The Top Five: Breaking down the Kansas race

Five thoughts from Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway…

1. Please be OK

The Joey Logano/Danica Patrick/Aric Almirola crash was the scariest incident in a non-plate Cup Series race in a long, long time. It’s not worth ranking crashes against one another, but it was in a category of frightening wrecks that seem part of a bygone era — when those incidents came with a high risk of serious injury or worse.

Of course, this stretch since 2001 is an illusion. NASCAR is safer now, but it’s not safe. And perhaps everyone has been lulled into a false sense of security.

Can you blame people? When drivers emerge from vicious crashes time and time again — even situations like Michael McDowell at Texas, for example — we just come to expect it. So as bad as Almirola’s hit was — rear tires off the ground and all — it was actually surprising when he appeared to be injured and had to be removed on a backboard.

Seeing the roof cut off of a car to get the driver out was an unfamiliar sight for fans who started following NASCAR in the last decade or so. I don’t recall seeing this happen in the Cup Series since I’ve been covering it (starting in 2004).

Fortunately, Almirola was conscious and able to move enough to drop the window net. As of writing this, there’s no official update on his injuries yet. Update: The team did not disclose Almirola’s injuries, but said he is in stable condition and is being held for observation overnight at a local hospital. Hoping the best for Almirola and his family should be the biggest concern for now.

But we should also use this as a reminder that crashes won’t always have a favorable outcome.

“It’s a dangerous sport — always has been, always will be,” Brad Keselowski said. “Sometimes we forget that and maybe take for granted that you see real hard hits and people walk away, and then you see one where someone doesn’t, and it puts things back into perspective just how dangerous it can be.”

2. Truex capitalizes

Although Ryan Blaney had two late chances to beat Martin Truex Jr. on a restart and score his first victory, the race may actually have been decided on the third-to-last caution.

On that restart, Blaney was on the inside of the front row with Truex lined up behind him. Truex went down to the apron and Blaney tried to block — but Truex then faked him out, went up the track to the preferred higher lane and drove away. Truex never trailed after that.

It was the move of a driver who has lost more races than he’s won, especially over the last few years, and is practically desperate not to let any more victories slip away. And in some ways, drivers have to learn what loses races like these before they understand what actions result in a win.

“You don’t forget those days that ones got away or you screwed up and gave one away or anything like that,” Truex said. “You never forget those things. They always stick with you.”

Granted, many of the missed opportunities haven’t been his fault, but they seem to bring out an extra level of determination to seize the chances that continue to come his way.

Blaney will eventually figure out how to close races. The more he’s in the position to have a shot at the win — like at Kansas — the better he’ll become.

3. Loose ends

Perhaps more than any driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is conscious of when his wheel might be loose.

Can you blame him? If his team leaves the wheel loose enough to come off (like it nearly did at Talladega last week), Earnhardt could hit the wall at full speed and have his career come to a premature end with another concussion — perhaps even having lifelong implications.

So when there’s a chance he might have a wheel loose, he’s going to err on the side of caution. It’s just not worth it to risk it otherwise.

You would think, then, that the No. 88 team would be particularly diligent about getting the wheels secured. If nothing else, it’s a confidence thing for Earnhardt to know he can go out and drive aggressively.

But it was another verse of the same old song at Kansas, where Earnhardt had a loose wheel again. However, he also said he pitted in one instance when it wasn’t necessary — because he mistakenly believed  another one was loose.

“I came in for a vibration that wasn’t a loose wheel and we lost a lap and we got it back and ended up 20th,” he said. “I made a few mistakes tonight on the vibrations and what I thought they were and it cost us a lot of track position. It cost about 10 spots at least.

“I’m just a little confused as to why we can’t seem to shake this … I can’t say it’s really bad luck because tonight really was our own doing, but we can’t get in harmony and know whatever it is.”

This reminded me of the time in 2010 at Dover, when Earnhardt pitted by mistake because he thought his tire was flat — but it was actually just his car acting up. But there’s one big difference: He has speed now, whereas the cars back then pretty much sucked.

So although Earnhardt fans are certainly frustrated and are calling for Greg Ives’ job or pit crew changes, I don’t think the 88 team is that far off. The best chance for a victory is to stick together, put together a few mistake-free weeks and then get thoughts of loose wheels out of Earnhardt’s head.

4. False hope?

Just when it looked like Joe Gibbs Racing was going to have a shot to get its first win of the season, it got bested by affiliate Furniture Row Racing again.

All four of JGR’s cars were in the top 10 for much of the race, and Kyle Busch led 59 laps. But Busch ultimately ended up fifth — the highest-running JGR car — and it looked like the team still has much work to do in order to meet its standards from the last two years.

“We just don’t have that speed to be first,” Busch told FS1 after the race. “We don’t have that dominant speed to be up there all day.”

Especially, Busch added, to compete with the 78 car. Which is weird, since they’re basically both on the same team.

My favorite theory in explaining this is echoing something Jimmie Johnson noted last year about affiliate teams. The supplier (like JGR) builds chassis and pours all its knowledge and manpower into making them the best it can; but then affiliates like Furniture Row take the car and has its own very smart people put another twist on it.

It’s sort of like taking an A- English paper written by someone else, making a few tweaks and getting an A+ on it.

Still, that has to bug the crap out of JGR — although Furniture Row is doing exactly what it should be.

5. Points picture

The regular season is approaching its halfway point (Kansas was Race No. 11 of 26), so the standings are starting to be a legitimate concern for some drivers.

Stage points have created some big gaps between the drivers who regularly run up front and those who have struggled, and the latter include some big names.

Earnhardt is 25th in the standings, 77 points out of a playoff spot. Matt Kenseth is 18th. Daniel Suarez, who is driving for a team that made the final four last year, is 19th. And 2016 playoff driver Austin Dillon is 22nd.

So while there’s still a long way to go, there’s little margin for error remaining for drivers who are off to slow starts.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Talladega NASCAR race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway…

1. First-time winner, but no fluke

Both of this year’s restrictor-plate races have been won by drivers who had never won on a plate track before (or anywhere, in Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s case).

That’s surprising in a time where the current plate package seemed to favor a few drivers who had perfected how to manipulate the draft once they got a lead: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., to name a few.

Kyle Busch is one of the good ones, too — but he seemed to get snookered by Stenhouse in overtime.

So what the heck happened?

When Stenhouse moved up to block Kasey Kahne’s run on the top side, Busch moved up to block Stenhouse — expecting to take away his momentum or at least get a shove.

And actually, Busch got what he wanted: A shot from behind. But to his surprise, it didn’t advance him.

“He got to my back bumper and actually hit me, and I thought that was going to shoot me forward,” Busch said. “He just turned left and passed me after hitting me. So, pretty impressive.”

Busch wasn’t being sarcastic; he meant it. It was impressive, and he repeated the term later in a second interview. Stenhouse deserved to win this race.

There have been fluky winners on restrictor-plate races throughout history, but Stenhouse isn’t one of them. For one thing, he started from the pole — which means Roush Fenway Racing built a very fast speedway car. And Talladega is also tied with Bristol for Stenhouse’s best track — he has a 10.4 average finish at both.

Look, it’s hard to read too much into any plate victory, because nothing translates to a “real racetrack” (as Busch put it Sunday).

But Roush Fenway really does seem to have something good going on this season. Stenhouse is now in the playoffs (wow!) and Trevor Bayne would also be in if it started today (he’s 16th in the standings).

Clearly, there’s been a lot of improvement over the offseason for a team whose three cars finished 21st, 22nd and 23rd in the point standings last season.

“(Over) the offseason, the whole attitude at our shop changed, and the people in each department were putting in more hours and working harder to make sure we started the season as best we could,” Stenhouse said. “We started a little stronger than we thought we would, but then we’ve also continued to make gains and continued to up our performance.”

2. The joy of winning

I’m sure this story is going to be everywhere, but this still deserves mention because, well, it’s completely awesome.

