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;
Drivers celebrate Valentine's Day, get mushy on Twitter
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! RELATED: Read more Inside Groove Ah, can you feel it? Love is in the air -- and on the interwebs. Some NASCAR drivers took to Twitter to celebrate Valentine's Day 2017 and give special shoutouts to their sweethearts, while other, more single drivers took the opportunity to channel their inner Kate Winslet (looking at you, Noah Gragson.) Here's the best V-Day tweets we've seen on Twitter this February 14. Since we aren't spending this years Valentines @ the track I have been alerted that trip 2 drug store 4 candy/stuffed animal wont pass tech. — Dale Earnhardt Jr . (@DaleJr) February 14, 2017 How Junior celebrates at the track " Dale gets V-Day gift from ... 'Rowdy? ' ❤️ pic.twitter.com/4nu6yx7Fdv — Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) February 14, 2017 Happy Valentine's Day to my girls! #luckyman #valentines pic.twitter.com/5xHoGWphus — Ryan Newman (@RyanJNewman) February 14, 2017 I saved % on Valentine's Day this year by switching to single — Alex Bowman (@AlexBRacing) February 14, 2017 Scrolling through tinder on Valentine's Day like: #ThankGodILostTheBeerGut pic.twitter.com/GnxV7uhk34 — Alex Bowman (@AlexBRacing) February 14, 2017 I love you with all my heart. Happy 1st Valentine's Day My Wife. pic.twitter.com/7PUJ1Om3NA — Kurt Busch (@KurtBusch) February 14, 2017 Happy Valentines Day Trish! This year was a great one! Looking forward to the rest of our lives… https://t.co/gO0ZPpDToY — Casey Mears (@CJMearsGang) February 14, 2017 It's moments like these when my heart finds a way to get just a little bigger in loving you. ❤… https://t.co/GKudbGOglB — Danica Patrick (@DanicaPatrick) February 14, 2017 My man knows the way to my heart - workout equipment!!!!! He also got me a @trueformrunner for… https://t.co/YEUDddOTtc — Danica Patrick (@DanicaPatrick) February 14, 2017 Happy #ValentinesDay . Remember @landoncassill Love's you. pic.twitter.com/BXUeNV9ihK — FrontRow Motorsports (@Team_FRM) February 14, 2017 This i promise you https://t.co/euJ9vb4yk3 — landon cassill (@landoncassill) February 14, 2017 Hello Gorgeous. This one is for the ladies out there. Happy Valentine's Day! #TextMe pic.twitter.com/iZ7HOhLeDR — Noah Gragson (@NoahGragson) February 14, 2017 Feeling love today Love for my Snapchat that is. Lol. Fun photoshoot w/ @KBMteam today. Add my Snapchat for something special @DISupdates pic.twitter.com/ow4mMpnL1H — Myatt Snider (@MyattSnider) February 14, 2017 Happy Valentine's Day and thank you @ZappaOMatic for this awesome card haha ❤️ https://t.co/UxY1mKMdC6 — Matthew DiBenedetto (@mattdracing) February 14, 2017 Happy Valentine's Day!! Especially to my beautiful wife @ShannonLKoch pic.twitter.com/vNJiGVGrdR — Blake Koch (@BlakeKochRacing) February 14, 2017 Happy Valentines Day beautiful you have been with me threw good and bad and have always stood by me. I love you @HaliBerger pic.twitter.com/9hdZkBItbV — Cameron Hayley (@CameronNHayley) February 14, 2017 Happy Valentines Day @LucyK_Says ! Thanks for making everyday special! pic.twitter.com/Gx231d3gfU — Timmy Hill (@TimmyHillRacer) February 14, 2017 Happy Valentine's Day to everyone! ❤️ — Jeb Burton (@JebBurtonRacing) February 14, 2017 Happy Valentines Day @Caseyhaimes13 ! Love you pic.twitter.com/jmSVkZqwMX — Chad Boat (@ChadBoat) February 14, 2017 ❤️ — Michael Waltrip (@MW55) February 14, 2017 Happy Valentine's Day to my beautiful, fun loving fiancé @cortneydryden ! Love ya babe https://t.co/V2G8okTI67 — Jeremy Clements (@JClements51) February 14, 2017 Happy ❤ Valentines to my two favorites in the whole world. Love you both more than you will… https://t.co/4McSQL1vba — Justin Allgaier (@J_Allgaier) February 14, 2017
Drivers thrilled to be a part of 'Cars 3'
SHOP: Cars 3 NASCAR-related merchandise RELATED: Cars 3 gears up for season-long ride with NASCAR DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Even though Daniel Suarez enjoys a degree of celebrity status as a driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series , he couldn't help but be a little starstruck, himself, Thursday morning. "You guys have no idea how happy I am to be side-by-side with this car right now," Suarez said, standing alongside a life-sized model of Lightning McQueen, the animated star of Disney-Pixar's "Cars" franchise, in the media center at Daytona International Speedway . Suarez is one of a dozen figures in the NASCAR industry getting the Hollywood treatment in the third installment of the automotive feature film franchise. While several familiar voices -- including those of stock-car legends Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty -- will return to the big screen for "Cars 3," the film's storyline will feature a new crop of drivers vying for the fictional Piston Cup. That's where Suarez, along with Ryan Blaney , Darrell Wallace Jr . and Daytona 500 pole winner Chase Elliott enter stage left. The four young drivers will get their own animated roles, transforming into Danny Swervez, Ryan "Inside" Laney, Bubba Wheelhouse and Chase Racelott for the film, which opens June 16. "It's amazing. I'm a huge fan of 'Cars' movies in general," Suarez said. "When I was living in Mexico with my parents, it was natural to watch those movies and have all different kind of little cars, pillows, remote controls -- I'm a big fan of it, and now to be a part of it, it's a big deal for me." Trailers for the movie have been out for weeks, but Thursday's announcement officially launched a collaboration between the Disney-Pixar team and the NASCAR industry. Actor Owen Wilson, who is the starring voice of McQueen in all three Cars movies, will help kick off the tie-in as the grand marshal of Sunday's Daytona 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM). The initiative goes beyond merely lending voices to the sequel, but stretches to at-track appearances, merchandise and co-branded learning materials for elementary school students through the NASCAR Acceleration Nation youth program. But the movie's story arc also draws parallels from NASCAR's current trend, of a growing youth movement that's making its mark in its regional and national series. "It's kind of just replicating what's happening out on the track in real life," Wallace said. "It's just really cool to be a part of 'Cars 3.' What's special is I have my little nephew who's 3. He's still understanding everything, but I think right around the corner he's going to be ready to watch 'Cars.' So I've got to sit him down and watch 'Cars' 1 and 'Cars 2' with him to get him hooked on it, and then bring him to the race track so he can start representing some Bubba Wheelhouse merchandise. "But it's really cool to be a part of this younger generation coming up in the movie, just like in real time." &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
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>
Storied 'Great American Race' gets new wrinkle: stages
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! RELATED: See the stages for every 2017 race DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Daytona 500 turns 59 on Sunday, just one year shy of a solid, round milestone number. But the otherwise ordinary anniversary has a momentous wrinkle thrown in. For the first time in its history, the "Great American Race" will be run in three stages -- 60, 60 and 80 laps -- with points incentives to the top finishers in each segment. It's an infusion of a new-school format, transposed against the backdrop of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ' most prestigious event. The significance isn't lost on the 40 drivers who will take the flag in Sunday's 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), and neither is the bounty of bonus points that will be available. It's a tantalizing carrot, one that could alter teams' approaches as each race plays out this season. "I think that's the biggest thing -- it's going to change the strategy," said Kevin Harvick , the 2007 Daytona 500 winner. "I think there is going to be a lot of strategy involved. Late cautions in (stages) or the timing of the (stages) … if there is an early caution … do you stay out and gain the points and pit later? There's going to be a lot of strategy that will mix the field up more than we've seen in the past. … "There's really no time to relax and I think that's going to create a bit more of a chaotic atmosphere for the fact that there is so much to get and if you don't aggressively go out and try and get those things, you're going to get behind really fast." The lure for drivers at the end of the first two stages are regular-season points awarded to the top 10, plus a bonus point for a stage winner to carry into the playoffs. That format will be in place for all 36 points-paying races through the season. The scoring system is no different for the other 35 events, but Sunday's opener has the weight of the Harley J. Earl Trophy and a career-changing victory at the end of the third stage. RELATED: Fast facts on the race enhancements " Changes in NASCAR for 2017 "I'd love to get those points, obviously, at the end of each stage, but I do feel like there's going to be people that wreck at the end of the stages," said Austin Dillon , who won the Daytona 500 pole position in 2014. "So, I don't know. If I'm running in the top three and I keep in my position, I probably won't pull out of it." While on-track discretion will remain in play, the format may have an unintended effect on restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and sister track Talladega in potentially discouraging the play-it-safe tactic of laying back of the main pack. Joey Logano , the 2015 Daytona 500 winner, said he imagines that stage strategy will evolve for crew chiefs over the course of the season, but that for him, there's little strategy to dither over. "For me as a driver, nothing changes because I'm as wide-open as I can be," Logano said. "I don't have a slower gear. It's high speed all the time and I'm gonna try to pass everyone every time I can, so that part doesn't change for me." &amp;lt;/p&amp;gt;
