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RCR, Menards renew partnership in XFINITY Series
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! WELCOME, N.C. -- Looking to continue building success both on and off the track, Menards has renewed its partnership with Richard Childress Racing 's NASCAR XFINITY Series program for a fifth year. Menards will serve as a primary sponsor for select races throughout the 2017 season with Paul Menard and Ben Kennedy driving the No. 2 Chevrolet and Brandon Jones in the No. 33 Chevrolet. "We are excited that the 2017 season is upon us," said Jeff Abbott, Menards spokesperson. "We look forward to once again partnering with RCR, Paul Menard , Ben Kennedy and Brandon Jones in the XFINITY Series, and having three quality race car drivers working hard as teammates and competitors. Our tremendous group of racing partners look forward to seeing Paul, Ben and Brandon in Victory Lane." Menard will be back behind the wheel of the No. 2 Menards /Richmond Chevrolet Camaro for select XFINITY Series races during the 2017 season, while also competing full-time in the No. 27 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for RCR. The Eau Claire, Wisconsin, native has a strong history of success in the XFINITY Series, having captured three wins, six pole awards, 38 top-five and 93 top-10 finishes. Twenty-year-old Brandon Jones and the No. 33 Chevrolet Camaro also will be carrying the Menards banner again alongside the Menard's No. 2 Chevrolet. The Atlanta native qualified for the inaugural XFINITY Series Chase last season, while securing 17 top-11 finishes, to end 2016 10th in the XFINITY Series points standings and third in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings. As RCR's full-time driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet Camaro in the XFINITY Series, Jones is prepared to turn all that he learned and accomplished in his rookie year into consistently high performances throughout his sophomore season. Ben Kennedy , coming to RCR from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series , also will pilot the No. 2 Menards Chevrolet Camaro at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 15. The 25-year-old made his XFINITY Series debut last season with RCR at Iowa Speedway , in which he secured a 10th place finish, and will compete in select races in the No. 2 Chevrolet throughout the 2017 season. " Menards continues to showcase their commitment and dedication to both RCR and the NASCAR XFINITY Series with the renewed support for Paul Menard , Brandon Jones and Ben Kennedy ," said Richard Childress, CEO and Chairman of Richard Childress Racing . "It's great to feature such a winning company and their variety of vendor-partners both on and off the track and we hope to continue their success this season." Since the 1970s, Menards has a strong history as a racing sponsor, which includes a win in the 2011 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with driver Paul Menard . A family-owned company started in 1960 and headquartered in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Menards has 305 retail store locations throughout the Midwest.
Kaz Grala sneaks by last-lap 'Big One' for win at Daytona
RELATED: Race results " Series standings DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In the space of 100 laps, Kaz Grala went from youngest NASCAR national series pole winner at Daytona International Speedway to youngest NASCAR national series race winner at Daytona. What happened between the first green flag and the checkers, however, could fill volumes. Miraculously, Grala slipped through a wild wreck on the backstretch on the final lap of Friday night's NextEra Energy Resources 250 to win the first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race contested in stages under NASCAR's new competition format. That final wreck, ignited when Ben Rhodes spun from the outside lane off the bumper of ThorSport Racing teammate Grant Enfinger, wiped out veteran contenders Johnny Sauter , Timothy Peters and Matt Crafton . RELATED: In-car look at last-lap melee But Grala -- 18 years, 1 month and 26 days old -- drove through the melee as trucks bounced off each other like pinballs on either side of him. Grala claimed the trophy for his first national series victory and the five playoff points that go with a race win under NASCAR's new scoring system. Austin Wayne Self took the runner-up spot, followed by Chase Briscoe, and the father-son combination of John Hunter Nemechek and Joe Nemechek in fourth and fifth. "That was freaking awesome! I can't believe we won Daytona," Grala said in Victory Lane. "I couldn't see a lot there. I knew it was a little bit risky. It was the last lap, and we had to do what we had to do. "I saw coming out of (Turn) 2 it starting to get crazy. There wasn't going to be any way I was going to be lifting (off the accelerator). I was just going to go low, cross my fingers and close my eyes a little bit. "Luckily, it worked out for me. I just can't believe it. It's so surreal." Self put it much more succinctly. "When all hell broke loose, we were in the right spot." The race didn't wait until the last lap to get crazy. On the second lap, Briscoe, racing for the first time in the Truck Series, gave Noah Gragson's Toyota an off-center tap on the rear bumper, sending Gragson bouncing off the outside wall in Turn 1 and out of control. By the time the smoke cleared, 17 trucks -- one more than half the field -- had sustained varying degrees of damage in the wreck. RELATED: One lap in, wreck shakes up Daytona field Gragson, Austin Cindric and Ryan Truex couldn't continue. Same for Ross Chastain and Clay Greenfield . John Hunter Nemechek stayed on the lead lap but fell victim to a flat tire as Stage 2 of the race came to an end with Sauter in the lead. "I took a few hard hits out there," said Gragson, who was unhurt in the wreck. "Just a bummer. I didn't want to end the race like this, but I had a good time for the lap I got. "Felt like the 29 (Briscoe) hit me in the wrong part of the bumper going through the tri-oval. It just got me loose, and it got pointed into the outside wall." In the final 60-lap stage, all four GMS Chevrolet pitted early on Lap 68. Though Spencer Gallagher and ultimate sixth-place finisher Scott Lagasse Jr. drew speeding penalties while exiting pit road, Sauter reclaimed the lead, with Grala trailing him, when Christopher Bell 's Toyota got loose in Turn 4, slowed and spun off the bumper of Timothy Peters ' Tundra. Sauter, the defending series champion, looked to be in control of the race until John Hunter Nemechek 's spin off Turn 2 on Lap 95 of 100 caused the fifth and final caution and set up a chaotic two-lap run to the finish. Wrecked on the backstretch, Sauter was credited with a 15th-place finish but collected two playoff points for winning both the first and second stages, each lasting 20 laps. Bell, one of the preseason favorites for the championship, sustained heavy damage in three wrecks, including the last one, but his seemingly indestructible No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota Tundra made it to the finish line in eighth-place, salvaging a respectable result from a potentially disastrous night. &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Sponsor sync: ThorSport, Menards rebuild after fire
RELATED: Full schedule for Daytona Speedweeks ThorSport Racing's 2016 campaign will be remembered as a season of recovery, overcoming the trials of a mid-June fire at its Sandusky, Ohio, headquarters. The blaze sparked a gutsy fight through the balance of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series schedule, with the four-team operation scrapping and improvising to fulfill its full-season mandate. Little more than seven months have passed since the hardship, but ThorSport is on the verge of seeing the rebuilding effort through to completion. Credit the organization's pluck and perseverance, but also a serendipitous sponsor relationship. Menards , a Midwestern home improvement chain, was instrumental in helping ThorSport's reconstruction project, providing the materials and blueprints for rebuilding a significant portion of the team's 100,000-square-foot home. The Eau Claire, Wisconsin-based business returns for the 13th season of its long-running association with ThorSport's No. 88 Toyota and driver Matt Crafton , a two-time series champion. That sponsor and team coalesce in such a mutually beneficial way has helped the Duke and Rhonda Thorson-owned team operate at virtually full strength with the season just weeks away from kicking off at Daytona. " Menards has always been more than just a decal on the side of my Toyota Tundra," Crafton said in a release provided by the team. "They have been a true marketing partner, and I'm honored to continue this partnership with them for the 13th consecutive season. For them to provide a hands-on approach, and be so involved in the rebuild of our shop, was truly remarkable. "From planning, to execution, to building materials, they have been an asset to the entire project. It speaks volumes on their commitment not only to me, and this No. 88 team, but the entire organization." Crafton had won two races and one pole position in the first seven events of last season, before the fire forced ThorSport to find alternate locations to prep its trucks. The ensuing scramble took its toll, with Crafton admitting, "I knew it was going to hurt us, but I had no idea it was going to hurt us as bad as it did." RELATED: ThorSport drew strength during recovery The organization used a supermarket parking lot as a makeshift workplace for several days and spent time at a trailer manufacturing facility before receiving a helping hand from Ohio sprint car racer Chris Andrews in the form of shop space. All the while, ThorSport and Menards specialists collaborated to restore the most heavily damaged sections of the shop -- a rear portion that housed the fabrication and machine shop departments. George Sharp -- the operations manager for the racing team's parent company, ThorWorks Industries -- said an engineer from Menards was sent to work directly with the team's building contractor. Furthermore, the materials and plans for the rebuilt section of the shop came from a packaged kit available at Menards . "With this happening in the middle of the season, the goal was to get the team back in the shop as soon as possible," Sharp said. "Day by day, the team started moving back into portions of the shop. We expect the rebuild to be completed around the end of January. There is absolutely no way we could have made that happen without the help of Menards ." The restoration has included upgrades -- a more efficient layout and additional windows for improved lighting. Crafton indicated that only final touches remain before ThorSport opens its 22nd season in the Camping World Truck Series, intent on moving forward and ending a winless streak that stretches back to last spring. "It's going to be a huge motivator," Crafton said. &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
The First-timer's guide to the Daytona 500
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! RELATED: Read more Inside Groove So, you’ve decided to attend your first NASCAR race -- how exciting! You’ve chosen the Daytona 500 , the greatest spectacle of stock car racing, conquered by heroes like Jeff Gordon , Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and Trevor Bayne . Here are some tips and tricks on how you can make your maiden trip to this year's Daytona 500 the most enjoyable experience at the track possible. -- Wear sunscreen! The sun is hot in Daytona Beach. It's common practice to wear a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of your favorite driver's car number. Don't have a favorite driver yet? Jamie McMurray is a popular choice -- he's No. 1, really. --During the race, you'll hear a lot of people seated around you shouting, "Go Dale Jr.!" This is normal. Junior Nation has been asked to remind their driver to keep going -- he's been out of the car for a few months and his fans are trying to be helpful in case he forgot how to do his job. -- Purchase tickets well in advance of the Daytona 500 ! You can no longer arrive at the hallowed grounds of motorsports and expect to answer the Grand Marshal's three riddles to gain entry to the race. Times have indeed changed. -- Bump drafting is NOT encouraged in the line for the bathrooms. Trust me. Leave it to the professionals. -- On Lap 14 of the Daytona 500 , you'll be asked to hold up 14 fingers in honor of the now-retired Tony Stewart . Be sure to comply, lest you be ribbed and taunted by fellow racegoers for the remainder of the event. -- It's customary to perform "the wave" on each of the race's 200 laps as the pack races by where you're seated. Remind your neighbors of this if they forget. -- If you fall off your boat into Lake Lloyd, simply put yourself in a bag of rice for 24 hours to dry off. -- It'll be SUPER awkward walking into the track wearing your Scott Speed 2012 team t-shirt. Stop by the merchandise tent as soon as possible if that's the case. -- Upon gaining entry to the track, you'll be handed a race program that explains the race festivities. It's part of your ticket agreement with the track that you list the program for sale on eBay immediately following completion of the race. -- When 40 cars bolt past you at full speed after the green flag waves, the noise can be rather startling. Most race car drivers, however, are quite respectful if you give them a "shush" as they race on. Don't be shy -- race car drivers are people, too, and they're happy to comply with a fan's polite request! -- In the event of rain, the race will be delayed until the track is sufficiently dried. Avoid sitting in the grandstands for hours, thinking the cars will come back around the track any time now -- it's quite likely the cars are actually stopped on pit road, disguised by car covers! -- Do not utter the words, "Drivers, start your engines!" before the official command is given by the Grand Marshal. Reciting this phrase could startle drivers into accidentally starting their race cars sooner than expected -- and you don't want responsibility for that magnitude of disaster on your hands. -- Open bowls of cereal are not permitted in the facility. Finish those flakes and leave your bowl in the car before you attend The Great American Race! Better yet, meet up with other racing/cereal enthusiasts at one of the designated "cereal bowl zones" in the parking lot outside the track. -- You'll notice the cars look quite a bit different in person than they do on TV. That's simply because the camera adds ten pounds. Enjoy your slimmed and unfettered view of those speed machines! -- When there's a crash on the track, the cars always seem to end up at the end of skid marks. That means trouble! When you start to see skid marks appear, recite the customary Daytona skid marks chant to alert race fans around you: " Women and men 'round these hallowed grounds; hark -- now rise -- for trouble abounds!" -- Before the race begins, airplanes will fly in formation over the track -- this is called the "fly-over" and it's perfectly normal. Don't feel embarrassed -- you didn't accidentally go to the air show instead of the biggest race of the NASCAR season! -- Most food vendors within the gates of the race track do not offer free refills on cans of Monster Energy. -- Speaking of food vendors, try out some Daytona 500 specialties! Ask for the secret menu to get access to delicacies like "Race Puppies," "Busch Ears," "Cassill Greens," "Dale's Famous Gus Drops," and Daytona's own "Pasta Logano," named after the 2015 winner of The Great American Race. -- Fellow fans wearing a shirt bearing your favorite driver are required to return all high-fives and fist bumps. Promptly report any suspicious refusals to return high-fives to track security. -- If you forget to print out this guide and bring it with you to the track, just remember DAYTONA: -- DAY le Earnhardt, Jr. is a common driver for whom you can cheer in case you forget the name of your favorite driver -- TON y Stewart isn't racing in the Daytona 500 this year -- he retired. (Remember, 14 fingers on Lap 14!) -- A good idea would have been to print out the First Timer's Daytona 500 Guide. Most of all, have fun and enjoy yourself! In most cases, you can head back home at the conclusion of the race. It's the mark of a Daytona novice to accidentally sit in the grandstands for weeks following the race -- don't embarrass yourself! &amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;gt;
'Cars 3' gears up for season-long ride with NASCAR
SHOP: Cars 3 NASCAR-related merchandise RELATED: Drivers thrilled to be a part of Cars 3 DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. -- Disney•Pixar's "Cars 3" is teaming up with NASCAR this year as crowd favorite Lightning McQueen prepares to return to the big screen June 16. Plans for the joint effort were shared by "Cars 3" director Brian Fee, Cristela Alonzo -- the voice of the film's elite trainer Cruz Ramirez -- and NASCAR's vice president of entertainment marketing and content development, Zane Stoddard, today at the Daytona International Speedway in Florida as fans gear up for the DAYTONA 500 (Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on FOX). Owen Wilson, the voice of Lightning McQueen, will serve as grand marshal for the 59th annual "Great American Race." NASCAR drivers Chase Elliott , Ryan Blaney , Daniel Suárez and Bubba Wallace will join NASCAR legends Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty as voices in the upcoming film. "'Cars 3' very much pays homage to stock car racing and its rich history," Fee said. "Our story leans into the drama, emotion and excitement NASCAR fans find at every race." "We're excited to take part in delivering the 'Cars 3' experience to our current and next generation of fans, at-track, in school, online and across the country," Stoddard added. "In addition to all the engaging NASCAR 'Cars 3' elements industry-wide, we think our fans will really enjoy the roles of several young drivers in the film." According to Lylle Breier, senior vice president worldwide marketing partnerships and special events for the Walt Disney Studios, the movie inspired an expanded program with NASCAR. "This collaboration marks the biggest between the 'Cars' franchise and NASCAR," Breier said. "We're looking forward to a fun and exciting season-long program with a host of activities." FAST FORWARD Kicking off at the DAYTONA 500 with the premiere of a new on-air promo, the NASCAR-"Cars 3" collaboration continues throughout the entire race season. * The joint effort will include a variety of marketing initiatives, including digital and social cross promotional activities and sweepstakes. * Throughout the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series , races will feature a "Cars 3" at-track presence via a wide array of promotions. * A co-branded merchandise program with Fanatics -- the first of its kind for NASCAR and the "Cars" franchise -- will also kick off at the DAYTONA 500 featuring the first film-related product available for fans to purchase. Product will be available at the Fanatics Trackside Superstore continuing at race tracks throughout the season, as well as online at the NASCAR.com Superstore . * NASCAR Acceleration Nation, the sport's youth program, and the NASCAR Hall of Fame will be featured throughout the duration of a "Cars 3" nationwide tour. * Later this year, NASCAR and Disney will release NASCAR Acceleration Nation and "Cars 3" co-branded in-classroom learning materials for elementary school students. THE VOICES OF NASCAR The announcement included the introduction of NASCAR greats -- from rookie drivers and legends to the voices behind the sport -- tapped by Pixar Animation Studios to voice characters in the film. * CHASE ELLIOTT , 21, was named 2016's Sunoco Rookie of the Year after finishing last season 10th in the driver standings. Elliott, who pilots the No. 24 car previously driven by four-time champion Jeff Gordon , lends his voice to second-generation Piston Cup racer CHASE RACELOTT in "Cars 3." Racelott's blend of skills, track smarts and top-of-the-line technology make this rookie a real contender. * RYAN BLANEY , a 23-year-old, third-generation racer, pilots the No. 21 Ford in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series. He voices third-generation racer RYAN "INSIDE" LANEY in "Cars 3." Known for his racing passion and ability to have fun on the track, Laney races with talent, speed and precision. * DANIEL SUÁREZ , who just turned 25, pilots the No. 19 ARRIS Toyota Camry in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series . The 2016 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion can be heard in the film voicing DANNY SWERVEZ, a next-gen racer who's ascending the Piston-Cup ladder against all odds. A mid-season replacement, Swervez is a quick learner who pushes himself to the limit. * BUBBA WALLACE , 23, won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville Speedway in 2013, becoming the first African-American to win in one of the top three touring divisions since Wendell Scott in 1963. In "Cars 3," Wallace voices next-gen stock car racer BUBBA WHEELHOUSE, a fast and tenacious young racer who knows how to win. * DARRELL WALTRIP , the NASCAR Hall of Fame racer-turned-NASCAR on FOX color analyst lends his voice to DARRELL CARTRIP. Cartrip, a veteran Piston-Cup announcer also heard in "Cars" and "Cars 2," may think he's seen it all -- but this new season might still have a surprise or two in store. * SHANNON SPAKE , NASCAR on FOX correspondent and college football and basketball reporter for FOX Sports, voices on-the-track reporter SHANNON SPOKES in the film. Spokes weaves her way into the middle of the action for in-the-moment interviews, and she's not afraid to ask racers the tough questions. * HOWARD AUGUSTINE "HUMPY" WHEELER JR ., the legendary NASCAR promoter and former president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway , lends his voice to iconic Dinoco team owner TEX DINOCO in "Cars 3." Tex, who met Lightning McQueen in "Cars," would love nothing more than to see No. 95 decked out in Dinoco blue. * JEFF GORDON , four-time NASCAR champion, current NASCAR on FOX analyst, and story consultant for "Cars 3," lends his voice to JEFF GORVETTE. Gorvette, whose number of top-10 finishes remains unmatched, may have hung up his racing tires -- but his heart remains on the track. His ability to succeed at all levels turned hoods wherever he raced. * RICHARD "THE KING" PETTY , team owner and champion NASCAR driver with 200 wins, returns to the role of STRIP "THE KING" WEATHERS. From his humble beginnings on the Piston-Cup circuit to the glitzy sponsorship and media attention, the champion racer now serves as crew chief for his nephew, Cal Weathers. * KYLE PETTY , retired NASCAR driver and current NASCAR commentator on NBC, helps bring CAL WEATHERS to life in "Cars 3." Weathers grew up around the track watching his uncle, Strip "The King" Weathers, tear it up. The veteran racer finds himself taking a step back to make room for the next generation on the track. * MIKE JOY is FOX Sports' lead NASCAR announcer who will call his 38th DAYTONA 500 this Sunday. He lends his iconic voice to on-the-spot radio talk show host MIKE JOYRIDE in the movie. Joyride stays one step ahead in the racing news game by keeping a keen eye on where the racing season is headed. * RAY EVERNHAM , winner of three NASCAR championships as crew chief for Jeff Gordon and current consultant to Hendrick Motorsports , lends his voice to RAY REVERHAM, Jackson Storm's crew chief, and an expert at training in the cutting edge technology and tactics being used by the next-gen racers. Evernham also serves as a story consultant for filmmakers. LIFE-SIZED CHARACTERS NASCAR fans can picture themselves with Lightning McQueen and Cruz Ramirez -- or