Long: Today marks one last time for Dale Earnhardt Jr., fans at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Alabama — They fell asleep embraced by the lingering aroma from their campfire. A day of relaxing and partying stretched into the night, and it was time for a few hours of respite before the new day, one some had awaited months to arrive.

Buoyed by his pole-winning effort Saturday, many in the Talladega Superspeedway campgrounds are filled with hope that Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins today in his final Cup race at a track as synonymous with the Earnhardt family as any on the NASCAR circuit.

Hope is a powerful thing. While it cannot make an engine turn more RPMs or the air glide over a car in the most efficient manner, it has led many to Talladega on a pilgrimage to see Earnhardt lead the field one more time.

It already has been a memorable couple of days for Earnhardt. On Friday, the track gave him the car his father raced in 1979 and 1980 (clinching the first of his seven titles in that car in ’80). A day later, Earnhardt won his first career Talladega pole.

Along with the buildup to today’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC) has come the chance for reflection for Earnhardt.

“The end of the season is coming really fast,’’ Earnhardt said Saturday. “I didn’t really feel much emotion about that and the finality of it until maybe this weekend.

“These few weeks will go by so fast, and that’s it. There’s no reliving it. So, I think I’m starting to take it in just a little bit in letting myself feeling some emotion about it.’’

Earnhardt has had the chance to reflect because of the weekend’s gradual pace. This is typical Talladega. Most of the energy and nearly all the anxiety are packed into race day.

Earnhardt noted there was no fretting about pulling speed from the car because what teams have when they unload is about all they’re going to have at a restrictor-plate track, unlike other tracks where teams can make many more adjustments.

If you’re slow this weekend, there’s resignation. If you’re fast, there’s a comfort.

That’s allowed Earnhardt to ponder a career coming to a close and one last run at a track that has provided so many memorable moments.

It was at this track where his father went from 16th to first in the final five laps in 2000 to win what would be his final Cup race. Years later, Earnhardt watched a video of those final laps. When his father rocketed off Turn 2 and passed six cars on the way into Turn 3, beginning his charge to victory, a smile formed on Earnhardt’s face and widened with each car his father dispatched. “Man’’ was all Earnhardt could say, pride and wonderment spilling out in one syllable.

It also was here where Earnhardt won in the fall of 2001. That victory was important to him because of questions he faced about his win at Daytona in July, the first race there since his father’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt stated Friday that Jimmy Spencer’s comments questioning the legitimacy of that victory still upset him and how his success after that event proved his win was legit.

That Talladega win also was the first of four in a row at this track.

“We got pretty cocky there at some points in the mid-2000s with our performance and ability,’’ Earnhardt said.

Then the performance went away and Earnhardt struggled, winning twice in the series between 2007-13.

This also is the track that has frustrated him. NASCAR ruled Jeff Gordon was leading, not Earnhardt, when the caution came out and the spring 2004 race did not restart, allowing Gordon to win. Fans littered the track with beer cans at NASCAR’s decision.

It also was here where Earnhardt was collected in a last-lap crash that, along with a crash about six weeks earlier, created concussion symptoms that forced him to miss two races in 2012.

But even with those events, most of the memories Earnhardt has of this track and its fans are good. When he takes the lead, the roar of the crowd can be heard over the cars.

Nothing sounded better to him Friday than the rumble from the engine of his father’s 1979 blue-and-yellow Monte Carlo the track gave him. He drove a couple of laps around the track in the No. 2 car.

Then, so proud of the car, he drove it to the Cup garage so his crew could see it before returning to pit road.

The gift was something his father had touched and him. It connected Earnhardt to his childhood days. After the car was retired, it sat on jackstands outside the shop of what was his father’s Busch team.

“I remember he right-sided the car at some point in the race, and you could go over and pick the bondo out of the whole side of the car… all busted the cracked up,’’ Earnhardt said. “So that car sat there for about three or four years in the backyard at Mamaw’s house.

“When Dad wasn’t at the race weekends, on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday he was at that shop. He drove there every morning and drove home every day. That’s where he went every day. So I’d go over there and climb in and around that car at some point every single time I went there. You couldn’t not go near it.’’

After it was restored, his father sent it to be displayed at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame next to Talladega Superspeedway. As a youngster, Earnhardt and other sons of racers would go to the Hall and admire the car.

