Daytona 500

NASCAR: William Byron wins Xfinity Series race at Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Rookie William Byron bobbed and weaved through the final two laps Saturday and held off Paul Menard to win the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The victory margin of 0.108 seconds was the narrowest in race history. Joey Logano was third, more than three seconds behind.

Kyle Busch finished 12th, failing in his bid to become the first driver to win five consecutive races on Indy’s 2.5-mile layout.

The 19-year-old Byron has won three of his last five starts, the last two at Daytona and Indy. This time, he needed some savvy moves to block Menard, and some good luck to complete the final laps with what he thought was a deflating tire.

Byron also won the first stage over Busch by 0.113 seconds. Pole-winner Elliott Sadler won a caution-flag marred second stage under caution, just ahead of Brennan Poole.

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SATURDAY’S RESULTS

Lap length: 2.50 miles

(Start position in parentheses)

1. (3) William Byron, Chevrolet, 100 laps, 0 rating, 50 points.

2. (15) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 0.

3. (12) Joey Logano, Ford, 100, 0, 0.

4. (1) Elliott Sadler, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 45.

5. (6) Cole Custer, Ford, 100, 0, 39.

6. (10) Ryan Reed, Ford, 100, 0, 31.

7. (17) Brennan Poole, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 45.

8. (13) Daniel Hemric, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 37.

9. (14) Brandon Jones, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 34.

10. (19) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 0.

11. (7) Matt Tifft, Toyota, 100, 0, 27.

12. (11) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 100, 0, 0.

13. (16) Brendan Gaughan, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 31.

14. (8) Ryan Sieg, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 25.

15. (21) JJ Yeley, Toyota, 100, 0, 25.

16. (23) Ross Chastain, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 26.

17. (22) Blake Koch, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 20.

18. (9) Ben Kennedy, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 23.

19. (25) Jeb Burton, Toyota, 100, 0, 18.

20. (24) Dakoda Armstrong, Toyota, 99, 0, 17.

21. (33) Garrett Smithley, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 16.

22. (29) Harrison Rhodes, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 15.

23. (2) Erik Jones, Toyota, 99, 0, 0.

24. (30) Ray Black Jr, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 13.

25. (5) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 12.

26. (31) Tommy Joe Martins, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 11.

27. (26) Mario Gosselin, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 10.

28. (20) Spencer Gallagher, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 9.

29. (35) David Starr, Chevrolet, 99, 0, 8.

30. (37) Joey Gase, Chevrolet, 98, 0, 7.

31. (32) Jeremy Clements, Chevrolet, 98, 0, 7.

32. (39) Chad Finchum, Chevrolet, 98, 0, 5.

33. (34) BJ McLeod, Chevrolet, 93, 0, 4.

34. (40) Mike Harmon, Dodge, transmission, 90, 0, 3.

35. (4) Justin Allgaier, Chevrolet, 86, 0, 2.

36. (36) Timmy Hill, Toyota, clutch, 40, 0, 1.

37. (18) Tyler Reddick, Chevrolet, accident, 38, 0, 5.

38. (27) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, vibration, 23, 0, 0.

39. (38) Morgan Shepherd, Chevrolet, engine, 22, 0, 1.

40. (28) Jeff Green, Chevrolet, vibration, 9, 0, 1.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 126.232 mph.

Time of Race: 1 hour, 58 minutes, 50 seconds.

Margin of Victory: 0.108 seconds.

Caution Flags: 5 for 22 laps.

Lead Changes: 16 among 8 drivers.

Lap Leaders: E.Sadler 1-16; K.Busch 17; M.Shepherd 18; D.Hemric 19; K.Busch 20-22; W.Byron 23-31; H.Rhodes 32; K.Busch 33-52; J.Allgaier 53-56; K.Busch 57; E.Sadler 58-60; G.Smithley 61; K.Busch 62-69; W.Byron 70; K.Busch 71-81; E.Sadler 82-84; W.Byron 85-100

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): K.Busch, 6 times for 38 laps; W.Byron, 3 times for 23 laps; E.Sadler, 3 times for 19 laps; J.Allgaier, 1 time for 3 laps; D.Hemric, 1 time for 0 laps; H.Rhodes, 1 time for 0 laps; M.Shepherd, 1 time for 0 laps; G.Smithley, 1 time for 0 laps.

Wins: K.Busch, 3; W.Byron, 3; E.Jones, 2; J.Allgaier, 1; J.Logano, 1; R.Reed, 1.

Top 10 in Points: 1. E.Sadler, 665; 2. W.Byron, 625; 3. J.Allgaier, 532; 4. B.Poole, 473; 5. D.Hemric, 458; 6. C.Custer, 435; 7. M.Tifft, 414; 8. R.Reed, 408; 9. D.Armstrong, 368; 10. M.Annett, 367.

The 7 biggest surprises of the NASCAR season so far

(PhatzRadio Sports / FTW)    —-    We’re halfway through the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, and the playoffs are practically around the corner. It’s been an interesting year so far, and you could even call it a little strange.

So to quickly recap the oddities through the first 19 races of the season, here are the seven biggest surprises so far, numbered but in no particular order.

(Note: Dale Earnhardt Jr. announcing his retirement is not on this list. After suffering a concussion and missing half of last year, his career could have been over then because of the many challenges he faced. So his exit is a huge blow to the NASCAR world, but it’s not quite a surprise.)

1. Kyle Busch STILL has not won

This is one of the most talked about storylines of the season, but it’s still a big shocker. The No. 18 Toyota driver has accumulated 38 wins throughout his career with nine in the last two years alone. The last season he finished without a win was back in 2004 when he wasn’t even a full-time driver, so he’ll probably win one of these weekends. But without it, he doesn’t have a guaranteed spot in the 16-driver playoffs this fall.

2. Stenhouse is making moves

In his fifth full-time season and after 157 winless races, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finally earned his first Cup Series victory at the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in May. But two months later, he surprised everyone again when he won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Not many racing fans would have bet that Stenhouse would have more wins than Kevin Harvick (1), Joey Logano (1) or Busch through July.

3. Joe Gibbs Racing’s slow start

An extension of Busch getting shut out, it took Joe Gibbs’ team 19 races to get its first win. Thanks to Denny Hamlin on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, JGR’s winless drought dating back to last year was snapped, but the team looks totally different compared with 2016.

At this point last season, JGR had won eight of 19 events. Busch and Carl Edwards – who all but retired – were major factors, combining for four consecutive wins at one point. Rookie Daniel Suárez replaced Edwards this year, so he’s still getting comfortable at the next level. But that doesn’t explain why Busch, Hamlin and Matt Kenseth have struggled.

4. Speaking of Matt Kenseth…

The 45-year-old driver doesn’t have a ride next season, which he actually announced before his team did a few weeks ago. Despite winning 16 races over five seasons for JGR, Kenseth is being replaced by 21-year-old Erik Jones in 2018. Where the 2003 Cup Series champion’s career goes from here is anybody’s guess.

5. Martin Truex Jr.’s incredible consistency

Not only are Truex and seven-time Cup Series champ Jimmie Johnson leading the series with three wins apiece, but the No. 78 Toyota driver is destroying the field in the stages. He has an unbelievable 14 stage wins so far along with 29 playoff points. Busch is second on the list with just five stage wins, while Johnson’s is next with 16 playoff points. Truex was great last year with four race wins, but no one could have anticipated this kind of consistent speed every weekend.

6. Logano getting left behind

Joey Logano won the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway back in April, but it’s encumbered after failing the post-race inspection. He still gets credit for the win but lost the automatic playoff berth.

Since then, the No. 22 Ford driver has struggled. Including the Richmond race, he finished in the top-10 eight out of nine times. But through the next ten events, he did so only twice, he’s wrecked three times and he has an average finish of 23.3. If the playoffs started today, Logano wouldn’t make the cut – a steep difference compared with being just three points away from the 2016 series championship.

7. Richard Childress Racing’s quiet surge

Thanks to wins from Ryan Newman at Phoenix Raceway in March and Austin Dillon at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May, RCR has two drivers locked into the playoffs. Although they’ve both been fairly mediocre since their respective wins, it’s still surprising to see this team with more drivers qualified for the playoffs than powerhouses JGR, Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske – who each have one driver in.

NASCAR: Matt Crafton wins Truck race at Eldora dirt track

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ROSSBURG, Ohio (AP) — Matt Crafton’s time racing on dirt tracks over the past year paid off at Eldora Speedway.

Matt Crafton won the Eldorda Dirt Derby on Wednesday night for his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series victory in more than a year.

The two-time series champion passed Stewart Friesen with 17 laps to go in the 150-lap race and won by 1.96 seconds in ThorSport Racing’s No. 88 Toyota. Crafton won for the first time since May 2016 at Charlotte.

Crafton bought a dirt modified car and had been running it at different places including Eldora, the half-mile that is owned by three-time NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart.

“It has helped a lot, learning what the truck does and seeing what spots to pass,” Crafton said after ending a 27-race drought. “Previously, I didn’t know what I was looking at but I just kept studying and studying.”

Crafton’s previous best finish at Eldora was eighth in the first race in 2013. He has 14 career series victories.

Crafton also won the first 40-lap stage after passing Friesen with seven laps to go.

Friesen won the second stage, which was 50 laps. A Canadian with dirt-track experience, Friesen started from the pole, led a race-high 93 laps and finished a career-best second in a Chevy.

Chase Briscoe was third in a Ford, Grant Enfinger fourth in a Toyota and John Hunter Nemechek fifth in a Chevy.

Series points leader Johnny Sauter was involved in an early wreck and finished 23rd. He has a seven-point lead over Christopher Bell.

OTHER NASCAR NEWS:

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the replacement he wanted. Alex Bowman got his dream job.

Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday that the 24-year-old Bowman will replace one of the series’ biggest stars in the No. 88 car next season after Earnhardt retires.

Bowman has big shoes to fill. Earnhardt was named NASCAR’s most popular driver each of the last 14 seasons and fans of his late father often tracked Junior’s results following Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 season opener at Daytona.

“Ever since I was a kid, racing is all I’ve wanted to do,” Bowman said. “I’ve had so many people believe in me along the way. My family has sacrificed a lot and always been behind me. I would never have this chance without the support of Dale and everyone involved with the No. 88 team. To be part of Hendrick Motorsports and for Mr. Hendrick to have this confidence in me, it’s just amazing.”

Bowman already has some experience in this job. When the 42-year-old Earnhardt missed 18 races because of a concussion last season, Bowman started 10 of them in the No. 88, winning the first Cup pole of his career and finishing in the top 10 three times.

That was enough to get Earnhardt’s attention and eventually an endorsement in May.

“Alex Bowman to the 88 next year — is that what you guys want?” Junior asked during a livestream on Periscope following the series’ All-Star race. “That would be pretty awesome to see Alex in that car. That’s the plan, I hope. . Yeah, Alex in the 88. That sounds good to me. That kid earned it last year. He ran good.”

The 24-year-old Bowman performed well enough to get several full-time offers to drive in the Cup series this year.

Instead, he stayed patient. Bowman said he turned down each offer as he continued searching for the right situation. The Tucson, Arizona, native wound up with no full-time ride in 2017.

But with Earnhardt’s concussion history, Bowman likely knew it wouldn’t be long until he stepped away. Rick Hendrick’s team contemplated its options for months before finally deciding bring back Bowman.

In 81 career Cup starts and 50 career starts in the Xfinity Series, Bowman has never won a race. But he had 13 top-finishes and won three poles on the Xfinity circuit before blossoming in Earnhardt’s car last season.

He joins a series that is clearly in transition.

With television ratings and attendance sagging and three major stars — Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Earnhardt — retiring since 2015, Bowman will become yet another prominent fresh face in a series that currently has five drivers who are in their 20s in the top 15.

The announcement comes two days Earnhardt attempts to qualify for his final Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis. The race is scheduled to be run Sunday.

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More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

NASCAR making changes to leadership team

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — NASCAR is making changes to its leadership structure with four people taking on new roles.

Brandon Igdalsky is joining the organization as managing director of event marketing and promotion. Igdalsky, who will work with tracks on different initiatives, comes to NASCAR after being the president and CEO at Pocono Raceway for 10 years. Igdalsky will lead the NASCAR Track Council.

Evan Parker has been appointed managing director of content strategy, Scott Warfield managing director of digital and social content and Jeff Wohlschlaeger managing director of series marketing.

Igdalsky will report to Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell. The others report to SVP/Chief Marketing Officer Jill Gregory.

Pocono Raceway has promoted Nick Igdalsky to CEO and Ben May to track president.

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INDIANAPOLIS — For the legions of Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans in Indianapolis wondering which driver to cheer for once their beloved “Junior” steps away from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Austin Dillon has a suggestion: “How about Austin Dillon?”

“I’m right here,” Dillon said with a laugh, ahead of this weekend’s Brickyard 400. “I’m trying to get as many of those fans as we can get on the Austin Dillon side of things. There are a lot of people looking for new drivers right now.”

Dillon, the 27-year-old driver of Richard Childress’ historic No. 3 car and currently 20th in the Cup standings, knows that Earnhardt’s looming retirement combined with the recent retirements of legends Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon creates a major opportunity for young drivers such as himself to snag a bigger piece of the spotlight in Indianapolis and across NASCAR nation.

But Dillon, and NASCAR’s other young stars, also are quick to point out there is no replacing an icon like Earnhardt.

It will be impossible for any one of them to fill the void left by the man with nearly 2.2 million Twitter followers, and the driver voted NASCAR’s most popular 14 years running. Earnhardt, who has long served as both NASCAR’s connection to the past and as its pilot into the future, will leave a legacy far too great for any one driver to replace.

He’s more than just a fan favorite, Dillon said. “He’s a hero of the sport. And it’s never good when you lose one of those.”

But while replacing Earnhardt — along with Stewart and Gordon — is impossible, the demise of NASCAR has been overstated, Dillon said. The sport is in good shape with a host of young drivers ready and eager to soak up a portion of the spotlight Earnhardt will leave behind.

“All we’ve known is racing with Dale,” said David Ragan, driver for Front Row Motorsports. “He’s been a huge star since I started in this series 10 year ago. It will be really different to not have him on track and not around as much. With Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, there are a lot of young kids in their 20s who are doing really good.”

It’s a great time to be a young driver in NASCAR, added Elliott, who has intimate knowledge of what it’s like to try and replace a legend. Last season, the 21-year-old took over for Gordon in the famed No. 24 car.

So he speaks from experience when he says that legends leaving provides “a big opportunity for guys like me who are coming up right now. It’s a good time to be working your way up the ranks if you have the right opportunity and the right chance.”

Elliott, Dillon and Ragan were also quick to point out that Earnhardt will still be around in some capacity next season. He’s already committed to driving in the Xfinity Series and has talked about returning for the Daytona 500, among other Cup races.

He won’t abandon NASCAR at a time when it needs him most. He’ll continue to be a face of the sport, to promote NASCAR and it’s rising stars and to mentor those drivers who will help carry NASCAR into the future.

Of course, all of that will come in due time. This weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the spotlight will be on Earnhardt the driver — not the mentor — as he bids farewell to his Indy fans. While the Brickyard has never been too kind to Earnhardt — he’s finished in the top five just once in 16 starts there — expect the IMS faithful to shower him in adulation and give him the farewell he deserves.

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Ayello writes for The Indianapolis Star, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Five takeaways from the NASCAR Cup race at New Hampshire

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)    —-    In retrospect, perhaps Denny Hamlin’s victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway shouldn’t be surprising.

Despite Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates enduring a frustrating and winless campaign prior to Sunday’s race, the signs were there that the 1.058-mile oval could be the track where the organization finally broke through.

JGR has now won six of the last 10 races at Loudon — dating back to the fall of 2012 when Hamlin dominated — leading nearly two-thirds of the laps. Since then, Matt Kenseth has won three times and finished second in another, and Kyle Busch tallied one win and three-runner-up finishes.

Team owner Joe Gibbs, crew chief Michael Wheeler and Hamlin all noted the success the organization has had at the New England track, and credited a mix of style, comfort and setup for its recent run:

• “For whatever reason, this has been a favorite place for our drivers, crew chiefs,” Gibbs said. “Denny, if he picked a racetrack, it would probably be here in Loudon where he would like to have his final race at. Certainly anything about this place has been good for us.”

• “Once you get a package here that works good and you understand why, it’s easy to kind of duplicate over time, do different tire changes and aero changes,” Wheeler said. “It might take a race or two to get it back, but once the drivers get a good feel for what it takes to get around here, get in the corner, get off the corner, you can go year in, year out and try to get that same feel for them again.”

• “I think it probably started with Tony Stewart many, many years ago (Stewart won at New Hampshire with JGR in 2000 and 2005),” Hamlin said. “I watched him many times get around this racetrack, and the track has changed a lot over the years. The cars have changed. But just kind of being a student to the game and seeing what all he’s done. … I just kind of levitated to that ever since I got in a race car on a short track, and I think it’s raised all of our games.

“Really the short tracks and flat tracks weren’t really Kyle’s forte. We worked together so much now over the last few years, he’s really good if not exceeded beyond that. Matt has come in and been dominant at this racetrack and so we look at him and look at his notes, and so I think it’s just kind of a feeding off of all the good things that have happened here, and everyone is just working off of that and getting better.”

Here are four other takeaways from Sunday’s race at New Hampshire:

No change at the top: While Hamlin may have crossed the finish line first, the result didn’t do much to dent the fact that Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson are the two best drivers this season. Larson, who has won twice, and Truex, a three-time winner, finished second and third, respectively, and increased their margins at the top of the standings. New Hampshire marked the fifth time this season where Truex, the points leader; and Larson, who currently ranks second; finished in the top four in the same race (also Las Vegas, Fontana, Dover, Kentucky). One or the other has topped the points since the fourth race of the season at Phoenix Raceway, and the gap to third in points — occupied by Kyle Busch — now stands at 108.

Penalties have not derailed Larson: In a span of three days, Larson was penalized twice by NASCAR — first for failing postrace inspection at Kentucky Speedway and then for failing post-qualifying inspection at Loudon. The Kentucky penalty cost Larson the points lead and the New Hampshire penalty cost Larson the pole, but the Chip Ganassi Racing driver was unfazed even after starting from the rear of the field.

“I think with how fast we’ve been running and all that, NASCAR has kept a closer eye on our team in particular,” Larson said after the race. “Obviously, I don’t think it really affected us, which is a good thing, because the little stuff that we got in trouble for so far hasn’t seemed to affect the performance. Just got to keep working hard on the areas of our race car that are legal and find some more speed that way.”

Logano loses ground: Since his victory at Richmond Raceway, which NASCAR subsequently ruled was encumbered and couldn’t be used to secure a playoff berth, things have not gone well for Joey Logano. The Team Penske driver has now finished outside the top 20 in seven of the past 10 races and outside the top 30 in four of those, including Sunday’s 37th-place showing after a handling issue forced him to the garage for repairs. Logano, who ended 2016 second in the standings, now finds himself outside of the playoffs — 52 points behind Kenseth, who currently holds the 16th and final transfer spot.

Patrick’s silver lining: Danica Patrick has not had a memorable season by anyone’s standards — with just one top-10 finish in 19 races — but the Stewart-Haas Racing driver earned a solid result for the second consecutive week. After rolling to a 15th-place result at Kentucky, Patrick rallied to a 13th-place finish after starting 30th at New Hampshire. She next heads to a track at which she is intimately familiar — Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Though her NASCAR results haven’t been particularly stellar at the Brickyard — with a best finish of 22nd last year — Patrick tallied six top-10s in seven Indianapolis 500 races in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

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Follow Horrow on Twitter @EllenJHorrow

NASCAR: Larson’s NASCAR pole tossed out with inspection failure

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LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Kyle Larson has made a habit of flunking NASCAR inspection.

Knocked from the top of the points standings this week because of an inspection failure, Larson was stripped of his pole Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and had his winning time tossed out for yet another infraction. He will start at the rear of the field in Sunday’s Cup race.

Martin Truex Jr. will lead the field to green for the first time this season.

“Not the way we wanted to get our first pole of the year but looking forward to starting up front,” Truex said.

Larson’s time was disallowed because of an unapproved rear deck fin lid. NASCAR said there would be no additional penalties.

He had raced to the top of the field without his suspended crew chief, turning a lap of 133.324 mph to win his fourth pole of the season. Larson’s team was penalized 35 points this week by NASCAR, erasing what had been a one-point advantage over Truex in the driver standings. Crew chief Chad Johnston was suspended for three races because of a rear brake cooling assembly that did not meet standards.

“I wish I could have him on the box on Sunday, but we will be strong these next few weeks,” Larson said.

Team owner Chip Ganassi did not appeal the penalty issued for failing post-race inspection at Kentucky. Tony Lunders served as the interim crew chief.

“I know nothing about race cars,” Larson said. “I don’t honestly know what it was that got us in trouble. Yeah, a big penalty so it must have been something important in their eyes.”

NASCAR’s eyes got bigger at New Hampshire — though Larson did pass pre-qualifying inspection.

Larson also started in the rear because of inspection issues at Kentucky Speedway.

“It’s really cool to get the pole the first week back after the penalty,” he said.

No so fast.

Truex has the pole and the rest of the field moved up a spot. Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne completed the top five.

Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion, starts in the top five for the first time this season.

“Well damn, we’re starting second now. I should close my eyes in Q more often,” Johnson tweeted.

Kenseth had a solid round just days after it was announced he would be out at Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season. Furniture Row Racing driver Erik Jones, who will replace Kenseth, starts seventh. Kyle Busch starts eighth and Denny Hamlin ninth to give JGR three drivers in the top 10.

Kenseth, Busch and Hamlin are again all chasing Truex. Truex has three of wins driving for Furniture Row — which shares a technical alliance with JGR — while the Gibbs drivers remain winless.

“It’s the biggest question of the universe right now, probably, which is why the 78 is outperforming the house cars, so we’re just as confused and disgruntled by it as probably others,” Busch said. “I wish I had a theory. I’ve had probably 10 theories since they’ve joined us and none of them are true, so I’m done with theories.”

With Jones moving on, Furniture Row owner Barney Visser has not decided if the team will field two cars next season.

“I know his plans originally were not for this team to be a one-year deal,” Truex said. “We’ll just have to see how it all pans out, but I’ve enjoyed working with Erik. He’s been a good teammate. He’s a great kid. Love talking to him and hearing his point of view and things, so it would have been nice to have him for a couple years.”

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LOUDON, N.H. (AP) — Matt Kenseth knows his NASCAR career will soon fade to black.

But the same week he was given a pink slip by Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth hit the road for a Metallica concert instead of pounding the pavement to find a ride in 2018.

“Actually made me feel 20 again for about four hours, which was pretty fun,” Kenseth said.

If Kenseth actually was 20, he’d be an in-demand driver for a Cup Series rapidly undergoing a changing of the guard. Young is cool. And for a sport desperately angling to hook a new generation of fans, 20-something drivers such as Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson and Erik Jones could lead the charge into the next decade and beyond. Some of that evolution comes at the expense of veteran drivers such as Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion and a two-time Daytona 500 champion, who got the official news this week he was out at JGR at the end of the season.

The 21-year-old Jones will take Kenseth’s job in the No. 20 Toyota. Jones is on a one-year loaner contract to Gibbs’ sister team Furniture Row Racing, and Gibbs had to put Jones somewhere in 2018.

Kenseth’s fate had been in limbo — though it seemed obvious Jones was being groomed for the ride — and Gibbs made the transaction complete, leaving the 45-year-old driver without a car next year.

“I’m just glad they finally put it out so I don’t have to pretend anymore,” Kenseth said at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “Everybody can ask you about it, everybody can move on and get back to racing.”

Kenseth, who qualified third at New Hampshire, said Friday he had no hard feelings toward the organization and has no concerns about his future. He also has no timetable for a decision but there are few options.

The best bet could be a one-year landing spot at Hendrick Motorsports driving the No. 88 Chevrolet. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride will be open once he retires at the end of the season. Team owner Rick Hendrick has promising prospect William Byron, a 19-year-old Xfinity Series driver, and could consider Alex Bowman following a solid stint subbing last season for the injured Earnhardt.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson said sponsorship dollars would likely dictate who gets the coveted ride. Johnson, who will have a vote on his new teammate, also said Kenseth has the resume that will earn him a ride somewhere next season.

“Matt’s just too good,” he said. “The guy can win races and championships and that won’t be overlooked. But I do feel Matt’s at a point in his career where he just won’t take any ride.”

Kenseth has won 16 races over five seasons with JGR and is NASCAR’s oldest full-time driver. He is the veteran at Gibbs, which has 2015 champion Kyle Busch, Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and reigning Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez. Kenseth, 11th in the standings in his 18th Cup season, said he knew for about a year he could be on the way out at JGR.

“I feel like we did a lot of great things,” Kenseth said. “I don’t think there’s anything to be bitter about or feel bad about. We’re both living up to the agreements we made.”

Outside of the 88, quality rides are slim for 2018.

