Ryan: All was right about Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win at Talladega – except the racing


TALLADEGA, Ala. –At the epicenter of Earnhardt Nation, all seemed right again late Sunday afternoon.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrated in victory lane at Talladega Superspeedway for the first time in more than a decade. His adoring legions raucously cheered in nearly sold-out grandstands. A ‘WINNER’ sticker signifying a Chase for the Sprint Cup berth was affixed to the No. 88 Chevrolet.

All seemed right about the feel-good finish that left a 12-time most popular driver on the verge of tears of joy in postrace interviews – except everything that transpired before it.

For the second time in its past four Sprint Cup races, Talladega’s reputation as the most thrilling of NASCAR tracks took a serious hit in the Geico 500.

Earnhardt took the lead off the final restart and didn’t face a serious challenge over the final 26 laps.

At a 2.66-mile oval renowned for its furiously entertaining scrambles and infamous for its sickening high-speed pileups, the finish featured a mostly single-file line that had more in common with the preponderance of processionals at 1.5-mile speedways that have NASCAR focused on tweaking its rules.

It would have seemed extremely odd if it weren’t so oddly familiar. In the October 2013 race at Talladega, Jamie McMurray took the checkered flag as a 500-mile race ended with a 15-lap parade.

This is a disturbing trend for a track that has built its reputation around photo finishes and furious charges to the front.

Of the 10 closest finishes in Sprint Cup during the two-decade era of electronic scoring, three have occurred at Talladega – more than any other track. In the final victory of his storied career 15 years ago, the late Dale Earnhardt zoomed from 18th to first in the final five laps – a virtually implausible scenario at any other track on the circuit.

But this increasingly isn’t the Talladega of yore. Over the past decade, a confluence of factors – a repaving of the track, new models of Sprint Cup cars, the rise and subsequent eradication of two-car tandems – have contributed to a decline in the late-race strategy plays that made Talladega so enthralling.

Something seems rotten in the state of restrictor-plate racing at NASCAR’s palace of speed. Is there any way to recapture it?

“If we could, we would,” Earnhardt said. “If we knew what makes the best package, we would put it on the cars. I know we would.

“But the cars evolve.  They always have.  We went from big old tanks in the late ’70s to the downsized ’81 cars, into Monte‑Carlos, big old Thunderbirds.  The cars just continue to get smaller, bigger, taller, shorter. The sides get flatter. The quarter panels get longer.  The cars are just always changing.  That alters how they draft.”

The draft is the key to everything at Talladega, and there is a serious problem with how it currently functions in the waning laps when the leader settles into the top lane, and the field tucks in behind.

Earnhardt said surveying 43 Sprint Cup drivers would yield 43 answers on how to fix it. But there is a consensus on what’s broken: There is no incentive to risk pulling out of line to form the massive packs now needed to challenge the leader

Jeff Gordon led 47 laps, but he knew his chances were shot after speeding in the pits on his final stop and restarting in 31st with 26 laps remaining. That would have been an eternity to make a recovery at Talladega with a strong car years ago.

But on Sunday, Gordon knew he was toast. He settled for small gains and slowly crept into the top 20 before a last-lap spin.

“It wasn’t that no one was trying,” he said. “It’s that you’ve got to get organized. It takes a group to get it done. There was a lot of effort being made. I was one of them for a while. Then I realized it wasn’t going anywhere.”

Tony Stewart and a few others attempted to mount a counterattack in the bottom lane – and they paid the price by plummeting through the field without the immense drafting help needed to catch the leader.

“It’s not about trusting one (driver), you’ve got to trust 10,” Gordon said. “You can’t just go down there by yourself. When they’re lined up on the top, you need nine, 10, 12 cars to run in that lower lane to make it work. Even then it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to work. You have to have the right cars.

“Guys would go down there, make a little of ground and then get shuffled back. It was like one step forward and three steps back. It’s frustrating.”

