Dale Earnhardt Jr. candidly assesses 2016 struggles: ‘Things aren’t coming as easy’

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SPARTA, Ky. – More than 20 minutes after the Quaker State 400, there was only one driver still lingering with his team in the pits at Kentucky Speedway.

As a group of a half-dozen reporters stood on the periphery of the scene at the No. 88 Chevrolet as several blue and white-uniformed team members scrambled to pack up after a 13th-place finish, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Greg Ives calmly debriefed on their Saturday night. Earnhardt animatedly gestured with his hands several times to Ives, who silently nodded with his arms crossed.

It seemed an intense dissection of a fairly nondescript finish.

But if Earnhardt is to sew up his sixth consecutive berth in the playoffs of NASCAR’s premier series, the discussion symbolizes the path forward in his second season with Ives, who guided the team to three wins last year.

“Communication, talking and sitting down,” Earnhardt said when asked how his team can fix its recent struggles. “It starts with me and Greg. Last year, it came real easy. We get along great. It’s just we’re kind of faced with some adversity. Things aren’t coming as easy on the racetrack. The car’s got speed, but the finishes aren’t there.”

NASCAR’s 13-time most popular driver took a baby step toward improvement Saturday at Kentucky with his third top 15 in five races. After falling from seventh to 13th in the points standings during a four-race stretch in May, Earnhardt’s results have stabilized during the summer, and he currently holds a provisional spot on the Chase for the Sprint Cup grid.

It’s the deepest Earnhardt has gone in a season without a victory since going winless three years ago, but he also has four runner-up finishes — three in the first seven races.

“We had a really rough May that disappointed us,” he said. “We just started off the season so good, and it just ended. We couldn’t get anything right.”

The struggles have been nowhere more evident than at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, where he crashed and finished last in the May 1 race to start the slump.

After that wreck, Earnhardt vowed the team would address his car’s handling problems before the July 2 race at Daytona. But two months later, nothing had improved. Complaining of handling problems for much of the race, Earnhardt finished 21st in the Coke Zero 400, bringing his average finish to 32.3 on plate tracks in 2016.

“How we’ve negotiated the plate tracks this year has been a real disappointment, because those are easily places we can go get a top 10 or a top five when we need it,” he said. “So we’ve given away 60 points at those races. That’s a lot of damn points, man, those three races. We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to build another car and go to Talladega, and hopefully we’ve got the gremlins figured out and the issues we’ve had.

“But me and (Ives), we talk. We communicate. We talk, text. We spend time together during the week. We’re in meetings together.  So we’re around each other working. We’re trying to figure it out.”

It was encouraging for Earnhardt that the team got a reasonable handle on Kentucky after “we sucked on Thursday and Friday.”

NASCAR provided a break by canceling qualifying in favor of more practice time the team desperately needed.

“If you’d have told me I was going to finish 13th Friday, I’d have took it, happily,” he said. “After the way we ran (Saturday), I’m a little frustrated because I thought we should have finished a little better than 13th. We had good speed and a good car at times, but I told Greg, we have the speed, and that’s the hardest thing to get in this sport. If we can fix the little flaws — the human error that I’m doing or anyone else is doing — if we can fix the flaws that we’re creating ourselves that’s easier to do than finding true speed.”

With eight races remaining until the 16-driver field is set for the playoffs, Earnhardt remains 13th in the points standings with a 32-point cushion on the current cut line for the provisional field.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver isn’t nervous.

“Yeah, I’m good,” he said. “What am I going to do? We’re running as good as we can. It’s either going to be good enough or won’t be enough. I’m not really going to lose any sleep over it, at least at this moment.

“When we miss the Chase, it’ll be frustrating and disappointing, but we’re going to plan on not doing that. We’re going to plan on making it.”

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.

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.”