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Jeff Gordon explains how rest of replacement schedule was set for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – Jeff Gordon had a “Welcome to Darlington Raceway” moment in Southern 500 practice Saturday, but this wasn’t the rude awakening the track has delivered to many NASCAR newcomers.

For the seven-time winner at the 1.366-mile oval (twice as many victories as any active driver), this was more surreal daydream than shock to the system.

“I had something happen to me today that’s never happened in my whole career,” Gordon said with a smile after the final Sprint Cup practice. “I’m out there running laps, and I had a moment where I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m out here at Darlington. What in the world am I doing here at Darlington?’

“But it was a cool moment. I was excited about it. So things are going well. I’m having fun here.”

Sunday’s race will mark the fifth for Gordon (who was 14th fastest in both rescheduled practices Saturday) in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is out for the rest of the season while recovering from a concussion. Hendrick Motorsports announced Friday the No. 88 Chevrolet will be split for the final 12 races between Alex Bowman and Gordon.

The four-time series champion will race Earnhardt’s car in the next two races at Darlington and Richmond International Raceway before turning the car over to Bowman for eight of the last 10 races. Gordon will race again at Dover International Speedway and Martinsville Speedway – tracks where he has combined for 14 victories.

Though the schedule lines up well with his strengths, Gordon said it wasn’t solely set by his preference. Bowman will race New Hampshire Motor Speedway because he already filled in for Earnhardt there in July. Because of schedule conflicts, Gordon can’t race at some 1.5-mile tracks, so it made more sense to keep Bowman at all of them.

“It’d be best for the team for him to be in all of those,” Gordon said. “We know he’s a talented driver, too, and want to see what he’s capable of doing. He does a lot of work in the simulator for us. Matching up actual race data and conditions to the simulator helps us develop the simulator, too.”

Making the schedule was a collaborative effort involving input from multiple sources.

“It’s a combination of what’s best for the team, what’s best for the sponsors and sort of Junior’s wishes as well,” Gordon said. “He’s big on Alex Bowman, and the team has really enjoyed having him in the car. We want to make sure our sponsors are getting everything out of it as well. They do a lot for us.

“So if I can help them on or off the track, or Junior do the same thing when he’s not in the car. And then Alex, the same thing. Everyone has enjoyed having him in the car. I was just happy to do whatever they wanted me to do, but when we knew this was coming, we sat down and looked at the tracks and thought about what was best for everybody.”

Earnhardt’s misfortune will give Gordon a chance to defend his Nov. 1, 2015 victory at Martinsville that seemed the last of his career after his 2015 retirement.

“When you leave there as a winner, you kind of don’t want to mess that up, but it’s also a track that I like a lot, and I feel confident at,” he said. “Depending on how this all goes with owner points, I’m hoping that we can be in a similar position to what we were last year from an owners point standpoint and go do something special there.”

Earnhardt’s car currently is eligible for the owners championship in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. If the car qualifies and advances to the third round, a repeat win at Martinsville would advance the car to the championship.

Gordon is a nine-time winner at the 0.526-mile oval, which he had singled out for potential one-off starts in retirement.

Could he win?

“I don’t see why we couldn’t,” he said. “It’s not about aerodynamics as much. I think our power is really good. We won there last year, and I don’t think a lot has changed other than less spoiler and splitter.

“The question is were we the best car there at that time? (Joey) Logano was pretty good. I felt I had something for him on the long run, but we didn’t know. So to me, I think we’ve got to be a little better than we were last year if we’re going to win this year.”

That would be a boost to a No. 88 crew that has weathered uncertainty for nearly two months.

“This team cares about Junior so much,” Gordon said. “They love him. They want him back. They’re handling it amazing. They really are.

“They’re in a really tough situation because not only is Junior not coming back this year, but they’ve got two different drivers they’ve got to work with, but they’ve handled it amazing. Their demeanor and attitude about it has been phenomenal. It’s really been a great experience for me, because I’ve spent so much time with the No. 24 team over the last 23 years, that going into the shop of the (Nos.) 48-88 guys, spending time with (crew chief) Greg (Ives), it’s been great for my new role at Hendrick. It’s allowed me to bond with those guys as well as the bond I have with my guys and see kind of how the teams work separately and together.”

 

Austin Theriault not medically cleared by NASCAR to race at Kansas

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Austin Theriault announced Thursday morning he has not been medically cleared by NASCAR to compete in this weekend’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway after his involvement in a wreck in Monday’s race at Talladega.

Theriault, 25, competes for Rick Ware Racing and was set to drive its No. 52 Chevrolet this weekend. Theriault said Garrett Smithley will take his place.

