comfort the hurting, thank you. Your courage and commitment is amazing. I appreciate each and everyone of you. My heart hurts for all who were effected by the horrific tragedy. I pray for everyone involved. Fortunately, friends that I know who were there are all physically ok. The emotional scars will likely never heal. To the father I met who was doing what every dad dreams of, being with his girl celebrating a significant moment I will do all I can, pray.

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Here’s your primer for this weekend’s opening of the NASCAR Cup playoffs

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As we prepare for this weekend’s start of the NASCAR Cup playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway, here’s a primer – courtesy of our friends at Racing Insights – on what to expect.

We’ll cover the playoff format and the number of playoff appearances to date for all 16 drivers and 16 crew chiefs:

2017 Playoff Format Explained

The format for the 2017 the playoffs will be divided into four rounds:

Round One – Round of 16 (Races 27-29 – Chicago, New Hampshire, Dover)

  • All drivers have their points adjusted to 2,000
  • Top-10 in regular season points are awarded regular season playoff points
  • Playoff points accumulated during the first 26 races are added
  • All playoff points earned will continue to transfer as long as a driver remains playoff eligible
  • A win by a playoff driver in round one automatically advances them to round two
  • Remaining positions are filled based on points earned in round one
  • All playoff points accumulated during round one will be applied in the second round as long as that 
driver has advanced

Round Two – Round of 12 (Race 30-32 – Charlotte, Talladega, Kansas)

  • All drivers that advance to round two have their points adjusted to 3,000
  • All playoff points accumulated are then applied, including any playoff points gained during round 1
  • A win by a Playoff driver in round two automatically advances them to round three
  • Remaining positions are filled based on points earned in round two
  • All playoff points accumulated during round two will be applied in the third round as long as that 
driver has advanced

Round Three – Round of 8 (Race 33-35 – Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix)

  • All drivers to advance to round three have their points adjusted to 4,000
  • All Playoff points accumulated are then applied, including any points gained during rounds 1 and 2
  • A win by a Playoff driver in round three automatically advances them to Homestead
  • Remaining positions are filled based on points earned in round three
  • Playoff points are not awarded in Round three

Round Four – Championship 4 (Race 36 -Homestead)

  • All four drivers have their points reset to 5,000, No Playoff Points
  • No Playoff points or stage points awarded to the Playoff eligible drivers during the race
  • The highest finisher at Homestead among the remaining four eligible drivers in the Playoff grid wins 
the Championship******************************************

Playoff Appearances and Best Year End Finish during the Post Season Era: 14th year of the post season:

  • Martin Truex Jr. – 5th Playoff Appearance, best finish 4th in 2015
  • Kyle Larson2nd Playoff Appearance, best finish 9th in 2016
  • Kyle Busch – 10th Playoff Appearance, won the Championship in 2015
  • Brad Keselowski – 6th Playoff Appearance, won the Championship in 2012
  • Jimmie Johnson14th Playoff Appearance (every year), seven-time champion
  • Kevin Harvick – 11th Playoff Appearance, won the Championship in 2014
  • Denny Hamlin – 11th Playoff Appearance, best finish of 2nd in 2010
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr.1st Playoff Appearance
  • Ryan Blaney1st Playoff Appearance
  • Chase Elliott2nd Playoff Appearance, 10th in 2016
  • Ryan Newman – 8th Playoff Appearance, best finish of 2nd in 2014
  • Kurt Busch – 11th Playoff Appearance, won the Championship in 2004
  • Kasey Kahne – 6th Playoff Appearance, best finish of 4th in 2012
  • Austin Dillon2nd Playoff Appearance, best finish of 14th in 2016
  • Matt Kenseth – 13th Playoff Appearance, best finish of 2nd in 2006 & 2013 **
  • Jamie McMurray3rd Playoff Appearance, best finish of 13th in 2015 and 2016

**Matt Kenseth won the Championship in 2003, the last year of the pre-Post Season era

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

Crew Chiefs Making First Playoff appearance:

