Chase Elliott earns 21 Means 21 Pole Award at Talladega
RELATED: Lineup " See all 40 cars TALLADEGA, Ala. – Numerologists doubtless will have a field day with the front row for Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway (on FOX at 1 p.m. ET, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Touring the 2.66-mile race track in 49.704 seconds (192.661 mph) during Saturday's time trials, Chase Elliott put the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on the pole, making the 20-year-old rookie driver two-for-two at restrictor-plate superspeedways. In his first qualifying run as a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver, Elliott won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500 . The pole was the sixth at Talladega for the No. 24, the first five having been recorded by Jeff Gordon , who retired after the 2015 season and turned the car over to Elliott. And the pole run came roughly 30 years after Elliott's father, Bill Elliott , earned the top starting spot for the spring Talladega race with a lap at 212.229 mph, before restrictor plates were introduced at the superspeedways. Coincidentally, Bill Elliott also won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 1986. "This is definitely a special place," Chase Elliott said after his pole-winning run. "It's cool to get it done today. This is a team effort, and those guys and everybody at the No. 5 and No. 24 shop, in particular, and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports and the Hendrick engine department and obviously (sponsor) NAPA Auto parts. "But, man, this is cool. Those guys do such a good job. And as I said in Daytona, this had nothing to do with me. This is the car that we had. This is the same car we had in Daytona. They brought another fast one here." The car Elliott beat for the pole, the No. 3 Chevrolet driven by Austin Dillon (192.424 mph), also has a noteworthy history at Talladega. Driving the No. 3 for owner Richard Childress, Dillon’s grandfather, the late Dale Earnhardt collected nine of his 10 Talladega victories and all three of his Talladega poles. "There's a lot of history here with Dale and RCR," Dillon said. "A lot of good stuff happened with RCR here, so hopefully we can continue that streak of good runs for RCR here. We’ve got a car capable of doing that, obviously, with the qualifying effort, and I'd love for it to be my first Cup win." Dale Earnhardt Jr ., who has never won a pole at NASCAR's biggest oval track but has six race wins on his resume here, qualified third at 192.293 mph. Matt Kenseth (192.181 mph) claimed the fourth position on the grid, followed by Jimmie Johnson (192.116 mph) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr . (192.089 mph). The only other driver to top 192 mph was seventh-place starter Brad Keselowski (192.008 mph), a three-time Talladega winner. Ty Dillon qualified the No. 14 Chevrolet for Tony Stewart and earned the 14th starting spot, but Stewart will start Sunday’s race and will have to drop to the rear for the green flag because of the driver change. The plan is for Stewart, who returned to action last Sunday at Richmond after injuring his back during the offseason, to turn the car over to Dillon during the first caution of the race. Note: Josh Wise failed to make the 40-car field.
Chase for NASCAR Sprint Cup explained
As the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup turns 10, get the history, format and more
Kahne and able: With recent success, Hendrick driver poised for career revival
RICHMOND, Va. -- For the second time in three weeks, Kasey Kahne finished among the top 10 in Sprint Cup Series competition. There was a time in his career that would have been par for the course. Right now, it’s an extremely encouraging sign of renewal. Kahne is coming off his best finish of the still-early 2016 season -- a fourth-place run at Richmond International Raceway on Sunday. And it already equals his top effort of 2015 (three fourth-place showings) and puts him in reasonable position to better the mark of three top-five finishes he scored in both the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Simply put, it appears that Kahne, the 2004 Rookie of the Year, is back on track. His team regained the mojo that he regularly demonstrated just a few years ago with double-digit top-five runs (in 2012 and 2013) and multi-win seasons. It’s the kind of can-do that resulted in him being hired by the esteemed Hendrick Motorsports organization to compete under its banner for the 2012 season. And it’s meeting the high expectations that this powerhouse team has, considering Kahne’s teammates include six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson , perennial winner and the sport’s Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr . and the sport’s newest whiz kid, Chase Elliott , who replaced retired four-time champion