Is the lead still the best place to be in final laps at Daytona?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The best place to be in the final laps? It might not be the lead anymore at Daytona International Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., among those who have preferred to lead so he can block the pack, admitted he might have to change his approach after going from first to sixth in the final two laps of his qualifying race Thursday night.

“I thought leading these races might be the place to be,’’ Earnhardt said. “We’re going to have to rethink that after watching how this played out.’’

Three of the last five Cup races run at Daytona International Speedway have seen a pass for the lead in the final two laps, going back to last year’s Daytona 500.

Denny Hamlin got a significant push from Kevin Harvick and charged on the outside on the final lap of last year’s Daytona 500. When Matt Kenseth went to block Hamlin in Turn 3, Hamlin dived shot underneath and nipped Martin Truex Jr. to win.

Last weekend’s Clash saw Joey Logano win after Brad Keselowski made a move under leader Denny Hamlin in Turn 2 and they made contact when Hamlin blocked late. That allowed Logano to scoot by on the outside and win.

Thursday night, Earnhardt led but the outside line made a run that he could not block with less than two laps left.

Earnhardt knew he was in trouble when Austin Dillon, running behind Hamlin, cleared Kyle Larson. Dillon and Larson, battling for third, had been side drafting each other and that stalled both lanes.

“Once (Dillon) got clear (of Larson), you saw him take off,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s just like he’s shot out of a cannon.’’

Although the race didn’t end as Earnhardt hoped, he was pleased with his first race since missing the final 18 races last year because of concussion symptoms.

“I felt great out there,’’ Earnhardt said. “I felt like I was processing everything the way I needed to. I felt like I knew where everybody was at all times around me, even those guys you can’t see. You’ve got to have that kind of sense of understanding where your competition was at all times. I never felt I was behind on my decisions (or) behind on processing what I wanted to do and what I saw happening. Those are really good things. Seems like my brain is working the way I want it to.’’

Earnhardt said one of his favorite parts of Thursday was driver intros.

“The emotional part was probably coming through intros,’’ he said. “I know Jr. Nation is behind me, but it’s awesome when your competitors’ fans are supportive as well. It just felt good. Everybody was happy we’re back and hearing that is really, really nice.’’

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Five defining laps of Cup season, Ray Evernham

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and will look back at the first half of the season.

Krista Voda hosts with Jeff Burton and Kyle Petty from the Big Oak Table in Charlotte.

On today’s show:

·     With NASCAR about to enter its summer stretch, it’s easy to think “Wait, how did we get here?” Throughout today’s show, we’ll examine the five defining laps of the season’s first half and their impact.

·     Father’s Day was on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s mind during the latest Dale Jr. Download podcast. We’ll show you a clip ahead of the Download’s TV debut at 5:30 p.m. ET Thursday. Plus: Get more Dale Jr. tomorrow as he joins the show at the Big Oak Table in Charlotte.

·    One of NASCAR’s most innovative minds is about to take a very unique car on a “Race To The Clouds.” We’ll chat with NASCAR Hall of Famer Ray Evernham as he prepares to run the world-famous Pikes Peak International Hill Climb on Sunday.

·    From rattlesnakes to bears, sometimes the Victory Lane trophy is more dangerous than the race itself. We highlight a few of our favorites in today’s My Home Track.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Indianapolis to add dirt track race to NASCAR weekend

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway plans to build a quarter-mile dirt track inside Turn 3 to run a USAC race to kick off the NASCAR weekend, the track’s president confirmed in reports by Racer and The Indianapolis Star.

The move is being made to connect the NASCAR event, which has seen a steady decline in attendance in the last decade, with race fans.

“The short-track community in a lot of ways is the heart and soul of racing across America,” Doug Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway told The Indianapolis Star. “USAC midget racing, especially in the Midwest, is really strong and competitive, and attracts people like Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Rico Abreu when they have time to come race.

“So for us, we thought, is there away we could connect with that short track guy or gal, who spends their weekend at the local track on Saturday? And we thought this was good way to experiment with connecting with that fan base.”

IMS constructed a 3/16-mile flat dirt track inside Turn 3 in 2016 as a gift to Tony Stewart to celebrate his final Cup start at that track that year. Sarah Fisher and Bryan Clauson, who died from injuries suffered in a crash at the Belleville Midget Nationals about a month later, joined Stewart in running midget cars on that track.

Stewart ran about 20 laps. Even then, he looked ahead to the possibility of a dirt race at the Brickyard.

