Exclusive: Dale Earnhardt Jr. evaluates his farewell tour so far, ‘I’ve signed twice as many autographs’

Leave a comment

BRISTOL, Tenn. – In his last Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has varied his line – and not just because of the new bottom-lane grip on the 0.533-mile oval.

When he leaves the track through the Turn 3 tunnel to walk to an adjacent motorhome lot, Earnhardt is making multiple stops along a fence where fans line up for driver autographs.

“Usually on a Bristol weekend, I’d walk that fence once, probably Saturday afternoon,” Earnhardt told NBCSports.com. “But this year we’re walked it every day that we’ve been here, and there’ll be different people there each day because they know that’s where there is a great opportunity to get an autograph.

“Typically if you went through there once, that was good enough for you and your peace of mind individually. But this particular year, we’ll walk it every day, just so that if that makes a bit of an impression. That’s what you want.”

The 14-time most popular driver said he gladly has signed twice as many autographs during his final full-time season in NASCAR’s premier series, which he is marking with an “Appreci88on” campaign that kicked off two months ago.

With among the largest crowds of the season expected for Saturday’s Bristol Night Race, sponsor Mountain Dew has a major trackside presence via the DEW HQ/Outdoors campaign aimed at celebrating Earnhardt’s final season and love of the outdoors. A RideWithJr.com contest also is aiming to put 100,000 fans’ names on Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet for his last Monster Energy Cup Series start at Talladega Superspeedway in October.

Those initiatives, along with the track’s Thursday announcement of establishing an annual automotive scholarship in Earnhardt’s name for a high school student in the Bristol area, are what the Hendrick Motorsports driver deems the spirit of “Appreci88on” – honoring those who have supported him over the past two decades.

“I think that when the tracks are like ‘Man, thanks Dale!’ or they paint (stuff) in the infield … thank me, hell,” Earnhardt said. “Thank the fans. They’re the ones who bought your tickets, not me. I just came and drove and walked around and had fun.

“I really didn’t do a lot of legwork to make this fan base. It’s just being myself, and that came really easy.”

Earnhardt’s last lap around the circuit came under scrutiny recently when Kevin Harvick said on his SiriusXM Satellite Radio show that he was underwhelmed by the “vibe of Dale’s last year” as far as souvenir sales and tickets sold.

How does Earnhardt think the Appreci88n tour has gone?

Here’s what he told NBCSports.com in an interview inside his No. 88 hauler before qualifying Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway:

Q: With some questioning whether your farewell tour had garnered the traction that was anticipated, is it going as you’d hoped?

A: “It’s going as designed. We wanted as little attention on ourselves as possible and as much on the fans as possible. To (Harvick’s) point, I think if we were performing better, yeah, people would be coming out to see us run, cause they feel like, ‘Yeah, if we watch him, he might have a shot to win. I want to see him win.’ So he’s right about that. And I thought he was right about half the stuff he said, some of it was a little bit overboard.

“But our whole angle really wasn’t to put me on a pedestal and say, ‘Hey, it’s the last year! Come get some of this! Bow down!’ It was nothing like that. I’m not very comfortable with that anyway. The level of attention I get, I like to keep that at arm’s length anyway. But we felt like our mission, what would make me comfortable and the right thing to do would be to give the appreciation to who deserves it, and the fans were the obvious answer to me. That, to me, is going as planned.

“I think that half the people out there when they see ‘Appreci88on,’ they don’t really know for who. So we might could have done a little better job sort of spelling it out a little bit better for everyone. But yeah, the appreciation isn’t for me, it’s for Junior Nation.”

Q: How has it made you reflect on the fans you have?

A: “I know that a big chunk of it came with dad. I’ve never disagreed with the fact that my father’s success, his celebrity, certainly opened a ton of doors for me, got me a ton of race fans right out of the gate. And the story of being his son and racing, all that adds to it for sure.

“But I think we did a lot of things in the last 20 years to grow that fan base. Obviously I didn’t have this many fans when Dad died. We got a lot of fans, but we’ve grown it. I hear more people actually follow me who didn’t follow Dad or didn’t even know who Dad was. I don’t know how that happened. I don’t know why that happened. What I keep hearing from people is we’re genuine, honest and our message is always pretty clear and straightforward, relatable, guy you want to have a beer with. So for whatever reason, that’s worked.

“The appreciation, that’s why we went that direction. It’s unorthodox, and the message is a little cloudy because it’s not what people expect. People expect in your final year, you’re going to stand up on a pedestal and wait for everyone to throw flowers at you or something. That’s not really (it). I’ve had enough appreciation for 10 men.”

Q: So your final trip around the circuit was never about collecting rocking chairs and other retirement gifts, in other words?