Jeff Gordon ahead of this season. Listen to Kahne speak about the uptick in his finishing order and you might be surprised to hear the driver talk as much about the importance of good kumbaya as the comfort of having the best equipment in the garage. It’s the people that Kahne thinks make the difference. And while that may be a popular catchphrase, Kahne is convinced the belief in his team -- and second-year crew chief Keith Rodden -- truly has restored his course and energized the crew. "It just starts with the attitudes of everybody, from myself to the team," Kahne said. "How we all appreciate each other, work together, know that each particular person is there for a reason and is really good at what each one of us does. I think it’s more being together, being a group, a solid team. To me that started three, four weeks ago, and each week it seems to get better from the previous week. We’re going to keep heading in that direction. "I think the closer you get as a group, the closer you get with your crew chief, your engineers, the guys on pit road, the car chief, the guys building the race car, all of that is communication to me. All of that kind of makes the whole race on Sunday better when you are better in those areas." Judging by the results of Kahne’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team of late, it would be hard to argue with the philosophy. And while next week’s race at Talladega Superspeedway is typically considered a roll of the dice, Kahne has run well there -- even scoring runner-up finishes in 2006 and 2009. And he is even better at Kansas and Charlotte, where the series heads after Talladega. Kahne has four wins at Charlotte -- including a sweep of the 2006 season there -- and Kansas was one of his three top-five finishes in 2015. He has three pole positions in Kansas and five top-five finishes in his last nine races there. Although Kahne is hardly saying his team has "arrived," he does like the direction it has taken. This past weekend at Richmond, for example, Kahne qualified eighth and was second-fastest in final practice -- so the race result was not an anomaly. "When you have each other’s backs, you work together as a team and you keep getting better," Kahne said. "That’s where we’ve been. That’s where we’ve been excelling at. "I think there’s kind of consistency on the whole weekend. There’s more times I look at the scoring pylon and I’m at the top half rather than the bottom half -- whether it’s one of the practices, qualifying or race. "I think it’s a slow process, really. We were so far gone there for a little while, it takes time to start getting back to where we need to be. "We’re heading in that direction now, so it’s really nice.’"
Sprint Fan Vote: Current top 10 revealed
RELATED: Cast your vote now The Sprint Fan Vote is underway, and now, we have updates on (perhaps) your favorite driver. There's still plenty of time left to vote but, so far, the top-10 vote-getters are as follows, in alphabetical order: AJ Allmendinger , Trevor Bayne , Ryan Blaney , Clint Bowyer , Matt DiBenedetto , Chase Elliott , Kyle Larson , Casey Mears , Danica Patrick and Brian Vickers . Patrick, who won the Sprint Fan Vote last year and in 2013, is the first two-time Sprint Fan Vote winner. Elliott and Blaney are the current leaders in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year competition. Fans are able to vote daily by downloading the NASCAR Mobile App or visiting www.nascar.com/SprintFanVote. Votes that are shared on Facebook or Twitter will count for double, so make sure to post on your social media channels. So if you're voting for one of the 10 drivers above, get to it! If your driver isn't on the list, don't worry -- there's still plenty of time to help him or her catch up. Fans have until 5 p.m. ET May 20 to cast their votes. NASCAR will announce the winner of the Sprint Fan Vote in Victory Lane after the Sprint Showdown at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Friday, May 20 (7 p.m. ET, FS1/MRN/Sirius XM NASCAR Radio). The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race is scheduled for May 21. If any of the Sprint Fan Vote candidates wins in the races leading up to the Sprint All-Star Race, he or she will automatically earn a spot in the race and their name will be removed from the Sprint Fan Vote ballot. To purchase ticket packages for the Sprint All-Star Race weekend -- which includes the Sprint Showdown, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series N.C. Education Lottery 200, Andy Grammer pre-race concert powered by Rayovac and the Sprint All-Star Race and qualifying -- call Charlotte Motor Speedway at 1-800-455-FANS or visit CharlotteMotorSpeedway.com . Fans wishing to engage in the #SprintAllStar Race conversation through the #SprintFanVote window are encouraged to follow @MissSprintCup, @CLTMotorSpdwy and @NASCAR on Twitter.
