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Staff picks for tonight’s Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win tonight’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway.

Nate Ryan

Matt Kenseth. His No. 20 team is rounding into form, and the driver seems to be in a good place despite an uncertain future in NASCAR’s premier series.

Dustin Long

Martin Truex Jr. He breaks the streak of 11 consecutive different winners by capturing this race for a second year in a row.

Daniel McFadin

Kyle Larson takes Kyle Petty’s “Silver Bullet” paint scheme to victory lane for the first time since 1995.

Jerry Bonkowski

With the pressure on him and his team, Joey Logano finally breaks the lengthy slump he’s been in and punches his ticket into the playoffs.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoys new hobby, but not the spandex or getting flipped off

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He’s not a Hells Angel, not even a Wild Hog. He doesn’t wear leather or chaps and he wasn’t born to be wild.

But Dale Earnhardt Jr. is definitely a biker.

Admittedly, we’re not talking motorcycles, but bicycles. Earnhardt is the latest convert in the NASCAR world to riding with other drivers in a pack not just on the racetrack but also on the road.

Jimmie Johnson, Landon Cassill, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Josh Wise, Trevor Bayne and former driver Carl Edwards are among those in NASCAR who, in addition to putting the pedal to the metal in their race cars, also enjoy pedaling away both around North Carolina as well as near many of the race tracks that the NASCAR Cup Series visits.

On his weekly “The Dale Jr. Download” podcast on his Dirty Mo Radio, Earnhardt talked about what being a biker means to him – and how he has Johnson to thank for getting him into bike riding.

“Jimmie does a lot of different things, but cycling is something he really enjoys,” Earnhardt said. “That has really picked up in the garage. If you were in Daytona in the bus lot, every morning, my neighbor Matt Kenseth would wake up at 7 o’clock. He would meet outside his bus with Jamie McMurray. They would make a lot of noise and wake up Amy (Dale’s wife) and that would wake me up. They were getting ready to go on their bike ride every morning. This happened quite a bit.”

Now before you start thinking Earnhardt has become a seasoned rider, well, let’s just say he’s relatively new to two-wheeling – as in roughly a week.

“I noticed that a lot of guys in the garage are starting to do this, Trevor Bayne, they are going in big groups, riding around town,” Earnhardt said. “Kasey Kahne, just a number of drivers are picking up on this cycling deal.

“So I’m thinking, you know what, I am going to give it a try. Jimmie gave me a bike about a year ago. It’s sitting in my garage. Tires went flat, dry rotted. Had to get new tubes, new tires this past week. Finally, loaded the bike onto the plane to Atlanta.

“I told Jimmie, ‘Look, I’m going to meet you outside the track. Ain’t no way in hell I’m going to let anybody see me ride through the infield wearing this bike gear, spandex stuff.’”

True to his word, Earnhardt, along with Johnson, Kahne and Alan Gustafson – Chase Elliott’s crew chief – went on a 16.7-mile ride last week before things got hot and heavy on-track at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Given that Hendrick Motorsports has implemented a health and wellness program company-wide, drivers are encouraged to get – and stay – in shape, as well. Because he’s been working on his physical conditioning, including installing a gym with Bo-Flex and a stationary bike in his house, that’s why Earnhardt didn’t come away from his outdoor bike ride with saddle sores and the like.

“(It was) a lot of fun, my first ride, it was a good time,” Earnhardt said. “I’m glad I got through my first ride without any incident.”

But his ego was a bit bruised in the process.

“I did get flipped off in the first five minutes,” Earnhardt quipped. “For whatever reason, I was super nervous and couldn’t keep my hands from moving. I’m shaking and all over the road, and Jimmie and them are like six inches from the shoulder.

“I’m like, I can’t ride that close to the shoulder. I’m all over the place and I’m wobbling all over the damn road and this guy goes by and flips me off. I guess I kind of ticked him off. Anyways, I was surprised at how rude drivers are on the road.”

While he’s still not all that comfortable about wearing spandex, Earnhardt is now more determined and ready to take his new hobby to the next level.

“I’m in,” he said on his podcast. “(I’m) talking to Jimmie about getting some more bikes so I don’t have to tote one back and forth, which is a little bit pain in the butt.

“I’m buying more gear, getting geared up and ready to go. That’s going to be part of my workout regimen. It is fun, I’ve gotta admit. I’m still not quite over the self-consciousness of wearing the spandex, but I’ll get there.”