Now Earnhardt will have it, a time warp to the past to when his father was starting his championship run in NASCAR. It also signifies how much time has passed and a reminder that the end of Earnhardt’s Cup career is only days way — 35 to be exact.

While he isn’t going away — he’ll race at least once next year in the Xfinity Series and likely more — today will be his final restrictor-plate race, the type of racing that has helped define both he and his father.

Today fans will have one final time to cheer Earnhardt at Talladega.

After winning the pole Saturday, he was shown a video of the crowd roaring once he crossed the finish line and his No. 88 shot to the top spot on the scoring tower.

He smiled.

“That’s pretty cool,’’ he said.

Imagine what it will be like if he wins today.

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NASCAR America: Pete Pistone on dirt racing in Xfinity, Cup

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Dirt racing is at the center of many conversations in NASCAR this week.

That’s thanks to the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora Speedway on Wednesday and Tony Stewart‘s comments earlier this encouraging fans to put pressure on NASCAR to bring the Cup and Xfinity Series to his dirt track in the future.

On NASCAR America, Pete Pistone of SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” joined the show to discuss what fans think about the prospect of more dirt races at NASCAR’s national level and more mid-week races.

“There’s not much going on during the week right now until college (football) and NFL training camps start,” Pistone said. “The fans said this morning, ‘We’d like to see more Wednesday racing,’ and I couldn’t agree more.”

While Steve Letarte is in favor of more short tracks and mid-week races, he doesn’t want to see Cup and Xfinity “copy” what the Trucks do at Eldora.

“I think they have such a marquee event and they deserve this event,” Letarte said. “This dirt race, the Dirt Derby, has turned into must-see TV, for the Trucks. And I think it’s great for any national touring series to have that event. … I love the idea of not having to wait all week to watch three races. Why can’t I have a race on Tuesday, Wednesday, have a little news cycle. … I think there’s a lot to be said for timing, but as for Eldora, it holds a special place in my heart for the Trucks. Let them have it.”

Pistone said he tends to agree that the Trucks should get their own special event at Eldora. Where should any other dirt races be held?

“Why not look at a place like Knoxville (Raceway), which is so famous in Iowa that has sprint car races,” Pistone said. “There are so many other tracks in the country, if NASCAR can find a way to do something along the liens of and not just replicate Eldora, I think that would spark a lot of interest and energy and it seems that’s what the fan base is looking for.”

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Eldora recap, Pete Pistone

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to preview this weekend’s racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Steve Letarte in Stamford, Connecticut.

On today’s show:

  • NASCAR’s shipping up to New Hampshire this weekend, and as of late, the Toyotas have had the clear edge at “The Magic Mile.” It’s just one of several storylines to follow as we prepare for Sunday’s 301-lap Monster Energy Series race. We’ll have a full preview!
  • Last night, the Camping World Truck Series put on another incredible show in the Dirt Derby at Eldora. We’ll have highlights from the race, including the paint-trading finish between Chase Briscoe and Grant Enfinger that will be remembered for years to come.
  • SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Pete Pistone will also call in live to talk fan reaction to last night’s Dirt Derby. Plus: Has the drivers’ mindset for New Hampshire changed now that they won’t be heading back there for the playoffs?
If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Top three Xfinity drivers separated by three points entering New Hampshire

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Things have gotten pretty tight at the top of the food chain in the Xfinity Series.

Following last weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway, the point standings are not led by just one driver.

Through 17 races, the standings are led by both Elliott Sadler and Daniel Hemric, who are tied with 608 points.

To add to an already close situation, they have Cole Custer breathing down their necks is only three points behind them heading into Saturday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

How did this situation arise considering none of the drivers have claimed a win this year?

Consistency. It’s disappeared for Sadler while Hemric and Custer have used it to catch the JR Motorsports driver.

Following the June 2 race at Pocono Raceway, Sadler had a 62-point lead over second in the standings. His lead slipped away over the next five races thanks to finishing 12th or worst three times.

He placed 30th at Michigan, 28th at Iowa and 12th at Kentucky.

That was after entering Michigan with top-10 finishes in the first 12 races of the season.

In the five races since Pocono, Hemric hasn’t finished worse than eighth and has three top-three finishes. Custer has four top fives and a DNF (wreck, Daytona).

Compared to this point last year, Sadler has more top fives (10 to seven in 2017), the same number of top 10s (14) and his average finish is 7.9 compared to 8.8.