A: “I can say honestly watching Jeff (Gordon) and Tony (Stewart) go through (their final seasons) helped me sort of go ‘Whoa.’ Because I think watching them go through theirs, they weren’t anticipating any of that stuff. And you’d talk to Jeff, and he’d go, ‘Yeah, I don’t know why I got these horses. I don’t know what to do with these.’ We had those two guys to watch and get prepared on our end that maybe we should go this other angle, and try to safeguard against some of that stuff. Because I don’t need stuff piling up over at the house, pictures and things. It’s nice, and I appreciate the idea behind it.

“But what this track did here and what Sonoma did, those are awesome! I mean, damn! That’s really going to make a difference, or you hope. It has a great chance to do something good for somebody, way better than some photo I’m going to stick on the damn top of my storage that I’m never going to hang anywhere.”

Q: So the criteria or measuring stick for success is different than others who might be looking at T-shirts or tickets sold?

A:”I don’t know how many T-shirts I would have sold had I retired last year, you know? I don’t know whether I agree 100%, and I don’t even know what the numbers are.”

Q: You haven’t looked at how well your stuff has sold this year, right?

A: “Hell no! I don’t even know who to ask. But I’ve heard that there wasn’t a big spike in attendance for Jeff and Tony, and I didn’t ask and it doesn’t matter. It’s not a competition. (Pause) But yeah, 100% if we’d run better, it would have been a lot rosier.”

Q: Is there anything else you can do for fans beyond producing better results?

A: “I haven’t counted, but I think I’ve signed twice as many autographs up to this point in the season than I usually sign, because that’s the theme. If we’re really showing appreciation, let’s spend a couple of more minutes over here and a couple more minutes over there. We’ve got some other ideas. We want to do some things in the offseason.

“Whatever we do, it’s going to be really hard to reach everybody. But we’ve thought about some things that we can do. Like Mark Martin has this fan day (at his dealership in Batesville, Arkansas), and it’s freaking awesome. I was looking at the results from that last year. It’s been going on for a while, and fans love it. They continue to come. They have a great experience. I’m thinking about something similar to that, that is an annual event that’s for them and just cater to them all day long, and they get an enjoyable experience.

“Dad had something similar to that. He had an open house at his dealership, which was his way to kind of say, ‘Hey fans, I’m going to be here all day. And I’ll be here from noon until fricking midnight. However long it takes to sign for everybody.’ And he would. He’d sign for seven to eight hours straight. We were sitting over there beside him going “Golly. When is this going to end?” And he would just go and go until everyone was happy. That was one day a year he went all out. So that’s something I’d be happy or comfortable doing, maybe put something together. I’ve talked to the Hall of Fame about doing something there maybe. Because that would bring a lot of folks to the Hall of Fame, and it’s local, so that would be kind of cool. That’s something we’ve been bouncing around.

“Aside from that, all you can do is try to interact with everybody at the racetrack. You take a little more time instead of bee lining from the car to the hauler or the haulers to the bus. You’re casual about it. Sign for everybody and try to get everybody you can at the racetrack and on race weekends. Because there’s a lot more people, I don’t know about the numbers in the grandstands, but damn sure there are a lot more people wanting autographs this year. Around the garage Friday and Saturday, it’s ramped way up.”

Q: And the vibe you get from your fans is that they like how things are going, all things considered?

A: “It seems like people are fine. Not everyone’s last year is going to be as successful as Jeff’s. I’ve looked at other drivers’ careers and their final seasons, and there are a lot of big names that didn’t have awesome years as they wound down. I knew that I was up against a pretty difficult challenge when I decided to come back. But I knew that the team was strong. If we could get it going, we’d get it going. We didn’t going, at least not yet, but we’re just weathering through it (laughs) trying not to damn self-destruct or explode or turn it into a bad thing.

“Racing can bring the worst out of you. Your worst personality, attitude. Your worst habits. Bristol is the track that’s worst for me. It makes me want to go (expletive) bonkers on everybody, and I know that ain’t going to get us nowhere and just get us pissed off. So I’m safeguarding against that a little bit. Hopefully get in the playoffs and come to a couple of tracks we ran good at early in the season (such as) Texas. See if we can’t get a couple of good runs.”

Race for final Cup playoff spot tightens at Kentucky

Leave a comment

SPARTA, Kentucky — Paul Menard’s 11th-place finish might be easy to overlook but it was one of the noteworthy performances Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

Menard’s finish — along with Alex Bowman placing last — allowed Menard to gain 32 points on Bowman in the race for the final playoff spot.

“We are right in the thick of the points stuff, so we can’t afford this,” Bowman said after his crash that left him with a 39th-place finish. “This will hurt us quite a bit.”

The result hurt him but maybe not as much as he feared.

Bowman has 427 points. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is next at 418 and Menard has 404.

