Jeff Gordon

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One chance: Tonight marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final opportunity to make playoffs

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RICHMOND, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t dealing with fairy tales as he looks ahead to tonight’s race at Richmond Raceway.

The sport’s most popular driver — winless in his last 44 starts — must win to be eligible to contend for a championship in his final full-time Cup season.

“If we had to line-up and race,’’ Earnhardt said Friday afternoon, “I think we’ve got about a sixth- to 12th-place car.

“We could run a fast lap that was a top-10 lap in the first two practices in race trim. After about 30 laps, we were behind the Penske guys on speed and we were behind all the Toyotas on speed by a tenth (of a second) or two. Our teammates don’t look any better. So, I don’t know that we can look in that direction to lean on those guys too much.

“We tried some things in the second practice that won’t get us front-end speed, but we did some things that I think will help our car on the long run. We’ve got to just hope that’s going to work for us in the race.’’

If it does, Earnhardt will follow in the path of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who each qualified for the playoffs in their final full-time seasons in Cup.

If not, then Earnhardt will have 10 races left in a Cup career that has seen him win 26 series races, including two Daytona 500s, and finish in the top five in points three times.

As he gets closer to his final Cup race, he is being asked to reflect more on his career. Friday, he was asked how he wanted to be remembered as a driver.

“I hope that people thought I was good and had some talent,’’ Earnhardt said. “Doesn’t matter to me where on the scale I rank, I just hope people credit me with having some ability.  

“I hope they see me as someone that raced my competitors with respect. That I raced hard, but with respect. There are guys out there that I enjoy racing against, and I hope that is the way people view me, my competitors at least. It’s a big body of work. Looking over my Xfinity races and all the Cup races, I think there is a lot to chew on there and a lot of substance. 

“I feel pretty confident that I made a good impact on the race track as a driver – visually and on paper. Definitely enjoyed a lot of years. There were some bad ones, but I don’t know a lot of drivers that haven’t had some down years. I feel really, really lucky that I had a chance to rebound from that. I didn’t know if we would make it back to victory lane but we got ourselves righted and we won a few more races over the last several years. I think I am a pretty good race car driver, and I hope that people acknowledge that part of it.”

If Earnhardt wins tonight, he would rank it among his top victories in a career that has seen him win in the first Cup race after 9/11 and the first Cup race at Daytona after his father’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

“It would be one of the biggest top-five wins of my career if we were to do that considering the circumstances of win and get in and we’d be in the playoffs and all that good stuff,’’ Earnhardt said.“So, that would be fun.’’

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Bump & Run: Favorite throwback paint schemes for Southern 500

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1. What is the Throwback paint scheme you’re looking forward the most to see this weekend at Darlington Raceway?

(Images here)

Nate Ryan: Danica Patrick’s Ford Credit No. 10. It’s a true throwback that pays homage to a champion who always carried himself well in and out of the car. Though most fans probably associate Dale Jarrett with UPS, this is the primary sponsor that evokes the fondest memories of DJ’s career for me.

Dustin Long: Matt DiBenedetto’s car resembles Bobby Allison’s 1988 Miller High Life car, which was one of my favorite cars. Dylan Lupton’s Xfinity car, which resembles Jeff Gordon’s “Rainbow Warrior” paint scheme also looks sharp.

Daniel McFadin: I’m going to go with Clint Bowyer‘s Carolina Ford Dealers scheme, which is what Mark Martin drove from 1988-91 in the Xfinity Series. It hits that very specific sweet spot of looking both incredibly tacky in a way only a late 80s/early 90s scheme could while looking awesome at the same time.

Jerry Bonkowski: Nothing looks cooler or more intimidating than a black car. And when it channels the fabled “Midnight” car Rusty Wallace used to drive in the mid-1990s, it’s all the more badass. That’s why I’m picking Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Ford as the scheme I’m looking forward to the most at Darlington.

2. What’s another underdog win in NASCAR that compares to Jeremy Clements’ victory at Road America?

Nate Ryan: It ranks as the biggest upset since David Gilliland’s 2006 victory at Kentucky Speedway. That win catapulted Gilliland into a Cup ride with Robert Yates Racing. Clements has paid his dues to be deserving of a similar shot with a decent team.

Dustin Long: David Gilliland’s 2006 Xfinity win at Kentucky Speedway in an unsponsored car for a team that went away after that season. 

Daniel McFadin: Greg Sacks winning the 1985 Firecracker 400. He made 263 Cup starts from 1983-2005 with only one full season (1994). In an unsponsored research-and-development car for DiGard, Sacks led 33 laps and beat Bill Elliott by 23.5 seconds for his only Cup victory.

Jerry Bonkowski: A.J. Allmendinger‘s 2013 win at Road America stands out to me. After missing a good chunk of 2012 serving a suspension for violating NASCAR’s Substance Abuse policy, Allmendinger earned his first career Xfinity win driving for Team Penske, which gave him a second chance. Ironically, Allmendinger would make just two Xfinity starts in 2013 for Team Penske, and won both of them (the other coming at Mid-Ohio).

3. There have been 11 different winners* since 2006 in the Southern 500. What kind of odds do you put at there being a 12th different winner this weekend?