Sadler, is mired in a 56 race winless streak that began in October 2016. And this season he’s been the best finishing Xfinity regular just once and the best finishing JR Motorsports driver only seven times.

Hemric and Custer are each in their second full-time seasons in Xfinity and have shown significant improvement over this same point in their rookie campaigns.

Through 17 races, Hemric has two poles (one in 2017), nine top fives (two in 2017), 13 top 10s (six in 2017) and no DNFs (three in 2017).

Custer has four poles (none in 2017), seven top fives (two in 2017), 13 top 10s (seven in 2017) and two DNFs (three in 2017).

Over the last eight races Hemric and Custer are tied for the most top fives with six. In that stretch, Hemric leads the series in top 10s (eight), average finish (4.13) and race points earned (311).

The point standings would be even narrower if not for two penalties dealt out by NASCAR this season to two of the three Xfinity regulars who have won races.

Christopher Bell and Justin Allgaier enter New Hampshire in fourth (-17 points) and fifth (-39).

Bell lost 10 points after the Charlotte race for a post-race heights violation.

Allgaier was dealt a 25-point penalty following his win at Dover for a post-race inspection violation.

The two drivers would be in the same spot in the standings without the penalties.

Among Sadler, Hemric and Custer, it may be Custer who is the favorite to leave New Hampshire with points lead.

Custer is the only one of the trio with any success at the 1-mile track.

He’s won there in the K&N Pro Series East (2013) and in the Camping World Truck Series (2014).

He placed ninth in his first Xfinity start there last year.

“I think we’ve had really good cars in the past at short tracks and I think it’s more natural to me than a mile-and-a-half,” Custer said in a media release. “It’s probably like that for most guys. We just grew up running short tracks and didn’t have to deal with aero as much. We took a lot of good notes from New Hampshire last year that we’ll build on.”

Meanwhile, in 14 career starts at New Hampshire, Sadler has only led 26 laps and he hasn’t finished better than sixth since he returned to full-time Xfinity competition in 2011.

“We’re bringing the car we ran in Richmond, which is one of my favorites,” Sadler said in a media release. “We know it’s fast and is capable of a top-three finish. The end of the regular season isn’t too far away, so we’ve got to stick to our strategy, earn stage points and ultimately get ourselves and our partners a win.”

Sadler led 30 laps and finished third at Richmond.

Hemric placed 12th in his first Xfinity start in Loudon last year. In two Truck Series starts, he placed sixth and 28th (DNF).

“New Hampshire is always a place I look forward going to each year, especially how our company is on the short tracks right now,” Hemric said in a media release. “I feel like I know what I want in terms of speed when I get to a place like New Hampshire, it’s just a matter of getting our race car where we want it. I feel good headed to New Hampshire this weekend.”

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Joe Gibbs Racing returns to New Hampshire, where dominance began last July

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The 2017 Cup season was not too kind to Joe Gibbs Racing through its first 18 races.

Then the series went to New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

After entering last year’s July event at the 1-mile track winless, the race served as a launching pad for JGR, which leads the series in every major stat category in the 36 races since.

Counting Denny Hamlin‘s win in the July 16 race, the four-car team has won 14 times in the following year, which leads all other teams by five victories.

JGR closed out 2017 with eight wins in 19 races, compared to the Martin Truex Jr.‘s six wins in the same span.

Thanks to Racing Insights, here’s a look at JGR’s success against the competition since last July’s race at New Hampshire.

Ten of JGR’s wins in the last year belong to Kyle Busch, including the September playoff race in New Hampshire.

The rest belong to Denny Hamlin (two wins), Matt Kenseth (one) and Erik Jones (one).

Busch is one of six active drivers who have three wins at New Hampshire, including Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Hamlin and Kenseth.

Kyle Busch is the only one of those drivers with a win this season.

New Hampshire has been very kind to Busch and his fellow Toyota drivers.

In the last 11 races at the flat, 1-mile track, Toyota has won eight of them. In the last four races in Loudon, Toyota has led 1,168 laps (97.2 percent) out of a possible 1,202 laps. Chevrolet has led 31 and Ford has led 3.

Chevrolet has the only non-Toyota win in the last six New Hampshire races. That was won by Kevin Harvick in 2016 before Stewart-Haas Racing moved to Ford.

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