“If we get to actually watch a race here at IMS on a dirt track, that is going to be pretty awesome,’’ Stewart said that day. “They haven’t been able to do that for the first 100 years, but they can do it for the next 100.’’

The dirt track that IMS plans to construct for the NASCAR weekend will have 60-foot wide straights and 8-degree banking in the corners, according to Racer. The track plans to build bleachers to hold 5,000 fans. IMS began bringing in dirt Tuesday.

The date has yet to be announced for the event but both reports stated it would be the Thursday or Friday before the Sept. 9 Cup race at the track.

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Kyle Petty Charity Ride raises $1.3 million for Victory Junction

Kyle Petty Charity Ride
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This year’s Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America raised $1.3 million for the Victory Junction Gang camp during its 1,200-mile trip from Maine to North Carolina, the charity announced Tuesday.

The camp in Randleman, North Carolina, is devoted to providing life-changing camping experiences for children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses. Donations support maintenance programs, building projects and camperships.

Along with Petty, 225 participants joined the NBC Sports analyst in the drive from Portland, Maine, to Greensboro, North Carolina, that visited nine states in seven days.

The camp has been the primary beneficiary of the charity ride since the camp’s founding in 2004 as a tribute to his late son, Adam, who was killed in a crash during Xfinity Series practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000.

“From lapping the track at New Hampshire (Motor Speedway) to our homecoming at Victory Junction, this year’s Ride was a little bittersweet,” Petty said in a press release. “It was more emotional for me this year than past Rides because we ended at Camp. I’ve said it a million times – when I see a camper, I see Adam in their smile and I know he’s still here with us. And there were campers everywhere as we pulled into Camp.”

Since 1995, more than 8,400 riders have logged more than 12 million cumulative motorcycle miles and raised $19.3 million for Victory Junction and other children’s charities.

Road course domination hard to come by these days – unless you’re one of the ‘Big 3’

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It might be a total coincidence, but the drivers that make up the “Big 3” in Cup competition this season have one thing in common.

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. enter this weekend’s race at Sonoma Raceway as the only active drivers to win at the track in the last five years.

They also are the only active drivers with multiple victories at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen International (the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval makes its debut on Sept. 30).

Busch leads the way with four wins, with two at Sonoma (2008, 2015) and WGI (2008, 2013).

“There are a lot of guys out there who have the road-racing background, who know a heck of a lot more about road racing and technique than we do,” Busch said in a media release. “It’s definitely something you have to work on. With rule changes and tire changes, it’s something you work on every year. There’s always change that you have to work on to be competitive.

“When I was a kid back in Las Vegas in Legends cars, that’s where I was able to learn about shifting and turning left and turning right. I had the natural instincts for it and won a couple of championships in the winter series we had out there. We actually went to Sonoma back then and ran the national championship races two years in a row and finished third both times, so I had a little bit of experience on road courses as I came up through the ranks.”

Truex and Harvick follow Busch with two wins each, but they didn’t join this exclusive club until last year.

Harvick won his first race at Sonoma, 11 years after his lone victory at WGI.

Truex then won at WGI, four years after he claimed his second career Cup win in 2013 at Sonoma.

“I love the challenge of road racing,” Truex said in a media release. “I grew up racing go-karts on road courses (in New Jersey) and fell in love with that quickly. The excitement level definitely goes up a few notches when we compete at a road course.”

Truex led a race-high 25 laps last year at Sonoma before falling out with engine problems.

“Sonoma is more like a short track,” Truex said. “It has a lot of slower speed corners and a lot of elevation changes. The worn out pavement causes tires to wear out fast. It’s almost like Darlington on a road course. You have to be disciplined at Sonoma. One little hiccup can knock you off the course and most likely out of the race.”

Outside the “Big 3” there are seven active drivers who have a single road course win.

Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger have victories at Watkins Glen. Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer have won at Sonoma.

Gone are the days of Jeff Gordon (series-high nine road course wins) and Tony Stewart (eight wins, including five at WGI).

Why is it so hard for drivers to string together consistent success at road courses today? Why have there been nine different winners in the last nine Sonoma races?

Front Row Motorsports’ David Ragan shared his thoughts.

“I think the phrase of ‘just keep all four wheels on the track’ is a little outdated,” Ragan said in a media release. “I think the drivers have gotten so much better. You don’t have as many guys spinning out and making mistakes as we did 10 years ago. I feel like 25 guys are really good when we go to Sonoma. And when you see short track guys, like a Martin Truex or Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch, they’re really good at Sonoma without having that road course background. I just think all the drivers have worked on their road racing skills.”