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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Kevin Harvick wins Bristol night race

Kevin Harvick Bristol
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Kevin Harvick held off Kyle Busch to win Saturday’s Cup night race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Harvick came out on top after a spirited battle with Busch over the last forty laps of the race. Harvick claimed his ninth win of the season, a career-best mark. He previous high was eight wins in 2018.

The top five was completed by Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick and Aric Almirola. Clint Bowyer finished sixth and was the last car on the lead lap.

Harvick’s nine victories has him on pace to become the first driver to win at least 10 Cup races in a season in more than a decade and only the third driver to reach that mark in the past quarter century.

Jimmie Johnson is the last driver to accomplish the feat. He won 10 races in 2007. The only other driver to reach that mark in the last 25 years is Jeff Gordon. He won 13 races in 1998 and 10 races each in 1996 and ’97.

The last driver not from Hendrick Motorsports to reach at least 10 wins in a season was Rusty Wallace. He won 10 times in 1993 for car owner Roger Penske.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Elliott

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Busch

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished last after he was eliminated in a crash on Lap 29 after he made contact with Jimmie Johnson … Matt DiBenedetto‘s chances of advancing in the playoffs were dashed when he had to pit for loose right-rear tire on Lap 187 and then was caught speeding on pit road after returning to the lead lap. He finished 19th …. Martin Truex Jr. finished 24th after he had to pit for a tire issue on Lap 214 … Denny Hamlin finished 21st after he rammed into the back of Truex moments after he exited pit road following his stop … William Byron was eliminated from the race and playoff contention late in Stage 2 after he ran into the back of Christopher Bell … Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski placed 34th after he lost power steering early in the final stage and was black flagged for not meeting minimum speeding. After a lengthy stay in the garage, Keselowski returned to the race with about 105 laps left in the race.

WHAT’S NEXT: Round of 12 opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 7 p.m. ET Sept. 27 on NBCSN.

Check back for more.

William Byron’s title hopes end in Bristol incident

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William Byron‘s playoffs ended when he ran into the back of a car shortly before halfway in Saturday night’s Cup playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Byron was running 10th and in position to advance to the second round after Saturday’s elimination race before the incident.

Byron told NBCSN’s Marty Snider that Joey Gase‘s car slowed on a straightaway and Byron ran into the back of Christopher Bell‘s car.

“I literally had nowhere to go,” Byron said. “Just ridiculous that’s what takes us out.”

Byron said he was running behind Bell, who was behind Gase, on the high side. Byron said he had Aric Almirola on his inside and could not move down there.

Byron entered the race the first driver outside the final transfer spot to the second round. He entered the race trailing Clint Bowyer by three points.

 

 

 

Three Joe Gibbs Racing cars going to rear for inspection violations

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The cars of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones will start at the rear after each car failed inspection twice before Saturday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Busch enters the race 18 points above the cutline to transfer to the second round of the Cup playoffs. Saturday’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Busch was to have started ninth.

This is the second playoff race in a row that Busch’s team has failed inspection twice before the race and had to start at the rear. Busch started at the rear last weekend at Richmond. He finished sixth.

Hamlin has already advanced to the second round via points. He was to have started seventh.

“We’ve got 500 laps,” he said. “If we’re good enough, we’ll get to the front. Not really too worried about it in that sense.”

Jones is not in the playoffs. He would have started 20th.

NASCAR also announced that the cars of Corey LaJoie and Bubba Wallace will start at the rear for unapproved adjustments. JJ Yeley will go to the rear for a driver change since he was not listed on the preliminary entry list for the No. 15 car.

Wallace was to have started 27th. LaJoie was to have started 30th. The No. 15 was to have started 32nd with Brennan Poole as the driver.

 

Saturday Cup race at Bristol: Start time, TV channel

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Four drivers will be eliminated from the Cup playoffs after Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This marks the first time the track has been in the playoffs. The Saturday Cup race at Bristol will end the first round. The 16-driver field will be cut to 12.

William Byron (3 points behind the cutline), Cole Custer (-8), Matt DiBenedetto (-25) and Ryan Blaney (-27) are the four drivers out of a playoff spot. Clint Bowyer holds the final transfer spot.

Here is all the info for the Saturday Cup race at Bristol:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines is at 7:38 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:45 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup haulers enter the garage (screening and equipment unload) at 10:30 a.m. Garage access health screening begins at 12:30 p.m. Garage opens at 12:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:10 p.m. Driver introductions will be at 7:15 p.m. The invocation is at 7:30 p.m. The national anthem will be performed by Joe Nichols, three-time Grammy nominee, at 7:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the .533-mile track.

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

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 7 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 62 degrees and a 3% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Brad Keselowski won at Richmond. Martin Truex Jr. finished second. Joey Logano placed third for the second race in a row.

LAST POINTS RACE AT BRISTOL: Brad Keselowski won in May after Denny Hamlin lost the lead when he hit the wall. Chase Elliott ran into Joey Logano as they battled for the lead late in the event.

TO THE REAR: Denny Hamlin (two inspection failures), Kyle Busch (two inspection failures), Erik Jones (two inspection failures), Corey LaJoie (unapproved adjustments), Bubba Wallace (unapproved adjustments), JJ Yeley (driver change).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Cup starting lineup

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS’ COVERAGE:

Three Joe Gibbs Racing cars going to the rear for inspection violations

Bubble drivers brace for Bristol battle

Pit crew change for teams of Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson

Friday 5: The thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney seek NASCAR history to advance

What upcoming Cup playoff races NASCAR fans can attend

Trevor Bayne says the fire remains to run more races