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NASCAR America: Dale Jr. Download with Mike Helton, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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On today’s Dale Jr. Download, which runs from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, Dale Earnhardt Jr. welcomes NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton.

Earnhardt has known Helton his whole life, and while the two consider each other good friends, Junior told one story where that friendship was tested a bit. 

Here’s a brief segment of what Junior had to say about Helton:

You can be an incredible friend, but the funny thing is when you need to chew somebody’s ass, you can get that done, too. There was one time you had to get after me pretty hard at Bristol Motor Speedway. … We had a car explode a brake rotor on the race track and threw brake parts all over the place.

There was about 15 laps to go and we were running under caution. Typically, NASCAR red flags the race and I was wanting them to do that, but they didn’t. I don’t see the brake stuff, everything’s great, I’m raising hell. This was in the Bud days. Tony (Eury) Sr. was on the radio and I think he was encouraging me a little bit. Our spotter came over and said they want you and Tony Sr. to come to the truck after the race. I stopped talking immediately.

That’s when I learned that Mike Helton and the guys in the booth listen to the drivers and I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, they heard me.’ … We go up in the hauler and me and Tony Sr. still feel like we’re in the right and that we’re going to tell ‘em this and tell ‘em that, and that we’re going in there thinking we’re going to tell Helton and he’s going to say ‘you’re right, we should have red-flagged the race.’

As soon as Helton’s head comes into the door jamb, Tony Sr. and I both started pleading our case. And Mike Helton said, ‘Both of y’all hush. Y’all aren’t going to talk, I’m going to talk.’ You were so mad, so angry, and when I realized how mad you were, I was so disappointed in myself for disappointing and angering him. … I realized now what I had done.’”

Tune in to hear the rest of the story on the Dale Jr. Download (the above portion starts around 51:00).

And then stick around for the following show, IndyCar Live, from Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 6-6:30 pm ET with Kevin Lee.

If you can’t catch either of today’s shows on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. opens up on why he hid his smoking and how he quit

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For the first 15 years or so of his high-profile NASCAR career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a secret that he kept from fans, media and sponsors.

But most importantly he kept it from his father.

There had been times that Dale Earnhardt had entered his son’s house unannounced and seen the ashtrays full of cigarette butts.

And while his mother, uncle and grandparents also indulged in smoking, Earnhardt’s seven-time champion father didn’t, nor did he approve of it.

“When I was a kid, everyone seemed to be smoking except for dad for whatever reason. He just never did,” Earnhardt Jr. told NBCSports.com in a phone interview Tuesday morning during a round of media appearances in which he spoke about his former habit in-depth publicly for the first time. “He knew I did, and I never, ever would have let him see me holding a cigarette. He hated it. We never had a conversation about it. He might have said a few times, ‘You need to effing quit that.’ Or something like that real short.

“I know that was something that extremely disappointed him.”

Ultimately, it was another family member who helped Earnhardt Jr. snap the habit about eight years ago.

Earnhardt’s wife, Amy, put up with his smoking the first few months after they began dating.

“I was trying to quit and tried a couple of times and failed, and it was so disappointing for her,” he said. “Eventually she said to me, ‘Look man, are you really going to get this done? Are you really going to eventually quit?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know if I can.’ And she goes well, ‘Honestly, that could be a dealbreaker for me.’ And I said, ‘Damn, really?’

“She said, ‘Yeah, if you’re not sure, and this is something that is going to be part of our relationship going forward, I just don’t know. So that was a tough conversation that had to be had, and I finally figured out how to get it out of my system when I truly wanted to quit. You have to have that conviction to do it, but it was really, really hard.”

Earnhardt, who just launched a video campaign with Nicorette to help promote its new coated ice mint lozenge that helps smokers quit, said he wanted to help be a coach on the journey for other people trying to quit.

“I figured it wasn’t a super-duper secret that I was a smoker, but maybe it might be worth exposing that little lie and secret to see if I can convince other people to quit because honestly, once I decided to quit, I didn’t realize all the things that smoking was affecting in my life,” he said. “And I was super insecure about it.

“Obviously I didn’t want anybody to know about it, but I worried about whether my car smelled, my clothes smelled, my breath smelled, and then I worried about my long-term health. I had a doctor that’s pretty straightforward, and he’s hammering on me all the time that, ‘Like, dude, you’ve got to quit.’ I seemed to get a lot of sore throats and a lot of colds more frequently than other people that weren’t smokers.

In addition to feeling much healthier, Earnhardt said it changed him for the better socially as well.

“I realized how much control (smoking) had over me,” said the NASCAR on NBC analyst, who also has been open about the impact Amy and Steve Letarte had on him getting out more. “The decisions I made every day were based around smoking. It sort of encouraged that hermit mentality that I had before me and Amy met. Where I wouldn’t go anywhere, do anything. You wouldn’t hardly see me leave the bus on a race weekend. I would shorten visits with family on holidays and just avoid activity.

“I’d just sit in the house and play video games because I could smoke. Then I realized once I got done how much that was dictating my day and predicting the choices I made every day. It was all based around my habit of smoking, and that’s pretty stupid, but it’s true.”

Earnhardt said he picked up smoking in his early 20s, just before he began running in the Xfinity Series, while being around friends who did it.

He hid the vice in public because of the worries about his persona (which already had been associated in his youth with wild partying at the “Club E” makeshift nightclub in his basement). While NASCAR also was affiliated with tobacco through having R.J. Reynolds as the title sponsor of its top series for more than 30 years, Earnhardt said there was a “negative stigma that was building” about smoking when he took it up.

“It wasn’t popular, cool or trendy,” he said. “I wasn’t so much worried about sponsors as just worried about disappointing people. I just tried not to really push it in front of anyone’s face. I wouldn’t walk up and down pit road holding a cigarette. I just thought that would be a mess.

“People would be like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Get your head on straight. You’re supposed to be this race car driver,’ and I already had people questioning my focus and my determination. If I’m walking around smoking a cigarette on Saturday between practices, I’m sure that was going to just feed into that.”

Martin Truex Jr. throwing back to 2004 Xfinity title for Southern 500

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While Martin Truex Jr. won the Cup Series title for the first time in 2017, he’s been a NASCAR champion for far longer.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver got his big break in 2004 when he competed for Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s Chance 2 Motorsports in the Xfinity Series (then the Busch Series).

Truex proceeded to drive the team’s No. 8 Chevrolet to 12 wins and consecutive Xfinity titles (2004 and 2005).

Truex surprised Earnhardt on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download by revealing that he’ll drive his 2004 Bass Pro Shops Xfinity scheme in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway (Sept. 1 on NBCSN).

Martin Truex Jr. competes in the Xfinity Series race at Homestead Miami Speedway on Nov. 20, 2004. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

The use of the paint scheme at Darlington is made even more appropriate by the fact that’s where Truex clinched his 2004 title in the next to last race of the year.

“So many things had to happen for me to get where I am right now,” Truex said on the podcast. “This car was the first real sponsored car I had.”

Bass Pro Shops has been a supporter of Truex in some form every year since 2004.

“Without (CEO) Johnny Morris, another person I owe so much to, he’s just an amazing guy,” Truex said. “Loves racing, obviously. Loves, loves, loves NASCAR. Supports a lot of people. (Richard Childress Racing) he still does stuff with them. Just lucky to meet people like that along the way. And I never would have met him if it wasn’t for Chance 2 and Dale. You had that relationship with him. It’s crazy, man.”

Bump & Run: Was Clint Bowyer justified to be upset with Erik Jones at Kansas?

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Was Clint Bowyer justified to be angry with Erik Jones for blocking on the last lap at Kansas, or did Jones have a point that the current style of 1.5-mile racing demands such moves?

Nate Ryan: Both drivers could make legitimate cases for their actions. Bowyer absolutely cut Jones a break by backing off on the last lap and giving up a shot at finishing second, which had to be hard to swallow at the home-state track where the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is so desperate to win. But Jones’ point on the aggressive and risky moves required by the drafting package also is well taken. As Cup drivers adapt their racecraft to this style, and if there are more races similar to Kansas, it’s likely there will be more instances such as these. That could be good for rivalry-building in NASCAR but frustrating for those behind the wheel.

Dustin Long: Welcome to racing with this rules package. If there are more late-race cautions, expect more extreme maneuvers and blocking. Bowyer had every right to be upset, but Jones had every right to defend his position. Until NASCAR starts penalizing drivers for blocking, expect these types of moves to continue.

Daniel McFadin: It was the last lap of an overtime finish. I expect a driver to do whatever they can to advance their position or protect their position in that instance. Bowyer has every right to be annoyed, but that’s racing. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I understand both drivers’ arguments. Bowyer has never won at his home Cup track and was pressing for a top-three finish. Jones, who has struggled at times, was looking for his best finish of the season (and wound up tying it). This is yet another example why NASCAR should implement rules against blatant blocking.

 

There have been six different winners as the Cup Series nears the halfway point in the regular season. How many drivers will qualify for the playoffs via wins when the regular season ends?

Nate Ryan: There will be 10 and here are my four predictions of those winners: Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Erik Jones.

Dustin Long: Ten drivers will make the playoffs via wins.

Daniel McFadin: I’m going to go with 11 drivers qualifying via wins.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given that there are 14 more races left in the regular season, I believe we’ll see four or five more different winners. In addition, several of the frontrunners to date may go into slumps themselves, which could further shake things up (much like Kyle Busch finished 30th at Kansas after 11 consecutive top-10 finishes). 

 

Is Brad Keselowski right that many wins are coming soon for Alex Bowman, or did the way the No. 88 driver lost at Kansas underscore that Bowman still needs more improvement?

Nate Ryan: Three consecutive runner-up finishes show that Bowman and his team are consistently putting themselves in position to win, but the Hendrick Motorsports driver rightfully was beating himself up after Kansas. Beyond being able to register fast laps with a good car, managing restarts and traffic are essential to being a winner in NASCAR’s premier series. Bowman struggled with both Saturday: losing the lead to teammate Chase Elliott on a Lap 229 restart and then losing the race to Keselowski by misjudging a lapped car on Lap 261. That makes it harder to declare he’s on the verge of a breakthrough.

Dustin Long: Bowman’s recent run has been impressive but he needs improvement — as many drivers who have limited experience running at the front. 

Daniel McFadin: At this point it feels inevitable that Bowman will steal a win somewhere (possibly Pocono). But Bowman does need more experience when it comes to leading in Cup. His 63 laps led were his most in a race since he led 194 at Phoenix in 2016 when he was a substitute driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Jerry Bonkowski: I agree with Keselowski that Bowman will win — and soon. Some may say his Talladega runner-up was a fluke, but there’s no denying he drove his butt off for second-place showings at Dover and Kansas. But Bowman still needs improvement; he learned a valuable lesson in the way he was snookered by Keselowski at Kansas. It’s a lesson he likely won’t forget any time soon.

After being ‘beat down’ by superspeedways, Alan Gustafson gets first win

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Coming off the first off-week of the season, crew chief Alan Gustafson and his No. 9 team at Hendrick Motorsports had an interesting three-race stretch awaiting them.

The Cup Series would head to Talladega Superspeedway, Dover International Speedway and Kansas Speedway.

The last two tracks hold good memories for Gustafson and driver Chase Elliott. Two of their three wins last year came in the playoff races at Dover and Kansas. The 1-mile Dover is also the site of Elliott’s best average finish (4.3) through six starts.

“Probably of the three, I was most looking forward to Dover,” Gustafson said Sunday.  “I just love Dover, because when you win Dover, you’ve done something.  That’s a tough, fast track.  There’s no place to hide.  There’s no way you can get away with not being on the edge all day.”

But they had to go through Talladega to get there.

“I was looking forward to coming here,” Gustafson said. “I mean, you get a little beat down after doing it for so long, not getting the results, how fickle it can be.  Certainly don’t want to say I wasn’t looking forward to coming here.  You’re a bit cautious with your expectations because this place can bite you in a second.”

Elliott’s win Sunday at Talladega came in Gustafson’s 58th Cup points race on a superspeedway, with 29 each at Talladega and Daytona.

In those races, the first being the 2005 Daytona 500, Gustafson has worked with the likes of Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Casey Mears and Elliott.

Outside a win in a Daytona 500 qualifying race in 2018, Gustafson had come up one spot short of victory lane three times at superspeedways.

The closest he came was in the July 2007 race at Daytona, when Jamie McMurray edged Busch by .005 of a second to steal the win.

Nearly 12 years later, a day that saw an increased amount of coordination among Chevy teams, ended with Elliott leading 45 laps (his most on a superspeedway), including the final four, to score the win.

In addition to Gustafson and Elliott’s first Cup superspeedway wins, the victory ended a seven-race stretch of Ford wins at Talladega. It also was Chevy’s first Cup win of the season.

“We needed to win this,” Gustafson said. “We needed to consolidate our efforts.  We needed to break the streak that one of our rivals has here. … (Crew members at Hendrick have) worked really, really hard.  Really haven’t had the results to pay off their efforts.”

Chase Elliott celebrates his first Cup win of 2019. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

The win was also Hendrick Motorsports’ first on a superspeedway since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the July 2015 race at Daytona.

“Just thinking back a year or so, we’ve been so close to winning one of these (superspeedway) races for so long, haven’t been able to do it,” Gustafson said. “Happy for them we were able to get that done today.”

Elliott noted that it was “pretty cool” to get Gustafson’s first superspeedway win, but he observed that “a sticker is a sticker, the Playoff points are what they are.  I think it’s important to rack them up as early as you can, as long as you can keep stacking on top of it.”

While the No. 9 has been to victory lane four times in the last 25 races, Elliott doesn’t think they’re “winning often enough.”

“I feel like we need to be contending more,” Elliott said. “I see some of our competitors being in contention more than we have been throughout the season.  I think we can certainly do a better job.

“To have a win this early in the year I think is nice. And just because we won at Dover and Kansas last year doesn’t mean we’re going to go run good there, too. You know that.

“It’s going to be hit‑or‑miss.”