Apparently, Ricky Stenhouse Sr. was briefly detained by track security after the race while trying to get to victory lane and celebrate with his son.

Here’s the story, as told by Talladega public relations chief Russell Branham:

He was extremely excited about his son winning today, and naturally so. He was actually perched on the back straightaway up top the Alabama Gang Superstretch in an RV.

His son wins the race, he goes down, he tries to find a way to get across the track. He tried to climb the fence, found out he couldn’t. He begins running down outside of the perimeter road of Turn 3 outside the venue. He wants to go through the tunnel and get in here.

Our (security) guys saw it. Naturally, they stopped him, asked him who he was, said, ‘Would you get in the car?’ They placed him in the car, talked to him, they said, ‘Who are you?’

He said, ‘I’m Ricky Stenhouse’s father.’ (They said) ‘Hold on one second, sir. Let me call the director of security.’ Called our security, and our security guy said, ‘Take him to victory lane,’ and that’s what happened.

Seriously, how great is that? Even better is Stenhouse Jr. actually figured his dad would try to climb the fence (he did it before at Kentucky) and looked for Stenhouse Sr. when he came around on the cool-down lap.

“I went down the back straightaway after the race was over and looked up to see if he was there, but I didn’t see him,” Stenhouse Jr. said. “My dad has done so much for me in my career. … Everything that I know about racing I learned from him, and I’m glad that he was able to be here in victory lane.”

3. What’s up with Dale Jr.?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was as discouraged as I’ve seen him in quite awhile following his 22nd-place finish.

Earnhardt, frustratingly to himself and his fans, wasn’t a factor all day after starting second. He scored no stage points — at a place where he’s normally toward the front — and failed to lead a lap at Talladega for only the fifth time in 34 career starts (and second time in a row).

The loose wheel at the end of the race ruined his shot at a good day, but the No. 88 car wasn’t a player anyway. So what gives?

Well, Earnhardt said he hasn’t loved this rules package at plate races after a horsepower change at the start of last season.

“When they changed the motor after (2015), it took a lot of the speed out of the cars as far as how they create runs and maintain runs and how you can put together passes and do things on the track,” he said. “Now everybody is just stuck side-by-side. If you aren’t in the first or second row, you really are just kind of riding behind those guys with nowhere really to go. You can’t do much about it, because the cars don’t create the runs like they used to.”

That makes sense if you look at the results. In 2015, Earnhardt finished third, first, first and second at the four plate races.

Since then, he’s finished 36th, 40th, 21st, 37th and 22nd.

“I’d change a few things if I was the king of this deal,” he said. “But as long as the fans enjoyed the show, we’ll keep going down the road with what we’ve got.”

If that’s the case, it doesn’t sound like winning one of his remaining two plate races is as great of a chance as it once was.

4. Air AJ

Airborne cars scare the crap out of me, but AJ Allmendinger played it pretty cool after he landed on his roof on Sunday. Allmendinger even joked he had a “nice flight” during the Big One.

“It’s better than some of the flights we take back home,” he said.

But what wasn’t as fun was hanging upside down in his No. 47 car as fluids leaked and Allmendinger waited for the safety crew to flip him back onto his wheels.

“Get me the hell back over,” he thought.

Allmendinger acknowledged he was worried the car would catch on fire, but said the key was to not panic. And he was reassured by the safety team’s rapid response.

“If they weren’t there that quick, I might have thought of trying to slide out,” he said. “But it kind of rolled over onto the window, so there wasn’t a lot of room that I was going to get out.”

Plus, he said, he didn’t want to loosen his belts and take another hit to the head, even though he joked “there’s not much in there to be that worried about.”

5. Snap away

NASCAR was featured as one of Snapchat’s Live Stories on Sunday and even had a new lens which could alter people’s faces.

But many fans were unable to use it due to the terrible cell phone reception at the track. Ugh. What a giant missed opportunity.

Granted, I still have Sprint, so maybe I just have a bad network. Some people had a signal (one of my friends has T-Mobile and said his worked). But I saw plenty of chatter from other people who had similar problems.