The Force is strong with Brennan Poole
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! RELATED: Read more Inside Groove Looking to land his first career XFINITY Series win, Brennan Poole will have a little extra help on his side this weekend at Daytona International Speedway -- the Force. Poole, the 25-year-old padawan driver, recently showed off his new helmet on Twitter, which pulls inpiration from Luke Skywalker's Rebel Alliance helmet in 'Star Wars.' Pretty stoked on how this this came out! Thanks @BEAMdesigns https://t.co/DTMwSYr6Rr — Brennan Poole (@brennanpoole) February 23, 2017 The force is strong. @brennanpoole just stepped up his helmet game! pic.twitter.com/R5M9z8XF59 — Chip Ganassi Racing (@CGRTeams) February 23, 2017 #LukeSkywalker @brennanpoole @DCSolar @BellRacingUSA #RebelAlliance #jedi @NASCAR_XFINITY #Daytona #beamdesigns #qualityhelmetpainting pic.twitter.com/WBi8B0hmfG — BEAMdesigns (@BEAMdesigns) February 23, 2017 Poole has improved his finishing position in each of his three XFINITY starts at Daytona, so it'll be interesting to see if the helmet can help him keep that trend going -- or at least make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.
Dale Jr. emerges from concussion rehab stronger, centered and ready to win
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! RELATED: Dale Jr.'s complete Daytona 500 history NEW YORK CITY -- A production assistant pins a lavalier microphone to the lapel of Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s suit jacket in a newsroom studio inside FOX News on Sixth Avenue. "One, two, three, four, five. Hello, hello," the 14-time NMPA Most Popular Driver says instinctively, without instruction from the PA. You can tell this -- the sound test, the back-to-back-to-back-to-back (and then some) interviews, the traipsing around the "Big Apple" to promote the 2017 Daytona 500 , everything -- feels normal to him, like second-nature. Not long ago, there was no such thing as normal for Earnhardt. The Hendrick Motorsports driver will make his return to points-paying competition in Sunday's "Great American Race" (2 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) after missing the second half of last season following concussion-like symptoms from wrecks at Michigan International Speedway in June and at Daytona International Speedway in July. The road back was a lengthy, arduous, winding trail filled with uncertainty and confusion. "You'd be doing something during the day and something would happen and you'd go 'Whoa, what was that? That was weird,' " Earnhardt told NASCAR.com, who tagged along with him for the day. "Just these little moments when you might get dizzy or you might forget about something that you think you shouldn't forget about. That used to happen all the time." Dale Earnhardt Jr . gets mic'd up. Earnhardt was cleared to race in December after months of rehabilitation and doctor appointments. He says he's fully healthy and recovered from his concussion, but don't hold your breath on him throwing out that cliché preseason line about being in the best shape of his life. RELATED: Watch Dale Jr.'s full interview from Daytona Media Day "I think I was probably at my peak physical condition at … 1? But since then it's all been downhill," Earnhardt joked. "I feel healthy. Mentally, I'm always sort of self-analyzing so I'm not having these things that would bring (the concussion) to my attention anymore. "The further you get removed from that stuff, the less you even remember it happening, or the less you think about it. When you go a day or a week never even thinking about the injury or the past, you're free from it. I feel great. Like I said, the doctors have given me a lot of confidence, just talking to them. They're like, 'Man, you're good. We feel good about this. We feel good about you racing. We feel good about you crashing.' You've got to have those." To get a sign-off from his doctors on crashing -- a near-certainty to happen over the course of a 36-race season -- is massive. The risk of another concussion will always be in the back of Earnhardt's mind after this most recent one kept him sidelined for so long. But he can't let that apprehension occupy him behind the wheel. "The wrecks and stuff are inevitable and I do worry. There's been crashes that I haven't had issues with, but there's been a few wrecks that I have had issues," Earnhardt said. "I don’t know … my doctors told me basically that I was healthy and if they thought I shouldn't race, they would let me know. They said, 'Look, we feel good about you racing. We feel like anything that happens … it's a dangerous sport and you're going to be at risk no more than you were before. Anything that happens to you, we can fix.' " Dale Earnhardt Jr . signs autographs for fans on the streets of New York. Talking to Earnhardt, it's clear 2016 was a year that challenged on many levels. It was also a year of tremendous growth and reflection that culminated -- quite literally -- with a marriage to longtime girlfriend Amy Earnhardt (née Reimann) on New Year's Eve, a topic that took center stage throughout his media tour at the "TODAY Show," FOX News, "The Dan Patrick Show," Inc. Magazine and "Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen." RELATED: Dale Jr., Amy Reimann get married on New Year's Eve Even if she did miss a question or two on the unofficially official " Dale Earnhardt Jr ." quiz on The Dan Patrick Show ( watch it here ), Earnhardt touts Amy's support and gives her nearly all the credit for his transformation. "I think I feel like a stronger, more complete person thanks to her. I hope that this isn't just a mood, that it's more permanent. I think we'll find out as we just get into the grit of the season, week-to-week and going from track to track and being tugged in all kinds of different directions by my responsibilities. Hopefully this sticks." With health in hand and a family life starting to come together at 42 years old, nobody would have blamed the 26-time winner in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for walking away before the start of his 18th full-time season. RELATED: Dale Jr. regals listeners with family storytime Dale Earnhardt Jr . with Andy Cohen of 'Watch What Happens Live' But the big news of the past week was Earnhardt's looming contract extension, with his current deal set to expire at year's end and a talented replacement champing at the bit for a full-time opportunity in Alex Bowman . RELATED: Dale Jr. discusses contract status Earnhardt won't walk away "until the gas tank is on empty," but he can't quite pinpoint when that'll be. He says any extension would be "no less than two, no more than three" years, but has put off negotiations with team owner Rick Hendrick until he knows he can commit, health-wise, long term. "I don't know (how much gas is left in the tank.) If I told you, 'Man, I've got three years,' I don’t know if I'd be telling you the full truth," said Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 winner. "I can't see, I can't feel it. I know I want to finish this year and if I finish … everybody keeps asking me about my goals for a successful season, and that's to finish every race. If I'm in every race, and not injured and not missing races, then that's a successful season. "I think that will propel me into a new extension. The only thing holding me up, really, is knowing that I can do it, health-wise. Knowing that I can be there every week. If I'm going to sign a deal to be there and work for my owner … I love this man like a father. And I don't want to tell him I can be there for three more years if I can't. I'm going to get a few months under my belt and get the confidence that we can start working on the extension and I think if we get there, I'm signing that extension with the intent of doing that contract. "Now, that might be the last one but I don't know. You just don't know these things. I mean, I know drivers -- and I won't say names -- but I know very, very successful drivers in this sport that five years ago were ready to hang it up, just fed up. And they're happier today than they've ever been." Earnhardt mentioned that he nearly walked away from the sport earlier this decade, but credited his support system for pulling him back. And he's thankful it did. "I've been down, down in the dumps," he said. "Hell, if I didn't have the right support system around me, I probably would've quit in 2010, 2011. I'm glad I didn't. We got this ship righted and got to winning some races and I've had the best time behind the wheel that I've ever had in my career for three or four years now. "So who says that if I stick around that it can't get even better? I want to see, I want to wait." RELATED: Dale Jr. on front row for Sunday's Daytona 500 &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;span _rtetemp=&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot;spchk&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot; style=&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot;background-color: #ffffaa;&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot; _rtespchksugg=&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot;Lt"alt"ult"flt"let"lit"lat"lot"ltd"t&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot;&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;am&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/span&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;p;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Get to the points: Drivers eye duel advantage
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! RELATED: Lineups for the Duels " How the Duels work DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The opportunity to earn points and possibly a berth in the season-ending playoffs for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series begins in earnest here this weekend as drivers prepare for Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway . The first chance for points will present itself Thursday as Daytona hosts the annual Can-Am Duels (7 p.m. ET, FS1), two 60-lap qualifying races that will set the bulk of the field for Sunday's main event. For the first time since 1971, drivers finishing in the top 10 in the Duels will receive points (10th for first through one for 10th ). The ability to earn points in this year's event impacts strategy. "It will make a difference for David Ragan ," the Front Row Motorsports driver said Wednesday during NASCAR's annual Media Day at Daytona. "For me, points are what matter to a smaller team," Ragan, driver of the team's No. 38 Ford, said. "And every opportunity we have to gain some points we need to capitalize. "A team like Kevin Harvick 's who can lead a lot of laps, they're going to be fast, win some races, they can overcome not scoring points in a segment. They're going to be able to score a lot of points quicker but for a team that will be running in the mid-teens or low 20s, if we can score points at some segments or in the Duels … that could mean the difference in making the (playoffs) or not making (them). "So I think we will be a little more aggressive when it comes to these opportunities to gain points." RELATED: Fast facts on the race enhancements Harvick, the 2014 series champion, wins with frequency. He'll be going after career win No. 36 and a second Daytona 500 trophy this weekend at the wheel of the No. 4 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing . Looming large for teams heading into the Duels is the potential for damage -- scarring up the primary entry for the Daytona 500 just to earn a handful of points is a risky proposition. "I still want to race my primary car in the 500," Ragan said, adding that some of his best finishes in the race have come in back-up entries. "So it's not the end of the world … but I don't want to take any unnecessary risks and do something stupid. But I will be looking to gain some points on Thursday." Pete Hamilton, driving the No. 6 Plymouth fielded by Spartanburg, South Carolina for car owner Cotton Owens and David Pearson, in the No. 17 Holman-Moody Mercury, won the two qualifying races in '71, the last time points were awarded in the for the events. Richard Childress Racing driver Austin Dillon isn't worried about protecting his car for Sunday's 500 -- a lackluster qualifying effort has the youngster and his team searching for speed and answers. RELATED: Dillon discusses how slick the track is "I'm definitely going to do what I can to grab points in the Duel," Dillon said. &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;gt;
Elliott: I'd stay home if I didn't think I could win Daytona 500
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! RELATED: Projected lineup for Daytona 500 DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Even in winning his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event, Thursday night's Can-Am Duel, Chase Elliott refused to consider himself the odds-on favorite for Sunday's Daytona 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). He does, however, like his chances. The 21-year old Elliott became the youngest winner in the Duels' great history with a 0.156-second win on the field. Three days ago, he won the Daytona 500 pole position for the second straight year. It's been a good week for the second-generation NASCAR star. "I definitely think we have a shot at it (winning Sunday). I mean, if I didn't feel that way, like I always say, I'd stay home," said Elliott, whose father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott , won both the 1985 and 1987 Daytona 500 s from the pole position. "I feel like we have a shot on Sunday. I feel like we had a shot before we got down here. "Tonight's result hasn't changed my opinion on that. I'm looking forward to it, obviously. You love to get that qualifying spot on Sunday, but we really earned it tonight, to start on the front row, which is even better. "It was definitely a great way to start the season. As I said, I know it's just a Duel win. You obviously wish it was Sunday and counted towards the playoffs, but it still means a lot to me. Means a lot to our team. Happy to have NAPA colors on tonight. Had some big steam under the hood, which is a huge factor in keeping us out front. "So glad we were able to race and stay aggressive and battle those guys. Hopefully we can dial it in just a little better for Sunday, give it another shot."
