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Backed by Junior Nation, Alex Bowman sees opportunity at Talladega
RELATED: Ailing Bowman presses on, nabs career-best finish With Dale Earnhardt Jr . slated to miss his first Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway since he broke into the big leagues full time as a rookie in 2000, many wonder which driver will replace the superspeedway ace as the one to beat in Sunday's Hellmann's 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN/NBC Sports App). How about, you know, the guy actually replacing him? Fresh off a seventh-place showing at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, Alex Bowman is set to drive Earnhardt's No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the third consecutive week and the seventh time this season as the driver recovers from concussion-related symptoms. This weekend is perhaps Bowman's most significant start of the year. Because it's at Earnhardt's own Talladega. RELATED: Earnhardt-Talladega streak to continue Sunday "He's got a couple fans out there," Bowman told NASCAR.com at Kansas. "Man, I'm excited about (racing at Talladega). Speedway racing is always stressful, but … ( Hendrick Motorsports ) brings such fast race cars to the race track and their speedway stuff is amazing. Always fast. Especially the 88. So, just really looking forward to having a chance to win. "I'm going to sit Dale down and have a couple-hour conversation with him about speedway racing. If there's a speedway racer left in this garage, it's him, for sure." The man's got a point. From a wins standpoint, Talladega ranks as Junior's best track with six, only closely followed by four wins at Daytona, another Earnhardt cornerstone -- and another superspeedway. Bowman's 'Dega stats don't match Junior's, of course, but he did pilot the No. 7 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet to a 16th-place finish just last year. And while it's almost jarring to hear a driver say that he is "excited" for Talladega, it's unsurprising coming from Bowman, who'll have the roar of the crowd on his side -- a fanbase that has named the man he's replacing NASCAR's Most Popular Driver for 13 years running. "Junior Nation has been great," said Bowman, 23. "It's been really cool; they've just been really supportive. Every now and then there's one fan that hates me, but for the most part they've been awesome. Casey Mears fans hate me after (Charlotte), because apparently it was my fault that we blew a tire and wrecked him, but Junior Nation has been awesome." RELATED: Dale Jr. to join broadcasts for Talladega, Martinsville Not only does Bowman have full access to Earnhardt's Talladega insight, a wealth of knowledge so deep it likely needs its own Dewey Decimal System, he's sharing substitute driving duties with a four-time Sprint Cup champ and six-time 'Dega winner in Jeff Gordon . "It’s been really cool (to share a ride with Gordon). Jeff was my favorite driver growing up when I was a kid," Bowman said. "It's been really good to learn from him. He's an open book. All five of my teammates are complete open books. It's great to lean on them and learn as much as I can, but Jeff just has so much experience and has a really interesting view on a lot of things. "It's been a great time just listening and observing and learning everything I can from him." The lessons taken at "Gordon Drivers Ed, Inc." appear to be working, too. While the final results might not show the whole picture, Bowman, at times, has looked like the more competitive driver behind the wheel of the No. 88, and owns the car's best finish -- seventh -- since Earnhardt placed second at Pocono way back in June. Bowman says that some people joke with him and say "Oh, I'm glad to see you've finally learned how to drive." He's always known how to drive, it's just been more about opportunities. And if luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, "Bad Luck Bowman" -- a driver that once learned he'd been fired via Twitter -- knows the magnitude of the opportunity presented to him this weekend and in his remaining races. And you can be sure he'll be prepared. "I hope (this opportunity has put my name out there)," Bowman said. "We've talked to a lot of people and it always comes back to money. It's always 'Well, do you have any sponsorship?' 'Do you have any funding?' I don't, so it's just … the sport's such a business at this point that it really kind of limits what I can and can't get into and that's what's limited what I can and can't get into for the last four years. "I don't have anything lined up (for next year yet). I think my role that I had at Hendrick Motorsports before all this happened is still going to be the same. Still being a part of the team, still doing all the simulator stuff and helping as much as I can. I don't think that will change. Obviously, when Dale comes back and all that, I don't really know what that leaves for me as far as driving anything. "I don't know what the future holds there. I don't have anything going forward, really." In the short-term, at least, he'll have the full support of Junior Nation at Talladega. </p>
Dale Earnhardt-Wrangler deal risky, but paid off big for Richard Childress
