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Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. be on the next NASCAR Hall of Fame ballot?

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CHARLOTTE – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a well-established devotee of racing lore.

But on the eve of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 11th class being inducted Friday, he is trying to avoid pondering something historic.

That he could be a part of its 12th class next year.

“It’s hard not to think about it, but that’s as far as I let myself go,” Earnhardt said. “I try not to get too wrapped up in it.

“I follow a lot of guys on social media that are passionate about the history of the sport even more so than I am, and there’s a lot of guys that belong in the Hall of Fame that probably should go in there before me. And my feelings about that are if I ever get in, I’ll be very honored. I hope that may happen one day.”

It’ll happen Friday for Tony Stewart, Joe Gibbs, Bobby Labonte, Waddell Wilson and the late Buddy Baker as the 2020 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame formally is enshrined at the Charlotte Convention Center. The ceremony will be broadcast live on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET.

The vote for the 2021 class likely will happen in May, and Earnhardt, who retired from full-time racing after the 2017 season to become an NBC Sports analyst, is eligible to be chosen among the 20 names on the ballot. According to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, drivers who have competed for at least 10 years and have been retired for two years are eligible for nomination.

The 2020 candidates, which are selected by a nominating committee next month, should be announced by mid-March. Among recently retired big-name drivers, Jeff Gordon and Stewart both were candidates in their first year of eligibility. Carl Edwards, who left NASCAR after the 2016 season, didn’t make the nominee list last year.

A 15-time Most Popular Driver and two-time Xfinity champion with 26 Cup victories, Earnhardt has credentials that can match those of others who have been elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

But he lacks the on-track resumes of Gordon (four championships, 93 wins in Cup) and Stewart (three titles, 49 wins in Cup), both of whom were first-ballot selections.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame annually inducts the top five in voting from 20 candidates. Last year’s top three vote-getters outside the top five were Mike Stefanik, Ray Fox and Hershel McGriff.

The trio is likely to return for consideration this year along with the 12 others on the 2020 ballot who weren’t selected: Sam Ard, Neil Bonnett, Red Farmer, Harry Gant, John Holman, Harry Hyde, Ralph Moody, Marvin Panch, Jim Paschal, Larry Phillips, Ricky Rudd and Red Vogt.

Votes are cast by a panel of more than 50 that includes NASCAR executives, track owners, media members, manufacturer representatives and the reigning Cup Series champion (Kyle Busch), as well as an online fan vote.

“I’m certainly young enough to wait it out if I need to, and there’s a lot of guys in our sport that belong in there, and there’s only so many that get inducted each year,” said the 45-year-old Earnhardt, whose late seven-time champion father was among the inaugural class in 2010. “There’s just so much history in our sport that should be acknowledged and appreciated and will be, so it’s got to be tough as someone who’s having to vote for who goes in.

“That’s got to be some of the toughest decisions to make that decision on who’s going to get there.”

He addressed his Hall of Fame prospects while attending a Jan. 15 news conference at the Uptown Charlotte shrine, which recently unveiled a new Glory Road exhibit that features 18 championship cars chosen by Earnhardt.

NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelley said Earnhardt was selected because of his appreciation of stock-car history. Earnhardt recently helped spearhead a project to map defunct North Wilkesboro Speedway for iRacing gamers, and he has an upcoming program about vanished racetracks slated for the Peacock streaming service.

One of his first forays into TV production was a documentary show called “Back in the Day” that celebrated classic NASCAR races and footage.

“I do love to be acknowledged for the passion that I have for the history,” said Earnhardt, whose favorite era is the 1970s. “If you’re a bit of a historian of the sport, any involvement in anything the Hall of Fame is going to be doing is awesome and going to be a great experience.”

Kyle Busch dominates to Truck win at Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Kyle Busch extended his NASCAR Truck Series victory record to 57 in his hometown Friday night, leading 108 of 134 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion swept both stages and finished 5.958 seconds ahead of Johnny Sauter. Busch has won seven straight races in the series, including all five he entered last season.

Austin Hill was third, followed by defending series champion Matt Crafton and Ben Rhodes. Grrant Enfinger, who opened the season with an overtime victory at Daytona, did not finish after an accident with 43 laps to go.

Christian Eckes was right behind Busch in the opening two stages, but he finished 23rd after an early final-stage wreck.

Results

Driver standings

Jimmie Johnson tops final Cup practice at Las Vegas

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Jimmie Johnson was the fastest driver in Friday’s second and final NASCAR Cup practice of the weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The seven-time Cup champion hasn’t won a race since 2017, but showed plenty of speed, pacing the 38 cars that took to the 1.5-mile track, clocking a best speed of 179.432 mph.

Johnson and his Chevrolet were followed by five Fords.

Clint Bowyer, who was second-fastest in the first practice earlier in the day, was once again second-fast in the final session at 179.271 mph.

Aric Almirola, who was fastest in the first practice, was third-fastest in the final session at 179.170 mph.

Rounding out the top-5 were Kevin Harvick (179.015 mph) and Matt DiBenedetto (178.814 mph).

