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Kevin Harvick: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lack of success played ‘big part’ in stunted ‘growth of NASCAR’

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Kevin Harvick believes the popularity of 14-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has played “a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR” in recent years.

Harvick’s comments came Tuesday night on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” when the topic of fan attendance during Earnhardt’s farewell season was raised.

“I’ve been totally shocked by the vibe of Dale’s last year,” Harvick said. “I really thought it was going to be tons of fans showing up to the race track, buying crazy amounts of souvenirs and the souvenir sales aren’t up for the sales that he has in his last year so far. The crowds really haven’t changed. In my opinion, it’s been from his lack of performance. He hasn’t performed well in the race car.”

Earnhardt has failed to finish better than 12th in the last six races. Through 22 races he has only one top five (Texas). He also has nine finishes of 30th or worse.

But it’s Earnhardt’s overall record that drove Harvick’s comments about the health of the sport.

“It’s a funny situation when you talk about his last year and what you thought it would be,” Harvick said. “It’s the strangest situation that we have. In my opinion, this is where I think some of the growth in our sport has not reached the levels that it should’ve because our most popular driver hasn’t been our most successful driver. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the most popular driver (award) for however many years (14) in a row … But he hasn’t been anywhere close to being our most successful driver.”

Earnhardt’s reign as NASCAR’s most popular driver began in 2003, a season after Bill Elliott won the award for the 16th and final time. In Earnhardt’s Cup career, he has 26 wins and no championships. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, he has nine wins but none since 2015.

Harvick believes the popularity of an athlete should be directly tied to their success, citing LeBron James and Steph Curry in the NBA and Peyton Manning in the NFL. Harvick said it is “confusing” how that doesn’t seem to matter in NASCAR.

“(Earnhardt) hasn’t been anywhere close to being our most successful driver,” Harvick said. “For me I believe Dale Jr. has had a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans, this huge outreach of being able to reach these places none of us have the possibility to reach. But he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that. I know those aren’t the most popular comments but those are real life facts that you look up and see on the stat sheet.”

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver said Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt’s teammate who has won seven championships, should be the most popular driver.

“It’s really confusing to me,” Harvick said. “In my opinion Jimmie Johnson should be our most popular guy because he’s won seven championships. You look at the souvenir sheet every week and he’s (ranked) three, four, five coming off a championship year of what he sells in souvenirs. That part to me is a little bit confusing.”

While Harvick said Earnhardt “deserves that fanfare” he is receiving in his final Cup season, he followed that up by saying: “Imagine how popular he would be if he had won two or three championships?

“His dad was popular because he became Dale Earnhardt because of the fact he won seven championships and he was out there grinding every week. That hasn’t happened.”

Dale Earnhardt Sr. only won Most Popular Driver once, in 2001 after he was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Elliott’s 16 Most Popular Awards came despite only one championship but 44 wins in his Cup career. Only four of those wins came in his last nine seasons as a full-time driver.

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Tonight’s Cup race at Bristol: EARLIER start time, lineup and more

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NASCAR has moved up the start of Saturday night’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway by an hour because of inclement weather.

Here is the key info for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Johnny Morris, Bill Dance and Dale Hall will give the command to start engines at 6:40 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 6:46 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the 0.533-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.

PRERACE SCHEDULE: Garage opens at 10 a.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 4:30 p.m. Driver introductions are at 5:50 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: The Motor Racing Outreach children’s choir will perform the anthem at 6:31 p.m.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will broadcast the race beginning at 5 p.m. with NASCAR America and Countdown to Green starting at 6 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 6 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will have PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for scattered thunderstorms with a high of 79 degrees and a 48 percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST YEAR: Kyle Busch snatched the lead from pole-sitter Erik Jones and led the final 56 laps for the win.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

Results, stats, points after Xfinity Bristol race

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Kyle Larson led 202 of 310 laps and swept every stage on his way to winning the Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

He was followed by Christopher Bell, Justin Allgaier, Cole Custer and Joey Logano.

Larson’s win is his fourth in six Xfinity starts this season.

Click here for full Xfinity results.

Click here for the points standings.

Kyle Larson wins Bristol Xfinity race in overtime

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Kyle Larson held off Christopher Bell and Justin Allgaier in an overtime finish Friday night to win the Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Larson led 202 of 310 laps and swept both stages on the way to his fourth Xfinity win of the season and 12th of his career.

The top five was completed by Cole Custer and Joey Logano.

The win was Larson’s first at Bristol in 18 Cup and Xfinity starts (including six top-five finishes in his previous eight Xfinity races at the track). Larson has won in four of his six starts this year (and didn’t finish the other two).

Larson dominated after pole-sitter Kyle Busch wrecked from first after leading the first 69 laps.

“It feels really good, I just wish Kyle Busch wouldn’t have had his troubles so I could have raced him,” Larson told NBCSN. “It still feels really good to win a race here at Bristol finally. I’ve been close so many times. This is my best track by far, this and Homestead.”

The overtime finish was set up by a Daniel Hemric wreck with two laps to go in the original 300-lap distance.

“We had that yellow there coming to two to go, I was like, ‘Man, again. Again I’m going to lose one here late,” Larson said. “We were able to get an average restart and get the win.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Larson

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Larson

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Justin Allgaier earned his career-best 10th consecutive top 10 … Cole Custer placed fourth for his best Bristol finish in four starts … Michael Annett placed seventh for his first top 10 of the season …  JA Junior Avila placed 20th in his series debut.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Kyle Busch was having a good night until he tagged the wall around Lap 66 while leading. On Lap 70, he lost a tire and got into the wall, causing enough damage to end his night. He finished 36th … Spencer Boyd and Vinnie Miller wrecked to bring out the second caution on Lap 105. Miller caused another caution on Lap 160 … Chase Briscoe was eliminated when he spun and hit the inside wall on Lap 142. He placed 34th.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “I’d love to race him on dirt. I ain’t done much of that. ” – Kyle Larson on Christopher Bell

WHAT’S NEXT: Johnsonville 180 at Road America at 3:30 p.m. ET on Aug. 25 on NBCSN.

Starting lineup for Cup Bristol night race

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Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott will lead the field to the green flag in Saturday night’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway (6:46 p.m. ET).

Larson starts from the pole position for the third time this year.

Kyle Busch, Paul Menard and William Byron rounded out the top five.

Click here for the starting lineup.