Peyton Manning

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Dale Earnhardt Jr., Charlize Theron taking part in Daytona 500 pre-race ceremonies

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The 60th Daytona 500 on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET on Fox) will be a star-studded event as NASCAR’s premier series gets its season officially underway.

While the recently retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be in the “Great American Race” for the first time since 1999, the 15-time most popular driver will have a hand in getting the race underway.

The NBC Sports analyst is the grand marshal for the race he won two times (2004, 2014). Earnhardt will give the command to start engines.

Once that is done, the 40-car field will pull off pit road.

Leading the field will be two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Peyton Manning. The former player for the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos will serve as the honorary pace car driver.

This isn’t the first time Manning has taken part in a NASCAR race. He was the honorary official for the 2016 spring Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

When the 200-lap race finally begins, it will be Charlize Theron standing on the starter’s stand. The actress, who appeared in last year’s Atomic Blonde and stars in the March 9 film Gringo, will wave the green flag as the honorary starter.

Chipper Jones, a former player for the Atlanta Braves and recently voted to the Baseball Hall of Fame, will serve as an honorary race official.

Jones, a native of Pierson, Florida, will be introduced at the drivers’ meeting, participate in pre-race ceremonies, ride in one of the parade cars and take part in question-and-answer sessions in fan hospitality areas and the UNOH Fanzone.

Fans in attendance will also get to experience a flyover by the United States Air Force Thunderbirds F-16s. This is the eighth straight year the Thunderbirds have conducted the flyover.

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Kevin Harvick: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lack of success played ‘big part’ in stunted ‘growth of NASCAR’

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Kevin Harvick believes the popularity of 14-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has played “a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR” in recent years.

Harvick’s comments came Tuesday night on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” when the topic of fan attendance during Earnhardt’s farewell season was raised.

“I’ve been totally shocked by the vibe of Dale’s last year,” Harvick said. “I really thought it was going to be tons of fans showing up to the race track, buying crazy amounts of souvenirs and the souvenir sales aren’t up for the sales that he has in his last year so far. The crowds really haven’t changed. In my opinion, it’s been from his lack of performance. He hasn’t performed well in the race car.”

Earnhardt has failed to finish better than 12th in the last six races. Through 22 races he has only one top five (Texas). He also has nine finishes of 30th or worse.

But it’s Earnhardt’s overall record that drove Harvick’s comments about the health of the sport.

“It’s a funny situation when you talk about his last year and what you thought it would be,” Harvick said. “It’s the strangest situation that we have. In my opinion, this is where I think some of the growth in our sport has not reached the levels that it should’ve because our most popular driver hasn’t been our most successful driver. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the most popular driver (award) for however many years (14) in a row … But he hasn’t been anywhere close to being our most successful driver.”

Earnhardt’s reign as NASCAR’s most popular driver began in 2003, a season after Bill Elliott won the award for the 16th and final time. In Earnhardt’s Cup career, he has 26 wins and no championships. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, he has nine wins but none since 2015.

Harvick believes the popularity of an athlete should be directly tied to their success, citing LeBron James and Steph Curry in the NBA and Peyton Manning in the NFL. Harvick said it is “confusing” how that doesn’t seem to matter in NASCAR.

“(Earnhardt) hasn’t been anywhere close to being our most successful driver,” Harvick said. “For me I believe Dale Jr. has had a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans, this huge outreach of being able to reach these places none of us have the possibility to reach. But he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that. I know those aren’t the most popular comments but those are real life facts that you look up and see on the stat sheet.”

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver said Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt’s teammate who has won seven championships, should be the most popular driver.

“It’s really confusing to me,” Harvick said. “In my opinion Jimmie Johnson should be our most popular guy because he’s won seven championships. You look at the souvenir sheet every week and he’s (ranked) three, four, five coming off a championship year of what he sells in souvenirs. That part to me is a little bit confusing.”

While Harvick said Earnhardt “deserves that fanfare” he is receiving in his final Cup season, he followed that up by saying: “Imagine how popular he would be if he had won two or three championships?

“His dad was popular because he became Dale Earnhardt because of the fact he won seven championships and he was out there grinding every week. That hasn’t happened.”

Dale Earnhardt Sr. only won Most Popular Driver once, in 2001 after he was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Elliott’s 16 Most Popular Awards came despite only one championship but 44 wins in his Cup career. Only four of those wins came in his last nine seasons as a full-time driver.

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Does Dale Earnhardt Jr. want to be NASCAR’s version of Peyton Manning?

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Nationwide Insurance has kept former NFL great Peyton Manning busy during retirement with a series of humorous commercials that include the infamous “Nationwide is on your side” jingle.

During his opening remarks at Tuesday’s retirement announcement, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took time to recognize his family’s long-standing relationship with the company.

“Steve Rasmussen, Terrance Williams and Jim McCoy, all the folks at Nationwide, our partnership goes back a very long time,” Earnhardt said. “Maybe you guys heard it, but the Earnhardt family has been with Nationwide for more than 30 years.”

But then Earnhardt snuck in a suggestion that many people may not have caught immediately: once he retires from Cup after this season, he’d like to continue doing commercials for the company in a similar way that Manning has during his retirement.

“But what I’m proud of more is we’ve accomplished a lot in the last 10 years,” Earnhardt said. “I hope you guys are as proud as I am, and by the way, Jim, I know you’re here in the room. I’m just going to say what everyone else here in the room is thinking, your brilliant use of the retired Peyton Manning is to be commended, if not replicated.”

You could almost hear the wheels turning in Earnhardt’s head with some ideas for funny commercials.

Here’s some of Manning’s more memorable post-retirement commercials for Nationwide:

https://youtu.be/UPq5iMgDfYM

When a career ends, only a few hear the cheers

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — For many athletes, the cheers often are for someone else. Only a few bathe in the crescendoing chorus that celebrates a lifetime’s achievement.

Within the past six months, three of sport’s more recognized names — Gordon, Manning and Kobe — retired, walking away with highlight moments. Two of them, Jeff Gordon and Peyton Manning, will be at Bristol Motor Speedway for today’s Food City 500.

While Gordon didn’t win in his final NASCAR Sprint Cup start — he was one of four drivers racing for the championship — his November victory at Martinsville Speedway, where he jumped and shouted with childlike glee, provides an indelible image.

Three months later, Manning, who will be an honorary race official today, won the Super Bowl and left the NFL as a champion.

This past week, Kobe Bryant unleashed an awe-inducing 60-point performance in his final NBA game for the Los Angeles Lakers.

As time passes, none will be remembered as much for what they did in their final days competing but what they accomplished throughout their career.

That is why celebrities came to their final curtain call and fans showered these stars with adulation. For such celebrations, though, there are many other athletes who exit without fanfare or never know when their final event is until its well past.

LOOKING BACK

Carl Long leans against a stack of tires behind pit wall at Bristol Motor Speedway. Once a top driver at his local track, he moved up NASCAR’s ranks with limited success. He continues to race in the Xfinity Series because he can’t race in the Sprint Cup Series.

He still owes NASCAR $200,000 for a fine incurred in 2009 when his engine was found to be too large. Until the fine is paid, Long can’t drive in the Cup series.

“I’ve come to the reality for me to come up with $200,000 to pay the fine to go back on the other side and then to generate money to drive a car …’’ he said as his voice tails off.

His last Cup start in a points race came in 2006 in the Bristol summer night race. It was an event he wasn’t supposed to have run. When a car aligned with Long’s ride made the field but was left on the bubble in qualifying, Long said word was passed down to him not to bump the car because it was higher in points. He eased through his qualifying lap but still ran fast enough to make the show.

His race featured four penalties, including three for speeding on pit road, an engine that sputtered and hummed alternately and an upset stomach. After falling several laps behind, and the engine issues continuing, Long parked the car to avoid a wreck and immediately ran to the bathroom.