“I hope to race next year,” Kenseth said. “I still enjoy racing. I still feel like I could be an asset to somebody, so I hope so.”

His other options include a bunch of maybes: Hendrick could cut ties with underachieving Kasey Kahne in the No. 5 and Stewart-Haas Racing may have two openings if Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch do not return. NASCAR has already lost veteran stars Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards over the last three seasons and the popular Earnhardt is on his way out.

The new generation is ready to take over. The cover of the New Hampshire race program shows Elliott and Larson in sunglasses with the headline “The Future is Bright: Elliott and Larson to Carry NASCAR Torch.”

“NASCAR needs Chase Elliott to win,” 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick said. “Chase Elliott is the tie to the traditional NASCAR fan. It’s the only shot they’ve got with the traditional NASCAR fan. His dad. The history and heritage of the sport. There isn’t anybody else in the lineup that I can think of.”

That includes Larson, a dirt tracker from California who will race anything at any time. Larson turned the fastest qualifying lap for Sunday’s race at New Hampshire before his time was disallowed for an inspection failure.

“A distant second,” Harvick said. “Dirt racing is great, but they don’t have the fanbase that a NASCAR-type fanbase does to help elevate him because most of those people aren’t going to go to a NASCAR race.”

Kenseth was once considered one of NASCAR’s hottest young drivers. He’s now riding out the string, hoping for a win and a strong showing down the stretch to showcase to other teams he still has something left for next year.

“We’re both going to work as hard as we can to win races, win a championship for JGR,” he said. “Next year doesn’t affect anything for this year at all. It really doesn’t.”

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More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

NASCAR: New Hampshire perfect track for Matt Kenseth to reset his season

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-   Racing as a team sport is predicated on selfishness furthering the overall effort of the organization.

This weekend’s Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was bound to be important to Matt Kenseth, especially since he and his teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing remain winless after having racked up seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories by this time last season. But as a future former driver of the No. 20 Toyota — with official word this week that he will be replaced next season by 21-year-old rookie Erik Jones — the 45-year-old, 18-season veteran could very much benefit from a reprise of his recent success at the 1-mile oval.

Kenseth has won two of the last three races at Loudon and finished second in the most recent installment last fall after leading 105 of 300 laps. His victory in the 2015 playoff race put him atop the points standings and advanced him automatically to the second round. His victory there in the summer of 2016 — after taking the lead from teammate Denny Hamlin for the final 31 laps — was his second of the season. His runner-up finish last fall elevated him to fourth in points and he kept his bid for a second championship viable until the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix Raceway.

Kenseth has an average finish of 12th and has completed 99.2 percent of the laps in 34 starts at Loudon.

Kenseth, now 11th in the driver standings, arrives this time in search of much more humble progress — keeping his figurative crampons sunk into the granite escarpment that is currently the final transfer slot on points with eight races left in the regular season. Kenseth’s recent run of results doesn’t portend momentum, but his 20th, 27th and 17th-place finishes came on a road course, a restrictor-plate superspeedway and an intermediate track, respectively, which isn’t applicable to the variable-banked, relatively flat Loudon course.

Finding a comparison is not possible, Kenseth said.

“It’s really the only flat one-mile track that we go to on the circuit, and I really can’t compare it to anywhere else that we go,” he said in a team release. “The track changes a lot from practice to race time since there are so many different divisions of races going on throughout the weekend.”

Kenseth admitted last week at Kentucky Speedway that he had no job for 2018 and the transition of Toyota prospect Jones from his rookie ride at Furniture Row Racing to JGR was no surprise when it was announced days later. Retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. expressed confidence that his long-time friend from their formative days together in the Xfinity Series would acquire a quality job, but Kenseth was loathe to discuss the prospect of taking over the No. 88 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports.

“I probably already said too much about what I’m not doing next year,” the 2003 Cup Series champion said last week. “So I don’t really have anything to talk about for what I am doing. … I don’t have anything going on for next year and [I’m] pretty focused on trying to get running better this year and winning some races.”

Doing so would help solidify his case as a valuable free agent in a market where at least one and perhaps numerous jobs could become available in the offseason depending on sponsor acquisitions and potential downsizing on some power teams.

Kenseth could be a short-term fix for the No. 88 Chevrolet if owner Rick Hendrick and potential sponsors deem William Byron or Alex Bowman unready or unqualified. Kurt Busch is in a contract year at Stewart-Haas Racing and Danica Patrick’s No. 10 Ford team has struggled with sponsor shortages, although the team has not officially commented on their futures.

There’s never a good time for limbo, but for Kenseth, a recent fitness enthusiast who won seven races in 2013 and five in 2015, there have been others in worse predicaments, especially with New Hampshire up next.

Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

NASCAR: Larson loses Cup series lead after failed inspection

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kyle Larson has lost his Cup series lead and his crew chief has been suspended after failing a post-race inspection at Kentucky.

Larson’s team was penalized 35 points Wednesday, erasing what had been a one-point advantage over Martin Truex Jr. in the driver standings. Larson is still 66 points ahead of third-place Kyle Busch.

Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet was penalized for a rear brake cooling assembly that did not meet standards. Crew chief Chad Johnston was suspended three races and fined $75,000. He will miss Cup races starting this weekend at New Hampshire.

Chip Ganassi Racing says it will not appeal NASCAR’s penalty.

NASCAR has also fined Busch’s crew chief Adam Stevens $10,000 after an unsecured lug nut was found in post-race inspection.

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MOORESVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Aric Almirola plans to return to action this weekend after missing two months of the NASCAR season with a fractured vertebra.

Richard Petty Motorsports announced Wednesday that Almirola would be back in the No. 43 car this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Almirola suffered an acute compression fracture to his T5 vertebra — just above the middle of his back — during a fiery multi-car wreck May 13 at Kanas Speedway.

The final step of his comeback involved a test Tuesday at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Almirola said in a statement that “when something gets taken away from you at a moment’s notice like that, it has certainly made me appreciate my passion for racing and my desire to compete at this level.”

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Joe Gibbs Racing announced Tuesday that long-time Toyota prospect Erik Jones will replace Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series entry next season.

Jones, 21, is currently 14th in the Cup standings as a rookie for JGR affiliate Furniture Row Racing.

Kenseth, the 2003 series champion and two-time Daytona 500 winner, has won 38 races in 20 seasons at NASCAR’s top level. The 45-year-old won seven races in his first season with JGR in 2013 and five two years ago. He currently is winless with the rest of the four-driver lineup.

“Matt has been a tremendous asset to our organization over the past five seasons both on and off the track,” team owner Joe Gibbs said in a statement. “He’s been a great teammate and a great ambassador for our sponsors. We have a great deal of respect for him and we are working hard to get the 20 team into the playoffs to make a run for the championship. We have a great deal of confidence in his abilities to do just that.”

None of the four Gibbs drivers – Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin or Daniel Suarez – have won yet this season.

Jones has five top-10s and has credited Truex with helping him adjust to NASCAR’s premier level.

Meanwhile, Truex is having a career year, sitting second in points with three wins.

In a statement, FRR owner Barney Visser said in part:

“… Furniture Row Racing’s commitment to Jones and the No. 77 team remains the same for the remainder of the season. Our goal is for Jones to qualify for the playoffs, make a run for the championship and capture Rookie of the Year honors.

“We are working on our team plans for 2018 but don’t have anything concrete to report at this time except that Martin Truex Jr. will continue to drive the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota.”

Five story lines that will shape NASCAR’s second half

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-    Five story lines that will help shape the second half of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, which begins Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway:

The true value of playoff points will be realized: It’s apparent that drivers have discussed the new points system a great deal because they often recite the same concepts, if not verbiage. As race and stage wins have distributed playoff points – the greatest amount to Martin Truex Jr. – drivers have become increasingly cognizant of the value of winning the regular-season title and attaining the 15 bonus points that come with the feat. They are citing the value as “like three wins” in the regular season.

The second-place driver will receive 10 points, with the other top-10 finishers rewarded with descending values. The weight of the playoff points is becoming increasingly concrete in the competitors’ minds. All of those points carry over into each round of the playoffs in which a driver remains title-eligible. But their real value will not be fully appreciated until the field has made a first run through this latest version of the title format. As the second half begins, playoff points leaders are: Truex (28), Jimmie Johnson (16), Brad Keselowski (13) and current regular-season points leader Kyle Larson (13).

Joey Logano’s title pursuit: The Team Penske driver should be a lock for the playoffs, having won at Richmond International Raceway in April. However, his No. 22 Ford failed a post-race laser inspection station test and NASCAR ruled his victory was “encumbered” — worthless as a playoff voucher.

Logano’s performance has cratered since – impacted by three DNFs – as he’s posted just one top-five and two top-10s in the subsequent nine races, falling from fifth to 12th in points. He’s led just 17 laps since Richmond after pacing the field for 240 in the first nine events. Adding to Logano’s predicament should he remain winless is there are drivers who have won that remain outside the top 16 in points. So Ryan Newman (17th) and Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon (20th) will take playoff slots from winless drivers within the top 16. Logano currently is outside that transfer window.

 

Shutout? It seems highly unlikely that former series champion Kyle Busch (four victories in 2016), Denny Hamlin (three) and Matt Kenseth (two) will finish the season winless after helping Joe Gibbs Racing collectively oppress the series and power Toyota to its first manufacturer’s title last season. Busch, in particular, has been close numerous times, leading 100 or more laps in four races this season and hovering third in points even though there have been five multi-race winners.

The question is whether the supposed inevitability of a breakout win for talented drivers on a resourceful team yields to the crunch of pressure – particularly for Hamlin and Kenseth – as the regular season spools away.

Exit music: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2016 regular season lasted just 18 races because of a recurrence of concussions. Now healthy and reinstalled in the No. 88 Chevrolet, he embarks on the last half of his final season as a full-time Cup driver. As of now, his performance hasn’t hinted of the type of farewell procession Jeff Gordon (2015) and Tony Stewart (2016) earned with wins in their final seasons. He’s 21st in points with one top-5 and four top-10s. The pursuit of a final playoff qualification and the desire for fans and promoters to laud him one last time will be concurrent and constant story lines.

Who replaces Earnhardt? Earnhardt told USA TODAY Sports that he believes a driver needs two foundation-building seasons in the second-tier Xfinity Series before ascending to a full-time Cup ride. That would eliminate 19-year-old Hendrick Motorsports prospect William Byron from contention for the No. 88 seat in Earnhardt’s estimation. However, he readily concedes that decision is not his and instead is left for team owner Rick Hendrick and sponsors. Earnhardt professed aloud last week that Kenseth – who is being replaced at JGR by Erik Jones in 2018 – will find solid work. Kenseth’s veteran presence could buoy Hendrick until Byron is ready or another option opens as Kasey Kahne continues to face speculation over his future amid another underwhelming season at HMS.

NASCAR: Earnhardt lands pole for what could be Cup finale at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The chances are dwindling for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season, the final shot for NASCAR’s most popular driver to win a coveted Cup title.

First he has to make the playoffs, and his best opportunity at one of those 16 slots is a win Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Earnhardt will start from the pole, the first time in nearly four years that his No. 88 Chevrolet will lead the field to the green flag. Next to him will be Chase Elliott, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate who has made clear that he’ll pass Earnhardt to win at Daytona even though Earnhardt is scheduled to retire at the end of the year.

“We are running out of time, and I am aware of that,” said Earnhardt, who is winless this season and ranks 22nd in points, well out of the playoff picture. “Yeah, this is probably our best shot to win, but we can win at other race tracks. We’ve got that ability to do that. It’s been a very frustrating, tough year statistically.”

In winning his first pole since September 2013, Earnhardt is now eligible to run a preseason race next February at Daytona.

“I’ll talk to my boss and see what he has in the shed,” Earnhardt quipped.

Earnhardt is on a farewell tour and admittedly afraid to miss a moment in his final, full-time season. He’s feeling nostalgic — even though he’s made clear he’ll race a handful of Xfinity Series events in 2018 — and in two insightful visits to the media center Friday, he touched on his favorite Daytona memories. He recalled eating fried chicken at a post-race picnic to celebrate Richard Petty’s 200th victory, which came with President Ronald Reagan on hand. There was the 1999 IROC race at Michigan in which Rusty Wallace inexplicably helped rival Dale Earnhardt Sr. instead of pushing Junior to the win.

He recalled spending Speedweeks as a kid in beachside hotels. “You’d have drivers in the pool after practice,” he said. “That was cool for those guys to be able to do that.”

He also weighed in on “Days of Thunder,” the NASCAR-centered movie released in 1990 that surely helped popularize the racing circuit, and stoked a decades-old rumor that his famous father was offered the role of Rowdy Burns.

