Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Cup ride celebrated with smiles, laughter and plenty of beer

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HOMESTEAD, Florida — The tears took place before the race. Afterward, there were smiles, laughs and plenty of beer.

There’s no other way Dale Earnhardt Jr. would walk away from his Cup driving career but with a beer, a smile and his crew nearby.

“I had a lot of fun tonight,’’ Earnhardt said after finishing 25th in his final Cup start.

And he’ll keep the car. Earnhardt’s deal with car owner Rick Hendrick was that if Earnhardt brought the car back in one piece, he would get to keep it.

He will. In exchange, Hendrick got Earnhardt’s helmet.

The only marks on the car came when Earnhardt hit the wall late and when he ran into winner and series champion Martin Truex Jr. after the race, his way of “high-fiving (Truex) with the race car.

“I love it,” Earnhardt said. “We retire and Martin wins the championship. That’s storybook.’’

Earnhardt later went to the stage to hug Truex, a close friend, and congratulate him on his first series championship.

Earnhardt’s season ends without a win but a lifetime of memories. He leaned on his red No. 88, which resembled the car he drove his rookie Cup season, along with the rest of his crew. They laughed, joked and shared a few last moments as a team before Earnhardt moves on to his duties as a co-owner of JR Motorsports and a broadcaster next year for NBC Sports.

“I hope all the fans enjoyed this season,’’ Earnhardt said. “I know it wasn’t everything we wanted on the race track but we sure had fun off and going to miss everybody. We’ll be back.’’

It was before the race that Earnhardt admits was most difficult.

“Hugging on Rick made me emotional because he’s like a daddy,’’ Earnhardt said of Hendrick. “Trying to tell him how much he means to me is really hard. Words just don’t do it justice. It’s hard to explain to somebody that you love so much.

“Me and him bawled like babies before I got in the car.’’

Once Earnhardt cranked the engine, he headed down pit. Crews from each team walked out to pit road to slap his hand as he slowly drove by, a scene reminiscent of when his father won the 1998 Daytona 500 and pit crews honored him by doing that.

The admiration by the crews to Earnhardt on Sunday was reciprocated.

“I really wanted to shake their hand because the road guys are the guys who have it the most difficult for their travel, the commitment to be on a pit crew, that’s the biggest commitment that I think anybody makes in this industry,’’ Earnhardt said. “I was wanting to shake their hands. I’ve admired all them guys in that garage for so long.

“I was hoping everybody would be on pit road so I could shake their hand.’’

No one was more proud of Earnhardt than his mother, Brenda Jackson, who flew in Sunday morning for the race with other family members.

She didn’t see him until driver intros and they talked briefly.

She told him that she loved him.

He told her: “Mom, thank you for everything.’’

“Don’t start that now,’’ she told her son, “because I haven’t cried yet.’’

After Earnhardt exited his car a final time, he shared another long embrace with Hendrick and then hugged wife Amy and his mom.

As Earnhardt hugged his mother, his face glowed and smile widened. They held each other tight.

“That was the one moment that it hit me,’’ she said, “and I got emotional.’’

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Five defining laps of Cup season, Ray Evernham

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and will look back at the first half of the season.

Krista Voda hosts with Jeff Burton and Kyle Petty from the Big Oak Table in Charlotte.

On today’s show:

·     With NASCAR about to enter its summer stretch, it’s easy to think “Wait, how did we get here?” Throughout today’s show, we’ll examine the five defining laps of the season’s first half and their impact.

·     Father’s Day was on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s mind during the latest Dale Jr. Download podcast. We’ll show you a clip ahead of the Download’s TV debut at 5:30 p.m. ET Thursday. Plus: Get more Dale Jr. tomorrow as he joins the show at the Big Oak Table in Charlotte.

·    One of NASCAR’s most innovative minds is about to take a very unique car on a “Race To The Clouds.” We’ll chat with NASCAR Hall of Famer Ray Evernham as he prepares to run the world-famous Pikes Peak International Hill Climb on Sunday.

·    From rattlesnakes to bears, sometimes the Victory Lane trophy is more dangerous than the race itself. We highlight a few of our favorites in today’s My Home Track.

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.

Indianapolis to add dirt track race to NASCAR weekend

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway plans to build a quarter-mile dirt track inside Turn 3 to run a USAC race to kick off the NASCAR weekend, the track’s president confirmed in reports by Racer and The Indianapolis Star.

The move is being made to connect the NASCAR event, which has seen a steady decline in attendance in the last decade, with race fans.

“The short-track community in a lot of ways is the heart and soul of racing across America,” Doug Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway told The Indianapolis Star. “USAC midget racing, especially in the Midwest, is really strong and competitive, and attracts people like Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Rico Abreu when they have time to come race.

“So for us, we thought, is there away we could connect with that short track guy or gal, who spends their weekend at the local track on Saturday? And we thought this was good way to experiment with connecting with that fan base.”

