Beer, Rolling Stone and rock ‘n’ roll: How Dale Earnhardt Jr. journeyed beyond NASCAR into new media


In this age of ubiquitous social media, how Dale Earnhardt Jr. initially emerged as among the most culturally transcendent drivers in NASCAR history now seems a virtual afterthought.

The 14-time most popular driver is as adept as any professional athlete in communicating via Twitter, a postrace regular on Periscope and the weekly host of a podcast that is the anchor of a burgeoning digital empire created by his branding team.

But the wheels were turning on leveraging Earnhardt’s renowned authenticity long before the technological platforms of the 21st century made him much more easily accessible.

There were edgier appearances in mainstream media such as Rolling Stone, Playboy and Men’s Journal. An unconventional ad campaign in which a NASCAR driver in his mid-20s was marketed more as James Dean than Jeff Gordon. And a presenting spot at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards.

“I do know now better than I knew then how impactful that is and how much that does for your recognition and the sport,” Earnhardt, 43, said. “I never really did it for me or myself.”

If Gordon’s class and polish helped deliver NASCAR to Madison Avenue and Tony Stewart was the workingman’s vehicle for reaching the blue-collar fans on Main Street, the road to multicultural hipness with a technophile’s savvy was paved best by Earnhardt – the last of a retiring triumvirate of stars who led NASCAR to the heights of popularity over the past two decades.

It’s possible to draw a through line over the 18 seasons of Earnhardt’s Cup career to appreciate how the seeds were planted for him to become so comfortable in nontraditional racing mediums, but it would need to come with an asterisk that none of it was by design for an admittedly shy star who often was petrified of being in the spotlight.

“Those things, I had nothing to do with all of that,” he said. “Those things happened because of our relationship with Budweiser and (PR representative) Jade Gurss’ work ethic and his ability to get us into those doors and into those conversations with those publications.”

The Rolling Stone profile – titled “Kurt is My Co-Pilot” in reference to Earnhardt’s fandom of Nirvana and frontman Kurt Cobain – was published in May 2000 in the aftermath of the No. 8 Chevrolet driver’s first Cup win at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2, 2000. It was just days after another victory at Richmond International Raceway and a week ahead of Earnhardt’s breakthrough victory in The Winston all-star race.

Gurss remembers that stretch early in Earnhardt’s rookie season as “insane” for the doors that it opened for reaching a new wave of media outlets.

“It was really a couple of months that set in motion a lot of momentum that theoretically continues today,” said Gurss, the author of two books about Earnhardt Jr. “Obviously, the horror with his dad at the Daytona 500, that changed a lot as well. But people who think it was only because of the death of his father, this train was rolling before 2001.”

Though some of it was a driver’s affability married with sheer happenstance, there also was the multinational corporate muscle of a beer giant known for its sports marketing prowess but not for taking its NASCAR spokesmen into such uncharted quarters of the media landscape.

“It was unlike anything Anheuser-Busch had ever seen before out of the NASCAR program,” said Tim Schuler, a partner at StrongBridge Sponsorship who oversaw Anheuser-Busch’s sponsorship of Earnhardt as a senior manager from 1999-2005. “It was, ‘What can we do with Dale Jr. to take him out of NASCAR and make him more mainstream?’ A lot of things we did early on were counterculture to what NASCAR had seen before.”

Greg Busch, president of BeSpoke Sports & Entertainment and a veteran of more than 20 years working with NASCAR brands such as Miller, Lowe’s and ExxonMobil, calls it a “perfect storm” that enabled Earnhardt’s rise as a media darling to the unconventional for NASCAR.

“There’s no other way to put it,” Busch said. “He had the name, and unfortunately because of what happened to Senior, that nation needed to migrate somewhere, and it was easy to go over to Junior. So there was a built-in base. He won on the track, so it was relevant and credible. And NASCAR was at an incredible upswing. There was an appetite for drivers, especially big-name drivers with built-in name equity. And then a sponsor like Budweiser, that’s a marketing vehicle behind anybody that put his face on thousands of point of sale collateral in retail stores. They put him in commercials.

“So it was all of those things together. I wouldn’t say any one of them. And last but not least, he’s a great personality. He comes off well. He can play in those audiences. It was really just an incredible time from all fronts.” asked Earnhardt and others about their memories of some pivotal moments from his first two seasons in NASCAR’s premier series and the legacy that will be left by Earnhardt’s brand.  Here’s what they said:


Earnhardt’s partnership with primary sponsor Budweiser produced one of the most iconic paint schemes on the track and one of the more ambitious driver campaigns off the track. Plastered on billboards and cardboard standups in leather jackets and backward ball caps instead of firesuits and massive logos, the selling point was exactly who Earnhardt was – a mid-20s beer drinker with a penchant for partying and a trend-setting attitude that bordered on rebellious. Though it was driven by Budweiser’s desire to enhance its demographics, Earnhardt also played a critical role in setting the tone for the approach.

