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Commentary

3 Reasons Why Dale Earnhardt Jr. Will Make the NASCAR Hall of Fame

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be at the NASCAR Hall of Fame this afternoon to unveil the throwback paint scheme he will race on the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend.

This year, of course, is Earnhardt’s final full-time season as a driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but you can bet his influence will be felt long after he steps out of the cockpit. You can also bet that he will be voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility.

Here are three reasons why:

The Numbers

Earnhardt has 26 Cup race victories, including a pair of Daytona 500 wins and a victory in the NASCAR All-Star Race. There is no driver who has won more races than Earnhardt and is eligible for the Hall who isn’t already in.

Earnhardt has the same number of victories as NASCAR Hall of Fame member Fred Lorenzen, and more than current Hall members Benny Parsons, Joey Weatherly, Terry Labonte and Curtis Turner. As a member of the Hall Voting Panel, I would have no hesitation whatsoever about voting Earnhardt in just for what he’s done on the track.

Off the Track

Earnhardt has been NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for the last 14 consecutive seasons. His fan base is by far the biggest in NASCAR and the most passionate, too. Earnhardt has used his popularity to engage those diehard fans through the savvy use of social media. From his weekly Dale Jr. Download podcast to his more than 2 million Twitter followers and his weekly Periscope race reviews, Earnhardt has been the gold standard of NASCAR social media.

If, as expected, Earnhardt winds up going into broadcasting after hanging up his driving gloves, he will follow in the footsteps of several NASCAR Hall of Fame members who have done likewise, including Ned and Dale Jarrett, Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace.

Team Owner

Earnhardt and sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller have built a championship-caliber NASCAR XFINITY Series team that continues to win races and run competitively. Since JR Motorsports was founded in 2004, the team has won 34 XFINITY races. Heading into this weekend, JR Motorsports drivers Elliott Sadler, William Byron and Justin Allgaier hold down the top three spots in the points. You can’t do better than that.

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NASCAR Cup Series

GALLERY: Playoff Picture After New Hampshire

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture took an interesting turn with Denny Hamlin’s victory in Sunday’s Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Hamlin, driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota, became the 12th different winner so far this season, although Joey Logano’s victory at Richmond Raceway doesn’t count in the playoff standings because of post-race inspection issues.

Following Sunday’s race, there are now just seven races left in the Cup regular season.  Once the regular season concludes, the 16-driver field will be set for NASCAR’s playoffs. Here are the 16 drivers who are currently playoff eligible.

Martin Truex Jr., 3 wins, 29 playoff points

Truex will have a huge advantage when the playoffs start because of the points he’s already amassed. And in the next seven races, the Furniture Row Racing driver could add a whole lot more.

Jimmie Johnson, 3 wins, 16 playoff points

The seven-time champion has had an up-and-down season, but we all know how good he is when the playoffs roll around. He is also one of just two drivers with three victories already in 2017.

Kyle Larson, 2 wins, 13 playoff points

In addition to his victories at Auto Club Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, Larson has an amazing seven runner-up finishes in just 19 races this season.

Brad Keselowski, 2 wins, 13 playoff points

Early in the season,  Keselowski and Team Penske were especially strong. In the last eight races, though, Keselowski has finished 31st or worse four times.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 2 wins, 10 playoff points

Is there a bigger surprise this year than Stenhouse earning his first two career Cup victories, both coming at restrictor-plate tracks? Stenhouse has helped make Roush Fenway Racing relevant again.

Kevin Harvick, 1 win, 8 playoff points

The 2014 series champion has had consistent speed virtually since the time he joined Stewart-Haas Racing, and the team seems to have done a good job adapting to the change to Fords.

Denny Hamlin, 1 win, 7 playoff points

Even without the New Hampshire win, Hamlin likely would have made the playoffs on points anyway. But his big victory on Sunday eliminates all doubt that he’ll race for a title.

Ryan Blaney, 1 win, 8 playoff points

A victory last month at Pocono means Blaney will make the playoffs in just his second full season and Wood Brothers Racing will be in for the first time ever.

Kurt Busch, 1 win, 5 playoff points

It’s been an odd year for Busch, who won his first Daytona 500 by leading only the final lap, but hasn’t earned any other playoff points since then.

Ryan Newman, 1 win, 5 playoff points

A savvy gamble on pit strategy at Phoenix Raceway broke a 127-race winless streak for Newman and a 112-race winless streak for Richard Childress Racing.

Austin Dillon,  1 win, 5 playoff points

Last year, Martin Truex Jr. won the Coca-Cola 600 by leading 392 of 400 laps. This year, Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 by leading only the final 2 laps.

Kyle Busch, 0 wins, 5 playoff points

As well as he’s run at times this season, it’s hard to believe Busch hasn’t won a race yet.

Chase Elliott, 0 wins, 2 playoff points

In his second year, Elliott has consistently finished well, but his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets seem to lack a little in speed.

