Picture Perfect: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race topped only by family photo

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RICHMOND, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. smiled when he walked to his Xfinity car for the first practice at 8:30 a.m., when he worked later in the day in the NBCSN booth, when he stood next to wife Amy and daughter Isla before the Xfinity race and when he climbed from his car after winning a stage, leading 96 laps and finishing fourth.

The last time Earnhardt had this much fun as a driver?

“When I was racing late models in the ‘90s probably,” Earnhardt said on pit road. “I had a lot of fun in the late ‘90s running the Xfinity Series (but) I didn’t know how good I had it. (In) the Cup garage, it’s so damn cutthroat it’s hard to have fun in there.”

Friday, he oozed energy. Earnhardt spoke as quickly as his Chevrolet ran. He laughed. He bobbed. He raised his hands.

He took it all in just as the fans did at Richmond Raceway. They rejoiced when the No. 88 led. They roared when he was introduced before the race and exclaimed as he stood on pit road after running 250 laps. They followed their pied piper as he walked down pit road to the media center. Halfway there, he diverted his path so he could walk with them, sign autographs and take selfies.

Other than a win – which went to Christopher Bell – the day couldn’t have been much better. Especially since he sought to manage expectations by saying before practice began that he hoped to score a top-10 finish.

“You just can’t assume you can miss eight months, 10 months and come in and win, much less run in the top five,” he said.

As the day progressed, a top-10 finish would be almost a disappointment.

Earnhardt was fast during the day, qualified second and put himself in position for a strong run.

“Right around three-quarters of the way through that race, I’m like, ‘Man if I don’t win now I’m going to be disappointed,’ ” Earnhardt said. “I had backed myself into a corner with my expectations getting too high. It’s easy to be disappointed that we didn’t win because we should have, but I didn’t do a good job on that one restart. I just spun my tires.”

Even so, Earnhardt called it a “fun night” and noted the challenges for JR Motorsports to bring a fifth car to the track, especially with three of the organization’s drivers competing in the playoffs: Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and Tyler Reddick.

Yet, the car for the boss proved to be the best. Earnhardt even won a stage, which he noted on the radio to his team after it happened.

“I never won a freaking stage before. It’s kind of embarrassing to be honest with you,” Earnhardt said with a smile. “It felt good. I had fun doing it.”

That feeling, though, couldn’t compare to what he felt before the race when he stood with Amy and Isla for pictures in front of his car.

“Being with Isla, that meant a lot to me,” Earnhardt said of his 4-month old daughter. “I don’t know what she’ll think of my racing career and how that will register with her since she won’t have experienced any of it. We got to have one race together. Pretty important moment for me.”

But it might not be the last. Earnhardt talked about running another race next year. He might return to Richmond or go to Atlanta.

That’s for another day.

On this day, after he had given his fan base and himself one more memory, there was still something else to do.

“I can’t wait to get back to the (motor home),” he said.

And celebrate his accomplishment with his wife and daughter.

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John Hunter Nemechek earns first Xfinity Series win

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John Hunter Nemechek bounced back from two pit stop miscues in the last 50 laps to earn his first Xfinity Series win Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

Nemechek, 21, led the final 30 laps. That was after he went from fifth to first on the final restart with 32 laps to go.

The son of former Cup driver Joe Nemechek earned the win in his 15th start.

Nemechek had to pass Daniel Hemric, who finished second after leading 128 laps.

“It means a lot, especially at Kansas,” Nemechek told NBC. “(In) 2004, I forget how old I was. But dad swept the weekend in the Xfinity Series and the Cup Series. It’s pretty special.”

The top five was completed by Elliott Sadler, Shane Lee and Tyler Reddick.

Nemechek pitted with Hemric with 50 laps to go and slid through his pit box. He left pit road three seconds behind Hemric.

When the final caution waved with 36 laps to go, Nemechek had to pit twice to tighten lug nuts.

“When that caution came I knew we had a chance,” Nemechek told NBC. “Luckily Daniel and I raced each other hard and clean all day. We got the track position and this thing was unreal to the end.”