Schuler: “We were looking for what do we do with him outside of that time that we could take him to more pop culture areas because Budweiser had been declining for many, many years. What could we do to try to turn that around and hopefully invigorate life into the brand itself? Instead of that drinker being a 35- to 65-year-old, we were trying to get it down to 21-35 year old. And it was interesting because Dale has learned to embrace things. He is an introvert by nature, but once you get to know him, he’s not at all. He’s very deep and very introspective.

“Early on, we brought him to St. Louis and put him through a whole day of media training. I asked, ‘How’d it go at the end, did we make some strides?’ The answer was, ‘Well, I think so. But every time we took a 10-minute break, he took a nap.’

“That was on Day 1. On Day 2, we went into what the brand wanted to do for point of sales and taglines and what the season was going to be about. We had six or seven people coming in and presenting with different agencies, and I could see his eyes just rolling into the back of his head that he wasn’t even paying attention. So toward the end of it, I said, ‘Junior, what do you think? What strikes a chord with you?’ because he was in the demographic we were going after as well.

“He stands up and went to a whiteboard in the front of the room, and he said, ‘The tagline, this is what it should be,’ and he wrote on the paper, ‘100% non-B.S.’ Budweiser’s campaign at that time was ‘True’ and about being honest, but he said, ‘No, no, don’t say, “True,” that’s not what it is. It’s “100% non-BS.” ’ I told him, ‘Well Junior, we can’t use that as the tagline,’ but it is one of those things that I savored. I went to the board, ripped off the piece of paper, and he signed it. I still have it in my collection somewhere.”

Gurss: “Our intent was to present him as he is. In that era, it felt like the drivers were very slick.”

Schuler: “Dale was great at challenging us to think better and different. He was one who didn’t like the whole merchandise line. He thought it was really uncool to wear this big Bud print over a T-shirt. He’d say, ‘That’s not what I would want to wear as a consumer.’ We brought him in, and they presented 20 different lines of clothing, and he picked out what he wanted to wear and how to wear it. He wore his hat backward for how long. ‘Junior, we get no publicity from you wearing a hat turned around.’ ‘Well, put “Bud” on the back of the hat, I’ll still flip it around.’ Sure enough, it worked. I don’t know if he started it, but he was clearly part of that evolution 17 years ago.

Gurss: “When drivers read a list of sponsors, it would drive me batty. Budweiser agreed if he just said, ‘Budweiser’ in context, they’d be thrilled. They wanted him to just be who he is and not read off a list of sponsors in every interview. He’s such a compelling personality, and they recognized it. That was a part of it. The internal discussion, it was, ‘Let’s let him be a guy that guys want to have a beer with and the ladies want to have a beer with,’ so that played into the way they did their photos and promos.”

Schuler: “He was telling us, ‘If you want to reach consumers, this is what you need to go for,’ and he was dead on. He did a lot of things for us through the early days.”

Sometimes, the driver took matters into his own hands, such as after a wreck at Pocono Raceway that Schuler recalled.

Schuler: They put more duct tape on the left-front quarter panel then I’d ever seen, they had to spray paint it. Dale took the spray paint and put a ‘DMP’ on the front of it. I’m watching at home and it’s got this huge ‘DMP.’ I called Jade to ask, ‘What is that on our car?’ ‘Junior thought it would be fun if he gave a shoutout to his friends. It’s the Dirty Mo Posse.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God. OK.’

“That’s something you can’t control, and he did it. I think he got more fans because of that than anything else, because he was ‘100% no BS.’ ”

Gurss: “He was himself and had this great attribute of about every six months, almost getting bored with something, so he had something new to discuss. He got into boxing and wanted a ring, so we could discuss that for a few months. He would always come up with unique hobbies or interests that from a media standpoint, we were always refreshing. Every time we came to Texas, we had something new to talk about vs. the same old thing.”

Schuler: “We bought an in-car camera every race, and on the first lap at Richmond, there was a skull and crossbones. I’m like, ‘Oh God, now what?’ I called Jade again and asked, ‘Why is there a skull and crossbones next to the Bud sticker on the in-car camera?’ ‘That’s the Dirty Mo Posse emblem.’ It’s also the emblem for poison, and we are a food product! So that was an uncomfortable conversation I had with Junior that he’s no longer to put poison symbols next to Bud.”


In the May 11, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone (and again in 2001), Earnhardt was profiled by Touré, a pop culture writer who would become an MSNBC host and remains a well-known freelance journalist and podcaster. Despite their disparate backgrounds, driver and writer had an instant rapport.

Touré: “I don’t think I knew anything about him before they asked. But nobody in Rolling Stone knew anything about him. They asked me to do the story on Dale Jr. because I did a story on DMX, the rapper, and part of the story included a fairly vivid description of him driving around LA at night. It was like, ‘He writes really well about the literal act of driving. So let’s get him to interview Dale Jr.!’ None of us knew anything about NASCAR, and I knew the least of nothing. I was like, “Sure!’ ”

Gurss: “They sent Touré in, but not intended to be a big, major feature, but Touré and Jr. really hit it off and the first day or two of interviews went so well, it gained traction to do something a little bigger.”