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Drivers, crews with most pit road penalties in 2016

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Here is a look at who ranked among the leaders in various pit road penalties this season in the Sprint Cup Series.

SPEEDING ON PIT ROAD

10 — Denny Hamlin

7 — Austin Dillon

7 — Kyle Larson

7 — Paul Menard

7 — Ryan Newman

7 — David Ragan

7 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

6 — Greg Biffle

6 — Jimmie Johnson

6 — Michael McDowell

6 — Jamie McMurray

6 — Brian Scott

6 — Regan Smith

5 — AJ Allmendinger

5 — Chase Elliott

5 — Casey Mears

5 — Tony Stewart

4 — Michael Annett

4 — Carl Edwards

4 — Kevin Harvick

4 — Kasey Kahne

4 — Brad Keselowski

4 — Martin Truex Jr.

PIT CREW OVER THE WALL TOO SOON

5 — Reed Sorenson

4 — AJ Allmendinger

3 — Aric Almirola

3 — Michael Annett

3 — Greg Biffle

3 — Michael McDowell

3 — Paul Menard

UNCONTROLLED TIRE

5 — Aric Almirola

4 — Denny Hamlin

3 — Josh Wise

2 — AJ Allmendinger

2 — Clint Bowyer

2 — Chris Buescher

2 — Matt Kenseth

2 — Joey Logano

2 — Ryan Newman

2 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Sprint Cup starting lineup at Phoenix

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Alex Bowman piloted the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the pole for Sunday’s Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Bowman earned the pole with a lap of 140.521 mph Friday. Kyle Larson will join him on the front row after a lap of 140.263 mph.

Chase Elliott (140.236 mph) starts third and Chase contender Joey Logano (140.138 mph) is fourth. Chase contender Denny Hamlin (140.072) will start fifth.

Here is where the eight Chase drivers will start:

Joey Logano, fourth

Denny Hamlin, fifth

Kevin Harvick, sixth

Matt Kenseth, 10th

Carl Edwards, 11th

Kurt Busch, 12th

Jimmie Johnson, 17th

Kyle Busch, 19th

Click here for Sprint Cup starting lineup

Joey Logano on attending child’s funeral: ‘It tore my heart out’

Richard Petty Motorsports
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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Joey Logano was humbled this week after attending the funeral for a 5-year-old NASCAR fan who died from juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia.

Jake Leatherman died Nov. 1.

Logano, Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Ellis and crew members from the teams of Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman, Logano and others were there at the request of Leatherman’s mother, Crystal.

She asked a TV anchor in Charlotte, North Carolina, who previously had featured Leatherman if the anchor knew of anyone in NASCAR who could attend the service in uniform and carry her son’s casket.

“I want to give my son the sendoff he deserves,” Crystal Leatherman wrote. “He recently got into NASCAR and absolutely loves Richard Petty. He loved calling him ‘The King’. But Jake loves a lot of the other cars as well. The Lowe’s car. The M&M’s U.S.A. car. Lots of cars. He loved them all. I was wondering if you knew anyone who would be willing to come in uniform and help carry my baby?”

Logano heard about the request from his wife last weekend while at Texas Motor Speedway.

“I walked into the bus after qualifying on Friday night, and she was inside crying,’’ Logano said of wife Brittany. “She had just watched the video and told me about him and how he was a big race fan and I thought it would be cool if we could do something for his funeral.’’

Logano, who wore his firesuit to the service, and his wife brought a race suit with Leatherman’s name on it. Because the child was a fan of Richard Petty, they put a No. 43 on the uniform.

“The whole racing community got into this,’’ Logano said Friday at Phoenix International Raceway. “It wasn’t just Brittany and myself. It was one of the most real moments, one of the proudest moments I have been a part of in this NASCAR community. To come together as one team and be NASCAR as a whole for a child who looked at us as superheroes. That is how his family members described what he thought of NASCAR.

“We all came together and were all there for him, but we didn’t get to meet him and give him his race suit and how cool he would have thought that was. To see all his heroes and pit crew members there that day would have been very special.

“I have never been to a funeral for a child before. That is probably one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was definitely eye-opening and it puts life into perspective. I don’t have a kid yet but I can’t even imagine – watching his mom and dad and sister and grandparents all there it tore my heart out.”

Watch is a video report from the Charlotte TV station on the service.