“This is all hearsay because nobody was in the room but dad, the producer and director and (Tom) Cruise,” Junior said, recalling Cruise having pimples and being a foot shorter than he expected. “They go into dad’s office and they come out 30 minutes later, and I guess they were picking dad’s brain. But the rumor was they offered dad the role of Rowdy Burns. I don’t know if that is really true or not, but that was the rumor. But dad turned it down because he didn’t want to play the bad guy.”

Elliott welcomed being the bad guy Saturday night, if he can. But he also said Earnhardt has a different edge this week.

“I won’t say he has a chip on his shoulder, but I do think he has been very, very determined this weekend on making sure his car is driving exactly like he wants it,” Elliott said. “He doesn’t want it good. He doesn’t want it great. He wants it perfect, and I think he has made that very apparent in our post-practice meetings.

“Yes, I think he is very determined to run well here.”

Earnhardt was the final driver to qualify and bumped Elliott to second. It was a strong day overall for Hendrick, with Kasey Kahne qualifying fourth. Wedged between the top Hendrick cars was Brad Keselowski, who qualified his Ford third for Team Penske.

All the attention, though, was on Earnhardt. No surprise for NASCAR’s favorite son, especially this weekend.

Although Earnhardt expects to race at Daytona in the future, his trip to NASCAR’s birthplace is being treated like a career finale.

The track developed a “Daletona” mosaic in the stadium’s Axalta Injector that allows fans to create a piece of artwork to commemorate what could be Earnhardt’s final start at Daytona. Officials also presented Junior with a painting featuring three of his most memorable wins at the superspeedway: His July 2001 victory that came 4 1/2 months after his father’s fatal crash in the Daytona 500; his July 2010 win in the second-tier series in which he drove a No. 3 Chevrolet with a throwback paint scheme; and his February 2014 win in “The Great American Race.”

“A lot of great things have happened here,” he said. “A lot of drivers have made their careers here. It is something to be proud of if you are in the industry. It is a pretty fun race track.”

He hasn’t gotten too emotional yet. But he expects the weight of walking away to hit him during the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.

“I’m not having any anxiety about the end coming,” he said. “I feel pretty good about that. I feel pretty good about my decision. I haven’t had any second guesses or regrets about that. So, I don’t believe I will have any anxiety as it starts to get closer to Homestead. I just don’t want to miss anything. I don’t want to miss a moment that I should take in. I don’t want to miss opportunity to let people know how much they mean to me, everybody in the industry means to me.”

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Rain forced NASCAR to postpone the Xfinity Series race Friday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Drivers completed 11 laps before it began to rain. The race was rescheduled for Saturday at noon and NBC Sports will air it on CNBC.

Daytona owner International Speedway Corp. brought mixed martial arts to the fan area as a post-race treat for those in attendance. The fights were moved up when the rain began to give fans waiting for racing something else to watch.

NASCAR will have a doubleheader Saturday. The Monster Energy Cup Series is scheduled for Saturday night at Daytona.

NASCAR: Larson and Johnston return to Daytona after near miss in 500

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Kyle Larson found himself leading the Daytona 500 with one lap remaining and a shot to win the biggest race on the NASCAR calendar.

Then he ran out of gas and finished 12th.

Pretty good day, Larson thought as he left Daytona International Speedway.

“At the moment, I wasn’t that upset because I never thought I’d have a shot to win the 500,” Larson told The Associated Press. “I was just really excited that I had a shot to win. It was the days after that I was really bummed out, realizing that I could have won the 500.”

Well, his crew chief was bummed out even before the fuel tank ran dry on the Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

It was an agonizing final five laps for Chad Johnston, who knew the No. 42 was close to running out of gas but wasn’t sure if the car could make it to the checkered flag. As car after car ran out of gas and Larson moved to the front, the team was 2 ½ miles from victory.

“Half a gallon of gas,” Johnston told AP on Thursday. He said those final five laps were “sickening.”

“We gave it away,” Johnston said of the race won by Kurt Busch. “We knew we were close. We didn’t know we were going to run out.”

Larson and Johnston are back at Daytona in the first garage stall, their right as NASCAR’s points leader.

With two wins this season, the team has been second to only Martin Truex Jr. as the class of the Cup Series this year. They’ve got a solid spot in the playoffs, and a hot summer of racing ahead of them, but Johnston said the plan is still to win every weekend.

There’s no rest for this Ganassi team, not after how long it has taken to get into this position. For Larson, the promised future star of NASCAR, it has taken almost four years for him to finally scratch the surface of his potential.

But for Johnston, it’s been a roller-coaster ride. He went through the biggest cheating scandal in NASCAR and a stint with Tony Stewart during the lowest point of Stewart’s career before his pairing with Larson.

Johnston was Truex’s crew chief in 2013 when the team raced its way into the playoffs, only to be stripped of the spot when it became clear they were the benefactor of Michael Waltrip Racing’s organizational manipulation of the finish. Truex’s teammates had aided his path into the playoffs, even though that team had no part in the shenanigans, and NASCAR kicked them out of the playoffs.

Less than three months later, that entire team was out of work and MWR eventually went bust.

Johnston landed at Stewart-Haas Racing, crew chiefing for his boyhood idol Stewart, but the duo never found success together as Stewart was in the twilight of his career.

It bothers Johnston immensely that he didn’t have success with Stewart.

“With Tony, I didn’t run as well as I wanted. He’s a hero of mine, still a hero of mine. So it was pretty unfortunate for me that I couldn’t do any better than I did over there,” Johnston said. “It was heartbreaking. But then to come over here … it makes it a little bit more rewarding.”

Johnston and Stewart split before Stewart’s final season, and Johnston made the move to Ganassi. He guided Larson last year to his first Cup victory and a spot in the playoffs. It was the first time in Ganassi history the owner placed both of his Cup cars in the playoffs.

Johnston also gets to work with a raw driver in Larson, who has the same sprint car background as Stewart among other similarities.

“He’s the closest thing that has come along to Tony. No matter what he gets in, he’s fast,” Johnston said. “He doesn’t concern himself with what springs are on the car. He just drives it for all it is worth and tells you what it needs to go faster. Tony was the same way. It’s fun to watch Kyle. He’s fast. You could strap him to a lawnmower and he’d be fast.”

For Larson, he has found a crew chief who can pull feedback from him and has learned how to push him.

“When I first met him, he was very, very quiet and a little awkward,” Larson said. “But he’s far from awkward. He’s stern and not afraid to get on people and get push them to be better. He’s good. He’s a very good leader.”

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More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org

NASCAR suspends the interim crew chief for Kyle Busch

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — NASCAR has suspended yet another crew chief for Kyle Busch.

Engineer and interim crew chief Ben Beshore will miss Saturday night’s race at Daytona because the No. 18 team had two unsecured lug nuts at the end of the Sonoma Raceway race over the weekend. Crew chief Adam Stevens will miss his fourth and final race this weekend for a tire rolling off Busch’s car at Dover. He returns next weekend at Kentucky.

Beshore, who was also fined $20,000, had been Stevens’ replacement. Joe Gibbs Racing says engineer Jacob Canter will crew chief for Busch at Daytona.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement tour will get in full swing this weekend at Daytona International Speedway as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series begins to cycle back to tracks for a second time this season.

But that doesn’t mean Earnhardt won’t race at the 2.5-mile trioval after Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC). When he announced in April that this would be his last full-time season on the circuit, he said that he already was planning to run some Xfinity Series races in 2018. And he hasn’t ruled out a return in the Daytona 500 at some point.

Nevertheless, this could be his farewell in front of Junior Nation at the track where he has seen his lowest point – his father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. died after a last-lap crash in Turn 4 in the 2001 Daytona 500 – and his highest, with career-making victories.

So with that in mind, we look back at Earnhardt Jr.’s five most compelling moments there:

2001 Pepsi 400: Just over four months after the death of his father, Earnhardt found victory lane at the track for the first time. He held off Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip by 0.123 seconds. Waltrip joined Earnhardt in the infield grass, and both embraced atop Waltrip’s car in a dual celebration – Earnhardt for his win, Waltrip perhaps soaking in the moment he didn’t have in February when he won.

“He was with me tonight. I don’t know how I did it,” Earnhardt said in victory lane. He started 13th and restarted sixth after the final caution with seven laps remaining. He bobbed and weaved his way to the front, showcasing his coveted restrictor-plate skill set that would carry him to 10 career wins at NASCAR’s two plate tracks.

2004 Daytona 500: Three years after his father’s death and six years to the day after his father’s first and only win in NASCAR’s most prestigious event, Earnhardt won his first ‘Great American Race’. He passed Tony Stewart with 20 laps to go and held on to win in his fifth attempt, at 29. When he stopped his car at the start/finish line after his cool-down lap, he emerged to a chorus of screaming, jubilant fans and quickly was mobbed by his crew.

In victory lane, he said: “It’s been lost so many times by Dad, over and over, and I was taught so many lessons by this place before I ever got behind the wheel. … He was over in the passenger side with me. I’m sure he was having a blast.”

It was the first of a career-high six wins that season.

2014 DRIVEFORCOPD 300: Earnhardt finished 11th in the Xfinity Series opener that year, but the winner was Regan Smith. Smith drove for JR Motorsports, a team co-owned by Earnhardt, his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller and his Cup team owner, Rick Hendrick. It marked Earnhardt’s first win at the track as a team owner.

2014 Daytona 500: It took Earnhardt 10 years before he won his second Daytona 500, and the wait was prolonged that Sunday by a 6 ½-hour rain delay and tornado warning after the race began. It was closing in on midnight when he pulled into victory lane to celebrate with Hendrick and then-girlfriend Amy Reimann and sink his hands and right foot into the wet cement that would be installed on the Champion’s Walk of Fame.

“Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport, aside from accepting (the) trophy for the championship,” he said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again.

“This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening. I’ll never take this for granted, man. This doesn’t happen twice, let alone once. Just real thankful.”

He would win three more races that year, his last with crew chief Steve Letarte. His win at Daytona snapped a 55-race winless streak.

2015 Coke Zero 400: His last win at the track – so far – came in the July 4 weekend event that didn’t start until nearly midnight because of a rain delay and probably will be remembered for Austin Dillon’s horrific crash on the final lap.

Dillon – driving the iconic No. 3 made famous by Earnhardt Sr., flew into the frontstretch catchfence and landed back on the track in a shredded car. The fiery engine block came to rest behind Dillon, who was hit again by Brad Keselowski’s car. Crew members from severali teams and safety workers ran to Dillon and helped him out of the car. Dillon gave a double wave to the crowd and later was treated at the infield medical center for a bruised tailbone and arm. Five fans were injured by debris that came through or over the fence.

Earnhardt Jr. screamed “Oh my God!” into his team radio as he watched the scene develop after he crossed the start/finish line. He said from a subdued victory lane: “That scared the hell out of me. I saw the whole thing in my mirror. That was terrifying to watch. You saw the car get high and get into the fence. It was touch and go there for several moments. I (am) more thankful that everyone is OK than standing here in victory lane at the moment.”

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Follow Tucker on Twitter @HeatherR_Tucker

NASCAR: Column: Dale Jr. farewell tour begins, but it isn’t goodbye

SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just completed a satisfying sixth-place finish at Sonoma Raceway when he was stopped by the Fox Sports cameras in what might have been his final post-race interview with the network.

It was 17 years ago that Fox made its debut as NASCAR’s newest broadcast partner, and that Daytona 500 will always be remembered for the fatal last-lap accident that killed Dale Earnhardt Sr. His son rushed from the track in his firesuit to the hospital hoping for the best, but his father was gone.

He was practically a kid back then, doing his interviews with a baseball hat on backward before jumping in his race car as a respite from the chaos around him.

Now 42 years old and married, Fox stopped him Sunday after what might have been his final race on the picturesque road course in Napa Valley wine country. He was asked, “When you look back to the past 17 years, what will stand out the most? What will you be most proud of?”

“I think the wins and everything, are great. I enjoyed celebrating those,” Earnhardt began. “But, long after your career — guys come along and win races and some of your accomplishments on the track sort of get forgotten. But, who you are as a person never gets forgotten. People never forget who you were.

“I hope people just thought I was good and honest and represented the sport well. I hope people that work with me enjoyed working with me, whether it was in the late model ranks or whatever; and I hope the guys I raced against enjoyed racing with me. That’s really all that will matter. And, what people I think will remember, is always you’re alive and beyond. Hopefully I left a good impression. I’ve had a lot of fun.”

