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How much has changed since Dale Earnhardt Jr. went to Hendrick

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One of the funnier NASCAR related commercials of the last decade turned out to partially predict the future.

Once upon a time, Dale Earnhardt Jr., still competing in the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Inc., starred in an ad where the driver announced he was changing his number from 8 to 6.7.

Chaos reigned in the 30-second spot as Earnhardt fans altered tattoos, cut down tailor-made hedges and mourned over rooms full of obsolete merchandise.

Then, on June 13, 2007, it became a reality.

That was the day Earnhardt really announced he would be changing his number – to 88 – and that after eight years of driving for the team his father founded, he would join Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

You can now draw a line down the middle of Earnhardt’s Sprint Cup career. Eight full-time seasons with DEI, eight with Hendrick.

His eight seasons with DEI included 17 victories. He has nine wins with Hendrick, seven of them coming in the last two seasons. During the first eight Hendrick years Earnhardt has worked with five different crew chiefs, starting with Tony Eury Jr. and ending with Greg Ives in 2015.

The only constant for Earnhardt has been the Most Popular Driver award, which he has been given every season since 2003.

BROOKLYN, MI - JUNE 15: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 NationalGuard/AMP Energy Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Lifelock 400 at the Michigan International Speedway on June 15, 2008 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won just once in his first four seasons with Hendrick. He claimed the 2008 spring race at Michigan. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

But how much else has changed in the sport in the eight years since arguably the biggest free agent move in NASCAR history?

2008 also marked the first year of Sprint being the title sponsor of the Cup series, following up Nextel’s four years of service. That was also the second season the Cup series used the Car of Tomorrow, or Gen Five car. It would be put out to pasture after six seasons in 2012.

During the era of the CoT, Earnhardt won only two races and teammate Jimmie Johnson claimed five of his six championships.

In the last eight years the format of the Chase for the Sprint Cup has been through three different iterations.

Then, only 12 drivers were included in the post-season. Now, 16 drivers are trimmed down to four over the course of 10 races.

In 2008, Mark Martin still had five seasons in front of him before finally retiring after 2013.

Clint Bowyer was in his third full-time season with Richard Childress Racing and wouldn’t join Michael Waltrip Racing for four more seasons. MWR competed in its first full-time Sprint Cup season in 2008 with David Reutimann driving the No. 00 and Waltrip in the No. 55. Reutimann hasn’t driven full-time since 2013 and MWR shut down at the end of 2015.

Tony Stewart, who Bowyer will replace in 2017, still called Joe Gibbs Racing home in 2008. The next year, he was off to Stewart-Haas Racing where he would claim his third Sprint Cup title in 2011.

Other drivers who raced for different teams in 2008 than they would in 2015 included:  Ryan Newman, Sam Hornish Jr. and Kurt Busch (Team Penske), Kevin Harvick (Richard Childress Racing), Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards,  David Ragan and Jamie McMurray (Roush Fenway Racing), Martin Truex Jr., Paul Menard and Aric Almirola (DEI), Casey Mears (Hendrick), AJ Allmendinger and Brian Vickers (Red Bull Racing), Kasey Kahne (Evernham Motorsports) and David Gilliland (Robert Yates Racing).

CONCORD, NC - MAY 25: Kasey Kahne, driver of the #9 Budweiser Dodge, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 on May 25, 2008 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
2008 was the final season of Evernham Motorsports before merging with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2009. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR).

Drivers who have retired, left NASCAR or the Sprint Cup Series since 2008 include: Martin, Terry Labonte, Bill Elliott, Gordon, Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dave Blaney, Kyle Petty, Marcos Ambrose, Sterling Marlin, Regan Smith and Elliott Sadler (racing for Earnhardt at JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series).

Including Earnhardt, the only drivers who competed for the same teams in 2015 that they were in 2008 were Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle (Roush), Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin (JGR).

But probably the biggest signifier of the passage of time is in who the Gillette Young Guns were in 2008. The five drivers were Newman, Bowyer, Hamlin, Edwards, Kahne and Kurt Busch.

Those “Young Guns” are now all 35 years or older.

Earnhardt ended his association with Gillette after the 2006 season.

The former “Young Gun” is now enjoying his early 40s, which so far has included getting engaged to girlfriend Amy Reimann and having his best on-track success in more than a decade.

Erik Jones will not return to Joe Gibbs Racing after 2020

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Erik Jones will not return to Joe Gibbs Racing after this season, the team announced Thursday night.

“We appreciate all Erik has done for Joe Gibbs Racing over the past several years,” said Joe Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing. “He joined us as a teenager and has accomplished so much in his time here and we remain focused on the remainder of this season and earning him a spot in the playoffs.”

