It looks like Dale Earnhardt Jr. will complete a row on his Daytona 500-themed Bingo card next year.
Daytona International Speedway announced Monday that the NBC Sports analyst will be the honorary starter and will wave the green flag to begin the Feb. 16 Daytona 500.
A two-time winner of the “Great American Race,” it will mark the third year in a row Earnhardt has been part of the pre-race ceremonies for the event. In 2018, he gave the command to start engines and this year he was the honorary pace truck driver.
Include a win in the race, his 2011 pole as one box and that’s Bingo.
“The only thing left for Dale now is for him to sing the National Anthem prior to the Daytona 500,” said Daytona International Speedway President Chip Wile in a press release. “That probably won’t happen. But what will happen, come February, will be another outpouring of support from race fans about Dale’s involvement. There’s no way to exaggerate how much he means to the fans and to NASCAR. Any role he plays on a Daytona 500 weekend is significant.”
In the press release, Earnhardt joked “One thing is certain, I’m not doing any singing at Daytona no matter how hard they ask. But I am going to enjoy waving the green flag in February. The start of the Daytona 500 is a special moment in not only NASCAR but all of sports. I am truly honored to be part of that.”
Friday 5: Title race a reminder of how Jimmie Johnson looms over Cup
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Although Jimmie Johnson is not a part of the championship discussion this weekend, his shadow towers over the Cup Series and could play a role in how this generation’s drivers are judged.
All four drivers are members of the Johnson generation, a fraternity of talented racers who had the misfortune of competing during Johnson’s reign. Hamlin and Busch have each raced their entire Cup career against Johnson. Harvick started running Cup full-time in 2001, a year before Johnson.
In that time, they’ve seen Johnson win a record five consecutive titles from 2006-10 to go with crowns in 2013 and ’16. He’s also collected 83 series victories, which ranks sixth on the all-time wins list.
“Definitely behind in wins and championships,” said Kyle Busch, who has 55 career Cup victories. “Why? The list goes on. It’s a pretty long one. So how many can you get now is about where it’s at. If I end with one (championship), that’s going to suck. If I can only get two, well, whatever.
“But three, four, five, I think five’s still achievable. But when you get to this final race in this moment, this championship format the way that it is, and five years in a row and you only come away with one, that gets pretty defeating.”
Johnson’s success won’t keep Harvick, Busch and Truex out of the NASCAR Hall of Fame after their career ends. One Cup championship has been a gateway to immortality. Mark Martin, who never won a Cup title, showed that there’s still room in the Hall of Fame. Should Hamlin never win a series crown, he likely is headed to the Hall with his 37 career victories, including a pair of Daytona 500 triumphs.
While Johnson’s career is measured against Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, how should those who raced against Johnson be viewed since they have fewer titles?
One consideration is to look at the Championship 4 appearances by each driver.
This is Harvick’s fifth title race appearance in six years. Busch is making his fifth consecutive championship race appearance. Truex is racing for a title for a third consecutive year.
“I think there’s some merit to championship appearances,” Hamlin said as a measuring stick for greatness. “I think one race, winner-take-all, anything can happen. I mean, if you have a mechanical failure on Lap 25, does that mean you’re not good enough? You made the final four.
“Making the final four is the culmination of your whole year. That is what deems your year a success. You made it to Homestead. Every single driver here will tell you that. No one is going to discount their year based off of the outcome on this weekend.”
Said Truex: “I would say the odds are a lot worse in this system to win (a championship). I don’t know how to view that, to be honest. I don’t know if it’s final four appearances, straight‑up race wins. Championships are huge. I think it’s harder to win now than ever. Maybe one means more than one used to.”
2. Picking the right strategy
The strategy for Sunday’s race would seem easy for the Cup title contenders. Set the car up for a short run. Since the winner-take-all format in 2014, four of the five title races have had cautions in the last 15 laps, setting up a short run to the finish.
Last year, Joey Logano, whose car was set for the short run, passed Martin Truex Jr., whose car was set for a long run, with 12 laps left to win the race and the championship.
Kevin Harvick warns it’s not quite that simple with strategy, especially for a race that starts in the afternoon and ends at night under cooler track conditions.
“The only problem with short runs is you got to stay on the lead lap during the day,” Harvick said of when track conditions are warmer and more challenging to a car’s handling. “So you have to have some good balance and good adjustability built into your car.
“The short run has definitely been what’s won this race over the past few years, but having … the proper track position to take advantage of that short‑run speed is still necessary in the first half of the day. I don’t think these cars are going to race like what we have raced here before.
