Friday 5: Jeffrey Earnhardt ready for challenge of winning Xfinity races

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HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Jeffrey Earnhardt sighs and says “too long.”

He rests his head in his hand and stares ahead.

“It’s been too long,” Earnhardt says since he last won a race. “Hell, I can’t remember. That’s pretty sad. It’s been a while.”

A journey that started with racing a Yugo — yes, a Yugo — and later moved from small team to small team in NASCAR, now has its reward more than a decade later.

Earnhardt will drive in nine Xfinity races for Joe Gibbs Racing this season, beginning with the Feb. 16 season opener at Daytona International Speedway. 

The expectations are high — “it’s wins or nothing” he saidbut the pressure can’t compare to what Earnhardt faced to reach this point.

“The pressure to go and get in a car that is capable of winning, that’s the pressure I’ve been looking for my whole life,” he said, wearing a black Joe Gibbs Racing T-shirt in a conference room at the team’s Cup headquarters.

Instead, the pressure has been to survive in the sport. Beginning with the Yugo.

He begged his father for a couple of years to let him race. His dad eventually relented, saying Earnhardt could compete if he found a car and sponsorship to pay for it. Earnhardt got the Yugo and sponsorship for it.

He never won in that car. But he didn’t drive it long.

“I ended up flipping it,” Earnhardt said of a race at Wythe Raceway in Rural Retreat, Virginia. “Because it was so slow. A guy shoved me off in the corner and turned me sideways and another car came and hit the front end of the car … and turned me head-on into the outside wall. Flipped. Landed on its roof.

“I was like, ‘Man, this thing is going to catch on fire.’ I’d seen too many movies. I ended up getting my shoelace hung on the brake pedal and didn’t think I was going to make it out alive. Everyone was like, ‘You’re fine, we’ve got you.’ ”

He thought everything would be fine when he joined Dale Earnhardt Inc. and drove in what is now the K&N Pro Series East Series in 2007-08.

“Signed a four-year contract at 17 years old and thought, this is going to be a walk in the park,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports. “Everything is going to be taken care of.”

But his ride went away after DEI merged with Chip Ganassi Racing in November 2008. The struggle to find rides began. Earnhardt ran one K&N Pro Series East race and two Xfinity races in 2009. He ran five Truck races in 2010. In 2011, he drove in two Xfinity races and five Truck races.

Earnhardt fought in one MMA bout in 2012 — he won — but realized afterward that he still wanted to race.

“I did the MMA thing to try to find something that gave me that rush that I get in a race car and it still wasn’t the equivalent,” Earnhardt said.

He continued to search for rides.

“What my grandfather did and his legacy means the world to me,” Earnhardt said of the late Dale Earnhardt. “I would hate to not think that I gave literally everything I possibly could to make it continue.”

He’s driven in 151 races in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks but never with a team that could compete for wins. His best Xfinity finish is 12th at Bristol (2014) and Talladega (2015). His best Cup finish is 11th in last July’s Daytona race.

With JGR, top 10s should be common. Earnhardt will drive the No. 18, a car that won twice last year with Ryan Preece at Bristol and Kyle Busch at Pocono and saw Noah Gragson finish second with in his Xfinity debut at Richmond last year.

“I was talking on the phone with my manager and I was like, I’ve gone from the struggle of trying to keep the car under me for the whole entire race and not wreck to now the struggle is going to be those late-race restarts when you’re on the front row,” Earnhardt said. “That’s a new challenge, it’s a good challenge.”

2. Reversal of fortune

What would have happened had NASCAR disqualified cars last year that failed inspection after a race instead of doing it this season?

Two Cup races would have had different winners.

Kyle Busch would have finished the season with a series-high nine wins instead of being tied with Kevin Harvick at eight.

Harvick would have lost his win at Las Vegas after his car was found to have an issue with the rear window during an inspection at NASCAR’s R&D Center. That would have given Busch, the runner-up, the win.

Also, Harvick would have lost his Texas win for an issue with the spoiler — also discovered at the R&D Center. But runner-up Ryan Blaney was penalized because his car failed inspection and the win would have gone to Joey Logano, who finished third in that race.

Nine cars that finished in the top four in a Cup race last year failed inspection after the event and would have been disqualified under this year’s rules.

3. Disqualification penalty appeals

Should a vehicle be disqualified after failing inspection after the race, the team can appeal. They will have to pay a non-refundable appeal filing fee of $5,000.

Unlike a regular appeal, which features a panel of three people, the race disqualification appeal will be heard by one person. It could be one of the 28 people listed in the rule book as appeal panelists or it could be the Final Appeal Officer or their alternate.

One thing to note in this particular type of case is that the decision of that one panelist is final. The decision cannot be appealed to the Final Appeal Officer.

4. Charter transfers

With a new season, comes the transfer of charters in Cup.

Six of the 36 charters have changed teams for this season.

The charter that was with BK Racing’s No. 23 car last year, which Front Row Motorsports purchased, will be with the No. 38 car of David Ragan.

