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

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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.”

Friday schedule for Xfinity Series at Road America

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The NASCAR Xfinity Series hits the track today with two practices at Road America in preparation for Saturday’s race.

The wunderground.com forecast for Friday calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 69 degrees and a 10% chance of rain during the day.

Here is today’s schedule at Road America:

(All times are Eastern)

10:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

1:35 – 2:25 p.m. – Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

3:35 – 4:55 – Final Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

Friday 5: Kyle Larson showing strength as Cup playoffs near

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While many of his competitors relax far away from a track, Kyle Larson is using the final off weekend of the season for Cup to go racing.

Why not keep going when things are good?

Larson enters this break having finished in the top 10 in each of the last four Cup races. While Joe Gibbs Racing drivers rank 1-2-3 in points scored during that stretch, Larson is the best of the rest. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has scored 146 points to rank fourth among all drivers during the last month.

That run has helped Larson go from being in danger of falling out of a playoff spot to having a comfortable margin with two races left in the regular season. Larson will head to Darlington Raceway next weekend for the Southern 500 trailing Alex Bowman by 10 points for 10th in the standings.

The recent run of success comes as Larson and his team avoided problems.

“I feel like our race cars have gotten little bit better and any time that happens, it makes your job a little bit easier and you can be less aggressive and still get good finishes,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I would just point to our cars getting a little bit better.

“I’ve crashed enough stuff early in the year and really still recently, but I’m trying to race a little bit smarter and make moves a little bit smarter and not try to run fifth with a 10th-place car and take my 10th or even if I fall back to 11th or 12th. Just being a little  bit smarter about things.”

Larson might have had a streak of six consecutive top-10 finishes but he placed 33rd at New Hampshire in July. Larson was ninth on a restart about 80 laps from the finish when he went low to try to pass Bowman entering Turn 1. Larson was on the bottom in a three-wide situation and spun, sliding up the track and backing into the wall. His woes were compounded when he had a right rear tire go down about 40 laps later and he crashed.

Larson knows he needs to make better decisions in the car.

“I should have just stayed in line and not push the issue,” he said of that restart against Bowman. “I had a fast car.”

That’s not the only time he’s had an issue. He looks to the Pocono race in June. On the final restart, he made contact with Clint Bowyer’s car and that forced Larson’s car into the wall. Larson finished 26th after having won both stages.

“I tried to clear myself up in front of Clint and not be quite enough clear and put myself in the fence with a few laps to go,” Larson said. “I cost myself there (Pocono and New Hampshire) a combined at least 40 points. That could put us inside the top 10 in points. Those are just two deals. I’ve had other races that I’ve been overly aggressive because you have to be.”

Even so, he’ll be in a good place when the Cup series resumes at Darlington Raceway. Larson finished third in last year’s Southern 500, the second time in the last three years he’s placed third there.

“I just think our team and myself just have a good feel for worn out surfaces at intermediate tracks,” Larson said. “You look at Atlanta, we were really fast. Chicago, we were really, really fast. Homestead, we’re always good. Darlington, we’re always good. So I think we’ve got a good package for that. It just fits my driving style.”

2. Chasing the right away around Road America

While the focus this weekend at Road America (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) will be on if Austin Cindric can win his third consecutive Xfinity Series road course event, Chase Briscoe will be looking to extend his streak of top-10 finishes at a track he’s never raced.

Briscoe has scored six top-10 finishes in a row, tying Tyler Reddick and Justin Allgaier for the longest active streak in the series. 

Unlike those two, Briscoe’s only experience at the track is on a simulator.

“Road America is going to be a challenge,” said Briscoe, who won last year’s inaugural race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. “I feel like Watkins Glen is one of the easier road courses just to go to the first time. It’s not really that technical, it’s pretty easy. Then Mid-Ohio … I ran an IMSA race there and an Xfinity race there. I felt like that was the one track I would have the opportunity to run good. But the Road America deal is going to be a struggle I feel like.”

Briscoe spent time on a simulator for the 14-turn, 4.048-mile track on Aug. 14. 

“I feel like at a track that big, it’s really hard to get into a rhythm,” he said. “At Watkins Glen, there are seven corners. You go through that same corner it seems like pretty quickly. At Road America, it’s going to be another two and a half minutes it seems like until you get back around there. It’s going to be a challenge. I feel like I kind of struggle on how to pass guys on the road course. It’s just a different style of passing and setting guys up.”

How so?