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Richard Childress went all in. He wagered everything -- his yesterday, his today and his tomorrow. He bet it on a late-season deal with a driver who was a maverick, and he bet it on nothing more than a sliver of a sponsorship. And at the end of that 1981 season, less than a dozen races after the relationships began, the driver and the sponsor departed. The story could have ended there. Driver gone, sponsor gone and Childress, who had tried to scratch out a living as a racer before going the ownership route, hopelessly broke and perhaps finished with NASCAR. But it didn't. Two years later, both Dale Earnhardt and Wrangler reunited with Childress. The union produced a pair of championships and a slew of wins, and set Childress and Earnhardt on a path of success rarely seen in NASCAR. "I borrowed everything I could on my home; I sold everything I had that I thought I could sell just to run Dale those 10 races," Childress said Wednesday during a celebration at Wrangler's headquarters here in Greensboro. "At the end of it, I was just in debt. I had borrowed money from some folks and everything just to run those 10 races." It's fitting that the celebration of the region's textile community, dubbed Jeansboro Day, took place this week, just as NASCAR's premier series prepares to return to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend. Because it was at Talladega in the summer of '81 that all the pieces first came together that would unite Childress, Earnhardt and Wrangler. "I had already talked to Dale at the track earlier that day," Childress said, "and put our deal together." Later, at the long-gone Anniston Inn just east of the track, he met with Phil Holmer of Goodyear, Wrangler officials and Joe Whitlock, who handled Earnhardt's public relations at the time. Earnhardt had won the 1980 title while driving for team owner Rod Osterlund, but when the team was sold mid-season to J.D. Stacy in '81, the driver wanted out. A deal to run the final 11 races of the season was struck, with Childress and Wrangler. By year's end, Earnhardt had managed six top-10 finishes, but the strong runs were offset by mechanical issues and parts breakage. "We ran good, but I knew we didn't have what it took to run him for a championship," Childress said. Dale Earnhardt talks with Richard Childress after the two reunited in 1984. Dale Earnhardt Jr . remembers that season, in particular his father's second start with Childress. "I remember the race at Bristol where you had the accident on pit road that second race that dad drove for you in 1981," Earnhardt Jr. said Wednesday. "I was there. I know that because one of my most favorite photos of me and my father, they basically had these two tires stacked on top of each other and I'm standing in the wheel to get a better perspective to watch the race. I must have been 7 years old. "But Dad is standing with me and we're both watching the rest of the race; the car is in the background too damaged to continue. But my favorite photo of me and my father actually happened that day at Bristol." At the suggestion of Childress, Earnhardt left at the end of the year, taking the Wrangler funding with him to sign with veteran team owner Bud Moore. Childress hired driver Ricky Rudd, and a late deal put Piedmont Airlines on the car and helped stabilize the organization. Wrangler officials, knowing his dire financial situation, had kicked in an extra $50,000 at year's end to help Childress keep his operation upright. "That really helped me going into the following year," Childress said. What would have he done without it? "It's hard to say," he said. "I never look back. I just look ahead and that was one of those deals that helped me look ahead. I don't know where we would have been without it." Before the '84 season began, Childress said Wrangler officials wanted to reunite, with Earnhardt once again driving the No. 3 Chevrolet. The Earnhardt/Moore union had produced just three wins over the course of two years. Childress was more than willing to agree. "I'll never forget Bud told me at Riverside, 'Boy, that boy will break you,'" Childress recalled Moore telling him of Earnhardt. Instead, the pair flourished. A Legacy Continues In 2010, Earnhardt brought the brand back to the race track for a one-off race, winning the XFINITY Series event that summer at Daytona International Speedway . The car, prepared by his own JR Motorsports group, sported the No. 3 and a paint scheme similar to his father's. He continues to serve as a spokesperson for the company, and says it is "amazing" that the relationship has endured for so long. "My father first had Wrangler on the side of his car at the end of the 1980 season; he won the championship with Wrangler on the quarter panel of his car racing at Ontario in 1980 for the final race of the season," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Then he went into 1981 with Wrangler as a full-time sponsor. And we're still working together today. "I'm very proud of that relationship, very proud that it spanned so many years. Typically, relationships just don't last that long. So it says a lot about Wrangler and what they get out of the sport itself; their connection to race fans and the legacy of the Earnhardt family and Richard, everything that Richard and Dad did together."