After a trip to Charlotte, Touré was dispatched to spend time with Earnhardt at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the rookie qualified third in the third race that season.

Touré: “I asked very stupid questions like, ‘Why are there lights on the car if you drive during the day?’ He was very patient with me. For somebody coming from a one-on-one kind of place, I’m learning what NASCAR is about this weekend. And he was very cool about like just taking me by the hand.

“That was part of Dale’s charm, I think, that he was clearly humble enough to do that. I think he understood that some of the national media have little understanding of NASCAR, and we’re going to have to educate them — and be happy educating them and pulling them in and not be arrogant about it.

“I remember thinking I didn’t know how epic his father was at that time, so when I’m interviewing him in his trailer, I didn’t realize I was in the presence of greatness. I could tell he was a respected driver, but I didn’t realize how great he was. I remember he undressed in front of me. He was just doing his thing. He was doing his job. He probably realized I didn’t really know what I was talking about, but there’s so much to talk about in that world.”

Gurss: “I don’t know who suggested it, but we decided to walk around the track. The track lights were still on, and the three of us took a mile and a half slow walk around on the apron and banking of the Texas track. It feels like forever ago because Touré was recording on cassettes. He had all these cassettes he’d put in a box, and the very next day, he had it shipped out for someone to transcribe. Lord only knows how many cassettes he went through.”

Touré: “I remember real vividly his (qualifying) run for the trials, the time trials, and his dad was like, “How’d you do that?” “Go straight, turn left!” I thought that was pretty funny.

“There was something special about Dale as a young guy and the son of royalty. He was fun to hang out with. And then just driving around his town, it was just cool. We hung out in Mooresville a couple of times. After his dad passed, I went and spent the weekend with him. I consider that a huge compliment that in that moment when you really don’t want to talk to anybody, it was, ‘I’ve got to talk to somebody, I’ll talk to him.’ ”

Gurss: “It’s hard in context now to appreciate how impactful it was in that era. It was important to Junior as a media outlet because it was something that he and his buddies appreciated and enjoyed. It was the same thing that happened in the next couple of years with MTV Cribs. Junior wanted to do it because his buddies thought it would be cool. Some of the stuff he would do because Budweiser or I thought it would be good. He was great and went along with it. Rolling Stone and MTV meant more to him personally than other stuff we’d been doing. He felt very open about really wanting it to be a good piece.”

Touré: “It was foreign. I think something probably said, ‘Yeah, it probably would be better to be at Vegas than Daytona.’ The official NASCAR folks at the races were all very inviting and welcoming to me, they were super thrilled to have Rolling Stone there and couldn’t have been nicer. They didn’t let on to me they were nervous about how I was going to perceive them.”

Gurss: “Some at NASCAR got a little concerned because Touré shows up with short dreadlocks, and they still were under some heat about the diversity thing. Touré asked about interviewing Brian France. They got very nervous that somehow it was some sort of subterfuge that he was going to write this scathing story about the lack of diversity.”

Touré: “I don’t remember everyone saying or doing anything that made me comfortable. I remember driving around with Junior (in Mooresville), and we passed an intersection and then you don’t see another street for miles. He said someone at the other intersection had made like a face, which indicated to him, ‘What the (expletive) are you doing driving around with him?’ He pointed this out in a way that wasn’t like ‘I’m so woke!’ which wasn’t a thing at that time, but just like, ‘That guy had something to say about it. Whatever.’ He was cool to me from the first second.”

Schuler: “The Rolling Stone story was probably the biggest attention-grabber because what it meant for the brand itself. (Budweiser) was heavily trying to get in with music and trying to brand itself with various genres. It was a magazine we advertised in quite a bit. Always wanted to get different stories in there. Here’s a young kid from Mooresville, North Carolina, on the cover of Rolling Stone. That really jumped us. He also was on the cover of TV Guide. I’ve got a poster of all the different publications we did with him — Rolling Stone, TV Guide, Sports Illustrated.

“Those were big because of the attention that we could get very quickly outside of the NASCAR world and fandom. That’s what we were truly going for. Go to a NASCAR race and ask anyone if they knew Dale Jr. drove the Bud car, and it was easy to get that done. It was, ‘How do we get him out of that?’ ”

Touré: “Rolling Stone definitely liked putting a fish out of water. It really worked putting me there because I had a discovery process. I was learning about NASCAR so I could teach the audience about NASCAR as well as tell you about this guy rather than the expert. That usually works quite well, but the expert knows so much, he may not remember what the audience does not know.”


The following season brought more opportunities, notably introducing Linkin Park at the 2001 Video Music Awards and a candid interview in Playboy.

