Picture Perfect: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race topped only by family photo

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RICHMOND, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. smiled when he walked to his Xfinity car for the first practice at 8:30 a.m., when he worked later in the day in the NBCSN booth, when he stood next to wife Amy and daughter Isla before the Xfinity race and when he climbed from his car after winning a stage, leading 96 laps and finishing fourth.

The last time Earnhardt had this much fun in a car?

“When I was racing late models in the ‘90s probably,” Earnhardt said on pit road. “I had a lot of fun in the late ‘90s running the Xfinity Series (but) I didn’t know how good I had it. (In) the Cup garage, it’s so damn cutthroat it’s hard to have fun in there.”

Friday, he oozed energy. Earnhardt spoke as quickly as his Chevrolet ran. He laughed. He bobbed. He raised his hands.

He took it all in just as the fans did at Richmond Raceway. They rejoiced when the No. 88 led. They roared when he was introduced before the race and exclaimed as he stood on pit road after running 250 laps. They followed their pied piper as he walked down pit road to the media center. Halfway there, he diverted his path so he could walk with them, sign autographs and take selfies.

Other than a win – which went to Christopher Bell – the day couldn’t have been much better. Especially since he sought to manage expectations by saying before practice began that he hoped to score a top-10 finish.

“You just can’t assume you can miss eight months, 10 months and come in and win, much less run in the top five,” he said.

As the day progressed, a top-10 finish would be almost a disappointment.

Earnhardt was fast during the day, qualified second and put himself in position for a strong run.

“Right around three-quarters of the way through that race, I’m like, ‘Man if I don’t win now I’m going to be disappointed,’ ” Earnhardt said. “I had backed myself into a corner with my expectations getting too high. It’s easy to be disappointed that we didn’t win because we should have, but I didn’t do a good job on that one restart. I just spun my tires.”

Even so, Earnhardt called it a “fun night” and noted the challenges for JR Motorsports to bring a fifth car to the track, especially with three of the organization’s drivers competing in the playoffs: Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and Tyler Reddick.

Yet, the car for the boss proved to be the best. Earnhardt even won a stage, which he noted on the radio to his team after it happened.

“I never won a freaking stage before. It’s kind of embarrassing to be honest with you,” Earnhardt said with a smile. “It felt good. I had fun doing it.”

That feeling, though, couldn’t compare to what he felt before the race when he stood with Amy and Isla for pictures in front of his car.

“Being with Isla, that meant a lot to me,” Earnhardt said of his 4-month old daughter. “I don’t know what she’ll think of my racing career and how that will register with her since she won’t have experienced any of it. We got to have one race together. Pretty important moment for me.”

But it might not be the last. Earnhardt talked about running another race next year. He might return to Richmond or go to Atlanta.

That’s for another day.

On this day, after he had given his fan base and himself one more memory, there was still something else to do.

“I can’t wait to get back to the (motor home),” he said.

And celebrate his accomplishment with his wife and daughter.

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Christopher Bell wins Richmond Xfinity race; Dale Jr. places fourth

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Christopher Bell opened the Xfinity Series playoffs with a win in Friday night’s race at Richmond Raceway.

Bell took the lead from Matt Tifft on a restart with 14 laps to go and didn’t look back, as he beat Ross Chastain, Daniel Hemric, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tifft.

The win is the fifth for Bell this year and the first in seven races. He completes a sweep of the season’s races at Richmond. It’s also his first win from the pole.

“It’s not very often that you get to win with a car that’s not a winning car, we’ll take it,” Bell told NBCSN. “Man, I’m just pumped.”

Earnhardt, who made his first NASCAR start since retiring from full-time Cup competition 10 months ago, led a race-high 96 laps and won Stage 2.

“It got my expectations all messed up,” Earnhardt told NBCSN. “I was like, ‘Dang, I got to win now.’ We didn’t have the car at the end. Restarting on the outside is kind of tough. … We’ll try to do another one next year and see where we go.”

Elliott Sadler finished sixth in his last start at his home track.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Daniel Hemric

STAGE 2 WINNER: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

MORE: Results, point standings

WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: Ross Chastain placed second after having to start from the rear for unapproved adjustments. It was his third and final scheduled start for Chip Ganassi Racing … Ryan Reed placed 10th after also starting from the rear for unapproved adjustments. It’s his first top 10 in six races.

WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT: Ty Majeski wrecked with three laps left in Stage 2 following contact with Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ryan Reed. It’s the 11th DNF for the No. 60 team this season due to a wreck … Katherine Legge placed 28th after causing two cautions in the final stage … No. 1 seed Justin Allgaier wrecked out from contact with Cole Custer on a restart with 25 laps to go.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT No. 1: “That’s the first stage win of my career.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr. after winning Stage 2.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT No. 2: “To be the last time on this track, I don’t have a win, but I have a lot of great memories here.” – Elliott Sadler, who competed in his last race at his home track.

WHAT’S NEXT: Drive for the Cure 200 on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval at 3 p.m. ET Sept. 29 on NBCSN.

Christopher Bell wins Xfinity Richmond pole; Dale Earnhardt Jr. qualifies 2nd

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Christopher Bell will start first for tonight’s Xfinity race at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) after posting a top qualifying speed of 118.990 mph around the short track.

The pole is Bell’s fourth of the year.

“That was a very stressful qualifying session,” Bell told NBCSN. “Out of our four wins this year we haven’t won from the pole. Hopefully we can break that streak tonight.”

The rookie will be joined on the front row by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who qualified second with a speed of 118.896 mph.

Earnhardt is making his first and only start of the year.

“Man, I almost got the pole, that would’ve been cool,” Earnhardt told NBCSN. “I was talking to my teammate up there in the booth, Jeff Burton, about watching these guys lay back in qualifying at some of these tracks like Darlington and so forth. I’m like, ‘I’ve never tried that before.’ I’d be too nervous, right? I might screw up. I thought I’ve got nothing to lose here, so I tried going easy in that first round. … Ran it just fast enough and maybe saved a little bit of our tire to be able to run better.”

The top five is completed by Ross Chastain, Cole Custer and Justin Allgaier.

Elliott Sadler qualified 13th for his last start at his home track.

He was followed by Tyler Reddick, Spencer Gallagher and Michael Annett.

Click here for results.

NASCAR Xfinity practice report at Richmond

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RICHMOND, Va. – Cole Custer posted the fastest lap in an abbreviated final Xfinity practice Friday at Richmond Raceway.

Teams were limited to seven minutes of practice because of morning rain.

Custer led the field with a lap of 119.798 mph. He was followed by Daniel Hemric (119.638 mph), Ross Chastain (118.707), Ryan Truex (118.593) and Shane Lee (118.535).

Hemric had the best average over 10 consecutive laps at 118.251 mph. He was followed by Chastain (117.867) and Justin Allgaier (117.828).

There were no incidents in the session.

Click here for final Xfinity practice report

OPENING PRACTICE

Christopher Bell posted the fastest lap in Friday’s opening Xfinity practice at Richmond Raceway.

Bell led the way with a lap of 120.854 mph. He was followed by Cole Custer (120.681 mph), Brandon Jones (120.460), Ty Majeski (120.353) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (120.283).

Las Vegas winner Ross Chastain was 15th on the speed chart with a top lap of 119.053 mph. This is his final scheduled race in the No. 42 car.

Austin Cindric has the best average over 10 consecutive laps at 118.686 mph. He was followed by Matt Tifft (118.574 mph) and Elliott Sadler (118.198).

Cody Lane crashed late in the session. He spun off Turn 2 in front of Ross Chastain and hit the SAFER barrier. Chastain ducked underneath Lane’s car and avoided contact.

The Xfinity Series’ opening playoff race is at 7:30 p.m. ET today on NBCSN.

Click here for Xfinity practice report

How Dale Earnhardt Jr. reignited Justin Allgaier’s competitive fire

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CONCORD, N.C. — With 12 races left in the 2015 Cup season, Justin Allgaier was ready to tap out of racing.

The 29-year-old’s enthusiasm for competing had worn thin after two years of middling results driving the No. 51 Chevrolet for HScott Motorsports. His best result through 60 races was eighth earlier that spring at Bristol.

It had already been announced he wouldn’t return to the team in 2016. His spot would be taken by Clint Bowyer.

Allgaier, who had three Xfinity wins at the time, called it one of the “darker” periods of his career. It was a long way from 2018, where he enters this weekend’s Xfinity playoff opener at Richmond as the No. 1 seed.

“I was ready to walk away,” Allgaier said Tuesday at the Xfinity Playoff Media Day. “At the end of that season I was trying to figure out an exit strategy, right? What does the future hold, where do you go from here?”

All this weighed on Allgaier on Sept. 6, the day of the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Then Allgaier climbed in the bed of a truck with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Allgaier doesn’t know if it was the result of an “abnormally bad” qualifying effort for Earnhardt or a “fantastic effort” by himself.

Either way, Allgaier was set to start the Southern 500 in 27th, right next to the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

Through that, the two were paired in the same truck to take them around the 1.366-mile track following driver introductions.

By the end of their trip from the start-finish line to pit road, Allgaier said “there was a fire lit” underneath him.

Earnhardt told NBC Sports he doesn’t remember exactly what he told him that day, but Allgaier recalled what the sport’s 15-time most popular driver discussed with him as they waved to fans waiting for the race.

“Dale’s big thing to me was, ‘Man, I’m sorry that things didn’t work out the way they wanted them to. … It wasn’t for a lack of effort. … I really thought if you guys could get something figured out you guys would be a lot better. … I’ve been impressed with what you’ve done on the race track and how you’ve driven the car … In the right situation you would excel.'”

Justin Allgaier races against Carl Edwards during the 2015 Southern 500. (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

As they slowly traversed the “Lady in Black,” Allgaier said they covered “20 years of life in that one lap.”

“He had a lot of confidence in me in a time when I promise you I didn’t have the confidence in myself to go out there and think we could run good in anything,” Allgaier said. “It was like everything that I had thought that I needed somebody to say, God just put it right in Dale’s mouth to say it.  I heard everything I needed to hear.”

Allgaier doesn’t remember where he finished the Southern 500 (33rd), but he knows he had a bad race.

“It was one of those days where you want to forget it,” Allgaier said. “I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. I was in a better place, I was happy. I was ready to go.”

Within two weeks Allgaier was having discussions with Earnhardt and JR Motorsports about joining their Xfinity Series team with sponsorship in tow from Brandt, which had sponsored Allgaier in Cup and Xfinity since 2011.

About a month after that, Allgaier was “signed, sealed, delivered (and) ready to race” for JRM.

“I didn’t want to fail again,” Allgaier said. “And I knew I had the tools to go do it and I had the people around me and we’ve been lucky enough to do that. This year’s kind of the year that it all perfectly came together and everything worked.”

Justin Allgaier and wife Ashley pose with their daughter Harper after the Lilly Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sept. 10 (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images).

Three years and four days after the Darlington conversation, Allgaier, now 32, sat on the frontstretch of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He and JRM’s No. 7 team had just won the Lilly Diabetes 250.

In his third year with JRM, it was Allgaier’s fifth Xfinity win of 2018, a career-best. It also gave him seven wins in the last two seasons.

Now he and his family were about to kiss the bricks on the start-finish line, a tradition for winners at the historic track.

His wife, Ashley, looked at their daughter, Harper Grace.

“I hope one day you realize the gravity of what you’re about to do,” Allgaier recalled her saying.

“It hit me,” Allgaier said. “‘Oh man, I might not be able to do this. I might not be able to bend down here and kiss these bricks.’ That was a cool moment. That was something special.

“That’s probably what’s kept me in this sport. There was a time in my life where I was ready to quit racing and go home and not ever get back behind the wheel of a race car ever again. To have those moments now, I think (Harper Grace) very clearly understands that it is hard to win in this sport and I think she’s enjoying these Victory Lane moments when she can because you don’t know when the next one may or may not come.”

Allgaier will look to make more special moments in the playoffs, which begins Friday at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

“It’s taken me almost 10 years to win five races, then this year alone we’ve won five,” Allgaier said. “That’s special. That doesn’t happen because I changed who I was. Right? I didn’t all of sudden learn how to drive at the beginning of 2018 and say, ‘Hey, let’s go win a bunch of races.’ That’s not all what happened. Everything has clicked.”

Allgaier added, “We’re doing our jobs together in harmony and we’re executing and that’s what makes the difference. It’s every piece of the puzzle that goes together and it’s just been fun.”

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