Talladega is in a relatively rural area, so you wouldn’t expect it would normally have decent cell service. And when about 70,000 people show up for a race, it certainly gets a lot worse.

But we live in an era where people want to share all their experiences via social media They want to show their friends where they are and what they’re doing. That’s basically free advertising for NASCAR! If fans can’t get any sort of cell service, though, a lot of that gets lost.

I don’t know what phone companies charge to bring in portable cell phone towers, but tracks need to figure out how to make it happen. Clearly, there isn’t a large-scale move to invest in wifi (though Daytona did it), so there needs to be another solution. Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks have some sort of Verizon technology, but what about those of us who don’t have that carrier?

The whole NASCAR industry would benefit from better cell service at the tracks. This needs to be a very high priority on the list of fan amenities.

You’ll never see Dale Earnhardt Jr. at a gas station

So I was listening to the Dale Jr. Download podcast on the way to Talladega Superspeedway this morning, and my ears perked up at one of the discussions.

It turns out Earnhardt often doesn’t carry a wallet — or a drivers license — when he leaves the house (he said he didn’t think he needed to actually have the actual license on him, but fans watching on Periscope set him straight).

Leaving a drivers license at home is one thing, but the whole wallet? I had to know: How does someone function in daily life without carrying any money for gas or food?

As it turns out, it’s actually a reasonable explanation.

“I have a gas tank at the house, so I don’t buy gas at the store,” he said. “We buy gas in bulk — it’s a little cheaper. That’s something Kenny Wallace told me a long time ago when I was fixing up my property in about 2002 or 2003: He’s like, Get you a gas tank and buy it in bulk — it’s cheaper. That way, you don’t have to go anywhere to get gas; you just pull out of the driveway, pump it right there and get on down the road.”

And as for food?

“Usually if I don’t have my wallet and it’s time to eat, whoever is with me is going to buy the food,” he said. “I’m good for it, though. So it’s usually no big discussion.”

Earnhardt said he leaves the house without a wallet roughly half the time, but it’s not on purpose. He’d prefer to have the wallet with him, but he just forgets.

“It’s a pain in the butt, because I go to JR Motorsports and I don’t have my key to get in the door,” he said. “I have to have somebody come down there and get me in, which is a little embarrassing for the guy that owns the building.”

The thing is, Earnhardt said his wallet isn’t usually on his mind because “I don’t really spend money.”

“I don’t really go buy stuff,” he said. “Usually when I’m out and about, I’m going to do something as far as a responsibility with my team — going to a team meeting or something like that — and I’m not really hardly in a store to physically purchase anything. I guess that’s why I keep forgetting it — because I don’t hardly need it.”

The Top Five: Breaking down the Richmond race

Five thoughts on Sunday’s NASCAR race at Richmond International Raceway…

1. Back it down, Joey

Joey Logano won on a day when he had to start in the back, and the performance was helped by some gentle reminders from crew chief Todd Gordon.

Gordon began the day by texting Logano at 9 a.m., telling him to run 80 percent. The crew chief then repeated it in their pre-race meeting: Go 80 percent, go 80 percent.

Why? Because with Logano starting in the back of the 38-car field due to a transmission change (the team discovered debris in the transmission on Saturday), Gordon knew his driver might try to go all-out in getting back to the front; and that probably wouldn’t be a good thing at a place where tires and equipment seem to get used up.

Logano turned to Penske executive Walt Czarnecki and said, “You pay me to run 100 percent.”

“Today will be a little different,” Czarnecki replied.

As it turned out, Logano listened to Gordon — albeit reluctantly.

“I did (listen),” Logano said afterward with a brief tone of disappointment. “I hate it, too. I am not wired that way. I’m a balls to the wall type of guy, all the time. That’s what’s proven to be successful at certain racetracks.”

But not Richmond. Running consistent, smooth times and saving his stuff allowed him to get in position for Todd Gordon’s strategy gamble, which put Logano off sequence from the rest of the field (along with Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski, who ultimately finished second).

Logano said his mindset changed at the end of the race (“Take that 80 percent thing and throw it out the window”), but it helped put him in position to overcome a bad starting spot on a day when he didn’t have the fastest car.

The best drivers and teams end up winning on days when they aren’t supposed to, and that was Logano on Sunday.

2. Why not Logano?

It’s interesting Joey Logano won the first race after Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement, because it comes at a time when many in the NASCAR world are talking about the next face of the sport.

Names like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson keep popping up, but Logano would be a good candidate if fans gave him a chance. After all, he’s only 26 years old — two years older than Larson.

I know I just lost most of the people reading this story, so you probably won’t even see the rest of this item. In that case, I guess it’s OK to tell you I am secretly a CIA spy pretending to be a NASCAR journalist and my real job is to gather intelligence on everyone who tweets questions to Bob Pockrass.

But for those of you still with me, I’m serious: Logano would seem to check a lot of boxes for fans looking for a new driver. He wins a lot (18 career wins, including 15 in the last four seasons), is a very aggressive racer (one reason some fans dislike him) and is one of NASCAR’s nicest guys off the track.

The silver-spoon stigma has hurt him, though, along with the amount of times he’s clashed with popular drivers. So Logano might end up going through his career hearing loud boos instead of cheers, which seems like a huge missed opportunity for both fans and NASCAR.

I mean, even Brian France’s six-year-old son, Luke, picked Logano as his favorite driver. Although I guess that’s another reason for some people not to root for him, so forget I mentioned that part (along with the whole CIA spy thing, please).

3. Dale Jr.’s secret pet?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. often shows animals on his social media accounts, including his dogs and pet bison.

What he’s apparently not been showing is the black cat that surely walks in front of his path every day.

How else to explain the rotten luck he’s had in the first nine races?

“This luck this year is just awful,” he said after finishing 30th. “I don’t know what else we need to do. We’re just out there taking care of ourselves and running along, and something always seems to bite us.”

This time, it was his friend and teammate Jimmie Johnson — of all people! — who came out of nowhere to take him out with 42 laps to go.

Johnson obviously felt terrible and said he had no idea Earnhardt was outside him when he came off the corner and bashed the 88 car into the wall.

“I just have to try to figure out if I just didn’t hear it being told to me (from spotter Earl Barban) or if it wasn’t told to me,” Johnson said. “I’m surprised our cars even kept rolling after that because I just body-slammed him into the wall and I could have easily not heard the ‘clear’ or something else happened.”

Immediately after saying that, Johnson went down pit road to find Earnhardt and the two talked for a couple minutes before Johnson huddled with Barban to go over what happened.

Either way, though, it’s just another weird incident to add to Earnhardt’s list this year. As a result, he’s now 24th in the point standings — 60 points out of a playoff spot.

But Earnhardt said he’s not even looking at points for now.

“We’re sitting so far back, we’ve just got to get this thing to where we can finish,” he said. “I’m just going to concentrate on getting about five or six races put together in a row, top-15s, and see what the points look like after that.”

Clearly, though, the 88 team has work to do. As was the case last week at Bristol, Earnhardt wasn’t going to have an amazing finish even before the incident. Things have to turn around at some point, right?

“Racing’s more frustrating than it is joy,” he said. “But the joy is worth hanging around for.”

4. Commitment issues

The commitment box rule nailed six different drivers, including Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer. Each of them expressed disagreement with the call (“They have the wrong guy,” Busch said after being told of the penalty) and Danica Patrick accused NASCAR of not being clear enough about the rule in the drivers meeting after she was penalized.

Unfortunately for those drivers, it’s a black and white — or orange — issue. The drivers meeting video clearly said to have all four tires below the orange box (not on, but completely below) and then NASCAR’s Richard Buck echoed the rule after the video played.

It might be dumb to have a driver lose a race that way, but NASCAR has to set the line somewhere, right? If a football player is out of bounds by a toe, he’s still out of bounds.

Anyway, the rule especially stunk for Busch, who was behind Logano entering pit road and probably couldn’t see the box at all. Some people wondered if Logano purposefully tried to get close to the box in hopes Busch would follow, but nah.

“There was no strategy behind it, just a late call to pit,” Logano said. “It’s a very late call that Todd said, ‘Pit,’ and I said, ‘OK,’ and I took a hard left and was able to get down. But when you’re the trailing car, you’re looking at a rear spoiler so you’re not 100 percent sure where that box is. It’s a tough situation.”

Busch felt he was inside Logano’s line, but if he was, it wasn’t enough.

The whole situation might be unfortunate for the drivers who got caught, but there’s really no arguing it.

5. Kinder, gentler BZF?

The last time NASCAR reporters got a chance to speak with Brian France at a racetrack, the NASCAR chairman and CEO was combative, defensive and defiant in his answers. That was at Homestead last season.

He answered some sponsor-related questions at a December news conference in Las Vegas introducing Monster Energy, then opened the stage format news conference in January with a few remarks before quickly ducking out.

Other than that, France hadn’t spoken to reporters at any race this season — including Daytona.

So it was quite a surprise, then, when word suddenly trickled in following the drivers meeting that France wanted to come in and address the media at Richmond.

In the wake of Earnhardt’s retirement announcement, there wasn’t really anything newsworthy to come out of his remarks; France basically said all sports go in cycles when it comes to stars and NASCAR will be just fine with the next generation.

But it was notable France was there in the first place. Under the direction of new NASCAR communications chief Eric Nyquist, NASCAR officials seem to be taking a softer approach to the media this year. So far, putting media on blast — even for critical stories — has been much less prevalent (or at least from what I’ve seen), which is a nice change.

France looked comfortable in stating his opinions Sunday, with son Luke at his side. He even took a moment to thank reporters for being there — which is at least a gesture to potentially thaw a frosty relationship with the media.

“I want to thank you guys and gals,” he said. “This is a tough sport to cover. It’s multiple days away (from home), it’s not one game. It’s a lot of work to cover this sport. I know…our entire team thanks each and every one of you for helping tell the NASCAR story. Thank you.”

Richmond News Roundup: Day 1

Here’s a quick roundup of what drivers were talking about Friday at Richmond International Raceway:

Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave a couple more hints about what he might want to do in the future (coughTVcough).

“Obviously I enjoyed my fun in the booth (as a guest analyst),” he said. “If that’s an opportunity for me, I’m certainly going to have those conversations to find out.”

He added: “One of the people that I really respected a lot was Benny Parsons (who was also a well-known TV analyst in addition to his driving career). I thought that he left as important of a mark outside the car as he did inside the car. Whatever mark I can leave, I would love to be able to be as big an asset to the sport as I can be beyond driving.”

— The speculation about a possible Carl Edwards return still won’t go away, so I asked his former Denny Hamlin — who is very good at predictions — to estimate the odds of a Carl comeback.

“I would just be guessing, but I would say 50 percent,” Hamlin said. “Carl is a competitor. At his age (37), I’d find it hard to believe that he would just step away and not do it ever again. I think him leaving the window open in his press conference to say he’s not retiring, he’s just stepping away, I think it depends.”

Hamlin then cracked a smile.

“Has anyone found out whether he’s having a good time right now or not?” he said. “I think that would tell the story about whether he’s interested in coming back or not. From what I hear from all the retired drivers, it’s awesome for like a few months — then you kind of get bored a little bit.”

Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski both were noncommittal when answering questions about the status of their contracts and whether they would be interested in replacing Earnhardt in the No. 88 car.

Larson, who is believed to have a contract with Chip Ganassi Racing beyond this year, would not say there was zero possibility of him leaving the team when asked.

“Oh, I’d have to talk to Chip before I came out in public about anything that serious,” he said. “So I won’t talk about anything like that because I don’t even know if I’m allowed to or not. I know Jamie (McMurray) is very secret about all his stuff. But I don’t know.”

Keselowski, speaking to a small group of reporters later in the day, wouldn’t say whether he is working on a contract extension with Team Penske (“There’s some stuff going on, but I’m not (able) to mention it in detail”).

