Chase Elliott happy to seek the mainstream – if it wants him

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When it comes to racing outside of their comfort zone, Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers are used to it.

Since winning his NASCAR Cup Series title in 2020, Chase Elliott has tackled sports cars, midget racing on dirt, and even rallycross.

William Byron is venturing back into Super Late Models this year and already has a win to show for it.

Alex Bowman, a longtime midget team owner, made his World of Outlaws driving debut last week.

And Kyle Larson, the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion, continues to eye an opportunity to run the Indianapolis 500 – although, he said Wednesday that it’s likely too late to mount a proper effort this year.

But earlier this week, NASCAR Hall of Famer and Hendrick Motorsports Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon had another comfort zone in mind.

“If you’re willing to put yourself in places people don’t expect you and you want to be there – the traditional sporting events and country music concerts are great, but let’s take that a step further – that’s what I’m trying to encourage our guys to do,” Gordon told the SportsBusiness Journal Monday.

“I didn’t want to host ‘Saturday Night Live’ [at first] – I was scared to death.”

When Gordon hosted SNL in January 2003, he was at the center of NASCAR’s last big mainstream boom.

Nearly two decades later, the sport seeks another. Could one of the Hendrick drivers help spark it?

Since being suspended for much of the 2020 season after using a racial slur, Larson has not only come back to win the sport’s biggest prize but has been praised for his work to mature as a person and make amends with those he wronged.

Elliott is the sport’s most popular driver. But his personality largely mirrors the soft-spoken one of his Hall of Fame father, Bill Elliott.

Then there’s Byron and Bowman, who’ve become regulars in the playoffs but aren’t particularly well known outside racing circles.

In discussing Gordon’s comments Wednesday, Elliott said he recognized where the four-time Cup champion was coming from.

“I think Jeff (Gordon) wants us to broaden our horizons. … He wants us to grow – grow not only ourselves individually, but our sport as a whole,” Elliott said. “If the drivers are growing their following, then likely the sport is benefiting from it too.

“I think he’s just trying to help everybody win. At the end of the day, if we’re all gaining a following or popularity in a different area that we typically wouldn’t be in, you’re likely going to benefit. And likely, we’re all going to benefit.”

But while Elliott’s open to broadening his horizons, he’s like everyone else. He wants to feel appreciated.

“Where I sometimes struggle with wanting to go do things is I want to feel like those people want me there too,” he admitted. “You want to feel like somebody cares about having you as a part of their show or whatever it may be – not just to check a box for them.

“When I feel appreciated and respect, I’m all in and I’ll go as far outside of my comfort zone as they want to get.”

Meanwhile, Gordon’s efforts to get his drivers more mainstream exposure may be working already.

On Wednesday, Byron confirmed that he and Gordon will appear on an upcoming episode of Fox’s reality competition series “Lego Masters.” It’s an ideal vehicle for Byron, who has made his share of Lego creations.

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.