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NASCAR’s cycling craze grows but not every driver ready to wear spandex

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Clint Bowyer laughs at the latest craze in the NASCAR Cup garage.

Cycling.

“It’s just a fad,’’ Bowyer told NBC Sports. “It’s just like anything else, I mean, it really is. It’s so funny.

“I go to the shop and I see all these bikes hanging on the bike rack and we’re talking three, four, five thousand dollar bikes sitting there that you know damn well, they’re not going to be riding for long. Nobody enjoys that. So it’s a fad.

“It’s going to go away, and that’s when you’ll be able to pick up a good deal on a really nice bike and go through the fad yourself. But there’s no way in hell I would ever let anyone see me in that spandex.’’

That’s what Dale Earnhardt Jr. thought. He hitched a ride in a vehicle through the Atlanta Motor Speedway infield earlier this season before getting on his bike outside the track so no one would see him in spandex.

Now, Earnhardt enjoys cycling, promotes it and doesn’t mind being seen in spandex.

“I didn’t like working out at a gym, running on a treadmill, all that stuff’s real boring,’’ Earnhardt told NBC Sports. “Couldn’t really find anything that I liked to do. And so I picked up cycling. It’s a lot of fun.

“We go out and ride at all the stops on the NASCAR circuit, and we see part of the country that we … never take the time to see. It’s really beautiful. And it doesn’t feel like working out. It doesn’t feel like an exercise. We’re just cruising along on our bikes.

“We’ll ride for an hour-and-a-half or two hours, it goes by pretty quick. There’s never any moment in the experience where I’m going, ‘Man, how much longer do we got?’ And you’ll ride 20 to 30 miles, get off the bike, you’ll burn 800-1000 calories in a two-hour period, and you’ve had fun. And you feel great!’’

Earnhardt is among many drivers in the Cup garage cycling. They include Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne.

Road cycling has evolved in the sport. Drivers and crew members previously went mountain biking to get their exercise.

“We used to meet on Tuesday afternoons all the time and ride and you got to meet a lot of new people, and then it kind of expanded (from) there to riding road bikes,’’ Kenseth said of he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff.

“It’s a good way to get out of the motorhome on the weekends and see a lot of the different areas around the race track that I never really explored before and keeps you in great shape.’’

While they’re not on the level of Tour de France riders (NBCSN’s coverage continues at 6 a.m. Wednesday with Stage 17), it’s still about being in shape in the car. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 90s this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The high for Sunday’s race (3 p.m., NBC) is expected to be 89 degrees, making it among the warmest temperatures for a race this season.

Cycling, along with the rest of his workouts, helps Johnson with handling such conditions and more.

“I’ve learned a lot of great things from a nutrition and hydration standpoint to take to the car, and some probably know I’m pretty sensitive to hydration,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports. “I’ve had some issues over the years, and I’m thankful that I have this knowledge because I think I would have many more episodes, but truthfully there is so much more from a mental aspect. Learning to fight for something, the discipline it takes to stay fit at a high level.

“It’s a very stressful job and to get on the bike and be with my friends and socialize and stay fit has been good on a lot of levels. Not just the obvious physical ones.’’

Some drivers have taken their bike riding further. Johnson, Kenseth and McMurray rode in a 102.7-mile bike race in May from South Carolina to Mt. Mitchell, which at 6,684 feet is the highest point east of the Mississippi River, in Western North Carolina. McMurray finished in 5 hours, 58 minutes. Johnson rode with former Tour de France racer George Hincappie and both finished at 6:01. Kenseth completed the ride in 6:32.

Still, not everyone is sold on cycling, like Bowyer and Ryan Newman.

“I don’t quite get those guys and the amount of money they spend on whatever it is, a 32-ounce bicycle, when all they’ve got to do is just go on Craigslist and get a Schwinn or something like that and pedal half the distance and twice as hard and get better workouts,’’ Newman said.

“I offered back at Talladega weekend to get a Moped and cut the air for Kenseth and those guys just to kind of give them a little draft, some drafting partners, you know? But, they haven’t taken me up on it. So, I’ve just been enjoying fishing and a little bit of the outdoors. My workouts consist more of doing physical activities and sweating than paying money for a bicycle just to coast downhill.’’

Extra miles @monstermile with @jimmiejohnson @dalejr @chaseelliott24

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New NASCAR President addresses start times for Cup races

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The debate of when a Monster Energy Cup race should begin reignited this weekend on social media after some complaints by those in the sport and a response Monday by new NASCAR President Brent Dewar.

Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway marked the first of five consecutive races that have listed start times of 3 p.m. ET.

Clint Bowyer posted a tweet shortly after Sunday’s race that simply read “3:00 starts suck!”

Samantha Busch, wife of Kyle Busch, tweeted Sunday that she was not a fan of later start times but asked what fans thought.

Dewar, promoted to NASCAR president last week from his role as chief operating officer, addressed the matter Monday on “The Morning Drive’’ when asked about possible changes to the schedule beyond 2018.

Dewar mentioned that the schedule was an example of collaboration with NASCAR’s partners, which includes TV networks, and noted that “there were tradeoffs that we needed to make both for broadcast, tracks, teams, etc.

“We did some later start times this year and some in the industry have not liked that, but it was important to interact with our West Coast audience,’’ Dewar said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Still our largest audience is California, and 1 o’clock starts is too early for them on the West Coast. So we’re trying to find the right balance of that. But yes, I think you’ll see more innovation to make it a win-win for the industry. We will do it together as an industry. It won’t be unilateral on NASCAR’s part.’’

Last year, 12 of the 36 Cup points races had start times listed as 1 or 1:30 p.m. ET. This year, there are three such races.

Last year, five Cup points races had start times listed as 3 or 3:30 p.m. ET. This year, there are 13 such races.