Sixth through 10th were Ross Chastain (178.660 mph), who will be filling in for the injured Ryan Newman in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400, followed by Kyle Larson (178.424), Ryan Blaney (178.359), John Hunter Nemechek (178.259) and Alex Bowman (178.089).

Final Cup practice results

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Next goals for Daytona winner Denny Hamlin: double-digit wins, Cup crown

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There was a time when Denny Hamlin’s best memories of the Daytona 500 were to just go home relatively unscathed.

Consider this: In Hamlin’s first six appearances in the Great American Race, his highest finish was 17th.

But after a breakthrough 4th-place finish in 2012, he has become the best overall performer in the 500 among active drivers.

“I don’t know what it is, but I think I started studying more about superspeedway racing around that time because I had been so unsuccessful for a very long time,” Hamlin said Friday during a media session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“We went a long time and I’ve won a lot of the Clashes and Duel races, but not many like Talladega – I think I have one win there – but it just seems like it’s that seven or eight years ago that the car came around and whatever techniques I use or I’ve adapted to this car have seemed to work.”

In the last seven editions of the 500, Hamlin has finished 2nd (2014), 4th (2015), 1st (2016), 17th (2017), 3rd (2018), 1st (2019) and 1st again this past Monday.

Do the math and that’s three wins – making him only the sixth driver in NASCAR history to win the 500 three or more times – and seven overall top-5 finishes in the last nine season openers.

Hamlin knew that getting his second 500 win in a row – both outcomes being the closest finishes in the race’s 62-year history – and third in the last five years was basically going to come down to a battle between him, Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney.

With emphasis on Newman, that is, before he was involved in that horrific last lap crash on the front stretch heading toward the checkered flag.

“I pulled the block on (Newman) coming to the white (flag) and I stayed in front and I knew he was going to back up to (Blaney),” Hamlin said. “I was trying to back up myself, but once (Newman) was attached (to Blaney), I knew they were going to come with a run I could not stop.

“I just held my line because if I started going sideways, the next thing you know (Newman) starts moving sideways and (Blaney) is already hooked to him, so he’s probably going to push him sideways into me.

“I just wanted to hold a straight line to let them know hey, pass this way, and when I did I was able to back to (Blaney) and was able to unattach him from (Newman). When I slowed his momentum, that allowed me to really tuck in right behind him. I don’t know if he checked up to keep us attached but once we got attached, I knew we were going to have a run back on (Newman).

“I knew he was going to get there, I didn’t know what was going to happen when he did get there, but certainly it worked out in my favor. I thought I was going to get back around (Blaney) at the (finish) line if there was no crash, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get all the way back to (Newman). I knew those two were going to jostle and I was just hoping to be in the right place when it happened and I was.”

Not having any 500 wins of his own, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch is envious of Hamlin’s three triumphs.

“Denny has really gotten way better ever since this car,” Busch said of Hamlin and how he’s adapted to the Gen 6 car in recent years. “He was always an aggressive plate racer, one that would make moves that you’re kind of, ‘Man, if he would just stay in line, I think this would turn out better.’

“He still does that today, but he’s making it work for himself, that not staying in line is better for Denny. I think since this car came though, he’s been a real good plate racer.

“He’s been fantastic at the game, he’s understood it, he’s made moves that I sometimes wouldn’t make that have worked, he’s able to pass a guy to get in line. … He’s very knowledgeable and skillful In making his moves and passes.”

Going forward from Daytona, Hamlin said his next goal is double-digit wins this season. If so, he’d become the first driver to earn 10 or more wins in a season since Jimmie Johnson did so in 2007 when the seven-time champ won 10 races.

“I’d be satisfied with that and then beyond that would be nice,” Hamlin said. “I think that the championship is an easy goal that anyone just throws out – win a championship, but that comes down to one race.

“If you can win a significant amount of races, it shows a bigger picture of your full year. If you make it to the Final Four, that’s a bigger picture of your entire year (Hamlin has reached the final four just twice since the format was introduced in 2014 — third that year and fourth last season). I think the championship – a successful year is making the Final Four. Anything after that is just whatever it is.

“Certainly we set lofty goals. I think everyone sets huge and lofty goals, but certainly we’re going to push ourselves to better what we did last year and it starts with Daytona and we’re able to repeat there so then let’s get a win now before we get to Texas to keep ourselves on pace or better from last year.”

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Johnny Sauter on pole for tonight’s Truck race in Las Vegas

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Johnny Sauter will start from the pole in tonight’s Strat 200 Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Sauter earned the eighth career pole of his Truck Series career – and first since 2018 – by topping the other 34 drivers that made qualifying attempts with a speed of 177.836 mph.

Sheldon Creed (177.643 mph) will start alongside Sauter on the front row for tonight’s race.

The rest of the top 10 qualifiers were Kyle Busch (177.282 mph), making his first Truck Series start of the season, followed by Christian Eckes (177.189 mph), Ty Majeski (177.189), Austin Hill (176.788 mph), Tyler Ankrum (176.275), Raphael Lessard (176.056), Grant Enfinger (176.010) and Brett Moffitt (175.890).

Tonight’s race starts shortly after 9 p.m. ET (FS1, Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Trucks qualifying results

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