Who are the candidates to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88? Here’s a short list

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With Tuesday’s news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving NASCAR after the 2017 season, Hendrick Motorsports would seem to have multiple internal and external candidates to fill the ride.

Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet would be the top-tier opening for 2018. The car is prepared in the same building as the No. 48 of seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson and is a teammate to Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne. Since taking over the No. 88 in 2008, Earnhardt has made the playoffs in six of nine seasons, notched nine victories and finished top 10 in points three times (he might have again in 2012 if he hadn’t been sidelined for two races by a concussion).

Some of the decision assuredly will depend on sponsorship (in a statement, Nationwide said it fully supported Earnhardt’s decision and would continue its relationship with the 14-time most popular driver beyond 2017), but here are a few names to consider — starting with two already in the Hendrick fold:

William Byron: Signed to a developmental deal with the team last August, he unquestionably is the future of Hendrick Motorsports along with Elliott.

Byron, 19, showed prodigious talent as a rookie in the Camping World Truck Series with a circuit-leading seven victories (he was robbed of the championship because of a mechanical failure while dominating Phoenix). He is only seven races into his Xfinity career but is a solid second in points with five top 10s and two top fives.

There will be questions about whether it would be rushing too much to promote him to Cup in his third full season in a NASCAR national series, but if he’s the eventual solution, why wait to promote him? Kyle Larson was moved into Cup after only a full season of Xfinity, and his development into the 2017 points leader has proved the pitfalls that surrounded Joey Logano’s entry into Cup as an inexperienced teenager can be avoided.

Alex Bowman: He filled in admirably for an injured Earnhardt with three top 10s in 10 races last year (qualifying on pole position at Phoenix and leading 194 laps). Bowman, who turned 24 today, also ran full time in Cup from 2014-15, so he has nearly 81 starts in the premier series as well as five top fives in 50 Xfinity starts.

Still under contract to Hendrick, his yeoman work on the driving simulator has drawn praise from the organization and its drivers.

But the Tuscon, Ariz., native still doesn’t have a resume that is eye-catching as Byron’s, and his upside might be a more difficult sell to sponsors.

Carl Edwards: Since stepping away from NASCAR in a stunning announcement three months ago, Edwards steadfastly has maintained he isn’t retired. While visiting Atlanta Motor Speedway to help rookie replacement Daniel Suarez with his former No. 19 Toyota, Edwards brought his helmet and firesuit just in case.

He seems open to driving in Cup again, though he is remaining coy about it. Asked by NBC Sports if the No. 88 was an opportunity he would consider, Edwards jokingly replied, “You may have it mixed up. I’m recruiting Dale to drive a tractor!” (He also added he was happy for Earnhardt, and that it would be a great ride for someone.)

With 28 victories in the Cup series and a megawatt smile and sponsor appeal, Edwards’ name figures to come up whenever there is an opening, even if he seems to be enjoying life on his farm in Columbia, Mo. He also was courted by Hendrick about a decade ago (which Jeff Gordon confirmed in 2011 when Edwards was in the midst of re-upping for the last time with Roush Fenway Racing).

–Any other qualified veteran: Hendrick could decide Byron isn’t ready for the No. 88 yet next season but is the answer for 2019.

Would it make sense to consider putting NBCSN analyst Greg Biffle (who has indicated he still would like to race) or another driver with winning credentials (such as David Ragan or Regan Smith, who has Hendrick and JRM ties) in the No. 88 to keep the seat warm for Byron in 2019?

Given that Hendrick waited a year for Kahne to join its ranks, and Stewart-Haas Racing did the same with Clint Bowyer, it isn’t an implausible scenario.

