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NASCAR drivers sound off on the search for star power

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On Thursday night, NASCAR officially crowned its newest Cup champion and its first new most popular driver in 15 years.

Joey Logano was recognized as champion after 10 years in the series, and Chase Elliott won the majority of fan votes after three years (and the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won it 15 years in a row).

The Cup champion and the series’ most popular driver have not synched up in 30 years. It last occurred in 1988 when Hall of Famer Bill Elliott won his only title and the fifth of his record 16 most popular driver awards.

NASCAR has seen a mass exodus of its biggest stars in the last five years with the retirements of four-time champion Jeff Gordon, three-time champion Tony Stewart, Earnhardt, Danica Patrick and Carl Edwards prior to 2018.

Out of that group only Earnhardt won most popular driver.

After Thursday’s banquet, three of the four Championship drivers, including Logano, were asked what they need to do to find and establish themselves as the next big stars in the same vein as those who have recently hung up their helmets.

Here’s what they had to say.

Kevin Harvick

“That’s never going to happen. I think as you look at our sport and you look at the Elliott name and the Earnhardt name, those are names that a guy like myself (a native of California) and Clint Bowyer (Kansas native) and Kyle Larson (California) are never going to overcome. You will never have the Southern, the Southeast fan base that an Earnhardt or an Elliott has. That’s just the way it’s going to be.”

Kyle Busch

“Changes of the guard always happen. I’m now in my 14th season, something like that, so I’ve been here for a long time. I guess it’s not necessarily my time at the forefront. But I feel as if I’ve learned a tremendous amount and it’s sort of coming down to the point now where you have that opportunity to be able to go out there with all that you’ve learned and now have success.

What do you and the other leaders need to do to establish yourselves as the next Jeff Gordon, Dale Jr., Tony Stewart, etc.?

“Good question, I just think for some reason we’re just not quite getting the same amount of attention that we’ve had years ago. Why that is, I’m not sure. I think the racing is so competitive and some of the most compelling racing in all of motorsports. It’s exciting to me behind the wheel each time. You look at Chicagoland, we don’t have those finishes every week. But people strive for those finishes every week and tell me how many times those finishes have happened in the course of our lifetime. There’s been thousands and thousands of races and there’s probably hundreds of times people talk about great finishes in out sport. It’s just so competitive, everybody wants the picture perfect finish and the excitement of (that) every week.”

Joey Logano

“I think Chase is deserving, a deserving member of that. He does a great job as our most popular driver. … Yeah, we all knew that (he would win). You can tell just by the T-shirts walking around. But like I said in my speech, love me or hate me, the fact that you love NASCAR means the most to me. Honestly, that’s what keeps every one of us that are standing around here employed. That’s a big deal for the growth of our sport. For me, I’m a fan before I was a driver and I’m still a fan before I’m a driver. When you think of what it means just to watch racing and to be a race fan and watching it and enjoying every second of it, that’s me. That’s who I am. I’m passionate about the people that I like and the ones I don’t root for in other sports You have to have that. You have to have ones you really like and the ones you don’t. That’s just part of it. I think being a hard racer, sometimes that’s what brings out the boos. Like I said, that doesn’t bother me because I know they’re passionate people and I like people that are passionate.

On driver personalities

“We have big personalities still, which is great. Everyone has their own. I don’t think we’re as vanilla as you think. There’s plenty of interesting personalities. You got Kyle Busch, he’s got so much personality. It’s great. Everyone is just who they are. I like that part. I like that everyone is who you are and not fake. You obviously want to do the right thing for your sponsors, but still being who you is still most important piece.’

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NASCAR America: Dale Jr. Download with Mike Helton, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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On today’s Dale Jr. Download, which runs from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, Dale Earnhardt Jr. welcomes NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton.

Earnhardt has known Helton his whole life, and while the two consider each other good friends, Junior told one story where that friendship was tested a bit. 

Here’s a brief segment of what Junior had to say about Helton:

You can be an incredible friend, but the funny thing is when you need to chew somebody’s ass, you can get that done, too. There was one time you had to get after me pretty hard at Bristol Motor Speedway. … We had a car explode a brake rotor on the race track and threw brake parts all over the place.

There was about 15 laps to go and we were running under caution. Typically, NASCAR red flags the race and I was wanting them to do that, but they didn’t. I don’t see the brake stuff, everything’s great, I’m raising hell. This was in the Bud days. Tony (Eury) Sr. was on the radio and I think he was encouraging me a little bit. Our spotter came over and said they want you and Tony Sr. to come to the truck after the race. I stopped talking immediately.

That’s when I learned that Mike Helton and the guys in the booth listen to the drivers and I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, they heard me.’ … We go up in the hauler and me and Tony Sr. still feel like we’re in the right and that we’re going to tell ‘em this and tell ‘em that, and that we’re going in there thinking we’re going to tell Helton and he’s going to say ‘you’re right, we should have red-flagged the race.’