“I just don’t see the characteristics being exactly how they have been in the past for the amount of laps and things that have happened when your car is good and when your car goes to falling off and things like that. I think that those numbers are going to change. I don’t know exactly what that number will be as far as the crossover and falloff, but we’ll just have to see.”
3. End of the road
This weekend marks not only the end of the season but the end of a journey for Ross Chastain.
He’ll race for a Ganders Outdoor Truck Series championship tonight and run in Sunday’s Cup season finale. When the weekend ends, he will have competed in 77 races across Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. That equals the number of races Kyle Busch ran in those series in 2006. Busch topped that total three times, including 2009 when he ran 86 races across those series.
“Yes, I’m tired,” said Chastain, who will compete in 23 Truck, 19 Xfinity and 35 Cup races this year. “The best part about it is that if I had a bad race, I had another one in a couple days, I would forget about it. … Now the bad part was when we had a good race, I didn’t have any time to celebrate.
“I don’t know what the future will hold on that. I don’t know if we’ll hit this many races for years to come. There’s a reason nobody does it.”
“I’m a big yes man,” said Chastain, who ran 74 races across all three series last season. “If any NASCAR team owner calls me, stops me at the track and says, ‘I want you to drive for me.’ I’m like, Of course. I’ve begged all these guys for years. Now that they say yes, I’m like, Of course, yes.”
Here’s a look at the most races run in a season in recent years (Note: Chastain’s stats are entering this weekend in Miami)
To end the season, Chastain will have a different type of motorhome for the weekend. He borrowed one from a friend and made the 3 1/2-hour drive from Ft. Myers, Florida to Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“Plugged in, got air‑conditioning, water, everything,” Chastain said. “Yeah, you go in and you turn and there’s a door and there’s a bathroom. Most campers and buses, there’s a bedroom. There’s no bedroom. The bedroom is the living room. It’s small. Yeah, it’s cool.”
While the Cup driver and owner titles will be determined Sunday, the manufacturer’s crown was claimed last weekend at ISM Raceway by Toyota, which won the crown for the third time in the last four years.
The manufacturer championship is overlooked by many but not those at Toyota.
“That championship I wish garnered more than it does,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “You can make no mistake, for Toyota that’s an important championship. That’s one that resonates all the way back to Japan.
“The culture of racing internationally is a little different than with NASCAR, which is a driver-centric sport and always has been and will be, and that’s great. But everywhere else we race, it’s manufacturer-centric. It’s Toyota against Porsche, Audi or somebody.”
5. A new view
Derek Kneeland, who has been Kyle Larson’s spotter, will be Tyler Reddick’s spotter next year in Reddick’s rookie Cup season.
“What brought it all into perspective for me is when I was running part‑time at Ganassi (in 2017), I would go up and sit or stand next to Derek during practice, the races, really get an understanding of his vantage point, what he sees, how he communicates, how well of a job he did,” said Reddick, who races Christoper Bell, Cole Custer and Justin Allgaier for the Xfinity title Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
“That brought it all together for me when I was doing those races when I did have him, when I was in the racecar, it gave me a better understanding of how hard that job is and how good he was at it.
“It just came about that he wasn’t going to return (to work with Larson) next year. He was having a lot of fun working with me. Everyone at RCR really enjoyed how well of a job he did at Talladega to get our first win of the year, week in, week out.”
Justin Alexander returning to be Austin Dillon’s crew chief in 2020
Richard Childress Racing announced Monday that Justin Alexander will return to the No. 3 team to be Austin Dillon‘s crew chief in 2020, taking over for Danny Stockman.
The team announced that Stockman will remain with the organization in a role to be announced.
Alexander took over as Dillon’s crew chief before the 2017 Coca-Cola 600, a race Dillon won. Alexander also was Dillon’s crew chief through the 2018 season, which included Dillon’s Daytona 500 victory.
It’s easy to miss one of the key themes to the Cup playoffs with so much talk about Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance, Kyle Busch’s inconsistency and Hendrick Motorsports advancing three cars to the second round.
What has been overlooked is the friction between playoff drivers and non-playoff drivers.
NASCAR’s postseason is littered with cases where non-playoff drivers had an impact on playoff drivers, whether it was Scott Riggs’ crash on Lap 3 of the opening Chase race at New Hampshire in 2005 that collected title contender Kurt Busch or David Reutimann paying back title contender Kyle Busch at Kansas in 2010, among others.
