Distributed by The Sports Xchange
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. felt "wobbly" and didn't know why.
In his motor coach last July at Kentucky Speedway, Earnhardt felt the first hint of the concussion symptoms that would keep him out of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the last half of the 2016 season.
He voiced his concerns to fiancee Amy Reimann.
"I told Amy, 'I feel wobbly,'" Earnhardt recalled on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. "I'm just in the bus, and it was like, 'Something ain't quite right.'
"I couldn't see anything physically wrong with me, and I didn't have any problems like walking across the garage. Driving the car, I felt fine."
But crew-chief-turned-broadcaster Steve Letarte noticed during an appearance with Earnhardt before the Saturday night race at Kentucky that something was amiss. Earnhardt wasn't his usual conversational self.
Behind the wheel, though, Earnhardt didn't notice any symptoms, and he raced that night in the Quaker State 400, completing all 267 laps and finishing 13th -- not knowing at the time he wouldn't race again until 2017.
What Earnhardt first thought might be allergies turned out to be far worse. Still feeling unsteady after the Kentucky race, Earnhardt told crew chief Greg Ives to put Alex Bowman on standby as a relief driver for the upcoming race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Then Earnhardt called team owner Rick Hendrick, who told his driver succinctly, "Go to Dr. Petty, dummy."
After his visit to Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry M. Petty, Earnhardt's concussion symptoms, traceable to a collision at Michigan International Speedway in mid-June, quickly grew to nightmarish proportions.
"My eyes were jumping around in my head real bad, just walking down the street or riding in a car," Earnhardt said. "A road sign -- jumping around like this (Earnhardt demonstrated with erratic hand movements). I couldn't even read it. It was so annoying, and I was scared to death that I was going to be stuck with that all my life.
"When me and Amy went to taste food for our wedding, I couldn't look out the windshield. I had to stare at the floor for a two-hour ride to Raleigh, 'cause I just couldn't stand it, things were bouncing so bad."
Balance also became a major concern.
"We took videos of me and Amy working out, and I couldn't put one foot in front of the other without falling over -- like the drunk-driving test. I couldn't do that. I couldn't take one step without having to step to the right or step to the left and catch myself."
On the bad days during his extended rehabilitation, Earnhardt felt the Kentucky race might have been not only the last race of his season, but the last of his career.
"There were days during the recovery when I was 90 percent sure I wasn't going to drive again," he said. "There were days when it was 50 percent, just moving all over the place depending on what I felt that day."
The field-of-vision problems plagued Earnhardt for more than five weeks, but after a strict regimen of exercises, both the vision and balance began to improve gradually.
"I woke up one morning, and my eyes were better," Earnhardt said. "I looked out across the field in the back yard and could see clearer. When I was taking steps across the living room floor, it wasn't jarring my eyes off the target that I might be looking at far-off."
Small victories like that -- not to mention the constant encouragement from his fiancee -- kept Earnhardt focused on his recovery. By December, he was ready to test a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car at Darlington Raceway.
By February, with the Daytona 500 looming, he was ready to compete again. And Daytona was the perfect place to make his much-anticipated return.
"Coming back to the racetrack for the first time, this is probably the best place to be coming back to, because I feel so comfortable here," Earnhardt explained. "If this was a real, real challenging technical track, my nerves would be a little bit higher, but being that I understand what I need to be doing out there and feel so comfortable, I guess it's made it a much easier pool to wade into."
Earnhardt knows what may be waiting for him. Crashes at Daytona are commonplace, and to expect to go through an entire season incident-free is unrealistic.
"I don't want to wreck to quantify my recovery, but I think, should that happen, if I come out the other side of it feeling great, that will add a ton of confidence," he said. "I can't sit here and say that I know exactly how I'm going to react in those situations with confidence. So, yeah, when I go through that process, there's a box or two to check that aren't checked yet."
Likewise, Earnhardt understands the risk he's taking, but he's accepted the possible consequences because his passion to race still burns.
"Of course I'm human, and I'm going to be concerned and worry and (take) precautions, and so forth," he said. "But to be able to win the qualifying race, and to be able to win the Daytona 500, you've got to race with no fear. ... I know that when I get in the car, I can't have any concerns. I can't have any worry or fret, or I'll drive completely different.
"I know what result I can get driving with no fear, and I know what kind of result I'll get if I go out there with even a sliver of apprehension. I won't be able to go out there and win the race. Once you second-guess yourself one time, it snowballs, and it just continues throughout the rest of the race.
"If I'm going to come back, I've got to be racing because I want to be out there. I couldn't do that and put myself through the chance that I might be back in rehab for months and months going through that crap again if I didn't want to be out there."
Throughout the recovery process, Earnhardt and Reimann, who were married during the offseason, had a chance to confront the reality of life without racing. Even today, in the final year of his contract with Hendrick, Earnhardt wants to wait until he's confident in his health before he commits to an extension.
"We certainly got a glimpse into what that side of life would be like, and I'm going to tell you, it's a lot less stress," Earnhardt said. "I really never knew just how much pressure all the drivers were under until I got out from under that. ... I don't know whether I'm right about this or not, but I think, for the longest time, I let racing be who I was instead of what I did.
"So to maybe enjoy it more and not let it become so stressful that it's unenjoyable, maybe I'll just try to focus on letting it be what I do instead of who I am. Like Richard Petty said, I've got a whole 'nother life beyond driving, and I really believe that. I've got a lot of things that I'd love to do, outside of having a family ... a lot of things in business that I'd love to see if I can succeed at.
"I think we got a glimpse of what that would be like, and it looks pretty awesome. But I crave to drive the car. I love the position I'm in with the team I'm with, with Greg and the guys. And until that feeling is gone and the wanting to be there is gone, I want to keep going."
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mr. Hendrick, we have a problem.
Twice during Sunday's rain-delayed Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway, Johnson spun without provocation off Turn 4.
The first time, on Lap 17, he took out the No. 41 Ford of Kurt Busch. The second time, Johnson nosed into the inside wall near the entrance to pit road crashed out of the 75-lap exhibition race.
Forget that Johnson failed to finish the Clash for the sixth straight year. More important is the observation that the balance of the Hendrick Motorsports cars has been problematic at restrictor-plate tracks.
Watching from the TV booth as Alex Bowman drove his No. 88 Chevy to a third-place finish Dale Earnhardt Jr. expressed apprehension when Johnson spun once, then twice. Remember, Earnhardt spun three times on plate tracks last year before a concussion sidelined him for the final 18 races of the season.
Unlike last year, Earnhardt plans to practice extensively for next Sunday's Daytona 500. Sunday's accidents left Johnson thinking in the same vein.
"It's bizarre, because it drove really good everywhere else," Johnson said after the second wreck. "Then off of (Turn) 4, the first time I had a handling problem was when it broke free and I got into the No. 41, and then after that it was really loose after that caution and the last long stretch before I crashed again.
"Just off of Turn 4. The sun certainly sits on that edge of the track a little bit harder than anywhere else. We will take some notes and learn from those mistakes and apply that to the (Daytona) 500 car."
As to possible solutions, Johnson already was pondering potential fixes.
"I would have to assume that it's relative to the height of the rear spoiler," said the reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion. "When there is less air and the air is so turbulent back there, the spoiler is so small it's real easy to get the pressure off of it, and then the back just rotates around.
"We can adjust rear shocks, rear ride height and try to get more pitch in the car in a sense to keep the spoiler up in the air longer."
AN OPPORTUNITY LOST FOR BUSCH AND BOWMAN?
After beating Alex Bowman to the finish line for second-place in the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, Kyle Busch took a minute to school his younger adversary.
Busch felt that he and Bowman could have worked together to track down race winner Joey Logano on the final lap, if they had hooked up nose-to-tail rather than racing each other side-by-side to the finish.
"Just that when the 22 (Logano) got so far out in front, he was a lone duck, and I feel like, if we both could have worked together, then we could have tracked them back down and then the three of us could have gone for the win instead of just automatically giving it to the 22. Just trying to see what his (Bowman's) mind-set was with it all and figure out what got him to that decision.
"Overall, good day and I need to eliminate some mistakes here for myself on this M&M's team -- the guys did a great job. The guys executed really well. I have a really fast car, so I can't say enough about my guys at Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota -- everybody's done a really good job and we have some good stuff. It's cool to be able to have the opportunity to race for a win like that, but it kind of snuck away from us there at the end."
Bowman used his only scheduled race so far this season as a learning experience.
"Hindsight is 20/20, right?" Bowman said. "It's hard to see. I was on the top with all that stuff happened getting into Turn 1 (contact between Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin in a last-lap battle for the lead), and I didn't know the No. 22 was out there by himself.
"So he's probably right. We probably could have caught the No. 22 and had a shot to win it, but at the same time, he didn't work with me much all day, either. A lot of guys hung us out every chance they got. So, to come home third shows what a great race car Hendrick Motorsports brings to the track."
FORDS FIND THE ANSWER TO TOYOTA DOMINANCE
Four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas settled into the first four positions after a restart on Lap 65 of 75 in Sunday's Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, but Ford drivers found a way to break the Camry chain in the closing laps.
When Brad Keselowski hooked up with Team Penske teammate and eventual race winner Joey Logano, as well as newly minted Ford driver Kevin Harvick, the Fords were able to side-draft the Toyotas, break their momentum and pick them off one by one.
Keselowski had a huge run through the first two corners on the final lap, and race leader Denny Hamlin was powerless to keep his JGR Camry out front. Ultimately, contact between Keselowski's Ford and Hamlin's Toyota opened the door for Logano.
A rueful Hamlin described the action in the closing laps.
"There's really not much I can do differently at the end," Hamlin said. "Perhaps staying in the middle lane there through (Turns) 1 and 2 and trying to side-draft. (Keselowski) had help from the 22 (Logano). I was in a bad spot there. He was just coming so much faster than what I was.
"There's not much that I could have done to defend. We lined up so well as Toyota teammates throughout the race that once those guys started breaking that up and leap frogging, he (Keselowski) had commitment from the 22 and the 4 (Harvick) and when they were able to back up there that really put us at a speed differential.
"The 2 (Keselowski) was coming with a huge run, and I tried to do everything I could to block and cover the bottom before he got there, but he was coming at such a higher rate of speed, I probably didn't get there in time."
Daytona International Speedway
Daytona Beach, Florida
Sunday, February 19, 2017
1. (9) Joey Logano, Ford, 75.
2. (13) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 75.
3. (8) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 75.
4. (12) Danica Patrick, Ford, 75.
5. (7) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 75.
6. (1) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 75.
7. (14) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 75.
8. (16) Daniel Suarez #, Toyota, 75.
9. (17) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 75.
10. (3) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 75.
11. (15) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 75.
12. (4) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 75.
13. (2) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 74.
14. (11) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, Damage, 61.
15. (5) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, Accident, 60.
16. (6) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, Accident, 48.
17. (10) Kurt Busch, Ford, Accident, 16.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 143.831 mph.
Time of Race: 1 Hrs, 18 Mins, 13 Secs. Margin of Victory: 1.120 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 4 for 16 laps.
Lead Changes: 6 among 4 drivers.
Lap Leaders: B. Keselowski 1-8; D. Hamlin 9; B. Keselowski 10-19; Kyle Busch 20-24; J. Logano 25-27; D. Hamlin 28-74; J. Logano 75;.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): D. Hamlin 2 times for 48 laps; B. Keselowski 2 times for 18 laps; Kyle Busch 1 time for 5 laps; J. Logano 2 times for 4 laps.
The race was originally scheduled to start at approximate 8 p.m. ET Saturday. The start was delayed because of the rain, with the hope that it could get underway later Saturday. However, after a wait of less than two hours, the race was postponed for the day.
When the race gets underway, Brad Keselowski will start on the pole, with Denny Hamlin alongside on the front row. The starting grid was set Friday by a blind draw.
"We had good speed, from what we can tell," Keselowski said. "It's hard to get a full picture when only half the cars draft, but it was a good start. We have some things to work on handling-wise, so we'll get through that and figure it out."
The Clash is a 75-lap race that will be split into two segments by a competition caution after the completion of lap 25. No championship points will be awarded, but teams take advantage of the event to prepare for the official season opener, the Daytona 500, scheduled for Feb. 26 at Daytona International Speedway.
Despite using the Clash as prep for the Daytona 500, teams don't typically race the same car in both races.
NOTES: Drivers are eligible for the Advance Auto Parts Clash by being in the Chase for the Sprint Cup last season, winning a pole in 2015, being a past Daytona 500 pole sitter or previously winning the Clash. ... Seventeen drivers will compete in the 2017 Clash. ... NASCAR is allowing Daniel Suarez to compete in the event in the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota vacated by eligible driver Carl Edwards. ... Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been cleared to race after missing the second half of the 2016 season because of a concussion and was eligible for the Clash by virtue of being a past winner of the event, but Alex Bowman, who won a pole as a fill-in for Earnhardt at Phoenix International Raceway last year, will drive Earnhardt's No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. ... Front-row starters Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin were the fastest two drivers in Friday practice sessions. Keselowski led the first practice session with a 191.604 mph/46.972-second lap, while Hamlin led the second practice with a 196.526 mph/45.795-second lap. ... Hamlin won last year's Clash and went on to win the 2016 Daytona 500 the following weekend.
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Christmas comes but once a year. The same is true of the unique qualifying format for the Daytona 500.
Unlike Christmas, however, the setting and ordering of the field for the Great American Race takes five days, from single-car qualifying on Sunday through the Can-Am Duel at Daytona twin 150-mile races on Thursday.
The basics are straightforward. Only two cars in Sunday's time trails are locked into their starting positions for the Daytona 500 -- the pole winner and the car that qualifies on the outside of the front row.
Of the 42 entries for the race, 36 hold Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series charters and are guaranteed to compete on Feb. 26. That leaves six drivers fighting for the four remaining positions in the 500. Those drivers are Elliott Sadler, Timmy Hill, Reed Sorenson, Brendan Gaughan, Corey LaJoie and DJ Kennington.
Qualifying on Sunday sets the starting order for the Can-Am Duel races on Thursday, with the odd-number qualifiers (positions 1-3-5, etc.) running the first Duel, and even numbers competing in the second Duel.
The finishing positions in the Thursday races determine the starting positions for the 500, with the exception of the front row. The winner of the first Duel, which forms the inside row, starts third in the Great American Race, with the winner of the second Duel starting fourth -- on the outside of the second row.
If either of the front-row starters wins a Duel, then the second-row position goes to second place finisher in that particular Duel.
Open drivers, those competing without charters, have two avenues into the 500. The highest-finishing driver in each of the Can-Am Duels earns a starting position on Feb. 26. The final two positions go to the two fastest among the open drivers in Sunday's time trials, if not already qualified through the Duels.
Aside from determining who's fastest in single-car runs, this year's qualifying session will provide several story lines of keen interest to NASCAR fans.
DALE EARNHARDT JR. RETURNS TO THE NO. 88
Dale Earnhardt Jr., a two-time Daytona 500 winner, returns to action after missing the final 18 events of 2016 while recovering from a concussion. Earnhardt was 11th fastest in the 3-hour, 55-minute practice session on Saturday afternoon.
"It's good to be doing some laps, good to be doing some work," Earnhardt said. "Car seems to be doing all right. Hard to tell where you line up against these guys. They're all doing something different, running different laps, more lines, stuff like that.
"Hopefully, we're going to get out there tomorrow and have a shot at the pole. We'd love to get on the front row, take a little pressure off of us. The qualifying races and all that stuff. Yeah, it's been great. Great weather, really cool and comfortable. Like I say, there's been no problems with the car so far. It's been smooth."
FORD LOOKS FAST IN OPENING DAYTONA 500 PRACTICE
Clint Bowyer, who is back in a competitive car at Stewart-Haas Racing, was 10th fastest on Saturday. With SHR switching to Ford from Chevrolet this season, the Ford armada has grown substantially, potentially to the point of challenging the Toyota gang that dominated Speedweeks last year.
In fact, Fords posted the two fastest times in Saturday's marathon practice session, with Joey Logano (193.116 mph), Aric Almirola (193.054 mph) and Brad Keselowski (193.046 mph) topping the speed chart.
"In all honesty, I've never been that fast in qualifying here in Daytona in my whole career," Logano said after the session. "I feel like I've never had a shot at it, but now I feel like I'm closer than ever.
"I feel like I'm kind of in new territory, plus I think some of these other guys sandbag a lot, so tomorrow will be the telltale sign."
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Denny Hamlin wouldn't mind at all if history repeated itself during Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway.
Hamlin won the Advance Auto Parts Clash, and eight days later, the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota followed up with his first Daytona 500 victory, a breathtaking affair that saw Hamlin beat fellow Camry driver Martin Truex Jr. to the finish line by .010 seconds, a margin of roughly six inches.
Hamlin is well aware that winning The Great American Race back-to-back is one of the toughest feats in motorsports, so tough that only three drivers have accomplished the feat: Richard Petty (1973-1974), Cale Yarborough (1983-1984) and Sterling Marlin (1994-1995).
Hamlin also knows that ganging up with his Toyota teammates may not be as easy as it was last year, when Camry drivers dominated the event and swept the three podium positions.
"It was very important that we set out a goal -- really an objective -- to work together and really do everything we could to remain in a pack," Hamlin said on Friday, taking questions from reporters in front of a "show" version of his Daytona 500-winning car. "It worked out phenomenally.
"But since then, everyone has seen that, and it's going to be very hard to replicate anything like that ever again. Now that the competition's seen it, it's going to be hard to do. But you've just got to come up with a new plan, something they haven't seen before."
-- ALEX BOWMAN HAPPY TO BE ALIGNED WITH HENDRICK
After a stellar performance as a substitute driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr. last year, Alex Bowman got several offers of NASCAR rides -- but none that could induce him to leave Hendrick Motorsports, where he spends most of his time driving a simulator.
"I was kind of surprised that a winning XFINITY car or something like that didn't open up," Bowman said on Friday at Daytona International Speedway, where he'll race in Saturday night's Advance Auto Parts Clash as a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series pole winner from 2016. "At the same time, I had quite a few full-time Cup opportunities that were offered, but there really wasn't anything that was going to make me leave Hendrick Motorsports.
"I feel like I want to be part of a winning organization whether I'm driving, just working for the team, doing testing or doing the simulation stuff. Whatever I'm doing, I want to be part of a winning team. Nothing was going to drag me away from here."
Not only that. Bowman figures he'll get the nod, should the organization need another super sub for any of its four drivers.
"Obviously, you never hope that situation comes up," Bowman said. "But I think after last year, as easy as it is for me as far as already being here with Hendrick Motorsports, I think if something did come up that I would think I would be the one that would get called for it."
-- NASCAR CRACKS DOWN ON INSPECTION 'GAMERS'
It's a given that a smart NASCAR crew chief will push the limits of the rules -- and find loopholes in existing legislation wherever they're available.
Between seasons, however, NASCAR has gone a long way to close a loophole in the inspection process. This year, if a car fails at any stage of pre-qualifying or pre-race inspection, the team must take the car back to the garage, return to specifications and start the entire process over again.
Last year, a car simply had to repeat the station it failed, the Laser Inspection Station (LIS), for example.
"Teams would go across the LIS, and purposely fail, so they would go off to the side and 'em up on jack stands," said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR vice president, officiating and technical inspection. "Not only would they fix the LIS issue, then they'd completely rebuild the top of the car and aerodynamics.
"So we'd only send them back through the LIS. OK, as a competitor, you do that, and we have to react this way."
Even with the new procedures in place Sawyer thinks crew chiefs will continue to push the envelope -- at least initially.
"I think they will," Sawyer said. "They will have to see how much teeth we're going to put into it. If we do what we've said -- which I know we will -- then we'll see."
-- SHORT STROKES
Brad Keselowski led first Clash practice with a lap at 191.604 mph (46.972 seconds). Eleven of the 17 eligible cars participated in the opening practice, which consisted solely of single-car runs. ? In final clash practice on Friday night, the four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas augured a repeat performance of last year's Speedweeks, filling the top four positions on the speed chart. Defending clash and Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin paced the session at 196.528 mph, followed by rookie teammate Daniel Suarez (196.279 mph).
