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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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Friday 5: Key questions leading into 2019 Cup season

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Cup teams test in two weeks in Las Vegas. The Daytona 500 is a month away. The new rules package debuts in five weeks in Atlanta.

There are many questions to ponder with the Cup season nearing. Here are five key questions.

1. What will the racing be like?

NASCAR made the decision to go with a new rules package that should make the racing tighter.

Will it? Can this package lead to more side-by-side racing, more beating and banging and more drivers upset with one another?

If it does, this could be among the steps to attract more fans. If not, then what?

2. What’s next from NASCAR?

It could be argued that this year will be among the most pivotal for NASCAR.

Steve Phelps enters his first full season as President. Jim France remains interim Chairman, having taken over after Brian France went on an indefinite leave after his arrest Aug. 5 for aggravated driving while intoxicated and possession of a controlled substance in the 7th degree.

Phelps and Jim France will be among those who decide NASCAR’s direction. Phelps has twice said publicly since late September that “everything is in play” when looking at the Cup schedule for 2020 and beyond.

There has been talk of starting the season earlier and ending it sooner, midweek racing and doubleheaders.

How fans accept what NASCAR does — or doesn’t do — will be key.

3. Can Ford teams — particularly Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske — avoid the new-car blues that Toyota and Chevrolet teams experienced the past two years?

Both Toyota (2017) and Chevrolet (2018) struggled at times with their new cars in their debut seasons. If the same thing happens to Ford this year with the Mustang, it could allow Chevy and Toyota teams a chance to win races, qualify for the playoffs and build playoff points. That could be significant.

Toyota debuted the Camry in 2017 to mixed results. Although Martin Truex Jr. won three times in the first 18 races with the car at Furniture Row Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing could not get any of its Toyotas to Victory Lane until the 19th race of the season.

Things changed in the second half of the season. Toyota cars won 14 of the last 19 races and also the championship.

Chevrolet debuted the Camaro last year and also struggled in the first half of the season. Chevy teams won once — the Daytona 500 — in the first 21 races last year. Chevrolet won three times after that — all by Chase Elliott.

So can Ford teams be strong all season or will they need some time to become dominant or will they struggle much of the year?

4. Will new driver-crew chief pairings lead to wins?

The focus this season will be on Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus no longer working together on the No. 48 team — Johnson will be with rookie Cup crew chief Kevin Meendering and Knaus will be paired with sophomore Cup driver William Byron — but there are other pairings to watch.

After going winless last year, Denny Hamlin will be with crew chief Chris Gabehart, who has won in the Xfinity Series with Hamlin, Erik Jones and Ryan Preece.

Kurt Busch moves to Chip Ganassi Racing for what could be his final Cup season. He’ll look to crew chief Matt McCall to help make this year memorable.

Austin Dillon is reunited with crew chief Danny Stockman. They combined for championships in the Truck and Xfinity Series. While Dillon won last year’s Daytona 500, he wasn’t much of a threat at many other tracks. Can this pairing have success again?

Daniel Suarez lost his ride at Joe Gibbs Racing to make room for Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn. Suarez moves to Stewart-Haas Racing and looks to crew chief Billy Scott to help him succeed.

Ryan Newman moves to Roush Fenway Racing and will have Scott Graves as his crew chief. Graves came from Joe Gibbs Racing. Can these two help raise Roush Fenway Racing’s profile?

5.  Who wins first?

It was shocking that Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson each went winless last year.

Don’t count on that happening this year. Don’t be surprised to see all three win this year. As for who will be the first to win? You don’t have much longer to find out. The season is approaching quickly.

Friday 5: Cup rookie will ‘Turn the Page’ to new chapter

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HARRISBURG, N.C. — Wailing strands of a saxophone leap from Ryan Preece’s phone. The distinctive opening notes of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” take Preece back in time even as the NASCAR Cup rookie looks ahead.

