Photo: Dustin Long

Social media reacts to Jimmie Johnson’s clean-shaven look

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – To commemorate his final race with sponsor Lowe’s and final race with Chad Knaus as crew chief, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson went back to 2002 with his look.

His No. 48 Chevrolet features a throwback look to his rookie season. His uniform harkens to that time.

Johnson also shaved his beard for the weekend, going back to his look when he made his Cup debut Oct. 7, 2001 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Johnson began having a beard regularly at the start of the 2009 season. He had previously grown one during the offseason but would go back to the clean look before the season began. Johnson was a part of the inaugural Gillette Young Guns ads in 2004 that also included Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman.

Friday, Johnson took fans back in time.

Social media had much to say about Johnson’s new look at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 best at Phoenix in last three seasons

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ISM Raceway will look different this weekend than it did in the spring. Major capital improvements were implemented between this year’s two races, including the relocation of the start/finish line. While that could make a difference in who wins this week, the track itself has not been changed since it was reconfigured and repaved in 2011.

That alteration was substantial with the addition of a run-off area on what was formerly the backstretch. This week, it will be a wide part of the road near where the checkered flag waves. If there is a late-race restart, it could be exciting as three-, four- or even five-wide racing breaks out and the driver with the most momentum off Turn 4 will triumph.

At its core, ISM is still Phoenix International Raceway, however – a track that rewards consistency and rhythm. Chose this week’s NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster from among the drivers who have excelled there in the past.

1. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 3.40) Playoff
Harvick’s last trip to Phoenix came after he was hit with a penalty for an illegal back window at Las Vegas in March. Undaunted, he dominated and won his seventh race there in his last 12 attempts and there is no reason to think this week will be any different.

2. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 3.60) Playoff
Busch has not won at Phoenix since his rookie season of 2005, but he has finished outside the top five only one time in his last six attempts. With a substantial points lead over the cutoff line and the promise that at least two playoff contenders will advance on points, he will likely settle for a solid performance without risking much for the win. 

3. Chase Elliott (three-year average: 6.80) Playoff
Last year Elliott held the lead late at Phoenix before he was overhauled by Matt Kenseth. He has learned a lot since then and will not be as easy to pass if he is in a position to win and advance to the championship four. In five starts on this track, he has never finished worse than 12th.

4. Erik Jones (three-year average: 7.00 in three starts) Non-Playoff
Since joining the Cup series last year, Jones has swept the top 10 at Phoenix. He finished fourth in this race last year and is coming off a fourth-place finish at Texas. He was also fourth the last time the series visited a 1-mile track at Dover. There are a lot of “fours” in his record this week, so fantasy players can expect him to finish near there again. 

5. Alex Bowman (three-year average: 9.50 in two starts) Non-Playoff
Bowman’s best Phoenix result before joining Hendrick Motorsports was a 30th earned in 2015. In fall 2016, he qualified Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s No. 88 on the pole and finished sixth. The feel of that car must have stuck with him because he qualified fourth there in the spring and finished 13th.

MORE: Rotoworld Fantasy Power Rankings

6. Daniel Suarez (three-year average: 11.00 in three starts) Non-Playoff
It is official that Suarez will give up his ride to Martin Truex Jr. in 2019 and that puts some pressure on the sophomore driver to perform this week. Luckily for him, this is a track that has been mostly kind since he joined Cup. Suarez’s three attempts at Phoenix netted two of his 21 career top 10s. His worst result of 18th came in this race last year. 

7. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 11.80) Non-Playoff
Hamlin may well be the best driver currently racing on minimally banked tracks. His three-year average at Phoenix is skewed by last year’s race when he was pinched in the wall by a determined Elliott. Without that, Hamlin would have a perfect record of top 10s and an average somewhere around sixth.  

8. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 13.40) Playoff
If one looks at the totality of Busch’s career with Stewart-Haas Racing at Phoenix, his numbers are much better than 13th. In nine attempts with that team, he has six top 10s. Unfortunately, two of the three times he missed that mark came last year and a pair of 20-something results have hurt his average. Busch has consistently earned top 10s on every track type this year and should easily record another. 

9. Aric Almirola (three-year average: 13.60) Playoff
While he has only three top 10s during his career at Phoenix, this has still been one of his better tracks with a career average finish of 18.1 in 15 starts. That places the flat 1-miler fourth on his list. Equally impressive, he has finished on the lead lap in 12 of the last 13 races there. Almirola needs a win this week, but his best finish to date has been a seventh this spring.

10. Martin Truex Jr. (three-year average: 14.60) Playoff
Before last fall, Truex had only one top five in 23 Phoenix attempts. He qualified fifth and finished third in that race. This spring, he started on the pole and finished fifth. He also has top fives in his last three New Hampshire races – which shows an affinity for the flat one-mile ovals. 

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: Never underestimate the power of determination. Harvick is in the news for all the wrong reasons this week, but one need only flash back to the spring Phoenix race for an image of him tapping the back window in defiance of all the haters that came out after his Vegas penalty. Harvick has only one previous pole on this track from spring 2015 but he has started on one of the first five rows six times in his last eight attempts.

Segment Winners: Finishing first in the opening stages at Phoenix has not been a particularly good omen so far. Last spring, Joey Logano won Stage 1 (after scoring the pole) and finished 31st. Elliott won Stage 2 and finished 12th. Last fall, Kyle Larson started third and won Stage 1 before finishing 40th. Stage 2 winner Hamlin finished 35th with crash damage. This spring, Kyle Busch defied those odds by finishing second after winning Stage 1, but his brother Kurt Busch finished only 10th after winning Stage 2. Pick a top five qualified driver, but don’t use that same racer as your overall winner pick.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

Dale Jr. Download: Addressing repaves, rules packages and penalties

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Recorded on Monday after a Texas Cup race filled with controversy but not filled with a lot of on-track action, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s weekly Dale Jr. Download podcast addressed the state of the sport, improvements already made and potential enhancements that are in the works.

Texas Repave and Reconfiguration (begins at about the 1:30 mark)

After the race, Chase Elliott complained about the repaving and reconfiguration of Texas Motor Speedway, saying: “I don’t know what genius decided to pave this place or take the banking out of (Turns) 1 and 2. Not a good move for the entertainment factor, in my opinion.”

Earnhardt notes that the repaving was a necessity. Texas was forced to reschedule an IndyCar race in 2016 because the track surface was unable to control weepers. His opinion about the reconfiguration was mixed.

“The reconfiguration, though; not sure that I would have done that,” Earnhardt opined. “With that said, I think the less banking in (Turns) 1 and 2 is maybe the only thing that created passing in the race. Guys going down in there and getting moved up the racetrack.”

2019 Rules package and beyond (4:20)

A new rules package for 2019 has drivers and teams already debating its efficacy. In a tweet after Sunday’s race, Denny Hamlin addressed the pending rules, saying it is naïve to think the new package will solve one-groove racing.

“One of the most important things to the racetrack is what connects (the car) to the road,” Earnhardt said. “The tire is the most important component to all of this. … That’s why Goodyear’s job is the toughest job in the sport. Tougher than the governing body. Goodyear is the key to all of our answers.”

Moreover, a new engine package needs to be created specifically with the new aerodynamic rules and tires in mind.

“There is a new engine package coming in a couple of years that is going to be an open engine with 550 or whatever horsepower,” Earnhardt said. “Until then, we’ve got this stopgap restricted engine … and that’s okay too. It helps us understand where we’re headed and what we need to do to fix it.”

Stop Listening to All the Drivers and Fans (5:45)

Earnhardt believes it is time for NASCAR to become more selective about who they listen to. Conflicting agendas make it impossible to get a clear picture of the path that needs to be taken, so the sanctioning body should find a few drivers they respect without feeling the need for an all-inclusive Drivers’ Council.

“NASCAR doesn’t need to listen to the drivers. NASCAR needs to listen to some drivers,” he said. “NASCAR doesn’t need to listen to every single fan when they have opinions. They need to listen to some fans.”

Make Penalties Fearsome (9:50)

“I’m a believer in a stern, strict system … that has penalties and deterrents that are incredibly severe that would make you never want to fail tech,” Earnhardt said.

Addressing the controversial mistake by NASCAR to send Jimmie Johnson to the back of the field after failing pre-race inspection twice, Earnhardt was in agreement with Tony Stewart’s comments earlier this week about ways to simplify the tech process. He believes fewer rules and zero tolerance is desirable.

“We need less rules – like tech shouldn’t be such a giant process – but the rules that we do keep, those are rules, and if you break those rules that should be it.”

On Wednesday, after the Dale Jr. Download podcast aired, NASCAR levied an L1 penalty against Kevin Harvick for an illegal spoiler. Later in the day, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition Scott Miller suggested harsher penalties might be coming in 2019 for similar infractions.

Dale Jr. Download: Did Roger Penske change opinion on last-lap contact?

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It was the shot heard around the racing world Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, where Joey Logano moved Martin Truex Jr. on the final lap for the win.

And it reminded Dale Earnhardt Jr. of another last-lap shot three years earlier at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Regan Smith, driving for JR Motorsports, bumped Alex Tagliani of Team Penske out of the lead for the Xfinity Series win in the Aug. 15, 2015 race.

“Really what (Smith) did, he just pushed (Tagliani) off the road; there was no question what happened,” team owner Roger Penske told Claire B. Lang on SiriusXM after the race. “I guess if that’s the way these guys want to play, we’ll remember that. There will be another time.

“That, in my mind, didn’t give me the reason I’d hire a guy like Regan Smith, because he pushed a guy off on the last lap,” Penske added. “He should have raced him clean.”

During his weekly Dale Jr. Download podcast (video above starting around the 5:00 mark), Earnhardt was struck by how Penske’s opinion seemed markedly different when Team Penske’s Logano moved Truex in a fashion that wasn’t entirely dissimilar, causing Truex to brand it a “cheap shot.”

“(Truex is) a racer and should know better than to say that,” Logano’s car owner Roger Penske retorted after Logano’s victory advanced him to championship race in Miami. “That was as clean a shot as you can have in a race like this.”

Earnhardt was amused by the differing views.

“Roger said, ‘Well, Martin knows better, being a race car driver. That was probably the nicest shot he could have expected to get at a race like this,’ ” Earnhardt said. “(Penske was) saying Martin should be ashamed of saying (it was a cheap shot) being the race car driver he is … that he got handled with kid gloves.

“But! Do you remember Mid-Ohio? Pushing (Tagliani) out of the way in the last corner? You know what Roger said about that? I will never hire a driver that will win a race that way. So all right, think about that. It depends on who’s doing it. If it’s your favorite driver, boy, you’re all for it. If it’s your favorite driver getting bumped out of the way, it’s (expletive). Even if you’re Roger Fricking Penske.”

Whether Logano’s move was clean or dirty seemingly depended entirely on one’s perspective.

“He just ran in the back of me and knocked me out of the way,” Truex said on NBCSN after the race. “Short track racing, but what comes around, goes around. He just took a cheap shot at the end there.”

After Martinsville’s race, Denny Hamlin may have summed it up best: “It depends on who is doing it. If it’s your favorite driver, you love it. If (it’s not), it’s dirty.”

Some of the times that haunt a driver most are when he’s too nice, according to Earnhardt.

“I’ve been a nice guy,” Earnhardt said. “There’s a lot of those moments in my career that I certainly regret. … You relive every race that you didn’t win. What you could have done differently. What you should have done. There’s moments when I know… if I’d been more aggressive. Or I could have run over the guy. So when I see Martin doing that I’m like ‘Argh, Martin come on, don’t do this again. ‘ ”

In the video above, Earnhardt also described a battle between himself and Kevin Harvick in the April 3, 2011 race at Martinisville when he unsuccessfully tried to move Harvick in the closing laps after yielding the lead.

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Dale Tales: When Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove Kyle Busch’s car at Texas in 2007

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The history books shows that Dale Earnhardt Jr. first drove for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 when he began racing the No. 88 Chevrolet.

But Earnhardt’s first time in a Hendrick car actually came in 2007 in a race where he drove both his Dale Earnhardt Inc. No. 8 Chevrolet and Kyle Busch‘s No. 5 Chevrolet.

Earnhardt recalled this odd episode in his career on this week’s “Dale Tales.”

The episode occurred on April 15 at Texas Motor Speedway. It began when Busch rammed into the back of Earnhardt’s car as they navigated through a smokescreen created by Tony Stewart, who had spun exiting Turn 4.

Earnhardt’s team was able to make repairs to his No. 8 car and return to the race. But his engine eventually expired on Lap 288.

He returned to the garage where Busch’s car had been repaired from their incident but Busch was nowhere to be found.

“So there was this interesting perfect timing for me pulling and their car’s ready to go,” Earnhardt recalled. “I’ve talked to Kyle since this and his version of the events is he didn’t think the car was going to get fixed and he felt he got cleared to leave. So a buddy of a mine, one of my drinking buddies that was on the 5 car that I hung out with during the week, he comes over and is like, ‘Hey man, can you drive out car? We’re in a points situation, we need to get a couple more points here and go out and run.’

“I’m like, ‘This is awesome. I’ve always wondered what the Hendrick cars felt like. What the motors felt like. This is a crashed car but maybe I can at least feel the power compared to my car and what I’ve been driving.'”

Earnhardt called it “recon” and said there was nothing behind his decision to drive the No. 5 “other than my own curiosity.”

Watch the above video for more.