Said Jones: “I greatly appreciate the opportunity that JGR provided me with over the last four years and I wish the team nothing but success and good fortune,” said Jones. “JGR gave me a solid foundation from which to go out and compete at the highest level and I look forward to building on that in the years to come.”

Jones’ one-year contract with JGR expires after this season. The departure of the 24-year-old Jones clears the way for 25-year-old Cup rookie Christopher Bell to join JGR next season. In its announcement Thursday night, JGR did not indicate who will replace Jones, although that is expected to be Bell.

Bell’s status was in question for next season with Leavine Family Racing’s announcement this week that it has been sold. The new owner has not been announced and an alliance with Toyota is not expected.

Toyota Racing Development has invested significantly in Bell, guiding him through dirt track racing, the Truck Series, Xfinity Seres and now Cup. Jones also has been a TRD development driver, competing for the Toyota in the Truck, Xfinity and Cup series.

Jones has two wins in 131 Cup starts heading into this weekend’s doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway, his home track. His Cup wins came at Daytona (July 2018) and Darlington (Sept. 2019). He is the only driver in NASCAR history to be rookie of the year in Truck, Xfinity and Cup. He also won the Truck title in his first season in that series.

Bell has made 20 Cup starts with a best finish of fourth at the first Pocono race in June. He won the 2017 Truck title and set the Xfinity rookie record for wins with seven in 2018.

In a statement, Ed Laukes, Group Vice President, Marketing, Toyota Motor North America, said: “Erik has been an incredible friend to Toyota throughout the last eight years. We’ve become close not only to Erik, but to his entire family. We’ve celebrated together, we’ve cried together and we’ve supported each other through it all. Unfortunately, the time has come that we have to part ways from a competitive standpoint. We know Erik will continue to do great things in this sport and wish him nothing but the best in his future endeavors. We will certainly continue to follow his career and will be there to congratulate him as he continues to succeed.”

Toyota exec ‘not throwing in the towel’ on keeping Christopher Bell

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The announcement by Leavine Family Racing earlier this week that it had been sold puts Christopher Bell‘s Cup career in “immediate peril,” according to Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson.

Wilson made his comments about Bell’s future Wednesday night to Claire B. Lang on “Dialed In” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“The immediate impact is to Christopher Bell,” Wilson said. “Christopher Bell, who is certainly one of our development drivers and somebody that we have invested a lot in over the years, it puts him in immediate peril. … We don’t know yet if we can recover, having to go out, it’s the first of August and this has been a relatively recent development. But to go out in this climate, in this environment, and to try to put together a partnership with no time and the demands required of that partnership from a sponsorship perspective, are just very difficult.”

Bell, a rookie, drives Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota. Leavine Family Racing is one of three teams, including Joe Gibbs Racing and Gaunt Brothers Racing, that receives support from Toyota.

While the identity of who bought LFR has not been disclosed, Wilson said “It’s doubtful that there’s a plausible solution” that sees Toyota’s current deal with the No. 95 team continuing with the new ownership next year.

“I think this is widely known, part of the partnership, part of the way LFR worked was a technical alliance, a hardware reliance on Joe Gibbs Racing,” Wilson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Those cars are leased, they’re not owned by Bob (Leavine) and the team. Those go back to Joe Gibbs Racing. What I can tell you is that as soon as we became aware of this problem, Joe and I have been working very closely, very aggressively, every day. It’s what’s keeping me awake every night right now, trying to figure out if we can adapt, if we can come up with a bridge to get us another year down the road.”

Bell has been a Toyota development driver his entire NASCAR career, including two full-time seasons in the Truck Series at Kyle Busch Motorsports and two full-time Xfinity Series seasons with Joe Gibbs Racing.

A winner of 16 Xfinity races, Bell joined Leavine Family Racing in part due to JGR’s stable of drivers being full in the Cup Series. Erik Jones, who drives the No. 20 Toyota, is in a contract year. That car could be driven by Bell in 2021.

But Wilson acknowledged Bell could not be in a Toyota come 2021.

“In the end, if we can’t, the collective we, Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing or a new Toyota affiliated team, if we cannot find a solution for Christopher then he’s got to do what he’s got to do,” Wilson said. “We are, again, very invested in Christopher. We’re not throwing in the towel, we are being very aggressive. I’ve been very candid in the past, probably overly so, to the effect that Christopher Bell is going to be in a Toyota for years and years and years to come. That has been our intention. That remains our intention. I would say today, stay tuned. It’s very late, but we’re working on it and we should have something to share between ourselves and Joe Gibbs Racing in the very near future.

