Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s greatest moments at Daytona International Speedway

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Triumph and transcendence. Tragedy and tumult.

Daytona International Speedway has been a training ground for life in many ways for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has enjoyed many of his greatest success in NASCAR, and his greatest personal loss, at the 2.5-mile track.

After his seven-time champion father was killed in a last-lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt won in the Cup circuit’s next trip to Daytona less than five months later. It was the first of 17 victories that the Hendrick Motorsports driver has scored at the World Center of Racing, which has become inextricably linked to his family’s legacy. Earnhardt’s father is the winningest driver in Daytona history with 34 victories (including Cup, Xfinity, qualifiers and exhibition races, though it was an agonizing 20-year wait to win his first and only Daytona 500 in 1998).

“It makes me feel like I come from a better breed than most of the guys I’m racing against,” Earnhardt Jr. said about his lineage at Daytona after a 2003 victory in The Clash exhibition race. “I watched (his father) real close. I learned a lot about how to drive race cars by watching him, and I was probably watching more than he knew or anybody knew. I had a lot of practice just trying to think about, ‘Man, how did he lose that race or how did he win that race and why did the car do that?’ I’m running into all these situations and understanding certain things that I’ve seen over the years. He was really, really good at running at this track.”

So is Earnhardt Jr., and NBCSN will celebrate perhaps his greatest moment at Daytona ahead of his final start at the track as a full-time driver.

The second annual #NASCARThrowback special will feature Earnhardt’s 2004 Daytona 500 victory at 7 p.m. today on NBCSN. The interactive watch party, hosted by Dale Jarrett, Parker Kligerman and Carolyn Manno, will allow viewers to interact with drivers and NASCAR on NBC broadcasters on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the #NASCARThrowback.

Here are the greatest triumphs at Daytona for Earnhardt, who is retiring from Cup after 2017:

  1. Daytona 500, Feb. 15, 2004: Exactly six years after his father’s only victory in the Great American Race, Earnhardt won the race in his fifth attempt.He interrupted his postrace interview to take a call from President George W. Bush, who landed in Air Force One on a runway just behind the backstretch shortly before the race and gave the command to start engines. The race also signified the debut of new title sponsor Nextel and the dawn of NASCAR’s playoff era. All of it – even the president’s visit – was overshadowed by the winner, who passed Tony Stewart for the lead with 20 laps left. “Good God, I can’t believe it,” Earnhardt said. “This has got to be the greatest day of my life.”
  2. Coke Zero 400, July 7, 2001: In the first Cup race at Daytona after his father perished in Turn 4, Earnhardt Jr. drives from sixth to first in one lap on a restart with six laps left, celebrating with donuts in the infield and a memorable rooftop hug from Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip. Recalling the win in a 2015 interview with Steve Letarte (video below), Earnhardt talked about driving to the scene of his father’s fatal crash a few days ahead of the race and walking around “just seeing how I would feel. I don’t want to fall apart in front of all my guys. It was good. Dad loved this place, and I’m still at peace with this place and still love being here. Looking forward to racing many more years.”
  1. Daytona 500, Feb. 23, 2014: It was easy to lose track of how many significant developments emerged from Earnhardt’s second Daytona 500 victory (achieving something his late father never did). There was the end of a nearly two-year winless streak, the automatic qualification for the revamped championship playoff and the spontaneous decision to join Twitter in the wee hours after a frenetic race that took nearly 10 hours to complete because of a six-hour rain delay. “We’re going for the jugular this year,” he said, presaging a season in which he would score his highest victory total in 10 years.
  2. Xfinity race, July 2, 2010: After years of speculation over whether he ever would run his father’s iconic number, Earnhardt put the entire debate to bed with a magically sentimental performance. Driving a No. 3 Chevrolet with a blue and yellow Wrangler throwback paint scheme for JR Motorsports, Earnhardt led the final 34 laps and then declared that was his final ride with the number, which he also took to victory lane in 2002 at Daytona with a Richard Childress Racing car and ran from 1998-99 in Xfinity for Dale Earnhardt Inc. “I don’t ever want to do it again and I won’t ever change my mind,” Earnhardt Jr. said. 
  3. Xfinity race, Feb. 16 2004: The bookend to his greatest victory at Daytona. Roughly three hours after his winning Daytona 500 car was enshrined, Earnhardt started a postponed Xfinity race on five hours’ sleep and scored a dominant victory that capped a Speedweeks tripleheader of victories (he also won a qualifier). It was Earnhardt’s ninth win at the 2.5-mile oval in three years. “I feel like you can compare me to (his father) today, we’ve done so much over the last three years,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “All the wins I’ve got come from either the confidence of being an Earnhardt when you pull out on the track and just knowing what your dad accomplished and feeling like you might have that down inside you as well.”

NASCAR Penalty report from Michigan

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The NASCAR penalty report from Michigan International Speedway has been released.