Earnhardt: “I was super shy. I’m going to tell you that there is no bigger fear than going to the MTV Music Awards and introducing Linkin Park. I don’t think I have experienced fear like that ever since. If it was up to me, I would have never done those things. I would have said heck no, I’m not doing that. I don’t want to do that. That is scary.”

Gurss: “He was always really nervous on Kimmel and Letterman stuff. Then he’d do it and knock it out of the park, and I’d say, ‘I told you you’d be great!’

Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards Sept. 6, 2001 in New York. (Photo by George De Sota/Getty Images)

“But I don’t want to overstate I was badgering him. Before presenting at the VMAs, he said, in one of my favorite lines, ‘I can’t just go there in a Mooresville suit.’ We’d met a stylist from New York while on a People magazine shoot in Dover. We went to her office the afternoon of the VMAs, picked out what to wear, and the town car picked us up and took us to the event. Sometimes, there was no grand plan, it was just saying, ‘Hey this will be cool. This will be fun.’ ”

Earnhardt: “(Gurss) has a knack for helping me try and understand why we should do it. What the response and the repercussions would be from that, and the positives and the opportunities that would follow that. He would say like if this happens, then this could happen and this can happen.”

Gurss: “I’ve never seen him so nervous, he was wound tight. We didn’t know what to expect or how it works. We just knew the car was there, and a volunteer would meet us to be our guide. They sent us the script that was just terrible. We’re in our high-fashion suits in the car, and he says, ‘I’m not saying this.’ I said, ‘We’ll figure something out. It’s a live telecast, they’re not going to stop the show if you don’t say exactly what’s on that.’ Our volunteer handler was a dentist, a really nice guy. We got to the red carpet fairly early, and we asked him if we could change the script. The guy disappears, comes back and says, ‘I found the person doing the teleprompter.’ He takes us back to a cubbyhole in the theater, and Dale makes up something like, ‘I like my music like I like my cars, fast as hell. Some cliché but something better than what they had, and the person just typed it in the teleprompter! We were thinking, ‘OK, don’t know if someone needed to approve that, but it’s in there.”

“I could talk for hours about that day. On the red carpet, a few people knew who he was, and the joke was, ‘Now I know how it feels to be the 43rd qualifier. I’m in the show but not Beyonce or Jay-Z. I’m just a part of it!’ We’re surrounded by all these stars. But we went backstage where the union stagehands were, and the T-shirts and diecasts come out of the woodwork, and he started autographing. It really put him at ease backstage to have all these guys working back there who were thrilled he was there.

“He did all the media afterward. They were stunned he was willing to do this, and we said, ‘That’s what the sponsor pays him to do. We do this every weekend.’ ”

Earnhardt: “That was just kind of a perfect storm between being paired with (Gurss) and having the clout that Budweiser had that could get us into those conversations. Being in the right place at the right time because if it was up to me, I would have never done those things.  I would have been like ‘Heck, no! I want to just drive.’ I’m still very scared of doing those big hits, like music awards and things in front of a lot of people is very challenging for me.”


Earnhardt’s impact on Budweiser’s business was almost immediate, leading to more freedom in the campaign.

Schuler: “It was pretty quick the transition from normal NASCAR driver to a superstar with Bud on his chest. The first year, we had to put Budweiser in there somewhere and a reference to NASCAR. The next year, it was him completely away from the car. It was a contemporary adult. Every NASCAR fan would know who he was. If someone wasn’t a NASCAR fan, it was just a 26-year-old kid or model in the store trying to get someone to choose Budweiser.

“We measured a lot of what we did with properties based on the wholesale system and how much they ordered point of sale items. Prior to Dale Jr., July 4, Memorial Day and the Olympics would garner the vast amount of excitement. The first year with Dale Jr., the NASCAR program went from No. 12 to No. 1 very quickly because he was what they wanted to use to sell Budweiser beer. That’s a metric that’s easy to see because wholesalers have to buy that stuff. They’re putting their money where their mouth is.”

Gurss: “All the cardboard standups, the neon signs, all the bar stuff — the local wholesalers and distributors have to buy that from Budweiser. In the Ricky Craven and Wally Dallenbach Jr. days, roughly 50% of the markets would buy that stuff. Within the first year or two of Dale Jr., it went to 90% plus. I always teased people I was judged by the number of cardboard standups at the 7-11. I knew my job was safe when I saw a neon sign at the bar. I was fascinated by that being a point of real numbers to help them judge the impact it was having.”

The wave of young drivers replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s generation is heavily reliant on social media, which ensures their backing sponsors and brands are built around their genuine personalities. It’s an area in which Earnhardt was ahead of the curve

Schuler: “The built-in fan base with the last name certainly helped, but it was who he was as a person. Most of those stories were prior to his dad’s passing. He already was on a trajectory that no one thought he could get to, and then the tragedy happened and elevated him to icon status.”

Earnhardt: “Those things happened because of our relationship with Budweiser, and then Jade Gurss’ work ethic and his ability to get us into those doors and into those conversations with those publications.  That happened because of a really dedicated, professional person that sees opportunity and does it just as much for himself if not for the person they are working with. I have to give Jade just a lot of credit.  He worked really hard to get those opportunities for us.”

Gurss: “It wasn’t something we’d sit around and theorize. It’s great to say in retrospect, ‘You know we had this bigger picture.’ It sounds pompous. So we didn’t sit around his bus and talk about that. It was just an awareness of trying to get him to get out of his comfort zone. He was very shy. If it were up to him, he’d stay inside and play video games and watch movies. Which is all great.”

Though Earnhardt’s father reportedly grumbled about some of his son’s interviews, he was fully supportive of his progeny taking the namesake to new audiences.

Schuler: “When Senior was alive, he was the only person who snapped Junior into what we’re trying to do and where we’re going. That was a loss for Junior in terms of, ‘How do I do this and where do I go?’ I

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks with his father during the Southern 500 weekend at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend 2000. (Photo by Craig Jones/Getty Images)

give him and his sister an immense amount of credit for the empire they’ve built. They’ve done it by not making a whole lot of mistakes. I’d almost call him the Derek Jeter of NASCAR. He was most eligible bachelor for how long but never a racy story. That’s a true compliment to the moral compass that Big E provided him prior to him leaving. I’m proud of the man he’s become.”

Gurss: “At that time, his dad was saying, ‘I’ve done my part. You’re up and coming. It’s time for you to do your part for NASCAR.’ His dad had instilled in him that view. When (Mike) Helton would approve, that meant a lot to him. Before his dad passed, his dad was like that. He had a bigger picture of more than himself and a sense of the sport as a whole.”

Earnhardt: “Even today, it is still something I don’t have a total grasp on. But I know now, realizing what it could do for the sport and trying to be a good representative of the sport. Having a great relationship with Helton. I love making him proud especially. He and Dad were really close. When Dad was killed, I looked at Helton a bit as a father figure at times and would go lean on him and he would tell me about how well I was doing and if I was representing the sport well. It would push me to want to do that more to make him proud of me. That had a lot to do with it, too.”

Clint Bowyer: ‘Getting back to our consistency’ ahead of next round

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After entering Saturday’s Cup race at Bristol in the final transfer spot to the Round of 12, Clint Bowyer can rest easy for now.

Bowyer is one of the 12 drivers left to fight for the Cup title after his sixth-place finish Saturday. He goes into next weekend’s race at Las Vegas 11th in the standings.

Now, Bowyer says it’s time for his No. 14 team to “live up to our capabilities.”

“I just feel comfortable, we’re getting back to our consistency,” Bowyer said Saturday night. “I guess for a long time in my career I was kind of Steady Eddie, and that’s what it takes in these playoffs, to go the rounds, you can’t make mistakes. I said that going into these playoffs. For our team, we’ve got to live up to our capabilities, and if we can do that and race to our capabilities and not make the mistakes we were making through the summer months, we can contend and move forward rounds in this playoff system, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Bowyer, who was the last driver to finish on the lead lap at Bristol, goes to Las Vegas with three consecutive top 10s to start the playoffs.

Before the playoffs opened, he had gone 11 races with just two top 10s.

“Looking forward to getting out to Sin City and having some fun out there,” Bowyer said. “Hopefully we can double down, get some stage points and continue to march forward up through this playoff system and the points. We’re definitely starting behind again, there’s no question about that.”

Bowyer will start the second round with 3,004 points, tied with Kyle Busch. Kurt Busch is 12th with 3,001 points.

MORE: Points entering second round

“We’ve got to get out there and swing for the fence,” Bowyer said. “These are the playoffs; you don’t base hit it. Steady Eddie got us through this round, but from here on you’ve got to get up to the plate and swing for the fence every time, and every decision, and that’s in the car and out of the car, we’ve got to lay it on the line and go for it, and that’s why these playoffs are fun.

Bowyer has just one top-five finish in 17 Las Vegas starts (2009) and the most recent of his four top 10s there came in 2017.

Then comes the “crapshoot” know as Talladega and the “fun” Charlotte Roval.

“I like it. I’m ready,” Bowyer said. “Things can happen. At the end of the day I’ve had a different approach to the whole thing this year. This whole damned year has been chaotic and everything else, and you’ve just got to go out there and do the best you can do and not worry about or panic about anything else. That’s all you can do anyway.”

Bristol winners and losers

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Kevin Harvick Only two drivers in the last quarter century have won 10 Cup races in a season (Jimmie Johnson in 2007 and Jeff Gordon in 1996-98). Harvick’s win at Bristol marked his career-high ninth of the season. He appears headed to join that elite class.

Austin Dillon His 12th-place finish wasn’t memorable but it was good enough to advance to the second round of the playoffs. He had failed to transfer from the first round the last two times he was in the playoffs.

Kyle BuschFinished second, scoring top-10 finishes in all three first-round playoff races. It’s the first time this season he has had three consecutive top 10s. Still, a frustrated Busch was critical of competitors and his playoff hopes.