A NASCAR spokesperson said its policy is to not discuss a competitor’s medical information.

A spokesperson for Rick Ware Racing told NBC Sports all info on Theriault would be released by the driver on social media or by NASCAR. The team said “we expect to have Austin back in the car very soon.”

The native of Fort Kent, Maine, has missed races due to medical issues before.

In 2015, while racing part-time for Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series, he suffered a 10% compression fracture in his back in a wreck at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after his HANS device broke.

Theriault missed several races before returning in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Since 2015 he has made five Cup starts, three Xfinity starts and four Truck Series starts.

Updated entry lists for Kansas Speedway’s playoff weekend

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The NASCAR playoffs continue this weekend with the second visit of the year to Kansas Speedway.

The Cup Series holds its second elimination race as the playoff field will be cut to eight drivers.

After a week off, the Xfinity Series will open its second playoff round.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for both races.

Cup – Hollywood Casino 400 (2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)

There are 40 cars entered.

Parker Kligerman is entered in Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 Toyota.

Reed Sorenson is listed for Premium Motorsports’ No. 27 Chevrolet.

Austin Theriault  was originally entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 52 car. Theriault announced Thursday morning he had not been cleared by NASCAR to compete Saturday following his wreck in Monday’s Cup race at Talladega and that Garrett Smithley would take his place.

Chase Elliott won this race last year over Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson. Brad Keselowski won the May race over Alex Bowman and Erik Jones.

Click here for the updated entry list.

Xfinity – Kansas Lottery 300 (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC)

There are 39 entries.

Ryan Truex is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Ross Chastain is entered in Kaulig Racing’s No. 10 Chevrolet. It’ll be his fifth start with the team this season.

Harrison Burton is entered in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota for the seventh time this season.

Bobby Earnhardt, the oldest son of Kerry Earnhardt, is entered in MBM Motorsports’ No. 66 Toyota. It will be his fifth career start and first since the Texas playoff race last year.

Joe Nemechek is now entered in Mike Harmon Racing’s No. 74 Chevrolet

Dillon Bassett is now entered in DGM Racing’s No. 92 Chevrolet

John Hunter Nemechek won this race last year over Daniel Hemric and Elliott Sadler.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Harrison Burton to drive Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Xfinity car full-time next year

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Harrison Burton will drive Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Xfinity car full-time in 2020, the team announced Thursday morning.

Burton, the son of NBC Sports analysts Jeff Burton, will succeed Christopher Bell in the No. 20.

Burton competes full-time in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He is set to make his seventh start in JGR’s No. 18 Xfinity car this Saturday at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Next year is going to be a really cool opportunity for me because I grew up watching my dad race in the Xfinity Series, Burton said in a press release. “Making my first start at Bristol this year was really surreal. I remember being a little kid and watching (Jeff Burton) race there and now, I will have the opportunity to compete for the Xfinity Series championship next year.

“On top of that I’ve got Dex Imaging continuing their support of me for a majority of races next season. That’s really cool because I’ve had them as a sponsor since I was 13 and to bring them from pro-late models all the way to the Xfinity Series is pretty wild. I want to finish this season strong, but I’m excited to get 2020 started. My time with JGR this season will really help me because I’ve already gotten to know so many people there and it’s such a great team and organization. They have a long history of helping to develop drivers and this is big for the next step in my career.”

In his six Xfinity starts, Burton has three top 10s and a best finish of fourth at Iowa Speedway.

In 35 Truck Series starts since 2016, Burton has 11 top fives and 17 top-10 finishes. This year he has seven top fives and 10 top 10s. He and teammate Todd Gilliland both failed to make the playoffs.

“As Harrison (Burton) moves up to the next level of his career, we’re happy to have him join JGR fulltime and go behind the wheel of the No. 20 Supra,” said Steve DeSouza, Executive Vice President of Xfinity Series and Development for Joe Gibbs Racing in a press release. “Harrison has continued to show progress this season in his limited starts and I know that will only continue to develop with more seat time while contending for the Xfinity Series championship.”

The crew chief for the No. 20 will be announced at a later time.

JTG Daugherty Racing’s No. 47 hauler experiences fire on way to Kansas

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JTG Daugherty Racing announced on social media Thursday morning that the hauler for Ryan Preece‘s No. 47 Chevrolet experienced a fire on its way to Kansas Speedway for this weekend’s Cup race.

In a statement, team owner Tad Geschickter said both its hauler drivers were “okay.”

He said the team is “assessing the damage to our trailer and race cars and will have more information as it becomes available.”

More: Kaulig Racing hauler involved in accident on way to Kansas