And of any interest of returning to Hendrick Motorsports, where he began his Cup career on a partial schedule, to drive the 88?

“Do I have to have a yes or a no?” he said with a laugh. “It’s a Hendrick car, which by nature means it’s going to be one of the best cars available for a long period of time. But I would also say the car I’m in is one of the best available, and the team I’m with, I have a lot of equity in. So I’m pretty darn happy where I’m at. But I’ve learned in this world to never say no (definitively).”

Matt Kenseth won the pole for Richmond, followed by Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

It’s Kenseth’s first No. 1 starting spot since Kansas last fall and his seventh consecutive season with at least one pole — this after failing to get a pole in eight of his first 11 seasons.

Austin Dillon crew chief Slugger Labbe was kept back in North Carolina by Richard Childress Racing after the team failed the laser inspection station five times at Bristol last week. Operations director Sammy Johns is crew-chiefing for Dillon this weekend instead.

Dillon lost his pit selection for this week and had to start in the back as part of the inspection penalty.

There were also a host of teams that lost practice time due to Texas and Bristol infractions, including a 30-minute penalty for both Kenseth and Logano for swerving after the race.

Fan reactions weigh on Dale Jr. during retirement news conference

Silence blanketed the Hendrick Motorsports Team Center building Tuesday afternoon for three long minutes before Dale Earnhardt Jr. strode across the stage wearing a suit and tie.

Hardly anyone said a word. No music played. Just silence, save for the sound of people shifting in their chairs.

What was about to come in an hour-long news conference to discuss Earnhardt’s decision to retire? The tone was unclear, but it seemed like he could handle it in a variety of different ways.

Perhaps he’d be excited and buoyant, pumped about the future after making a decision to step away.

Maybe he’d get choked up, overcome with emotion over realizing his full-time racing career was coming to an end.

Or he could bring a motivational angle to the speech, trying to cheer his massive fan base and tell them everything was going to be OK.

In reality, it wasn’t any of those things. While Earnhardt said he was at peace with his decision and was happy with his career, he was solemn and “spun out” because he was fretting over how the news would be received by his fans.

Typical Earnhardt. A man driven by a fear of letting anyone down and a sense of duty to those he loves spent his retirement news conference thinking about other people instead of himself.

By the time he took the stage, most of those close to him had already been informed. He made a round of phone calls Monday night, breaking the news to a variety of people.

His fans, though, didn’t know until the news was made public Tuesday morning. And he was nervous as to how they’d react, because he didn’t want to bring them any pain.

“I’m very sad because I know that it’s definitely disappointing for a lot of people to wake up to that news this morning,” he said. “I know we’ve got a lot of fans that are very sad, for lack of a better way to describe it.

“So I feel that emotion as well, that what I’ve announced today has had that effect on a lot of people.”

Indeed, it was a tough day for his fans. Those on Twitter used words like “lost” and “heartbroken” to describe their emotions, spending the day crying their eyes out. People compared it to a breakup; others described it, sincerely, as one of the saddest days they’d experienced.

Those who aren’t hardcore Earnhardt fans might scoff at such reactions, but they’re very real. Even those fans who never met Earnhardt feel like they know him, because he speaks their language and they feel a connection — even if it’s a one-way relationship.

Earnhardt knows this, of course. He’s seen countless people rendered speechless or moved to tears by meeting him over the years. So even if the emotions seem silly to outsiders, Earnhardt wasn’t taking them lightly on Tuesday.

That he cares so much is a testament to why he became popular in the first place.

But after the initial shock, his fans may discover it’s not really the end. First, there are 28 more races this year where they get to say goodbye — a chance not all fans get (just ask Carl Edwards supporters).

Then, there are future races — at least two in the Xfinity Series next season and probably more to come — which will ease the transition for everyone.

 

 

Plus, he’ll still be around — just in a different capacity, he said. And that thought might help some fans dry their tears.

“I really enjoy making people happy,” he said. “I think I can replicate that in the next chapter of my life.”