Sunday’s Cup race at Bristol: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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Jimmie Johnson looks to win his second race in a row. Joe Gibbs Racing seeks its first victory of the year. Kyle Larson will look to win from the pole. There will be many more challengers in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Here are the particulars for today’s Cup race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Kerry Earnhardt and Kelley Earnhardt Miller will give the command for drivers to start engines at 2:07 p.m. ET. The green flag is scheduled for 2:13 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the .533-mile, high-banked oval.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: The Cup garage opens at 6:30 a.m. The drivers meeting is at noon. Driver introductions are at 1:20 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Todd Smith, lead singer of Selah, will perform the Anthem at 2:01 p.m.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the race at 2 p.m. Its coverage begins at 1:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network will broadcast the race on radio and at goprn.com. PRN’s coverage begins at 1 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts 53 degrees at race time with a 86 percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST YEAR: Carl Edwards led 276 laps on the way to winning this race a year ago. Dale Earnhardt Jr. placed second. Kurt Busch was third. Kevin Harvick led 128 laps en route to winning the August race. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. placed second and Denny Hamlin was third.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for starting lineup

To bump-and-run or not to bump-and-run, that is the question

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NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt was the master of it.

Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough did it to each other and they wound up wrecking and then fighting in the infield of the 1979 Daytona 500.

Carl Edwards did it last year to win at Richmond.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. did it to Kyle Busch a few weeks ago at Martinsville.

We’re talking, of course, about one of the most important tools in a driver’s toolbox: the bump-and-run.

Some drivers don’t mind doing it, while others do. Others are willing to use it, but it can be a slippery slope.

During media sessions Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway, several drivers addressed the bump-and-run and their approach to use – or not use – it.

First, let’s hear from Kurt Busch, who falls into the category of someone who will only resort to the bump-and-run as a last resort.

“As long as you don’t put him in the fence or he still continues on to finish second and doesn’t lose too many spots, so to speak,” Busch said. “It’s crazy. We can all go to road courses, which are almost the hottest ticket to get right now – Sonoma and Watkins Glen – because there’s so much beating, banging, thrashing and the way I grew up watching races is that road courses had a little bit more of a gentleman’s agreement, so they flip-flopped.

“And then to your point, a bump-and-run and then the chaos that ensued from everybody talking about was that proper or the etiquette and the way that all even turned out. Just a simple bump-and-run at a short track. I mean, we all grew up with that. It’s just kind of funny how certain things flip-flop and how certain things are digested now.”

Busch added that while the bump-and-run is more acceptable at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, it’s still 50-50 at other tracks.

“It’s been a fun journey on the road courses each year we go on how much is accepted and tolerated, and then as the short track racing has pretty much stayed the same,” Busch said. “As much as we’ve evolved, I like the short-track racing.

“I don’t know when it changed or when that perception swapped around, but everybody’s got stronger opinions nowadays with chat boards and social media, so when you have a motorsports writer talking about a certain event, that’s great. But when you have millions of people talking about it bantering back-and-forth, that’s great as well.”

* Seven-time and defending NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is definitely not a fan of the bump-and-run.

“I’m so bad with the bump and run it’s a bump and crash,” Johnson said. “I found that for me personally it takes more time to set-up a soft nudge to move someone than it is just to pass them.

“That has just been my style over the years. I am terrible at it. I tried to move Rich Bickle out of the way in 1999 or something at Memphis. I picked his rear tires up and carried him down the straightaway and set him down in time (for him) to crash head-on into the wall in Turn 1.

“I never knew that I picked his tires up off the ground, felt terrible and then unfortunately, when I was shopping the next day for groceries, I saw him in the produce section. I thought that man was going to beat me to death with a head of lettuce and chase me around in the produce section. So, at that point, I figured I just better worry about passing people instead of trying to move them.”

Even with Edwards’ use of it at Richmond and Stenhouse doing so to Kyle Busch, Johnson believes the bump-and-run has become less effective and, in turn, used less by today’s Cup drivers.

“There is definitely less grudges kind of amongst drivers in today’s era,” he said. “Right or wrong, it is just how it is. I think the majority of the reaction was because it was amongst teammates.”

* While Johnson may be a bit more reticent about the bump-and-run, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott isn’t afraid to put his youth and moxie to the test.