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- If the members of the 2017 NASCAR Drive for Diversity class need a beacon to guide them or a story to inspire them, they need look no further than Daniel Suarez.
Unexpectedly, and at least a year ahead of schedule, Suarez earned a battlefield promotion into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series when Carl Edwards shocked the racing world with the January announcement that he was stepping away from racing.
Suarez has filled the vacancy left by Edwards in the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and joins Chip Ganassi Racing's Kyle Larson as a Drive for Diversity graduate with a full-time Cup ride.
That's the level to which the 2017 class, announced Wednesday, can aspire with assurance that the goal is attainable.
"It was very important, for sure," Suarez said of the Drive for Diversity program during a Wednesday appearance on the NASCAR Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"It helped me a lot through K&N racing. ... Definitely this program was very helpful."
Even before Edwards' departure, Suarez was on a fast track to the Cup series, having won last year's NASCAR XFINITY Series championship with a victory in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Four of the six drivers selected for the 2017 Drive for Diversity class are returnees.
NASCAR Next driver Collin Cabre, 23, will compete in his third season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, driving for Rev Racing, the operational arm of Drive for Diversity, the industry's flagship program for multicultural and female drivers.
Ruben Garcia Jr., a NASCAR Next driver and the 2015 NASCAR Peak Mexico Series champion at age 20, returns to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East after finishing 10th in last year's final standings.
Like Cabre, Jay Beasley, 24, will drive for Rev Racing for the third straight season, competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.
In 2013, Beasley became the first African-American driver to win a Super Late Model race at the Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the track that served as a training ground for Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champions Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch.
Madeline Crane, 19, will compete for a second year with Rev Racing in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series after posting two top-five and 12 top-10 finishes last year.
Chase Cabre, 20, comes to the Drive for Diversity program from Mini Sprint Cars. He and brother Collin Cabre are the first sibling teammates to participate in Drive for Diversity. Chase is a two-time Fall Brawl champion at the Ocala (Fla.) Bullring.
The final selection to the 2017 class is Macy Causey, the winner of the NASCAR Young Racer Award for 2016.
Causey has a family history in stock car racing. In 1978, her grandmother, Diane Teel, was the first female driver to win a NASCAR-sanctioned event at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Virginia.
Four years later, Teel became the first woman to compete in the NASCAR XFINITY Series when she made the first of her 11 career starts at Martinsville.
The members of the 2017 class were selected after an intensive combine at New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway last October.
"Now more than ever, we're seeing the impact of NASCAR's development program in producing drivers who excel at the highest echelons of our sport," said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations. "There's a great deal of talent and potential in this year's class.
"With the strong foundation that NASCAR Drive for Diversity provides, these drivers will have the opportunity to develop the skills needed to elevate their racing careers."
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in his happy place.
On New Year's Eve, NASCAR's most popular driver married long-time girlfriend Amy Reimann. The couple honeymooned on Maui and Kaua'i.
But neither of those Hawaiian Islands tugs on Earnhardt's psyche the way Daytona Beach does, and at long last, in mid-February, he'll be back on track at the Birthplace of Speed, racing a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car for the first time since July 9 at Kentucky Speedway.
Earnhardt is fully recovered from the concussion that caused him to miss the last half of the 2016 season. In December, he received medical clearance to race. Just as important, he is fully committed to the competition on the track.
"To get approved to race is one thing, but to decide to race is another," Earnhardt said on Wednesday morning during the NASCAR Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway. "Mentally, you have to make the decision if you want to keep racing. And if you want to keep racing, you have to go into it 100 percent.
"This is the top, elite series of motorsports in North America and if you're going to be out there you can't do it without 100 percent. I had to answer a lot of personal questions myself and just really buy in. All that was a big process and I'm really happy with what I've decided to do."
Earnhardt's rehabilitation was a lengthy process with a prescribed regimen that led to success. His courtship with Reimann likewise was protracted, and in retrospect, Earnhardt wishes he hadn't waited until age 41 to get married.
"Getting married has been incredible," Earnhardt said. "I wish I would have figured this all out sooner. I'm frustrated with myself that I took so long to grow up, because I have an amazing wife, and she's changed my life. She's really helped me as a person to become better on all fronts -- personally, and all my friendships with people and how I react to people and treat people.
"And, obviously, in my professional life she's helped me as a driver. It's been great. Just hoping to enjoy what's left of my career, and hopefully I get to make the decisions on that myself as far as how much further I'll race. Going to start a family, too, so have a lot of good things to look forward to. Really excited about my future."
The immediate future is of some concern, at least where racing is concerned. Earnhardt is optimistic, but he won't know how he stacks up against the competition until he climbs into his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the first time.
"Being out of the car, you hope you can jump back in the car and not miss a beat, but like I said, this is the top series, and any time you're away, you're getting behind," Earnhardt said. "I'm really anxious and curious where we shake out early in the season, how competitive we can be, what -- if any -- learning curve there is for me.
"We'll figure all that out. I missed the camaraderie. I have an awesome road crew. We're all buddies. We all communicate every day. We use an app to be able to communicate and text each other as a group, so it's a close-knit sort of family. ... It's fun to be able to go as a team and succeed. Even when you don't succeed, those are the guys you lean on. You sort of lift each other up."
One of the hardest things Earnhardt had to do when he was out of the car was watch Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman drive in his stead -- and work with his crew.
"Certainly jealous of Jeff and Alex working with my guys," Earnhardt said. "At the same time, I was happy for Alex and glad Jeff was available. You definitely were wishing it was you in there getting the work."
Come February, Earnhardt can stop wishing and start racing, as he seeks his third Daytona 500 victory.
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Though he was sidelined for the second half of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. remained intimately involved in the conduct of NASCAR racing, figuring prominently in discussions that led to significant innovations in the race structure and points system for 2017.
Races in NASCAR's top three touring series will feature three stages in each, with opportunities to earn both championship and playoff points at the end of each stage -- with the final stage being the end of the race.
Conceivably, a driver who excels in the first two stages could earn more than the eventual race winner, but Earnhardt doesn't see that as a problem.
"I'm fine with it," Earnhardt told the NASCAR Wire Service, "because I think it's a nice reward in the middle part of the race. You can have a guy go out there and he leads 75 percent of the event and finishes last and gets one point (under last year's format), and it's not indicative really of how strong he was in that event.
"So I think this is a subtle way to reward who is competitive and running well in the meat of the race. If a guy goes out there and does really well and gains 45, 50 points and doesn't win the race, you're not going to hear complaints from the guy standing in Victory Lane. He's going to be holding the trophy."
And with that trophy comes an all-but-guaranteed spot in the playoff.
What Earnhardt particularly likes about the revamped format for 2017 is the sense of urgency that will permeate an event from start to finish.
"Now everything matters, everything in the middle," Earnhardt said. "It gives the racing substance that I thought was missing from a driving standpoint. So I'm really excited about it. ... A lot of things we do bring fan interest only or driver interest only, and I think this does both."
KURT BUSCH EAGER TO REKINDLE FORD RELATIONSHIP
Competing for Roush Fenway Racing in 2004, Kurt Busch was the last driver to win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship in a Ford.
Since leaving Roush at the end of the 2005 season, Busch has driven Dodges for Roger Penske and Chevrolets for James Finch, Furniture Row and Stewart-Haas Racing.
With Stewart-Haas moving to Ford this season, Busch will have a chance to renew old acquaintances.
"It is a special homecoming feeling to head back to work with Ford and to have them with our power and our bodies at Stewart-Haas Racing," Busch said on Tuesday during the NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. "It really feels neat to come back to a place where I've seen the faces before and the way that the structure has been polished up on and the way that there's more depth with Ford Performance.
"(Ford Board Member) Edsel (Ford) has done an incredible job over the last decade to continue to improve. Guys like Raj Nair (executive vice president, product development and chief technical officer) Dave Pericak (head of Ford Performance), the whole gang is ready and willing to help in all areas and directions. It's like they just opened up a whole new book of things to look at and to advance our program further."
DANICA PATRICK ALSO OPTIMISTIC ABOUT MANUFACTURER SWITCH
Like Kurt Busch, teammate Danica Patrick is optimistic about the benefits that could accompany the switch to Ford.
In each of the last two years, Patrick has finished 24th in the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, a career-best. The 2017 season will be her second with crew chief Billy Scott.
"Hopefully, there's more room to improve now, so that's kind of exciting to me," Patrick said. "I'm optimistic, and hopeful it will be something that makes a difference. I think if you're in the top 15 every weekend, then you do a little bit better and then you're in the top 10 and then once you're in the top 10 with good pit stops, good strategy and all the things that play into it -- some of the new formats for the races can play into segment wins.
"I think it's important to be realistic, so to tell you to go out and win races and segments is not something I necessarily think is going to happen right away, but we'll assess. We'll assess how strong we are as a team. A few years back we were really strong (with three top 10s in 2014), and I felt like that's where I was running by the end of the year, was up in the top 15 and getting into the top 10, so hopefully we can get back to that and work from there."
TRUEX SAYS EDWARDS' DEPARTURE WILL CHANGE TOYOTA DYNAMIC
Martin Truex Jr. was as surprised as everyone else when he heard Joe Gibbs Racing driver Carl Edwards had decided to step away from racing.
As part of the Toyota factory effort, which also includes the Furniture Row Racing team, Truex valued Edwards' contribution to the body of knowledge. Understandably, that will change when rookie Daniel Suarez takes over the seat of Edwards' No. 19 Camry.
"I always thought Carl would be like Mark Martin and race till he's 50 or so," Truex said. "It's definitely going to change the dynamic, taking away one veteran guy who's been around a long time, has had a lot of success and really had a lot to bring to the group and the discussions we had.
"It's definitely going to be a little bit different, but I'm excited about it. There's a lot of talent still in that group, and hopefully we'll be able to pull it together and make it happen again."
Suarez isn't the only rookie to join the Toyota team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Furniture Row has expanded from a single-car operation to a two-car team, and 20-year-old Erik Jones joins FRR as Truex's teammate for 2017.
NOTE: Suarez's promotion to the Cup series brings with it a spotter change at Joe Gibbs Racing. Chris "Crazy" Osborne, who worked with Suarez during his run to the NASCAR XFINITY Series title, moves from Matt Kenseth's Cup car to the No. 19. Edwards' former spotter, Jason Hedlesky, will now fill that role for Kenseth.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- This isn't the first time Jimmie Johnson will face an update in the competition model, but the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet isn't vain enough to think NASCAR would try to "Jimmie-proof" its playoff formats just because he keeps winning championship.
In the aftermath of the Monday night announcement of a stage-based race format and revamped playoff points system in all three of NASCAR's national series, Johnson was the first driver to face reporters on Tuesday at the Charlotte Convention Center on the NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"I'm not bigger than NASCAR," asserted Johnson, who won his record-tying seventh championship in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "There's no way they're changing the rules based on the 48. The sport's a lot bigger than one person."
That doesn't change the fact that Johnson has flourished with every competition update.
He won his first title in 2006 -- the first of a record five straight -- in a 10-driver Chase. A year later, with the Chase expanded to 12 drivers and NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow introduced for a portion of the schedule, the No. 48 team won again.
The 2008 season brought the full-time rollout of the COT (rechristened the Gen-5 race car) and Johnson won his third straight title. In 2009, the sanctioning body banned testing at tracks that hosted NASCAR races and introduced double-file restarts to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in June. Undeterred, Johnson was a four-time champion.
In 2010, spoilers replaced wings on the Gen-5 car, starting with the spring race at Martinsville, and Johnson ran his string of championships to five, overtaking Denny Hamlin in the season finale at Homestead.
By the time Johnson won championship No. 6 in 2013, NASCAR had introduced the Gen-6 race car and had changed the Chase format to include wild cards for the final two positions, adding an incentive to win races.
Testing was reinstituted in 2013, but limited to four per organization. And Johnson won a 13-driver Chase after Jeff Gordon was added to the field summarily as reparation for race manipulation at Richmond by Michael Waltrip Racing.
Johnson's seventh championship came under the 16-driver elimination format introduced in 2014.
To win a record-breaking eighth title, Johnson will have to triumph under a system that structures races in three stages and offers playoff points that carry through the first nine races of the postseason.
The good news is that the No. 48 team has always excelled at adapting to new rules and formats. In this case, NASCAR instituted innovations after extensive input from industry stakeholders.
"When you get to Homestead, it's very similar for that event," Johnson said. "How you get there is a bit different. The big takeaway I have is, when you put all the smart people in the room and let everybody decide what it could look like and what it should look like -- from TV, owners, NASCAR, driver representation -- I think that's a smart move.
"And I feel that, knowing our environment, knowing how to take the best from each of those folks in the room -- the stakeholders -- and come up with a system... I have a lot of faith in that."
Johnson could have added with similar conviction that he has an equal degree of faith in his own ability to deal with each new competition landscape.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NASCAR has a new race structure and playoff points system, one that, in the words of chairman and CEO Brian France, is designed to "make racing more compelling on an hour-by-hour basis, week in and week out."
There are two fundamental enhancements announced on Monday at the Charlotte Convention Center and covering all three of NASCAR's national series that should promote that goal.
First, races will be divided into three stages each, with the number of laps in each stage determined in advance according to the race length and the venue. The top 10 drivers in each of the first two segments will score championship points -- 10 to the winner, nine to second place, eight for third, and so forth.
The race winner (the driver who takes the checkered flag at the end of the final stage) gets 40 championship points, second place earns 35, with each succeeding position worth one point less.
In addition, and this is the second major innovation for 2017, the winners of the first two stages earn one playoff point each, and those points are carried forward throughout the first three rounds of the 10-race playoff at the end of the season.
The race winner receives five playoff points, which also carry forward until the season-ending Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where points are reset to zero and the highest-finishing driver among the four who are eligible for the title claims the championship.
The changes involved extensive discussion and collaboration between industry stakeholders, including the sanctioning body, team owners, the drivers and broadcast partners.
"There are no off weeks," driver Denny Hamlin said. "Every single race matters. ... Not only that, but every lap of every race matters. From our standpoint, you always felt a little bit relaxed once you got a race win, and you would sometimes maybe go into test mode or something.
"Now with each accomplishment that you have during each given race, whether you're collecting points for the overall regular season or you're trying to collect points through a stage win or a race win, each accomplishment gives your road to Homestead a little bit easier, gives you a little bit of cushion there to be able to get through the playoffs and make it to Homestead.
"And that's what it's all about for us is making it to Homestead and trying to race for a championship, and I think this format does it for it."
No longer will NASCAR racing have a "Chase." Henceforth, "playoff" will be the operative term for all three series.
"We introduced a new word, i.e., the Chase, and we liked it at first," said NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O'Donnell. "But when you really talk about it, when (a team owner) is out talking to a sponsor, well, what's the Chase? Well, it's our playoffs."
There are many aspects of the formats that won't change. Race winners will still qualify for the playoffs, as they have since NASCAR introduced the elimination format in 2014.
But under the new system, drivers will still have a strong incentive to accumulate playoff points that will carry forward through the first nine races of the playoff, because those points could be critical to advancement.
"I look at races as soon as the plate tracks, especially Talladega, and you might have seen cars that have lagged back in the past," driver Brad Keselowski said. "You're not going to do that anymore. The single file, high line ride out, those days are gone. And I think that's great.
"We're going to go out there and we're going to race to a new level that we haven't seen before, and I'm really pumped about being a part of that in the future of this sport."
The number of drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff will remain at 16. Playoff fields in the NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series will remain status quo at 12 and eight drivers, respectively.
Winning a race is still a ticket to the next round of the playoff -- guaranteed.
But under the new system, the regular-season winner also provides an opportunity to earn playoff points without winning stages or races. The championship leader after 26 races receives 15 playoff points. Second place gets 10 points, third place eight, with each successive position worth one point less through the top 10 positions.
Like the points for stage and race wins, those earned for top-10 regular-season finishes carry forward through the Round of 8, which concludes at Phoenix.
Though there will be more to process and digest, Earnhardt believes the race fans who drove the changes to the race structure and playoff points will embrace the changes.
"I think the change is actually very subtle," Earnhardt said. "Basically, you're going to throw two cautions. You're going to know when they are, which is actually kind of comforting. Who wins the race, and how the races are decided doesn't change.
"The playoff doesn't really change at all. You're going to have two breaks in every race that essentially are going to be rewarding to your driver. That, to me, creates interest."
NOTES: Overtime will still be in play at the end of races but not at the end of stages. NASCAR has eliminated bonus points for leading laps and leading the most laps.
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The enshrinement of three car owners of paramount importance to stock car racing, a driver who proved a prolific winner in NASCAR's top-two series and a former NASCAR Cup Series champion who would become one of the most beloved storytellers in the history of the sport highlighted Friday night's induction of the Class of 2017 into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Not only did the emotional proceedings usher one of NASCAR's first car owners, Raymond Parks, into the Hall. Also recognized were the ongoing accomplishments of owners Richard Childress and Rick Hendrick whose efforts have helped to produce a pair of seven-time champions.
Friday night also brought the induction of driver Mark Martin, who won 40 races in the NASCAR Cup Series, another 49 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and who finished second in the championship standings at NASCAR's highest level five times.
Perhaps the most gripping moment of the night was the enshrinement of 1973 Cup champion Benny Parsons, a man of indefatigable good humor who flourished after his driving career as one of the most beloved broadcasters the sport has known.
Parsons lost his life on Jan. 16, 2007, after a courageous battle against lung cancer.
Appropriately, Parks was first to be enshrined. Introduced by Kevin Harvick and inducted posthumously by family friend Kyle Petty, Parks was a close friend of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and a pillar of the sport in its formative years.
Born in the mountains of north Georgia, Parks shares "moonshine" roots with such NASCAR pioneers as Junior Johnson. Parks later grew successful jukebox and vending machine businesses in Atlanta before venturing into NASCAR ownership.
Parks won NASCAR's first two championships, in modifieds in 1948 and in Strictly Stock (NASCAR's top division) with Red Byron behind the wheel and Red Vogt as crew chief.
"He put his money where his mouth was, investing in our great pasttime as an owner," Harvick said. "The World War II veteran captured NASCAR's first premier series championship in 1949 and nearly 70 years later has earned the highest honor from the sport he always believed in."
"Without Raymond Parks, there would be no Richard Petty -- there’s nothing to build on," Kyle Petty said.
Introduced by fellow Michigander Brad Keselowski, Parsons won his only championship in 1973, an achievement that came during a string of nine straight years (1972-1980) in which Parsons finished in the top five in the final standings.
All told, Parsons won 21 races, including the 1975 Daytona 500, during a career whose hallmark was remarkable consistency. In 526 starts at NASCAR's highest level, Parsons finished in the top 10 283 times, an enviable 54 percent.
"He's from Detroit, and he came from being a Michigan taxi driver to a NASCAR champion," Keselowski said. "Think about that. That seems like the script from a Hollywood movie. But that is exactly what Benny Parsons accomplished in 1973."
Childress' grandsons, Austin and Ty Dillon -- both of whom are racing in the NASCAR Cup Series this year -- introduced their "Pop Pop," the car owner with whom inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class member Dale Earnhardt won six of his seven championships.
"My brother and I are so proud and honored to introduce Pop Pop," Austin Dillon said. "There are countless family stories I could share of his true grit, persistence, determination, and love for others."
Including Earnhardt's six, Childress has won 11 titles combined in NASCAR's top three touring series, second only to fellow inductee Hendrick's 15.
"I'm honored to go into the NASCAR Hall of Fame with my heroes," said Childress, who was inducted by his wife, Judy Childress. "Just look around this wall and look at the greats that we'll be going in the Hall of Fame with. Unbelievable. And to go in the Class of 2017 with so many great inductees is quite an honor."
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time titleholder Jeff Gordon did the introduction honors for Hendrick, their car owner.
"The stats speak for themselves: 15 national series championship, 245 Cup wins, certainly impressive numbers, but more important than the wins and the championships is the person behind them," Gordon said. "He's the most loyal man I know. He'll take the shirt right off his back for you. His accomplishments are endless, and his character is unrivaled."
Hendrick accepted induction from his wife, Linda Hendrick.
"I humbly accept this tonight, and all the drivers that have been involved in our company, all the mechanics, everybody that's ever been a part of it, I accept this on your behalf, past and present," Hendrick said. "I know my son (Ricky Hendrick, killed in a 2004 plane crash) is watching tonight, and he's so proud. Congratulations to Jimmie for winning No. 7, dedicating it to him ...
"But I can tell you that the feelings that I have for this sport and for all the people in it, all the sponsors -- and I've got so many here tonight I can't name them all, don't want to do that -- but it's your faith, it's your family and your friends that get you through life, and that's the most important thing. When it's all over, it's the people that you touch and the lives you change that make a difference in this world."
Introduced by former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth and inducted by team owner Jack Roush, Martin chronicled a career that began in 1981 and ended at Michael Waltrip Racing in 2013. In between, Martin finished second in the standings four times with Roush -- the first in 1990 -- and once with Hendrick, in 2009, during Johnson's run of five straight titles.
Martin won 96 races across all three NASCAR national touring series, currently seventh all time. He credited Roush with giving him a welcome opportunity to drive RFR Fords in 1988, after his career had stalled.
"He was hellbent and determined as I was to make a name for himself winning races and competing for championships at NASCAR's highest level," Martin said. "Jack Roush gave me that second chance."
During Friday night's ceremony, Martinsville Speedway founder H. Clay Earles was recognized with the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR. Opened in 1947, Martinsville is the only track to have hosted races at NASCAR's highest level in the sanctioning body's formation in 1949.
The late Benny Phillips, former reporter and sports editor for the High Point (N.C.) Enterprise, received the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence. Overcoming polio to pursue his career as a journalist, Phillips also wrote for Stock Car Racing magazine for 27 years and spent 12 years covering racing with TBS.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- Calling at least a temporary halt to a career he described as "living a dream," Carl Edwards confirmed Wednesday his decision to step away from driving race cars to pursue what he described as other adventures.
In a decision that shocked the NASCAR world, Edwards, 37, said he was leaving the Joe Gibbs Racing team and one of the best rides in stock car racing "because I've always followed my gut. All the signs point to this being the right thing to do."
Daniel Suarez will be elevated from the NASCAR Xfinity Series operation at JGR to replace Edwards in the No. 19 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Toyota.
Edwards would not rule out returning to racing in the future, but, during a 37-minute news conference in which he was near tears, he emphasized that many other things -- at this point not identified -- have his attention.
Edwards said he is satisfied with his driving career, which includes 28 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup victories and an Xfinity Series championship. He barely missed a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup title twice.
"This is an all-encompassing thing," he said. "It's full time. It's not just the physical time. I wake up in the morning thinking about racing, and I go to bed and I have dreams about racing.
"I've been doing this for 20 years. I need to take the time right now and devote it to people and things I'm really passionate about."
Edwards said he has had no discussions about driving for other teams.
"I'm not saying the 'R' (retirement) word, but if I get back in a race car I'm calling Coach Gibbs first," Edwards said. "There is no better race team, no better cars, no better teammates, no better crew.
"This is not a decision I made because I had something else lined up or the desire to line something else up. I am not entertaining and have not contemplated anything like that. Nothing."
Edwards leaves the sport as the winningest Monster Energy NASCAR Cup driver without a championship who will not be competing. He had a year left on his contract with the Gibbs team.
NASCAR chairman & CEO Brian France said Edwards "has made an indelible mark on NASCAR. His hard-charging driving style has led to memorable moments that will live forever in the history of our sport. Carl's passion and personality will greatly be missed, as will the signature backflips that NASCAR fans have come to expect following his victories. We wish Carl nothing but the best as he enters this next phase in life."
An accomplished pilot and owner of a large farm in his home state of Missouri, Edwards listed those endeavors among his interests.
"I'm interested in a lot of aviation stuff, and the agriculture thing has been great," Edwards said. "But I love the sport. As much as I can, I'd like to be a part of it and be close to it. But there's nothing solid. I have enjoyed the broadcasting stuff. That could be something that's neat.
"But I want to be able to spend time on things outside the sport that are important to me. I think it's the right thing to do."
Edwards has worked several race telecasts as an analyst or pit-road reporter.
Gibbs said Edwards' decision was a shocker.
"When he sat down in front of me and shared what he was thinking, I was totally surprised," Gibbs said. "I said, 'This is a huge decision. Let's spend some time thinking about this.' We took four days and got hooked up again on the phone, and I could tell that he was really committed to stepping away from racing."
Gibbs said he hopes Edwards will retain a relationship with his team and possibly assist in the Suarez transition.
There has been speculation that Edwards might have a future in politics.
"I do have really strong feelings about our country and what America is about and the principles that keep us free and safe from the biggest risks in history," Edwards said. "I don't know. I'm not prepared right now to participate, but I'm very open to helping that cause and liberty and freedom and what America is about."
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- The phone call interrupted Daniel Suarez's lunch. He didn't mind.
Team owner Joe Gibbs was calling with the surprising news that Suarez, winner of the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship last season, would be promoted to drive the team's No. 19 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Toyota in 2017 as a replacement for Carl Edwards.
Edwards had told Gibbs about his decision to leave racing during the Christmas holidays.
"I was having lunch with my girlfriend and her family," Suarez said Wednesday during a press conference announcing his new ride. "I had to jump out and answer the call, and I never came back after 40 minutes. When I came back Sylvia and her parents were asking what was going on because I came back with a smile like this."
Suarez, 25, moves into a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup ride that is among the best in the garage.
"It came a little sooner than we expected, but we're ready to go on," the NASCAR Next alumnus said. "When you are with the right team, you know the opportunity will come. It will come at the right time. I have learned a lot in the Xfinity Series. I had an amazing team in 2016.
"I feel like everything that happened in 2016 in Xfinity helped me a lot to be ready for this opportunity. I feel like this will be a dream come true. Since I was 16, this has been something I've been dreaming about. To be here is something amazing."
Gibbs called Suarez "the obvious choice" to replace Edwards. "He had an unbelievable year in Xfinity. We've been around Daniel for 2 1/2 years, and we think he's ready to go."
The Suarez move will establish a bit of history as the Mexican-born driver plants that country's flag full-time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. He started racing on Mexican short tracks and, with the support of a stream of Mexican sponsors and eventual involvement in the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, established himself as a potential star in higher series.
"A lot of people in Mexico saw me grow slowly when I was having a hard time speaking English and having a hard time finding sponsors to race," Suarez said. "It's very cool to be in this position. They are still supporting me in everything I race."
The No. 19 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team will remain intact, with highly respected veteran Dave Rogers continuing as crew chief.
"It won't be easy and we have a lot to work to do and a lot to learn, but I feel like it's the perfect place to be for a rookie like me," Suarez said.
Suarez was scheduled to run another full season in the Xfinity Series. Gibbs said plans are unsettled for the No. 19 Xfinity car, but that Suarez probably will run about 10 races and that the team's other Monster Energy NASCAR Cup drivers -- Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin -- might drive in a few events.
Suarez joins a stout class of Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders that includes 2015 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Erik Jones and four-time national series race winner Ty Dillon.
"I'm stepping away from full-time driving in the Cup Series. ... I don't have any intention of going back to full-time racing," Edwards said at a press conference at JGR's headquarters in Huntersville, N.C.
The 37-year-old Edwards, who spent the last two years at JGR and had one year remaining on his contract, did not use the word "retirement."
"I'm not using the 'R' word," Edwards said, possibly leaving the door open for a return to JGR. "I want to spend time outside the sport on things that are important for me. ... I really believe it's the right thing. It's a personal thing."
"Life's short. You've got to do what your gut tells you. ... There's no life raft I'm jumping on. I'm just jumping. And in a way that makes it easier."
Edwards will be replaced by Daniel Suarez, the reigning NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, in the No. 19 JGR Toyota Camry for the season. He is the first full-time Mexican-born driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Edwards won three races in 2016 and finished fourth in the Sprint Cup standings. He led the championship contenders at Homestead-Miami Speedway with 10 laps to go before a crash knocked him out of contention.
In his 13 years in the Cup Series, Edwards twice finished second in points, including a tie with Tony Stewart in 2011. Stewart was awarded the NASCAR championship that year by virtue of the fact that he had more race victories. Edwards had 28 race victories, 22 poles, 124 top fives and 220 top 10s in 445 starts over his Cup career.
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France issued a statement after Edwards' announcement.
"Carl Edwards has made an indelible mark on NASCAR," France said. "His hard-charging driving style has led to memorable moments that will live forever in the history of our sport. Carl's passion and personality will greatly be missed -- as will the signature backflips that NASCAR fans have come to expect following his victories. We wish Carl nothing but the best as he enters this next phase in life."
No reason was given for the 37-year-old Edwards' decision to retire, sources told ESPN. Edwards has 28 wins in 445 career starts over his 13 years in the Cup Series.
Mexican Daniel Suarez will be named Edwards' replacement at Joe Gibbs Racing, per ESPN.
Edwards won three races in 2016 and finished fourth in the Sprint Cup standings. He led the championship contenders at Homestead-Miami Speedway with 10 laps to go before a crash with Joey Logano knocked him out of contention.
Edwards debuted at the 2002 Charter Pipeline 250, now the 5-Hour Energy 250. He was named the NASCAR Busch Series Rookie of the Year in 2005 and was the Busch Series Champion in 2007.
He accrued 223 top-ten finishes and 22 poles throughout his career.
"Happily married!!! What an amazing experience. Looking forward to the rest of our lives @Amy_Reimann. #honeymooners," the 42-year-old Earnhardt tweeted early Sunday morning.
Earnhardt and Reimann had dated since 2009 and got engaged in June 2015 while on vacation in Germany.
Reimann changed her last name to Earnhardt on Twitter, writing with a sense of humor: "I sure wish my husband would wake up! @DaleJr."
The wedding took place in North Carolina at Childress Vineyards, owned by NASCAR race team owner Richard Childress.
Drivers Danica Patrick, Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. were among those in attendance. Patrick posted on Instagram that she caught the bouquet.
Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season because of a concussion suffered in a crash at Michigan, but he has been medically cleared to resume NASCAR competition. He will return to the wheel of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports at the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
Combining a history that stretches more than 65 years with a future infused with a new premier series entitlement sponsor and a next generation of stars, NASCAR unveiled a new brand identity Monday via its social and digital media platforms.
In addition, NASCAR also unveiled the mark and name for its premier series, which will become the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series beginning in 2017.
The new brand identity -- which replaces the familiar bar mark that had been in place since 1976 -- uses the colors and feel of past marks, while modernizing it to fit with the new era the sanctioning body enters in 2017.
NASCAR began the process of designing a new mark early in 2016. It becomes the fifth mark in NASCAR history.
"Our new NASCAR mark is modern, timeless, and embraces the heritage of our sport," said Jill Gregory, NASCAR senior vice president and chief marketing officer. "It was important for us to recognize our history and implement a piece of each previous mark in the new design. Our goal was to evolve the sport's visual identity to make it concise, relevant and functional, while respecting and maintaining the unique qualities of the original mark."
The new mark incorporates pieces of each of NASCAR's previous marks, including the red, yellow and blue coloring from the first three marks, respectively, and the "racing bars" that accompany the acronym "NASCAR" from the prior iteration.
Monday's announcement also ended the wait for the highly anticipated name of NASCAR's premier series. NASCAR and Monster Energy announced a multi-year partnership on Dec. 1 in Las Vegas, one that made Monster Energy the entitlement sponsor of NASCAR's top series, the title sponsor of the NASCAR All-Star Race and the Official Energy Drink of NASCAR.
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Dale Earnhardt Jr. left Wednesday's test session at Darlington Raceway feeling strong and more confident than ever.
Just as important, he left Darlington with a clean bill of health and clearance to return to competition at NASCAR's highest level.
"I definitely feel recharged and energized about getting back in the car," Earnhardt said Friday during a conference call with reporters. "I felt like, throughout the day, I got more and more comfortable in the car. It felt like an old shoe by the end of the day."
The "old shoe" in question is the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports, which Earnhardt will race next in the 2017 season-opening Daytona 500. The sport's most popular driver, named as such for the 14th straight year during the recent Champion's Week in Las Vegas, missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion.
For team owner Rick Hendrick, the holiday season couldn't be any better -- bringing a record-tying seventh series championship for Jimmie Johnson and medical clearance for Earnhardt.
"We're as big a fan of Dale's as the rest of the community," said Hendrick, who also participated in the conference call. "He's a big spark plug for this place, and having him out of the car kind of deflates this place."
Dr. Micky Collins of Pittsburgh, Pa., who designed the regimen for Earnhardt's recovery, cleared the driver to race on Wednesday after the Darlington test, in consultation with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, who attended the test and observed Earnhardt's performance.
"Dr. Petty was evaluating me after each run to see if everything was good," Earnhardt said. "A lot of the things he was checking -- visual and balance and so forth -- strengthened throughout the process."
NASCAR also observed the test, which totaled 185 laps over a five-hour period, with Earnhardt initially running stints of roughly 15 laps before changing tires.
"As soon as I got out there, after about three laps, it came right back," said Earnhardt, who also was pleased with the speed in the car provided by his crew chief, Greg Ives.
Earnhardt's choice to return to action in the Daytona 500 is in essence a reward for driver Alex Bowman, who performed brilliantly in Earnhardt's absence, winning a pole at Phoenix. Earnhardt feels strongly that Bowman should drive the No. 88 Chevy in The Clash, the exhibition race that opens the season at Daytona.
"I was at Phoenix, standing on pit road on Friday when Alex got the pole, and my first reaction -- and the first words out of my mouth -- were that Alex gets to run in The Clash," Earnhardt said. "I turned to (HMS general manager) Doug Duchardt and said, 'He should drive the 88.' He earned it with the 88 guys, and he's done a great job as a substitute.
"I really have a great friendship with Alex, and I felt like, if he was going to be in that race, he deserved to be in that car."
But the real treat for NASCAR fans will come when Earnhardt himself gets behind the wheel for the Great American Race.
"Dale being back in the car and Jimmie's championship -- it's going to be a really nice Christmas here for all of us," Hendrick said.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- If Jimmie Johnson's stature as an athlete has grown since he won a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship on Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he hasn't noticed a difference in the way he has been perceived.
But as far as recognition goes, that's an entirely different matter.
"I feel like I've been recognized far more," Johnson told the NASCAR Wire Service after the Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon at the Wynn Las Vegas. "Maybe it's because of the championship and people going out of their way to be friendly and congratulate me...
"In two weeks' time, I feel like there's been a change in awareness of who I am, which is pretty amazing."
A change in attitude toward the Hendrick Motorsports driver started even before the Championship 4 race at Homestead-Miami. As Johnson rode around the track and waved to fans during pre-race ceremonies, he noticed a preponderance of seven-finger salutes in the grandstands--highlighting the number of championships he ultimately achieved.
"I'm very aware of (Dale) Earnhardt's quote from way back, 'As long as they're making noise, you're doing something right. I've said that in my mind many times."
In less than three months, Johnson will begin his quest for an unprecedented eighth championship, but that doesn't mean he'll stop enjoying No. 7.
"I'll enjoy this forever," he said. "Even if '8' happens--and even if it doesn't--this is such a big moment for me."
No regrets for championship runner-up Logano
Joey Logano bulled his way into the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami with a dramatic victory at Phoenix.
A week later, at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he finished fourth in the season finale and second to Jimmie Johnson in the Championship standings.
Though he was disappointed with the second-place trophy, Logano has no regrets.
"You can look at it 6,000 different ways, but the one thing I took out of it is that we did a good job," Logano said. "Our team was well-prepared to go down there with a good race car. Our pit crew was on it all the way through these 10 races. They showed that this whole team really is better under pressure, and that's something I'm very proud of, because that will pay big dividends down the road.
"And we executed. We did everything we could do. We put ourselves in position to make it happen, and we just came up a little bit short. You can look at the circumstances a lot of different ways, but there's no regrets. That was the biggest thing I was talking about before we went down there.
"I just want to make sure we've crossed every 'T' and dotted every 'I' and that, as a driver, I have thought of everything, so when I'm done with my career I can say, 'There's no regrets--I tried everything,' and I honestly feel like we did."
Notable quotes from Myers Brothers Awards luncheon
"My mom would be so honored with this award. ... It touches my heart to look back and realize she's left such a legacy," -- International Speedway Corporation CEO Lesa France Kennedy, accepting the prestigious Myers Brothers Award on behalf of her late mother, Betty Jane France.
"This team knows one thing--winning. They're the best at it, maybe the best we've ever had." -- Myers Brothers host Mike Joy of Fox Sports, speaking to Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team.
"'Unscripted'--yeah. I didn't know I'd be up here accepting any awards. I thought I was just here for lunch." -- Kyle Busch, reading the single word from the teleprompter after receiving the Sherwin-Williams Fastest-Lap Award, the Duralast Brakes Brake in the Race Award and Exxon Mobil Driver of the Year Award.
"This has been a wild ride... I dreamed big, but I overshot those expectations." -- Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, accepting the Goodyear Gold Car Award.
"Petty, Earnhardt and Johnson--that has a pretty nice ring to it, don't you think? Keep evolving, and we'll be back here next year, celebrating No. 8." -- Robert Niblock, CEO of sponsor Lowe's on the ability of Johnson and his team to adapt to changing championship formats.
"I normally don't like surprises, but this is a really big deal, and we'll make an exception for this." -- Roush Fenway Racing team owner Jack Roush, accepting the Federal Mogul Buddy Shuman Award.
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
LAS VEGAS -- NASCAR announced on Thursday a multi-year deal that will make Monster Energy only the third entitlement sponsor in premier series history.
The length and terms of the deal were not disclosed, but both parties hailed the partnership as the perfect fit for both brands.
"Monster Energy is a brand built on excitement and enthusiasm, qualities that align with NASCAR," said Brian France, NASCAR Chairman and CEO. "This sponsorship position is the most unique in all of sports and entertainment, and we are thrilled to have a partner that will help us further elevate the series. Today's announcement is the culmination of a thorough search, one that resulted in the right partner at this important time in our sport's history."
Monster Energy has existing sponsorships with a number of motorsports sanctioning bodies, athletes and teams, but the NASCAR deal signals the biggest sponsorship step in the company's history.
"Monster has built its brand on racing and motorsports, and NASCAR is the pinnacle of motorsports in America," said Mitch Covington, vice president of sports marketing at Monster Beverage Company. "It's American racing, we're an American brand that's a global company, and NASCAR is too. When the opportunity came along to further associate yourself with a sport like NASCAR, it was the perfect fit for us. ... NASCAR is just a hard-hitting, close racing, fun property to be associated with."
Along with naming rights to NASCAR's top series, Monster Energy will also hold race sponsorship to the NASCAR All-Star Race and become the Official Energy Drink of NASCAR. Monster Energy also said it will continue to sponsor Stewart-Haas Racing's No. 41 car.
Thursday's announcement is the culmination of a lengthy and thorough search by NASCAR to find the successor to Sprint, whose entitlement sponsorship will end on December 31, 2016.
Steve Phelps, NASCAR executive vice president and chief global sales and marketing officer, said that the sanctioning body spoke with numerous companies throughout the process, ultimately choosing Monster Energy for a number of reasons, not the least of which was its lifestyle culture.
"We have the good fortune of finding a brand that we believe works for our sport," Phelps said. "They're going to bring their lifestyle to their activation. ... They're going to bring their brand, their excitement, their energy to this partnership and the fans are going to be the winners. It's all about engaging the fans and having the fans have unique, fun experiences whether at the racetrack or through different mediums, through social, digital, content."
Phelps said a number of ancillary details will be announced in the coming weeks. Among those still under discussion is the name of the series, the series mark and the championship trophy.
Under the agreement, energy drink sponsors already involved in NASCAR may remain in place. Potential sponsors from the energy drink category will not be eligible for future sponsorship if not already involved in the sport.
Perhaps the more appropriate question concerns a possible eighth championship. If Johnson, still in his prime at age 41, were to break a tie for the most titles with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, would that make him the best of them all?
The scope of the discussion should also include Junior Johnson -- who entered the NASCAR Hall of Fame with Petty and Earnhardt as a member of the inaugural class -- and David Pearson, whose 105 career victories are second only to Petty's 200.
Junior Johnson was dominant in the 1950s and early 1960s when it came to victories but also chose an approach focused on winning or blowing up. He never competed for a full season, virtually thumbing his nose at the points championship. Pearson, who won the championship three of the four years he ran a full schedule, eventually moved to a selected schedule of speedway races with the Wood Brothers.
For my money, Pearson was the best pure driver on the track. He was smooth, conserved his equipment and raced hard when it counted. In an era of danger from fire or crashes in relatively simple tube-frame cars, he never once went to a hospital after a race. Of these five greats, Pearson leads them all in winning percentage (18.2), average start (6.2) and average finish (11.0).
After 15 seasons, Jimmie Johnson has a winning percentage (14.7) that is ahead of only Earnhardt, an average finish (12.1) that is ahead of only Junior Johnson and an average start (11.1) that is only ahead of Earnhardt and trails considerably to Pearson's amazing 6.2 average. On statistics alone, Jimmie Johnson is not the best pure driver.
Given his number of starts, Petty deserves a nod as the best when it comes to winning. In 1,185 starts, Petty had a very stout winning percentage of 16.8, second only to that of Pearson.
There are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics, according to Mark Twain and the purists, who prefer looking at eras instead statistics. The era approach can be an easy out for avoiding a final decision, often a route chosen by pundits who once participated in the sport. But it is possible to compare eras just like statistics.
The best case against statistics alone is Earnhardt, who is ahead of only Junior Johnson when it comes to career victories (he had 76) and trails badly when it comes to winning percentage (11.2). But Earnhardt's impact on the sport was huge. His divide-and-conquer style when it came to fan appreciation was unlike that of Petty, who always had a rival, particularly Pearson, but rarely fanned the flames like Earnhardt.
Earnhardt introduced a whole new era of speedway racing that included close quarters and inevitable contact. It was a close-quarter style that demanded utmost skill and is still prevalent among the current generation -- although drivers are far more careful than Earnhardt to avoid contact. The fact Earnhardt died while defending his racing creed, sadly, elevates his status considerably.
If the humble, smiling "King" Richard brought NASCAR out of the backwoods -- the same backwoods where Junior Johnson became Tom Wolfe's "Last American Hero" -- it was Earnhardt who took the sport to major league status and the six-year $2.4 billion TV contract that began the year he died in 2001.
We are most certainly currently watching the Jimmie Johnson era. If Johnson is to be considered the greatest in terms of eras and not just the statistics that now include seven championships, his status has to be reckoned according to the impact he's had during his era.
The Earnhardt years have been tough to follow, witness Johnson's perennial also-ran status in the Most Popular Driver voting won each year by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is still working on his first championship. (His father, of course, routinely lost this vote to Bill Elliott.) Unlike his teammate Jeff Gordon, who beat Earnhardt to the title three times, Johnson did not have the opportunity to beat The Intimidator to the championship, which might have helped him in the eyes of fans.
What made the Earnhardt era so great were the T-shirts that read: "Anybody But Earnhardt." Fans came in droves to either see him win or to see another driver beat him. By that criteria, Johnson has achieved a certain measure of success. He has a solid fan following and most of the rest in the grandstands don't enjoy seeing him win. With a driving style far more reminiscent of Pearson than any other driver, Johnson doesn't fan flames or excite passion due to his smoothness -- on and off the track. Maybe he's just too smooth.
I would argue that watching Jimmie Johnson race is often worth the price of admission. You'll always see him make his trademark move. There's not any one thing he does, but he will size up and pass a driver quicker than anybody in the business without putting himself at risk (see Kyle Busch) and generally not the other driver. The fact Johnson won his seventh title at the Homestead-Miami Speedway after starting last in the field was not a surprise -- although there was certainly some luck to the surprise ending.
Johnson has won all his titles in the Chase era, which is the most decisive element of his reign and the one point of comparison many fans hold against him. But the other key element has been the TV money. The billions have been a rising tide that has produced the most competitive fields in NASCAR history. Throughout the first five decades of NASCAR, generally there were only six or seven other drivers who could be counted on to be competitive each weekend. Currently, there are 13 alone from the teams of Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing.
The Chase format calls for drivers and teams to perform at their best when the chips are on the line. Nobody remembers the winning percentage of the NFL's Super Bowl winners, rather that they won in the playoffs. Johnson has mastered that approach in an era where only Tony Stewart among his contemporaries has been able to win the Chase more than once.
One can argue that the Chase is more about luck than skill and less about long run consistency. But Johnson's record suggests otherwise. Given the current level of competition, if he wins an eighth title it would be difficult not to consider Johnson, who narrowly missed winning in the first year of the Chase, the finest driver of them all, whatever his popularity or impact on the sport.
Then again, during the era of Junior Johnson, Petty and Pearson, winning the biggest races that paid the most money was the focus and the championship an afterthought before sponsorship money from the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company made the title far more lucrative.
If nothing else, Jimmie Johnson is no doubt the greatest of his generation when the most money and prestige are on the line, which keeps him in the running for the greatest of all time with more than a few seasons remaining in his career.
TV: Sunday, Nov. 27, 8 a.m. ET - NBC.
THEN AND NOW: This is the final race of all major motorsport series for 2016. ... Nico Rosberg comes into Sunday's race with a 12-point lead over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton. They are the only two drivers remaining in contention for the F1 championship. ... Hamilton has won the last two F1 championships (as well as in 2008), while Rosberg has finished second to Hamilton in 2014 and 2015. Not only does Rosberg hold a slight edge over his teammate in the standings, he's also won the last three races this season. ... Rosberg also won last year's race at Abu Dhabi. The German driver is the odds-on favorite to win the F1 championship for the first time in his career. ... Also, this will be the last race with Force India for Nico Hulkenberg. He moves to race for Team Renault in 2017.
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES: Season has concluded.
2016 SEASON WRAPUP:
Here is how the 16 Chase drivers ultimately finished: Champion Jimmie Johnson, second through fourth were Championship 4 finalists Joey Logano, 2015 champ Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards. Fifth through 10th were Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, 2014 champion Kevin Harvick, Kyle Larson and rookie of the year Chase Elliott. Eleventh through 16th were Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, retiring three-time champ Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher. ... By winning both the race and the championship Sunday, Johnson tied NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most championships by a driver (seven apiece). ... Greg Biffle announced Monday that he is leaving Roush Fenway Racing after 15 seasons. Biffle said he has talked to several teams about racing in 2017, but has no definite plans set yet. He turns 47 in December. ... The 10 race winners in this year's Chase were Martin Truex Jr. (Chicagoland and Dover), Kevin Harvick (New Hampshire and Kansas), Jimmie Johnson (Charlotte, Martinsville and Homestead-Miami), Joey Logano (Talladega and Phoenix) and Carl Edwards (Texas). ... A total of 13 different drivers won at least one of this season's 36 races: Jimmie Johnson (5), Brad Keselowski (4 wins), Kyle Busch (4), Martin Truex Jr. (4), Kevin Harvick (4), Denny Hamlin (3), Carl Edwards (3), Joey Logano (3) Matt Kenseth (2), and one win each by Kurt Busch, Tony Stewart, Chris Buescher and Kyle Larson.
NASCAR XFINITY SERIES: Season has concluded.
2016 SEASON WRAPUP:
This year's champion is Daniel Suarez, the first international-born driver to win a major NASCAR series championship. Suarez, 24, is from Mexico and just completed his second season in the Xfinity Series, driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Suarez is also the first winner of the inaugural Xfinity Series Chase for the Championship elimination format that was implemented this season. ... Elliott Sadler finished second, followed by JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier and JGR driver Erik Jones, who won the 2015 Camping World Truck Series championship but fell short of winning two different titles in a row. ... The rest of the 12 drivers who were in the Chase were, from fifth to 12th, Ty Dillon, Ryan Reed, Blake Koch, Brennan Poole, Ryan Sieg, Brandon Jones, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Brendan Gaughan. ... Winners in the Chase thus far have been Elliott Sadler (Kentucky), Daniel Suarez (Dover and Homestead-Miami), Joey Logano (Charlotte), Kyle Busch (Kansas and Phoenix) and Kyle Larson (Texas). ... Winners of the 33 Xfinity Series races this season have been Chase Elliott (Daytona), Kyle Busch (Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Texas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Indianapolis, Richmond, Kansas and Phoenix), Austin Dillon (Fontana, Bristol), Erik Jones (Bristol, Dover, Iowa and Chicago), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Richmond), Elliott Sadler (Talladega, Darlington and Kentucky), Denny Hamlin (Charlotte), Kyle Larson (Pocono and Texas), Daniel Suarez (Michigan, Dover and Michigan), Sam Hornish Jr. (Iowa), Aric Almirola (Daytona), Joey Logano (Watkins Glen and Charlotte), Justin Marks (Mid-Ohio) and Michael McDowell (Road America).
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES: Series has concluded.
2016 SEASON WRAPUP:
Johnny Sauter captured his first career Truck Series championship last Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Two-time series champ Matt Crafton finished second, followed by Christopher Bell and Timothy Peters. The other four drivers who made the inaugural Truck Series Chase but finished fifth through eighth were William Byron, Daniel Hemric, Ben Kennedy and John Hunter Nemechek. ... The winners of the seven Chase races were William Byron (New Hampshire), Tyler Reddick (Las Vegas), Grant Enfinger (Talladega), Johnny Sauter (Martinsville and Texas), Daniel Suarez and Sauter. ... There have been 12 winners thus far this season: Johnny Sauter (Daytona, Martinsville, Texas and Homestead-Miami), John Hunter Nemechek (Atlanta, Canada), Kyle Busch (Martinsville, Chicagoland), William Byron (Kansas, Michigan, Iowa, Kentucky, Pocono and New Hampshire), Matt Crafton (Dover, Charlotte), Christopher Bell (Gateway), Kyle Larson (Eldora), Ben Kennedy (Bristol), Brett Moffitt (Michigan), Tyler Reddick (Las Vegas), Grant Enfinger (Talladega) and Daniel Suarez (Phoenix).
VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES: 2016 season has concluded.
2016 SEASON WRAPUP:
Simon Pagenaud won the championship in dominating style, with the remaining nine drivers being Will Power, Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden, Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya and Charlie Kimball (tied for eighth) and Carlos Munoz. ... The 2017 season begins March 12 with the Firestone Grand Prix in St. Petersburg, Fla.
NATIONAL HOT ROD ASSOCIATION, MELLO YELLO DRAG RACING SERIES: Season has concluded.
2016 SEASON WRAPUP:
The 2016 champions in the four major professional classes are Antron Brown (second consecutive Top Fuel title and third in last five seasons), Ron Capps (first career Funny Car title after 20 years of competition), Jason Line (third career Pro Stock crown) and Jerry Savoie (first career Pro Stock Motorcycle championship). ... Here is the top-10 final standings in each of the four major pro classes: TOP FUEL: 1. Antron Brown; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. J.R. Todd; 5. Shawn Langdon; 6. Brittany Force; 7. Leah Pritchett; 8. Tony Schumacher; 9. Richie Crampton; 10. Clay Millican. FUNNY CAR: 1. Ron Capps; 2. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 3. Matt Hagan; 4. John Force; 5. Jack Beckman; 6. Courtney Force; 7. Del Worsham; 8. Robert Hight; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Alexis DeJoria. PRO STOCK: 1. Jason Line; 2. Greg Anderson; 3. Shane Gray; 4. Bo Butner; 5. Vincent Nobile; 6. Drew Skillman; 7. Chris McGaha; 8. Allen Johnson; 9. Erica Enders; 10. Jeg Coughlin. PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Andrew Hines; 4. Angelle Sampey; 5. Chip Ellis; 6. Matt Smith; 7. LE Tonglet IV; 8. Hector Arana Jr.; 9. Cory Reed; 10. Hector Arana. ... The 2017 NHRA season begins Feb. 9-12 in the Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California. ... 2015 Funny Car champ Del Worsham announced Tuesday that he will be leaving Kalitta Motorsports and return to his family team for 2017. There is no word yet on Worsham's replacement. Primary sponsor DHL has said it will remain with Kalitta Motorsports for 2017.
Distributed By The Sports Xchange
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- All Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus wanted was another shot, and when Dylan Lupton hit the Turn 2 wall on Lap 252 to bring out the fifth caution of Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400, Knaus clenched his fist in anticipation.
At the time, Johnson was running sixth, trailing the three Championship 4 drivers--Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards--he needed to beat to claim a record-tying seventh title. But the caution with 15 laps left in the scheduled distance breathed life into the No. 48 team.
Three restarts later, Johnson passed Kyle Larson for the victory and earned his seventh championship, tying NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the series record.
Knaus tied a record, too, winning a seventh title with the same driver. Knaus, however, has one championship to go to tie Dale Inman for the series record. Inman won seven championships with Petty and another with driver Terry Labonte.
"I'm pretty speechless right now," Knaus said after the race. "It has been an awesome, awesome journey, but it has been a very trying season. We've had a lot of good things. We've had some difficulties along the way. But to be able to be where we are at today with Lowe's, one team, one driver, one crew chief, one sponsor...to be able to win all seven championships is just awesome.
"I can't thank everyone at Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet enough. All of our other corporate partners. The guys and gals at HMS have buckled down and worked so hard to be able to give us the race cars we needed to have to be able to compete. It definitely showed. That we got three wins in the second half of the season is pretty phenomenal."
One of the hallmarks of the No. 48 team has been its ability to recover from adversity, and Sunday night was no exception. Johnson started the race from the rear of the field after NASCAR discovered unapproved modifications to the "A" posts during pre-race inspection.
"It happens," Knaus said with typical terseness. "We rectified it. We moved on. We started 40th and won the race and won the championship."
Stewart finishes his long goodbye to Sprint Cup racing
Sunday started better for Tony Stewart than it ended.
Before the Ford EcoBoost 400, Stewart was greeted warmly by crew members from every Sprint Cup team as he drove down pit road. He was mobbed by well-wishers before he started his final laps on the track.
That Stewart finished 22nd, two laps down, may have been anti-climactic to the uninitiated, but it marked the end of an enormously successful career for the three-time series champion, who finished his Sprint Cup tenure with 49 victories at NASCAR's highest level.
"I raced," Stewart said. "I did what I do every time I get in the car. I didn't think of anything else other than just racing the race. We got behind there, and we tried something to make ground and got caught out and had to run 60 laps on a set of tires."
Stewart derived more enjoyment from seeing Jimmie Johnson win his record-tying seventh championship.
"I'm proud," Stewart said. "It's been an awesome 21 years racing in NASCAR with the XFINITY Series and the Cup Series. That's really cool to see that No. 48 (Johnson) up there making history. Now we've got three guys in the seven-win club. Pretty proud day. I was glad I got to race with him on the day he got his seventh."
Kyle Larson is snookered on final restart
Kyle Larson led 132 of 168 laps in Sunday's Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but he didn't lead the one that counted.
And though Larson didn't begrudge Johnson's seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, Larson felt Johnson gained an edge by laying back on the overtime restart that decided the race.
"Congrats to Jimmie for winning the championship," Larson said. "That's pretty cool that Jimmie could win seven there. We had the car to win there, and I know that I did everything in my power to win the race. But rules are rules and I have to work in the box."
"You're supposed to be side-by-side entering the (restart) box, and he was all the way behind me. So not really anything I could do to maintain his distance behind me. But it's whatever--I'm happy for him."
Larson wasn't wrong. Knowing other championship contenders would also try to lay back behind him, Johnson admitted he did the same--just not enough for NASCAR to call him on it.
Sunday, November 20, 2016
1. (14) Jimmie Johnson (C), Chevrolet, 268.
2. (24) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 268.
3. (1) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 268.
4. (13) Joey Logano (C), Ford, 268.
5. (15) Jamie McMurray, Chevrolet, 268.
6. (9) Kyle Busch (C), Toyota, 268.
7. (7) Matt Kenseth, Toyota, 268.
8. (12) AJ Allmendinger, Chevrolet, 268.
9. (4) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 268.
10. (26) Michael McDowell, Chevrolet, 268.
11. (5) Chase Elliott #, Chevrolet, 268.
12. (17) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 268.
13. (16) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 268.
14. (28) Paul Menard, Chevrolet, 268.
15. (22) Brian Scott #, Ford, 268.
16. (19) Alex Bowman(i), Chevrolet, 268.
17. (21) Greg Biffle, Ford, 267.
18. (23) Casey Mears, Chevrolet, 267.
19. (30) Danica Patrick, Chevrolet, 266.
20. (20) Trevor Bayne, Ford, 266.
21. (32) Landon Cassill, Ford, 266.
22. (11) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 266.
23. (33) Clint Bowyer, Chevrolet, 266.
24. (27) Chris Buescher #, Ford, 266.
25. (3) Ryan Newman, Chevrolet, Accident, 264.
26. (8) * Ryan Blaney #, Ford, 264.
27. (31) * Matt DiBenedetto(i), Toyota, 264.
28. (40) Michael Annett, Chevrolet, 264.
29. (36) David Ragan, Toyota, 264.
30. (18) Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ford, Accident, 262.
31. (38) Jeffrey Earnhardt #, Toyota, 261.
32. (37) * Reed Sorenson, Toyota, 259.
33. (34) Ty Dillon(i), Chevrolet, Accident, 258.
34. (10) Carl Edwards (C), Toyota, Accident, 257.
35. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, Accident, 257.
36. (6) Martin Truex Jr., Toyota, Accident, 257.
37. (29) Kasey Kahne, Chevrolet, Accident, 257.
38. (35) * Regan Smith, Chevrolet, Accident, 255.
39. (39) Dylan Lupton(i), Ford, 250.
40. (25) Aric Almirola, Ford, 213.
Average Speed of Race Winner: 128.869 mph.
Time of Race: 3 Hrs, 07 Mins, 10 Secs. Margin of Victory: 0.466 Seconds.
Caution Flags: 7 for 33 laps.
Lead Changes: 20 among 6 drivers.
Lap Leaders: K. Harvick 1-31; C. Edwards (C) 32-34; K. Harvick 35-67; C. Edwards (C) 68-70; K. Harvick 71-85; J. Logano (C) 86-91; C. Edwards (C) 92-117; K. Larson 118-121; C. Edwards (C) 122-125; K. Larson 126-135; C. Edwards (C) 136-143; K. Larson 144-154; C. Edwards (C) 155; K. Larson 156-172; C. Edwards (C) 173; K. Larson 174-208; C. Edwards (C) 209; K. Larson 210-253; K. Busch (C) 254; K. Larson 255-265; J. Johnson (C) 266-268.
Leaders Summary (Driver, Times Lead, Laps Led): K. Larson 7 times for 132 laps; K. Harvick 3 times for 79 laps; C. Edwards (C) 8 times for 47 laps; J. Logano (C) 1 time for 6 laps; J. Johnson (C) 1 time for 3 laps; K. Busch (C) 1 time for 1 lap.
Top 16 in Points: J. Johnson (C) -- 5,040; J. Logano (C) -- 5,037; K. Busch (C) -- 5,035; C. Edwards (C) -- 5,007; M. Kenseth -- 2,330; D. Hamlin -- 2,320; K. Busch -- 2,296; K. Harvick -- 2,289; K. Larson -- 2,288; C. Elliott # -- 2,285; M. Truex Jr. -- 2,271; B. Keselowski -- 2,267; J. McMurray -- 2,231; A. Dillon -- 2,223; T. Stewart -- 2,211; C. Buescher # -- 2,169.