Martin Truex Jr. wins Ford EcoBoost 400 to wrap up first Cup crown

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Martin Truex Jr. held off a late push by Kyle Busch to win Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to claim his first career NASCAR Cup championship.

Truex held off Championship 4 drivers Busch (second), Kevin Harvick (third) and Brad Keselowski (seventh).

It was Truex’s series-leading eighth win of the season, seven coming on 1.5-mile tracks. And how’s this for an irony: Truex led 78 laps en route to the win, the same car number that graces his Toyota Camry.

“I’ve wanted this since I was a little kid and just never gave up, I never gave up on my dream,” an emotional Truex told NBC after a massive celebratory burnout on the frontstretch. “We’re going to party it up. I never thought this day would come.”

MORE: Results, stats for Cup season finale in Miami won by Martin Truex Jr.

MORE: Final 2017 Cup points standings after Miami

Kyle Larson finished fourth and was followed by Chase Elliott and Joey Logano. Matt Kenseth placed eighth in what could be his final Cup start and was followed by Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman.

Coming into the race, Truex was the only one of the Championship 4 drivers to have never won a Cup championship. Now he joins his fellow title contenders in the exclusive club.

Truex dedicated the win to Furniture Row Racing team owner and founder Barney Visser, who suffered a heart attack and had bypass surgery two weeks ago. Visser continues to recover. Visser was unable to attend Sunday’s race because his doctor forbade him from going to Miami or even watching the race on TV due to health reasons. Visser received texts throughout the race, keeping him appraised of what was happening.

“I was a mess, I couldn’t even talk, I was a wreck, just thinking about all the tough days, the bad days, the times where I thought my career was over with, the times when I didn’t think anyone believed in me,” Truex said in tears to NBC in Victory Lane. “The people that mattered, my fans, family and when I got with this team, they’re unbelievable, they resurrected my career and made me a champion.”

Added crew chief Cole Pearn, “We had to race three other great guys. To be able to dig down and pull it off, it’s unbelievable. I don’t know how to comprehend it. To put in the effort that we have all year and be able to truly call ourselves champions is unbelievable.”

Also of note:

* Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 25th in his final Cup race.

“I had a lot of fun tonight,” Earnhardt told NBC. “I hated to hit the wall. We lost about 10 spots getting that flat. I had a deal with (team owner Rick Hendrick) where he got my helmet and I got the car. I’m so proud for Martin, what a story. “We’re retiring and Martin wins a championship.

“That’s storybook. I hope all fans enjoyed the season. I know it wasn’t everything we wanted on the race track, but we sure had fun of it. We’re going to miss everybody, but we’ll be back (as an NBC announcer starting next season).”

* Danica Patrick was involved in a Stage 2 wreck that ended her day and her five-year tenure with Stewart-Haas Racing. She finished 37th, her 11th DNF of the season (10 due to crashes).

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Kyle Larson bounced back from DNFs in his previous four races to not only lead the most laps (145) but also finish third. … Joey Logano, who has struggled much of this season, finished one spot ahead of his teammate, Brad Keselowski.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE? Danica Patrick ended her full-time NASCAR Cup career after suffering a blown tire that caused her to crash into the wall, setting her car on fire and ending her day. … In his final start with Hendrick Motorsports, Kasey Kahne was collected in Patrick’s wreck. He was able to keep racing, but finished 33rd, 33 laps behind the leaders. … Daniel Suarez lost his brakes and finished 34th.

NOTABLE 1: Truex becomes the 32nd champion in NASCAR Cup history. He also won the 2004 and 2005 Xfinity Series championships. … The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series trophy weights 68 lbs. It took both Truex and Pearn to lift it together in celebration upon being presented it from NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France.

Notable 2: Lost amid the departure of Patrick, Earnhardt and Kenseth from the Cup Series is that Sunday marked the final race for Richard Childress Racing for Paul Menard (moves to Wood Brothers Racing in 2018), Ryan Blaney‘s final race with Wood Brothers (moves to Team Penske next season), Kasey Kahne’s final race with Hendrick Motorsports (moves to Leavine Family Racing in 2018) and Aric Almirola‘s final race with Richard Petty Motorsports (moves to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018). Also, Erik Jones, who won Rookie of the Year, moves from Furniture Row Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing. There’s also the lingering uncertainty whether Kurt Busch will return to Stewart-Haas next season or move to another team, as well as where Michael McDowell and Landon Cassill will wind up.

QUOTE OF THE RACE 1: “I told him, ‘That’s why you never give up.’ That’s been our motto all along, ever since I started my cancer battle. … We always say, if you can fight a struggle with a positive attitude, have a smile on your face, find the good and the silver lining and in the end, in the end karma will pay you back and good things will happen to you. This is the best thing that could happen.” – Sherry Pollex, longtime girlfriend of Martin Truex Jr., on what she first said to him after the race.

QUOTE OF THE RACE 2: “That’s what happens when you lose in this format. We gave it everything we had, we gave it all, so congratulations to the 78. They deserved it probably on every other race but today, I thought we were better, but it didn’t matter though, because they were out front when it mattered most.” — Runner-up Kyle Busch

WHAT’S NEXT: The 2017 season has concluded. The next race is the 2018 season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2018.

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.”