Podcast: Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte go deep on hot-button topics

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In the debut of a new post-“Wednesdays with Dale” podcast, NASCAR America analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Steve Letarte had extended discussions about topics on Wednesday’s show.

You can hear the podcast by clicking on the audio embed below, but here are some snippets from what the former crew chief-driver tandem said during the freewheeling conversation:


On the postrace dash to the airport that began with Earnhardt’s late father and others from that generation …

Earnhardt on the trend’s origins: “There was a bit of a hurry just to be home quicker, but there also was a huge element at play with their egos, with Rusty (Wallace) and Dad particularly. Dad and Rusty competed on everything. They literally were like racing home in their planes the same way they ran the race all day. It was always who could get in the air first.”

Letarte: “My man Jeff Burton can get out of a sportcoat like Superman. In the phone booth, out of the phone booth, he’s gone.”

Earnhardt: “I remember going to races with (his father) before I started driving and seeing him start to drive home in his driver’s suit. It’s like that first 15 miles within the circumference of the racetrack, if you can break out of that traffic bubble sooner than anyone else … once you’re beyond that bubble, you’re good to go.”

Letarte: “If you’re first out of the bubble, you’re first to the airport, and once you’re the leader, you’re the leader all day.”


On an Xfinity race they ran together at Texas Motor Speedway (probably in 2014) in which they started off horrendously slow …

Earnhardt on Letarte being his crew chief in two series the same weekend: “That says a lot about me as a driver that you were not so tired of me on the Cup side that you were like, ‘You know what? I don’t think I’ll do that. I’m really getting enough of you on the Cup side.’ You said, ‘Yes! Yes, Dale! More racing with Dale? Of course!’”

Letarte: “We were getting our teeth kicked in in practice.”

Earnhardt: “We realized it quickly in the first 15 minutes. I’m like, ‘Hey, driving OK! Feels pretty good!’ He’s like, ‘Well I got some bad news. You’re half a second slow! Not a little bit! We’re in trouble!’  … We were starting to panic. I made this uncharacteristically low entry into Turn 3, and it chopped a half-second off the lap.”

Letarte: “And instantly, I was like, ‘Hey, that’s way better.’ And the response was, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re pretty good, I’ve been driving it all wrong.’ We went from throwing up slow to one good lap to let’s go back to the Cup garage, we’ll be fine.”


On Brad Keselowski’s comments about the need for drivers to be outspoken

Letarte on whether a crew chief would prefer a driver toe the line: “I’ve only had two (drivers). I had Jeff Gordon and Dale Jr. Both spoke their mind, both were very transparent, they endorsed products that endorsed them and matched their brands and personalities. It all worked. I enjoyed it because both also would have a conversation where it’s more than just the fans. I guess the short answer is yes. I enjoy a driver who is speaking their mind because if you’re always you, all the time, even though it’s sometimes rockier, you’re going to get in less major issues because you are who you are. People don’t think you’re two-faced or saying something behind your back. I will qualify that by saying both drivers I worked with who were that way, I could call on the phone and say hey, I know you think this, but I just want to paint the picture of what could be perceived of internally in our family while we try to go race, and both of them would say oh man, I never thought of that. They were both very supportive.”

Earnhardt on whether sponsorship can hinder drivers speaking freely compared with other sports: “NBA players do have to consider the partnerships that they have, but when you’re LeBron James, you have so much strength. Your brand is so freaking strong, it doesn’t affect him as much.

“I think that with drivers, I think they’re a little more concerned not so much with how the fans may react, but they probably do think more about, ‘Oh man, my sponsor may not like this, how much job security do I have? Am I willing to risk my career on making a statement?’

“Brad doesn’t seem to care. I might be wrong. This might not be true every driver. But I think if you adopt that approach, a lot of people buy in, a lot of people buy in to who Brad is, that’s Brad. Nobody’s shocked. His sponsors aren’t going to wake up and say, ‘Wait a minute!’ They know who they’re getting. That’s who Brad is. Him being that way has gotten to become what we expect from Brad, so it’s not so shocking to see his owner or corporate partners see him get into those situations.”

