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Junior Is Honored To Be At ‘Second Home”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 3 2017

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is at home at Texas Motor Speedway.
(RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – Dale Earnhardt Jr. previewed his final scheduled NASCAR weekend as driver at Texas Motor Speedway _ site of his first career Xfinity and Cup series victories _ during one of his typically thoughtful, insightful and  honest-to-the-bone media sessions Friday morning.

“Yeah, I mean I didn’t know coming into Texas that this place would become so special to me,” said Junior, adding TMS to his Appreci88tion tour reflections. “Texas has been so awesome for me. My wife (Amy) is from Texas and I got a whole another family down here. That’s a bonus of being married to her. Texas is a place that’s almost like a second home.”

And then there was the moment when a guy wearing a full black cowboy outfit strode onto the carpeted floor of the infield media center on the back of a horse. That’s right _ a real, live, oats-eating horse _ the kind that rarely are barn-broken. This particular big, brown horse is named Sarah Jessica Parker.

“You into horses?” Gossage asked Junior, amazed and amused by where this bit could lead.

Recall that Gossage presented four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, Junior’s former Hendrick Motorsports teammate, with a pair of Shetland ponies for his children during his retirement ceremony here two years ago.  Rather than give SJP to Junior, TMS is partnering with Victory Therapy Center in nearby Roanoke. The facility is a therapeutic horse ranch that serves people with disabilities, veterans and first-responders.

A horse named “Chevy” will be renamed in Junior’s honor and TMS will sponsor the animal as a salute to Junior Nation, which has been reminded in a television commercial playing in the Dallas-Fort Worth market that the third generation star made his NASCAR bones at “The Great American Speedway.”

Dale Jr. scored his first career Xfinity Series victory at TMS in the Coca-Cola 300 on April 4, 1998, notching his breakthrough win in his 16th career start. Junior one-upped that with his first Cup victory in the DIRECT TV 500 on April 2, 2000, a career-changing moment shared in an emotional Victory Lane with father and seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt. And the story goes that Cap E advised his son to enjoy the moment…do the required media deal…and find someone to fly his skinny butt back to North Carolina. Junior became the first Cup Series rookie driver to win at TMS, which played host to its first NASCAR weekend in April 1997.

As a lasting memory of that Cup win, Gossage presented Junior with the original scoreboard from that race, with his No. 8 locked into P1. “That’s it. That is THE one that came off the scoring tower,” Gossage said.

“That’s something else,” said Junior, perennially voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. But on the day Junior won his first Xfinity race, he was “Junebug”  in his famous father’s eyes and driver of the No. 3 ACDelco Chevy he had qualified 16th in a 43-car field.

“We had a tire rub and a couple of other things go on in that Xfinity race that surprised me that we won,” said Junior, whose margin of victory over Elliott Sadler was 0.178-seconds. Junior led only six of 200 laps, taking the point for the first time on Lap 181. Junior overhauled series veteran “Front Row” Joe Nemechek for the lead on the final lap in an event featuring 12 lead changes among seven drivers.

“We were able to come back to win and get through the field,” Junior said. “Nemechek was hard to beat pretty much every week, a couple of other guys.  So, I was really proud of that win.”

Dale Jr.’s Cup victory here saw him start fourth en route to leading 106 of 334 laps in his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. Junior’s margin of victory over Jeff Burton _ winner of the inaugural Interstate Batteries 500 Cup race here on April 6, 1997 _ was 5.92-seconds at an average speed of 131.152 mph.

“To come back and get your first Cup win at the same track…I think that shows right there how much confidence really matters,” Junior said. “Confidence is an emotion almost.  It’s just more of a feeling than anything, but it can affect performance and choices you make if your confidence is low you make different choices. You think differently and you race differently, so certainly having that win in the Xfinity Series I think had everything to do or a lot to do with us coming back and winning in the Cup series at the same track for the first time.  It did amazing things for my career.

“We had won a lot of races in the Xfinity Series, but I thought, ‘Man the Cup Series is a whole other level.  These are the pros…I don’t know how I’m going to fit in there and get a win with all these guys doing so good, so many talented drivers and teams.’ Was our team capable of beating any of these guys?  We had to sort of come in and grow and improve.  We couldn’t win just as an Xfinity team _ we had to grow into that Cup atmosphere and I was surprised myself that we won so soon and it really did a lot for our career. 

“We had gone to the National Sales Convention or the big yearly meeting that Budweiser has and stood on stage and told them that they hadn’t won a race in a while and we were going to get them back to Victory Lane.  To come out there and kind of deliver on that was a bit of a relief.  We kind of started rolling into winning at Richmond and going to the All-Star race and winning _ that really was a great short couple of months for us.” 

Junior still shares the Cup record for poles here at two (in 2001 and 2008) with seven other drivers and has led a total of 448 laps in his 29 starts to-date.  After finishing 43rd and last in the spring 2014 race, Junior has recorded a string of five top-10 results. But he hasn’t led a lap at TMS since pacing two circuits during the 2011 spring race.

The entire track was repaved and re-profiled during the offseason, with Turns 1 and 2 reduced from 24 degrees of banking to 20 degrees. In addition that area has been widened from 58-feet to 78-feet, throwing a new set of challenges into the mix. Turns 3 and 4 remain banked at 24 degrees.

Junior will start Sunday’s 334-lap/501-miler from the 17th spot after qualifying at 197.441 mph in his No. 88 Nationwide/Justice League Chevrolet SS.

“The track, there is nothing really unique about the place other than Eddie has been amazing as far as a promoter,” Junior said. “The things that he does… he’s always kind of pushing the envelope.  And he means well, I have learned.  Sometimes I have wondered, but I know he’s just trying to do a job and take advantage of his opportunities and he has to deliver and so he does what he needs to do to deliver. It reminds me of some of the older style promoters that we used to have _ a lot more flamboyant and creative.

“So, a lot of the stuff that he does is actually fun to see. His style of promotion brings a certain personality to the track and gives the track a bit of a personality that I think differs from a lot of other places, too.  Which I enjoy…I think that having Eddie here and the job that he does, as hard as it is to admit, he does a really good job and has everything to do with where this place is today.”

As a final parting gift, Junior and his wife were presented a “Tot Rod” stroller in the shape of a pink-and-white ’55 Chevy convertible. “This is for you and Amy and the little one to-be,” Gossage said. “This was built in seven days for the new Little Earnhardt, an early wedding shower gift.

“So, with all the integrity and seriousness that a man sitting on a horse inside a building can offer, I want to thank you for what you’ve done for the sport. We appreciate everything you have contributed. God bless you.”

Fallout from last Sunday’s frantic closing laps during the First Data 500 Cup Series race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway remained a hot topic for Chase Elliott during his presser Friday morning at TMS.

Elliott was shoved out of the lead by Denny Hamlin on Lap 498 of the scheduled 500 when the latter’s No. 11 FedEx/Walgreens Toyota Camry picked up the rear of Elliott’s No. 24 NAPA Chevrolet SS as they headed into Turn 3 of the half-mile oval. The contact sent Elliott spinning into the outside wall. Kyle Busch grabbed second and Clint Bowyer took third. Busch eventually nudged Hamlin, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, out of the lead en route to a key Round of 8 playoff victory.

A miffed Elliott later pulled alongside Hamlin on the backstretch, ran into him and carried him into the wall. The two drivers then stopped their cars, climbed from them and confronted each other with helmets off. Caught on camera by NBC Sports Network, Elliott’s lips easily could be read when he told Hamlin, “You wrecked me!”

Elliott said seeing his stern-looking image plastered on billboards here as “The People’s Champion” _ a popular professional boxing promotional tool _ was strange.

“You know, as far as last week goes, I don’t know that my thoughts today are a whole lot different than they were then,” said Elliott, who is driving the No. 24 Hooters Chevrolet SS in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500. “I’m still pretty frustrated about it and you know, as long as the week has gone along it has given me a lot of time to think about how close we were to going to Homestead (-Miami Speedway for the Championship 4).  I think if anything else that will drive you up the wall more if you think about it.

“Definitely not happy about it and I don’t think a whole lot has changed.  But no, I’m not going to answer your questions about whether I’m going to get him back or not.  Don’t even ask because you’re not going to hear it from me.  Just don’t go there.  But yeah, I don’t think my mindset has changed from that standpoint.  This is a point in this round where we’re going to have to perform these next two weeks to have a chance at Homestead now.  We’re going to have to do just that.”

Elliott, of Hendrick Motorsports, said he has been overwhelmed by the fan support he’s received in the aftermath of the incident. Hence “The People’s Champion” campaign by TMS President Eddie Gossage.

“It was definitely unexpected for sure,” said Elliott, son of 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott. “I wasn’t expecting to have that or hear that or see it throughout the week.  It’s been…I don’t know if ‘refreshing’ is the right word but it’s been definitely pretty encouraging seeing that kind of support despite the circumstance. 

“To see people encouraging you and wanting you to go win this weekend…to me the message from the fans this weekend has been the best thing you can do is go and win one of these next two weekends and give yourself a shot at Homestead.  I think a lot of the people that watch our sport know that and I’m looking forward to giving it my best shot.”

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NASCAR icon “King” Richard Petty is being coy about his OEM partner for the 2018 Cup Series season. Whether RPM chooses to remain with Ford or switch to Chevrolet or Toyota, the organization will be working with a new, first-time sponsor.

Click n’ Close,™ a division of Mid America Mortgage, Inc., announced Friday at Texas Motor Speedway that it has entered into official partnership agreements with NASCAR and Richard Petty Motorsports. The collaborations designate Click n’ Close as the “Official Mortgage Provider of NASCAR®” in addition to becoming a partner of RPM.

That fact determined, King Richard politely dodged a question about his choice of manufacturer for next season, when Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. will wheel the iconic No. 43. “I’ll let you know when I find out,” Petty said with his trademark smile during a news conference in the track’s infield media center.

In response to media inquiries about RPM, Dave Pericak, Global Director, Ford Performance, issued this statement: “Ford remains committed to being RPM’s OEM partner for the 2018 season and we are awaiting finalization of our contract to do so. RPM has not made a commitment to Ford for 2018 as of yet.”

Click n’ Close is Mid America Mortgage’s new digital mortgage approval and closing platform that provides home buyers with a fast, simple and secure experience by automating many of the steps of a traditional mortgage process. With Click n’ Close, home buyers are able to complete their application within eight minutes and receive an approval within one business day. On average, home buyers approved through Click n’ Close reach the closing table in less than half the time of a traditional mortgage process and are able to complete their closing and receive their keys within 15 minutes.

“Speed is a familiar concept to NASCAR’s powerful community of sponsors and fans, which is why we chose to launch Click n’ Close nationally by partnering with NASCAR and Richard Petty Motorsports,” said Jeff Bode, owner/CEO of Mid America Mortgage. “Click n’ Close is revolutionizing the way we service home buyers and home-owners, and we’re confident that the NASCAR community will appreciate how quickly and easily they can now secure a mortgage through Click n’ Close.”

As part of the agreement with RPM, the Click n’ Close brand will be featured as primary sponsor of the No. 43 Wallace will drive for at least three races, making its debut at the 2018 Daytona 500 in February. The No. 43 Click n’ Close car also will make appearances at Phoenix Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway.

“We have recently had a lot of positive discussions about our race program in 2018, and having a new partner such as Click n’ Close is proof of that,” said Petty, co-owner of RPM and NASCAR’s all-time race-winner with 200 victories. “We feel that Bubba and our team are a perfect fit to help spread their message to NASCAR fans across the country.”

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NASCAR Playoff contender Daniel Hemric crashed-out of Friday’s second Xfinity Series practice, bringing a premature halt to preparations for Saturday night’s 13th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at TMS.

Hemric crashed exiting Turn 4 of the 1.5-mile oval, heavily damaging the rear clip of his No. 21 Blue Gate Bank Chevrolet Camaro. The rear end snapped around at speed in the bottom groove, with the resulting impact sending fluids streaming down the 24-degree banking. While track crews spread Speedy Dry on the surface, a line of cars stood parked on pit road. But the session never resumed once the clock reached 5 p.m. (CDT).

Hemric ended the first practice second to Blake Koch after a lap at 187.461 mph. Hemric, of Richard Childress Racing, is ranked seventh in the Xfinity Series standings with 3,032 points _ six behind fourth-place Brennan Poole. In 30 starts this season, Hemric has posted six top-fives and 15 top-10s. Hemric made his series debut at TMS earlier this season, starting seventh but finishing 32nd after being involved in an accident after 172 of 200 laps of the My Bariatric Solutions 300. 

Hemric, who was medically cleared to continue, can clinch a spot in the Championship 4 with a victory. Xfinity drivers will qualify Saturday at 5:05 p.m. (CDT) and race at 7:30 p.m.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 3 2017
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