With that, it was off to prepare for Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Speedway. It’s the second half of the season, and every stop Earnhardt makes from here until November will effectively be “his last race at that track.”

As his farewell tour began in Sonoma — the track “gifted” him the sponsorship of three Labrador retriever puppies that will be raised and trained to help children with disabilities through Paws as Loving Support Assistance Dogs — Earnhardt is becoming more reflective with each passing race.

That should make this week’s stop in Daytona a tough one for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

He comes from a time when the “Firecracker 400” was actually held on the morning of July 4, then all the drivers would take their families to Daytona Beach after the race. He’s always been nostalgic for the simpler days in NASCAR, when he was just a little boy in awe of his father and his racing heroes.

Daytona, with all its grit and biker bars, gentleman’s clubs and chain restaurants, is still paradise to Earnhardt.

With his countdown to retirement under way, Earnhardt himself seems to be recognizing the end is near. And it sounds very much like he has mixed emotions.

Earnhardt was asked last weekend about what should be his final race at Daytona, and his answer was a very firm statement that he isn’t going anywhere.

“I am just retiring from full-time racing. I am going to run some Xfinity races next year. I don’t know that I won’t ever run the Daytona 500 again,” he said. “I want to continue to be part of the sport. I don’t know how it’s going to affect me, really. It’s hard for me to put that into words because I don’t know what that is going to feel like.

“It will be pretty weird I think to come back to the 500, I’m going to go to the 500 whether I’ve got any work to do or not. It will be pretty weird to be there and not race.”

Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, owns an Xfinity Series team. There also seems to be interest in him for a broadcasting career, with Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC’s NASCAR telecasts, telling The Associated Press there’s room on broadcasts for Earnhardt.

Should he land a job with NBC, he’d be reunited with former crew chief and current analyst Steve Letarte, who told Earnhardt he himself struggled initially with the transition.

“When he wasn’t working a race he had a hard time being there. He had a hard time watching it and not wanting to be a part of it,” Earnhardt said.

So he’s received enough advice, reflected on the implications of trying to go cold turkey from NASCAR, and doesn’t think that’s what retirement should mean.

“I’m not retiring from work,” he said. “I want to keep seeking out opportunities to make a living and make money and be relevant, be a value to my partners. I want to continue to be a part of the sport and not just as an owner in the Xfinity series. I want to be a valuable asset to the growth of the sport and continue to help raise the bar and raise the awareness of the sport and promote the sport as much as I can.”

Ambassador Dale. It could very well work.

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More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/

What you missed in NASCAR race at Sonoma

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)     —-   SONOMA, Calif. – If you missed the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Sonoma Raceway, don’t worry. USA TODAY Sports has three key takeaways from the first of two road course stops on the 36-race calendar:

1. Shifting gears: There was a cyclical quality to Kevin Harvick’s first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday. He and crew chief Rodney Childers had begun emphasizing the current twice-yearly forays away from the oval tracks that dominate the 36-race schedule when it became likely that a third would be inserted into the playoffs at Charlotte Motor Speedway next season.

And the by-product was a first win of the season that secured his berth into the 10-race playoff that begins Sept. 17. It was a payoff a year early.

“I’m not saying that this race is not important and Watkins Glen is not important because now with the stages and the playoff points and all those things, but when you talk about it being in the [playoffs], you’ve got to have it right,” Harvick said. “I think for me, that was kind of like, ‘All right, you’ve got to do something yourself to get better.’ ”

Harvick and Childers announced in late April that he would contest the K&N Pro Series West Race at Sonoma this weekend with Jefferson Pitts Racing and the Xfinity Series contest at Watkins Glen in August with Stewart-Haas Racing.

NASCAR announced in late May that CMS’s playoff date would shift to the first-round finale in 2018 and the surface to a 13-turn, 2.4-mile course that will incorporate all but 400 feet of the 1.5-mile oval.

SHR built the transmission and fitted the seat for the K&N car Harvick used to win Saturday. He led twice for 24 laps in winning the Cup race the next day, improving his stats at Sonoma to a win and average finish of 13.8 in 17 starts. Harvick has a win and an average finish of 13.2 in 16 starts at Watkins Glen.

“That seat time and that time in the car is definitely something that we’re trying to focus on, and whether I learned anything … it can’t hurt to make laps,” Harvick said.

“It’s not going to be the same shifting pattern, it’s not going to be the same horsepower, it’s not going to be the same handling, but the thought processes are definitely different when you’re that busy on a weekend. And for me, those thought processes are a good thing. … ”

2. That was something … : Road course racing engenders divergent strategies as crew chiefs attempt to square the consumption of fuel and tires with the minimum amount of pit stops needed to complete a race. The first application of stage racing added another element Sunday as teams also were forced to reconcile the pursuit of segment wins and race points against setting up a worthy car for a potential victory bid. A long green-flag run to end the race changed the dynamic after an explosive first two stages and drivers were left wondering, it seemed, what was happening and ultimately what happened.

“I had no earthly idea what was going on. I passed so many cars,” said Jimmie Johnson, who led 12 laps and finished 13th. “I don’t even know what strategy won. It was very difficult to know what was going on from inside the car. I would assume that caused a lot of great viewing and entertainment that was fun to watch, but I had no clue what was going on out there.”

3. It’s getting tight: A Harvick victory was to be expected. He’d averaged four a season in three years with SHR and had been in contention numerous times in 2017. Now, that’s 10 of 16 playoff spots absorbed by race winners. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth have still been shut out. Chase Elliott appears to be getting closer to a first Cup win. A scramble could be on in the next 10 races if one of them, or a surprise driver, steps up.

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Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

NASCAR: Kevin Harvick wins at Sonoma for 1st victory of season

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SONONA, Calif. (AP) — Kevin Harvick led a 1-2-3 podium sweep for Ford while proving that veteran experience still counts for something in NASCAR.

Harvick returned to victory lane for the first time this season with a dominating run Sunday on the road course at Sonoma Raceway. The former NASCAR champion came to Sonoma winless in 20 races since Kansas last fall and has been overshadowed in this season of NASCAR’s young new superstars.

But at a track where experience and ability can separate the field, it was Harvick and a bunch of veterans who led the way. It was the first win on the winding wine country road course in 17 tries for the Bakersfield, California, driver.

Sonoma was one of just four active tracks where Harvick had never before scored a Cup victory. He did, however, win the K&N Series race at Sonoma on Saturday and it may have given him some inside knowledge.

“It kept me from sitting around and trying to find something to do on Saturday,” Harvick said. “I think that was the biggest thing. I’m sitting around and there’s guys out here making laps and learning things, and I think that’s the most important thing is to never take for granted that you have to try to expand your knowledge and keep an open mind to making things better.

“To finally check this one off the list …. being so close to home and having raced here so much, this was one that was on the top of the list.”

Harvick was on cruise control and conserving fuel in the race that ended under caution after Kasey Kahne had a hard accident on the final lap. Either way, Harvick had a cozy 9-second lead over Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer before the caution.

Bowyer, now the driver for the entry Tony Stewart used for his final NASCAR victory last year at the track, was second and Brad Keselowski third as Ford cars went 1-2-3.

For Harvick, it was the first victory since Stewart-Haas Racing switched to Ford this season. Harvick had spent 16 years in a Chevrolet.

It was Ford’s seventh victory of the season. Ford won eight Cup races last season, and seven came exclusively from Team Penske drivers. This year, the manufacturer has wins from Penske, Roush-Fenway Racing, The Wood Brothers and SHR.

“I had mixed emotions about how the year was going to go just because of the fact that we had a lot on our plate to switch over,” Harvick said. “It’s just a big undertaking, and one day I think when we get done with this year, I think everybody will actually learn all the details of all the things that it took to get to this particular point. It’s a huge undertaking, and I think it says a lot about our people at Stewart-Haas Racing.”

Martin Truex Jr. led 25 laps but suffered an engine failure and finished 37th. Truex won the first stage of the race, his series-leading 11th stage victory. Jimmie Johnson won the second stage, his first stage victory of the season, but finished 13th overall.

Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray started on the pole for Chip Ganassi Racing and hoped to give the owner a sweep of Sunday after Scott Dixon won the IndyCar race at Road America in Wisconsin. But Larson, the points leader, was never a factor and finished 26th. McMurray was 10th.

Most of the top 10 was comprised of veterans. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch were fourth and fifth in Toyota, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sixth and the highest-finishing Chevrolet. Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch was seventh.

Then came Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, who along with Larson are part of the newest faces of NASCAR.

KAHNE’S CRASH: Kahne was in a hard accident on the final lap of the race and had harsh words for Kevin O’Connell, who was making his Cup debut.

“No. 15, no clue who he is, I saw him a lot today lapping him, but he went low down the front stretch and then just, I was going to his outside and he just turned right and just hit me, put me straight in the wall,” Kahne said. “No clue what he was thinking. You obviously don’t know what he’s doing either.”

BOWYER’S BIG DAY: He couldn’t catch teammate Harvick for the win, but Bowyer still finished a season-best second. He was content with that and knows how hard his new SHR team is working.

He also understood that Harvick was eventually going to get a win.

“Let’s face it, you’re not going to keep that team that’s won a championship, won all these races in the last five years, you’re not going to keep them out of winning,” Bowyer said.

DAYS’S DEBUT: Alon Day became the first Israeli driver to start a race at NASCAR’s highest level. He finished 32nd out of 40. The 25-year-old from Tel Aviv as named Israel’s 2016 “Athlete of the Year.”

Day won the NASCAR Whelen Euro race in England on June 11 at Brands Hatch. He was planning to return to Israel after that race, then got the call to race at Sonoma.

UP NEXT: Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Speedway, which will be billed as the potential last stop at the Florida track for retiring driver Earnhardt Jr. But Earnhardt stressed at Sonoma he is only retiring from “full-time” competition, and did not close the door on running there again, specifically the Daytona 500.

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TOYOTA/SAVE MART 350 RESULTS

Sunday from the 1.99-mile road course at Sonoma Raceway (starting position in parentheses):

1. (12) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 110 laps, 0 rating, 40 points.

2. (13) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 110, 0, 36.

3. (23) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 110, 0, 43.

4. (14) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 110, 0, 46.

5. (4) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 110, 0, 32.

6. (10) Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 110, 0, 36.

7. (17) Kurt Busch, Ford, 110, 0, 30.

8. (8) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 110, 0, 31.

9. (7) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 110, 0, 39.

10. (2) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 110, 0, 27.

11. (15) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 110, 0, 26.

12. (18) Joey Logano, Ford, 110, 0, 36.

13. (24) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 110, 0, 34.

14. (16) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 110, 0, 23.

15. (20) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, 110, 0, 23.

16. (11) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 110, 0, 21.

17. (6) Danica Patrick, Ford, 110, 0, 20.

18. (19) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 110, 0, 25.

19. (9) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 110, 0, 18.

20. (38) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 110, 0, 25.

21. (29) Cole Whitt, Chevrolet, 110, 0, 16.

22. (26) Billy Johnson, Ford, 110, 0, 15.

23. (27) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 110, 0, 14.

24. (21) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, accident, 109, 0, 15.

25. (30) Erik Jones, Toyota, 109, 0, 12.

26. (1) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 109, 0, 19.

27. (25) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 109, 0, 14.

28. (35) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 109, 0, 9.

29. (34) Boris Said, Chevrolet, 109, 0, 8.

30. (31) Landon Cassill, Ford, 109, 0, 7.

31. (28) David Ragan, Ford, 109, 0, 6.

32. (32) Alon Day, Toyota, 108, 0, 5.

33. (36) Kevin O’Connell, Chevrolet, 108, 0, 4.

34. (37) Tommy Regan, Chevrolet, 107, 0, 3.

35. (5) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 104, 0, 11.

36. (33) Josh Bilicki, Chevrolet, 100, 0, 0.

37. (3) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, engine, 86, 0, 11.

38. (22) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, accident, 30, 0, 1.

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Race Statistics

Average Speed of Race Winner: 78.717 mph.

Time of Race: 2 hours, 46 minutes, 52 seconds.

Margin of Victory: Under Caution.

Caution Flags: 6 for 12 laps.

Lead Changes: 13 among 10 drivers.

Lap Leaders: K.Larson 1-9; M.Truex 10-14; C.Buescher 15-18; A.Allmendinger 19-22; M.Truex 23-38; D.Hamlin 39; J.Johnson 40-51; D.Hamlin 52-61; Ky.Busch 62-64; K.Harvick 65-66; M.Truex 67-70; J.McMurray 71; B.Keselowski 72-88; K.Harvick 89-110

Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Led, Laps Led): M.Truex, 3 times for 22 laps; K.Harvick, 2 times for 22 laps; B.Keselowski, 1 time for 16 laps; J.Johnson, 1 time for 11 laps; D.Hamlin, 2 times for 9 laps; K.Larson, 1 time for 8 laps; A.Allmendinger, 1 time for 3 laps; C.Buescher, 1 time for 3 laps; Ky.Busch, 1 time for 2 laps; J.McMurray, 1 time for 0 laps.

