Jerry Bonkowski

Dale Earnhardt Jr. on his legacy: ‘Hopefully, I’ve left a good impression’

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. kicked off the beginning of the final lap of his NASCAR Cup career Sunday at Sonoma Raceway.

From this point on, Earnhardt will visit the majority of tracks for the final time as a Cup driver.

Sure, he’s already made his last appearances at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana, but Sonoma and the next 20 races – many for the second time this season – will put a stamp of finality on Earnhardt’s career.

Earnhardt finished sixth at Sonoma Sunday, his second-best career finish at the 1.99-mile road course north of San Francisco.

His recent runs there made it seem like he was just getting started, finishing a career-best third in 2014, seventh in 2015 (plus 11th in 2016) and sixth in his last start – the only top-10s he’s earned there.

Earnhardt grew philosophical after Sunday’s race when he spoke about the legacy he hopes he’ll leave after he makes his final Cup start in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“I think the wins and everything are great, I enjoyed celebrating those,” Earnhardt told Fox Sports 1. “But, long after your career, guys come along and win races and some of your accomplishments on the track sort of get forgotten.

“But, who you are as a person never gets forgotten. People never forget who you were.”

Earnhardt at first struggled to find the right words, but then said what could be construed as a self-epitaph of sorts.

“I hope people just thought I was good and honest and represented the sport well,” he said. “I hope people that work with me enjoyed working with me, whether it was in the Late Model ranks or whatever; and I hope the guys I raced against enjoyed racing with me.

“That’s really all that will matter and what people, I think, will remember, as long as you’re alive and beyond.

“Hopefully I left a good impression. I’ve had a lot of fun.”

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It’s not over for Bowyer until it’s over – with a runner-up finish at Sonoma

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It may have been inadvertent, but Clint Bowyer channeled the late Baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra after Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

Berra was known for many sayings, including “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

For Bowyer to get to the “over” point – a second-place finish – he went on a wild ride, tearing up his Stewart-Haas Racing Ford by making contact with a number of drivers, as well as spinning out at one point.

“You’re not down and out until you’re out,” Bowyer quipped with a Yogi-like explanation, tying his season-best finish (Bristol in April) and earned his third top-five of 2017.

Despite his Ford looking like it been through a demolition derby, it still held together to help deliver a 1-2 Stewart-Haas Racing finish with race winner Kevin Harvick.

“You run over them and you don’t mean to; you get frustrated and get a little bit farther behind and a little bit farther behind,” Bowyer said of his car’s condition.

Among the incidents Bowyer was involved in was a tangle with pole sitter Kyle Larson and A.J. Allmendinger.

“I saw (Larson) check up and I get into him, and I was thinking, ‘Well, we’ll both survive this,’” Bowyer said. “And then all of a sudden (Allmendinger) was coming through him and I smoked him and hurt the left front.

“We were fast all weekend. With clean air and a long run, that’s always my strong suit.”

The key to Bowyer’s strong finish was a long run leading to the checkered flag.

“Thank God we got a long run there, I was out of tires,” Bowyer said. “By the time I got done tearing the hell out of my car, I was out of tires.

“Those stages, you know, I mean, obviously this is the first crack at it. That’s what lends to tore-up race cars. It’s such a short stage, there was some technical strategy that you’ve got to try to play and get track position, and then all of a sudden you’re on the bad side of tires trying to hold guys off and you’re blocking.”

In 12 starts on the 1.99-mile road course, he has one win, seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes.

“You know, it’s just patience and try to take care of my stuff,” Bowyer said when asked about the key to his success at Sonoma. “I just do all my normal stuff that’s always gotten me to be good out here.

“And thank God I got that long run and was able to lean on some of my expertise here, if there is any, just taking care of my stuff and babying it and not spinning the tires and being good on the end back of a run.”

Now that Harvick has broken through for his first win of the season, and teammate Kurt Busch won the season-opening Daytona 500, Bowyer said his time to win is at hand.

“Let’s face it, yeah, we’ve got to win,“ Bowyer said. “We need a win in a big way, and today would have been a great win.

“But after everything that happened, I mean, to get second place is, I guess, really good, as a matter of fact.”

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Martin Truex Jr. leads most laps, but exits Sonoma with late engine problem

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Martin Truex Jr. led the most laps (25), as well as a Stage 1 victory in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

But that wasn’t enough for Truex to get to victory lane, as the engine in his Toyota Camry let go with 24 laps to go in the scheduled 110-lap event.

Truex was running third and apparently had been driving on seven cylinders for at least 10 laps when he pitted for service. His crew raised the hood on the car and tried to find the problem before sending him back out.

But upon leaving his pit stall, smoke came out from the rear of his car, he came to a stop before the pit road exit, and then took the car to the garage. Truex ended the day with a 37th-place finish, his worst showing and second DNF of the 2017 season.