Changing planes, changing plans: One fan's journey to Daytona
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! What won't NASCAR fans do for each other? Not a lot. I want to tell you about the experience of one particular NASCAR fan this past weekend. Last Saturday morning, my brother Randy and his wife, Karen, both NASCAR fans, were traveling from Salt Lake City to St. Kitts with a change of flights in Charlotte. NASCAR fan Randy Bragg was traveling from Cleveland to Daytona Beach, also with a change of flights in Charlotte. The three happened to meet as they shared a table grabbing a bite to eat while waiting for their connecting flights. Bragg was decked out in NASCAR/Junior Nation gear and my brother, being his chatty and social self, struck up a conversation with him about NASCAR. Bragg explained to my brother that his trip to Daytona was admittedly set up to be a bit of a disappointment. You see, Bragg had purchased tickets for the Daytona 500 weekend, but had mistakenly arranged his plane ticket for the wrong weekend. He was still making the trip to Daytona despite the mix-up. My brother reached out to me from Charlotte and we immediately got the ball rolling to make sure Bragg's visit would be one that he wouldn't soon forget. Bragg, a former lineman for Cleveland Public Power with 15 years of service, is disabled after a long fight with astrocytoma -- a form of brain cancer. He is a survivor, having withstood 18 different surgeries about a decade ago. He continues to suffer from hydrocephalus and has three shunts that work to drain the water on his brain. When Bragg landed in Daytona, he went straight to the track where my colleague, Meghan Miley, met him with Clash tickets and a Hot Pass. Miley thought he was a family friend of ours and was unaware we'd never even met. While he wasn't a family friend at the time, he is now. Bragg made his way to his seat to enjoy the races and when the skies opened up that night, canceling the race, he was unable to find a ride service that would accommodate his motorized chair. His sister called me from Ohio, worried that her brother wasn't going to be able to find his way to his hotel. I called Bragg, we set a meeting point, loaded him up and went to find his hotel. He'd started from Cleveland at 5 that morning and was exhausted by the time he checked in. His sister was relieved that he was safe. Bragg texted me at 5 a.m. Sunday, saying he was ready to see some racing. I took his coffee order, stopped for donuts, picked him up and we headed to the track. Bragg had never been to a superspeedway before, so we took an up-close look at the DIS banking before heading to the garage. As we went under the tunnel he asked, "Is that the track above us?" We then grabbed breakfast with the NASCAR officials and had a chance to meet Daytona track president, Chip Wile. Bragg met a host of other industry folks and was absolutely amazed when Richard Childress spent a good deal of time with us that morning. Randy Bragg poses near the No. 21 car of Ryan Blaney . After Daytona 500 qualifying was complete, I told Bragg my family was headed to New Smyrna Speedway for the K&N Pro Series East opener -- and so off we went with our new friend to take in more racing. Bragg is someone who knows what he wants. On the way back to the hotel last night, he had me go through the drive-in at McDonald's where he ordered a large coffee with 5 creamers and 3 Equals and an apple pie. It seemed the perfect ending to a perfect day. Bragg had opened up to me as the day went along. His past 10 years have been trying, to say the least. In addition to the health challenges, his mother died last year, his marriage had failed, and he has two sons that he wishes he was more connected to. There's no telling what can happen when NASCAR Nation comes together. I see a lot of compassion every day in this sport. This is no isolated example -- it's part of who we are. I don't tell this story to say, "Hey, look at what I did." I share it to show that NASCAR is a little bit different from other sports and that difference is not insignificant. In this case, it boiled down to a handful of NASCAR fans (my brother, sister-in-law, and me) coming together to make sure that a fellow fan was taken care of. Mission accomplished. Jim Cassidy is Senior Vice President of Racing Operations for NASCAR.
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