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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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Long: Aretha sang about it, Kurt Busch says he has it with Chip Ganassi Racing

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SPARTA, Ky. — As Kurt Busch decided last year where he would drive this season, it didn’t take long.

A short meeting with car owner Chip Ganassi laid the foundation for a deal that was completed in about three hours, announced in December and bore fruit last weekend with Busch’s first victory of the season.

In the 30-minute conversation Busch had last year with Ganassi about driving for the car owner, Busch found what he sought.

“(Ganassi’s) level of commitment as a racer is something that I saw,” said Busch, who had run the previous five seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing. “Yes, Tony Stewart is a racer, but I was more on the Gene Haas side. When Chip said, ‘I want you to win for me, I want you to make these guys winners, and if you can bring that (Monster Energy) sponsorship with you, I’m going to pay you this,’ it was just like the most respect that I had felt in a long time when it came to a contract negotiation.”

Respect was a word the former Cup champion used in multiple interviews Saturday in discussing his move to Ganassi.

Busch said on NBCSN’s post-race show that when a contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t work, he called Ganassi and quickly had a deal.

“That’s just the respect factor that I was looking for,” Busch told Krista Voda, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett.

Busch went on to say in the media center after the race about how quickly a deal was agreed upon: “It meant that I was wanted. And when you have that, that’s that extra desire to push and to make this group a winner.”

When the deal was announced in December, Ganassi said: “It’s not oftentimes that a NASCAR champion, a Daytona 500 winner becomes available. When you’ve got a guy that is a racer like Kurt … you’ve got to take a serious look at it. It didn’t take me long when he became available.”

As Busch, who turns 41 on Aug. 4, looks ahead to the playoffs, he also has to focus on what he’ll do next season. The deal with Ganassi is only for this year. So what’s next for Busch?

“For me, it’s a matter of just having the dominos line up and everybody fall together and to make it happen,” he said. “I guess the easiest way to move things forward is request for proposals are going out Monday with sponsors, with manufacturers, with team owner. 

“Yes, a win, that might have happened last week at Daytona, is one of those moments. Tonight is one of those stamps on — this 1 team is a powerful team, and it would be stupid not to keep this group together, and that’s part of my leverage, but at the end of it, we just want to make it work for all parties.”

After a night like Saturday, Busch said: “It gives you that energy of, yeah, it’s fun, and let’s get our sponsors lined up and let’s do this (again).”

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Ryan Newman has a simple rule on blocking, a tactic that has become more prevalent with the race package this year.

“I don’t do that personally, that’s not the way I race, I race hard,” Newman said. “Because it’s not the way I want to be raced. It’s not right.

“You don’t change the way that you enter a corner to choke somebody off knowing that it’s going to slow you down. You as a racer are supposed to go out there and race as hard as you can to try to catch the guy in front of you, not let the guy behind you stay behind you.”

Newman also noted a conversation he had with Ryan Blaney earlier this season after he was blocked by Blaney multiple times.

“Ryan Blaney and I have had it out after the race, not in a mean way,” Newman said. “(I) just told him, I said, ‘Listen, the next time you do that, it’s not going to be good for you. That’s not the way I race. You want to block me, it’s not going to be good.’ I don’t mean it as a threat. I’m just telling him that’s the fact of it.

“I don’t race that way. If I block you, you’ve got the right to turn me around, but if you choke me down going into the corner just to try keep me behind you, expect to get loose.”

Blaney admitted he threw “a couple of big blocks” on Newman in the Charlotte races in May.

“You make those decisions in a split-second,” Blaney said. “You’re not trying to screw that guy over, you’re just like ‘I have to help myself.’ Between me and Ryan (Newman), I’ve always liked that you could talk to someone afterwards and have an understanding about it.

“Newman said that was a big block, that was a kind of a late one. I said, ‘Yeah, I knew it was close, sorry.’ You could tell how close it was by how hard he hit you on the bumper. It’s good to talk about it and not kind of let it brood over. Me and Ryan have always been good friends. He’s someone I’ve looked up to for a long time. He’s been a friend of my family’s for a long time. It was good to talk to him and understand it.”

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To NASCAR,  it was a simple call in penalizing William Byron for jumping the restart at Kentucky Speedway.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, explained the penalty on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday.

“(Byron) fired first in the restart zone, and he wasn’t controlling the restart,” Miller said. “It’s kind of as simple as that.”

In the rules video that was played in the drivers meeting at Kentucky, it stated: “It will be the control vehicle’s discretion to restart in the zone between the double marks and the single mark on the outer wall and on the racing surface.”

Clint Bowyer was the leader at the time.

The penalty took place on Lap 184 of the 267-lap race. Byron went from second place to a lap down after serving the penalty and never recovered. He finished 18th.