“I think at times, if the situation is right, I think you do have opportunity to move a guy out of the way or do what it takes to try to get by him,” Elliott said. “But in a lot of situations, it’s just easy to make a mistake and wreck people.

“And at the end of the day, I obviously don’t want to make that mistake. So, it’s a fine line. I think Carl did a great job with it at Richmond. He moved (Kyle Busch) out of the way and didn’t wreck him and the guy finished second and he won and went on down the road. So, I think in that situation, no harm no foul.”

So if the situation is right, don’t be surprised if Elliott puts his bumper into someone else’s in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway if it means a possible win.

“I would, for sure, I mean, why not?” Elliott said. “Carl has won a lot of races. I’ve won zero. I’d love to get one, so absolutely. If the situation is right, I think that’s part of racing.”

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More Cup teams playoff eligible after seven races than in first three years of format

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After seven races in the NASCAR season, the sport’s premier series is experiencing its highest level of parity this early since the introduction of the current playoff format in 2014.

Drivers and teams become eligible for the one of the 16 spots in playoffs with a race win. Any spot not filled by a race winner is filled by points.

Jimmie Johnson‘s win Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway put the number of teams and drivers eligible for the playoffs via wins at six each ahead of the Easter break this weekend.

For teams, that’s the most organizations that have become eligible since the format was introduced. Four teams were eligible in each of the first three years.

Six drivers is the second most since the seven that qualified in 2014.

Teams and drivers that are eligible for the playoffs through seven races: Stewart-Haas Racing (Kurt Busch), Team Penske (Brad Keselowski), Furniture Row Racing (Martin Truex Jr.), Richard Childress Racing (Ryan Newman), Chip Ganassi Racing (Kyle Larson) and Hendrick Motorsports (Jimmie Johnson).

The parity is helped by Richard Childress Racing, Furniture Row Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing winning races this early for the first time under the win-and-in format.

Joe Gibbs Racing was shut out of Victory Lane before the off-week for the first time under the format. JGR qualified two drivers in 2014 and 2016 and one driver in 2015.

MORE: Hendrick teams find speed, Joe Gibbs Racing still struggling

Hendrick, Penske and Stewart-Haas have had at least one playoff-eligible driver through sevens race in each season.

Hendrick has never had more than one driver eligible through seven races.

Here’s which teams and drivers were eligible at this point in the first three years of the current playoff format and how many teams were eligible at the end of the regular season.

2014; four teams/seven drivers: Hendrick Motorsports (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), Stewart-Haas Racing (Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch), Team Penske (Kesleowski, Joey Logano), Joe Gibbs Racing (Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch).

End of regular season: Eight teams/16 drivers

2015; four teams/five drivers: Team Penske (Logano, Keselowski), Hendrick Motorsports (Johnson), Stewart-Haas Racing (Harvick), Joe Gibbs Racing (Denny Hamlin).

End of regular season: Eight teams/16 drivers

2016; four teams/five drivers: Joe Gibbs Racing (Hamlin, Kyle Busch), Hendrick Motorsports (Johnson), Team Penske (Keselowski), Stewart-Haas Racing (Harvick).

End of season: Eight teams/16 drivers

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Monster Energy All-Star Race format to go back to ‘One Hot Night’ roots

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This year’s Monster Energy All-Star race format on May 20 will go back in time.

NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway announced Tuesday that the 25th anniversary of the first All-Star Race held at night will be run with the same format as the first race that was held in 1992.

The “Silver Anniversary Gold Rush” of the iconic “One Hot Night” will once again have a $1 million prize to the winning team.

Here’s how this year’s format shapes up:

  • The race will feature four stages (20 laps / 20 laps / 20 laps / 10 laps), totaling 70 laps, an ode to the 1992 edition of the same distance.
  • The final 10-lap stage will feature just 10 cars/drivers who earned their way into the main event, particularly with how they finished collectively in the prior three 20-lap stages that evening.
  • All three stage winners will be locked into the 10-lap finale for the big prize, but with a caveat – they all must be on the lead lap at the end of the third stage.
  • The cars with the best average finish in the first three stages will make up the remaining spots needed to fill the 10-car final stage.
  • The 10 cars in the fourth and final stage will be lined up by average finish of the first three stages and given the option to pit. Exit off pit road determines starting order for final stage.