When Nemechek took the checkered flag, he led Hemric by roughly five seconds. Hemric said he had a vibration over the last 15 laps.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Daniel Hemric

STAGE 2 WINNER: John Hunter Nemechek

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Elliott Sadler earned his best finish since the July Daytona race (second) … Shane Lee placed fourth for his career-best finish … Tyler Reddick earned his first top five of the playoffs … Ryan Sieg placed ninth for his second top 10 of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Playoff contenders Cole Custer, Justin Allgaier, Austin Cindric and Christopher Bell were all involved in an eight-car wreck on Lap 1. Only Custer finished the race (26th) … Brandon Jones was eliminated via a one-car incident on the ensuing restart … After being involved in the Lap 1 crash, Spencer Gallagher was eliminated in one-car incident on Lap 26 … After Bell and Jones, Ryan Preece completed the Joe Gibbs Racing trifecta. He was involved in an incident on the last lap of Stage 2 when he was turned from contact with Joey Gase. Preece finished 21st.

NOTABLE: John Hunter Nemechek is the third driver to earn his first Xfinity win of the season (Ross Chastain, Spencer Gallagher).

WHAT’S NEXT: O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway at 3:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 3. on NBCSN.

Video: Xfinity playoff contenders out after Lap 1 crash at Kansas

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Three of the eight playoff contenders were eliminated in a crash on the first lap of Saturday’s Xfinity race at Kansas Speedway, which opens the Round of 8.

Justin Allgaier, Christopher Bell, Austin Cindric and Cole Custer were involved in a nine-car wreck as the field raced through Turn 2. Allgaier, Bell and Cindric were eliminated while Custer’s team was able to make repairs to his No. 00 Ford.

It began when Allgaier got loose and made contact with Bell.

“Just hate it for everybody that we took out on Lap 1. It’s uncalled for, ” Allgaier told NBC. “That one’s on me.”

Bell, who won this race last year, told NBC he “didn’t really see much of anything” as the wreck developed. “Just heartbroken. This is one of my favorite race tracks we go to. Especially after the run I had last year. This was the race I was really looking forward to when we started the year back in February.”

Allgaier earned his second DNF of the playoffs while Bell and Cindric earned their first.

“It was just a racing incident,” Cindric said. “You don’t really expect something that big to happen in front of you on the first lap. … It is unfortunate that it happened that early. Huge points implications on my end and the owners championship end. I have to put my head down the next couple weeks and figure it out.”

Non-playoff drivers Michael Annett, Ryan Truex, Spencer Gallagher and Chase Briscoe were also involved.

The race restarted on Lap 12. The field was immediately slowed by a one-car incident involving Brandon Jones on the backstretch.

Kurt Busch fastest in final Cup practice at Kansas

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Kurt Busch led the way in the final practice session for Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver posted a top speed of 186.226 mph.

The top five was completed by Erik Jones (186.104 mph), Aric Almirola (185.842), Kyle Busch (185.471) and Paul Menard (185.446).

MORE: Aric Almirola fastest in Saturday’s early practice

There were no incidents in the session.

Joey Logano, who was 12th fastest, recorded the most laps with 67.

Kyle Busch had the best 10-lap average at 183.094 mph.

Click here for the speed chart.

Daniel Hemric wins Xfinity pole at Kansas Speedway

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Daniel Hemric won the pole for today’s Xfinity Series race at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Hemric claimed his fourth pole of the year with a top speed of 183.955 mph.

The top five was completed by Christopher Bell (182.784 mph), Justin Allgaier (182.426), Austin Cindric (182.254) and Brandon Jones. (182.254).

The top 10 was rounded out by Tyler Reddick, Ryan Preece, Shane Lee, Matt Tifft and Cole Custer.

In Round 2 John Hunter Nemechek qualified 13th. He was followed by Ryan Truex, Michael Annett, Ryan Reed, Spencer Gallagher and Ty Majeski.

Round 1 had a lengthy red flag with 1:05 left in it for fluid on the track. That allowed Reed, Truex and John Nemechek’s cars to get through inspection and make a lap.

Click here for the starting lineup.