Jamie McMurray, 0 wins, o playoff points

While McMurray has run well this season, his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kyle Larson has put up bigger numbers.

Clint Bowyer, 0 wins, o playoff points

One of three Stewart-Haas Racing drivers currently playoff eligible, Bowyer is looking for his first race win since Charlotte in the fall of 2012.

Matt Kenseth, o wins, 2 playoff points

The bad news for Kenseth is he’s the driver on the playoff bubble right now. The good news is he’s 52 points ahead of Joey Logano, who is the first driver outside looking in.

All photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017

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NASCAR Cup Series

SOCIALIZING: Tweets from New Hampshire

Denny Hamlin is headed to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs following his late-race charge to victory in Sunday’s Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

It was Hamlin’s 30th career Cup victory and the first of the season for both the driver and the Joe Gibbs Racing team. Here’s what the racers were saying on social media following the race.

 

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NASCAR Cup Series

GALLERY: Full Finishing Order for Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway

This first race of the second half of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is in the books, with Denny Hamlin scoring a huge victory in the Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

1. Denny Hamlin

It’s hard to believe that coming into New Hampshire, none of the four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers had won this year. Hamlin took care of that in a big way, winning his first race of the year and the 30thof his career.

2. Kyle Larson

After winning the pole on Friday, Larson’s time was disallowed when his car flunked post-qualifying inspection. Still, he earned his seventh runner-up finish of the year and his second in a row.

3. Martin Truex

All season long, Truex and his Furniture Row Racing Toyota team have been among the best in the field. He leads the series in playoff points with 29.

4. Matt Kenseth 

The 2003 champion won’t return to Joe Gibbs Racing next season, despite posting good numbers with the team. A two-tire gamble on the final pit stop didn’t work for him.

5. Kevin Harvick

The 2014 Cup champion once again had a strong Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

6. Daniel Suarez

The rookie driver from Mexico continues to impress, as he had another excellent finish.

7. Clint Bowyer

One of a handful of winless drivers in contention for a playoff spot, Bowyer would like a win to solidify his hopes. But a bad late-race pit stop cost him a couple of positions.

8. Kurt Busch

Since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Busch has just one top-five finish, although this was a decent outcome.

9. Brad Keselowski

The Penske Fords don’t quite seem to have the speed they did early in the season, when Keselowski won twice.

10. Jimmie Johnson

You can never count out the eight-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, but he had nothing on the race-winning Toyotas.

11. Chase Elliott 

Still looking for his first career Cup victory, Elliott should make it into the playoffs on points again this year.

12. Kyle Busch

It’s almost impossible to believe, but Busch has now gone an entire year without winning a Cup race. And he had two pit-road speed penalties that cost him dearly.

13. Danica Patrick

It’s been a disappointing season so far for Patrick, who continues to trail her Stewart-Haas Racing teammates. But she had a good run here.

14. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

At restrictor-plate tracks, Stenhouse has been gold, but Roush Fenway Racing has not done as well elsewhere.

15. Austin Dillon

Prior to the race, none of the Richard Childress Racing Chevrolets showed a lot of speed, so 15th wasn’t that bad, all things considered.

16. Ty Dillon

Just like other drivers with ties to Richard Childress Racing, Dillon struggled to get any speed out of his Germain Racing Chevrolet.

17. Jamie McMurray

Like his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Kyle Larson McMurray has shown speed throughout the season.

18. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In his final season, Earnhardt will have to win one of the next seven races if he hopes to run for a championship. A late-race decision not to pit for tires cost Earnhardt a good finish.

19. Ryan Blaney

This year, Blaney will be in NASCAR’s playoffs for the first time, where he’ll pilot the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford.

20. Trevor Bayne

Roush Fenway Racing has run much better as a unit this year, but at New Hampshire the team lacked speed.

21. AJ Allmendinger

Both JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolets lacked speed throughout the weekend.

22. Paul Menard

It wasn’t a great weekend for any of the Richard Childress Racing drivers.

23. Landon Cassill 

In 19 races this season, Cassill has just one DNF.  Cassill had a good finish this time.

24. Aric Almirola

This was Almirola’s first race in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford since breaking his back in a crash at Kansas in May.

25. Chris Buescher 

Like teammate AJ Allmendinger, Buescher had a somewhat disappointing weekend.

26. Michael McDowell 

One of the pleasant surprises of this season has been the performance of McDowell and his Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet.

27. Ryan Newman

That victory Newman got early in the season at Phoenix is looking bigger and bigger these days, as he got spun out here.

28. Kasey Kahne

One of the big names in the Silly Season rumor mill, Kahne hasn’t won a race since Atlanta in 2014 and after being fast early, he had a poor result here.

29. David Ragan

For the New Hampshire race, Ragan carried sponsorship from Overton’s, who was also the title sponsor of the race.

30. Matt DiBenedetto

At the Daytona 500, DiBenedetto finished in the top 10. He hasn’t finished there again since.

31. Corey LaJoie

This was just the second career Cup start at New Hampshire for the rookie driver.

32. Ryan Sieg

In just his fifth career Cup start, Sieg had a challenging afternoon at New Hampshire.

33. Jeffrey Earnhardt 

It’s been a season of struggle for the grandson of the late Dale Earnhardt.

34. Reed Sorenson

After qualifying 35th on Friday, Sorenson’s Chevrolet didn’t have the speed of the front-runners.

35. Gray Gaulding 

After missing three of the last four Cup races, Gaulding has moved to the No. 55 Toyota.

36. Josh Bilicki

In just his second career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start, Bilicki struggled again.

37. Joey Logano 

Logano is one of the drivers on the NASCAR playoff bubble, as his lone victory this season was encumbered. A tire rub sent him to the garage and put him in a deep points hole.

38. Cole Whitt

Whitt has now suffered engine failures in five of the last eight races. That’s not good.

39 Erik Jones

The Furniture Row Racing rookie made it just 42 laps before a tire failure put him in the wall and out of the race. A huge points blow.

All photos courtesy of Nigel Kinrade Photography © 2017

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Commentary

6 takeaways from the Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire

NASCAR’s first of two trips to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this year is now history, following Denny Hamlin’s triumph over Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. in the Overton’s 301 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

And as they like to say in New England, it was a wicked piss-ah of a race. It was a huge victory for Hamlin, his first of the year and the first for Joe Gibbs Racing. Now, Hamlin is assured of making it to NASCAR’s playoffs.

Here are six takeaways from the first race of the second half of the Cup season.

It was a Toyotathon

From the drop of the green flag, the Toyota contingent crushed the field. In Stage 1, Martin Truex Jr. led every lap in his Furniture Row Racing Toyota. In Stage 2, Kyle Busch led every green-flag lap in his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

In Stage 3, Hamlin started out with the lead in his JGR  Toyota after Busch had a poor pit stop. Soon, it was Truex back out front again, at least until around Lap 220, when a flat right-front tire forced him to pit and hand the lead back to Busch.

Busch’s golden opportunity to win slipped through his fingers on Lap 239, when he was caught speeding on pit road. After pit stops cycled through, Truex was back out front, until Lap 261, when Matt Kenseth passed him.

Finally, after another caution, Matt Kenseth took two tires and got passed by teammate Denny Hamlin for the win with 34 laps to go.  All told, Toyotas led 290 of 301 laps.

Setting the stage

Truex has just crushed this stage racing, winning Stage 1 at New Hampshire. Truex and the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing have been tremendous all year long, and with all the playoff points Truex has now — after New Hampshire, the number is  29 — is going to make him awfully hard to beat come playoff time.

Easier to lose than to win

Kyle Busch’s winless streak is now officially one year long. Busch won the second stage and had a car fast enough to win. Busch’s chances at victory went out the window when he got caught being too fast on pit road twice in a row late in the race.

By the same token, on the last caution Dale Earnhardt Jr. gambled and stayed out, eschewing fresh rubber, while every other lead-lap car pitted. Junior briefly led but dropped like a stone through the field. Nice try, but it didn’t work.

Penske’s problems

Team Penske won three of the first nine races of the season, but since then the team has fallen back in the pack. Brad Keselowski was never a factor at New Hampshire all weekend, while rear suspension issues sent Joey Logano to the garage and another hugely disappointing finish. Now, Logano is facing the very real possibility of missing the playoffs altogether, which would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago. The fact that Hamlin was a first-time winner this season hurts Logano’s chances all that much more.

Grand Larson-y

Kyle Larson had to start at the back of the grid after his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet flunked post-qualifying inspection on Friday. He went from 39th to 15th in the first 16 laps, which is nothing short of remarkable. By Lap 24, he was all the way up to 11th, advancing to fifth in the first 50 laps. That said, Larson was not available to steal the race from the  dominant Toyotas and had to settle for second place, his seventh of the season. Still, this driver, this car, this team, have it going on.

Seven-time just so-so

Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time Cup champion inexplicably jumped the start, but by the end of Stage 1, he was back up to the top five, although he had nothing for the race-dominating Toyotas and wound up barely cracking the top 10. No matter how I look at the upcoming championship battle, it keeps coming up the same way — Johnson, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson are in one class, and everyone else is playing catch-up.

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NASCAR Cup Series

NASCAR Drivers Weigh In on Social Media from New Hampshire

Friday was an eventful day at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where Kyle Larson won the pole for Sunday’s Overton’s 301, only to have his time disallowed when his Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet flunked post-qualifying inspection.

That put Martin Truex Jr. on the pole, flanked by seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

Here’s what the racers were saying on social media Friday at New Hampshire.