at least life-sized cars designed to look like the big-screen characters. The Cruz Ramirez lookalike premiered in Daytona on Thursday, alongside No. 95 -- the Lightning McQueen car made its debut at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in January. Comedian and actress Cristela Alonzo got to hang with her character lookalike at the event. "I am excited to be here as race fans get to see these two life-sized characters together for the first time," Alonzo said. The Lightning McQueen and Cruz Ramirez lookalike cars are slated to make appearances at select races throughout the season as part of a "Cars 3" nationwide tour. Joining them on the tour will be a lookalike of Lightning McQueen's on-track rival, Jackson Storm. GOING GRAND As previously announced, Owen Wilson, the voice of Lightning McQueen, will serve as grand marshal of the DAYTONA 500 this Sunday, Feb. 26. Wilson has provided the voice of the red car in all of the "Cars" films. ABOUT THE MOVIE Blindsided by a new generation of blazing-fast racers, the legendary Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is suddenly pushed out of the sport he loves. To get back in the game, he will need the help of an eager young race technician, Cruz Ramirez (voice of Cristela Alonzo), with her own plan to win, plus inspiration from the late Fabulous Hudson Hornet and a few unexpected turns. Proving that No. 95 isn't through yet will test the heart of a champion on Piston Cup Racing's biggest stage! Directed by Brian Fee (storyboard artist "Cars," "Cars 2") and produced by Kevin Reher ("A Bug's Life," "La Luna" short), "Cars 3" cruises into theaters on June 16. &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Johnson's humble start in sport make quest for title No. 8 more remarkable
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! RELATED: Johnson ready to tackle new format DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Words of encouragement and inspiring slogans fill the window separating Daytona International Speedway 's "Fan Zone" and Jimmie Johnson 's garage stall. There are dozens of congratulatory messages alongside several "I love yous" scribbled in yellow marker. One note simply says "win." Even fans wearing other drivers' souvenir hats and memorabilia make a point to stop by , peer in and see what the reigning seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship team is up to. People are lined up five and six deep outside Johnson's pit stall window all day, every day. "I think people used to boo Jimmie when he was constantly winning, but people are understanding now (that) he's an awesome driver and they're starting to like him more," said Kevin Waring, 43, of Schenectady, New York -- donning Jimmie Johnson gear from head to socks. He brought his whole family -- including his Harvick-Elliott-Logano-loving wife Tammy and kids Chase, 12, and Chelsea, 8 -- to their first ever Daytona 500 . And he's quite optimistic about seeing "his" favorite driver walk away with a trophy. And a historic eighth championship. "Jimmie is a down-to-earth guy, you see it every time he does an interview and he's a family man like I am," Waring said. "He's won a championship every way you can, by points, in the Chase, and they're changing things again this season. And I think people are beginning to respect that more. I think they're coming around. I really do." The two-time Daytona 500 winner Johnson will start the "Great American Race" from the rear on Sunday. He had to go to a backup No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet after an incident in Thursday's Can-Am Duel qualifying race. MORE: Johnson to run in backup car His fans aren't overly worried by the circumstance, however. Johnson claimed his record-tying seventh Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November by winning the race despite starting last in the field. One of the most easy-going, popular drivers among his competitors, Johnson himself has noticed a distinct -- some would say seismic -- shift in the sport's vast audience. Fans may not have initially been sure what to think of this laidback, California dirt-bike racer-turned one of the greatest NASCAR champions of all time. He was too nice, too approachable, too humble, too talented -- and somehow that didn't immediately play into the comfort of NASCAR fandom. But the fans now seem to appreciate the hard work Johnson has always put in and certainly, if nothing else, the opportunity to watch a legend become legendary. "I think it was ... not only did I stop giving him advice, I started going to him for advice," said Johnson's former teammate-turned FOX Sports analyst Jeff Gordon . In some regards it's been easier for Johnson to earn trophies than it has to convince NASCAR's hardcore fans to accept and appreciate his championship form. He still has a good laugh at the reception he often gets -- although the boos are noticeably softer. How can someone be disliked because -- as fans are quick to claim -- he is too good or too nice? But it has long been a common anomaly in this sport. "Certainly more fans are eager to get the autograph," he acknowledged, laughing and shaking his head, still admittedly unsure what is expected of him. What he expects of himself is a far simpler notion. He is quick to say he has surpassed his own expectations. At just 41 years old, Johnson has already become the youngest seven-time champion in NASCAR history, younger than both Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt when they hoisted their seventh titles. His 80 wins are most among active drivers and he needs only 14 more to pass Jeff Gordon for third place on NASCAR's all-time wins chart. David Pearson's 105 wins are second to the great 200 -race winner Richard Petty. Johnson has won no fewer than four races a year in the last five seasons. He's won multiple races in all 15 years he's competed full time -- including a personal best 10 trophies in 2007. These are marks -- from race trophies to championship rings -- unlikely to be repeated anytime soon, if ever. So the question Johnson gets now is whether he can win that historical eighth Cup championship. His team owner, recent NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Rick Hendrick, joins many who think it should be considered a very legitimate opportunity. "You know I think Jimmie is in the prime of his career with the way he goes after things, the way he works out, Chad and their time together," Hendrick said. "I think to me, getting the seventh (championship) was the challenge. It's hard to explain but I think it took some of the pressure off just getting the seventh. "And now, he can just race and if eight happens, great. I think he's got as good a shot as anybody out there. It's exciting. And one of the neatest things was to watch the crowd when he won (at Homestead) and see all the people in the stands get up. They saw history. We've said it before but Dale Earnhardt will always be 'The Intimidator' and Richard Petty will always be 'The King' but Jimmie has a shot to do something that, through different situations, he can be in a position all on his own. "He's as cool about it as I've ever seen him. I don't think there's any pressure on him. And we don't feel the pressure now that we've tied it. I think he's got as good a shot as anyone and now until the end, he knows how to win. "We're just honored to have what we have but looking forward to having the opportunity to do something no one else has done." If the thought of eight titles is head-shaking to fans, it is equally as jaw-dropping to Johnson. His start in the sport was humble, with a surplus of networking and winning paving the road to success. His stardom in the sport is a combination of hard work, talent and grit. "I got a phone call to run a late model race in 1997 for Hendrick Motorsports ," Johnson recalled. "Five days later I bought a one-way ticket, called (former Camping World Truck Series champion Ron) Hornaday and moved to Charlotte and just spent every day of the week going to lunch spots and passing out business cards. "Any business card I got, I'd write a letter and send to the person. I got a fax machine so if I got a business card from someone I would add their fax number for the Chevy press release that went out after my off-road races. "I was obsessed with networking and establishing myself." Johnson smiles when recalling his humble start, something he thinks people forget about when they see him now as a NASCAR superstar. "I don't think I could have had this healthy lifestyle doing what I had to do then," allowed Johnson, who is a successful triathlete in addition to winning in his race car. "I wouldn't have made it. I wouldn't have stood out as the guy super hungry who wanted it so badly. Plus, it took some time to learn these cars and learn the industry. "I think the timing has worked out well for me and helped me prolong the second half of my career, but the first half I really had to be the guy at Big Daddy's restaurant eating hushpuppies or that gas station by DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.) where there was barbecue on the side. "I'd literally go over there and sit with a big sweet tea and pass out business cards. It's all kinda served its purpose." It has indeed. And so Johnson begins his historic quest for eight -- with the wonderful and rare security of knowing that he's already legend-worthy. His dedication to being fit, to being prepared mentally, to maintaining a competitive edge, isn't really about making history, however. It's about the thrill of winning, of making a living doing something he so genuinely enjoys. And is so incredible at. "No, I don't (feel I have to) win eight," Johnson said breaking into a grin. "But I'm sure as hell going to try." &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Penske proves plate tracks take more than just luck
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! RELATED: Logano signs new long-term deal DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- If the headline to this story doesn't read: Logano says, 'I don't know what the hell I'm doing,' don't blame the Team Penske driver. "That's the headline right there," Logano says, laughing. Clearly that isn't the case. When it comes to restrictor-plate racing, Logano, 26, obviously knows a thing or two. In fact, he and teammate Brad Keselowski have become two of the best at understanding the nuances of the draft and pack racing on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ' two biggest venues -- Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway . Since the fall Talladega race of 2014, the two have won six of nine races at the two tracks, including Logano's win in the Daytona 500 two years ago. Last season, the duo went three-for-four in plate races. "I've learned a lot about this whole thing, mainly because I just started studying it," Logano said of his recent success in plate races. "I had to." There was a time, he said, when he bought into the belief that success on the restrictor-plate tracks was simply a product of luck. Finding oneself in the right place at the right time. Choosing the right line instead of the wrong one. Guesswork at 200 mph. "But when you look at statistics, that's not the case," he said. "If it was luck, there would be a different winner every single time. But it's not." It's strategy. Understanding the draft and not only which moves to make, but when to make them. Likewise, the crew chiefs have to understand "what to do and when to do it. Spotters understanding everything," he said. "I guess as a driver and as a team we put the effort into it and we see some results because of it. What does Roger (Penske, team owner) say all the time? 