What’s at stake: Richmond

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RICHMOND, Va. —  Here’s a look at some of the key issues heading into tonight’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The Roval is coming

This is the last race before the series heads to Charlotte to compete on the Roval for the first time. The uncertainty of what that cutoff race will be like — especially after several drivers spun or wrecked in testing there — could lead to some panic among drivers tonight. Or make them more cautious.

“I know everybody talks about how wild it’s been, and I’ve been right there amongst them,” Chase Elliott said of the Roval. “But until we get there, I don’t know. That race might be the smoothest race of the year. It’s just tough to say. It’s going to be so slow, I’m sure there will be a lot of rooting and gouging next week and real easy to pick-up some damage on your car.

“As fragile as these cars are, we saw last week guys were just barely touching the wall and three or four laps later they’re crashed. That’s the big one for me is just how fragile these cars are now. And you can’t really even lean on anybody and continue forward. So, It’s important to run good here, absolutely. I would love to go and have another (win) sticker Saturday night and not have to worry about next week.”

Elliott enters tonight’s race nine points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman for the final cutoff spot to advance to the second round.

Clint Bowyer, though, isn’t worried about tonight’s race.

“Richmond’s going to be fine,” he said. “Richmond is going to be good stages for us and a win. That way when we go to the Roval we don’t have to worry about you asking me about the pressure of the Roval.”

Will a winless streak end?

Kyle Larson has finished runner-up six times this year but is still looking for his first victory of the season.

He’s on a 37-race winless streak. His last victory came at Richmond last September.

Other playoff drivers seeking to snap a long winless streak include Aric Almirola (146-race winless streak), Jimmie Johnson (50), Ryan Blaney (49), Denny Hamlin (38) and Alex Bowman (winless in 108 Cup starts).

Joining history?

Brad Keselowski seeks to become the ninth driver in NASCAR’s modern era (since 1972) to win four consecutive races. Others who have won four in a row in Cup in that time: Cale Yarborough (1976), Darrell Waltrip (1981), Dale Earnhardt (1987), Harry Gant (1991), Bill Elliott (1992), Mark Martin (1993), Gordon (1998) and Johnson (2007).

Pit road woes?

In the spring Richmond race, five teams that made the playoffs were penalized for pit road infractions. Those penalized in that race were: Kevin Harvick (tossing equipment), Kyle Larson (not in control of tire), Alex Bowman (speeding), Austin Dillon (commitment line violation) and Ryan Blaney (not in control of tire)

Will a pit road penalty impact a playoff team tonight?

Friday 5: A final quest at a ‘childhood dream’

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Elliott Sadler is blunt when he considers his NASCAR career ending without a championship.

“(It) would be a huge void in my life,” he said.

The 43-year-old driver, in his 22nd and final full-time NASCAR season, makes his last run at an Xfinity title beginning with tonight’s playoff opener at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Four times in the last seven years Sadler finished runner-up for the Xfinity crown, including last season when he lost the title in the final laps to JR Motorsports teammate William Byron.

“Last year really hurt,” Sadler said. “Really, really hurt. We were in position to win that championship. I don’t know if I’m 100 percent over it yet.”

Sadler was upset last year with Ryan Preece, who slowed Sadler by challenging him for position as Sadler tried to hold off Byron with 10 laps left. Byron got by Sadler. Any hopes Sadler had for a title ended when he made contact with Preece’s car and cut a right front tire. 

Sadler’s anger bubbled after the race and he yelled at Preece on pit road as NASCAR officials stood between them.

Sadler, who competed full-time in Cup from 1999-2010, has called it a “childhood dream” to win a NASCAR championship.

“If we’re not able to win a championship, it would definitely be a scar in my mind of not being a NASCAR champion after putting 20 years of effort into it, after being a kid and a fan and dreaming of being a part of this sport,” he said. “Now, that will not define me as a dad or define me as a person. I’ll still be able, hopefully, to do good things in my community, but it will definitely leave a mark.”

Before he gets to that point, he will have to get through his final race at his home track tonight. Richmond Raceway will honor the Emporia, Virginia, native by having Sadler’s children help with the command to start engines.

Even better for him would be going to Victory Lane with his family. Sadler has never won at Richmond in 56 starts in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. Asked to recall his biggest moment at the track, he instantly brings up the 2005 Xfinity race when Carl Edwards bumped him out of the lead on the last lap to win.