Wins: J.Johnson, 3; B.Keselowski, 2; K.Larson, 2; M.Truex, 2; R.Blaney, 1; Ku.Busch, 1; A.Dillon, 1; K.Harvick, 1; J.Logano, 1; R.Newman, 1; R.Stenhouse, 1.

Top 16 in Points: 1. K.Larson, 659; 2. M.Truex, 646; 3. K.Harvick, 548; 4. Ky.Busch, 542; 5. B.Keselowski, 519; 6. C.Elliott, 509; 7. J.Johnson, 483; 8. J.McMurray, 477; 9. D.Hamlin, 476; 10. J.Logano, 434; 11. C.Bowyer, 427; 12. M.Kenseth, 423; 13. R.Blaney, 415; 14. Ku.Busch, 389; 15. R.Newman, 367; 16. E.Jones, 358.

 

NASCAR: Sam Ard to be remembered with Darlington throwback

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DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Cole Custer is hoping that the late Sam Ard’s magic touch will help him in the Xfinity Series event at Darlington Raceway come Labor Day weekend.

The 19-year-old Xfinity rookie’s Ford Mustang will carry Ard’s red-and-white signature scheme he used on the No. 00 Oldsmobile Omega on display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It will be a fitting remembrance for Ard, born and raised in nearby Pamplico, and whose time in NASCAR was as remarkable for its success as for its brevity.

“Sam set the standard for dominance in NASCAR,” Custer said Wednesday.

Ard won 22 times in 92 career races on the Xfinity Series, taking what was then called the Late Model Sportsman championship in 1983 and 1984. Ard had 67 top five finishes, but stepped away from NASCAR driving after head injuries suffered in a crash at North Carolina Speedway in October 1984.

“Daddy knew it would take too long to get back to being competitive,” said Robert Ard, Sam’s 47-year-old son.

Ard suffered from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases later in life. He died on April 2 this year at age 78.

Custer had researched the history of his No. 00 car since stepping into NASCAR’s Triple-A series this season. He found that Ard was dominant, no matter what NASCAR stars were in the field. Ard won 24 poles and led 4,035 laps in three true seasons of full-time racing.

He won 10 races on the way to a series championship in 1983, then followed that the next year with eight wins and a second consecutive drivers’ title.

“He outran the Cup guys when they stepped down” to race, Robert Ard said. “These drivers like Cole, they’re finding it extremely hard to outrun Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano” when they choose to run an Xfinity race.

Custer might have some inside help come September. Robert and his sister, Melinda Ard Matthews, sat with the young driver to give him some advice their father might had he been around.

“We gave him some top secret stuff, too,” Matthews joked.

Custer took his own measure of the track last month when he turned his first laps during an Xfinity test session. Custer, like many before him, found the Darlington wall’s a daunting proposition.

“You’ve got to be up on the wall and you’ve got to pay this track respect every time out,” he said.

Custer and Ard’s children posed for photos at the start-finish line next to the decked out car with Ard’s name above the passenger side window.

Later in life, Ard brought light to drivers like himself who competed without pension plans or ways for a multi-million sport to help pioneers who put themselves at risk when he needed funds to help pay off his trailer. Stars like Harvick, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. took up Ard’s cause and raised money to help.

Ard’s family said that’s as much a part of Ard’s legacy as his racing success.

“Even when Daddy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, the team’s, the drivers stepped up to help,” Robert Ard said. “We were honored for them to do that, remembering that these drivers put in so much of their time, their effort without any pension.”

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OTHER NASCAR NEWS:

BOSTON (AP) — Danica Patrick emerged from some recent fan encounters with a couple of bruises: One resulted in a swollen ring finger after a girl shook her hand too enthusiastically, and another left its mark on her image.

The 35-year-old NASCAR star said Wednesday that she “had a moment” when she cursed out a booing fan after qualifying for last week’s race.

“In a perfect world, I would have never walked over there and I’d have just kept going,” she said during a previously scheduled promotional tour in Boston. “That’s mostly what I do, every single day, if someone boos me, is you just keep walking.

“But every now and again they just catch you in a moment. And I had a moment.”

In a video that went viral after the race in Pocono, Pennsylvania, Patrick stormed over to the fan and said: “I’m a person, too. I have feelings. When you boo me, it hurts my feelings.”

She explained during a stop at the “Cheers” bar to promote next month’s New Hampshire 301 that a fan in Pocono had gone through the security cordon in an attempt to get her autograph.

“I didn’t feel it was right to honor that person for disrespecting the security guard and trying to get past him by signing his stuff,” she said. “So I was put in this awkward situation.”

On Wednesday, Patrick tried to turn the jeers to Cheers.

During a student-guided tour designed to focus on influential women in history, Patrick shook or slapped every hand that was held out to her in Boston, and signed dozens of autographs for the students or other tourists who approached her along the way.

“Days like today, when you hear that you’re an inspiration, that’s the good part,” she said. “That makes the work, which is sometimes frustrating, worth it.”

Starting her day at the Warren-Prescott school in Charlestown, eight grades worth of students chanted “Da-Ni-Ca!” as she arrived, and an a capella group serenaded her. Other students performed a drum routine, and Patrick bobbed her head to the rhythm and took video on her phone.

Then, Patrick boarded a trolley with a handful of students for a tour of the city, from Bunker Hill and Faneuil Hall to the iconic swan boats that paddle through the Public Garden. The tour ended at the bar that inspired the TV show “Cheers.”

“It’s cool to see the old historical stops,” Patrick said. “We’ve seen the stops that were historical back in the 1700s and we’ve seen the ones that were historical back in the ’90s — the 1990s.”

Asked what the oldest thing in her hometown of Roscoe, Illinois, is, Patrick joked, “Me, probably, at this point.”

But she said she was eager to continue driving after her contract with Stewart-Hass Racing expires at the end of the year. Although she has been increasingly active off the track — with a food and workout book and a clothing line and even some time in the booth — she says is not ready to retire.

“The job of my life is getting more crowded,” she said. “But the racing always comes first.”

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More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

 

NASCAR: Four takeaways from Ryan Blaney’s win at Pocono

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —   LONG POND, Pa. —  Ryan Blaney was interviewed by his pseudo teammate Brad Keselowski on Sunday at Pocono Raceway, when Keselowksi took the Fox Sports microphone from pit road reporter Jamie Little in an impromptu and amusing move. Next season, Blaney and Keselowski might be full-fledged teammates.

Blaney scored his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory after passing 2015 series champion Kyle Bush during a fierce battle after a restart in the closing stages of the Pocono 400 then holding off 2014 champion Kevin Harvick in the final 10 laps.

The win was the 99th career victory for the iconic Wood Brothers team and the sixth of the season for Ford. Three of those six wins have come from Team Penske drivers — two by Keselowski and one by Joey Logano. But Blaney’s victory could also be considered a win for Team Penske.

Blaney, 23, got his break in NASCAR driving in the Camping World Truck Series for Brad Keselowski Racing, through parts of four seasons beginning in 2012. That same season, Blaney also began competing in the Xfinity Series part time for Roger Penske. Keselowsi and Penske both saw Blaney’s talent and potential, but Team Penske was a two-car operation at the Cup level, so a deal was made for Blaney to drive a Wood Brothers Ford in an alliance with the organization, beginning in 2015.

Penske told USA TODAY Sports last month during a visit in Detroit that he’d like to bring Blaney into the fold as soon as possible — possibly next year — though he would have to commit to expanding to a three-car operation, which Penske hasn’t fielded since 2010. With Blaney notching his first Cup win and booking a berth in the playoffs, that could provide more encouragement for the legendary owner.

Blaney has worked with Keselowski and Logano in the Cup Series for 68 races now, and Blaney sees Keselowski as a good friend and mentor. Blaney said it was awesome to have Keselowski come to victory lane to support him.

“I wouldn’t be here without Brad,” Blaney said. “He’s the one who gave me my start in 2012. I started driving his trucks then, which led to the Penske deal (in the Xfinity Series), which led to the Wood Brothers deal. I would be nothing if it weren’t for him taking a chance on me. He’s been a huge person I’ve looked up to.”

But for all the good vibes at the Wood Brothers and Penske — and Furniture Row Racing — Sunday was a disappointing day for two other notable teams.

Here are three additonal takeaways from Pocono:

HENDRICK TAKES IT ON THE CHIN: Hendrick Motorsports saw three of its four drivers finish 35th or worse in the 39-driver field, with all three drivers failing to finish the race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (38th) was the first to depart with gear shifting and transmission problems after only 58 of 160 laps. Last week’s winner, Jimmie Johnson (36th), couldn’t make it to 100 laps when his brakes failed and he slammed hard into the outside wall, ending his day. Kasey Kahne (35th) followed Johnson, crashing as a result of brake failure with 20 laps remaining. Only Chase Elliott was able to race to the finish, coming home eighth.

GIBBS STILL WINLESS: Another race, another day of disappointment for Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle Busch led a race-high 100 laps but came up empty for the 14th time in 14 races this season. Busch took his last lead on Lap 141, but couldn’t hold off Blaney and a slew of other racers who had pitted for fresh tires after a caution on Lap 142. He was caught and passed on Lap 150 and faded to ninth, declining to talk to reporters after the race. Pocono marked the third time in 2017 that Busch has  led the most laps but failed to win. His 703 laps led this season ranks second to Martin Truex Jr., who has two wins. Busch still was JGR’s top finisher at the Tricky Triangle. Matt Kenseth finished 10th, Denny Hamlin 12th and Daniel Suarez 15th. Like Busch, the other three Gibbs’ drivers still are searching for their first win of 2017.

ROOKIE RISING: Blaney wasn’t the only young driver to score a career-high finish Sunday. Rookie Erik Jones, who turned 21 on May 30, earned the first top-five finish of his young career, taking third in another strong showing for Furniture Row. Jones’ teammate Truex finished sixth for his 10th top-10 this year to retain the points lead. Jones also set a new high with 20 laps led and moved up two spots in the points to 16th.

“It feels really good to get a top-five,” Jones said, “but man, when your’e that close and you’re seeing them battle for the win and you’re right there trying to pounce and make a move, it defintely makes you eager to up there and try to get it. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.”

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Follow Horrow on Twitter @EllenJHorrow

NASCAR: Playoff pressure begins to mount for winless NASCAR stars

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today Sports)   —-   DOVER, Del. — Twelve races, nine winners, one asterisk.

With the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series reaching the mid-point of the regular season on Sunday at Dover International Speedway, numerous historical race-winners have yet to clinch a playoff berth with a win. Who is in a more perilous position — those drivers or the group holding transfer spots on points who are not gluttonous winners — depends not only on their overall performance, but the other unexpected events that happen in a racing season.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose first career Cup win came at Talladega Superspeedway, was one of those surprise winners, though his Roush Fenway Racing program had been improving. Occasional winner Ryan Newman, who claimed a victory at Phoenix Raceway on a worn-tire gamble, was another, as was Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon, whose fuel-mileage strategy led to a triumph last weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

So who among the non-victorious is most likely to secure a playoff berth and ease the pressure in the next 14 races? Just 16 spots are available for the 10-race playoff, and eight remain, open to race winners or those highest in points among the top 16 come cutoff time in September. Five drivers to keep an eye on, beginning with Sunday’s AAA 400 (1p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1):

nascar-drivers-in-playoffs

Kyle Busch

The 2015 series champion had won three races by this time last year, and Joe Gibbs Racing’s 0-for-2017 among its four-car contingent figures to be pretty annoying by now. Whether his post-race interview mic drop after one-question at Charlotte — after finishing second to Dillon — is all part of it is unclear. Five top-five and six top-10 finishes have him snugly positioned at fifth in points, but he figures to nab at least one victory to assure a postseason spot.

Kevin Harvick

Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch nabbed the team’s first win with Ford in the Daytona 500, but the 2014 series champion seems likely to snag his own eventually after posting four top-fives and seven top-10s. Recent performance suggests it could happen soon, despite a loose wheel problem and losing positions to fuel-gamblers in an eighth-place run from the pole at Charlotte. He’s fourth in points.

Joey Logano

The Team Penske driver has technically won, but a post-race Laser Inspection Station rear suspension infraction at Richmond International Raceway negated the right to use the win for playoff entry. Tenth in the standings, Logano has won five, six and three races each season since 2014, respectively. There should be more ahead, although he’s crashed out of two of his last three since Richmond.

Denny Hamlin

There was encouragement in JGR’s collective performance on Sunday in the Coca-Cola 600, as the entire contingent, including rookie Daniel Suarez, raced atop the leaderboard and saw Busch finish second, Matt Kenseth fourth, Hamlin fifth and Suarez 11th. It was just the second top-five of the season for the 29-time Cup winner, so he’ll take it. Eleventh in points, Hamlin is in the tenuous zone of anxiety if more Chris Buescher (Pocono, Aug. 2016), Aric Almirola (Daytona, July 2014) AJ Allmendinger (Watkins Glen, Aug. 2014) anomalies happen in the summer.

Ryan Blaney

The second-year full-timer just feels close to breaking through for what would be a first career win. The Ford camp has been consistently fast and Blaney is 12th in points but seventh in laps led, meaning he has a chance to put his Wood Brothers (Team Penske aligned) No. 21 in the playoffs with a win or otherwise.

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Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

NASCAR: Yates, Evernham lead NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2018

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Robert Yates still remembers his college professor telling him he’d never make anything of himself.

It turns out his professor was wrong.

Yates’ 40-year career in auto racing culminated with his selection to the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday, an achievement that left him in tears.

The 74-year-old Yates admitted he wasn’t the smartest guy, but said “I knew how to work on cars.”

Yates, a NASCAR Cup champion as both an engine builder and owner, was voted in along with three-time NASCAR Cup championship crew chief Ray Evernham, drivers Red Byron and Ron Hornaday Jr. and broadcaster Ken Squier. Hornaday and driver Alan Kulwicki tied for the fifth and final spot, and Hornaday won the tiebreaker.

Yates was an overwhelming favorite, selected by 94 percent of the voters.

He grew up in Charlotte and couldn’t play baseball and football because of a heart murmur.

“So I worked on engines,” Yates said.

While Yates’ passion was engine building, he achieved most of his notoriety as an owner, with his drivers winning 57 Cup races.

After providing the power behind Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough with his engines, he started his own racing team in the late 1980s. Success came quickly with driver Davey Allison winning the 1992 Daytona 500, while finishing third in the standings. Dale Jarrett would win two more Daytona 500s and a Cup Series championship for Robert Yates Racing.

Yates is currently battling liver cancer, but said being selected into the Hall of Fame left him feeling like grabbing a jack, jumping over a pit wall and changing a tire.

“I may not sleep a wink,” he said with a wide smile.

NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton said Yates could do it all and is well-liked in the garage.

“Having watched him from an engine builder to a crew chief to a car owner and a tutor to so many families in the sport, the contributions he has made to NASCAR — we will never be able to count them all,” Helton said

Evernham earned his fame as a crew chief.

He became synonymous with Jeff Gordon when they began working together in 1992. Evernham guided Gordon and the Rainbow Warriors team to Cup titles in 1995, ’96 and ’98. Under Evernham, the No. 24 team excelled on pit stops, becoming the envy of other NASCAR teams as they dominated the 1990s decade by winning a series-leading 47 Cup races.

Evernham was having dinner with his wife in Indianapolis when he learned of the news.

“My wife got a really big smile on her face and she said, ‘You’re in,'” Evernham said. “The emotions overwhelmed me and I have been at a loss of words since. I have never felt as overrun by emotions in my life. … This is the biggest thing that can happen in your career.”

Byron won NASCAR’s first race in 1948 on the Daytona beach and road course and went on to win NASCAR’s first championship. Byron was wounded in World War II and drove with a special brace on his pedal.

Squier, who became the definitive voice of NASCAR, called Byron “an American hero.”

“After he got shot up so bad in the war they wanted to take his leg off and he said, ‘Thank you, I’ll keep it,'” Squier said. “He became a champion who represented everything this Memorial Day weekend is all about.”

Seven-time Cup Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick were among the many young drivers who attribute Hornaday to helping them get their start in NASCAR. Hornaday let a number of drivers, including Johnson and Harvick, sleep in his couch at his Charlotte-area home while they were getting started in the sport.

“We moved and the only thing I saved was that couch,” said Hornaday, who has won four Trucks Series championships during his career. “People say why and I said, ‘Because everybody was always too drunk to go upstairs and they would always pass out on that little couch, the closest one to the door.'”

Jim France, the current chairman of International Speedway Corporation and son of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., won the Landmark Award for his contributions to NASCAR.

The induction ceremony for the Class of 2018 will be in January in Charlotte.

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More AP Auto Racing: ap.racing.org

NASCAR: Austin Dillon gets new crew chief in NASCAR Cup Series

Justin Alexander has been moved by Richard Childress Racing from one of its Xfinity Series teams to be the crew chief for the No. 3 Chevrolet of Austin Dillon in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the team announced on Monday.

Alexander will immediately replace Richard “Slugger” Labbe, who, according to a team release, is “leaving the company to pursue other opportunities.”

Randall Burnett, previously a crew chief for RCR technical partner JTG Daugherty Racing, will replaced Alexander on RCR’s No. 2 Xfinity Series Chevrolet.

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DEKALB, Ill. (AP) — Former NASCAR driver Tony Stewart was stopped by an Illinois state trooper over the weekend, but not for speeding.

Police spokesman Jason Bradley says Stewart was pulled over Friday for improper lane usage and issued a warning on Interstate 88 in DeKalb, roughly 65 miles from Chicago.

The trooper posted a photo with Stewart on Twitter, which was later taken down. Police are reviewing it to see if the trooper will face discipline for social media use during a traffic stop.

The three-time NASCAR champion celebrated his 46th birthday Saturday, though he and some others were briefly stuck in a hotel elevator in Madison, Wisconsin. Stewart tweeted that he was trapped for 20 minutes before a rescue by fire officials.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR announced several changes to its 2018 schedule Tuesday, including new tracks for the final 11 races of the season.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway will become the 26th race of the Cup season and the final chance to set next year’s playoff field. The race will be run Sept. 9 and not be part of the summer schedule for the first time since it was added to the NASCAR schedule in 1994.

“The Brickyard 400 has been one of NASCAR’s premier events for 25 years, and we’re thrilled the race is moving to one of the most important dates on the NASCAR calendar,” said J. Douglas Boles, IMS president.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway will replace Chicagoland Speedway as the opening event in the 10-race playoff series. Chicago moves to a regular-season race in July.

Richmond International Raceway, which had been the playoff cutoff race since the format debuted in 2004, will move into the playoffs.

Charlotte Motor Speedway’s playoff race will now be run on the venue’s road course instead of its 1.5-mile oval. It will be the first NASCAR road course race in Charlotte’s 58-year history.

The Charlotte “roval” is a 13-turn, 2.4-mile road course that incorporates part of the infield and all but 400 feet of Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval. Mario Andretti, Jeff Gordon, A.J. Allmendinger, Jeff Burton and Max Papis have all tested the roval.

“Charlotte Motor Speedway has always been about innovation,” said Marcus Smith, president and chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc. “Hosting the first road course race in NASCAR’s playoffs, as well as the drama of closing out the playoffs’ first round, means that tension will be high and competition will be fierce as soon as the green flag drops.”

The opening three-race playoff round will be Las Vegas-Richmond-Charlotte. The next round will be Dover-Talladega-Kansas. The third round is Martinsville-Texas-Phoenix, with the championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 18 exactly nine months after the season-opening Daytona 500.

The changes dramatically alter the type of tracks in the 10-race playoff. There will now be a road course, a restrictor-plate track, two short tracks, two 1-mile tracks and four 1.5-mile tracks.

The season will open Feb. 18 with the showcase Daytona 500, but Daytona International Speedway is also restoring a Speedweeks tradition with the exhibition “Clash” returning to a Sunday afternoon start one week earlier. The Clash will be followed by qualifying for the Daytona 500. The Clash was first held in 1979 and won by Buddy Baker.

The event was on a Sunday from 1979 until 1991. There was a one-year switch to Saturday, then the race returned to Sundays from 1993 until 2002. In 2003, it moved to a Saturday night start.

“Combining the Clash with qualifying is going to give our fans an outstanding afternoon of NASCAR action,” said Chip Wile, Daytona International Speedway president.

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More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

NASCAR has huge hole to fill after Earnhardt retires

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — There was a moment during the Bristol Motor Speedway race that captured the essence of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He was walking briskly to the care center for a mandatory health check after a crash. Flanked by a television reporter on one side, a handler on the other, he was explaining why he wrecked while hustling to his destination. A fan approached him from behind, Earnhardt turned, and the fan was shoved away when it became clear he just wanted a selfie.

Earnhardt never broke stride. He just gave his aw-shucks smile and continued on his way. Once cleared by the medical staff, he found the fan and posed for the photo.

Earnhardt is a 14-time winner of NASCAR’s most popular driver award for a reason. He’s personable and authentic and as close to the roots of racing as any driver alive today. When he walks away from NASCAR at the end of this season , he will take a lot more than 26 Cup wins.

He will also take a big, reliable chunk of NASCAR’s identity. The big question is whether he will also take Earnhardt Nation and its thousands of fans with him, too. It’s the last thing NASCAR needs in a time of transition, both in terms of structure and in its celebrity lineup of drivers.

NASCAR has already lost Jeff Gordon, the driver who took the sport mainstream and announced his retirement two years ago at 43, just like Earnhardt. Then a year ago it lost Tony Stewart, the talented, volatile rebel who said what everyone was too scared to say out loud.

Carl Edwards, friendly and a strong ambassador, walked away from NASCAR at the start of this year.

Now here goes Earnhardt, the blue-collar everyman. A third-generation racer from North Carolina who says “ain’t” and “Daddy” and talks the way the good ol’ boys always did.

So what does NASCAR do now, with its most bankable stars rapidly exiting stage left at a time when the sport needs to rebuild its audience?

“It will be an important year for fans to look at what other drivers are out there and who will make them interested in continuing to watch,” said Jill Gregory, chief marketing officer for NASCAR. “We knew these days were going to come, we just didn’t know when.”

Gregory said the biggest challenge for NASCAR is introducing the current crop of young talent to fans and giving the drivers a chance to make their own marks rather than pigeonhole them in roles as the next Gordon, Stewart or Earnhardt.

“What is true to them? What is authentic?” asked Gregory. “You look at Kyle Larson, he loves to race. That’s what he is going to do, and allowing him to do what he naturally loves, that’s what we want to highlight. I don’t think there’s an effort to say ‘We’re going to make this guy into the next Jeff Gordon.’

“We have to let it come naturally and what do they gravitate toward, because if it’s natural, that’s what makes it real to the fans. If we are trying to manufacture it, that’s how it is going to be seen. We have to let it play out.”

Earnhardt didn’t hesitate to name the future of the sport: Larson, the current Monster Energy Cup points leader, and Chase Elliott, his current teammate who replaced Gordon last season.

Elliott is the son of Hall of Famer “Awesome” Bill Elliott, a Georgia native who grew up at NASCAR tracks. Larson is a dirt tracker from California who will race anything at any time and is likely headed in 2018 for a seat in the Indianapolis 500. Earnhardt also praised Ryan Blaney, another second-generation NASCAR driver, and Bubba Wallace, who have used social media to show the life of a millennial and not been afraid of overstepping their place.

Although their personalities are often overshadowed by the veterans, they are settling into their own niches and engaging a much younger fan base for a series whose origins are steeped in the bootlegging days of Prohibition.

“All those guys have great attitudes, great personalities,” Earnhardt said. “I know them well enough to be excited about how fans are going to know them in the future. I feel like that these are the guys that they’re the cream of the crop, and maybe I’m the only one that sees it in this room, but I really have a lot of confidence in the personalities that we have.”

“We’ve just got to get them in front of the fans, let the fans get to know them, and I think the rest will take care of itself,” he added.

The new regime has certainly stepped up through the first two months of this season. Three of the top four drivers in the standings are 27 or younger. Blaney is 10th in the standings, rookie Erik Jones is 13th and although reigning Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez is only 22nd in the standings, the rookie driver from Mexico has brought a huge new following to NASCAR.

As team owner Rick Hendrick prepares to fill a hole in his No. 88 Chevrolet , he’s not worried about the options.

“I’ve never seen so much young talent,” Hendrick said. “They’re here, they’re young, they’re aggressive, they’re fun. I think the sport has got a lot to be excited about, and I think the fans, let’s face it, Dale is unique. You can’t replace Dale.

“But he also is still going to be in and around and visible in the sport, and help tap these young guys on the shoulder and really tutor them. Tell them what they’re doing wrong, what they could do better, because he’s been through all those cycles of life. No one in the garage could be any better than Dale Earnhardt to mentor these guys because he’s been through all the different stages, and every one of them look up to him.”

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Notable achievements in the driving career of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Hendrick Motorsports announced Tuesday that Earnhardt will be retiring at the end of the season.

1998: Wins the Busch Grand National Series points championship for the first time at the age 24.

1999: Wins his second Busch Series points title.

FILE – In this Nov. 13, 1999, file photo, Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates after winning his second Busch Grand National Series championship, at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla. Dale Earnhardt Jr. abruptly announced his retirement at the end of the season Tuesday, April 25, 2017, a decision that will cost NASCAR its most popular driver as the series scrambles to rebuild its fan base. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

2000: Earns his first Winston Cup victory at DirecTV 500 in Fort Worth, Texas. The victory came in just his 12th career Winston Cup start.

2001: In the first race held at Daytona International Speedway since his father was killed in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr. wins the Pepsi 400. He jumps to the hood of his car after the race, throws his fists in the air and then hugs 2001 Daytona 500 champion and Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Pepsi 400 Saturday, July 7, 2001, at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Peter Cosgrove)

2001: In the first NASCAR event since the 9/11 attacks, Earnhardt wins the Cal Ripken Jr. 400 at Dover, Delaware. He carries a large American flag during his victory lap.

2003: Captures Aaron’s 499 title to win at Talladega Superspeedway for a record fourth straight time.

2004: Earns his first Daytona 500 title exactly six years to the day after his father’s lone Daytona 500 championship. One of his career-high six titles that season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., waves to the crowd after winning the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 15, 2004, in Daytona Beach, Fla.(AP Photo/Phil Coale)

2004: Wins an October race at Talladega but gets fined $10,000 and is docked 25 points for swearing during an NBC interview after the race. Penalty drops him out of the lead in the points race at the time.

2007: Announces he is moving from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports, effective in 2008.

2008: Ends a 76-race title drought by winning at Michigan International Speedway when he goes the final 55 laps without stopping for gas.

2012: Ends another long drought at Michigan again when he earns his first Sprint Cup victory since 2008. He had gone 143 races without a title.

2014: Captures his second Daytona 500 title in a race that included a rain delay lasting 6 hours, 22 minutes. Launches a comeback year in which Earnhardt also records season sweep at Pocono Raceway (also launches Twitter account that now has over 2 million followers).

2015: Wins the Coke Zero 400 in another rain-delayed race at Daytona for his 10th career victory on a restrictor-plate track. He would earn his 26th – and most recent – career victory later that year in Phoenix.

2016: Named NASCAR’s most popular driver for a 14th consecutive season despite missing half the year due to concussion-like symptoms. Bill Elliott is the only person to be named the most popular driver more often.

2017: Announces on April 25 that he will retire at the end of the season.

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More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

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This has been corrected to show that Earnhardt won his second Busch Series points championship in 1999.

Breaking News: Hendrick says Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retire after season

(PhatzRadio Sports / AP)   — CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, announced Tuesday that he will retire at the end of the season.

The two-time Daytona 500 winner set an afternoon news conference with team owner Rick Hendrick to discuss his decision. Hendrick Motorsports said in a news release that Earnhardt informed his team of his decision early Tuesday.

A third-generation NASCAR driver, Earnhardt has been plagued by concussions the last several years, and he missed half of last season recovering from the latest head injury. It’s caused him to delay contract talks on an extension to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet, and now he appears ready to call it quits.

Earnhardt turns 43 in October, was married during the offseason and has stated he wants a family. He’s become a vocal advocate for research of sports-related brain injuries.

Earnhardt has won NASCAR’s most popular driver award a record 14 times. He has 26 career Cup victories, and that includes a pair of wins in the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt is a two-time champion in NASCAR’s second-tier series. But the son of the late seven-time champion has never won a Cup title.

Earnhardt has driven for Hendrick since 2008 after a nasty split with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his father but run by his stepmother. He was unhappy with the direction of DEI since his father’s 2001 death in a last-lap accident at the Daytona 500, and a frosty relationship with his stepmother led him to bolt to NASCAR’s most powerful team.

Hendrick Motorsports said Earnhardt first discussed retirement with his boss on March 29.

Earnhardt made his first career Cup Series start on May 30, 1999, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Kannapolis native is in his 18th full-time season at the Cup level and he made his 600th career series start earlier this year at California.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and Chase Elliott display their front row trophies after qualifying for the top two positions in the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and Chase Elliott display their front row trophies after qualifying for the top two positions in the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

 

Charlotte Motor Speedway moves NASCAR playoff race to Sunday

Charlotte Motor Speedway’s previously scheduled October Saturday night playoff race has been moved to the next day, Sunday, Oct. 8, in a 2 p.m. start, the track announced on Thursday.

The move leaves no night races in the 10-event Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The event at the 1.5-mile Charlotte oval had been scheduled to run on Saturday night since 2002.

“We’ve heard from fans and from several drivers about how much fun it is to race during the daytime at Charlotte Motor Speedway,” Marcus Smith, speedway president and general manager, said in a release. “A return to ‘Daylight Racing Time’ also builds on our commitment to being ‘Fan first’ by providing families with affordable, world-class entertainment on a Sunday afternoon.”

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, whose eight career victories at Charlotte leads all drivers, applauded the move. Johnson believes racing in the daylight will make for a more exciting race.

“Charlotte’s so tricky, especially when the sun’s out,” Johnson said in the release. “And, the track’s finally aging and getting to a place with a lot of character (so) that a day race will allow us to run so many more lanes and, I think, create such an entertaining and compelling race … I’m really excited for a hot, slick, day race.”

Johnson won last year’s playoff race at Charlotte, held on Sunday afternoon after rain postponed the scheduled Saturday night race.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Schedule

Date Race TV Winner

Feb. 19

11:30 a.m. EST

Advance Auto Parts Clash

Daytona International Speedway

FS1 Joey Logano

Feb. 23

7 p.m. EST

Can-Am Duel at Daytona 1

Daytona International Speedway

FS1 Chase Elliott

Feb. 23

8:30 p.m. EST

Can-Am Duel at Daytona 2

Daytona International Speedway

FS1 Denny Hamlin

Feb. 26

2 p.m. EST

Daytona 500

Daytona International Speedway

FOX Kurt Busch

Mar. 5

2:30 p.m. EST

Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500

Atlanta Motor Speedway

FOX Brad Keselowski

Mar. 12

3:30 p.m. EDT

Kobalt 400

Las Vegas Motor Speedway

FOX Martin Truex Jr

Mar. 19

3:30 p.m. EDT

Camping World 500

Phoenix International Raceway

FOX Ryan Newman

Mar. 26

3:30 p.m. EDT

Auto Club 400

Auto Club Speedway

FOX Kyle Larson

Apr. 2

2 p.m. EDT

STP 500

Martinsville Speedway

FS1 Brad Keselowski

Apr. 9

1:30 p.m. EDT

O’Reilly Auto Parts 500

Texas Motor Speedway

FOX Jimmie Johnson

Apr. 23

2 p.m. EDT

Food City 500

Bristol Motor Speedway

FOX

Apr. 30

2 p.m. EDT

Toyota Owners 400

Richmond International Raceway

FOX

May 7

2 p.m. EDT

GEICO 500

Talladega Superspeedway

FOX

May 13

7:30 p.m. EDT

Go Bowling 400

Kansas Speedway

Fox Sports 1

May 20

6 p.m. EDT

Monster Energy Open

Charlotte Motor Speedway

Fox Sports 1

May 20

8:15 p.m. EDT

Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race

Charlotte Motor Speedway

Fox Sports 1

May 28

6 p.m. EDT

Coca-Cola 600

Charlotte Motor Speedway

FOX

Jun. 4

1 p.m. EDT

AAA 400 Drive for Autism

Dover International Speedway

Fox Sports 1

Jun. 11

3 p.m. EDT

Pocono 400

Pocono Raceway

Fox Sports 1

Jun. 18

3 p.m. EDT

FireKeepers Casino 400

Michigan International Speedway

Fox Sports 1

Jun. 25

3 p.m. EDT

Toyota/Save Mart 350

Sonoma Raceway

Fox Sports 1

Jul. 1

7:30 p.m. EDT

Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola

Daytona International Speedway

NBC

Jul. 8

7:30 p.m. EDT

Quaker State 400 Presented by Advanced Auto Parts

Kentucky Speedway

NBCSN

Jul. 16

3 p.m. EDT

New Hampshire 301

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

NBCSN

Jul. 23

3 p.m. EDT

Brickyard 400

Indianapolis Motor Speedway

NBC

Jul. 30

3 p.m. EDT

Pennsylvania 400

Pocono Raceway

NBCSN

Aug. 6

3 p.m. EDT

Watkins Glen 355

Watkins Glen International

NBCSN

Aug. 13

3 p.m. EDT

Pure Michigan 400

Michigan International Speedway

NBCSN

Aug. 19

7:30 p.m. EDT

Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race

Bristol Motor Speedway

NBC

Sep. 3

6 p.m. EDT

Bojangles’ Southern 500

Darlington Raceway

NBCSN

Sep. 9

7:30 p.m. EDT

Federated Auto Parts 400

Richmond International Raceway

NBCSN

Sep. 17

3 p.m. EDT

Chicagoland 400

Chicagoland Speedway

NBCSN

Sep. 24

2 p.m. EDT

New England 300

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

NBCSN

Oct. 1

2 p.m. EDT

Delaware 400

Dover International Speedway

NBCSN

Oct. 8

2 p.m. EDT

Bank of America 500

Charlotte Motor Speedway

NBC

Oct. 15

2 p.m. EDT

Alabama 500

Talladega Superspeedway

NBC

Oct. 22

3 p.m. EDT

Hollywood Casino 400

Kansas Speedway

NBCSN

Oct. 29

3 p.m. EDT

Goody’s Fast Relief 500

Martinsville Speedway

NBCSN

Nov. 5

2 p.m. EST

AAA Texas 500

Texas Motor Speedway

NBCSN

Nov. 12

2:30 p.m. EST

Can-Am 500

Phoenix International Raceway

NBC

Nov. 19

2:30 p.m. EST

Ford Ecoboost 400

Homestead-Miami Speedway

NBC

Why these five drivers could break through at Bristol with first NASCAR win of season

(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Sports Today)  —-    Jimmie Johnson took himself out of the when’s-he-going-to-finally-win conversation when he found victory lane April 9 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Coming off the first idle week of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule, most everyone else remains in that unwanted company heading to Bristol Motor Speedway.

Fortunes can be undone in moments on the high-banked short track, but a select group of drivers – several of whom have made the playoffs – have hope to finally bank the first victory of the season, and in two cases, in their careers.

USA TODAY Sports’ Brant James selects five drivers who could break through Sunday (2 p.m. ET, Fox):

Denny Hamlin: His middling campaign has been in keeping with Joe Gibbs Racing’s sluggish follow-up to a dominating 2016 effort in which it helped Toyota win a first manufacturer’s title in Cup. He is 15th in points with an average finish of 20th and is coming off a 25th-place result at Texas. Hamlin can be encouraged entering the Bristol bullring, though. He won there in 2012 and has finished third twice since then. Full disclosure: all of those came in the fall race, held at night.

 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: The Roush Fenway Racing driver has four top-10s in eight Cup starts at the .533-mile track, finishing second for the second time last fall. He also was second in the spring race three years ago. After a long slog through the Cup hinterland, both he and the organization have shown glimmers of hope on smaller tracks this season, with Stenhouse finishing fourth at Phoenix and 10th at Martinsville. A first Cup win could be close.

Jamie McMurray: The Ganassi Racing teammate of current points leader Kyle Larson is wielding cars being produced by arguably Chevrolet’s most consistent team right now. With 11 top-10s in 28 starts – including an eighth-place finish last fall – McMurray has been a steady producer at Bristol in recent seasons.

Clint Bowyer: He’s been generally eager for another chance at any track in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, but Bowyer could be angling for his first victory since 2012. He has six top-5s in 22 starts at Bristol and was eighth last spring in his stop-gap season with HScott Motorsports. That finish marked his second-best result of the year. Now ninth in points and a weekly competitor, Bowyer might be ready for that bottled-up celebration.

Austin Dillon: The Richard Childress Racing driver has made just six starts at Bristol, but has two top-10s – and finishes of 11th and 13th – and was fourth last fall. A fifth-place result at Martinsville began his spring southern short track campaign. It could continue with a first Cup victory.

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Follow James on Twitter @brantjames

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