* No. 5 Keith Rodden – Fourth full-time season as Crew Chief, third with Kasey Kahne, Lead Engineer of #5 from 2012- 2013

* No. 21 Jeremy Bullins – Third season with #21 all with Ryan Blaney, won 2013 & 2014 NXS Owners title as Crew Chief of #22, Race engineer with multiple teams from 2000-2011

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

Playoff Appearances by Crew Chiefs:

* No. 1 Matt McCall – 3rd appearance, all with Jamie McMurray all in the last three years

* No. 2 Paul Wolfe – 6th appearance, all with Brad Keselowski, won 2012 Championship together

* No. 3 Justin Alexander – 2nd appearance, first with Austin Dillon, one with Paul Menard 2015

* No. 4 Rodney Childers – 4th appearance, won the 2014 Championship with Kevin Harvick

* No. 11 Mike Wheeler – 2nd appearance, both with Denny Hamlin (currently suspended)

* No. 17 Brian Pattie – 5th appearance, first with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., three with Clint Bowyer, one with Juan Pablo Montoya

* No. 18 Adam Stevens – 3rd appearance, all with Kyle Busch, won 2015 Championship together

* No. 20 Jason Ratcliff – 5th appearance, all with Matt Kenseth

* No. 24 Alan Gustafson – 10th appearance, second with Chase Elliott, five with Jeff Gordon, two with Kyle Busch, one with Mark Martin

* No. 31 Luke Lambert – 3rd appearance, all with Ryan Newman

* No. 41 Tony Gibson – 5th appearance, third with Kurt Busch, two with Ryan Newman

* No. 42 Chad Johnston – 3rd appearance, second with Kyle Larson, one with Martin Truex Jr. at Michael Waltrip Racing
* No. 48 Chad Knaus – 14th appearance, all with Jimmie Johnson

* No. 78 Cole Pearn – 3rd appearance, all with Martin Truex Jr.

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

2017 Playoff Manufacturer Break Down:

Chevrolet – 7 Ford – 5 Toyota – 4

2017 Playoff Organization Break Down:

Joe Gibbs Racing – 3

Hendrick Motorsports – 3

Chip Ganassi Racing – 2*

Richard Childress Racing – 2

Stewart-Haas Racing – 2

Furniture Row Racing – 1

Roush Fenway Racing – 1

Team Penske – 1

Wood Brothers Racing – 1*

*All Cars of Organization made the playoffs

Veteran NASCAR crew chief Slugger Labbe takes new role with Toyota Racing Development

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Veteran NASCAR crew chief and current NASCAR America analyst Slugger Labbe has a new job.

Labbe announced on this morning’s The Morning Drive on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he has joined Toyota Racing and Toyota Racing Development as Manager of Teams and Vehicles Support.

Labbe’s duties will be stretch across all forms of Toyota’s racing involvement including NASCAR, NHRA drag racing, NASCAR K&N Pro Series, USAC, Rally Series and several other series.

“It’s going to be a challenge for me, working for an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) after being in NASCAR for 32 years,” Labbe said. “But working with the various racing divisions of Toyota Motorsports through TRD is a very exciting challenge for me and I’m looking forward to it.”

Labbe’s duties will include technical support to Toyota teams across all the various motorsports series it supports.

“I’ll be a manager of some of that direction as for what the teams specifically need,” Labbe said.

Labbe won’t have to travel far for his first assignment: the suburban Charlotte resident will be at this weekend’s NHRA event at zMax Dragway, across from Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I get to do something completely different than NASCAR to start this weekend and I’m looking forward to that challenge,” Labbe said. “It’s going to be a pretty cool opportunity for me.”

Labbe left Richard Childress Racing as crew chief for the No. 3 NASCAR Cup Chevrolet driven by Austin Dillon on May 22.

Labbe’s departure led to a shuffle of crew chiefs within its Cup and Xfinity teams that saw Justin Alexander replace Labbe and Randall Burnett took over as crew chief for the No. 2 Xfinity Series Chevrolet.

Labbe had been a Cup crew chief with RCR since 2010. He initially worked with Paul Menard, who won the 2011 Brickyard 400 with Labbe as crew chief. He had been with Dillon since midway through the 2015 season.

In 500 starts as a Cup crew chief, Labbe has five victories, also winning three times with Michael Waltrip and once with Jeremy Mayfield.

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Ryan: Richmond never delivered the cutoff drama that it did the first time

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The final regular-season cutoff race at Richmond Raceway ended just the way most of the previous 13 had gone: A relatively muted finish with less than scintillating action and more than a regrettable mite of self-induced controversy.

The incongruous sight of an ambulance blocking pit entry – and nearly adversely affecting the championship chances of Matt Kenseth — will be the indelible image from Richmond’s finale as the finale for setting the championship field every season since NASCAR reordered its title structure in 2004.

It’s striking in the context of a Cup Series race … but much less so when viewed through the prism of the track whose once cleverly marketed rhyme (“One last race to make the Chase!”) was much more memorable than the racing in its showcase event.

With all due respect to the quaint River City and its many charms, it’ll be easy to say good riddance to Richmond as the gateway to the most important stretch of the season in NASCAR’s premier circuit.

Though the 0.75-mile oval – often described as the short track that races like a superspeedway and has been beloved by drivers since its 1988 reconfiguration by original owner Paul Sawyer – always seemed the perfect location for a regular-season crescendo, it rarely delivered on the promise of punctuating the season’s first 26 races with big moments.

In 14 cutoff races at Richmond, only five drivers raced their way into the playoff field, and only once – the first time when Jeremy Mayfield emphatically snatched the final playoff spot with a stunning victory – was it truly memorable.

The most notable instance in which drivers made the playoffs because of events at Richmond was in 2013 when Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon were added because of penalties to Michael Waltrip Racing for race manipulation and the extraordinary measure of expanding the field in light of tainted radio chatter.

That it had nothing to do with on-track racing and also was one of the most materially damaging chapters in NASCAR history puts it squarely on the through line of forgettable incidents at Richmond.

Whether an ambulance parked in the most obvious of “no unloading” zones, the itch that apparently got scratched with the most suspicious spin in the annals of NASCAR or the fan who thought the top of the Turn 4 catchfence offered a better vantage point than his seat, there is a pattern of infamous episodes that largely overshadowed mostly nondescript racing.

In 2018, the cutoff race will shift to a Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There has been much debate over whether the 2.5-mile track – whose heavy demands on handling and horsepower ensure that typically only powerhouse teams contend up front — will enhance the “drama” that determines the playoff field because it seemingly lessens the chance of a driver carrying his car to victory lane.

But in the absence of virtually any such examples at Richmond since Mayfield, the Brickyard might be the better table-setter for the championship run through the appeal of Indianapolis with prestige substituting for pressure.

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Though NASCAR has employed a traveling medical crew for the first time this season, it’s worth noting Saturday night’s ambulance in question was staffed by local track crew (which apparently disregarded repeated commands) – just as the safety truck was that inexplicably impeded the progress of drivers pitting at Richmond in the April 30 race (and causing a commitment line violation by Martin Truex Jr.).

Between those incidents and the 2014 fence-climber (who caused a caution in addition to drawing criminal charges), that’s a curious run of Richmond staff being involved in some awkward instances that had unfortunate impacts on races.

NASCAR chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell (admirably) alluded to holding the scoring tower accountable for Saturday night’s blunders. But the track obviously bears some of the brunt for the ambulance incident, too, and absolutely should be called to task being in tune with NASCAR officials in the future.

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While it was commendable for O’Donnell to stand up and accept the blame Monday on SiriusXM Satellite Radio, it might have helped to have the message with the same level of candor and contrition Saturday night from NASCAR. Scott Miller deserves credit for taking questions then, but the senior vice president of competition doesn’t hold the necessary clout to speak as authoritatively as O’Donnell or a board-level executive.

