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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s playoff chances may rely on if he can win a race

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CONCORD, N.C. — Even with 15 races remaining before the playoffs begin, car owner Rick Hendrick says he thinks Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have to win a race if the retiring driver hopes to have one last shot at a Cup championship.

Earnhardt is 25th in the points heading into this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He’s 77 points behind Trevor Bayne, who holds the final playoff spot at this time. Drivers can earn up to 70 points this weekend with an extra stage. The maximum number of points is 60 for all other Cup races.

A win before the playoffs begin in September grants a driver, who starts every race, a chance to compete for the title. If there aren’t 16 winners by then, the rest of the playoff field is filled based on points.

Through the first 11 races, eight different drivers have won at least once. Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski each have two wins, while five others have single victories: Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman and Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch.

Stage points could play a key role in who fills the final playoff spots and that might not be good for Earnhardt. He has 19 stage points (teammate Chase Elliott has 94) but none in the last four races.

“I think we’ve got to win now,’’ Hendrick said last week. “A lot of people can start having problems. We’ve got to do the best we can and let it take care of itself. The cars are fast enough to win. I’m hopeful we can pull it off.’’

Said Earnhardt: “That makes it a lot easier when the boss man tells you what you’ve got to do.’’

Earnhardt wasn’t as confident after Saturday night’s All-Star Race. He finished 18th in the 20-car field and apologized to fans on Periscope after the race.

“It’s hard not to get down,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve been racing a long time and it’s hard not to get down. Right after that, it’s hard to keep your chin up, really hard. I’ll get my chin up again in a couple days.’’

That’s kind of how his season has been.

He was leading the Daytona 500 when Kyle Busch’s tire blew and Busch wrecked in front of Earnhardt, collecting him. Earnhardt finished 37th.

A pit road speeding penalty, flat tire and loose wheel contributed to a 30th-place finish at Atlanta.

A pit road speeding penalty dropped him to the rear at Martinsville and then he was collected in a crash. He finished 34th.

An oil cooler issue contributed to his crash at Bristol and a 38th-place finish.

Teammate Jimmie Johnson didn’t know Earnhardt was to his outside and slammed him into the wall at Richmond. Earnhardt finished 30th

A loose wheel forced him to pit late at Talladega. He finished 22nd.

He thought he had a loose wheel and pitted late at Kansas, giving up a top-10 spot. He finished 20th.

“I just know that in our notes over the last four years there we have tires that shake,’’ Earnhardt said. “Why there and why not other places? Don’t know. But at Kansas every third set might shake. It’s just something that I needed to remember before the race so when that happened, I didn’t freak out because we’ve had so many loose wheels so it’s in the back of my mind.

“I jumped the gun. It was my mistake. Full responsibility for costing us a lap and whatever else it costs us. Could have finished in the top 10. Car was real fast. It’s frustrating. If I had just talked to myself and said, ‘Be aware of those vibrations, it’s just what you have at that particular racetrack for some reason,’ then I might not have been so quick to jump on the loose wheel bandwagon like I was.’’

Even before the poor run in the All-Star Race, Hendrick said the team shouldn’t be overcome with dread.

“We just have to take a deep breath and do what we know how to do,’’ Hendrick said.

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Kyle Busch wins first NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte and $1 million

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Scratch one more off Kyle Busch’s bucket list.

The 2015 NASCAR Cup champion won his first career NASCAR Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, capturing Saturday’s Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race.

In his 12th All-Star Race, Busch led all of the 10 laps in the final stage to take home the $1 million winner’s check.

Kyle Larson, who won the first two stages of the four-stage event, finished second, followed by third stage winner Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray.

Sixth through 10th were Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Results, stats for the Monster Energy All-Star Race won by Kyle Busch

Busch becomes the fourth different first-time All-Star Race winner in the last four years, is the 16th different winner in the last 19 All-Star races and is the 23rd different winner in the event’s 33-year history.

And while it was an exhibition, non-points race, it was the first Cup win for any Joe Gibbs Racing driver in 2017.

“There’s reason to celebrate and to celebrate big,” Busch told Fox Sports 1. “We weren’t quite the fastest car, but we made the right changes and the right moves when it mattered most and got the most out of our night tonight and got here into victory lane.”

Keselowski was the only driver of the 10 that qualified for the final 10-lap winner-take-all stage to stay out on-track and not pit to start the final stage in the lead position. But Busch made quick work of Keselowski and streaked onward to victory.

Larson won the first two stages, leading all 40 combined laps. However, when Stage 3 began, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Blaney were at the front of the field, and Larson was third when the green flag fell.

Jimmie Johnson took the lead from Bowyer on Lap 42 and held on to win Stage 3, setting up the 10-driver final stage, which featured Larson, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and defending All-Star Race winner Joey Logano.

With so much money on the line, drivers were both aggressive and cautious from the opening green flag of the 70-lap event. There were no crashes in either of the first two 20-lap stages.

Late in Stage 3, Ryan Newman took his car to the garage after banging fenders with Denny Hamlin, who continued on.

In the All-Star Open that preceded the night’s main event, Bowyer and Ryan Blaney won the first two stages, while Daniel Suarez was the overall Open winner, putting all three drivers into the All-Star Race.

And Elliott was named as the winner of the fan vote, putting him into the 20th and final All-Star Race position.

HOW KYLE BUSCH WON: Patience, which isn’t always one of Busch’s strongest suits, was the key to his win. He did just well enough in the first three stages and then roared from third to the front of the field before even reaching Turn 1 in the final stage and remained in command the rest of the way.

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Larson had one of the best races of his career. Sure, he didn’t win, but his two stage wins and finishing second showed Larson likely will be a factor to deal with in next Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Matt Kenseth’s night ended after Stage 1 with an oil leak (finished 20th). Ryan Newman’s banging fenders with Denny Hamlin cost him a chance to race in the final stage (finished 19th). Dale Earnhardt Jr. fought a loose race car all race and finished 18th out of 20.

NOTABLE: Jimmie Johnson came into Saturday night as the only multiple All-Star race winner, with four wins in the last 18 All-Star races, but couldn’t hold off Kyle Busch in the final stage.

STAGE 1 RESULTS (Laps 1-20): Pole-sitter Kyle Larson led all 20 laps to win and earn an automatic berth in the final 10-lap, winner-take-all segment. Kyle Busch was second, followed by Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski.

STAGE 2 RESULTS (Laps 21-40): Kyle Larson continued to dominate, leading all 20 laps to win Stage 2. Jimmie Johnson was second, followed by Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray.

STAGE 3 RESULTS (Laps 41-60): Jimmie Johnson took the lead on Lap 42 and held on to win the stage. Kevin Harvick was second, followed by Larson, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “I could see a million dollars (go) out the windshield. I just drove too hard.” – Third-place finisher Jimmie Johnson on being unable to hold off Kyle Busch on the final restart.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Coca-Cola 600, the longest race each season, takes place next Sunday, May 28, also at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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Kyle Larson edges Kyle Busch for All-Star pole

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Kyle Larson nipped Kyle Busch by one-hundredth of a second to win his first Monster Energy All-Star Race pole Friday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It was Larson’s first attempt at the qualifying format, which features three laps at a pit stop where there is no pit road speed limit.

“I knew everybody would try to push a little bit harder that last round,” Larson said of the two-round session. “I just wanted to be mistake-free. My first attempt at it was pretty cool.”

Kevin Harvick will start third and be followed by Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch.

“As you look at the lap we probably could have run a couple tenths faster there, but, all in all, our goal was to not make any huge mistakes,” Harvick said. “I feel like starting up front with the way that the tires are and the way that everything is will be a huge benefit.”

The top five advanced to the second round and that determined the pole-winner. Kurt Busch had the fastest time over three laps and a pit stop but was penalized 10 seconds for two loose lug nuts, dropping him to fifth.