With seven winners this season and seven races left, at least two of the 16 playoff spots will be determined by points.

If the current domination by Kentucky winner Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch continues, there could be a record number of drivers who make the playoffs by points. The most who made the playoffs via points was five in 2015. That seems likely to fall.

While Menard made up many points on Bowman, it still didn’t make up for all the ground Menard lost to Bowman the previous three races. Bowman finished in the top 10 at Sonoma, Chicagoland and Daytona and gained 51 more points than Menard in those races.

Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky. Stenhouse had contact with Jamie McMurary’s car that led to a tire rub and forced Stenhouse to pit on Lap 23 and then again on Lap 27 under green. Stenhouse fell three laps down. He gained two laps back and finished 26th on what could have been a bigger night for him with Bowman’s misfortune.

“I’m not really sure what happened, but the No. 1 got into us, which cut our left rear tire,” Stenhouse said. “We were able to cut our deficit in the point standings. We will focus on the next seven weekends and getting the No. 17 team in the playoffs.”

While Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky, it didn’t overcome what he had lost the three previous races to the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Bowman had scored 15 more points during that stretch.

With Bowman having problems, it created an opening for drivers further back but Richard Childress Racing teammates managed to make only modest gains.

Newman gained 15 points on Bowman and is 79 points back. Dillon gained 14 points on Bowman and is 65 points back. Both Dillon and Newman had vibrations early in the race and that forced them to pit in the first 31 laps under green. Newman was later penalized for removing equipment from the pit stall.

“We definitely improved our qualifying effort, but ultimately it comes down to where we finished and we still have some work to do,” Newman said. “Our car wasn’t that bad, but getting track position after that first run and a pit road penalty were too tough to overcome.”

 and on Facebook

Long: Martin Truex Jr.’s dominant win doesn’t discourage competition

Getty Images
2 Comments

SPARTA, Kentucky — On a night when Martin Truex Jr. exerted his dominance, led nearly two-thirds of the laps, won both stages and then the race, his competitors left Kentucky Speedway with …

Hope.

Even crew chief Cole Pearn’s eyes bulged at the notion.

Truex’s third victory in the past six events should be a sign that his Furniture Row Racing team is primed to repeat last year’s surge when it won six of the final 19 races on the way to winning the championship.

Truex, who started from the pole Saturday, called the weekend his team’s most complete of the season. About the only thing that didn’t go as plan was when Truex needed to jump from his car as it rolled down the frontstretch banking, shortening his victory celebration in front of the fans.

That Truex had such a dominant performance throughout the weekend should be scary to every team that does not employ Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick.

Yet runner-up Ryan Blaney, while disappointed he didn’t win, could be upbeat about his team’s run. So was teammate Brad Keselowski. And Kyle Larson, who has been one of the toughest foes to the triumvirate of Truex, Busch and Harvick, also could walk away with some good feelings despite a ninth-place finish.

It would be easy to suggest that they’re merely fooling themselves. Truex, Harvick and Busch finished 1-2-3 in the first stage. Truex won the second stage with Busch second and Harvick fourth. Truex’s victory marked the 13th consecutive race either he, Busch or Harvick have won at a 1.5-mile track.

In a sport where the rules are meant to keep the field close, Truex, Harvick and Busch have separated themselves from everyone else.

But Blaney sees the gap closing.

I wouldn’t say we’re frustrated or defeated,” he said. “I mean, I might be a little down just because I wanted to win the race, but you go back and you realize that you’ve made gains and you’ve just got to keep making those.”

Keselowski, who finished third, interjected: “We can see the end of the tunnel, and we’re just 20 yards away. It’s just a matter of getting there, not taking a step back and taking a step forward.”

Of course, those final steps are the most difficult.

Keselowski is heartened based on how far his team has come.

“We’ve been right in that fifth‑ to six‑place range, but I feel like when they drop the green, the leaders just drive away from us, and this week, at least at the start of the race, we were able to run with Martin,” Keselowski said. “ As the race progressed we couldn’t stay with him, but all in all, that’s still as fast as we’ve been on a mile‑and‑a‑half this year, and that’s something commendable for my team.”

The closer one believes they are to the leaders, the more hope grows.

Larson was encouraged that he passed Truex for second with about 90 laps to go before his trackbar failed and his handling went away.

“I felt like I was better than (Harvick),” Larson said of the fifth-place finisher. “I passed (Busch, who placed fourth) a couple of times, passed (Truex) there before that second to last run. I passed him and kind of drove away from him for a few laps until right when our trackbar broke. Like I said, it’s hard to say if I would have had a shot to win. You never know how these races will play out, but I would have loved to have had a shot.”

Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston, was buoyed by his driver’s run until the mechanical issue.