“Just seems like on the oval, you can catch a slower guy and it’s so easy to go to the other groove and pass them,” Briscoe said. “On these road courses, it’s typically one groove and you catch one slow guy and you might be stuck behind him for eight corners before you get to a passing zone to pass. I don’t know if Road America is going to be bad. For example, at Mid-Ohio, once you get to Turn 5, you can’t pass until really I think Turn 10 or 11, so you’re just kind of stuck. It’s hard to kind of have patience and ride behind people and know you can’t push it in those areas.”

3. Woe is the No. 3

This was not the season Richard Childress Racing imagined for its 50th anniversary.

Heading into next weekend’s Southern 500, Austin Dillon is 23rd in points, two spots ahead of rookie teammate Daniel Hemric.

Dillon’s 34th-place finish last weekend at Bristol marked his fifth finish of 30th or worse in the last seven races.

“We’ve got to do a better job in our group of controlling our entire weekend from the time we unload off the trailer, it’s been a little bit inconsistent,” Dillon said before last weekend’s Bristol race. “But in that sense, motors are good, feel like our bodies are good. The core stuff is there, but we’re beating ourselves. That’s what’s frustrating about this year. I feel like we’ve had more speed than we had in the past but haven’t been able to execute.”

Dillon won stage 2 at Daytona in July before he and Clint Bowyer triggered an 18-car crash battling for the lead. Dillon finished 33rd. A transmission and alternator issue led to a 35th-place finish for Dillon at Kentucky. He was 32nd at New Hampshire after a right front tire went down and he hit the wall. Dillon placed 31st at Watkins Glen after struggling most of the weekend on the road course. Dillon’s Bristol finish was hampered by a tire that went down and sent him into the wall and Jimmie Johnson into the back of Dillon’s car.

Dillon admits this has been his most frustrating year in the series.

“It’s been really trying mentally,” he said. “Just beats you down because every week you have to come back to it, what’s next? What’s going to happen next?”

Most weeks, at least recently, the answer to that question has not been good for Dillon and his team.

“I just want to do so much for RCR in their 50th year, for the No. 3 and for myself,” he said. “I hate running bad. It sucks. You want to get those finishes and you see bad finishes piling up and it gets you down.”

4. Feeling comfortable

As William Byron nears his first playoff appearance, the Hendrick Motorsports driver says he feels more comfortable in his role with the team in his second season in Cup.

“This is the first time I can walk into the shop and I don’t feel like I’m on pins and needles with the guys, in terms of them just trusting me and me feeling comfortable with them to tell them what is exactly on my mind,” Byron said. “It’s the first time I can walk into the shop and feel like I can say what’s on my mind; if I’m not content or I’m not happy with something or even when things go great.”

Byron is growing into his role with guidance from crew chief Chad Knaus, who joined the team after last season. Knaus has Byron 12th in the standings with races left at Darlington and Indianapolis before the Cup playoffs begin.

“I would say Chad and I are both kind of, the two pillars of the team,” Byron said. “Chad’s job is to encourage those guys, give them the resources they need, make sure they’re staying on task and make sure they’re focused. My job is to kind of I guess cheerlead a little bit in terms of motivation but also to be honest with them and say, hey this was good, this wasn’t good, this worked well, this didn’t.”

5. Back again

While the Gander Outdoors Truck Series makes its annual visit to Canadian Tire Motorsports Park for Sunday’s playoff race, it won’t be the first time this year for ThorSport’s drivers.

Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes, Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter competed in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at the road course, driving Ford Mustang GT4s. Rhodes and Enfinger shared driving duties and finished 13th. Crafton and Sauter shared driver duties and placed 14th.

With Sunday’s race the second in the three-race opening round, Enfinger, Crafton and Sauter will be looking to win to advance. Reigning series champ Brett Moffitt won last week’s race at Bristol to move on to the second round.

Austin Cindric rebounds from rough July to crash Xfinity’s ‘Big 3’ party

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When the month of August opened, Austin Cindric was in a desperate need of a “good weekend.”

So much so that the 20-year-old driver “didn’t even care about winning the race” when the Xfinity Series visited its first road course of the season at Watkins Glen International.

A “miserable” July saw Cindric fail to finish in the top 10 at Kentucky (spin), New Hampshire (engine change before the race) and Iowa (crash).

Despite being one of the favorites to win at WGI due to his sports car background and near-misses on road courses last year, Cindric just wanted to finish the race.

At the same time, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson had been experiencing his own July misery. But that didn’t stop him from being one of the first people to send Cindric a message of congratulations when Cindric won at WGI.

“You wouldn’t believe it, but the first text I got after the race was from Jimmie Johnson,” Cindric told NBC Sports. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever. Before my grandma, before anyone else, Jimmie Johnson was the first text in my phone.”

It was a “pretty simple” congratulatory message for Cindric’s performance in beating AJ Allmendinger to secure his first career Xfinity Series win.

“Stuff like that for me goes a long way,” Cindric said. “I think it does for most guys in my position.”

Cindric had gone 54 starts before earning his first Xfinity win and his second in a national NASCAR series. His victory was Team Penske’s first Xfinity win in 28 races.

Now after months of talk about the “Big 3” – Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer – Cindric has forced his way into the conversation.

“The goal is to be able to outrun them, not just run with them, but outrun them,” said Cindric, who added that the trio of drivers – who compete for three different teams and manufacturers – has provided a good “gauge” for his team.

Over the last three weeks Cindric has won twice, backing up the Watkins Glen triumph with a victory at his home track of Mid-Ohio. He’s the only series regular after Reddick, Bell and Custer with more than one win through 22 races.

Austin Cindric races beneath eventual race-winner Tyler Reddick at Bristol Motor Speedway (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

Cindric’s hot steak continued last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. Though he didn’t win, Cindric earned his third consecutive top five. That was after he won his second pole in a row, edging Kyle Busch.

Though he has nine top fives this year, Cindric said there’s “no doubt” his Bristol performance helps solidify the confidence that his team is more than just a contender on road courses.

“I don’t think that hangs over my head as much as it probably seems like it does,” Cindric said. “The road courses were going to be a strength for us this year, I don’t think that’s a secret that’s my skill set, that’s where my experience is at. At the same time, I’ve got six poles in the Xfinity Series, three of them are on ovals and three of them are on road courses. I feel like I’ve definitely got a strength in that regard.”

Now comes Road America (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN).

The series heads to the 14-turn, 4.048-mile road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, for its third road course in four races.

Cindric, who made his series debut there in 2017, will try to win a third straight road course race. That hasn’t been done in the Xfinity Series since Terry Labonte won at Watkins Glen from 1994-96.

He’ll also look to add to Penske’s all-time series-leading numbers on road courses in wins (12), top fives (39), poles (19) and laps led (963).

Cindric has raced on the track a half-dozen times across NASCAR, ARCA and sports cars. He says piloting a stock car around Road America requires slowing “everything down” compared to sports cars.

Austin Cindric racing at Road America in 2018 (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images).

“You’re braking before any brake marker on the race track, which is pretty crazy,” Cindric said. “The longevity, you’ve got really long straightaways, followed up by really long brake zones and the longevity of brake pressure applied is insane there in a stock car. So you really have to time things well on a restart and in traffic. I think it’s a really easy place for guys to overshoot the braking zone. …

“I think that’s what makes driving a stock car there really difficult. But it is also a very fun track because the lap is so long that there’s so many different opportunities to pass lapped cars, lapped traffic or even find a strength or weakness in your car. I think it’s somewhere you can differentiate yourself just by putting a lap together.”

Cindric is confident enough in his abilities that he can finally master Road America and claim his third win of the month.

“You just got to mind your Ps and Qs at the beginning of it and not get caught up in the argybargy (British term for a an argument or disagreement) and caving your nose in. … That’s where my focus is.”

Well, not entirely. While one Cup driver was paying attention to him at Watkins Glen, Cindric will have his eyes peeled this weekend for the driver that’s been at the forefront of conversation this week in NASCAR.

Matt DiBenedetto,” Cindric is quick to say. “He’s the man of the hour and he’s driving the (Joe Gibbs Racing) 18 car. And that car’s been really, really good the last two road courses. I’m looking forward to racing him, because I know I will be because he’s obviously really good on road courses.”

DiBenedetto, who placed second last weekend in the Cup race at Bristol, has road course finishes of fourth (Sonoma) and sixth (Watkins Glen) this year. Saturday’s race will be his first in the Xfinity Series since 2016.

“I’m excited to see what he’s got and see if we’ve got anything for him,” Cindric said.

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Stewart-Haas Racing sweeps regular-season finale of eNASCAR Heat Pro League

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Stewart-Haas Racing swept both races in the eNASCAR Heat Pro League’s regular-season finale, held Wednesday night on a virtual Daytona International Speedway.

It was the first time one team has swept a round this season.

Josh Shoemaker (SHG Slick 14x) won his second race in a row, winning the XBox One event.

Brandyn Gritton (SHG_HotRod_14p) won for SHR in the PlayStation 4 event, earning his third win of the year.

Below are the final overall point standings – combing both consoles – heading into the four-round playoffs, which begin Sept. 11 on a virtual Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Eliminated from playoff contention are the teams for Richard Childress Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing.

 

You can watch both races in the below video.