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Long: Kasey Kahne’s exit robs NASCAR fans of one last cheer for their driver

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The end was coming. Kasey Kahne foretold that when he said in August this would be his last full-time season in NASCAR.

But Tuesday’s announcement that Kahne has not been medically cleared to run the rest of the Cup season ends a career that began with such allure and promise that some of his memorabilia had to be flown in from overseas to satisfy demand.

A career that should be celebrated ends muted and abbreviated. His time in NASCAR will be recalled as not working out the way it was supposed to — from the courtroom drama over where he would race in Cup as a rookie to near-misses on the track, changing rides, being lent to a team and his departure from the series.

It has been quite a journey.

Even before he competed in his first Cup race, two manufacturers signed him. A federal court settled the matter.  He could drive for Ray Evernham’s Dodge team

When Kahne finished second in two of his first three Cup races in 2004 (he lost at Rockingham to Matt Kenseth by one-hundredth of a second), his popularity soared. Crowds left little in his souvenir hauler. One company flew his die-cast cars from China — instead of shipping them by boat.

With penetrating blue eyes, he became one of NASCAR’s heartthrobs. Kahne was selected to People magazine’s “America’s Top 50 Bachelors” at the height of NASCAR’s popularity in the mid-2000s and had women fawn over him in those Allstate commercials.

His support grew as he came close to winning but didn’t his rookie season. Newer fans might call that a Kyle Larson-type season, noting how close Larson came to winning as a rookie without doing so.

Kahne scored his first Cup win in May 2005 at Richmond. He held off Tony Stewart in the closing laps, a point Stewart noted when he congratulated Kahne.

“I just told Kasey that down the road when they talk about his first win that I got the honor of being the guy they mentioned that he had to race for the win,” Stewart said that night.

The victories came more often. Kahne won a season-high six races in 2006, including the Coca-Cola 600 for the first of three times.

He was so popular that he replaced Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Budweiser’s driver after Earnhardt moved from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. While Kahne did not have the party reputation Earnhardt had, Kahne’s youth and good looks matched the image Budweiser sought to promote.

Kahne’s win at Sonoma in 2009 for Richard Petty Motorsports marked Petty’s first time in Victory Lane as an owner in a decade.

Kahne had so much promise that car owner Rick Hendrick signed him in 2010 even though Hendrick did not have a ride available until the 2012 season. Kahne spent that in-between year with Red Bull Racing and won a race.

In his first season at Hendrick, Kahne finished a career-high fourth in the standings. It would be the high point of his six years there. Kahne won six races for the organization, including last year’s Brickyard 400 that ended a 102-race winless streak.

“I’m going to treasure this forever,’’ Kahne told NBC Sports after the win.

But that race foreshadowed the problems that plagued Kahne this season. Kahne battled severe cramping and went to the infield care center for IV fluids before he completed his duties as winner that day.

Those issues worsened this year. Darlington proved almost too much. Kahne said “it was really hard to keep my eyes open and see” during the last 100 laps of the Southern 500 as he battled extreme dehydration. 

“I was trying to control my heart rate because it was so high,” he said. “I basically just kind of laid in the car and drove around the corners. At that point all I’m doing is focusing on my body and my health, not on what I should be actually focusing on, and that’s racing.”

He tested last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway and in less than two hours of track time could not ease doctor concerns he’d be well enough to run any Cup race this year.

So, any farewell fans wished to have these final weeks of the season will have to take place on social media or a dirt track where Kahne will race his sprint car.

That might be the best place to appreciate Kahne — back in the type of racing that led him to NASCAR, his car sliding through the corners with a rooster tail of dirt trailing.

Vote for best 2018 Cup paint schemes

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It’s time to take stock of the 2018 Cup season.

That means voting in the best paint schemes of the year tournament.

The NBC Sports tournament has now reached its final four.

Here’s the bracket so far.

Bubba Wallace, RPM reinlist US Air Force as two-race sponsor

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Richard Petty Motorsports will continue to receive support from the United States military. On Friday, they announced the US Air Force will continue as a primary sponsor in 2019 as well as a major associate sponsor throughout the season on Bubba Wallace’s No. 43.

The two races for which the Air Force will be the primary sponsor are Saturday, July 6 at Daytona International Speedway (4th of July weekend) and Sunday, Nov. 10 (Veteran’s Day weekend) at ISM Raceway. Last year during his rookie campaign, Wallace finished in the top 15 in both of those races. He was 14th in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona and 10th at ISM.