As Earnhardt put it Saturday, it’s about waiting until “hopefully some dummy pulls out, and he gets shuffled back. Hopefully, that happens a lot, and you end up toward the front.”

It’s a far cry from his April 2003 win at Talladega. Earnhardt’s Chevy sustained damage in a multicar wreck on the fourth lap, but he was in the lead again just past the halfway point, and he outmaneuvered several strong cars with plate-racing savvy and skill.

Drivers can’t make as much of a difference anymore because their cars won’t allow it.

“They’re slower, they’re lazy,” Earnhardt said. “The runs we used to get years ago, man, you’d fly by guys, just dominate. The runs that the cars get, even with the great cars we have, are real lazy. You really aren’t sure it’s a run you need to take advantage of or not.

“I made about three real power moves (Sunday).  Maybe 10 years ago you would get 20 of those in a race. The cars just were way more active, reactive to each other. Another thing about this particular car is they get stuck side‑by‑side.  The side draft is so powerful that basically you get on the guy’s quarter panel, you start side drafting him to slingshot by him, he can counter you by side drafting you. You go nowhere.”

Earnhardt conceded Sunday if he were in the same position as Gordon, he would have been just as helpless.

“Man, if you get back there, you don’t have a chance,” he said. “If you’re sitting third, fourth, whatever, you’re sitting there thinking, ‘This ain’t a bad spot.’ “

As Carl Edwards put it, “it’s like a big sociology experiment. You’re waiting for one guy to go and everybody to follow.”

It’s known as a herd mentality.

Of course, the hordes of fans at Talladega didn’t care Sunday as they waved their No. 88 flag and saluted their hero.

All was right in Earnhardt Nation.

But it’s worth asking whether all will remain right at Talladega with more finishes like Sunday’s.

Charlotte Cup race postponed to Monday by weather


CONCORD, N.C. — All-day rain Sunday forced the postponement of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Cup Series race to Monday.

The postponement means that Charlotte Motor Speedway is scheduled to host 900 miles of stock car racing Monday. A 300-mile Xfinity Series race, originally scheduled Saturday and first postponed to noon Monday, has been rescheduled for 11 a.m. ET Monday (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The Cup race is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. (Fox, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Sunday’s Cup race was scheduled to start at 6:21 p.m. ET, but light rain was still falling at that time in the speedway area near Charlotte. Rain intensified a few minutes later and, despite an evening forecast that showed slight improvement, officials decided at 6:30 p.m. to postpone the race.

Monday’s forecast calls for a 34% chance of rain at the start of the Xfinity race and a 30% chance at the start of the Cup race.

William Byron will start the race from the pole after qualifying was washed out Saturday night.

RFK Racing gains sponsorship from submarine recruiting group


CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR racing and submarines? Yes.

RFK Racing announced Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that it has entered a partnership with BlueForge Alliance, which is involved in securing workers for the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Industrial Base (SIB) program. BuildSubmarines.com will be a primary sponsor for RFK drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher in 10 Cup Series races this year and in 18 races per season beginning in 2024.

The sponsorship will showcase the careers related to the submarine-building program across the nation.

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“I’m proud to support a cause of such vital significance to our country with this new partnership,” Keselowski said. “The synergies between a NASCAR team and our military’s needs to stay on track fast are countless. We hope to inspire the workforce of the next generation across the country when they see RFK race and hear our message.”

The sponsorship will support the mission to recruit, hire, train, develop and retain the SIB workforce that will build the Navy’s next generation of submarines, the team said.

“We are excited and grateful to be teaming with RFK Racing to drive awareness of the thousands of steady, well-paying manufacturing jobs available across the nation. Innovation, working with purpose and service to others are hallmarks of both of our organizations,” said Kiley Wren, BlueForge chief executive. “Together, we aim to inspire NASCAR fans and all Americans to pursue career opportunities that will support our national defense.”

Kyle Larson visits Indianapolis Motor Speedway to survey the scene


Former NASCAR champion Kyle Larson, who is scheduled to run the Indianapolis 500 in 2024 as part of an Indy-Charlotte “double,” visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area Sunday on Indianapolis 500 race day.

Larson said he wanted to familiarize himself with the Indy race-day landscape before he becomes immersed in the process next year.

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Larson later returned to Charlotte, where was scheduled to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 Sunday night. Next year, he’s scheduled to run both races.

“I love racing,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I love competing in the biggest races. In my opinion, this is the biggest race in the world. I wanted to be a part of it for a long time, and I finally feel like the timing is right. It’s pretty cool to have a dream come true.

“I wanted to come here and kind of experience it again and get to experience how crazy it is again before I’m in the middle of it next year. I kind of want as little surprise as possible next year.”

In the 2024 500, Larson will be one of four drivers with the Arrow McLaren team.

Earlier this month, Larson and Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon attended an Indy 500 practice day.

Larson said Sunday he hasn’t tested an Indy car.

“I don’t know exactly when I’ll get in the car,” he said. “I’ve had no sim (simulator) time yet. I’ve kind of stayed back. I didn’t want to ask too many questions and take any focus on what they have going on for these couple of weeks. I’m sure that will pick up after today.

“I look forward to the challenge. No matter how this experience goes, I’m going to come out of it a better race car driver.”




Jimmie Johnson: Building a team and pointing toward Le Mans


CONCORD, N.C. — These are busy days in the life of former NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson is a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the Cup Series team that has struggled through a difficult first half of the season while it also is preparing for a switch from Chevrolet to Toyota next year.

Johnson is driving a very limited schedule for Legacy as he seeks to not only satisfy his passion for racing but also to gain knowledge as he tries to lift Legacy to another level. As part of that endeavor, he’ll race in the Coca-Cola 600 in Legacy’s No. 84 car, making his third appearance of the season.

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And, perhaps the biggest immediate to-do item on Johnson’s list: He’ll race June 10-11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s biggest endurance race and another of the bucket list races the 47-year-old Johnson will check off his list.

“I’m excited, invigorated, exhausted — all of it,” Johnson said. “It has been a really exciting adventure that I’ve embarked on here — to learn from (Legacy co-owner) Maury Gallagher, to be a part of this great team and learn from everyone that I’m surrounded by. I’m in a whole new element here and it’s very exciting to be in a new element.

“At the same time, there are some foundational pieces coming together, decisions that we’re making, that will really help the team grow in the future. And then we have our job at hand – the situation and environment that we have at hand to deal with in the 2023 season. Depends on the hat that I’m wearing, in some respects. There’s been a lot of work, but a lot of excitement and a lot of fun. I truly feel like I’m a part of something that’s really going to be a force in the future of NASCAR.”

Johnson is scheduled to fly to Paris Monday or Tuesday to continue preparations for the Le Mans race. He, Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller will be driving a Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet as part of Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which is designed to offer a Le Mans starting spot for a team testing new technologies.

“For me, it’s really been about identifying marquee races around the world and trying to figure out how to run in them,” Johnson said. “Le Mans is a great example of that. Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 — these are the marquee events.”

He said his biggest concerns approaching the 24-hour race are being overtaken by faster prototypes in corners and racing at night  while dealing with the very bright lights of cars approaching in his rear view mirrors.

At Legacy, Johnson has work to do. Erik Jones has a top finish of sixth (and one other top 10) this season, and Noah Gragson is still looking for his first top-10 run. He has a best finish of 12th – at Atlanta.

“I think Erik (Jones) continues to show me just how good he is,” Johnson said. “He’s been in some challenging circumstances this year and keeps his head on — focuses, executes and gets the job done. I’ve really been impressed with his ability to stay calm and execute and just how good he is.

“With Noah, from watching him before, I wasn’t sure how serious he took his job in the sport. I knew that he was fast, and I knew that he liked to have fun. I can say in the short time that I’ve really worked with him closely, he still has those two elements, but his desire to be as good as he can in this sport has really impressed me. So I guess ultimately, his commitment to his craft is what’s impressed me the most.”