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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Cup season could lead to greater ticket sales

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement Tuesday that he will retire from the NASCAR Cup Series after this season could help minimize attendance declines that have become common at tracks.

Asked about the impact Earnhardt could have in the final 28 races of the season, Marcus Smith, chief executive officer and president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., likened Earnhardt to another famous athlete.

“Dale Jr.’s announcement yesterday is significant, it’s similar to when Michael Jordan decided it was time for him to retire from basketball,’’ Smith said Wednesday in a conference call with investor analysts. “The opportunity for fans to see Dale Jr. race one more time is certainly special and something we expect will be inspiring to a lot of fans to come to races.’’

Speedway Motorsports Inc. reported that admissions revenue was down 4.5 percent in the first quarter this year compared to the same time last season. The first quarter covered race weekends for Atlanta and Las Vegas. SMI reported that attendance at Atlanta was “up a little bit” and attendance at Las Vegas was “down a little bit” but did not provide numbers.

Earnhardt will be the fourth major NASCAR driver to leave the Cup series since last year Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart ran their final races last season. Carl Edwards announced before the season that he would not race this year.

International Speedway Corp., which owns tracks such as Daytona, Talladega, Darlington and Homestead-Miami Speedway, cited the absence of Gordon, Stewart and Earnhardt (when he missed the last 18 races of last year) as impacting admission revenue last season.

ISC reported its fourth-quarter admissions revenue was down 9.3 percent last year from the previous season. The company hosted Cup races at Darlington, Richmond, Chicagoland, Kansas, Talladega, Martinsville, Phoenix and Homestead during that quarter.

“The impact of Jeff Gordon’s retirement was underestimated, which was compounded with Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. missing races throughout the season,’’ said John Saunders, ISC president, in January about one of the reasons for the decline.

Earnhardt’s announcement that this will be his last Cup series already has some fans purchasing or looking to purchase tickets.

Richmond International Raceway reported an increase in interest for this weekend’s race after Earnhardt’s announcement. Richmond also is selling tickets to its fall race weekend. Earnhardt is scheduled to compete in both the Xfinity and Cup races there Sept. 8-9.

The series heads to Talladega next weekend and Grant Lynch, chairman of Talladega Superspeedway, anticipates more Earnhardt fans showing up.

“If you’re going to go see him one more time, why wouldn’t you go to the track where he runs the best,’’ Lynch said. “We think that’s the a positive for Talladega. He’s always been great at Talladega. It’s an Earnhardt track. I hope folks will take the attitude that ‘Wow, I’ll get two more chances to see him,’ see him next weekend and come see us again in October.’’

The greatest demands for tickets likely will come for races at the end of the season.

Earnhardt’s final Cup race will be Nov. 19 at Homestead. The track is selling three-day weekend packages. Deposits for single-day tickets, which go on sale May 5, are being taken. That race sold out last year.

The week before Homestead, the series races at Phoenix Raceway. The track is in the renewal process for the Nov. 12 race with fall race ticket holders. The track is selling tickets to its new Club 64 section above Turn 1 now. Grandstand tickets and camping go on sale June 2.

The week before Phoenix, the series races at Texas Motor Speedway. The track is selling weekend ticket packages only at this point. The track will sell individual tickets to its fall Cup race in June. A date has yet to be determined but it will come after the June 10 IndyCar race there.

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Preliminary entry lists for Sonoma, Gateway

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This weekend sees the NASCAR Cup and Camping World Truck Series in action, with Cup competing at Sonoma Raceway in California and the Trucks at Gateway Motorsports Park just outside St. Louis.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for both races.

Cup – Toyota/Save Mart 350

There are 39 entries.

Trevor Bayne will make his first start in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford since the May 6 race at Dover.

Tomy Drissi is entered in StarCom Racing’s No. 00 Chevrolet. It will be his fifth career Cup start and his fourth at Sonoma.

NBC Sports analyst Parker Kligerman will make his second start this season in Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 Toyota.

Last year, Kevin Harvick won this race over Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski for his first Cup win at Sonoma.

Click here for the entry list.

Trucks – Villa Lighting delivers the Eaton 200

There are 34 entries for the race.

There is no driver attached to the No. 50 Chevrolet for Beaver Motorsports.

John Hunter Nemechek won this race last year over Chase Briscoe and Johnny Sauter for his second win in a row.

Click here for the entry list.

Road course racing about being ‘accurate’, ‘smooth’ and not breaking anything

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For the first time this season, the Cup Series will have to turn left and right this weekend.

The circuit heads to the West Coast, where the 12-turn, 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway awaits.

After 15 races on ovals of varying designs, drivers will have to brush up on skills they mastered in other racing disciplines or skills they’re just now developing.

“My focus when I go to road courses is to not wheel hop, not spin out, not break anything,” Kyle Larson told NBC Sports. “But I seem to always do those things when I go there.”

Larson has only one top-10 finish (fourth at Watkins Glen in 2014) in four starts at each track.

“I never had any road course experience growing up, you know?” Larson said. “All my stuff was on dirt tracks and ovals, which was totally opposite, but in a way, those stock cars on a road course feel more similar to a sprint car on a dirt track to me than anything. … I feel like at road courses I can kind of feel the car a little bit better. I always qualify well at them. I don’t really race great for whatever reason.”

How do drivers get themselves in the mindset to turn right for the first time in a season?

Thanks to limits on testing, teams can use simulators and road course schools to give their drivers a boost.

That helps drivers like Bubba Wallace, who will make his Sonoma debut this weekend, and Alex Bowman, who makes his first road course start of any kind in Cup since 2015.

“I want to do everything I possibly can,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “So simulator, road course school, whatever I can get my hands on to be better.”

Bowman’s start will also come in an appropriate car.

“I’m excited to go road racing in a Hendricks Motorsports car,” Bowman said. “It’s going to be different. Last time I went road racing (with Tommy Baldwin Racing) we raced a superspeedway car. So it should be quite a bit of fun. A little bit more fun than that was.”

Wallace last competed on a road course in 2016 in the Xfinity Series at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio.

“I think the simulator will do,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “The simulator is good for putting the corners together. It is so hard to translate speed from a simulator, but then when we go to the actual road course for driving school the cars aren’t the same, the speeds aren’t the same so that is kind of tough as well.”

Fellow rookie William Byron will also make his first Cup start on a road course. In his championship campaign last season in Xfinity, Byron had finishes of 10th (Watkins Glen), 25th (wreck at Mid-Ohio) and sixth (Road America).

“I think road courses, you just try to be as accurate as you can,” Byron told NBC Sports. “It’s obviously a different skill set than it takes for an oval. So you have to adapt, and kind of grow your style at those places, but you don’t get to do it a lot. So I think the biggest thing there is being able to get through the gears and downshifts and everything successfully.”

What about veteran drivers who have already experienced the twist and turns and elevation changes at Sonoma?

Daniel Suarez, who will make his second Sonoma start in Cup, relies on his experiences from racing go-karts.

“One of the main things for me to think about was to be smooth and slow to actually (being) fast on the clock,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “That’s something very important. Sometimes you want to rush everything and to try to make things happen very quick and that’s when the car can do many things at the same time so you have to be smooth, aggressive, but everything at the right time so you can make some speed.”
Suarez and Bowman will get a little more track time this weekend. In addition to Aric Almirola and Erik Jones, they are entered into the K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma. Suarez competed in the race last year.

After Sonoma, Cup will race at Watkins Glen on Aug. 5 and then it will hold its inaugural race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course on Sept. 30.

But three road courses isn’t enough for Wood Brothers Racing’s Paul Menard, who has one top five at Sonoma and an Xfinity win at Road America.

“I don’t think we have enough of them on our schedule,” Menard told NBC Sports. “The whole thing with road racing is you … have these braking zones and you have these points and you always try to push it to get a little bit more in a braking zone, try to get back to the gas sooner all the while trying to be smooth so you are not abusing your tires, your brakes, your transmission.

“It definitely puts it in the driver’s hands a little bit more which is cool for us.”

Results, Xfinity point standings after Iowa

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Justin Allgaier had a career day, leading 182 laps and sweeping all three stages in his win at Iowa Speedway.

The JR Motorsports driver claimed his seventh career Xfinity win.

Allgaier was followed by Christopher Bell, Daniel Hemric, Cole Custer and Brandon Jones.

Click here for results.

Points

After his second straight finish of 28th or worse, Elliott Sadler‘s point lead after 14 races is down to a four-point advantage over Custer.

The top five is completed by Hemric (-7 points), Tyler Reddick (-31) and Bell (-3).

After his win Sunday, Allgaier is sixth in the standings, 51 points back from his JR Motorsports teammate.

Click here for the full standings.

Justin Allgaier dominates in Xfinity win at Iowa Speedway

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Justin Allgaier fended off Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell to win Sunday’s Xfinity Series race at Iowa Speedway.

Allgaier held Bell and the rest of the field at bay in a 12-lap shootout to capture his second win of the year.

The top five was completed by Daniel Hemric, Cole Custer and Brandon Jones.

Allgaier led a career-high 182 laps and swept every stage.

“We had a great car today, these guys did a fantastic job,” Allgaier told Fox Sports 1.

The JR Motorsports driver took the lead for the first time with two laps to go in Stage 1 when he passed pole-sitter Austin Cindric.

The win qualifies Allgaier for the playoffs. His first win at Dover was disqualified toward playoff contention after his car failed post-race inspection.

Bell placed second after starting from the rear. His car failed to get through qualifying inspection, resulting in him not making a qualifying attempt.

“Man, I just needed to be in front of (Allgaier)” Bell told FS1. “It was really good on the bottom in both corners. I just didn’t have enough to clear him.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

STAGE 2 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

MORE: Race results, point standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Christopher Bell earned his fourth top-two finish of the season … Daniel Hemric claimed his fourth top-three finish in the last five races … Riley Herbst placed sixth in his series debut … Justin Haley placed 12th in his debut … Kaz Grala placed 10th for his second top 10 in four starts for Fury Race Cars … Ty Majeski finished seventh, giving Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 60 team its first top 10 of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: Elliott Sadler cut a tire and got into the wall late in Stage 1. He finished 28th for his second straight finish outside the top 25. He had finished in the top 10 in the first 12 races … Brandon Hightower wrecked with 17 laps to go to set up the final restart. He finished 30th.

WHAT’S NEXT: Overton’s 300 at Chicagoland Speedway at 3:30 p.m. ET on June 30 on NBCSN