“This new 70-lap format pays tribute to the 25th anniversary of ‘One Hot Night’ while pushing the drivers to the brink of insanity with the chances they’ll take to win $1 million,” Charlotte Motor Speedway president and general manager Marcus Smith said in a media release. “I’m as ready as our fans for a May 20 Saturday night shootout where only a daredevil behind the wheel truly has a shot at Victory Lane.”

There’s also one added bonus of sorts: each team will receive one set of “softer tires,” to be used at their discretion. Softer tires provide cars more grip and speed, but there’s one caveat: if a team holds off using its set of softer tires until the final stage, then its car will start the 10-car/10-lap finale at the back of the field.

According to Goodyear, “the Option set-up is projected to be three- to five-tenths of a second faster per lap, out of the box.” Also, instead of Goodyear’s traditional yellow letters – which will remain on the Prime tires to be used in both the All-Star events and the Coca-Cola 600 on May 27 – the Option tires will feature bold, green lettering.

Several drivers have already clinched a starting spot in the All-Star Race based upon:

  • * Drivers who won a points event in either 2016 or 2017.
  • * Drivers who have won a previous Monster Energy All-Star Race and are competing full-time in 2017
  • * Drivers who have won a past Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship and are competing fulltime in 2017.

Those drivers include: Chris Buescher, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.

 

“The Monster Energy All-Star Race is designed to be fun for fans, showcasing the best drivers and race teams in NASCAR,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “With the effort that Goodyear has put into this race with multiple tire compounds, I am excited to see how the stages play out, especially the final 10-car, 10-lap sprint to the checkered flag.”

Qualifying takes place on Friday, May 19, including the “no speed limit” four-tire pit stop.

According to the media release, “Each team will have three timed laps, one of which will include a mandatory four-tire pit stop with no pit-road speed limits enforced. The five quickest teams will advance to the final round of qualifying to determine starting positions one through five. The team that completes the fastest stop will earn the Pit Crew Competition Award.”

There will be two other ways for drivers to advance to the All-Star Race:

1.) The traditional Monster Energy Open will be held prior to the All-Star Race earlier in the evening of May 20. The Open will feature three stages of 20, 20 and 10 laps. The winner of each stage will advance to the All-Star Race, Qualifying for the Open will take place on Friday, May 19, where the field will be set by two rounds of traditional knock-out qualifying.

2) By winning the popular Fan Vote.

Lastly, both the Monster Energy Open and Monster Energy All-Star Race will be televised on Fox Sports 1 starting at 6 p.m. ET on May 20. The Motor Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90 will carry the radio broadcasts of both events, as well.

Here’s a list of all winners of the All-Star Race, dating back to its inception in 1985:

1985 Darrell Waltrip
1986 Bill Elliott
1987 Dale Earnhardt
1988 Terry Labonte
1989 Rusty Wallace
1990 Dale Earnhardt
1991 Davey Allison
1992 Davey Allison (first night race)
1993 Dale Earnhardt
1994 Geoffrey Bodine
1995 Jeff Gordon
1996 Michael Waltrip
1997 Jeff Gordon
1998 Mark Martin
1999 Terry Labonte
2000 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2001 Jeff Gordon
2002 Ryan Newman
2003 Jimmie Johnson
2004 Matt Kenseth
2005 Mark Martin
2006 Jimmie Johnson
2007 Kevin Harvick
2008 Kasey Kahne
2009 Tony Stewart
2010 Kurt Busch
2011 Carl Edwards
2012 Jimmie Johnson
2013 Jimmie Johnson
2014 Jamie McMurray
2015 Denny Hamlin
2016 Joey Logano

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