As soon as Helton’s head comes into the door jamb, Tony Sr. and I both started pleading our case. And Mike Helton said, ‘Both of y’all hush. Y’all aren’t going to talk, I’m going to talk.’ You were so mad, so angry, and when I realized how mad you were, I was so disappointed in myself for disappointing and angering him. … I realized now what I had done.’”

Tune in to hear the rest of the story on the Dale Jr. Download (the above portion starts around 51:00).

And then stick around for the following show, IndyCar Live, from Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 6-6:30 pm ET with Kevin Lee.

If you can’t catch either of today’s shows on TV, watch 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.

Missouri’s Lucas Oil Speedway heavily damaged by possible tornado

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Severe storms barreled through south central Missouri on Monday night, causing a number of injuries and heavy damage to the area, including significant damage to Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, about two hours southeast of Kansas City.

According to a media release from track officials, “The storm moved into the area shortly before midnight and damaged several buildings, destroyed the grandstands at the off-road track and also damaged some of the grandstands at the dirt track. There also was damage in the campground and debris was scattered throughout the facility. Several vehicles on-site were toppled, including some campers that had arrived for the weekend.”

There were several injuries reported at the RV park located nearby. Investigators were trying to determine if the storm actually spawned a tornado that caused the damage.

The storms left the track without power and forced officials to cancel this weekend’s Lucas Oil Show-Me 100, one of the its biggest races of the year.

Lucas Oil Speedway general manager Danny Lorton said in the media release that this weekend’s racing – which is considered part of the “Crown Jewel of dirt Late Models” – would be rescheduled at a future date. Lorton said the earliest some announcement may be made is Tuesday.

Also in the media release, track racing operations director Dan Robinson noted, “Our first thoughts are for the people of the Wheatland community and the area and we are thankful that there were no fatalities. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who were affected.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. opens up on why he hid his smoking and how he quit

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For the first 15 years or so of his high-profile NASCAR career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a secret that he kept from fans, media and sponsors.

But most importantly he kept it from his father.

There had been times that Dale Earnhardt had entered his son’s house unannounced and seen the ashtrays full of cigarette butts.

And while his mother, uncle and grandparents also indulged in smoking, Earnhardt’s seven-time champion father didn’t, nor did he approve of it.

“When I was a kid, everyone seemed to be smoking except for dad for whatever reason. He just never did,” Earnhardt Jr. told NBCSports.com in a phone interview Tuesday morning during a round of media appearances in which he spoke about his former habit in-depth publicly for the first time. “He knew I did, and I never, ever would have let him see me holding a cigarette. He hated it. We never had a conversation about it. He might have said a few times, ‘You need to effing quit that.’ Or something like that real short.

“I know that was something that extremely disappointed him.”

Ultimately, it was another family member who helped Earnhardt Jr. snap the habit about eight years ago.

Earnhardt’s wife, Amy, put up with his smoking the first few months after they began dating.

“I was trying to quit and tried a couple of times and failed, and it was so disappointing for her,” he said. “Eventually she said to me, ‘Look man, are you really going to get this done? Are you really going to eventually quit?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know if I can.’ And she goes well, ‘Honestly, that could be a dealbreaker for me.’ And I said, ‘Damn, really?’

“She said, ‘Yeah, if you’re not sure, and this is something that is going to be part of our relationship going forward, I just don’t know. So that was a tough conversation that had to be had, and I finally figured out how to get it out of my system when I truly wanted to quit. You have to have that conviction to do it, but it was really, really hard.”

Earnhardt, who just launched a video campaign with Nicorette to help promote its new coated ice mint lozenge that helps smokers quit, said he wanted to help be a coach on the journey for other people trying to quit.

“I figured it wasn’t a super-duper secret that I was a smoker, but maybe it might be worth exposing that little lie and secret to see if I can convince other people to quit because honestly, once I decided to quit, I didn’t realize all the things that smoking was affecting in my life,” he said. “And I was super insecure about it.

“Obviously I didn’t want anybody to know about it, but I worried about whether my car smelled, my clothes smelled, my breath smelled, and then I worried about my long-term health. I had a doctor that’s pretty straightforward, and he’s hammering on me all the time that, ‘Like, dude, you’ve got to quit.’ I seemed to get a lot of sore throats and a lot of colds more frequently than other people that weren’t smokers.

In addition to feeling much healthier, Earnhardt said it changed him for the better socially as well.

“I realized how much control (smoking) had over me,” said the NASCAR on NBC analyst, who also has been open about the impact Amy and Steve Letarte had on him getting out more. “The decisions I made every day were based around smoking. It sort of encouraged that hermit mentality that I had before me and Amy met. Where I wouldn’t go anywhere, do anything. You wouldn’t hardly see me leave the bus on a race weekend. I would shorten visits with family on holidays and just avoid activity.