Bowman at 'Dega in No. 88: 'Big shoes to fill'
NASCAR.com's Jonathan Merryman talks to Alex Bowman as he acknowledges that he has 'big shoes to fill,' driving the No. 88 at Talladega Superspeedway for fan favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
NASCAR Inside Track: Sponsor search and hero honored by the Brickyard
Rick Horrow talks about Kentucky Speedway's tribute to Sprint as the series searches for a new entitlement sponsor and talks how Indianapolis Motor Speedway's honors a hero as the namesake for the Brickyard 400 .
Staff picks for Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
RELATED: See all the cars lined up for Sunday's race Jimmie Johnson : "The focus is rightly on Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart this weekend. Away from the spotlight, though, Johnson and his No. 48 team finally get back on track with a dominant showing -- and "Six-Time" ties Gordon with his fifth career win at the Brickyard ." -- Brad Norman Tony Stewart : 'Smoke' has been on a roll and no place means as much to him as the Brickyard . -- Kenny Bruce Kyle Larson : " Fueled by a landmark victory at Eldora Speedway and increased team performance, expect Kyle Larson to ride a wave of momentum into the Brickyard , backing up his two Indy top-10s by landing in Victory Lane for the first time in his Sprint Cup Series career." -- Pat DeCola Martin Truex Jr. : Furniture Row Racing puts all the pieces together, shedding any bad luck for another crown jewel win to pair with its Coca-Cola 600 triumph. -- Zack Albert Jimmie Johnson : " He's won here four times before and it's time for his frustrating summer to end." -- Holly Cain Tony Stewart : "Equipped with a third-place starting position for his final Brickyard 400 run, look for Indiana native Tony Stewart to continue his hot streak up front -- and eventually in Victory Lane." -- Jessica Ruffin Ryan Newman : "The Rocket Man has been close the past two weeks (seventh at Loudon, third at Kentucky) and qualified sixth at the Brickyard , so let's go with Indiana's forgotten son to pull off the upset on Sunday. After all, his last Sprint Cup Series win came at Indy (2013)." -- George Winkler Kyle Busch: " The Sprint Cup Series champ is starting on the pole and I think he's going to stay there to bring home his second consecutive Brickyard win. Also, with Saturday's XFINITY Series win under his belt, Busch is eyeing a sweep again, a feat that's only been done by him." -- Taylor Nunnally Carl Edwards : " The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has the speed this weekend and his quiet summer is about to come to an end with his first Brickyard win." -- RJ Kraft Jimmie Johnson : Four-time Indy winner is due for a Brickyard win and this weekend could be the year "Six-Time" ties Jeff Gordon for the most wins at the 2.5-mile track. -- Maggie MacKenzie Make your picks in Streak to the Finish !