Johnson overshot his pit stall and had to back up. He was assessed a five-second penalty for his crew going over the wall too soon.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start sixth in his final All-Star Race.

Ryan Newman provided a smoke show with his qualifying run. As he began his attempt to enter the pits for his mandatory four-tire pit stop, Newman lost control of his No. 31 Chevrolet and slid sideways through Turn 4, producing a cloud of smoke. But Newman regained control and rocketed down pit road to make his stop.

Newman will start 15th Saturday night after a loose lug nut was found on Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s car, knocking five seconds off his time.

Click here for All-Star qualifying results

Carl Long’s first Cup race since 2009 was quite an adventure

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A misspelled word made Carl Long and a potential sponsor the butt of jokes last weekend at Kansas Speedway, but even that didn’t diminish his first Cup race since 2009.

Long misspelled the company’s name when he submitted it to NASCAR for approval. The sanctioning body, which must approve all sponsors, approved Long’s sponsor based on the incorrect spelling.

Long spelled the company’s name Veeoverks, inserting an ‘o’ where there should have been a ‘d’ instead.

NASCAR saw the proper spelling on Long’s car and had him remove it after seeing the products it sold included trace amounts of THC, the principal psychoactive in marijuana.

“I guess I was a laughingstock of a lot of things … but nothing is wrong with people laughing,’’ Long told NBC Sports on Monday. “I made a mistake. If they got a laugh out of it, so be it.

“We got a little press out of it. Probably wasn’t as positive, but it just goes to show that even in the big sport of NASCAR and us racing, there is still that human element and one mistake a ‘d’ to an ‘o’ set off a chain of other stuff and all I can really do is laugh about it.’’

It was part of an adventuresome weekend in his return to the Cup series. He had been out since being unable to pay a $200,000 fine imposed for an oversized engine at what was then called the Sprint Open during the All-Star weekend in 2009. He and NASCAR came to an agreement before this season that allowed him to return to Cup.

Kansas was his first race back in the series since the penalty.

On the way to Kansas Speedway, his hauler was stopped twice at truck scales, once because the hauler’s tag was expired and once for not having the proper state permit. Long said both had been accidentally overlooked. Once rectified, Long and a fellow driver were back on the road.

Once at the track and in the Cup garage for the first time since 2009, Long said he felt at home.

“All the NASCAR officials … all of them were happy,’’ Long said for him to be back. “A bunch of different people from different teams congratulated us.’’

He missed the first practice session because he and his crew had work left on the car but he ran 14 laps in the second practice session. His team was among 11 that did not pass inspection in time to make a qualifying attempt. Since there were 40 cars, he had a spot in the field.

Long finished 31st in Saturday night’s race, two spots off his career high in the series. Long said he got faster as the race progressed and that was one of his goals for the weekend. He finished 11 laps behind winner Martin Truex Jr. but placed ahead of such drives as Ryan Newman and Joey Logano.

He finished a lap behind AJ Allmendinger and two laps behind Chase Elliott.

After loading the car and equipment into the hauler, Long was back on the road, driving the second shift from about 6 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sunday. The hauler arrived at the shop at about 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Long accomplished his biggest goal of running to the end and his car will be ready to compete in this weekend’s Monster Energy Open. He’ll drive it.

He plans to enter the car — the only Cup car he owns — for the Coca-Cola 600 and says he’s had about dozen inquiries from drivers and companies looking to get involved in his program. He will look to run the car when he can but the focus remains on the two-car Xfinity program he operates out of a 4,750-square foot shop in Statesville, North Carolina.

“It’s always an adventure here. We’re not vanilla, that’s not our flavor,’’ Long said, laughing about his weekend. “Overall, good weekend, proud to be back and now we hope we can build this team and organization to stick it out for a while.’’

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What Drivers Said after Kansas Cup race

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Here is what drivers were saying after Saturday night’s NASCAR Cup race at Kansas Speedway:

Martin Truex Jr. — Winner: “That kid (Ryan Blaney) is good, man. He’s going to win a ton of races. He’s really talented and their cars are fast right now. You do 10 restarts, eight of them you get right, two of them you screw up. You just hope the ones you screw up aren’t for the win. Today, we were able to get those ones right when it mattered. You know what can I say, just an awesome team effort.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 2nd: “We caught a couple breaks there on those restarts and made the most of them. That was good. We had a really great Freightliner Elite Support Ford, just kept getting caught in adversity there. We worked our way through it. It stinks we finished second and still lost points because we didn’t get those stage points. All in all, we had a really fast Ford and have a lot to be proud of. We will move on to the next week.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished 3rd: “It was a solid night. Our Busch Light Ford was fast and we were able to come through the field and do what we needed to do.”

RYAN BLANEY — Finished 4th: “We weren’t very good on the long run. I felt that we had a great short run car tonight, and I thought that was going to play right into our hands at the end. (Martin Truex Jr.) got us on that restart somehow. I don’t know. I was super loose there on the last restarts and (Truex) got me spinning my tires a little bit. It kind of stinks. I think that it says a lot about this team to go out and lead some laps and go have a shot and win races.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 5th: “It just seemed like other guys got better than us. We tried to adjust on our car and it never really made it better. The M&M’s Camry was fast when the sun was out. We were pretty quick up there riding the high side and doing a good job. We won the first segment and then the second segment I thought we were – had a shot to win that one as well. I think we were third in that one and once it got dark out, we just kind of lost it. Actually, other guys just got faster. The delta just got greater where those guys picked up a lot of speed and we didn’t.”

Kyle Larson – Finished 6th: “The early parts of the race I thought we were okay, not great, but I thought we were like a fourth- or fifth-place car and I got into the wall on one of those later restarts after that big wreck. I just got really tight and it took off and hit the wall. Then my car was pretty tight afterwards, so I’m sure some aerodynamic issues there, but still recovered for a decent finish there. The restarts weren’t really working out for me there the last handful of them. It seemed like at the beginning of the race I could pass people no problem on restarts. There at the end, my line just kept getting choked down and stuff, but sixth place is still a good day for our Target team. The No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) finished really well so that is not great for us because I would like to be leading the points here in a few months. Still in all a good day.”

DANIEL SUÁREZ– Finished 7th: “Very proud of the way that the car worked the entire race. Scott (Graves, crew chief) and the guys they did a very good job. We had a top-10 car and that’s exactly where we ended up. Very happy for the performance of the car and looking forward to keep digging, keep working and keep learning for next weekend.”

Jamie McMurray – Finished 8th: “So, we had a really good night. We had a hard time in the pits tonight. I’m not sure if something with the set-up of the car, but we struggled in the pits, but overall, we had a really fast McDonald’s Chevy. We were pretty good on restarts, which was important, and I’m really happy to finish eighth because we restarted like 20th or something with two or three to go. It was a good finish.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 9th: “That just wasn’t very good tonight. We were kind of off all weekend. Definitely off in the race. I started off good and we were just down on rear grip. I fought loose the whole time I was out there and it seemed like everything we were doing — we were doing some fundamentally different things to try to tighten the car up. It changes the aero balance of the car and I am not too sure. Maybe we learned something tonight.”

Trevor Bayne — Finished 10th: “That was a hard-fought 10th-place finish. If you’d told me I would finish 10th after practice I would have probably kissed you on the forehead. That wasn’t a good practice for us and we still qualified 16th. It is funny how expectations change. A year ago, I would have been pumped for a 10th and now it is what we should be doing. We are getting better. Our potential is better. If we can finish 10th on a weekend like this, when we get the cars where we need them we can do business. I appreciate the hard work and execution by my team tonight.”