“Those guys are fast, so we’ve just got to keep working hard and try to figure out how to get faster and get faster twice as fast as they do because they’re not stopping,” Johnston told NBC Sports. “But I feel like we’ve closed that gap throughout the year.”

The progress these teams have made has gained the attention of Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers.

Harvick won five of the first 12 races but has seen his advantage slip. He finished fourth at Pocono last month but placed behind Truex, Larson and Busch. Harvick was second to Truex at Sonoma and third to Busch and Larson at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago.

Childers told NBC Sports that he’s been “trying to be as safe as we can” with the car since the team was docked 20 points and all seven playoff points for its stage wins and race victory at Las Vegas in March. NASCAR penalized the team because the rear window did not remain rigid throughout that race.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said.

While he said he felt Harvick was faster than Truex most of Saturday night at Kentucky — the key difference was track position — Childers acknowledged that he might have to adjust his thinking on the car’s setup in the coming weeks.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, (Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been.

“The thing I see with (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

If not, others might pass his car. There’s a group that believes they’re coming.

 and on Facebook

Even after Kevin Harvick’s first Kentucky top five, team might ‘ramp it back up’

Leave a comment

Kevin Harvick, who entered Saturday’s Quaker Stage 400 with three wins on 1.5-mile tracks this season, placed fifth at a track he admitted is “definitely not my favorite place.”

Harvick, who started third, earned his 14th top five through 19 races and his first at Kentucky in eight starts.

But Harvick failed to lead a lap for the second time this season in seven races at 1.5-mile tracks. Both instances have been since his last points win in May at Kansas Speedway.

“We just never got all the way to the front and on the last run we got too loose and that was our worst run of the night and I hit the wall and that pretty much ended it,” Harvick told NBCSN. “We’ve never dominated here, so I don’t pay much attention to this place.”

Harvick said “it’s hard to make anything happen” at the track passing wise.

Though Harvick has only placed outside the top five once this year at mile-and-a-half tracks (Charlotte, wreck) crew chief Rodney Childers said his team “might have to ramp it back up” with increased performances recently from race-winner Martin Truex Jr, Team Penske and Kyle Larson.

Childers told NBC Sports the No. 4 team has been as “safe as we can with everything right now” in terms of car preparation.

The Stewart-Haas Racing team has been cautious after a 20-point penalty for a failed window brace following its Las Vegas win. The penalty also cost Harvick seven playoff points.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said. “We’re trying to be smart with our racing, but still trying to be competitive and run up front.”

Harvick remains tied with Kyle Busch for wins at five. He’s finished outside of the top 10 just four times.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, the 42 (Kyle Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been. It’s all part of that thing and people figuring it out. The thing I see with the (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build the best stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

Kyle Larson left to ponder what might have been after mechanical failure

Leave a comment

SPARTA, Kentucky — Kyle Larson climbed from his Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, which was parked on pit road far away from the top five finishers and from victory lane.

A ninth-place result left the top-finishing Chevy driver to wonder what if Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

A trackbar failure dramatically changed the car’s handling late in the race and a car that had run toward the front struggled to finish in the top 10.

“It’s hard to say if I would have had anything to win,” Larson said. “I drove by (winner Martin Truex Jr.) and then right after that we had our trackbar issue there and went plowing tight. Then we had to crutch it with wedge there the last run … (and it was) really tight at the last 25 laps or so. So, yeah, it’s hard to say if I would have won or not, but I would have at least liked to have had the shot.”

Crew chief Chad Johnston said his options were limited when the trackbar failed.

“We know that the trackbar fell to the lowest position it could,” he said. “Why that happened, we’re still trying to figure out. Obviously when it fell, it tightens the car up and then we had to asses the situation if we could have fixed it. I don’t think we could have without losing a lap. So then we just adjusted the car around the trackbar being that low. At that point, we lost too much track position and way too late to overcome it.”

It was part of a challenging race for Larson, who relinquished his 18th starting spot and had to take the opening green flag from the rear of the field. He was penalized for missing driver introductions. Larson was running to the stage when he was called.

“A little miscommunication and was late to intros,” Larson said.

Even with that mishap, he was 18th by the 20th lap and was in the top 10 before the first stage ended. He finsihed eighth in the first stage and fifth in the second stage.

Larson was able to cut through the field at times by using an outside line most didn’t.

“I was surprised how quickly (Turns) 3 and 4 moved up,” Larson said. “I knew it would move up a little bit, and I didn’t know it would move up that far. So, I was happy about that. You could kind of roll a little more speed on exit. Was surprised that the track widened out.  (Turns) 1 and 2 I thought had potential to, but it kind of just stalled out and got too tight.  A lane off the bottom was just a little too tight. But yeah, it was a decent track.”