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Justin Haley to celebrate 20th birthday with Cup debut at Talladega

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Justin Haley will likely never forget his NASCAR Cup debut, which comes in Sunday’s GEICO 500.

First, it will come at NASCAR’s largest race track, Talladega Superspeedway. And second, Haley will turn 20 years old that day, sitting behind the wheel of the No. 77 Fraternal Order of Eagles Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 for Spire Motorsports.

This is a dream come true,” Haley said in a media release. “I couldn’t be prouder than to make my Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut with Spire Motorsports and the Fraternal Order of Eagles (F.O.E.).

The F.O.E. has supported my career since the beginning and it feels like our program will come full circle when I make my debut on NASCAR’s biggest stage this weekend at Talladega. I’m incredibly grateful to both Spire Motorsports and the F.O.E. for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on track and see what we can do.”

The Indiana native is racing full-time in the Xfinity Series this season for Kaulig Racing. He has earned top 10 finishes in six of the first eight races and is 11th in the Xfinity standings. He will also drive in Saturday’s Xfinity race at the 2.66-mile superspeedway.

Sunday’s Cup debut will mark Haley’s third career race in a car on a superspeedway.

Haley almost won his second career Xfinity start, last July at Daytona International Speedway. It appeared he won the race, but NASCAR ruled he illegally advanced his position by crossing the double yellow line at the bottom of the track late in the race, nullifying the win and leaving him with an 18th-place finish.

Haley has two prior starts at Talladega in a truck, including a fourth-place finish there during last year’s playoffs. He also has one prior start at Daytona in a truck, where he finished second in the 2018 season-opening race.

He would go on to finish third in the 2018 Truck Series standings, earning three wins, nine top-five and 18 top 10 finishes for GMS Racing.

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Auto Club Speedway winners and losers

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WINNERS

Kyle Busch Had it not been for a speeding penalty in the Cup race at Las Vegas and pit road penalty in the Xfinity race at Auto Club Speedway this past weekend, he would have swept the West Coast swing, winning all seven national series races.

Kurt BuschHis sixth-place finish marked his fourth consecutive finish of seventh or better.

Cole Custer Last year, car owner Gene Haas said he needed to see Custer win consistently when there were questions about if Custer was ready to move to the No. 41 Cup car. Custer won Saturday’s Xfinity race with the help of new crew chief Mike Shiplett. 

Team Penske — Placed all three of its drivers in the top five in the Cup race. Joey Logano was second, Brad Keselowski third and Ryan Blaney fifth.

LOSERS

Qualifying — Having all 12 Cup cars in the final round fail to complete a lap before time expired was a “mockery” as NASCAR’s Scott Miller called it. Changes are coming.

Spire Motorsports — It’s been tough for this new team, which came about after purchasing Furniture Row Racing’s charter. The team, which has had multiple drivers, has not had a finish better than 30th in the last four races. Sunday, the team placed 36th.

Garrett Smithley in Spire Motorsports car at Atlanta as entry lists released

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Garrett Smithley is listed as the driver of Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet for Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Smithley, a native of Peachtree City, Georgia, competes in the Xfinity Series with JD Motorsports and made three Cup starts last year.

Spire purchased Furniture Row Racing’s charter after the team closed at the end of last season. It fielded Jamie McMurray in the Daytona 500 in the No. 40 in a partnership of Chip Ganassi Racing.

Quin Houff also will compete for Spire this season.

Click here for the preliminary Cup entry list.

Click here for the preliminary Xfinity entry list.

Click here for the preliminary Truck Series entry list.

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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Advance Auto Parts Clash entry list released

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All 20 cars eligible for Sunday’s non-points Advance Auto Club Parts Clash are entered for the 75-lap race at Daytona International Speedway.

NASCAR released the event’s entry list Monday morning.

The race is open to drivers who won a Cup pole in 2018, former Clash winners who competed full-time in 2018, former Daytona 500 winners who competed full-time in 2018, former Daytona 500 pole winners who competed full-time in 2018 and drivers who qualified for last year’s Cup playoffs.

This will be the first event for Kurt Busch with Chip Ganassi Racing, Ryan Newman with Roush Fenway Racing, Martin Truex Jr. with Joe Gibbs Racing, Jamie McMurray with Spire Motorsports (McMurray also will run the Daytona 500 for the team and has no other Cup races scheduled after that), and Daniel Suarez with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Here is how the field qualified for this race:

2018 Busch Pole Award Winners (13)

Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Paul Menard, Daniel Suarez and Martin Truex Jr.

Former Daytona 500 Champions (2)

• Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman

Former Daytona 500 Busch Pole Award Winners (2)

Austin Dillon, Jimmie Johnson

2018 Playoff Drivers (3)Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski