Long: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., his father savor Victory Lane after challenges getting there

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Racers, father and son, both had their dramatic victories Sunday.

After Ricky Stenhouse Jr. held off Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch on the final lap to earn his first career Cup victory, his father faced as daunting a challenge in his race to Victory Lane.

Perched on an RV along the backstretch, Ricky Stenhouse Sr. sought the quickest path to Victory Lane.

He tried to climb the fence to cross the backstretch.

When Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won his first ARCA race in 2008 at Kentucky Speedway, father and son climbed opposite sides of a fence to celebrate together.

This time, the father, who is in his early 60s, couldn’t make it up the fence.

So he started running along a perimeter road to a place to cross the track but security stopped him. Excited and emboldened by a day in the Talladega sunshine watching stock cars scream by at nearly 200 mph, he was in a fever pitch to get to his son.

Once he told security whom he was, a phone call was made to the track’s director of security. Soon, he was taken to Victory Lane.

“Everything that I know about racing, I learned from him,’’ Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said. “I’m glad he was able to be here in Victory Lane.’’

Ricky Stenhouse Sr. joined a celebration a few years in the making.

It was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s first Cup win in 158 starts. It ended Roush Fenway Racing’s 101-race winless drought that went back to 2014.

Until this season, Roush Fenway Racing had become a cautious tale. Lack of performance and sponsorship had knocked the once-mighty team down.

The organization, which has won 136 Cup races and two titles, downsized from three teams to two before this season — the first time Roush has run only two cars since 1995.

A team that put all five cars in NASCAR’s Chase in 2005, has seen a decline in recent years.

Matt Kenseth left after the 2012 season. Carl Edwards left after the 2014 season. Greg Biffle’s ride went away after last year, leaving Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne.

Both endured mighty struggles. Stenhouse, the 2013 rookie of the year, never has had more than six top-10 finishes in a season. Sunday’s win was his fifth top 10 of the year.

“I think you go through that so long that you almost lose a little — all your confidence,’’ Stenhouse said of the struggles in Cup. “You know, we would have good runs here and there that would kind of boost that confidence back up and get everybody kind of energized again, and then we would kind of lose it.’’

A good run at the beginning of the race helped him at the end Sunday. Stenhouse started on the pole and led the first 13 laps. He watched how Brad Keselowski, running second, maneuvered his car to keep others behind them in overtime.

Jimmie Johnson pushed him by Busch for the lead in Turn 1. Johnson was set to attack, but McMurray squeezed between Johnson and Busch instead of giving the No. 48 car the push it needed to take the lead.

Stenhouse blocked McMurray low. Stenhouse blocked Busch high.

“My spotter was telling me everywhere to go, and there at the end, I felt like I was needing to block (McMurray), but (Busch) was coming, so I was kind of back and forth, didn’t know which one to pick,’’ Stenhouse said. “You know, my spotter told me to pick the top, block (Busch).’’

Stenhouse crossed the finish line first. He did it at a track where he failed in qualify in 2014 after a bizarre set of circumstances that later led to a rule change.

“I remember sitting in the bus watching this race and knowing that this is a racetrack that we’ve had good success at,’’ he said. “It feels awesome to get the first win here.’’

It felt even better to celebrate it with his father after his dad’s circuitous path to Victory Lane.

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Talladega a must-win race for Dale Earnhardt Jr? Not what he thinks

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — After a deflating start to the season and only one win at a track other than Daytona or Talladega since late 2014, it’s easy to see why some suggest this could be a must-win weekend for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make the playoffs.

Just don’t count him among that group.

“I don’t buy the notion that we can’t win anywhere but Talladega or Daytona,’’ Earnhardt said Friday at Talladega Superspeedway, a track he has scored six of his 26 career Cup wins. “We have had a dry spell, haven’t won a lot of races. We have won at other tracks in the past. I think if I go in thinking this is a must-win, then I’m probably going to get in there and make a few mistakes.’’

Earnhardt enters this weekend 24th in the points. He is 60 points — the maximum number of points a driver can score in a race — out of what is the final playoff spot at this time.

Five finishes of 30th or worse this season have put Earnhardt in this situation. Some of it has been bad luck, some of it has been mistakes that put him in a bad spot.

He led the Daytona 500 when Kyle Busch cut a tire in front of him and spun. Earnhardt clipped Busch’s car and did enough damage to his car that he was done for the race, placing 37th.

A speeding penalty dropped Earnhardt to the rear of the field at Martinsville and then he was collected in a crash, finishing 34th. Last week, crew chief Greg Ives kept him out while most of the field pitted. Earnhardt was running at the front but was on older tires. He was knocked into the wall when teammate Jimmie Johnson, unaware Earnhardt was on the outside, went up the groove and slammed Earnhardt’s car. Earnhardt continued but finished 30th.

What’s been disconcerting at times is that Earnhardt’s car hasn’t shown top-form speed. It’s an issue some of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates have had this season even with Johnson’s two wins.

Some have raised questions about Earnhardt’s playoff hopes just a third of the way thought the regular season because of his recent record. He has three wins since late 2014. One win was at Daytona, another at Talladega and the other at Phoenix (shortened by rain). Since 2008, Earnhardt has seven wins and they’ve been at Daytona (two), Talladega, Pocono (two), Phoenix and Martinsville.

Earnhardt isn’t focused on that. He views this weekend as an opportunity but knows a win won’t come easy at Talladega even for him.

“I just know what I need to do,’’ he said. “I’ve said it in the past. You’ve got to run the last 50 laps mistake-free and the guy that does that will win the race. That means choosing the right line to move up and take the run. Every move and decision, every slight turn of the wheel has to be the right decision.’’

He says he knows what kind of mindset he needs to succeed Sunday. He notes that in his 2014 Daytona 500 win, he was racing Greg Biffle for position and ran him aggressively. That’s what he’ll have to do Sunday.

“The only way I could keep myself from sliding backwards was to run like one inch off the door and squeeze him against the wall,’’ Earnhardt said of his battle with Biffle. “It really kind of killed both of our cars. But at least he wasn’t passing me.

“It was a bit outside of character for me to drive so much like a jerk, I guess, but that’s what you’re got to do. You’ve got to keep on cracking the whip, keep telling yourself, ‘This is what has to happen, this is how I have to do this to make this work if I want to win.’

“I can’t accept him taking the lead, maybe losing a couple of spots and falling to fourth and thinking, ‘Man, I’ll just get it back.’ That’s not as easy anymore. The cars are too equal.

“You have to be way more aggressive to holding positions and defending positions, and you’ve got to run guys tight and they don’t like it. Nobody likes somebody hanging on their quarter panel because it doesn’t feel good and it makes the cars act weird. You have to do it that way. You have to start the race really with the attitude. You’ve go to be willing to work every single lap and not settle for riding.’’

That’s the mindset he’ll have to have Sunday if he hopes to score a win and earn a playoff spot.

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Kyle Larson retains Cup points lead leaving Richmond

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Though he finished 14th following a pit strategy gamble near the end of the race, Kyle Larson remains the NASCAR Cup Series points leader following the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway

Larson has a 40-point lead over Martin Truex Jr., an increase of 13 points from last week.

The top five is completed by Chase Elliott (-52), race winner Joey Logano (-65) and Brad Keselowski (-71).

Larson has led the points standings since the fourth race of the year at Phoenix.

Click here to see the full points standings.

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 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), another driver with winning credentials (such as David Ragan or Regan Smith, who has Hendrick and JRM ties) or a youthful driver with Cup experience and a win in a national series (hello, Parker Kligerman) 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.

Here are the songs drivers picked for intros at Bristol

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images
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Driver intos at Bristol Motor Speedway often are among the most anticipated all year because drivers get to pick the song to be played for their introduction.

Here is the list of songs drivers selected for today’s driver intros.

(List is based on starting lineup with pole-sitter Kyle Larson listed first)

Kyle Larson                “Hypnotize”                             Notorious B.I.G.

Chase Elliott               “Record Year”                         Eric Church

Martin Truex Jr.          “Flatliner”                                 Cole Swindell ft. Dierks Bentley

Brad Keselowski         “Where Are We Runnin”         Lenny Kravitz

Joey Logano               “Let Me Clear My Throat”       DJ Kool

Ryan Blaney               “Living the Dream”                  Sturgill Simpson

Kyle Busch                 “The Way I Am”                      Eminem

Jamie McMurray         “Thunderstruck”                      AC DC

Clint Bowyer                “How Country Feels”              Randy Houser

Kevin Harvick              “Tip It On Back”                      Dierks Bentley

Jimmie Johnson          “California Love”                     2 Pac

Trevor Bayne               “Run Devil Run”                     Crowder

Ryan Newman             “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day”          Luke Bryan

Erik Jones                   “Takin’ Care of Business”       Bachman-Turner Overdrive

Kurt Busch                   “Walk This Way”                     Aerosmith

Denny Hamlin               “Jump Man”                            Drake & Future

Kasey Kahne                “Somebody Else Will”             Justin Moore

Aric Almirola                 “Hard Workin’ Man”                Brooks & Dunn

Dale Earnhardt Jr.         “Miles Apart”                           The Dangerous Summery

Austin Dillon                  “Ain’t No Mercy                       Rick Ross

Matt Kenseth                “The Shortest Straw”              Metallica

Daniel Suarez               “El Mariachi Loco”

Ty Dillon                        “No Problem”                          Chance the Rapper

AJ Allmendinger            “My Name is Human”             Highly Suspect

Paul Menard                  “Rockin’ in the Free World”     Neil Young

Chris Buescher              “Heavy is the Head”                Zac Brown Band

Michael McDowell          “Nothing I Can’t Do”                Tedashii feat. Lecrae

Danica Patrick                “Fight Song”                            Rachel Platten

Landon Cassill                “Electric Body”                                    A$AP Rocky

Cole Whitt                       “Believer”                                Imagine Dragons

Matt DiBenedetto            “Dream On”                            Aerosmith

David Ragan                   “Pickup Man”                          Joe Diffie

Corey LaJoie                   “Gimme Some Lovin’”          The Spencer Davis Group

Gray Gaulding                 “JuJu on That Beat”                Zay Hilfigerrr & Zayion McCall

Jeffrey Earnhardt             “Seal the Deal”                        Volbeat

Timmy Hill                        “My House”                             Flo Rida

Derrike Cope                    “Jungle”                                 X Ambassadors

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