Why this victory at Daytona was a special one for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Thursday night wasn’t the first time Dale Earnhardt Jr. has driven so much like his old man at Daytona International Speedway, rivals were left agog conjuring reverential praise.

But it always means more to NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver on Feb. 18.

“It’s real special,” Earnhardt said after winning the first Can-Am Duel on the 15-year anniversary of the death of his father on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. “I was thinking about that. I try not to make too big a deal.  I’ve told all you guys in interviews we’ve done how much I like people to remember Dad, talk about Dad.  It really warms my heart to see the stuff on social media and so forth.  That’s probably my best way to gauge the reaction to a day like this.  You see a lot of people mention him, even the (Atlanta) Braves and all that stuff.  It’s pretty cool.

“I’m guilty of daydreaming a little bit about winning this race tonight because of the day.  That was special to me.  Glad nothing bad happened, that we didn’t tear our car up, because that would have been embarrassing on a day like this.”

It was the other 21 cars in the field that were at risk of being embarrassed Thursday by Earnhardt, who led a race-high 43 of 60 laps in the fifth Daytona 500 qualifying win of his career.

Shuffled out of first during a pit-stop sequence in which Denny Hamlin took the lead with 18 laps remaining, Earnhardt deftly used a bob-and-weave maneuver to slingshot his No. 88 Chevrolet past Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota.

Earnhardt led the final six laps and staved off a late charge by runner-up Joey Logano, who was the charter member in the Dale Jr. Admiration Society afterward.

“It’s just hard to pass (him),” Logano said. “He’s really, really good! He’s got a good car, and he’s a good driver at this stuff. You’re back there just taking notes on what he’s doing.”

Hamlin, who already was being asked to do a lot without fresh tires or any Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, indicated there likely was nothing he would have done differently to stymie Earnhardt’s charge.

“Not really,” said Hamlin, comparing it to a penalty kick in soccer where a goalie guesses right on a kick to the left. “I could have chopped him a little bit more, but I saw in my mirror, it would have been close. This isn’t the time to cut it close. Sunday is probably the time to do it.”

Michael Waltrip, who also was in the race, broke into the post-race interview and playfully asked if Hamlin was surprised by Earnhardt’s moves.

“Well, it didn’t come alone,” Hamlin said. “I think it was because he backed up to the people behind him. They pushed him and got him a good run. That’s what he is really, really good at.

“The problem with everyone else trying to do that is when they back up to the third-place car, the third-place car usually tries to pass. With him, everyone usually commits to him, and that allows him to get those big runs.”

“Was it part of the drivers union?” Waltrip cracked.

“Well, I think they just like him better, actually,” Hamlin joked.

This wasn’t the first time Earnhardt recently has played pied piper at a restrictor-plate track. In a victory at Talladega Superspeedway last May, he led the final 27 laps with the field mostly tucked in single file at the checkered flag as it was Thursday.

Has a sense of resignation begun to set in with beating the two-time Daytona 500 winner?

“(Earnhardt) was kind of playing with us,” Austin Dillon said. “It was pretty wild to watch him move side to side and still not lose momentum.”

Said Kevin Harvick, whose No. 4 Chevrolet (fourth) seemed the next fastest in the first qualifying race: “I think you know he’s going to be tough to beat. He’s been really fast on all of these racetracks for the last couple of years. Extremely fast for the last couple of years with this particular rules package. So you knew he was going to be one of the cars to beat, and I think it will stay that way.”

Not everyone was conceding Earnhardt would be the driver to beat Sunday. After winning the second Duel, Kyle Busch said he believed Earnhardt had speed but could have been beaten if Hamlin had made different choices.

Earnhardt also expressed shock at being able to pass Hamlin and hold off Logano, the defending Daytona 500 winner.

“(Hamlin’s) great at plate racing,” Earnhardt said. “That’s obvious by his success at this track and Talladega. He’s always towards the front. When we got by him, I was really surprised. Then I was nervous when Joey got to second. Joey is very good too, obviously. He’s pretty aggressive like trying to get the lead.  He has a great race car.