“I’m probably more nervous about going to Richmond, trying to win the race than I am trying to make it to Homestead,” Sadler said.

When the season ends in two months, don’t expect to see Sadler at the track often in the future.

“I don’t see myself involved in any racing at all,” Sadler said of his post-driving career. “I’ve been offered a job to come do TV, but I don’t see traveling away from home to talk about racing.”

Instead he’ll coach youth sports teams.

“My dad was a huge coach growing up,” Sadler said. “My brother is a wonderful coach and I’ve been doing it for 15 years. I love it. We’re at the facility every night hopefully changing kids’ lives. It would be hard for me to do both at 100 percent. It’s not really that I’m retiring from racing, I’m retiring to coaching and to my kids.”

2. What might have been

Jimmie Johnson has witnessed how fine a line it is between winning and finishing in the pack the past two weeks.

At Indianapolis and Las Vegas, Johnson ran with Brad Keselowski during parts of those races only to see Keselowski win both and Johnson finish far behind.

After the end of stage 2 at Indianapolis, Keselowski was 16th and Johnson was 17th. About 30 laps later, Keselowski was third and Johnson fifth. Keselowski went on to win and Johnson finished 16th.

At Las Vegas, Keselowski was sixth and Johnson seventh with just over 100 laps left. Keselowski won. Johnson was headed for a top-five finish before contact late in the race with Kurt Busch’s car cut a tire and forced Johnson to pit. Johnson finished 22nd.

Keselowski has said that he has not had the fastest car in each of the three races he’s won heading into Saturday night’s race at Richmond (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team seek to perform the way Keselowski’s team has.

“Drivers make mistakes,” Johnson said. “Pit stops can go wrong. Unfortunate racing luck can happen. To get all of that to rise together, it takes a little bit of time. We have made a nice jump in speed. I still think we have some room to go there, but now we need to execute on all levels and take advantages of those opportunities that (Keselowski) has.”

While the team seeks to find that speed and execute, Johnson has gone winless in a career-long 50 races.

“I’ve been in a deeper hole before, my own personal experiences in motorsports,” Johnson said, referring to early in his career in off-road racing and then in NASCAR when he “risked it all” and moved to North Carolina to pursue a career in stock car racing.

“I didn’t have as big a spotlight on me and wasn’t a seven-time champion, so nobody really remembers those except me. So I know I will get through this. I’ve been through worse.

“We are moving the right direction. I believe we have hit the valley and are climbing back out.”

He’ll need to do so to advance to the next round of the playoffs. Johnson enters Richmond six points behind teammate Alex Bowman for the final cutoff spot to the second round.

3. Cole Custer’s self-assessment

With no driver announced for the No. 41 Cup car next year at Stewart-Haas Racing, it was easy for some to think that Cole Custer could move up to that ride.

Car owner Gene Haas seemed to quell such talk last weekend at Las Vegas. While saying he believes Custer “is a good talent,” Haas said of the young driver: “He needs to prove that he can win consistently in Xfinity before I think we’ll consider him for a Cup ride.”

Custer has one Xfinity victory in 64 career series starts. He’s placed second or third in five races this season.

So where does Custer believe he needs to improve?

“I think there are little things that I can do better,” he said. “Having the Cup experience this year has helped me with what happens in that series.

“I think for the most part I have speed every single weekend (in Xfinity). It’s just a matter getting the restarts right and working traffic better and controlling the race when you have the fastest car.”

Custer, who is in the Xfinity playoffs, also will run in Saturday’s Cup race. He’ll drive the No. 51 for Rick Ware Racing. It will be Custer’s third career Cup start.

4. Going for 4 in a row

Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are the only drivers to win four consecutive Cup races in the last 20 years. That’s the feat Brad Keselowski will seek to equal Saturday night at Richmond.

Since NSACAR’s modern era (1972), eight drivers have won four consecutive races: Cale Yarborough (1976), Darrell Waltrip (1981), Dale Earnhardt (1987), Harry Gant (1991), Bill Elliott (1992), Mark Martin (1993), Gordon (1998) and Johnson (2007).

5. NASCAR’s 5th President

Steve Phelps will become the fifth president in NASCAR’s history on Oct. 1.