Click on the embed above to hear the podcast.

It also is available on Apple Podcasts.

 

Entry lists for Talladega playoff weekend

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NASCAR’s playoffs continue this weekend on its largest oval track, Talladega Superspeedway.

All three national series will be competing on the 2.66-mile track.

More: Las Vegas winners and losers

Here are the preliminary entry lists for Talladega:

Cup – YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)

Thirty-nine cars are entered.

Brendan Gaughan is entered in Beard Motorsports’ No. 62 Chevrolet for his final start of the year and his NASCAR career.

Ryan Blaney has won the last two Cup races at Talladega.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Xfinity – Ag-Pro 300 (4:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-five cars are entered.

AJ Allmendinger is entered in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet.

No driver is listed on SS Green Light Racing’s No. 07 Chevrolet.

Justin Haley won at Talladega in June over Ross Chastain and Jeb Burton.

Tyler Reddick won this race last year over Gray Gaulding and Christopher Bell.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Trucks – Chevrolet Silverado 250 (1 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

Thirty-nine trucks are entered.

Natalie Decker is on the entry list after she missed Friday’s Las Vegas race due to not being medically cleared.

Trevor Bayne is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 45 truck for the fourth time this season.

Spencer Boyd won this race last year over Todd Gilliland and Riley Herbst.

Click here for the entry list.

Las Vegas Winners and losers

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WINNERS

Kurt Busch Winless in 21 previous attempts at Las Vegas, Busch scored an emotional win at his hometown track. Busch took advantage of a strategy call by crew chief Matt McCall and a timely debris caution to take the point and led the final 26 laps. He earned his first win of the season. “This is 20 years of agony and defeat and now today with triumph,” Busch said after the race.

Matt DiBenedettoStill seeks his first career Cup win and the 100th series victory for Wood Brothers Racing, but DiBenedetto finished second in both Las Vegas races this season.

Alex BowmanHe finished fifth but scored more points (43) than any driver except Denny Hamlin, who had 53 points. Bowman holds the final transfer spot to the next round.

Chris Buescher — His ninth-place finish is his second consecutive top 10 and third top 10 in the last five races.

Chase Briscoe Had a dominant car and scored the win in the playoff opener for the Xfinity Series at Las Vegas.

LOSERS

Austin DillonHis race was going well — he scored 10 stage points — until overheating problems sent him to pit road. He lost nine laps as his crew made repairs and went on to finish 32nd. That drops him to last among the playoff drivers with two races left in this round.

Chase ElliottWas 10th on the overtime restart but got shuffled back and finished 22nd.

Caution comes at wrong time for Denny Hamlin at Las Vegas

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Denny Hamlin said he knew it would happen. He just didn’t know when.

A debris caution during a green-flag cycle proved key to Kurt Busch winning Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Las Vegas and Hamlin finishing third despite leading a race-high 121 laps.

The caution on Lap 237 caught most of the playoff drivers a lap down, forcing them to wave around. Busch was the only playoff driver who had not made a pit stop.

Hamlin, who was leading, pitted on Lap 233. He came in a lap after Alex Bowman stopped. Bowman was running second to Hamlin before the stop.

“Our hand got forced by (Bowman) by him coming in early there,” Hamlin said of his team not wanting to have Bowman gain time with fresher tires. “We both had a lead over the field. I thought we could have run a little bit longer, but we had to answer their strategy because they were within one second of us. We didn’t want to just to kind of give them the lead and count on running them down at the end of the race. You have to keep yourself in front of them.”

Instead of possibly celebrating a win and advancing to the next round, Hamlin left Vegas frustrated with his third-place showing.

“I just hate getting burned by the same thing, that’s it, that’s all I’m saying,” Hamlin said on the radio to crew chief Chris Gabehart after the race. “It’s the same thing I get burned on. I know we had no choice because (where) we were at.”