It was reminiscent of the debacle at the 2008 Brickyard 400 when competition VP Robin Pemberton was marched in to face a hostile media center immediately after enduring three hours of nonstop triage in the pits, where tires were exploding with unnerving reliability. It predictably didn’t go well, and it wasn’t until two days later when late spokesman Jim Hunter took an extremely contrite stance on SiriusXM that the damage control finally began.

Richmond won’t have the same repercussions as Indianapolis, and O’Donnell struck a stronger message of remorse and transparency even earlier this time, but the lesson is the same. When there are embarrassing images from a significant event on national TV, the sooner the better that someone of great import at NASCAR addresses the matter with clarity, compunction and resolve.

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As it moves back to hosting two annual races under the lights next year and begins a $30 million infield renovation, Richmond still has some big questions to answer about its future. Though Saturday night’s race again proved that racing in sunshine seems to be the preferable alternative for on-track quality, the grandstands noticeably were more crowded than Sunday in April. It’s difficult to quibble with that move.

However, it isn’t unfair to ask questions about the track and its surface, which hasn’t seemed the same since a 2004 repave that came two years after the abandonment of a sealer that previous owner Paul Sawyer used to treat the asphalt since its 1988 opening.

Is it worth returning to a coal tar emulsion or maybe using the newly popular traction compound employed at many tracks this year?

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There were many reasons for Martin Truex Jr. to be angry Saturday night, but some seeds of rage already had been planted nearly a month earlier.

Lest we forget, the Furniture Row Racing driver also wasn’t happy with NASCAR for throwing a caution that cost him the win in the Aug. 13 race at Michigan International Speedway.

With NASCAR debris cautions at a 17-year low through 26 races, it’s understandable why Truex would be even more agitated about feeling disproportionately affected by judgment calls.

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The decision to wait on crowning Truex until Richmond as the regular-season champion – after he already had clinched at Darlington Raceway – seems suspect in retrospect.

Of course, if the yellow hadn’t flown, the timing would have been ideal – punctuating a Richmond win with a celebration of one of the greatest regular seasons in recent memory.

Instead, it was a seething Truex staring blankly (it surely isn’t easy projecting radiance when you just emerged from the care center) while accepting the award from NASCAR president Brent Dewar. After trumpeting the importance of rewarding drivers for the season (which inextricably is linked with the advent of stage racing), this wasn’t the way NASCAR wanted to mark the quasi-historic occasion.

Yes, if the award had been given to Truex a week earlier, the ceremony still would have happened with him reeling after a late crash and a win snatched away. But he also made a media center appearance after the Southern 500 and took every question with grace, so the trophy presentation still would have gone more smoothly (as Truex alluded in the interview with Marty Snider).

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The significance of Saturday night’s 10-point swing isn’t that Truex lost five points (barring a total collapse, the No. 78 Toyota is a lock to reach the third round and nearly a given for the finale). It’s that Larson gained five points by winning the race and moving into second in the playoff standings.

Truex remains the favorite to be among the four championship finalists, but the equation changes if Larson is title eligible at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the 1.5-mile oval that is his favorite on the circuit partly because its high line suits his style so well.

Truex’s chances of racing for a championship weren’t diminished Saturday, but his odds of winning the playoffs were lessened because the chances increased that he will be facing Larson at Miami.

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Redux from last week’s column asking about the line between bending the rules and breaking them to the point of “cheating”: A Twitter follower noted one of the best examples of celebrating the way teams push the boundaries aired earlier this year with the “Refuse to Lose” documentary that marked the 20-year anniversary of Jeff Gordon’s first Daytona 500 win.

In a well-received episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast in March, crew chief Ray Evernham recounted many of those memories and the games that he played with NASCAR inspectors.

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The news that Richard Petty Motorsports could be facing sponsorship woes for the 2018 season, raises questions about how NASCAR might handle its charter system with the current team economic climate (RPM still has two charters, including one that was leased this season).

Brent Dewar, who was named the fourth president in NASCAR history two months ago, was among the architects of the charter system, and he discussed what the future might hold as the guest on the 99th episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here.

It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

The free subscriptions will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.