The remaining Cup races scheduled to start before 3 p.m. ET are all in the playoffs:

(All times listed are Eastern)

Sept. 24 — New Hampshire … 2 p.m.

Oct. 1 — Dover … 2 p.m.

Oct. 8 — Charlotte … 2 p.m.

Oct. 15 — Talladega … 2 p.m.

Oct. 29 — Martinsville … 1 p.m.

Nov. 5 — Texas … 2 p.m.

Nov. 12 — Phoenix … 2:30 p.m.

Nov. 19 — Homestead … 2:30 p.m.

Among the comments made on social media Monday about the start time and Dewar’s comments:

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. confident but ‘aware’ he’s running out of time to make playoffs

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — This is the race many have waited for, some figuring it will be Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s best chance to win and make the playoffs in his final Cup season.

If he doesn’t win tonight’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m., NBC), some suggest he won’t win any of the remaining nine races and will miss the playoffs.

Earnhardt knows there are doubters. What would he tell them?

I don’t think I’ve done much on the racetrack in the last several weeks to change your opinion or anyone else’s opinion if they had that,’’ Earnhardt said after winning the pole Friday. “With Greg (Ives, crew chief) and my team, I’m confident in them that we can show up anywhere and surprise everybody.

“If we don’t happen to come out of here and win this race, the urgency will pick up as it would as every week goes by, but I’m confident in our ability to get a win. We can go to Pocono and win. We can go to Michigan and win. I don’t see why we couldn’t go to those places and win. We were pretty competitive at both of those tracks, just to name a couple.’’

Earnhardt also understands the challenge he’ll face if he doesn’t win tonight at Daytona, a track he has 17 career total victories, including two in July (most recently in 2015).

“We are running out of time, and I’m aware of that,’’ Earnhardt said.

Teammate Chase Elliott says he sees a different Earnhardt this weekend.

“I won’t say he has a chip on his shoulder – but I do think he has been very, very determined this weekend on making sure his car is driving exactly like he wants it,’’ said Elliott, who starts second. “He doesn’t want it good. He doesn’t want it great. He wants it perfect, and I think he has made that very apparent in our post-practice meetings. So yes, I think he is very determined to run well here.’’

The problem is if Earnhardt doesn’t win at Daytona, where does he win since he won’t make the playoffs via points?

  • At Kentucky, he has two top-10 finishes in six starts and has never finished better than fourth (2012)
  • At New Hampshire, he is winless in 33 career starts. His best finish is third but it was in 2004.
  • At Indianapolis, he is winless in 16 career starts. His best finish is fourth in 2012.
  • At Pocono, he has two wins in 34 career starts. His wins both came in 2014. He finished second there in the 2016 June race.
  • At Watkins Glen, he is winless in 16 career starts. His best finish is third in 2003.
  • At Michigan, he has two wins in 35 career starts. He has five top-10 finishes in his last six starts there.
  • At Bristol, he has one win in 34 career starts. He finished second in the spring race there last year.
  • At Darlington, he is winless in 21 career starts. He finished second there in 2014.
  • At Richmond, the final race before the playoffs begin, he has three wins in 35 career starts. He has two top-10 finishes in his last seven starts there.

“I know what I need to do on the race track and I will try and go out there and do that this weekend and drive the race that I need to drive,’’ Earnhardt said of what he faces Saturday night. “Hopefully, that has me in position at the end of the race.’’

If he wins, it would be quite a celebration at a track that means so much to Earnhardt.

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Staff picks for today’s Sprint Cup race at Martinsville

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NASCAR’s final race of the season at a short track should feature plenty of action in 500 laps, but who will win?

NBC Sports’ writers can’t agree. Some have picked title contenders and some have picked those no longer eligible for the crown.

Here are today’s picks:

Nate Ryan (@nateryan)

Kyle Busch

Fastest of the title contenders on 10-lap averages in final practice, the defending series champion sweeps Martinsville Speedway in 2016 to ensure a shot at a repeat crown in Miami.

Dustin Long (@dustinlong)

Brad Keselowski

Although no longer eligible for the championship, Keselowski will make an impact by taking this race and preventing a Chase driver from automatically qualifying for the Miami finale.

Daniel McFadin (@danielmcfadin)

Kyle Larson

In Jeff Gordon‘s last (?) Sprint Cup race, the kid who has been called the next Gordon will earn his first grandfather clock, leaving Larson eight shy of Gordon’s mark.

Kelly Crandall (@KellyCrandall)

Jimmie Johnson

The 48 team are sharks who smell blood in the water when it comes to getting back to victory lane at Martinsville and giving themselves their first real shot at a seventh championship.

Jerry Bonkowski (@JerryBonkowski)

Matt Kenseth

Kenseth will pick up where he left off at last year’s Chase race at Martinsville. Instead of wrecking Joey Logano again, he’ll be the first Joe Gibbs Racing driver to advance to the final round of the Chase.

Richard Petty Motorsports today: Watch ‘Building 43’, 1 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC

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When Richard Petty won a NASCAR record 10 consecutive races in 1967, it wasn’t just about him as the driver. Rather, it was about Petty and his team working together to achieve excellence and success.

“Those 10 in a row, and he’ll tell you to this day, it was all about people,” Petty’s son and NBC analyst Kyle Petty said. “He, (crew chief) Dale Inman, my uncle Maurice (Petty), all those guys together, they’re extremely proud of that record.”

Nearly 50 years later, we revisit that spectacular season with The King – as well as how Richard Petty Motorsports is working towards attaining that same level of performance today – in “Building 43” this Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

Also, click here to tune in to last year’s “Catching 43” about Petty’s illustrious career that featured a record 200 wins and seven championships.

Follow @JerryBonkowski