The charter that had been with Ragan’s team goes to teammate Matt Tifft. Front Row Motorsports added a car, growing to a third team this season.

The charter with Richard Petty Motorsport’s No. 43 car with Bubba Wallace goes to Rick Ware Racing and will be aligned with the No. 51 car and driven by B.J. McLeod in the Daytona 500.

The charter that was with Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 car last year goes to RPM’s No. 43 car this season.

Furniture Row Racing’s charter was purchased by Spire Motorsports and be used with the No. 77 car. That will be No. 40 for Jamie McMurray in the Daytona 500 and then go back to No. 77 the rest of the season. 

The charter that had been with the No. 72 car of TriStar Motorsports moves to the No. 52 car at Rick Ware Racing.

5. Rule changes

NASCAR came out with a bulletin this week that updated its rule book.

Among some of the changes:

— Drivers must have all four tires below the orange box at the commitment line to enter pit road. That had been the case last year at all tracks except Martinsville. Drivers needed to only put two tires under the orange box there. Now, they will have to adjust at Martinsville.

— A pit crew member’s foot must not touch pit road before the vehicle is one pit box away from its assigned pit box or the equivalent marked distance. Should a crew member’s foot or both feet touch the pit road surface too early, the pit crew member can re-establish their position back to or behind the pit wall before servicing the car to avoid a penalty.

— A sixth person can go over the wall during a pit stop but that person’s duties are limited to servicing the driver in their health and well-being, assisting with safety systems, window net, helmet and cooling ventilation hose, radio system replacement, steering wheel wiring, providing personal medical supplies and cleaning the windshield. Such a person, though, is not allowed to help repair the body and/or mechanical components on the car.

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Dr. Diandra: Surprises in playoff performance

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The first round of playoff performances defied expectations in both good and bad ways.

That is my excuse for why my very first attempt at making predictions was an abject failure. I projected Alex Bowman, William Byron, Chase Briscoe and Austin Dillon would be the first four drivers out of the playoff. Only Dillon failed to move on to the round of 12.

Of course, my algorithm did not account for Kyle Busch having two engine failures in three races. Especially after his not having had a single engine failure in the previous 92 races.

Nor did the algorithm predict Kevin Harvick’s Darlington race being ended by fire.

Or that none of the 16 playoff drivers would win even one of the first three playoff races.

On the positive side, playoff drivers took 11 out of 15 possible top-fives (73%), and 21 of 30 top-10s (70%.) That’s consistent with a season boasting 19 different winners.

Chase Elliott is the only driver to win more than two races this season. Drivers made the playoffs by finishing well rather than winning of lot of races.

Playoff performance by the numbers

In the table at right, I list drivers in order of points after Bristol — but before re-seeding. Red numbers indicate DNFs.A table showing drivers' finishing positions for the first three playoff races

DNFs played a major role in the first round. Each of the four eliminated drivers had at least one DNF. Harvick and Busch had two each. Both of Busch’s DNFs and one of Harvick’s were due to equipment failure.

Only three drivers earned top-10 finishes in all three playoff races: Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Byron. Two of my predicted eliminations over-performed. And the one driver I expected to dominate the playoffs didn’t.

Relative to the regular season

Excluding equipment failures and crashes, one expects most drivers to perform, on average, at about the same level they ran during the regular season. That mostly didn’t happen.

In the first two elimination rounds, top 10s are enough to stay in the game. So that’s the metric I’ll focus on here.

The graph below compares drivers’ top-10 finish percentage in the first three playoff races to the same metric from the regular season.

A graph comparing the regular season top-10 rate to the top-10 rate in the first three playoff races to

Each arrow starts at the driver’s regular-season average and travels to his playoff average. Blue indicates playoff performance better than the regular season and red indicates the opposite.

Six drivers performed better than their regular-season averages would suggest.

Byron entered the playoffs seeded 10th with only five top-10 finishes in the regular season. With three top-10s in the first round of the playoffs, he earned the second-most points of any driver in the round of 16.

Hamlin had the second-largest improvement with two second-place finishes and a ninth. That continues his season-long trend of trying to overcome a slow start.

Bell’s 53.8% top-10 rate for the regular season doesn’t give him much room to improve. But he did. He’s also the only driver with three top-five playoff finishes.

Bowman, whose crew chief, Greg Ives, will retire at the end of this season, increased from 38.5% to 66.6% top-10 finishes.

“I think we are super motivated,” Bowman said, “because its Greg’s last 10 races with me and we want to end on a high note. We know the summer doesn’t matter anymore, our troubles, and it’s a good reset for us going into the playoffs.”

The biggest surprise, perhaps, was Elliott. He has the most top-10 finishes of any driver with 18. But only one came from the first playoff round.

Momentum

Driver finishes rise and fall throughout a season. The ups and downs are even larger this year because of the new Next Gen car. For that reason, it’s worth comparing playoff performance not only to the entire regular-season average, but also to just the last five regular-season races.

The arrows on the next plot start at the top-10 rate for each driver’s last five regular-season races and travel to their playoff rate.

A graph comparing the regular season top-10 rate to the top-10 rate in the first three playoff races to the last five races of the regular season

Seven drivers improved relative to their last five regular-season races — the six from before, plus Daniel Suárez. Suárez rose from 20% to 33.3%. That’s typical of a season that has been fairly consistent, but not at a level that will take him to the final four.

Byron’s turnaround is even more impressive in view of his having zero top-10 finishes in the last five races of the regular season.

“I think we had a lot of really good tracks in the beginning of the year,” Byron said. “As we started to chase some speed and chase some things, we got off a little bit throughout the summer.”

He believes the team has returned to where it needs to be.

“We know what works; we know what doesn’t work,” Byron said. “We definitely know what doesn’t work after the last month or so, so that’s a good thing.”

Joey Logano has the largest downward trend relative to the last five races, going from a 80.0% top-10 rate to 33.3%.

This graph shows Elliott’s playoff decline to be a trend continuing from the end of the regular season. That might be good news for the other drivers struggling to catch up with him.

Scoring and re-seeding

The table below summarizes points and playoff points earned during the three playoff races and each drivers’ final score before re-seeding. The lineup looks quite different than it did going into this round of three races.

A table showing how many points each playoff driver earned in the first round But that’s before re-seeding.

I hadn’t appreciated playoff points until I did the math. Each driver moving on to the round of 12 gets 3000 points, plus their total playoff points.

Because none of these drivers won a race, only five of the 21 playoff points available in the last three races impact the new standings. Bell won two stages; Byron, Bowman and Busch one each.

So we’re mostly back to where we were leaving Daytona.

A table showing the re-seeded rankings entering the second round of playoff racesRyan Blaney fell a spot. Byron’s dramatic turnaround didn’t impact his playoff standing. Most of Bowman’s move up the charts is due to eliminating the drivers originally ranked seventh, ninth and 11th.

The current standings reflect NASCAR’s eternal struggle between winning and consistency. On the one hand, I understand the desire to mimic other sports’ playoffs and not let the results of the last round impact the next. But carrying over regular-season playoff points means that Elliott returns to P1 despite having earned fewer points in the three playoff races than seven of the 16 drivers.

That’s why Bell, who earned almost twice as many points as Elliott and won two stages, ties for sixth place with Hamlin and Blaney. Elliott goes from 40 points behind Bell to 27 points ahead of him.

If Bell or any of the other remaining drivers wants to challenge Elliott, even top-five finishes won’t be enough.

In these playoffs, performance isn’t enough. You have to win.

Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).

Noah Gragson wins Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

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Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the same way he has run much of the season.

Gragson sidestepped a web of issues plaguing playoff drivers and won Saturday’s 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, tying a decades-old Xfinity record by winning for the fourth consecutive race. Sam Ard, formerly a series mainstay, won four in a row in 1983.

Gragson, continuing to establish himself as the championship favorite, took the lead with 11 laps to go from Jeb Burton as most of the day’s leaders were running different tire and fuel strategies over the closing laps.

Gragson, 24 and set to jump to the Cup Series next season, led 85 laps. He won by 1.23 seconds.

“This number 9 team, man, they’re on fire,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Luke Lambert (crew chief) and the boys executed a great race.”

MORE: Texas Xfinity results

The win was Gragson’s seventh of the year. Following in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

The victory pushed Gragson into the second round of the playoffs.

A big crash at the front of the field on lap 117 changed the face of the race. John Hunter Nemechek lost control of his car on the outside and was clipped by Justin Allgaier, starting a wreck that scrambled most of the field. Damages forced playoff drivers Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Allgaier from the race.

“The 7 (Allgaier) chose the top behind me, and I haven’t seen the replay of it, but the 7 chose the top behind me and started pushing,” Nemechek said. “The 21 (Hill) made it three-wide on the 9 (Gragson), and I was three-wide at the top, and I think we ended up four-wide at one point, which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack.”

Pole winner Jones, a playoff driver taken out in the crash, said Nemechek “was pushing a little too hard. Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far. It is what it is.”

Six laps earlier, another multi-car crash scattered the field and damaged the car of playoff contender and regular season champion Allmendinger.

The wreck started when Brandon Brown slipped in front of Allmendinger and went into a slide, forcing Allmendinger to the inside apron. Several cars scattered behind them trying to avoid the accident.

Allmendinger’s crew repaired his car and he later had the race lead.

Playoff driver Jeremy Clements had a tough day. He parked with what he called mysterious mechanical issues about halfway through the race.

Below the cutline after the first race are Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements.

Stage 1 winner: Daniel Hemric

Stage 2 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Who had a good race: Noah Gragson is threatening to turn the final weeks of the Xfinity season into a cakewalk. He clearly had the day’s dominant car Saturday in winning for the fourth race in a row. … AJ Allmendinger’s car was damaged in a wreck in heavy traffic, but his crew taped parts of the car and gave him an opening to finish fourth.

Who had a bad race: Jeremy Clements, in the playoff field, finished 36th after parking with mechanical trouble near the race’s halfway point. … Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed only 17 laps into the race and finished last.

Next: The second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs is scheduled Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET (USA Network) at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”