He attempted to make other Cup points races afterward but didn’t. Then came the penalty. And he was gone from that garage.

While circumstances differ, others also don’t know when their last Cup start has come.

David Gilliland has 330 career Sprint Cup starts and finished second twice, but he didn’t have a full-time ride after last season. He attempted to make the Daytona 500 in a third Front Row Motorsports car but didn’t. He said he’ll be entered at Talladega Superspeedway in a couple of weeks but doesn’t know if he’ll be in a Cup car for any additional events beyond that.

Brian Vickers said he wasn’t sure if he would be racing again after having to sit out multiple times because of blood clots. He’s returned to run select races for Tony Stewart, who is recovering from a back injury suffered in an all-terrain vehicle crash in January. Once Stewart returns for what will be his final season, Vickers will be left without a ride. Will it be his last or just an interlude?

BOTH SIDES

Kenny Wallace could not have imagined that when he climbed from his car after finishing 12th at Talladega in October 2008 he would not compete in a Cup series race again. He never won a Cup race in 344 starts. Three times he finished second, including a memorable runner-up run to Dale Earnhardt in what was Earnhardt’s last win in 2000 at Talladega.

“I have had a wonderful career and a wonderful life, but I will go to my grave upset on the inside, not fulfilled that I never won a Cup race,’’ Wallace said. “It bothers me. It is very disappointing.’’

For a driver who never made it Victory Lane in a Cup race, Wallace’s TV duties included doing shows from that location after races.

“That was the hardest thing on me, watching drivers drive into Victory Lane,’’ he said.

Nine times in the Xfinity Series, Wallace made that drive. After limited duty in 2013-14, he returned in 2015 for three races and made the exit in that series he never got a chance to do in Cup.

His record 547th Xfinity start took place last August at Iowa Speedway and became a celebration. His picture was put on a billboard at the track. He was in a Joe Gibbs Racing car. He was feted before the race for his accomplishments.

“It’s not that I needed to be loved,’’ Wallace said. “It made me feel good the everybody at Iowa recognized me, that I lived this sport. One of the things I’ll never forget is Wayne Auton, the boss of the Xfinity Series, he stood up in the drivers meeting … he said (of Wallace) ‘One of the best there ever was in the Xfinity Series.’ It caught me off guard.

“A week later, I said ‘Wayne you overdid that, I was not one of the best there ever was.’ He said, ‘Kenny Wallace, you don’t know it, but you were.’ ‘’

LOOKING AHEAD 

Gordon is gone. Stewart will be after this season. Three other Cup champions — Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth — are 40 or older. The sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., is 41. None has stated they plan to retire soon, but they likely will be among those who get to choose when they leave the sport.

“Very few people get to do it on their own terms,’’ Kenseth said. “Even though I’ve been here for a long time, I never dreamed in a million years growing up in Wisconsin racing a little Late Model car that we bought for $1,800 at a little quarter-mile track that I would ever be able to do any of this stuff. Like Jeff’s been able to do and Tony … they can do it on their own terms. Yeah, if you had a choice, that’s what you want to do.”

Earnhardt, a boxing fan, cites famous boxers who did not exit with victories in their final bouts and says that didn’t diminish their aura.

“I don’t know if it’s key, critical that you have that great last race or go out on top,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s awesome if you can. A lot of guys love it so much that they don’t know how to go out when maybe they should. Or maybe they financially can’t and have to keep competing.

“I’ve always said I hope I get to make the choice on how I want to end my career, and hopefully, it’s not decided for me. When that time comes, I will handle it how I need to handle it and run as hard as I can run.’’

And when he exits the car, he’ll likely hear those cheers saved for very few.

Check out who is wishing Dale Earnhardt Jr. good luck in Daytona 500 (VIDEO)

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NFL quarterback Peyton Manning took a moment to wish fellow Nationwide endorser Dale Earnhardt Jr. good luck in Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Earnhardt, the defending Daytona 500 champion, will start at the back of his qualifying race Thursday after his car failed post-qualifying inspection.

Here’s the message Manning had for Earnhardt: