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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s playoff chances may rely on if he can win a race

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CONCORD, N.C. — Even with 15 races remaining before the playoffs begin, car owner Rick Hendrick says he thinks Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have to win a race if the retiring driver hopes to have one last shot at a Cup championship.

Earnhardt is 25th in the points heading into this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He’s 77 points behind Trevor Bayne, who holds the final playoff spot at this time. Drivers can earn up to 70 points this weekend with an extra stage. The maximum number of points is 60 for all other Cup races.

A win before the playoffs begin in September grants a driver, who starts every race, a chance to compete for the title. If there aren’t 16 winners by then, the rest of the playoff field is filled based on points.

Through the first 11 races, eight different drivers have won at least once. Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski each have two wins, while five others have single victories: Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman and Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch.

Stage points could play a key role in who fills the final playoff spots and that might not be good for Earnhardt. He has 19 stage points (teammate Chase Elliott has 94) but none in the last four races.

“I think we’ve got to win now,’’ Hendrick said last week. “A lot of people can start having problems. We’ve got to do the best we can and let it take care of itself. The cars are fast enough to win. I’m hopeful we can pull it off.’’

Said Earnhardt: “That makes it a lot easier when the boss man tells you what you’ve got to do.’’

Earnhardt wasn’t as confident after Saturday night’s All-Star Race. He finished 18th in the 20-car field and apologized to fans on Periscope after the race.

“It’s hard not to get down,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve been racing a long time and it’s hard not to get down. Right after that, it’s hard to keep your chin up, really hard. I’ll get my chin up again in a couple days.’’

That’s kind of how his season has been.

He was leading the Daytona 500 when Kyle Busch’s tire blew and Busch wrecked in front of Earnhardt, collecting him. Earnhardt finished 37th.

A pit road speeding penalty, flat tire and loose wheel contributed to a 30th-place finish at Atlanta.

A pit road speeding penalty dropped him to the rear at Martinsville and then he was collected in a crash. He finished 34th.

An oil cooler issue contributed to his crash at Bristol and a 38th-place finish.

Teammate Jimmie Johnson didn’t know Earnhardt was to his outside and slammed him into the wall at Richmond. Earnhardt finished 30th

A loose wheel forced him to pit late at Talladega. He finished 22nd.

He thought he had a loose wheel and pitted late at Kansas, giving up a top-10 spot. He finished 20th.

“I just know that in our notes over the last four years there we have tires that shake,’’ Earnhardt said. “Why there and why not other places? Don’t know. But at Kansas every third set might shake. It’s just something that I needed to remember before the race so when that happened, I didn’t freak out because we’ve had so many loose wheels so it’s in the back of my mind.

“I jumped the gun. It was my mistake. Full responsibility for costing us a lap and whatever else it costs us. Could have finished in the top 10. Car was real fast. It’s frustrating. If I had just talked to myself and said, ‘Be aware of those vibrations, it’s just what you have at that particular racetrack for some reason,’ then I might not have been so quick to jump on the loose wheel bandwagon like I was.’’

Even before the poor run in the All-Star Race, Hendrick said the team shouldn’t be overcome with dread.

“We just have to take a deep breath and do what we know how to do,’’ Hendrick said.

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NASCAR America: Jack Roush sits down with Jeff Burton to talk his team’s big win

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Very few people know Jack Roush better than his former driver and now NBC Sports analysts Jeff Burton.

Burton sat down with Roush a few days after Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s big win at Talladega Superspeedway to discuss his team’s revival this season, two years after their last win.

“It’s hard to keep your chin up sometimes through a drought, but you have to have the spirit and people’s excitement to drive you to heights they might not otherwise reach,” Roush said.

Roush and Stenhouse’s breakthrough win came after the team contracted two Cup cars prior to this season. With Greg Biffle‘s departure, Roush’s hopes are behind Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne.

“We thought as we recommitted ourselves and got ourselves organized on 2017, that we need to focus on the two young drivers and not focus on Greg’s program,” Roush said. “I was limited in the number of talented people I had for pit crew, I was limited in the number of talented people I had for engineers and technical positions. I thought it was better to concentrate the efforts on two programs, rather thin them on three.”

Watch the video for the full exclusive interview.

Who will win the fan vote to race in the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race? You decide

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The polls are open and waiting for your vote.

It’s time choose your favorite driver to run in next weekend’s 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR All Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The race takes place May 20th and the single driver that earns the most fan votes will receive an automatic berth in the main event.

Voting is currently taking place.

Fans can vote once per day at NASCAR.com/fanvote, and votes shared on Facebook or Twitter count double. Also, don’t forget to use the hashtags #AllStarRace and #FanVote on social media.

Voting closes May 19 at 11:59 p.m. ET.

Here’s the list of eligible drivers that are on the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race Fan Vote ballot:

AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Landon Cassill, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Chase Elliott, Timmy Hill, Erik Jones, Corey LaJoie, Michael McDowell, Paul Menard, Danica Patrick, David Ragan, Reed Sorenson, Daniel Suárez and Cole Whitt.

Bump & Run: Who is next driver to snap long winless drought?

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Dale Jarrett and Parker Kligerman, who appear on NASCAR America from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. ET today, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long, to answer this week’s questions.

This season has seen two drivers snap winless droughts of more than 90 races: Phoenix winner Ryan Newman (127-race winless drought) and Talladega winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (158-race drought). Who is next to win among drivers who have gone more than 90 starts without a Cup win? (* list below)

Parker Kligerman: Well the easiest answer here is Clint Bowyer. From the doldrums of outside top-30 equipment to now being a part of one of the top organizations in the sport, I can’t imagine a world in which Clint does not win. With that out of the way, I feel Austin Dillon could be a moderate shot of breaking a winless streak, but that may be better said as getting his first win. Lastly, Kasey Kahne is approaching 100 races winless at one of the largest, most successful race teams in the entire world. As Kyle Petty has said “Where is Kasey Kahne” I think Kasey has to be asking “Where is Victory Lane?” 

Dale Jarrett: The two that I look at are Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray. I think they are both performing well enough that it can happen, pretty much any place and any time. I really give the edge to Jamie McMurray. I think that team and that organization right now, with the way Kyle Larson has performed and Jamie has too, he’s performed and continued to get better. If I look at the two restrictor-plate races to this point, I think he maybe had the fastest car. I think there’s a good chance that he might win Daytona or Talladega, but I think he might win even before then. Bowyer, I believe, is going to win before the year is out.

Nate Ryan: Jamie McMurray. If they were rerunning the final 10 laps of Talladega today, he might be ending this streak now. Kansas Speedway would mark a nice homecoming of sorts, too, for the Joplin, Missouri, native who is providing confirmation that points leader Kyle Larson’s success is indicative of across-the-board improvement at Chip Ganassi Racing.

A close second for the next first-place finisher is Clint Bowyer, then Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne, Trevor Bayne and Aric Almirola.

Dustin Long: Jamie McMurray has shown more speed and more consistency and is a good bet to be the next among this group to end a winless drought. He has six top-10 finishes in the first 10 races. Now it’s just a matter of turning those into more top fives as teammate Kyle Larson has done.

* DRIVERS WINLESS IN AT LEAST THE LAST 90 CUP RACES

Reed Sorenson (271)

Landon Cassill (233)

Michael McDowell (223)

Paul Menard (206)

Danica Patrick (164)

Clint Bowyer (159)

David Ragan (144)

Trevor Bayne (138)

Austin Dillon (131)

Jamie McMurray (122)

Cole Whitt (122)

Aric Almirola (100 races)

AJ Allmendinger (96 races)

Kasey Kahne (93 races)

NASCAR competes on 1.5-mile tracks the rest of the month with Saturday’s race at Kansas Speedway and the following two weeks at Charlotte Motor Speedway for the All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600. What driver(s) and/or team(s) will you be watching close the rest of the month?

Parker Kligerman: This is a tough one as there are so many I will be keeping a close eye on. 

  • First would have to be Joe Gibbs Racing and seeing if they can finally get into victory lane. 
  • Second would be Ganassi. I want to see if this race team can continue to display the raw speed that they have early in this season, as the races get hotter and the tracks shift toward 1.5 miles in length. This will be the litmus test if they are truly championship material. 
  • Lastly, our newest winners in Roush Fenway Racing. Can this race team continue to show performances that warrant them being a part of the playoffs in what feels like a generation ago when they were a lock for such a berth. 

Dale Jarrett: I’m watching the drivers at Joe Gibbs Racing. What are they going to do? This has been their strong suit, especially over the six months at the end of 2015 and then all of last year, they performed at a high level at these types of tracks.

This is just in my mind thinking that it seems that they have been more to the conservative side with the skew and the rear end where others have been willing to take that chance, get their win and then maybe they back off a little from that. It just seems like they haven’t given that much to their drivers, and are they going to bite the bullet and say, ‘OK, this is what it is going to take, we’ve got to figure out a way to do this.’ I know they don’t like getting caught pushing the issue too much, but I really believe it’s going to take something like that. I’m going to keep my eye on them because Kansas and Charlotte are places that they perform well whenever their team is at their peak.

Nate Ryan: Joe Gibbs Racing. After Denny Hamlin predicted last week that Talladega would be his best chance at a win for “a few months” and identified 1.5-mile tracks as the team’s major Achilles’ heel, it naturally put some focus on how JGR does at the next three events and tracks that comprise two of the five 1.5-mile ovals in the playoffs (and two-thirds of the second round).

Kansas and Charlotte will serve as a barometer of how much teams need to improve their aerodynamics/horsepower combinations to be championship contenders four months from now.

Dustin Long: Naturally, Joe Gibbs Racing. I want to see how they perform, what kind of improvement they’ve shown on the 1.5-mile tracks. Another team I’ll keep an eye on is Hendrick Motorsports. Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. start to come back from his slow start? What about Kasey Kahne? Can Chase Elliott continue his strong runs on 1.5-mile tracks. Can Jimmie Johnson show more strength?

Watch Dale Jarrett and Parker Kligerman from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. ET on NASCAR America on NBCSN.

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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