Erik Jones His third-place finish matches his best of the season. Result came after he had to start at the rear for inspection issues (just as Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin also had to do so).

Michael McDowell His 10th-place finish is his fourth top 10 of the season. That equals how many top 10s he scored from 2017-19.

Chase Briscoe He won the Xfinity race Saturday at Bristol for his seventh victory of the season.

Sam MayerThe 17-year-old won his first career Truck race and followed it a few hours later by winning the ARCA race at Bristol.


Ryan Blaney Failed to advance to the second round, a round where he could be among the favorites to win a race. He was in position to win at Las Vegas in the spring before being called to pit before the overtime restart and losing the lead. He’s won the past two Talladega races, including last year’s playoff race there. He won the inaugural Charlotte Roval in 2018. What might have been. But a 10-point penalty for an inspection issue at Darlington and struggles there and at Richmond doomed him.

William Byron His playoffs ended with contact before the halfway mark. 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Contact with Jimmie Johnson sent him into the wall. Stenhouse finished last. It is the third time he’s finished 40th this season.

Kevin Harvick wins Bristol night race

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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 40 laps of the race. Harvick claimed his ninth win of the season, a career-best mark. He previous high was eight wins in 2018.

“To beat Kyle Busch at Bristol, I kind of got myself in a little bit of a ringer there,” Harvick told NBCSN. “I hit a lapped car and got a hole in the right-front nose, but just kept fighting. We don’t have anything else to lose. We were here to try to win a race.”

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.

MORE: Race results, points standings

MORE: What drivers said after the race

Busch, who is now winless through the first 29 races of the season, finished second after he started from the rear due to two pre-race inspection failures. He took the lead for the first time when he left pit road first during the Stage 1 break. He wound up leading 159 laps to Harvick’s 226.

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. Harvick has won three of the last five races.

“It’s just been a weird year, but it’s been an unbelievable year on the racetrack,” Harvick said. “I can’t thank everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing enough.”

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.

Ryan Blaney, Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron and Cole Custer entered the race below the cutline to advance to the Round of 12 and were all eliminated from contention.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Elliott

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Busch

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Erik Jones earned his second top five in the last three races … Tyler Reddick earned his third top five of the season and his first since the July 19 race at Texas … Ryan Preece placed ninth for his first top 10 of the year … Michael McDowell finished 10th for his fourth top 10 this season, a career-best

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.


What drivers said after Bristol night race

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Kevin Harvick – winner: “We had just a really, really good Busch Light Ford Mustang tonight. I got it a little dinged up with 50 or 60 laps to go. I knocked a hole in the nose and made it a little too tight through the center of the corner, but turned into a heck of a race, in and out of traffic there with Kyle (Busch). He got me once pinned up there in traffic and I was able to do the same thing back and then hold the lead there until the end. Just really proud of everybody for everything that they’ve done all year and just continuing to fight, and there’s not many races that you can win that are like winning here at the Bristol night race. That was a lot of fun.”

Kyle Busch – finished 2nd: “Frustrated over finishing second.  You know, just felt like this was one of our greater shots to win, and I don’t know. You know, just come up short. You know, Skittles Camry was fast and we had a good car, one that was in contention all night long.  Fired off the start of the race, I was like, oh, wow, this is a pretty good car and then got beat by another really good car, I guess.”

Erik Jones – finished 3rd: “I guess it was a solid day. I thought we had a good car there at the end. But had to start at the back and that took a while to work through there and get some track position. It is really challenging to pass here, even though it is a short track. But a good run. The Auto Owners Camry got better all night, and honestly the last run of the race was our best. We got up there into third and I kind of knew I couldn’t beat those guys straight up, so I tried to save a little bit on the front side of the run and run at the end hard, and just kind of ran out of time. I just started getting to those guys there when we took the checkered.”

Tyler Reddick – finished 4th: “Our No. 8 Childress Vineyards Chevrolet Camaro was a fast one tonight, and we had a great finish to show for it at Bristol Motor Speedway. It took a couple adjustments to get our car to where I needed it to be, but our communication as a team on what adjustments to make has been a big focus for us over the past few weeks and that paid off during tonight’s race. I fired off a little loose on the bottom and tight on the top, so our team had a decision to make on what to focus on. I felt that the top the better groove for our car, so we chose to work on loosening up our Chevrolet a little bit throughout the night and got it in a really good spot for the final stage.

“Those adjustments made it so I was able to cut through traffic during that last stage and race our way into the top five for the last 100 laps or so. I think I may have pushed my front tires a little bit too much on that final run, but this was a really good night for our team. We’re chasing wins in these remaining races while also working on building a strong notebook for next year, and this is a solid step in the right direction for both of those goals.”

Aric Almirola – finished 5th: “We had a solid top five tonight at Bristol and we’re moving on to the Round of 12 again. It was a great run. We missed it a bit to start. This Smithfield Ford team worked so hard to make the right adjustments all night. I was scrapping in the car to get everything I could get. Really proud of everybody on the race team. Ready to see if we can’t make it happen again in this next round.”

Clint Bowyer – finished 6th: “We definitely did what we needed to do. Our Rush Truck Centers/Cummins Engine Ford Mustang was pretty good tonight. We were just way too loose to run with (Harvick or Busch). The cycle on the tires when we actually had that caution, had a cycle on the tires and that usually makes it tighter and that was by far our best run. We drove up through them pretty good and put ourselves in position there, but as soon as the green flag dropped right there at the end I was right back loose again.  We did what we had to do. Obviously, you come here to win a race and be on top of that building over there, but proud of the guys and all their efforts.  We’re moving forward and that’s all that matters right now.”

Chase Elliott – finished 7th: “Definitely excited to move on in the playoffs. I thought the NAPA team had a solid race tonight. It’s unfortunate the way the pit cycle went there, but I felt like we were close. Not sure if we were as good as (Harvick) and (Kyle Busch), but I thought we were close to them. I am proud of the effort and I hope this next round is good for us. It’s definitely not going to get any easier as it goes. Nice to get the stage point and stage win and we will try again in Vegas.”

Ryan Preece – finished 9th: “That was a really fun night at Bristol Motor Speedway. This year has obviously had its challenges for us, and we’ve worked so hard to try and make the strategy play in our favor and get JTG Daugherty Racing the finish we deserve and it feels really good to be able to put it all together. Our BUSH’S Beans Chevrolet was really good on the long run … The cautions finally fell our way and we were able to capitalize on it. Every week for the rest of the season is so important to keep focusing on the positives and get as many good finishes as we can and to be able to get BUSH’S Beans as top-10 finish at their home track is something we’re all proud of.”

Michael McDowell – finished 10th: “Well, what an awesome night for our No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang. We got a top-10 at Bristol. I’m really proud of everybody at Front Row Motorsports. I’m so thankful to Bob Jenkins and all of my guys for giving me this opportunity. It’s the best season that I’ve ever had and another top 10 really helps to keep our momentum rolling. We also have a Ford in Victory Lane, so that’s awesome. I’m just super-excited to get a top 10 at Bristol.”

Joey Logano – finished 11th: “We had a car that was probably top five. It wasn’t as good as (Harvick and Busch) but we had something that was competitive and had that longer run with a loose right rear wheel and we tried to make it last long and it started to get pretty bad. Here, if you go too long it will ruin your chances for the day. It felt like we were late enough in the run that maybe we would start to cycle if we pit. We were so close. The caution was because of (Harvick) pitting and bottling everyone up. We were probably 10 or 15 laps from the cycle being complete and getting our lap back and being in contention for an even better finish. That is how it goes sometimes. We had a solid car and we have a lot of momentum still into the playoffs with three really solid runs outside of one little hiccup here. We will move on to the next round and be happy.”

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th: “We did what we had to do tonight in our Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Off Road/ E-Z-GO Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. We advanced to the Round of 12 in the NASCAR Playoffs. We started off really strong, but our Chevy ended up getting extremely tight in Stage 2. We recovered from that and were running in the top 10 when Harvick slowed on the track to make a green-flag pit stop. I got on my brakes as hard as I could to avoid hitting him, but a lapped car was in the middle of the track and I had nowhere to go. My RCR team did a great job making repairs, but we were never able to catch the break we needed to get back into the top five. Our car was fast overall tonight, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish during the remainder of the season. We’ll go to Las Vegas next week and try to get a win.”

Ryan Blaney – finished 13th: “We started off tight and then that second run we got really tight after the competition caution and lost a lot of track position. After that, we kind of were able to drive up through there. We got to fifth or sixth the one time and we were super tight again and it went really long. That just kind of made it worse and we just kind of got behind there. The track just swung really tight. I was kind of tight all night, but it just swung really tight on us and that was just the wrong direction that the track needed to be at. That stinks.”

Kurt Busch – finished 15th: “It was a good day, we had a loose wheel and we battled after that, but our stage points are what really helped the Monster Energy Chevy tonight. That gave us the cushion we needed to absorb the problem that we had. All-in-all we advanced and that’s what we expected to do and that is what we have to continue to do. We will do it through teamwork and execution. The next round we have a mile-and-a-half Superspeedway and then the Roval. We’ve just got to be on our toes, keep adjusting and adapt to all the things that are coming our way in the next round.”