“The Air Force continues to see benefits from our partnership with Richard Petty Motorsports and driver, Bubba Wallace,” said Major Ross McKnight, Chief, Air Force National Events Branch at Air Force Recruiting Service in a press release. “Wallace Jr. and his personality align well with our target audience’s interests and the Air Force’s commitment to teamwork and technology. The combination of Bubba Wallace and the iconic No. 43 provides a continuing sponsorship opportunity that reflects our Air Force core values of Integrity, Service and Excellence, as well as has a positive impact on generating public awareness about the U.S. Air Force, our people and our mission.

“Like NASCAR, much of our work is based on science, technology, engineering and math principles combined with teamwork and training. This sponsorship is a great way to highlight that connection.”

Last year, Wallace visited four Air Force bases. He participated in drills at each and flew in an F-16 with the 77th Fighter Squadron “Gamblers” at Shaw AFB in South Carolina.

“I was really impressed with all the different aspects of the Air Force, and the different opportunities they offer,” said Wallace Jr. “I was able to visit different bases and see the Airmen in action and actually participate myself. That gets me excited and then I’m able to talk to inspiring students who are looking at a career in the Air Force. I’m pretty humbled to represent the Air Force.”

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John Hunter Nemechek, Chase Briscoe approved to run for Xfinity Rookie of the Year

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NASCAR has approved John Hunter Nemechek and Chase Briscoe to compete for the Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year title in 2019, NBC Sports has confirmed.

Nemechek made 18 Xfinity starts in 2018 with Chip Ganassi Racing while Briscoe made 17 with Stewart-Haas Racing and Roush Fenway Racing.

Nemechek will compete for GMS Racing in the No. 23 Chevrolet. Briscoe will drive the No. 98 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.

When Nemechek was announced on Dec. 6 as joining GMS Racing, a team press release said he would compete for Rookie of the Year. But a NASCAR spokesperson said his eligibility had not been decided on at the time.

The Rookie of the Year title was not mentioned in SHR’s Nov. 27 press release about Briscoe going full-time.

The Xfinity rookie field next year will include Nemechek, Briscoe, Noah Gragson in JR Motorsports’ No. 1 Chevrolet and Justin Haley in Kaulig Racing’s No. 11 Chevrolet.

Briscoe said in an Q&A on Reddit he was “honestly surprised” he was approved.

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Richard Childress Racing reveals Daytona 500 cars, sponsors and Xfinity details

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WELCOME, N.C. – Richard Childress Racing kicked off its 50th anniversary Friday at its headquarters in Welcome, North Carolina, with announcements about the 2019 season.

RCR announced Daniel Hemric will drive the No. 8 Chevrolet in his rookie Cup season. Hemric had originally been announced as driving the No. 31.

Hemric, who moves up after two years in Xfinity, drove the No. 8 in his two Cup starts in 2018.

Richard Childress Racing

Hemric will be sponsored by Caterpillar, Bass Pro Shops, Liberty National Life Insurance, Cessna and VF Workwear.

Cessna is also a sponsor at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Growing up in Kannapolis, it was all about racing,” Hemric said in a press release. “I always dreamed of having the opportunity to drive for RCR and for Richard himself. Now, two iconic numbers, the 3 and the 8, are going to be under one roof. I know it makes Richard happier than anybody, just understanding what that means for the sport of NASCAR and how our fans are going to be able to connect with that.”

RCR also confirmed NBC Sports’ report that Luke Lambert would be the crew chief for Hemric.

Photo by Daniel McFadin

The team revealed gold-themed cars Hemric and teammate Austin Dillon will drive during Speedweeks in Daytona to celebrate the team’s 50th anniversary.

Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet will be sponsored by Bass Pro Shops in the Advance Auto Parts Clash.

The scheme for the exhibition race is based on the car Dale Earnhardt Sr. drove in the 1998 All-Star Race.

Xfinity Series

Team owner Richard Childress confirmed Tyler Reddick would be the organization’s only full-time Xfinity Series driver in 2019.

The defending series champion will drive the No. 2 Chevrolet and be paired with crew chief Randall Burnett, who worked with Matt Tifft on the No. 2 in 2018.

Childress said its second Xfinity car will be the No. 21 “more than likely.”

Technical Alliance

Childress confirmed the teams that will be full members of a technical alliance with RCR in 2019.

In Cup, RCR will be joined by StarCom Racing (No. 00), Germain Racing (No. 13) and Richard Petty Motorsports (No. 43).

Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series (No. 11 Chevrolet) will also be a part of the alliance.

Childress said ECR engines would be provided for all those teams.

Charter

Childress said the team would sell a team charter to StarCom Racing that had been leased to the team in 2018.

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