Bill France Sr. held the position from 1948-72. Bill France Jr. took over from his father until 2000. Mike Helton was in that role from 2000-2015 before he was promoted to Vice Chairman of NASCAR.

The president’s position was not filled after Helton’s promotion until Brent Dewar took over that role July 13, 2017. Phelps is replacing Dewar, who will remain with NASCAR through the end of the season and transition to a senior consulting and advisory role in 2019.

Phelps will oversee all competition and business operations for the sanctioning body in his new role.

He has been more visible at races lately and presented Kyle Busch the regular-season champion’s trophy at two weeks ago at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In January, Phelps, as NASCAR’s chief global sales and marketing officer at the time, was thrust into the controversy about how NASCAR marketed younger drivers after Busch complained about the tactics and Clint Bowyer raised questions about the sanctioning body’s actions.

In July, Phelps defended the sport’s ability to attract sponsors.

“I think there’s a misconception out there that sponsorship in NASCAR is not doing well, and that’s not true,” he said at Pocono Raceway during an announcement that Gander Mountain will sponsor the Truck Series beginning in 2019. “We have more sponsors in this sport today than we’ve ever had. We’ve got almost half the Fortune 100, almost a third of the Fortune 500. It’s a lot of large companies who are in the sport not because it would be really cool to go racing. It’s because it works.

“So people tend to focus on, ‘Oh, my gosh, sponsor A left and sponsor B left,’ and for us, it’s like, ‘Okay, well, C, D, E and F also came on board as brand new sponsors.’ And then a plethora of others have renewed or extended for a period of time.

“I think this industry tends to focus on the negative. I’m not really sure why.”

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Dale Jr. Download: The decision to honor Dick Trickle at New Hampshire was easy

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Last week, a fan poll determined what the broadcasters would wear. Jeans and a vintage racing t-shirt won, hand’s down – so Dale Earnhardt Jr. donned a Dick Trickle shirt that he received just one week prior on the Dale Jr. Download.

“I went through all the shirts I had and I wanted one that people would be like, ‘dang. All right. That’s what’s up.’ And everybody misses Dick Trickle, wishes he was still around – the stories he could tell,” Dale Earnhardt Jr said.

The reasoning behind picking at Trickle t-shirt was personal.

“I knew Dick Trickle pretty well. When he drove for Cale Yarborough Racing, Cale’s crew chief Doug Williams, his son – me and Scott were great friends, so I was up in that hauler all the time – and he would walk up in the hauler with his briefcase. He had an old, square box briefcase and he’d open it up and it had cigarettes and Reese’s cups in it.

“When you’re a little kid hanging around the sport back then, these were rough men and they didn’t give a damn who’s kid you were. If you was in the way, they were going to tell you to get the hell out of the way. Go be where you’re supposed to be. … Dick Trickle never once said anything about us being in the lounge .. or his hauler. He’d sit down and have a conversation with you.”

For more, watch the video above.

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Wood Brothers Racing honoring Cale Yarborough with Southern 500 scheme

Wood Brothers Racing
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Wood Brothers Racing announced Wednesday it will celebrate Cale Yarborough’s 1968 win in the Southern 500 in this year’s race at Darlington Raceway (Sept. 2 on NBCSN).

The paint scheme on Paul Menard‘s No. 21 Ford will be based on the 1968 Mercury Cyclone Yarborough drove to a win over David Pearson and Buddy Baker.

Yarborough’s win was his first of five in the Southern 500. The three-time Cup champion is from Timmonsville, South Carolina, located just 13 miles south of Darlington.

“He’s one of the original heroes of our sport,” team co-owner Eddie Wood said in a press release. “He got his first Southern 500 victory in our car and had a great career winning 83 races and three championships.”

Yarborough’s victory was the first of eight for the Wood Brothers at Darlington and the first of four in the Southern 500.

Details on the car include “396 Cubic Inches” lettering on the hood. At the time, NASCAR required teams to prominently post the engine size on the car.

NASCAR fan prepares to attend 1,000th Cup race Sunday at Michigan

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Imagine doing one activity.

Then picture doing that activity religiously, 1,000 times from February 1963 to June 2018.

Joe Baumann is preparing fulfill that this weekend at Michigan International Speedway when he attends his 1,000th NASCAR Cup race.

Baumann, 79, is a native of Erie, Pennsylvania, and owner of a carpeting and flooring company, something his family has done since 1885.

But Baumann has made NASCAR his weekend business.

After getting out of the Navy in 1960, Baumann had his own brief racing career until life got in the way.

“I raced a couple of years in late models at our home track here in Erie,” Baumann told NBC Sports. “Went into drag racing a couple years after that. Started having a big family and that was the end of everything. I become a spectator because I figured there’s no way I can afford a family and the cost to race race cars.”

Baumann’s first time in the grandstands of a NASCAR Cup event came at the 1963 Daytona 500, when Tiny Lund won for the Wood Brothers.

“I loved what I saw when I got to Daytona,” Baumann said. “I’ll never forget it.”

Baumann has seen everything in the 998 races that have followed.

It’s documented in the couple hundred race programs that line his office and in the diary he decided to start keeping about a decade ago.

Joe Baumann sits in his office filled with NASCAR race programs. (Courtesy of Cale Baumann).

Baumann was there in 1969 when Talladega Superspeedway opened its doors for the first time.

He was also present in 1996 when North Wilkesboro Speedway said goodbye to NASCAR racing. He has “everything from the last race there,” including commemorative hats, unused tickets and the program.

Just a year before he experienced his “all-time No. 1” race.

You may have seen the highlights, but Baumann was sitting in Turn 3 of Bristol Motor Speedway the night of the 1995 Food City 500.

“Dale Earnhardt. Terry Labonte. Unfriggin’ believable,” declared Baumann, who was an Earnhardt fan. “I’ll never forget it. (Earnhardt) got black flagged at least twice, maybe three times for rough driving. They sent him to the back of the pack and oh my God, he was hell-bent to get back up front again. He did and it comes down to the last lap and they come off Turn 4 just slam banging each other, side by side and Earnhardt smashed him sideways.

“… I think the people went completely crazy. It was just phenomenal.

“That was tops.”

Baumann racked up races in the 70s, 80s and 90s while owning permanent seats at 10 tracks that hosted two races a year, including Bristol, Rockingham, North Wilkesboro, Atlanta and Talladega in addition to his visits to other tracks.

In 2004, he put a big dent in his total by attending all 36 Cup races, from Daytona to Homestead, with roughly 100 friends joining him over the course of the year.

At his peak, many race weekends saw Baumann and a group of six to 12 friends make the pilgrimage.

“Most of us worked six days a week, we’d leave Saturday night,” Baumann said. “We would leave Erie and drive straight to the track.”

One track, the one in South Carolina that’s Too Tough to Tame, really spoke to him.

Since 1964, when Buck Baker won in Baumann’s first visit to Darlington Raceway, he hasn’t missed a Southern 500.

The custom shirt Baumann and his friends and family will wear this weekend (Courtesy of Cale Baumann).

“The people and the good-hearted racing, it was just amazing they could run 500 miles at that speed and then it had the full metal roof over the top of the whole front straightaway and that made it even worse on your ears probably,” Baumann said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to miss one of these things.’ Back then tickets were like $10 or less and fuel was reasonable. We took a half a dozen guys, normally starting with a pickups truck, campers and things like that to go down. Motels in that day and age were few and far between. … Then my wife (Jackie, who passed away in 2015) got interested, so then her and I started going together. Next thing you know we got into motor homes and things like that. … It’s a great weekend now and everywhere we go it’s the same way. NASCAR people are just unbelievable.”

Baumann’s dedication to Darlington was rewarded last year when he was one of three people inducted into the track’s Fan Hall of Fame.

“That was pretty neat. They took care of me,” Baumann said. “The ring is like a Super Bowl ring.”

Baumann, who named his youngest daughter Allison after his favorite driver, Bobby Allison, and his youngest son Cale after Cale Yarborough, wanted his 1,000th race to come at Darlington.

But knee-replacement surgery last year shortened his schedule.

Instead, he’ll reach the 1,000 race mark Sunday with the FireKeepers Casino 400. The drive to Brooklyn, Michigan, is a much easier trip for the roughly 50 people who will camp with him for the weekend.

What festivities will there be to mark the occasion?

“My friends are full of surprises, believe me,” Baumann said. “Something’s going to happen.”

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