Johnson looks to cure cold spell at the Brickyard
RELATED: Johnson through the years " See all the winners at the Brickyard SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Jimmie Johnson looked comfortable and calm taking questions from the media Friday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The six-time Sprint Cup Series champion's No. 48 Lowe’s Red Vest Chevrolet was fastest in the day's opening practice here and seventh quickest in final practice. The historically tough 2.5-mile track has been a positive outlet for Johnson. His success at Indianapolis – four wins – is undeniable, but it is also sporadic. And overdue. Johnson won three times at Indy in four years between 2006-2009 – a mark both unmatched and highly impressive. He added a fourth victory in 2012 and then nearly a fifth in 2013 when he finished runner-up. Only Jeff Gordon (five wins) has won more here. The flip side of the success is that three times Johnson has finished 36th or worse. He was 14th and 15th in his last two races at Indy. And his need to add another win here in Sunday's Crown Royal presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at the Brickyard (NBCSN, IMS, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is as much about turning his season around in pursuit of a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title as it is attaining Indianapolis-specific glory. "We love big events, that's one thing about Hendrick Motorsports,’" Johnson allowed, smiling. "We look at the 500 and the 400 and all big races as an opportunity; and are excited for it." Johnson was the first driver in 2016 to collect multiple trophies winning the second week of the season at Atlanta and then again three weeks later at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. But in the last 10 races, he's crashed out three times and had only a single top-10 finish – a third-place finish at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600 . In fact, four of his finishes in this stretch have been 25th or worse. Before a 12th- place finish from the pole position at New Hampshire last week, Johnson uncharacteristically crashed out in back-to-back races with a 35th- place showing at Daytona and 32nd at Kentucky. He's currently eighth in the points standings, however, he is fourth on the Chase Grid because of his multiple wins. "I guess last week is kind of a good example of some of the difficulties we've had," Johnson said of New Hampshire. "We had competitive cars all running in the top 11 and in one corner we lose two of them. "It's been tough, but I think we have a good foundation to build from. We have respectable finishes in our cars, but nobody wants to be a decent finisher or a respectable finisher. We all want to dominate. And, we're working real hard on all fronts; from our engine shop, chassis shop, aero, teams, pit stops, and all of it." Contrary to what other teams may be experiencing, Johnson said it's not that his team isn't trying hard enough to return to form. It may be they are trying too hard. "And that's the problem," Johnson said. "I've been at 110 percent and you make too many mistakes there. And I think our team has, too. So, that's one thing we have recognized and we're going to really try to dial back and make sure that we run where we should. "If we have a fifth place car that week, let's be sure that we at least finish fifth. Maybe there's some opportunities to give us a chance to win, but stop making mistakes. And, I've got to do that, first and foremost." Johnson said he was even open to having the team’s "new driver" Jeff Gordon give feedback on the cars since Gordon – who retired last year – is filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this week at Indianapolis and next week at Pocono while Earnhardt continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms. "We're months in, and I feel like all the drivers have expressed where we could be stronger and what we might need, but a fresh set of eyes and I guess it is kind of biased, but versus the four drivers in unbiased evaluation of the car and where we stack-up and how the engine feels compared to others," Johnson said of possibly getting Gordon's opinion. "And Jeff has had a unique opportunity to see the sport from a totally different angle; and certainly watching cars and I know he's formed some opinions watching other race cars and where the Toyotas might beat us. So, to be able to sit in the car and look for those opportunities and moments, I think will be helpful for us, for sure." The recent struggles are certainly an unfamiliar position for team owner Rick Hendrick, who was just selected for the 2017 NASCAR Hall of Fame class. He's grown much more accustomed to winning championships or at the very least challenging for titles. Recently his team has been challenging simply to finish a race. But righting the course is something everyone expects. And the trick is doing it sooner than later. "It seems like when it rains, it pours," Hendrick said. "I think at Daytona we wrecked three or four cars. And then we went to Kentucky and wrecked again. We were in good shape in New Hampshire, but wrecked again. I've been doing this long enough that you can't stay on top forever. You have to work hard to get back. And I think we've made a lot of improvements. "I think we'll see some, hopefully, this weekend. But, you never like having a curveball. This is kind of one of the toughest things you have to go through as one of your star drivers can't drive. And so, the encouraging news is that everybody just stepped up and is working harder. "We're determined to work in every area from the engine to the chassis and aero and everything. And the teams are excited. It's kind of our 'refuse to lose' belief. But we didn't need this, for sure. We didn't need the wrecks we've gone through. Our place looks like a salvage yard where all of the cars have been tore up. But that just makes us dig harder." And Johnson appears ready to lead the charge. "We're all highly inspired to get back on top of the mountain, that is where we feel we should be at Hendrick Motorsports," Johnson said. "We've just got to clean it up on all fronts. Hopefully we have it all together here and can win."
Chase By The Numbers: Talladega
As four more drivers face elimination in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, here are some statistics to keep in mind at the most unpredictable track in NASCAR.
Filled with Indy memories, Patrick looks to better season at the Brickyard
SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- Danica Patrick is always the first to remind you that her success competing in the Indianapolis 500 does not necessarily translate directly in her quest to win her first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at the historic track. But she remains optimistic about the good juju the speedway tends to send. And after a frequently frustrating season in the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, Patrick welcomes any change in success – at Indy or otherwise. The vibe here is tangible. "I totally feel it," Patrick said. "I think that it's probably undeniable on some level; even just driving back into the track and seeing the Pagoda all lit up which is what I love seeing when I come in through the Turn 2 tunnel. Seeing that and just having spent so much time here. "I feel it. And having great memories. That always helps." Indianapolis is undoubtedly the venue that propelled Patrick into worldwide vernacular. She finished fourth as a rookie in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and backed it up with a career-best third place in 2009 -- the best-ever finish for a woman in the race. The talent, fame and promise she showed in IndyCar -- created and punctuated by her showings at the great Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- provided her opportunity to shift career paths and give stock cars a go. But her results racing at Indy in NASCAR haven't been up to Patrick par. She hasn't finished better than 27th in three Sprint Cup Series tries at the track. She scored that career-best last year after finishes of 30th and 42nd in her first two stock car starts. "I don't think they all have been really bad, but I think it's tough for me," Patrick acknowledged Friday before Coors Light Pole qualifying for Sunday's Crown Royal presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at the Brickyard (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). "Do I miss running in the top five? Of course I do. Especially for casual fans, it's very easy to understand. But a top five for me now is a top 15 right now. And it's just different. In stock car racing there's so many more cars and there's so much that goes into it and there's so many of these guys who have just been at it for so long. "Especially with my lack of stock car experience before I jumped into it, I didn't start off racing dirt. I didn't start off in Late Models and things like that and work my way up. The car itself is challenging. It's a work in progress and I think that at any point in time, when everything is right, it can be a breakthrough and a great result. By great, it's a top 10; maybe a top five." Rolling off the grid 24th in Sunday's 400 -miler, Patrick comes to Indianapolis ranked 24th in the point standings and is still looking for her first top-10 finish of the year. A 14th-place run at New Hampshire last week is her best showing since posting a season-high 13th-place finish at Dover in May. Patrick said she and new crew chief Billy Scott are still getting familiar with one another. It's her third crew chief in four seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing as the team looks for the best combination. Certainly as the schedule starts to revisit tracks for a second time, she is more hopeful -- make that expectant -- of signs of progress. Half of her six career top-10 finishes have come at tracks still to come on the schedule -- Kansas, Martinsville and Bristol. "There's constant car revisions that get done and updates to cars that get done throughout the season," Patrick said. "Every single week that work is done in the wind tunnel. So, things are very evolving from the car perspective. But, there are a lot of things that go into a race other than just the car. And so, having a set-up when you first start the weekend that's closer than when you went there the first time is a great thing. "We don't really get that many shots at making the car that much better when we get there. It's more about optimizing what you have. So, hopefully that will be a good second-half of the season for us to have that foundation established between rules, crew chief, me; and I know that none of us are happy running 20th. I'm not. It's miserable. So, we want to do better."
Busch picks up Coors Light Pole Award in search of Brickyard defense
RELATED: Full starting lineup " See the full field SPEEDWAY, Ind. – A sweep at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is nothing new to Kyle Busch. But this year, he started early. With a lap at 184.634 mph (48.745 seconds) in the final round of Saturday's knockout qualifying, Busch claimed the pole position for Sunday’s Crown Royal 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, IMS, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Earlier in the day, the driver who swept both the NASCAR Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series races at Indy last year earned the pole award ahead of the heat races prior to Saturday afternoon’s Lilly Diabetes 250 XFINITY race. But the Sprint Cup pole that completed the Saturday sweep was special, because it was the first for Busch at the vaunted Brickyard . "I haven't been great at qualifying here, but the guys gave me a great piece this time around, and I'm real pumped about that," said Busch, who claimed his second Coors Light Pole Award of the season and the 19th of his career. "We're starting first in both of these (races), and hopefully we can end that way. "It means a lot (to win the pole). It's definitely pretty special to be running the way that we're running and to have the success that we've had here the last couple of years at Indy, and I’d love nothing more than to try to win here again." Busch’s No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was .023 seconds faster than the No. 19 of teammate Carl Edwards (184.547 mph). "I was happy with my lap," Edwards said. "I was surprised Kyle got me. That was a good lap for him – I mean, that was a good lap that he ran because I felt like my lap was pretty good – but, yeah, it's frustrating right now to be second because it's so close, and the pole position is obviously huge here. "But by tomorrow, the race gets started and I think I'll be pretty happy with that starting spot, so just good job by all my guys." Making his last appearance at Indy as a Sprint Cup Series driver, Tony Stewart earned the third starting spot with a lap at 184.328 mph and knew exactly where he had lost critical speed. "I just wish I could do lap three (final round) one more time and not clip the apron in (Turn) 4," Stewart said. "I think we could have been on the pole." RELATED: Stewart discusses his qualifying effort Denny Hamlin qualified fourth, giving JGR three of the top four spots. Brad Keselowski in fifth has the top Ford. Ryan Newman , Kevin Harvick , Martin Truex Jr. , Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson will start from positions six through 10, respectively. The time trials were a disappointment for the Hendrick Motorsports drivers, who failed to place a car in the top 12. Jimmie Johnson ran the fastest lap of the day in the first of three rounds, touring the 2.5-mile speedway in 48.435 seconds (185.816 mph). But the six-time series champion failed to advance beyond the second round, losing the 12th and final position to Kurt Busch by .008 seconds. Johnson will start 13th, Chase Elliott 15th and Jeff Gordon , subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. , who is out with concussion-like symptoms, claimed the 21st spot on the grid. "I felt really comfortable right there," said Gordon, who was 15th fastest in the first round. "I feel like today I’m much calmer than I was yesterday (in practice). Usually, my heart is beating more for qualifying than it is for practice, but that wasn't the case. "So, today I feel more relaxed and comfortable in the car. I hope to feel the same way tomorrow. Tomorrow's challenge is going to be being around traffic, and also trying to get the balance of the car right and do that when you're by yourself as well as when you're around other cars." Josh Wise failed to make the 40-car field. </p>
Talladega history shows second in points far from secure
RELATED: Series standings " Chase Grid " All you need to know for Talladega The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup elimination-style format is in its third year and the 2016 postseason marks the last time that Talladega Superspeedway will serve as a cutoff race for the Round of 12 as the playoff field drops to eight drivers. The Talladega and Kansas Chase races will flip-flop their spots on the schedule in 2017, making Kansas the Round of 12 cutoff race. In previous years, "The Big One" has wreaked havoc on the postseason picture, leaving drivers who looked like near-locks to advance on the outside looking in as the championship battle continued. Bad luck at Talladega always seems to find at least one Chase driver. In the past two years, the driver second in points (and the first driver not locked in by a win) entering Talladega has failed to advance. Both times that has been a Joe Gibbs Racing driver; Kyle Busch in 2014, Denny Hamlin in 2015. This year, Matt Kenseth , a JGR driver, enters Sunday's Hellmann's 500 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) in that same position. Will bad luck strike JGR three years in a row? NASCAR.com examines how the Chase eliminations played out at Talladega the past two years. (*) on chart indicates that driver won a Round of 12 race to lock up a spot in the Round of 8.