'The harder I work the luckier I get?' " It's also being able to process all that information, combine it with what a driver knows about his car and those around him and making decisions in the blink of an eye. Something of what Keselowski describes as a "culture change" at Team Penske has had an impact as well. "I think we got really tired of people saying that restrictor-plate tracks were about luck," the 2012 series champion said. "And the culture really changed for us when, as a company, we decided this isn't luck anymore, this is a concerted effort to put on your best moves, your best face, your best cars and quit saying it's luck. "As soon as we stopped saying that at Team Penske we had a lot more success. I think it's a lot more about culture than anything else." RELATED: Logano nabs victory at 'The Clash' after wild final lap Physically, restrictor-plate racing might be the easiest form of NASCAR competition. Mentally it's the most taxing. "Mentally you're just completely shot," Logano said. "It's like your computer is just on overload with all the information. And some computers work quicker than others, right? It's a mental race." Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr ., who will start on the outside of the front row for Sunday's Daytona 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR) is an accomplished plate racer. So too are Denny Hamlin ( Joe Gibbs Racing ), the defending Daytona 500 champion, Kevin Harvick ( Stewart-Haas Racing ) and Kyle Busch (JGR). Toss in Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray as well. Logano said he isn't surprised that those are the drivers most often competing for wins and finishing in the top five on a regular basis at Daytona and Talladega. "They just get it," he said. "They know what to do. They make these moves on the race track and you go 'Yeah!' You'll see only those guys do it. "Every now and again you'll see those moves happen and you're like 'They knew what the hell was going on.' It all came together. And then you see other people that go for it and sometimes it doesn't work out; they may luck into one every now and again, they may completely lose it and go all the way to the back. Some guys just ride and they pick them off as some cars go backwards. But you're never going to get to the lead that way. "You have to be confident in your decision and the only way you're confident is through prep. Without preparation you can't be confident in anything. That's how I look at it." Keselowski scored his first Monster Energy Cup Series win in a restrictor-plate race, at Talladega in '09. It was career start No. 5 and helped open the door to his arrival at Team Penske . Five of his 21 career wins have come on the plate tracks. Looking back on past races, Keselowski said he's "almost embarrassed" by what he sees. "Because I see all the moves that were open," and not taken, he said. "I think that speaks to just having the experience and to learning the tactics and those changing, evolving, being developed. "Certainly the sport has changed and the drivers continue to get better. But the basics continue to be the same -- you've always had to have a good car to win this race. You're going to have to have a good car to win it this year, but you're going to have to have those tactics right."
Kurt Busch seeks to snap Daytona 500 hex of runner-up finishes
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! MORE: Busch through the years " Busch marries fiancée DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Three hundred and fifty-five days. Give or take a week, perhaps. That's how long losing the Daytona 500 sticks with you, according to Kurt Busch . And Busch, driver of the No. 41 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing , should know. Three times Busch has been in position to win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season-opening event. Three times he has been denied, taking the checkered flag before everyone else except for the race winner. Second is a lonely place. Others have finished second in the 500-mile race held annually here at Daytona International Speedway more often than Busch. NASCAR Hall of Fame member Dale Earnhardt finished second five times. Fellow Hall cohort Cale Yarborough did it four times. Dale Earnhardt Jr . has been runner up four times, as well. But the sting of a second-place finish in the season's biggest event isn't as painful when there are Daytona 500 trophies in the trophy case, and that's the case for the Earnhardts, Yarborough and a host of others. For Busch, the lack of a Harley J. Earl trophy, presented to the Daytona 500 victor, is the lone omission on an otherwise solid resume. He's a former series champion (2004), and enters the 2017 season with 28 wins over a 17-year career. This year's race, scheduled for Sunday (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be his 16th attempt at being known as a Daytona 500 champion. "You go with all the optimism you can to win it," Busch said. "You apply all the knowledge from years past being so close to try to win it. (But) it sticks with you." WATCH: Busch and Kenseth talk Monster Energy, Daytona 500 Restrictor-plate races contested at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway haven't been kind to Busch, although he did win an IROC race at Talladega in 2003 en route to the championship for that four-race series. He's also won the non-points "The Clash" at Daytona as well as one of the Can-Am Duel qualifying races that determine the bulk of the lineup for the 500. "But both those (Clash and Can-Am) wins were when we were doing the tandem (draft)," Busch said of the NASCAR victories. "I mastered the tandem really well I felt like." What he's yet to master, he said "is the aggressive blocking, making the car as wide as it can be at the end of the race to hold that position. "I was in position, I thought, to win the April race at Talladega last year and Brad (Keselowski) got around me at the end. I made a mistake. Coming to the line here in July running second, third, behind Brad. Joey (Logano, Keselowski’s teammate) is behind me pushing and I got spun coming to the line. "So many close opportunities and yet nothing to show for it as far as a points win. I just have to be more aggressive and strategic in blocking at the end."
Duel win slips away, but no rust on Junior's return performance
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! MORE: Duel 1 results " Duel 2 results DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr . was two laps away from potentially winning for the first time since November of 2015, leading the second of two Can-Am Duel qualifying races here Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway . Then Austin Dillon cleared the No. 41 of Kurt Busch , slid up in line behind second-place Denny Hamlin and Earnhardt's goose was cooked. With no drafting help from behind, Earnhardt could do little but watch as car after car zoomed by on the high side. By the time the freight train had passed, Earnhardt was battling just to get back inside the top five with one more trip around the 2.5-mile layout remaining. "I was hoping he would go with me but I would have probably done the same thing he did," Earnhardt said of Dillon's move. "He finished fifth. He pushed that 11 in the lead, he was in second; it didn't really work out that awesome for him." Dillon's No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing finished just one spot ahead of Earnhardt's No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, which led 53 of 60 laps. It was Earnhardt's first competitive appearance since mid-season of last year. He sat out the final 18 races of the season after suffering concussion-like symptoms. WATCH: Hamlin, Dillon slide by Junior If there was any rust, it wasn't evident. Earnhardt, who will still start on the front row of Sunday's Daytona 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR) battled briefly with Hamlin in the early portion of the qualifying race before settling down to lead 23 laps. Ryan Blaney ( Wood Brothers Racing ) won the race off pit road and led three laps before Earnhardt moved back on point at Lap 31. And for most of the remaining laps, it was vintage Earnhardt, one of the series' best at restrictor-plate racing and a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 as he was able to move high and low to keep the lines of traffic in his rear-view mirror. Until the very end. "I felt great," he said. "I felt like I'm a really good plate racer, there are some guys out there that are sure picking it up. Denny is one of them, (Joey) Logano ... there are a few other guys that sure make it harder to win these things each time we come here. But I felt great out there." Hamlin is the defending Daytona 500 winner. Dillon is a four-year veteran but still searching for that first trip to Victory Lane in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series . Both had capable rides Thursday evening. "I think that we just worked together the entire race," Hamlin said of Dillon's move that got him to the front. "It's no different than if it was the other way around ... I'd have a hard time not pushing him to a win." As long as the drivers ran side- by -side behind Earnhardt and Hamlin, the two lines of cars kept each other in check and unable to make a run on the front two. That changed when Dillon was able to slide in behind Hamlin and leave a big gap with no help behind the race leader. "Maybe if he would have gone with me we might have run first and second," Earnhardt said. "You never know. He did what he had to do and I might have done the same thing. "Denny had such an awesome run. The 3 (of Dillon) is feeding off that energy and had that same momentum. He's got to take his opportunities to try to get to the front. Hell, he might have won the race, you never know, if a couple of things had worked out for him." </p>
'Get Away, Your Way' with Allegiant
MORE: Enter the Allegiant sweepstakes Imagine winning a sweepstakes and getting to choose your prize! That's exactly what's happening now that Allegiant is sponsoring the Allegiant's "Get Away, Your Way NASCAR® Championship" Sweepstakes. The sweepstakes runs from Feb. 23 through May 31 and gives a fan (and one lucky guest) the opportunity to take a dream NASCAR®-themed vacation to either the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ™ awards ceremony or Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season finale race. Giving the winner a choice fits with Allegiant, which offers ultra-low base airfare and the best deals by letting you customize your trip. Customers can save even more with Allegiant by booking flights, hotel, rental cars and even activity and attraction tickets together for less. Now, let's look at the prize packs for each dream vacation so you can start to think about which trip you'd rather take: The NASCAR® Champion's Week prize includes: -- Tickets to exclusive NASCAR Champion's Week™ events -- Unparalleled access to NASCAR drivers and VIP celebratory fan events -- Round-trip airfare and hotel accommodations -- Welcome amenity kit -- Partner amenities via Allegiant However, if the awards ceremony isn't what you had in mind, then how about the trendy beaches of Miami instead? The Season Finale Race Weekend prize includes: -- VIP access for Two for the NASCAR XFINITY Series ™ and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ™ championship races -- Pace car rides and pre-race VIP access -- Round-trip airfare and hotel accommodations -- Partner amenities via Allegiant Sound intriguing? The sweepstakes is free to enter -- simply go here by May 31, 2017 . There is no purchase required. See official rules for details.