NASCAR announces new method for setting starting lineups

NASCAR starting lineups
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NASCAR announced Thursday a new way of establishing starting lineups and pit selection order for races beginning with next weekend’s events on the Daytona road course.

NASCAR will use three competition-based performance metrics, replacing the random draw procedure that has been in place for a majority of races since NASCAR returned to racing in May.

More: NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

More: Starting lineup for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan

Owner points position and the finish and fastest lap from the most recently completed race will be weighted and averaged to establish the starting order. Points position will be weighted at 35%, finishing position at 50% and fastest race lap at 15%.

When the playoffs begin, playoff cars will fill the top starting positions. In the Round of 16, the top 16 starting positions will be playoff cars; in the Round of 12, the top 12 starting positions will be playoff cars; and so on.

“The random draw has served us well during the return to racing, but it is important that starting lineups are based on performance as we approach the playoffs,” Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said in a press release. “The entire industry is aligned on implementing a competition-based system to determine the starting lineup and pit selection order.”

Team Penske driver Joey Logano said Thursday that the formula “makes sense.”

“It’s maybe a little bit more confusing than what I would have gone with,” Logano said. “If they end up going with the process that has been talked about here, just for the race fans I feel like it’s confusing, but, outside of that, so it’s fair and I guess that’s all that matters. It’s fair and I’m sure that’s probably what the fans care about the most. If all of us competitors can agree that it’s a fair way to set the lineup, I don’t think any fan is really gonna care how it happened as long as we all feel like you earned your starting position, just like we used to.

“You used to earn your starting position by qualifying. Well, now you’re going to earn your starting position by three different ways, whether it’s lap time or finishing points position – those type of things. You’ve earned every one of those spots, so although it’s confusing it’s fair.”

NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

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NASCAR announced Thursday it will implement the choose rule starting with this weekend’s races at Michigan International Speedway.

The Truck Series races Friday (6 p.m. ET on FS1) and the Cup Series holds a doubleheader, racing Saturday (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and Sunday (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The choose rule allows drivers to pick which lane they restart when a race resumes from a caution, with drivers able to secure better track position or restart in the preferred lane. It will be used in all races except those held on road courses and superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega).

With the Xfinity Series competing at Road America this weekend and on the Daytona road course next weekend, the choose rule won’t be used by the series until its Aug. 22-23 races at Dover.

The rule made its NASCAR national series debut in the July 15 All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway and was warmly received by drivers.

Drivers chose their lanes on the lap before the restart when they drove to the right or left of an orange cone symbol painted on the track just beyond the start-finish line.

“Considering feedback from teams, drivers and fans, NASCAR has implemented these changes to enhance competition as we approach the playoffs,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, in a press release. “We received nothing but positive comments from the drivers on the choose rule following the All-Star Race, and felt it was an important addition to the restart procedure.

“I think the choose rule’s been needed for a long time,” Chase Elliott said after winning the All-Star Race. “I think it should be that way every week. I don’t think there’s really a reason to not have it. There’s no reason to me why you shouldn’t have the choice or you should be automatically told where you’re going to line up when one lane has an obvious advantage, just based on where you come off pit road. Life ain’t fair I guess, but just makes way more sense to put it in our hands and it either works out for you or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work out, then it’s your own fault and not luck of the draw and where you come off pit road.”

When asked about the choose rule Thursday, Joey Logano was enthusiastic.

“Finally,” Logano said. “I’ve been looking for this for years. I’ve brought it up in meetings for years and to see it kind of come into action at Bristol is something that I thought went really smooth. It was kind of exciting and interesting to see the decisions that drivers made and it was different every time. If you do that at Bristol, what’s it look like at Michigan?  … There’s a lot of questions that kind of come along with that on what it is and there might be some races where it looks identical to what it is right now where third is on the inside and fourth is on the outside. That can happen. .. It definitely adds another piece to the strategy and even more importantly it has everyone not doing the whole stopping at the end of pit road and letting a car go by because, for one, it’s not safe to stop at the end of pit road for anyone jumping over the wall and having cars swerve like that.

“But, two, that’s not racing. The goal should be in front of whatever car is in front of you, not let one go at the end of pit road so you can have the outside lane or the inside lane. That’s backwards. You don’t want to do that, so we can get past that. Every time we’d try to count cars like that someone would have a penalty anyway, so it never worked for me. You’d always let one go and then the car in front of you has an uncontrolled or a speeding penalty and you’re like,’ C’mon!’ So, it gets rid of all that. That’s nice.”