Gabehart responded to Hamlin on the radio: “The choice is I stay out another five or six laps and if the caution doesn’t come, we have no shot to win. I don’t know what I’d do different. The problem is there is no reason for the leaders to come early because you leave yourself vulnerable to that, but you can’t get all these goofballs to understand that. It’s what happens.”

Even after such a finish, Hamlin is 58 points ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the next round.

But that wasn’t enough to console Hamlin.

“I just hate missing out on victories,” he said of his playoff spot. “We’re so much better than the six victories that we’ve got. It’s just disturbing. I’ve never been so fast in so many races and not finish it like we feel like we should, but we’re up front. That’s what counts. That’s what’s going to get you to Phoenix, keep getting those wins and keep battling for race wins. You’ll get yourself to Phoenix (for the title race) and hopefully you’’ll get a championship out of  it. That’s what we’re all here for. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Hamlin’s finish was his best in the playoffs and came after a first round that saw him score a stage win but not place higher than 12th.

Hamlin discounted the notion that putting together a new Cup team with Michael Jordan for next year and signing Bubba Wallace to drive for it had been a distraction earlier in the playoffs.

“I’ve been working for like 10 weeks on stuff, not just racing stuff, but stuff in general,” Hamlin said. “We’ve had bad breaks. Tonight was just another bad break like Darlington was, to be honest with you. Or Bristol. We led laps. We were, I thought, the best car.”

At Darlington, Hamlin missed pit road and had to go back around. Then a debris caution about 10 laps buried him outside the top 10 with less than 50 laps left. He finished 13th.

At Bristol, Hamlin started at the rear because his car failed inspection twice before the race. He ran fifth when he had contact with teammate Martin Truex Jr. as Truex returned to the track after pitting. Hamlin finished 21st.

Kyle Busch still below playoff cutline after ‘pretty dismal’ Las Vegas race

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Though he finished sixth Sunday night in the Cup playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch described his experience in the Round of 12 opener as “pretty dismal.”

The defending Cup champion now goes into the second race of the round, at Talladega Superspeedway, outside the transfer position to the next round. He trails Alex Bowman, who holds the final transfer spot, by nine points.

“Started a little up, went a little down and finished just kind of mediocre there,” Busch said. “We brought an okay M&M’s Camry. Just didn’t seem to have the overall speed that it needed, especially on the long runs early in the race. Then there late, just no overall speed. Nothing to go blitz anybody and try to make moves and get to the front. We just salvaged along and got what we got. We got lucky to get what we got for sure. It was looking like it was going to be a 12th- or 14th-place day, but came home sixth.”

Busch’s issues began at the start of Stage 2 after he earned the lead by getting off pit road first. As he raced Joey Logano for the lead on the Lap 87 restart, he was on the inside of Logano as they drove toward Turn 3.

That’s when Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, dove to Busch’s inside to make it three wide and then take the lead.

But as Hamlin pulled even with Busch, Busch lurched to the right and made contact with Logano. The Team Penske driver would pit to repair a tire rub while Busch continued.

“I don’t know if (Logano) knew that was coming and didn’t adjust for it and didn’t plan for it,” Busch said. “It kind of seemed like he expected me to go to the bottom and run the bottom and he was gonna run my door.”

Logano said on the radio to his spotter he didn’t realize he was three-wide until it was too late.

Later, Busch pit from fourth on Lap 118 and fell to 28th when his front tire changer’s pit gun broke, resulting in a 22.5-second stop.

“We worked on it and I thought we were making some gains on it and then we got that damage and got way back in traffic,” Busch said. “Then there towards the end, was just able to get lucky on a couple of the last restarts in order to pick off a few spots with the M&M’s Camry and get ourselves in a better position for the finish. It was a pretty dismal day I guess.”

Busch heads to Talladega. He has one win in 30 Cup starts there. He has just one top 10 there in the last six races.

How does Busch plan to navigate the race as he faces his nine-point deficit to the playoff cutoff?

“I’ll just do what I’m told,” Busch said.