“I was glad to hold them off.  … When you got such a great car, it’s hard to defend on a pass with a car like that.”

There is no doubt that Earnhardt has a great car. Nicknamed “Amelia” (as in Amelia Earhart), this No. 88 chassis won three plate races last season (a Duel, July at Daytona and May at Talladega).

“The car is awesome,” he said. “I don’t really get too confident, I don’t want to get overly confident in what I’m doing.  But the car really does everything I ask it to do.

“When you have a car that you know can do the things that this car can do, you’re willing to take those gambles and risks to pull out and pass and not worry about getting shuffled to the back. Because you feel like the car is really capable of doing what you’re going to ask it to do every time you make a move.

“It’s just a fun car to drive. Really special car.”

On a really special day.

Friday 5: Thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

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Ryan Blaney’s message to competitors in Saturday night’s Cup playoff race is simple.

I caution those in front of me that I am not going to be behind them for very long if we are faster than them,” he said.

Ditto for Matt DiBenedetto.

“You’re not going to do anything stupid, he said, “but you can’t sit and wait behind them.”

Those two drivers face the biggest challenges to advance to the second round of the playoffs. DiBenedetto is 25 points behind Clint Bowyer, who holds the final transfer position entering Saturday’s race at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Blaney trails Bowyer by 27 points.

No driver so far back entering an elimination race has made it to the next round since the playoff format debuted in 2014.

“I would love to say it is another race weekend, but it is our season, pretty much,” Blaney said Saturday’s race.

It will take a mix of aggression and patience during the 500-lap playoff race by Blaney and DiBenedetto to advance.

The line between aggressive and dirty driving can be blurry. Not every driver will see it the same way. With the need to move through the field and score as many points as possible — or win stages and the race — Blaney and DiBenedetto will have less patience, but where is the line?

DiBenedetto goes back to the All-Star Open in July. He restarted deep in the field after pitting in the first stage when not all the cars did. He worked his way through the field to win the final stage to advance to the All-Star Race.

“Some of the moves that I made in the Open race were aggressive to get through the field,” DiBenedetto said. “Everything’s on the line and you’re trying to make the All-Star Race and it’s a very short race. 

“Some of the moves that I made in the Open race, if it were a regular points race and we’re at the beginning of the race or something, some of those moves probably at that time were just considered aggressive because everyone knows what we’re doing and what’s at stake. In other situations, they could have been dirty because I moved some people out of the way. That’s a little bit of a moving target, so it’s hard to answer that question. 

“I would say for this weekend that everyone usually knows what’s on the line for different people.”

2. Out of sight but not out of mind

Crew chief Johnny Klausmeier knew that he faced a one-race suspension late in the Southern 500 when it was evident that Clint Bowyer’s car had two lug nuts not tight.

From my vantage point on the pit box, I kind of watched the tire changers, and I saw that it didn’t look like he was hitting all the lug nuts,” Klausmeier said. “He was swinging for them, but not making contact and then the car left. I kind of knew that we would have some kind of issue there, so we kind of went back and looked at the video and made sure that it wasn’t going to be a safety thing.”

Johnny Klausmeier and driver Clint Bowyer enter Bristol holding the last transfer spot to the second round. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/NASCAR via Getty Images)

The team didn’t see a safety issue so Bowyer stayed on track, finishing 10th. Had Klausmeier called his driver back to pit road to secure the lug nuts, Bowyer likely would have lost at least 10 points. Instead of holding on to the final transfer spot entering Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Bowyer would have been outside the cutline.

Saving those points, though, meant that Klausmeier would miss last weekend’s race at Richmond because of the suspension.

What was it like not to be at the track and still call the race?

“I didn’t feel like it was more efficient than actually being there,” Klausmeier said. “There is a delay in the audio. There is a delay in the broadcast. There is a delay in the information transfer.

“Then just being there and when the tires come off the race car on a pit stop, being able to walk down behind the pit box and visually look at the tires and see what the wear looks like. (Also) coming up and calculating changes and things that you’re going to do based on what you see and feel looking at the racetrack and getting that information real time. 

“I do not think the role of a crew chief can be done virtually. I think you have to be there. You have to be immersed in it. You can’t just go down and get the pit crew guys rallied up. You can’t see what’s going on with the car, so you miss out on those things and there is a little bit of a delay in the communications, so it’s not ideal but we managed to do it.”

3. Pit road speeding

Pit road speeding penalties could play a key role in Saturday’s Cup race.

Twenty-one speeding penalties were called in the May Cup race there. Each of the last three Cup races at Bristol has had at least 11 speeding penalties.

Brad Keselowski overcame a pit road speeding penalty to win the May race — but he was helped by leader Denny Hamlin hitting the wall and then Chase Elliott and Joey Logano later making contact racing for the lead in the final laps.

Matt DiBenedetto was caught speeding on pit road after Stage 1. He finished the stage seventh and restarted 28th because of the penalty. DiBenedetto was 22nd when he was collected in a nine-car crash, ruining his race. He finished more than 40 laps behind the leaders.

Joey Logano and Kyle Busch also were penalized for speeding on pit road in the May race. Austin Dillon was penalized twice in May. Both times came after he was involved in a crash on Lap 330.

4. Almost there

Brandon Brown is set to clinch the final spot in the Xfinity Series playoffs Friday night at Bristol. He enters with a 49-point lead on Jeremy Clements for the final transfer spot. Brown will clinch a playoff spot provided there is not a new winner outside the top 12 in points.

Brandon Brown is in position to make the Xfinity Series playoffs on Friday night for the first time. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Brown’s family-run team has eight employees. He spends part of his time at the shop helping with the vehicles. Brown also is focused on trying to find sponsorship for this season and next year.

He has been to a simulator only once this season, going before the Daytona road course race. When he wants to get some sim time, he starts his iRacing rig. And his physical training? It’s limited to running. The gym he uses in his apartment complex is closed because of COVID-19.

So with all that around him, he’s about to clinch a playoff spot.

Brown also knows some view him as being aggressive on the track. He doesn’t hide from such viewpoints.

Getting down to the playoffs and having an opportunity like this, it’s not something that comes around for everyone,” Brown said. “So for me, it pushes me that much harder to want to make that happen.

“It’s hard to back yourself down to ‘I need to run smarter to make sure we’re bringing the car home all four corners on it.’ At the same time, I want to get everything out I can out of the car and push to get the best result possible because this is our run, our chance at the playoffs.

“Taking a little bit extra risk, to me, it’s worth it, to really put my name out and to really make something happen this year. The risk is worth the reward to me, but I’m sure that others would view it differently.”

5. Odds and ends

# Matt DiBenedetto said his contract with the Wood Brothers is through this year with options for 2021, ’22 and ’23. He said the deadline for the team to pick up the option for next season is the end of this month.

I guess I should know pretty soon,” he said. “I wish I knew now because I don’t want to go anywhere and it would put me in a pretty bad situation if something were to change, but I don’t expect any changes.”

# The Joey Logano Foundation will donate $22,000 each week of the playoffs to organizations that support children and young adults in crisis. The organizations selected help those that are homeless, within the foster care system or aging out of the foster care system.

Those organizations include Children’s Hope Alliance, The Relatives, Youth Villages, Least of These and Crossnore School & Children’s Home.

# Martin Truex Jr. has won four of the last seven races at short tracks.

# Kyle Busch has one victory in his last 50 Cup races.

# Kevin Harvick has scored 46% of his Cup wins after turning age 40.

 and on Facebook

Bristol Truck race results, driver points

Bristol Truck race results
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Sam Mayer scored his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win Thursday night. The 17-year-old finished ahead of GMS Racing teammate Brett Moffitt.

Mayer is the youngest driver to win a Truck race at Bristol.