“It’s very disappointing, we were sitting there running second on seven cylinders,” Truex told Fox Sports 1. “This Toyota was so good today. It was a crazy fast car.

“Sometimes, these things happen. We made good power, just weren’t able to go the whole distance today.”

With his Stage 1 win, Truex continues to have a dominating lead in the series with 11 stage wins.

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Earnhardt, Danica, Larson in early tangle at Sonoma; Patrick hit later by Stenhouse

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Bad luck struck early for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick and pole sitter Kyle Larson in Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

The trio were entering Turn 11 at the conclusion of Lap 14 when Earnhardt locked his brakes and spun. He slid back into the middle of the lane, clipped the right rear of Larson’s car, while Patrick could not stop and hit Earnhardt in the middle of the right side.

All three cars suffered minor to moderate damage. When the race restarted on Lap 19, Larson had fallen back to 14th, Patrick was 24th and Earnhardt was 25th. Earnhardt also was penalized for speeding while exiting pit road. It was his sixth speeding penalty of the season.

Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski were at the front of the field on the ensuing restart.

UPDATED:

Patrick was involved in another wreck not of her own doing on Lap 31. Kyle Larson pinched Dale Earnhardt Jr., who got into the rear of Patrick’s car, spinning her. Patrick’s boyfriend, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., could not avoid her car and sustained heavy, race-ending damage to his Roush Fenway Racing Ford.

“I tried to get down below it and hit it,” Stenhouse told Fox Sports 1. “It’s just unfortunate. … All in all, we were trying to bide our time and save our tires. Now we’ve got Goodyears left that aren’t going to be used.”

Patrick, meanwhile, asked over her team radio, “Who is that dumb?” She was later told it was Larson, but she didn’t reply.

Cup drivers in uncharted territory – stage racing on a road course

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For the most part, stage racing has brought added excitement and different forms of strategy to NASCAR Cup competition in the first 15 races of the season.

But how stage racing will impact Sunday’s road course race at Sonoma Raceway remains a mystery that won’t be answered until the checkered flag falls in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

First of all, the first stage ends on Lap 25 and the second stage ends on Lap 50 of the 110-lap race.

How those stages change the pit stop strategies devised by crew chiefs can range from little impact to radical changes.

While much of the strategy onus will fall upon crew chiefs, Cup drivers are also concerned how much stage racing will impact their race. Here’s what some of them are thinking about:

Sonoma polesitter, Cup points leader and Michigan winner Kyle Larson: “Yeah, I think stage racing or the stages will play into effect. I still haven’t talked to my engineers about it. We will have a pre-race meeting (Sunday) and kind of go over what their race plan is, as far as how many stops we are going to do and stuff like that. I don’t know yet, how it will affect it, but I’m sure it will be interesting.

“I don’t think it would turn into a four-stop race, but possibly a three-stop race rather than typically being a two-stop race, but I don’t know. I would have to talk to the engineers, they are smart. I just pit when they tell me to pit.”

Outside pole sitter Jamie McMurray: “The fact that we have a good starting spot at the beginning is going to be big. The stages are going to be interesting to see how that affects the race or if it does. But, yeah, got a good car and just ready for (Sunday).”

Denny Hamlin: “With the stages and everything that goes into play, the field’s going to be flip-flopped all day long and we just hope to be on the right end of it at the right time.”

Brad Keselowski: “The stages are going to throw these races … the road course and tracks like Pocono where you can pit and not lose a lap. … it throws these races a complete curve ball. I think you’ll see that here.”

Martin Truex Jr.: I feel like if you win the first stage, you’re probably not going to have a chance to win the race at the end. I think you’re going to see a lot of guys pit before the first stage is over. … I don’t play strategy, I don’t do strategy, I’ll leave that up to Cole (Pearn, crew chief), and hopefully he’ll figure it out. But it’s definitely going to be interesting. It’s going to be a lot more difficult, I think, to call this race than it has in years past. In the last few years we’ve seen tires play such a big role in winning this race that I think it’s been since about 2013 since this was won on two stops, or maybe actually 2012. So it’s been a long time since anyone done it on a one‑ or two‑stop strategy, and tires are going to be a big deal. So I think everybody stopped a least four times last year, and we’ll see what this year brings.”

Clint Bowyer: “It will certainly change a lot about this track. Who knows? That (stage racing) has been such a big thing and a good thing I guess for our sport. If there ever was an exception to that rule you hope it is not here. You make those rules to try to ramp up the competition everywhere across the board and sometimes there are race tracks that maybe didn’t need it. This is one of those places where you didn’t need anything but obviously you have to make rules to be good for everywhere. … I think the strategy side will kind of go by the wayside and you will have to push as hard as you can. We have been pretty easy on our equipment over the years by being able to pace ourselves, save fuel, not just dive-bomb every single corner of every lap. You might see some attrition show up because of it. And you will see desperation show up at the end.”

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