The secret to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s restrictor-plate resurgence? It’s simple

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SPARTA, Ky. – It’s become increasingly evident that Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s nine-season winless streak in restrictor-plate races was definitely a case of a slower car and not a slumping driver.

With his victory in the Coke Zero 400, Earnhardt has won three of the past seven races held at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway and is averaging a finish of 1.6 in three plate races this season.

He might have even more wins during that stretch if he hadn’t lost his Daytona 500-winning car to the track’s museum for the last three plate races of the 2014 season. Earnhardt, whose No. 88 Chevrolet shares a shop with the No. 48 of six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, said his 2015 cars are on par with the Daytona 500 winner.

“Over the last two years, the 88‑48 shop has built two of the best restrictor-plate cars in the sport,” Earnhardt said. “Fortunately, yet unfortunately, we won the Daytona 500 with one of them where we didn’t get to use it again the rest of the year, and we basically had to use a second-hand car or backup car that wasn’t quite as good the rest of the (2014) season at the plate tracks. Still a good and competitive car, but the car that I’ve had (in 2015) and (that won the 2014 Daytona 500) is exceptional and extraordinary compared to the rest of the competition.”

The win at Daytona was the 10th of Earnhardt’s career at Daytona and Talladega, ranking him behind only Jeff Gordon (12) and his late father (11) at the plate tracks (NBCSN analyst Dale Jarrett ranks fourth on the list with six wins).

But after winning seven races at plate tracks from 2001-04 (including four in a row at Talladega), there were questions about whether Earnhardt’s knack for side-drafting and navigating the slipstream had faded as he endured an 0-for-36 streak at Daytona and Talladega from 2005-13.

During the drought, there were new iterations of cars, varying rules and repavings at both tracks.

Earnhardt never lost faith in his ability to deliver the goods. But as cars became more standardized and his rivals improved, the talent gap lessened and made it more difficult to reach victory lane without a superior car. He was in first for a race-high 96 laps in Monday’s rain-delayed win at Daytona, the most laps  he’d led in a plate race since May 2002 at Talladega (133). It was his second-highest laps led total at Daytona, ranking behind the 116 he paced in July 2001 – the first plate win of his career.

“There’s a lot of drivers with the same skill level that know what to do,” Earnhardt said. “I know what to do, they know what to do, but will our cars do it? My car can do the things I want it to do, and when I can move from seventh to first in a matter of a lap or two, that’s because the car can sustain the run. You’ve got to do all these things that’s sort of like playing Frogger, and you’ve got to time everything in order to get across.  That’s what it’s like when you’re passing. You’ve got to do everything just right, but the car is probably 80 percent of it.

“Denny (Hamlin), Jimmie (Johnson) and all those guys know how to do all these things. I just feel like we have the car that’s better than all of them.”

NBC analyst Steve Letarte, who worked as Earnhardt’s crew chief from 2011-14, said Hendrick Motorsports had raised its game since last season in finding more speed at Daytona and Talladega.

“As we went from the traditional mid-2000s cars to the COT to the generation of car we have now, Dale Jr. was very vocal to me about the underperformance of our vehicles a couple of times at the speedways,” Letarte said. “I think that is what has driven the company to work very hard on the restrictor-plate program and what makes it worth your while is when you give a guy like Dale Jr. a fast car, look at what he does with it. He makes very few mistakes. He’s very efficient.

“Both at Talladega and Daytona now, I thought he had the best car. We’ve seen the best car not win a lot, and this is back-to-back speedway races that the best car does look like it has won. I think it’s the combination of it all, him forcing the company to support a style of racing he loves. When they have done that, it gives them what they’re looking for.”

Earnhardt led a race-high 67 laps in the May 3 win at Talladega, his third-highest total at the 2.66-mile oval.

The success has reminded Letarte of the early to mid-2000s era when the Dale Earnhardt Inc. cars of Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip often seemed unbeatable with the father-son duo of Tony Eury and Tony Eury Jr. building the slickest cars on the circuit.

Just as this season, the key was giving Earnhardt an edge behind the wheel and letting him slice his way into the lead.

“It became apparent (the DEI cars) had figured out way to find an advantage in the pack, and I applaud the Eurys for doing that,” Letarte said. “But I’m not taking anything away from Dale Jr. You can’t build a better car without a great race car driver driving it and giving you feedback. A great race car driver can only do so much with an average race car.”

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Charlotte Roval

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Sunday provides a final chance for drivers to advance to the Round of 8 and keep their Cup championship hopes alive.

Talladega winner Chase Elliott is the only driver who has advanced to the next round. That leaves seven spots available going into Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe holds the final transfer spot by a tiebreaker over Austin Cindric. At least for now.

William Byron is 11 points behind both drivers, but Hendrick Motorsports will appeal Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas on Thursday. Should Hendrick win and Byron get those points back, he would move into a transfer spot.

There’s just part of what to watch for in Sunday’s race.

Favorites to be No. 20

This season remains tied for the most different winners in series history at 19, but there are a few candidates who could become the 20th different winner this year on Sunday.

Among the favorites to do so:

Ryan Blaney, who came close to winning last week at Talladega, won the inaugural Cup race at the Roval in 2018.

Martin Truex Jr., who has four career Cup wins on road courses, still seeks his first victory of the season.

Michael McDowell, who is coming off a third-place finish at Talladega, has had a career-high 12 top-10 finishes this season, including top 10s in each of the last four road course events this year.

Will history repeat?

Last year, the four drivers eliminated after the Roval were Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell and William Byron.

Harvick was eliminated in the first round this year, but Byron (-11 to the cutline) and Bell (-33) are in jeopardy of being eliminated in this round again. Bowman stated Tuesday that he will miss his second consecutive race because of continued concussion symptoms. He will be among the four eliminated from title contention.

Bowman missed last weekend’s race because of concussion-like symptoms suffered at Texas. A decision on if he’ll be able to race at the Roval will come later this week.

Will chaos continue?

Consider what some of the former Roval winners have endured on their way to the checkered flag:

In 2019, Chase Elliott drove into the Turn 1 wall on a restart while the leader. He recovered to win.

In 2020, Elliott overcame a loose wheel to win for the second year in a row.

In 2021, Kyle Larson won after his team changed batteries and put the alternator belt back on.

Could a similar fate be in store for this year’s winner? Or will they have a cleaner day?

Entry lists

Thirty-nine drivers are entered including IndyCar driver Conor Daly, former Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat, former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and former 24 Hours of Daytona winner Joey Hand. JJ Yeley will drive the No. 51 for Cody Ware, who stated that he would skip this event because of his ankle injury at Texas the footwork needed on a road course.

Charlotte Roval Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are IndyCar driver Marco Andretti and former F1 driver Daniil Kvyat.

Charlotte Roval Xfinity entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Saturday, Oct. 8

Forecast: Partly cloudy with a high of 66 degrees. No chance of rain during the Xfinity race.

  • 10 – 10:30 a.m. — Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)
  • 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (NBC Sports App)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Cup practice (NBC Sports App, USA Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.)
  • 1 – 2 p.m. — Cup qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3 p.m. — Xfinity race (67 laps, 155.44 miles; NBC, Peacock, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 9

Forecast: Sunny with a high of 64 degrees. No chance of rain during the race.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup race (109 laps, 252.88 miles; NBC, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).