Tanner Gray placed third and was followed by Parker Kligerman and Chandler Smith.

Gray’s finished tied a career high. Kligerman’s finish was his best this season.

Trevor Bayne crossed the finish line fifth but his truck was disqualified for failing post-race heights in inspection.

The next race in the playoffs is Sept. 25 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Click here for race results

POINTS

Brett Moffitt leads the points after the opening race in the first round of the playoffs. He leads Sheldon Creed by nine points. Zane Smith trails Moffitt by 12 points.

Click here for points report

17-year-old Sam Mayer wins first NASCAR Truck race

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Sam Mayer passed GMS Racing teammate Brett Moffitt with 30 laps to go and went on to score his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win Thursday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The victory came in the seventh career Truck start for the 17-year-old Mayer. The win also came a few days after JR Motorsports announced that Mayer would drive for the team in the second half of the 2021 Xfinity Series, once he turns 18.

“I love this place,” Mayer told FS1 after the 200-lap race. “I don’t know what to say.”

Mayer was helped by having tires that were 52 laps fresher than Moffitt’s tires.

MORE: Race results 

Mayer is not competing in the playoffs and does not advance to the second round. He said he has two more Truck races left to run this season.

Mayer followed his Truck win by taking the checkered flag in the ARCA Menards Series race that followed Thursday night.

Moffitt, who is competing in the playoffs, finished second. He was followed by Tanner Gray and Parker Kligerman.

Trevor Bayne finished fifth but his Truck was disqualified after the race for failing inspection. His truck failed post-race heights. Chandler Smith finished fifth after Bayne’s disqualification.

Moffitt was one of only four playoff drivers to finish in the top 10. Grant Enfinger was sixth. Tyler Ankrum placed seventh. Matt Crafton was 10th.

Mayer is the second youngest winner in series history. Cole Custer is the youngest winner in series history. Custer was 16 years, 7 months, 28 days when he won in Sept. 2014 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Mayer becomes the youngest Truck winner at Bristol at 17 years, 2 months, 22 days. Ryan Blaney had held that record, winning a 2015 race there at age 21 years, 4 months, 19 days.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Brett Moffitt

STAGE 2 WINNER: Tyler Ankrum

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Tanner Gray’s third-place finish tied his career best. He finished third at Michigan earlier this season. … Parker Kligerman’s fourth-place finish is his best of the season while running a limited schedule.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Austin Hill finished 25th, worst among the playoff drivers. He had contact on Lap 2 with Stewart Friesen.

NOTABLE: Trevor Bayne said that four weeks ago he didn’t know if he would be racing again at Bristol. He crossed the finish line fifth but his truck failed inspection after the race and was disqualified.

NEXT: The second race of the opening round of the playoffs is at 9 p.m. ET Sept. 25 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Texas Motor Speedway to host polling site for election

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Residents and race fans in parts of North Texas will be able to cast their vote in the upcoming election at their local NASCAR track.

Texas Motor Speedway will be a polling site for the Nov. 3 election.

The track, owned by Speedway Motorsports, will serve as a polling site for the residents of Precinct 4048. That precinct includes a large portion of Denton County and Forth Worth, Texas.

The polling site will be in the Lone Star Tower Condominium Clubhouse just outside Turn 2. It will be open from 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. ET on election day.

More: Upcoming Cup playoffs races can fans attend

“In anticipation of a very high voter turnout for the presidential election, we have been working for months to acquire polling sites throughout the county,” Frank Phillips, Denton County Elections Administrator, said in a press release. “We are excited that Texas Motor Speedway has offered the use of the Lone Star Tower Clubhouse as a polling site.”

Local, state and CDC guidelines will be followed to ensure a sanitized, safe and socially distanced voter experience.

TMS is the first track that hosts NASCAR Cup races to announce its plans for use as a polling site. It joins sporting venues for other major sports in doing so.

A number of NBA arenas and practice facilities will be voting locations, as well as select NFL stadiums and NHL arenas.