Michael McDowell – Finished 13th: “You know it’s tough on pit road and I would have to go back and watch it, but obviously, Chase (Elliott) took two tires there. I was following the No. 88 into the box, so I couldn’t see the No. 24 coming out at all and by the time we made contact he was at my left rear. I just didn’t see him coming in, and I don’t think his crew chief knew I was coming in either because he sent him when both the No. 88 and myself were turning into the box right in front of him. So, it just happens on pit road. It definitely wasn’t anything that I felt like I could have prevented because I didn’t even see him coming out of the box. Unfortunate I know because we got a lot of damage and obviously, it took him out for the day too. But, good recovery, everybody at LFR has been working really hard.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 14th: “Man, did this team fight hard. We struggled in the first two stages to find the perfect balance. We spun when we stayed out with old tires, but we didn’t get any damage and were able to recover. It started coming to us there in the final stage, but it was just impossible to pass cars. We really needed track position that we just didn’t have. We picked up some spots at the end with the cautions though and brought home a solid top-15 finish. We have a lot of notes to take back with us on our intermediate-track program. There is still some work to do, but we’ll get there.”

Kasey Kahne – Finished 15th: “The guys did a great job tonight. We had good pit stops and we had a good car. After the red flag the car just got really loose for whatever reason. We had a good run though until that point.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Finished 20th: “For whatever reason, the car had a lot of vibration issues. We had some loose wheels. I thought we had one early in the race, but it is questionable whether it was, but it was shaking pretty bad. We had a lot of vibrations late in the race and one in particular that was real serious. You know it’s just a judgement call whether you stay out there and the wheel comes off or you come in and get it tightened up. I don’t think we had any loose wheels after that. I don’t think we had only but one loose wheel tonight. Looking back through our notes this is a track where we all kind of complain a lot about vibrations and thinking we have loose wheels when we don’t. I know a lot of guys tonight complained a lot about it, so if I would have thought about that and kind of known that in the heat of the moment I probably wouldn’t have stayed out on the track, but we had about a 10th- to a 15th-place finish lined up.  And I came in for a vibration that wasn’t a loose wheel and we lost a lap and we got it back and ended up 20th. We had a much better car than that. Had good speed, liked the car and we had good speed in practice.”

Danica Patrick — Finished 36th: “We were having a really good race and having fun out there and had a lot of speed. I kinda felt like Wonder Woman for a little while. All I know is that I all of a sudden crashed. I definitely had a feeling it was the 22 and I am sure that the doctors in the medical center checking my neurological abilities are glad to know I was right that it was Joey. When he said he had a failure I can’t say it made me feel that much better in the moment. I am just frustrated for the lack of breaks I get. It seems like every time things are going better and something happens I get crashed or am in a crash. Especially a place like this, a brake rotor, when we are using 200-300 pounds of pressure seems odd. Unfortunately there were two of us that got collected and while I am okay, one of these times one of these really big accidents someone is not going to be okay. Aric (Almirola) is not okay and his car looked the best of everybody. You never know when it is going to be the wrong hit. I have a team that works hard and put another car on the track and I hope we are saving up for a really good run of good luck.”

Joey Logano — Finished 37th:  I’m okay. Just saying a lot of prayers for Aric (Almirola) right now. A lot of us took a hard hit. Something broke on my car, I don’t know what it was. I noticed it as I was trying to go in. I tried to back it off but you’re going 215 (mph) and it’s hard to check up. The car just took a bit step sideways into the corner and I hooked Danica (Patrick). I haven’t seen a replay yet, I don’t know what happened. I just hope everyone is okay. I hope Aric is alright. That’s the last thing you want to see, a big hit like that for anyone. It’s unfortunate for everyone.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 40th: “The bottom end of the motor just broke. We finally got the Caterpillar Chevrolet running well, not to where we needed to be, but better from how we started the race. We knocked a hole in the grill from a spring rubber or something. I watched what I hit, but I couldn’t tell what it was. Finally got enough tape on it so it would run warm and stick a little bit better and made a whole bunch of changes to the car, but just something in the motor broke, bottom end for sure, but I’m not really sure what happened first.”

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