“If you listen to the lyrics, there’s a lot of things I can relate to,” Preece tells NBC Sports. He speaks while seated at a table that comfortably accommodates 10 people in the competition room at JTG Daugherty Racing, his new home after running limited Xfinity races the past two years with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Although Seger’s song is about a musician, it could be about the highs and lows of a racer. Preece, born 17 years after the song’s debut, has lived life in the spotlight and experienced the late-night road trips on his circuitous path to Cup.

On a long and lonesome highway

The song’s opening line resonates with Preece. The 28-year-old Connecticut native raced modifieds throughout the Northeast and traveled to the South numerous times in his quest to reach NASCAR’s premier series. There were many nights on the road.

Preece worked his way to the Xfinity Series in 2016 but had limited success with an underfunded JD Motorsports team. With no other opportunities after that season, Preece returned home and faced the likelihood he would race modifieds the rest of his career.

Things changed when Carl Edwards shocked the sport by announcing in January 2017 that he would no longer compete. Joe Gibbs Racing suddenly had some Xfinity races available.

If Edwards had not left the sport, “I probably wouldn’t be where I am today,” Preece said. 

“There was no talk of going anywhere. When I went home, I went home (after 2016). I spoke to a few teams and the (cost to run those cars) were so high. I just figured I could go make a living running a modified and winning. It wasn’t a sense of I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond … this was my best chance at being successful.”

Preece spent 2016 living in former Cup crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion’s race shop before moving back home after the season. After Edwards’ announcement, Manion called Preece and told him to contact JGR.

“I was going to figure a way out,” Preece said. “That was the chance I was waiting for.”

He gathered enough money for two races, won at Iowa and got two more races that season. That turned into 15 races in 2018. He won at Bristol. His success that season led to the ride at JTG Daugherty Racing in place of AJ Allmendinger.

When you’re ridin’ sixteen hours

and there’s nothin’ much to do

And you don’t feel much like ridin’

you just wish the trip was through

A crew member often played the song on long road trips and it has remained with Preece since, a reminder of those all-night drives from one region of the country to another to race.

As he plays the song on his phone, Preece slips back to the past. He recalls a time he raced at Stafford Motor Speedway in Connecticut, finished around 11 p.m. and drove through the night with his team to be at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for a race that Saturday. He won that weekend.

Preece smiles at the memory.

Here I am

On the road again

There I am

Up on the stage

Here I go

Playin’ star again

There I go

Turn the page

“When I was younger, I was like that’s pretty catchy,’’ Preece said of the song. “As you grow older and you go through different events and different situations in your life, you start to relate to it. Every time there has been a great moment in my life, the more I can relate to that song.”

He hopes to add to the collection of memories this season with the No. 47 team. Preece is ready for the season to begin. He’ll get an early start. His team will be among those that will test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Jan. 31 – Feb. 1.

Shortly after that, he will be off to Florida to compete in his first Daytona 500.

Even as he heads on a new journey with Cup, Preece won’t leave the modified series behind. He plans to run a few races this season when his schedule allows.

But after years of going back-and-forth from the Northeast to the South, Preece has one trip left. He heads to Connecticut today to retrieve the last of his belongings and complete the move he and his wife have made to North Carolina. He also will tow his modified with him.

He plans to leave Connecticut at 3 a.m. Sunday. He knows through experience that’s the best time to depart to avoid New York traffic snarls.

One more overnight road trip. This time he’s headed for a new journey and a chance to turn the page in his racing career.

2. Study habits

Coleman Pressley admits he’s a “huge note taker” and he’s been doing just that as he reviews film and prepares for his first season as Brad Keselowski’s spotter.

Pressley, the son of former Cup driver Robert Pressley, spent the past four years spotting for AJ Allmendinger at JTG Daugherty Racing. Pressley became available after Allmendinger was not brought back for this season.

One of the biggest challenges for Pressley will be Daytona Speedweeks and the Daytona 500. Keselowski is among the sport’s premier drivers at that track and Talladega. He and former spotter Joey Meier — they had been together since 2006 until parting after last year — were among the top driver/spotter duos, winning four of the last 17 plate races (only teammate Joey Logano matches Keselowski’s record in that span).

Pressley, who doesn’t have as much experience spotting a car at the front of the field at a plate track, has been studying how the race is different there than in the middle of the field.

“I went to school the last two or three weeks just learning what the first two or three rows do,” Pressley told NBC Sports. “It’s amazing how much the draft changes in the first three rows then it does in the 10th or 12th row. I’m learning from arguably the best superspeedway racer right now.

“I feel like I’ve learned more in two or three times sitting down with Brad than in four years of spotting. He’s that good at it. It’s like dealing with AJ at a road course. AJ is so good at a road course, I learned a lot from him there.”

One of the challenges with racing at Daytona is how the lead car controls the field and moves up and down the track, blocking the run from the cars in the lanes behind. It’s critical for the spotter to tell the driver which lane is making a move so the driver can block and remain in the lead.

“Everything that we’re reviewing is more situational,” Pressley said. “Like what happens when three cars are this close and this lane is a car length apart. … Does this change if you’ve got a slower car third in line or what happens if there’s three lanes. We’re trying to make sure that when we get there, when I’m on the roof, that when I see something I know what is going to happen.”

Pressley already has watched last year’s Daytona 500 multiple times and planned to watch the race with Keselowski this week.

3. Caution laps won’t count

South Boston Speedway will not count caution laps this season for its local division races 150 laps and shorter, the track announced this week.

It’s an interesting concept. While it’s not something that could be done for a 500-lap Cup race, maybe it is something to ponder for the K&N Pro Series. Possibly a Truck race. Or maybe don’t count caution laps in the last 50 laps of a Cup or Xfinity race at a short track.

Maybe that is extreme, but with NASCAR President Steve Phelps saying last fall that “everything is in play” when examining the sport, why not consider such an idea?

Cathy Rice, general manager at South Boston Speedway, a .4-mile track, told NBC Sports that the change — caution laps did not count previously for local races 75 laps or less — was made to give fans more racing.

What if the race has several cautions and the night stretches on? Rice, entering her 31st season at South Boston, said they would shorten the event. It goes back to her belief that they should limit the racing to three hours (not including practice and qualifying). If the first race takes the green flag at 7 p.m., then the checkered flag should wave on the final race by 10 p.m. so fans can return home at a reasonable time.

“I’m pretty hard on that … that’s what we want to do, that’s what we’ve got to do,” Rice said.

Rice said she’ll keep a close eye on how long the races go with the caution laps not counting. The rule may work perfectly or may need some tweaking, but for Rice it was worth trying after fans had told her they wanted more green-flag racing.

That’s what they’ll get this season.

4. Close quarters

Daniel Suarez’s first time on the track with his new team at Stewart-Haas Racing was Wednesday and Thursday at a Goodyear tire test at Auto Club Speedway.

Two other cars were there, including Suarez’s former team, the No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing now driven by Martin Truex Jr.

5. NBC SPORTS SCORES app 

The NBC SPORTS SCORES app is a new way to engage, read and watch all of the content across our platforms.

Available on iOS and Android, the NBC SPORTS SCORES app has up-to-date scores, standings, schedules, podcasts, access to NBC Sports radio content, videos and more.

You can also get all of the latest NASCAR news on the app from NASCAR Talk. All of the NBC SportsTalk sites are available on it.

Click on the links below to download the brand new NBC SPORTS SCORES app via iTunes and Google Play.

iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/nbc-sports-scores/id1123078102?mt=8

Google Play: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.nbcsports.news&hl=en_US

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Friday 5: Time is now for change in NASCAR

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Tis the season when hopes and dreams fill so many heads.

None more this holiday season than NASCAR fans, who look to a changing future with anticipation.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps has twice said publicly since late September that “everything is in play” when looking at the NASCAR Cup schedule in 2020 and beyond.

Since this is a time of hopes and dreams, here are five things NASCAR should do:

1. Move the All-Star Race to Eldora Speedway 

It’s time for Cup to get dirty again. While there has been talk of connecting to grassroots racing — Phelps said in September that “we want Kyle Larson to talk about NASCAR racing and dirt racing and things that are his passion” — it’s time to turn words into action.

Take Cup to the dirt track for the non-points race.

But it will take away what makes the Truck race there unique, some might say.

Maybe so, but the fact is NASCAR runs more on what happens in Cup than the Truck Series.

This is a time to be bold. Put Cup cars on dirt. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t but you don’t know if you don’t try. Start off with this special event and if the fans like what they see, then it can continue as an All-Star event or eventually become a points race.

2. Have a doubleheader at Martinsville …

In the playoffs.

Take one of the playoff venues out and have two Martinsville races on back-to-back days.

And cut the race from 500 laps to 300 laps each day. That way there is little time to ride around. Make these short races so drivers have to go.

Can you imagine the potential for two rough-and-tumble finishes with a spot in the third round at stake? Drivers upset with one another on Saturday? Why wait until a couple of weeks later at Phoenix for payback when one could possibly do it the next day?

With the shortened distances there could be less patience. Doesn’t mean it will be a free-for-all. Drivers still have to protect their fenders. Still, makes one wonder what it could be like.

3. Midweek races

The time is coming for these. It’s just a matter of how many. I suggested earlier this year that NASCAR have a summer series of midweek races and suggested the first one should be at Martinsville. Move that track out of its March date for at least one year and have the oldest track kick off this special series.

For these midweek races, tracks can truly make it a doubleheader. Maybe run a Truck or Xfinity race during the day. Or be creative and add some other series or event that can attract fans.

4. Better cell and wifi service at tracks

Some places are better than others but in this era when people share their experiences over social media, it is disappointing that fans can go to an event and not be able to send photos or videos or such to others.

This should be among the top priorities for fans in 2019 and beyond.

5. Be aggressive

This is no time to be timid. That doesn’t mean the sport makes radical changes on a whim but there needs to different mindset on how to approach ways. Methodical is good but it also can be slow. Sometimes, one has to try be willing to take a chance to see if something will work.

It is that time.

Friday 5: Turnaround in 2018 has Aric Almirola looking ahead to 2019

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Aric Almirola‘s performance this season at Stewart-Haas Racing provided validation to a driver who had not raced in the best Cup equipment before 2018.

Almirola improved 24 spots from last year to finish a career-high fifth in the points, the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in Cup since the elimination format debuted in 2014. 

Part of the reason for Almirola’s jump was because he missed seven races last year after being injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway and finishing 29th in points for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Almirola also showed what he could do in his first year at Stewart-Haas Racing.

“For me, there was always some amount of self-doubt, how much am I a contributor to the performance not being where I want it to be,” Almirola said this week in Las Vegas ahead of Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “Sometimes you have to take that long, hard look in the mirror. I think for me … with my future and career being uncertain, one thing I was really hopeful for was that I would get an opportunity in a really good car to be able to know, hey, is it me or not? If I get that opportunity, can I make the most of it? Can I compete?

“I was fortunate enough that things worked out for me that I was able to get that opportunity. Some people never get that opportunity. But I was able to get that opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. I’ve got the best equipment in the garage area, and I was able to go out and compete. I ran up front and won a race and finished in the top five in points. It was a great year for me personally.”

Almirola nearly won in his first race with SHR this season. He led the Daytona 500 on the last lap before contact from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall and Dillon to the victory.

Almirola was in position to win at Dover when a caution for teammate Clint Bowyer came out in the final laps. Almirola pitted and then wrecked on the restart. Almirola won at Talladega when he passed teammate Kurt Busch after Busch ran out of fuel on the final lap.

“Now that we’ve got a year under our belt, and I feel like we achieved quite a bit, we can really focus in on our weaknesses and where we didn’t perform at our best and try to make that better. We can circle back to some of the tracks we ran really well at and figure out what we need to do to capitalize on some of those races where we felt like we could have won and didn’t do it. It’s very reasonable to have higher expectations going into next year.”

2. Not going anywhere

For those who wondered — and there were some whispers in Miami — Brad Keselowski will be back with Team Penske for the 2019 season.

“I don’t know where that came from,” Keselowski said Wednesday in Las Vegas of questions at the end of the season that he might retire. “As far as I’m aware (all is good). I will be at Team Penske driving the No. 2 car this year to the best of my knowledge. I’m under contract to do so.”

Recall that Keselowski was outspoken in June about the package that was used in the All-Star Race and warned then that “if we overdose on that particular form of racing, it will have … a long-term negative effect.”

Keselowski suggested in June that fewer talented drivers would come to NASCAR over time if the All-Star package became the primary one. NASCAR adopted a package for 2019 similar to what was used in the All-Star Race but added more horsepower than was used in that race.

One change for Keselowski is that he’ll have a new spotter. Joey Meier announced Nov. 19 that he would not be spotting for Keselowski in 2019, saying he had “been told my time as the 2 Car spotter has come to the checkered flag.” Keselowski said that a new hire hasn’t been made yet.

3. Offseason plans

What does a racer do when the season ends? Race, of course. At least that is what Alex Bowman will do.

He’ll compete in a midget at the Gateway Dirt Nationals today and Saturday at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams NFL team before they moved to Los Angeles.

Bowman also plans to run a midget at the Junior Knepper 55” USAC Midget event Dec. 15 in the Southern Illinois Center in Du Quoin, Illinois in preparation for the Chili Bowl in January in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also has entered a midget for C.J. Leary for the Chili Bowl, which will be Jan. 14-19.

Not every driver will race in the next few weeks.

Ryan Blaney says he’ll leave Saturday for Hawaii. It’s his first trip there.

“It wasn’t my first choice, but the group I was with wanted to go,” he said Wednesday in Las Vegas. “I would like to go somewhere other than America to try to change up the culture, but I think that’s enough of a culture change in Hawaii to experience new things.”

He also plans to do some snowboarding before being home in January when his sister gives birth to her child.

Erik Jones said he’ll do some ice fishing – “go sit out in the cold and look at a hole in the ice, it’s just relaxing for me.” He said he plans to spend time with family in Michigan enjoying the holidays.

Denny Hamlin said he’ll go to St. Barts for a friend’s 50th birthday celebration. “Just going down there for some vacation time in the next few weeks and after that just spend some time at home relaxing.”

Austin Dillon said he expects to be in a deer stand for some time before Christmas.

4. ‘Exciting’ move

Kyle Larson calls the pairing of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and the World of Outlaws in a doubleheader at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track in February “exciting” but he says a key will be track preparation.

When the K&N Pro Series West raced at the Vegas Dirt Track in September, the conditions were so dusty that it impacted the racing and viewing for fans.

“I think for them to both be able to showcase how cool the event is, the track needs to be right, the way it is prepped needs to be right,” Larson said this week. “That’s the only thing I”m nervous about, judging how the (K&N West) race went a few months ago.

“I just hope that the track is good so fans can get the opportunity to see some good racing in a few different series.”

5. Together again

Among those joining Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn in moving to Joe Gibbs Racing will be car chief Blake Harris and an engineer, Truex said in Las Vegas.

Having Pearn in the JGR shop should prove beneficial for all, Kyle Busch said.

“Adam (Stevens’) and Cole’s offices will be right next door to one another instead of being on a chat all the time,” Busch said of his crew chief and Pearn.

Busch likened Truex and Pearn helping the organization as much as Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth did. Joe Gibbs Racing won 26 of 72 races in 2015-16 when both Edwards and Kenseth were there.