It includes two fines for unsecured lug nuts. Chad Knaus, crew chief for William Byron‘s No. 24 Chevrolet, and Chris Gabehart, crew chief on Denny Hamlin‘s No. 11 Toyota, have each been fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut during the course of the weekend.

The report also includes the penalties issued Saturday to Roush Fenway Racing for the improper spoilers used on both Ryan Newman and Chris Buescher‘s cars.

Brendan Gaughan set for Daytona road course after COVID-19 recovery

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On July 15, part-time Cup Series driver Brendan Gaughan became the second NASCAR driver to announce he’d tested positive for COVID-19.

After quarantining for two weeks and testing negative for COVID-19 twice more than 24 hours apart, Gaughan has been medically cleared to go racing again.

And he won’t even have to wait until the Cup Series regular-season finale on Aug. 29 to do it.

Originally scheduled to only compete in the season’s four superspeedway races with Beard Motorsports, Gaughan will suit up to drive the No. 62 Chevrolet in Sunday’s race on the Daytona road course (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

He joins Jimmie Johnson in having tested positive for COVID-19 and returned to race. While Gaughan last competed in the June 22 race at Talladega, Johnson only missed the Brickyard 400 before returning to the track.

“I feel fantastic,” Gaughan said in a press release. “I’m finally out of the house. The toughest part of the whole ordeal was the mental aspect. I truly feel for people who struggle with depression and have to deal with COVID-19, because this thing is tough. You literally get stuck in a location by yourself. Fortunately for me, I had my puppy. I missed my two children tremendously. But it’s amazing now because we live in the age of the Jetsons that we can pick up a phone and look at their faces.”

To get clearance to race, Gaughan tested twice for COVID-19 in more than 24 hours and also had to get a doctor’s note saying he was good to go.

“That was it,” Gaughan said. “As long as I’m negative, they are good with it. They still have their protocols in place, so when we get to the track we are all still separated. The drivers don’t get to mingle with the teams right now. NASCAR has done a phenomenal job with it and they have been able to stay open for business while having very, very minor effects from this.”

While he was originally just going to race at Talladega and the Daytona oval, Gaughan says this weekend’s road course race “technically counts.”

“We said all of the Daytona races,” Gaughan said. “What happened is that as soon as it got added to the schedule immediately my mind went, ‘Wow, I would love to race the Daytona road course.’ There’s very few of us Cup drivers that have experience on that race course. And with no practice and no qualifying, that gives about 10 of us a very large advantage over the field.”

Brendan Gaughan
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Gaughan competed on the road course and earned a class victory in the 2011 Rolex 24 at Daytona, with his team beating second place by a full lap. He’s ran in the Rolex 24 twice since, finishing third in 2016 in the Prototype Challenge class and 14th in 2018 in the Prototype division.

“I was immediately enticed by it,” Gaughan said of the road course race. “Then you know how much I always speak so highly of Richard Childress Racing. Richard called and said, ‘Hey, come on man, you know you want to do it,’ and I kind of chuckled because everyone knows I love my road racing. I talked to the Beard family and said, ‘Hey, you want to add a race to the schedule?’ It wasn’t in the budget. It wasn’t planned originally, but the Beards were on board.

“They are in the same boat as me. This is a retirement year like me and they are having the same fun I am. They went, ‘Ooohh, we can do well there.’ So we called Richard up and he built me a brand new Beard Oil Distributing/South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet Camaro from RCR that we were able to rent for Beard Motorsports to go race.”

Gaughan, who will start last in the race due his lack of owner points, dissected how different it will be navigating the road course in Cup compared to the sports car he drove the last time he raced on it.

“I need to remember that the last time I raced there in an LMP car, I could lift at the ‘1’ sign going into the chicane on the back straightaway,” Gaughan said. “Now if I lift at the ‘1’ in a Cup car, I will end up at the airport. So I need to remember that I’m going to need a little more braking zone room. But you basically already know the line and you know where you want to be. You know the feel of the place.

“You know where some passing zones are. You kind of know how to run that race, which is the big advantage that comes with it. Having a car built from Richard Childress means that I don’t have to worry that it’s going to have parts and pieces that aren’t any good. And I still have Darren Shaw, my crew chief, who I’ve been working with at Beard Motorsports. We’ve still got our guys working it and our guys doing it, so I kind of have the best of all worlds here. And there is an advantage for people that have been there. I also gave myself a little bit of an insurance policy. I offered to sponsor Andy Lally in the Xfinity race. To me, Andy Lally is the premier sports-car racer in America.

“I don’t think anybody can argue that there is anybody better than Andy Lally. So, I offered to sponsor Andy because he’s racing Saturday. I told him he has to stay over Sunday and do some driver coaching and give me his notes. Not only do I have experience on the track, I will have notes from a stock car on the track from the day before.”

Christopher Bell: ‘Pretty scared’ about future before re-joining JGR

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Early last week, Christopher Bell was “pretty scared” about his NASCAR future after Leavine Family Racing, the Toyota-backed team the rookie driver competes for in the Cup Series, announced it would sell its assets to Spire Motorsports.

That left Bell’s relationship with Toyota, the manufacturer that’s been the “centerpiece” of his racing career since 2013 and 2015 in NASCAR, up in the air.

“I’ve said it time and time again, but Toyota has been my – they’re the ones that got me here,” Bell said Tuesday in a press conference. “They’re the ones that took me from dirt track racing to pavement racing to Truck (Series) racing to Xfinity racing and then obviously made this deal happen with LFR too. At the time, it’s either the 20 car (at Joe Gibbs Racing) or I’m done with Toyota. There’s no other options. It was very scary. I didn’t want that to end.”

Bell acknowledged that despite his 2017 Truck Series title, his seven Truck wins and 16 Xfinity wins, a lack of sponsorship backing didn’t make him the most valuable hire for another team.

“The sponsorship piece is a huge part of it,” Bell said. “It’s no secret, you have to have sponsors in order to succeed in this sport and I’ve been really fortunate to have Rheem with me for the last couple of years. If I get pushed out of the Toyota group, I don’t really have much to say, ‘hire me.’”

Bell said, “I knew that once LFR shut down, there was only one place for me to go and the 20 car has obviously got a great driver in there right now.”

That driver was Erik Jones, who has been with Joe Gibbs Racing in Cup full-time since 2018 and been a Toyota driver in NASCAR since 2013 in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

“‘How is that going to work?'” Bell asked himself. “‘How am I going to be able to go to JGR whenever they’re full?’ Unfortunately my homecoming so to speak was at the expense of another driver.”

Two days after LFR’s announcement, Joe Gibbs Racing revealed Jones would not return to the team in 2021, a move that “blindsided” Jones.

On Monday, JGR announced Bell’s ascent up the ranks would finally land him in the No. 20 next season.

“It was very, I mean, uncomfortable is a good way to put it,” Bell said. “I don’t think any of us – myself, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota – none of us expected the whole LFR deal to go down like it did, so I think that put everybody in a little bit of a box. … I’m extremely grateful that I get to continue that relationship and that I get to continue to drive Camrys on Sundays and race with TRD for hopefully a long time to come.”

How does Bell see his relationship with Jones playing out over the final 14 races of the season?

“As far as me versus him, that situation is already done, so I don’t know how he’s going to race me going forward,” Bell said. “I’m going to be cheering for Erik, just as everybody is at Joe Gibbs Racing, just hoping that he gets a nice solid deal and lands on his feet. I’ll be cheering for him and trying to race him with as much respect as I can, just like every other competitor. I hope he performs well, and obviously, the better he performs now in the 20 car, the better off I’ll be at the start of the year with the owner points standings. It’s really important that he does well this year in the 20 car for my future next year as well.”

Bell observed that it’s “absolutely crazy” to look back at his career path, which began in UASC Midgets and has led to him driving a “house” Toyota Cup car at JGR next year.

Going into 2021, Bell said he still has a “great relationship” with the people at JGR from his time there in the Xfinity Series.

“Whenever I was on the Xfinity side, I still got to mingle and interact with the Cup shop a little bit, so I have a rough idea how everything operates there,” Bell said. “I got in a little bit deeper with the LFR deal, and having that technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, but it’s going to be very nice to be able to go back home.”

Spire Motorsports confirms purchase of Leavine Family Racing

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Spire Motorsports confirmed Tuesday that it will acquire the assets from Leavine Family Racing upon the completion of the 2020 season. Spire Motorsports also will expand to a two-car team in the Cup Series in 2021.

The purchase will include LFR’s charter, the team’s race shop near Charlotte Motor Speedway and all of its owned inventory. LFR’s fleet of cars and chassis will be returned to Joe Gibbs Racing.

Spire, which began competing in 2019 after it purchased Furniture Row Motorsports’ charter, fields the No. 77 Chevrolet. It has made 58 starts for more than a dozen drivers since last year, including an upset win in the July 2019 race at Daytona with Justin Haley behind the wheel.

The team is co-owned by Jeff Dickerson and Thaddeus “T.J.” Puchyr.

“This is an exciting moment for Spire as we take the natural next step in our long-term plan to build our race team and prepare for the Next Gen car in 2022,” said Dickerson in a press release. “Bob Leavine invested more than money into LFR and this industry. He built a team brick-by-brick and we have long admired how he took his own steps in the garage. He also did it with his family at his side. We won’t let that be lost in this transaction. When you build something with your family, it always means a little bit more. His ability to connect with fans was genuine and we are thankful he chose us to carry this team forward.

“These are no doubt trying times, but I have never been prouder to be part of this sport. NASCAR has managed several difficult situations this spring and into the summer. We believe in the ownership model that NASCAR has built and where this sport is going now more than ever.”

The team said details about drivers and manufacturers for 2021 will come later.