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Paul Menard confirmed this past weekend his contract status for next season, saying:

“I have a good job, for sure. I love the Wood Brothers. I love my race team. They are good people. I have a contract for next year. I guess it is getting to be that time of year when people start talking about things. I have a contract and I love my team. We just have to perform better, that is all.”

Menard finished 11th Saturday. He is 20th in the season standings, 54 points out of the final playoff spot.

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Sponsorship issues nearly cost eventual Truck champion Brett Moffitt his playoff eligibility last year and threaten the playoff eligibility for Tyler Ankrum this season.

Ankrum won last weekend’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Kentucky but lack of sponsorship could be an issue for him.

Ankrum was set to run a full season for DGR-Crosley once he turned 18 in March. He announced in June that he would not be running a full season with the team because of lack of sponsorship.

He started races at Iowa and Gateway for NEMCO Motorsports and retired after less than 20 laps in both races, finishing 31st at Iowa and 30th at Gateway. By starting those races, he kept his playoff eligibility. Ankrum received a waiver from NASCAR for missing the season’s first three races because he was not 18 years old at the time and could not run at Daytona, Atlanta and Las Vegas. He’s run the remaining races.

DGR-Crosley is a Toyota team and it leads to the question of what responsibility Toyota has to ensure that one of its playoff teams remains eligible for a championship run.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said the company will help in ways its best suited to do so.

“Our focus is on providing technical support to our team partners, and David Gilliland and his family, they’re not maybe at the (Kyle Busch Motorsports) level but make no mistake, we do have a strong technical partnership with them,” Wilson told NBC Sports after Ankrum’s win.

Wilson said that Toyota had been with the team when they took what was the winning truck to a wind tunnel earlier.

“We obviously are engaged and hopeful that they can put enough (sponsorship) together to keep Tyler moving forward, and we’d love to have him in the playoffs,” Wilson said.

Wilson admits a focus for Toyota is on Kyle Busch Motorsports. Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland are both outside a playoff spot with three races left in the regular season.

Toyota has two teams in the playoffs as of now with Ankrum and Austin Hill, who won at Daytona for the reigning Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship team, Hattori Racing Enterprises.

Whatever Toyota teams are in the playoffs will get Wilson’s attention.

“Obviously we’re going to focus our resources on whomever is fighting to win the championship,” Wilson said. “There’s not a question about it. If it happens to be non-KBM trucks, so be it.”

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Preliminary entry lists for NASCAR at New Hampshire

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The NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series will be in action this weekend at the 1-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H.

The Gander Outdoors Truck Series is off until July 27 at Pocono Raceway.

Here are the entry lists for the Cup and Xfinity races at New Hampshire:

Cup – Foxwoods Resort & Casino 301 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

There are 37 cars entered.

Quin Houff will be back in the No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet.

In addition, drivers have not been named as yet for the No. 51 Petty Ware Racing Chevrolet and the No. 52 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

Click here for the full entry list.

Xfinity — Roxor 200 (4 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

There are 41 cars entered.

NASCAR Cup regular Paul Menard will be driving the No. 12 Team Penske Ford Mustang.

Ryan Truex will be making his third Xfinity start of the season in the No. 8 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.

Tyler Matthews will make his third Xfinity start of 2019 in the No. 15 JD Motorsports Chevrolet.

Harrison Burton makes his third start of the season in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

Canadian driver Alex Labbe makes his third start of 2019 in the No. 90 DGM Racing Chevrolet.

CJ McLaughlin will make his Xfinity Series debut, driving the No. 93 RSS Racing Chevrolet.

Click here for the full entry list.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Recap of Kurt Busch’s Kentucky win

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET and will recap Kurt Busch’s win over younger brother Kyle on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

Jeff Burton is joined by A.J. Allmendinger and NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett to discuss that and other storylines.

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.

Clutch issues delay Sterling Marlin’s racing return

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Four months after undergoing a third brain surgery in his battle with Parkinson’s Disease, former NASCAR Cup star Sterling Marlin’s return to racing was postponed last weekend due to mechanical issues with his car.

According to The Tennessean newspaper, Marlin, 62, was slated to compete in a pro late model race at his home track, Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville. However, issues with his No. 14 race car’s clutch prompted Marlin to withdraw from the event.

The two-time Daytona 500 champion took to social media to tell his fans what happened, as well as promising to be back “soon”

The news was disappointing for Marlin and his team, particularly since earlier Saturday he tweeted a photo of his race car to Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Marlin prepared for that evening’s event.

According to The Tennessean, Marlin “needs two more victories to become the winningest driver at the Fairgrounds.”

Also, according to the Fairgrounds’ web site, the next race there is August 10.

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