Alex Bowman – finished 16th: “That was pretty eventful. We had a really good car all night. Our Axalta Camaro was really fast. Probably going to end up somewhere in the top five, at least the top 10. We just had a tire issue under green there in the last stage and had to pit. Unfortunately, we were not in our window to pit. Once the caution did come out, we weren’t able to take the wave around. We were just kind of trapped there and unfortunately couldn’t recover from that. … So awesome to advance to the next round. Proud of my team. This is the strongest we have been going into the Round of 12. I feel like we have some great tracks for us coming up. This is the most consistent we have been as a race team. I am bummed we lost our streak of top-10 finishes, but we have plenty more opportunities throughout the year to have great cars and contend for wins. Wish we would have ended up a little better, but we are ready for Vegas.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 18th: “Our Germain Racing team battled all night long. It was a really good night for our GEICO Camaro ZL1 1LE. Everyone on our team executed throughout the entire race, from Matt (Borland) making good calls, the pit crew having great stops and Chris (Monez) on the spotter stand helping me navigate traffic. We all worked hard and it paid off. The car was its best at the end of the race, which is all you can ask for as a driver. I’m proud of our effort and we will keep digging to finish strong.”

Matt DiBenedetto – finished 19th: “If we didn’t have bad luck, we wouldn’t have any luck at all. I don’t know. It’s just frustrating. I hate it. I want to get Menards and Dutch Boy and this team a good run like they deserve because we’ve had a rough couple weeks, and had a loose wheel, overcome it — drive through the entire field with a lot of green flag. We get to seventh, hoping for a caution, but either way we drove to the top 10 — good run — and I was screaming, ‘Debris in (Turn) 1,’ three damn times and we found it. We ran it over multiple times and I cut the right-rear down and it just ruins our day.”

John Hunter Nemechek – finished 20th: “The crew put together a solid top 15, maybe even top-10 car tonight at Bristol. Our No. 38 Mystik Lubricants Ford Mustang was decent on the long run, but we struggled a little with drive off. After the first stage, it was looking like we were going to have a decent night. We tried a couple of different adjustments on pit road tonight – some of them helped, some not as much. Overall, we wanted to be able to finish a few spots higher. Thanks to our partners at Mystik Lubricants for coming on board with us this season. We’ll debrief this week and come back ready for Las Vegas.”

Denny Hamlin – finished 21st: “I think (Martin Truex Jr.) must have been on the splitter or something when he came out after he took a green flag pit stop. He just kind of went straight off of the corner. I was running the top and when he went straight, he saw he was going to hit the wall, so he slammed on the brakes and I was going, so I jammed up under him. That was unfortunate. That was bad luck for us. I think he was a couple laps down, but they were fighting their car all day. I’m sure they got in the next round, but we just had some bad luck. We drove up to fifth, and I felt pretty good. We caught the lead within three seconds – drove to them within three seconds, so I was pretty happy about where we were going to be, and then we crashed.”

Bubba Wallace – finished 22nd: “We had a pretty fast No. 43 Cash App Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE tonight – probably the best car we’ve ever brought to Bristol (Motor Speedway), so that was a positive. We got a stage point in Stage 1. I thought the guys were doing a really good job throughout the night. Our Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE was on the tight-side a little bit. We didn’t really seem to help it, but we didn’t really hurt it all either – kind of just stayed the same balance from the start of the race to the finish. A little frustrating, but super frustrated that we just can’t seem to get some luck on the strategy side. Unfortunate that we got trapped three-laps down, or whatever it was, and you’re just stuck, especially that late in the race. We’ll go onto the Las Vegas Motor Speedway and see if we can turn it around.”

Cole Custer – finished 23rd: “We just struggled here. I don’t know why. I’ve always liked Bristol, it just hasn’t come together this year here. We’ve just really struggled. I just can’t thank everybody enough at SHR, everybody at, Autodesk.  I just wish we had a better night. We were just a little bit off. I think we can hang our heads high on what we’ve done this year, but we still have a lot of races to win the rest of this year, so we just have to keep building.”

Daniel Suarez – finished 26th: “We deserved better than that. I don’t know what happened at the end there, but it should not have happened. We had a few things to work on at the start of the race. Then, in the middle part of the race, we were super tight for a long time until the Toyota Genuine Parts & Service car really started coming to me on old tires. We didn’t make any changes on the last stop and it was feeling pretty good until what happened there at the end. That’s Bristol, I guess. Let’s go to Las Vegas.”

Brad Keselowski – finished 34th: “It was a frustrating night, there is no way around that. I am thankful we were able to lead some laps but that certainly was not what we were hoping for. We had a power steering pump issue. I am not sure exactly what it was. I will let the team guys get to that and chase it down. Obviously it killed out chances. I don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t have that problem but we did so we will move on to the next week and I am thankful we had the win at Richmond last week to fall back on.”

William Byron – finished 38th: “I think the No. 51 car (Joey Gase) checked up in the middle of the straightaway. As fast as we were running the top, I was right behind the No. 95 (Christopher Bell) and I had literally nowhere to go. You can’t stop in the middle of the straightaway when everybody is so committed to the top like that. Just ridiculous that that’s what takes us out. I thought honestly we had a shot to run top-five or seven. The car was really, really good. We just needed a couple good pitstops. We were running probably ninth or tenth there. Just super disappointing – I’ve got to go back and watch that because that was kind of ridiculous.”