IMS constructed a 3/16-mile flat dirt track inside Turn 3 in 2016 as a gift to Tony Stewart to celebrate his final Cup start at that track that year. Sarah Fisher and Bryan Clauson, who died from injuries suffered in a crash at the Belleville Midget Nationals about a month later, joined Stewart in running midget cars on that track.

Stewart ran about 20 laps. Even then, he looked ahead to the possibility of a dirt race at the Brickyard.

“If we get to actually watch a race here at IMS on a dirt track, that is going to be pretty awesome,’’ Stewart said that day. “They haven’t been able to do that for the first 100 years, but they can do it for the next 100.’’

The dirt track that IMS plans to construct for the NASCAR weekend will have 60-foot wide straights and 8-degree banking in the corners, according to Racer. The track plans to build bleachers to hold 5,000 fans. IMS began bringing in dirt Tuesday.

The date has yet to be announced for the event but both reports stated it would be the Thursday or Friday before the Sept. 9 Cup race at the track.

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Kyle Petty Charity Ride raises $1.3 million for Victory Junction

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This year’s Kyle Petty Charity Ride Across America raised $1.3 million for the Victory Junction Gang camp during its 1,200-mile trip from Maine to North Carolina, the charity announced Tuesday.

The camp in Randleman, North Carolina, is devoted to providing life-changing camping experiences for children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses. Donations support maintenance programs, building projects and camperships.

Along with Petty, 225 participants joined the NBC Sports analyst in the drive from Portland, Maine, to Greensboro, North Carolina, that visited nine states in seven days.

The camp has been the primary beneficiary of the charity ride since the camp’s founding in 2004 as a tribute to his late son, Adam, who was killed in a crash during Xfinity Series practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000.

“From lapping the track at New Hampshire (Motor Speedway) to our homecoming at Victory Junction, this year’s Ride was a little bittersweet,” Petty said in a press release. “It was more emotional for me this year than past Rides because we ended at Camp. I’ve said it a million times – when I see a camper, I see Adam in their smile and I know he’s still here with us. And there were campers everywhere as we pulled into Camp.”

Since 1995, more than 8,400 riders have logged more than 12 million cumulative motorcycle miles and raised $19.3 million for Victory Junction and other children’s charities.

Road course domination hard to come by these days – unless you’re one of the ‘Big 3’

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It might be a total coincidence, but the drivers that make up the “Big 3” in Cup competition this season have one thing in common.

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. enter this weekend’s race at Sonoma Raceway as the only active drivers to win at the track in the last five years.

They also are the only active drivers with multiple victories at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen International (the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval makes its debut on Sept. 30).

Busch leads the way with four wins, with two at Sonoma (2008, 2015) and WGI (2008, 2013).

“There are a lot of guys out there who have the road-racing background, who know a heck of a lot more about road racing and technique than we do,” Busch said in a media release. “It’s definitely something you have to work on. With rule changes and tire changes, it’s something you work on every year. There’s always change that you have to work on to be competitive.

“When I was a kid back in Las Vegas in Legends cars, that’s where I was able to learn about shifting and turning left and turning right. I had the natural instincts for it and won a couple of championships in the winter series we had out there. We actually went to Sonoma back then and ran the national championship races two years in a row and finished third both times, so I had a little bit of experience on road courses as I came up through the ranks.”

Truex and Harvick follow Busch with two wins each, but they didn’t join this exclusive club until last year.

Harvick won his first race at Sonoma, 11 years after his lone victory at WGI.

Truex then won at WGI, four years after he claimed his second career Cup win in 2013 at Sonoma.

“I love the challenge of road racing,” Truex said in a media release. “I grew up racing go-karts on road courses (in New Jersey) and fell in love with that quickly. The excitement level definitely goes up a few notches when we compete at a road course.”

Truex led a race-high 25 laps last year at Sonoma before falling out with engine problems.

“Sonoma is more like a short track,” Truex said. “It has a lot of slower speed corners and a lot of elevation changes. The worn out pavement causes tires to wear out fast. It’s almost like Darlington on a road course. You have to be disciplined at Sonoma. One little hiccup can knock you off the course and most likely out of the race.”

Outside the “Big 3” there are seven active drivers who have a single road course win.

Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger have victories at Watkins Glen. Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer have won at Sonoma.

Gone are the days of Jeff Gordon (series-high nine road course wins) and Tony Stewart (eight wins, including five at WGI).

Why is it so hard for drivers to string together consistent success at road courses today? Why have there been nine different winners in the last nine Sonoma races?

Front Row Motorsports’ David Ragan shared his thoughts.

“I think the phrase of ‘just keep all four wheels on the track’ is a little outdated,” Ragan said in a media release. “I think the drivers have gotten so much better. You don’t have as many guys spinning out and making mistakes as we did 10 years ago. I feel like 25 guys are really good when we go to Sonoma. And when you see short track guys, like a Martin Truex or Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch, they’re really good at Sonoma without having that road course background. I just think all the drivers have worked on their road racing skills.”