Nate Ryan: About 10-1. There are four drivers who are serious threats, and each already has a victory this season — Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick. Matt Kenseth has the best chance of the winless candidates.

Dustin Long: 75-1 that there will be a different winner than there has been since 2006. Darlington isn’t a track everyone has an even chance at. The winner will be someone who has won at Darlington since 2006.

Daniel McFadin: Seeing as how five of those 11 drivers are no longer competing in Cup or are retired, I think there are good odds. But Kyle Busch (2008) and Martin Truex Jr. (2016) should be favorites. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I think it goes 12-for-12 Sunday, with the most likely suspects to win being those who are most in dire need of a win to make the NASCAR Cup playoffs: Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Erik Jones. And don’t count out Kurt Busch, who has never won at the Track Too Tough To Tame.

* Previous winners at Darlington

2006 — Greg Biffle

2007 — Jeff Gordon

2008 — Kyle Busch

2009 — Mark Martin

2010 — Denny Hamlin

2011 — Regan Smith

2012 — Jimmie Johnson

2013 — Matt Kenseth

2014 — Kevin Harvick

2015 — Carl Edwards

2016 — Martin Truex Jr.

NASCAR America: So long veteran drivers, hello the new young guns

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NASCAR’s changing of the guard is happening before our eyes as veteran drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are moving out of the way and paving the path to the future for millennials like Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon.

On Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America, our analysts talked about how the sport is changing, with Gordon and Stewart retired, Dale Earnhardt Jr. retiring at the end of this season, and likely several others retiring over the next few years.

And in another segment of Thursday’s NASCAR America, NBC’s Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan talked about NASCAR’s up-and-coming young drivers — including William Byron, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson — who provide a bright future for the sport.

Check out that video below:

 

Chris Buescher honors Patty Moise, Dylan Lupton celebrates Jeff Gordon with Darlington schemes

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Chris Buescher‘s No. 37 Chevrolet will pay tribute to former Xfinity Series driver Patty Moise for the Sept. 3 Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (to be televised on NBCSN).

While it won’t have the same color scheme, Buescher’s car will look like the No. 37 Crisco Butter-Flavored Buick Moise drove in the 1988 Xfinity season.

Moise made 133 starts in the Xfinity Series from 1986 to 1998. Her best finish came at Talladega in 1997 when she placed seventh. She also made four Cup starts from 1987-89.

“I’m really excited to have our No. 37 Cheerios Chevrolet pay tribute to another former No. 37 car,” Buescher said in a press release. “When we looked at some of the possibilities for our paint scheme, this one stood out because of the No. 37 number. The throwback weekend is one of the coolest weekends we have on the schedule, and Darlington Raceway is one of my favorite tracks as it is.”

In the Xfinity Series, JGL Racing’s Dylan Lupton will show up at Darlington with a paint scheme that won at the track five times, including three races in a row.

For the Sept. 2 race, Lupton’s No. 24 Toyota will bear the famous DuPont rainbow scheme driven by his “idol” Jeff Gordon.

“Even though I was born the same year he started in his career in Cup (1993), as I began pursuing my racing career at a young age, I would remember spending my Sunday afternoons in front of the television rooting him on, hoping one day I would have the chance to race against him,” Lupton said in a press release. “Next weekend at Darlington, I hope to have his support as I pay tribute to his NASCAR career sporting the famous ‘Rainbow Warriors’ colors on our No. 24 NutUp Toyota during the Darlington throwback weekend.”

The last time the “Rainbow Warriors” scheme was seen in action was in 2015 during Gordon’s final full-time season in the Cup Series, when he drove it in the Bristol night race.

Jeff Gordon: Alex Bowman ‘proved himself last year’ when substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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Jeff Gordon believes Alex Bowman more than “proved himself last year” when he substituted for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 10 races as Earnhardt recovered from a concussion.

Gordon, an equity owner Hendrick Motorsports and an analyst for Fox Sports, voiced his approval of the selection of Bowman to succeed Earnhardt in the No. 88 Chevrolet next season while appearing on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Gordon and Bowman combined to drive the final 18 races of 2016 while Earnhardt recovered.

“I was certainly somewhat involved in those discussion, but I think Alex proved himself last year when he got in the car,” Gordon said. “It was tough for me to jump in there and fill those shoes of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and all the hype and media around that. So for a young man like Alex to get in there and do the job and then all the work he’s done in the simulator, he’s paid his dues.”

MORE: JR Nation reacts to Alex Bowman taking over the No. 88.

In his 10 starts last year, Bowman earned three top 10s, including a career-best finish of sixth at Phoenix after he started from the pole and led 194 laps.

The pole earned him a spot in the Advance Auto Parts Clash in February, where he finished third.

“He’s worked hard, he and his family have sacrificed a lot to get to where he is today,” Gordon said. “If you look at his driving background, it’s impressive. I think what he did last year was amazing. Really the fans and the sponsors and Dale Jr. and the whole team, they’ve all spoken because of the job that he did and the way he handled himself in the car last year.

“I don’t think there’s any surprise that he’s getting this opportunity.”

MORE: Nationwide, Axalta returning to sponsor No. 88 with Alex Bowman

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