“I’d just sit in the house and play video games because I could smoke. Then I realized once I got done how much that was dictating my day and predicting the choices I made every day. It was all based around my habit of smoking, and that’s pretty stupid, but it’s true.”

Earnhardt said he picked up smoking in his early 20s, just before he began running in the Xfinity Series, while being around friends who did it.

He hid the vice in public because of the worries about his persona (which already had been associated in his youth with wild partying at the “Club E” makeshift nightclub in his basement). While NASCAR also was affiliated with tobacco through having R.J. Reynolds as the title sponsor of its top series for more than 30 years, Earnhardt said there was a “negative stigma that was building” about smoking when he took it up.

“It wasn’t popular, cool or trendy,” he said. “I wasn’t so much worried about sponsors as just worried about disappointing people. I just tried not to really push it in front of anyone’s face. I wouldn’t walk up and down pit road holding a cigarette. I just thought that would be a mess.

“People would be like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Get your head on straight. You’re supposed to be this race car driver,’ and I already had people questioning my focus and my determination. If I’m walking around smoking a cigarette on Saturday between practices, I’m sure that was going to just feed into that.”

Goodyear tire info for Charlotte

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NASCAR returns for its second consecutive weekend of racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway with Saturday afternoon’s Alsco 300 Xfinity race and Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600, the longest race in NASCAR.

According to this week’s Goodyear media release, “Monster Energy NASCAR Cup teams will be running the same tire set-up for the Coca-Cola 600 that they ran during All-Star weekend at Charlotte. Based on the racing last weekend, tires will be a factor. First, All-Star teams that took four tires overcame the track position of those that did not. Second, with 12 race sets of tires for NASCAR’s longest race, the pit crews will play a big part in a team’s success, and those that master all those four-tire pit stops will help their car gain valuable spots on pit road.”

Added Greg Stucker, Goodyear director of racing, “The Coca-Cola 600 is the longest race on the schedule and it is held on one of the more temperature sensitive tracks upon which we compete, as the race starts in daylight and ends at night. We saw that fresh tires mattered last weekend during the All-Star race. Four tire pit stops should be the order of the day and teams have 12 sets of tires for the 400-lap race, so the team aspect of the sport will be on full display as the pit crews will be kept busy all night.”

According to the Goodyear media release, "Goodyear will debut a special “Honor and Remember” sidewall at Charlotte: Since 2010, for one weekend per NASCAR season, Goodyear has changed the branding on the sidewall of its racing tires in a show of support for the United States military and fallen heroes. This being the 10th year of that program, the official tire supplier to NASCAR’s top three series will work with a new organization and replace the standard “Eagle” with “Honor and Remember” for both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and NASCAR Xfinity Series races.

"Honor and Remember is a national organization based out of Virginia that has a mission to “perpetually recognize the sacrifice of America’s military fallen service members and their families,” according to its website. The organization recognizes fallen military personnel from all wars or conflicts, and with those from all branches of service. They do so primarily by dedicating the specially designed Honor and Remember flag, which is intended to fly continuously as a tangible and visible reminder to all Americans of the lives lost in defense of our national freedoms."

NOTES – Cup cars on same tire set-up as All-Star weekend: Teams in both the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series will run the same tire set-up at Charlotte this week . . . this is the same combination of left- and right-side tires that Cup teams ran during All-Star weekend last week . . . for the Cup cars, this is the same right-side tire code they ran in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 and the same left-side tire they have run the last three weeks – Dover, Kansas and All-Star . . . for the Xfinity cars, this is the same right-side tire they ran on the Charlotte oval in 2018, combined with their 2019 Dover left-side tire . . . compared to what was run at Charlotte last year, this left-side features a construction update to align it with what is run at other speedways . . . this tire set-up came out of a test on the 2019 rules package that was run at Charlotte last October . . . teams (drivers) participating in that test were Richard Childress Racing (Daniel Hemric), Joe Gibbs Racing (Erik Jones), Hendrick Motorsports (William Byron) and Stewart-Haas Racing (Aric Almirola) . . . as on all NASCAR ovals greater than one mile in length, teams are required to run inner liners in all four tire positions at Charlotte . . . air pressure in those inner liners should be 12-25 psi greater than that of the outer tire.

Here’s the tire info for this weekend’s races:

Tire: Goodyear “Honor and Remember” Speedway Radials for both Cup and Xfinity

Set limits: Cup: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying and 12 sets for the race; Xfinity: 7 sets for the event

Tire Codes: Left-side -- D-4868; Right-side – D-4736

Tire Circumference: Left-side -- 2,227 mm (87.68 in.); Right-side -- 2,251 mm (88.62 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front -- 19 psi; Left Rear -- 19 psi; Right Front -- 52 psi; Right Rear -- 50 psi

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