But this year’s playoff races have seen the divide between the haves and have-nots reach a breaking point.
It was something Jimmie Johnson experienced at Las Vegas in his first postseason race as a non-playoff driver.
Austin Dillon has been on both sides. He made the playoffs the previous three years but failed to do so this year.
“It happens a lot,” Dillon said of playoff drivers taking advantage of non-playoff drivers. “There’s a line between taking that, as a guy that’s out of the playoffs, and there’s a line that you cross.”
Dillon admits “my button ended up pushed” at Richmond by Alex Bowman after Bowman dived underneath Dillon on a restart and came up the track, hitting Dillon’s car, sending it up the track into William Byron’s car. After being told by car owner Richard Childress and crew chief Danny Stockman to pay Bowman back, Dillon retaliated and spun Bowman.
“Yes, I’ve taken advantage of guys because I was in the playoffs,” Dillon said. “I know that feeling. I feel like at some point if you take too much, it will come back on you.”
Bowman didn’t have problems just with Dillon at Richmond. Bowman said he and Bubba Wallace had an issue in that race that led to Wallace flipping him the bird. Then on the first lap of last weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, Bowman lost control of his car entering the backstretch chicane and hit Wallace’s car, forcing Wallace to miss the chicane. Wallace later responded with a series of one finger salutes as they raced together. Tiring the signal, Bowman dumped Wallace.
It’s not just Bowman who has had problems. Kyle Busch was running in the top five, rallying from two laps down, when he ran into the back of Garrett Smithley’s car. Combined with an incident with Joey Gase, a frustrated Busch told NBCSN after the race: “We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”
And others are going after more modest goals. Chris Buescher, 20th in points, seeks to give JTG Daugherty Racing its best finish since 2015 (AJ Allmendinger placed 19th in points in 2016). Johnson seeks to refine the No. 48 team in these final weeks with new crew chief Cliff Daniels to become more of a factor and end his 88-race winless streak.
To have a playoff driver think they own the road is misguided. There’s much taking place on the track.
Whether playoff drivers want to play nice with non-playoff drivers is up to them and how they’ve been raced in the past. Of course, a playoff driver has more to lose than a non-playoff driver. So drivers will need to pick their battles wisely.
2. Hendrick’s round?
It’s easy to note Alex Bowman’s runner-up finishes earlier this year at Dover, Talladega and Kansas — all tracks in the second round of the playoffs — and forecast him advancing to the next round.
It’s just as easy to think Chase Elliott will have a smooth ride into the next round since he won at Talladega this year and scored wins at Dover and Kansas last year (with a different race package).
And if things go well, William Byron could find his way into next round.
Hendrick is building momentum. But what happened in the spring or last year doesn’t guarantee what will happen in the coming weeks, beginning with Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
It would be something if all three of Hendrick’s cars moved into the third round after the team’s slow start to the season: Bowman did not have a top 10 in the first nine races of the season, Byron had one top 10 in the first nine races and Elliott had two top 10s in the same period. And Jimmie Johnson, who is not in the playoffs? He had four top 10s in the first nine races.
Bowman and Byron enter the round outside a cutoff spot. Bowman trails Kyle Larson by one point for the final transfer spot. Byron is five points behind Larson.
3. Under the radar?
It’s hard to imagine someone scoring three consecutive top-five finishes — and five top fives in the last six races — being overshadowed but that seems to be the case with Brad Keselowski.
He has quietly collected consistent finishes at the front. The key will be to continue with mistake-free races or at least races with minimal mistakes. His 29 stage points scored in the opening round trailed only Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick, who each scored 36 stage points.
For what it’s worth, Keselowski won at Kansas earlier this season. That’s the cutoff race in this round.
4. Drivers to watch at Dover
Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott have led the most laps in nine of the last 10 Dover races. Harvick has led the most laps five times. Truex and Elliott have each done so twice. Kyle Larson led the most laps the other time.
Domination doesn’t necessarily equal wins. Only three of those times has the driver leading the most laps won the race. Harvick has done it twice. Truex the other time.
5. Milestone starts
Sunday’s race marks the 500th career Cup start for Denny Hamlin.
Only two drivers have won in their 500th career Cup start. Richard Petty won at Trenton in July 1970 and Matt Kenseth won at New Hampshire in September 2013.
Kevin Harvick is making his 676th career Cup start. That equals Dale Earnhardt’s career total. Harvick made his Cup debut with Earnhardt’s team the week after Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.