Ben Rhodes: Chasing dreams on-track and on-camera
Ask some of the people who work most closely with Ben Rhodes about him and you'll get the same sense -- that the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series rookie isn't an ordinary 19-year-old. Ask his crew chief. "I've known this kid since he was 15 years old and he was always very mature, very respectful and acts older than he is," Kevin Bellicourt says. "I mean, the way he has shown maturity in the race car and everything around that, I do forget that he is 19 years old." Ask the sports director who co-hosts Rhodes' TV show -- yes, his own TV show -- in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. "I'll look at him sometimes and I'll just be like, 'Look, stop it. Just be a kid.' But he's not," Kent Spencer says. "He's definitely wise beyond his years." The wisdom has served Rhodes well in all facets of his budding NASCAR career, which carried him to the K&N Pro Series East championship in 2014 and a stint with the NASCAR Next youth initiative that identifies the sport's up-and-coming stars. The next step is a full-season campaign this year with powerhouse ThorSport Racing in the Truck Series, which makes its next stop Friday night at Kansas Speedway . Even in casual conversation, Rhodes' composure comes through in a calm that belies his age, less than one year removed from receiving a high school diploma. It's a collected nature that helps him feel just as at home in front of a TV camera's lens as he does behind the wheel. Rhodes doesn't have to balance a racing career with schoolwork any more, but his focus is far from singular. "It's full-time racing now, and it's full-time everything that has to do with racing, not just being on the track or working on the cars, but sponsors, events, fans -- which is cool," Rhodes says. "I really like that aspect of it. You can't be on the track without that." The story of how Rhodes came to be on the track isn't unlike the tale of other youngsters with a dream and a heavy right foot. But it's the unique wrinkles of his narrative that make Rhodes' story ready for prime time. Early beginnings Around their home state, where the term "racing" is most commonly associated with Thoroughbreds, it's fitting that Rhodes' career choice was galvanized by figuratively getting back on the horse. Rhodes had barely entered grade school when the itch for speed struck him. He recalls helping his older brother, Chris, try to emulate his father's practice of removing the governor from their go-karts, much to their mother's dismay. The recreational -- and occasionally unrestricted -- karting soon led to competition. "We were having a blast around the house," Rhodes says, "but when we hit the race track, it didn't really click at first and it took awhile before I got in a wreck to figure it out." Rhodes recalls crashing his first time out -- the leader coming around to lap him, clipping one of his back wheels and landing on top of his kart. The wreck naturally made him gun-shy, but it took another altercation to set his course toward making racing a lifelong pursuit. Rhodes' family vividly recalls that incident at the Clark County, Indiana, 4-H Fairgrounds, where the 7-year-old driver was on the receiving end of an intentional wreck for the first time. His family worked to repair his kart while the youngster seethed, intent on retaliation. But as Rhodes began to furiously charge back through the pack, something changed in his demeanor. "Once I passed the other guy, I didn't even think about wanting revenge or whatever, I just started having a blast," Rhodes says. "Passing cars was a lot more fun than getting passed, and that's when it all started clicking for me. We started working on set-ups and had just an awesome time doing it. It was an awesome family experience." Into NASCAR Those first forays led to progression and an eventual place in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at age 16. After a partial first season, his first full campaign in 2014 netted a remarkable five victories and six pole positions, with Bellicourt serving as his car chief. The performance drew the interest of JR Motorsports, which fielded Rhodes in a 10-race slate in the NASCAR XFINITY Series in 2015. After a seventh-place series debut at Iowa Speedway in May, Rhodes endured largely uneven results in the JRM No. 88, despite help from the team's fleet of Sprint Cup drivers -- Dale Earnhardt Jr ., Kevin Harvick , Chase Elliott and Regan Smith . "I learned so much from them, but the problem is it was hard to apply it," Rhodes says of his sporadic schedule. "You have to be in the car feeling it. I had a month between times (in the car) more than once before I could actually feel what they were talking about or actually apply it. All the momentum that you had was lost. It was just really hard for me to get adjusted to and just hard to keep the learning going, but the jump, I felt like if I ran the whole season, the jump maybe wouldn't have been that bad." An offseason to regroup also led to a new opportunity, as one of the newest faces at ThorSport Racing, a championship-caliber team with an evolving driver roster. In the offseason, Rhodes joined two-time Truck Series champ Matt Crafton , second-year driver Cameron Hayley and fellow rookie Rico Abreu under the watch of team owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson. The team's drivers have perennially lauded the resources that the Thorsons provide to compete at a high level. Rhodes found this out early on, when they sought his input to hire a crew chief for his No. 41 Toyota. He immediately thought of Bellicourt, who had just finished helping William Byron as crew chief for his K&N East championship run in 2015. In some respects, the job was a tougher sell than most, requiring Bellicourt to move from North Carolina to within reach of ThorSport's Sandusky, Ohio, shop. But it was also a commitment for his wife, his 11-month-old daughter and the baby the couple are expecting in early June. But the opportunity to move from the regional and touring level to a NASCAR national series was too good to pass up. After taking the leap, the driver-crew chief reunion went seamlessly. "The communication is back to where it was and it's like we never even left off," Rhodes says. "I remember the first time that he was up at ThorSport and I was there and we were having such a good time. None of the guys up there had seen us run before or work together, so when we came up there, they were like, 'We've got a feeling that you just brought your best friend in to work on these race cars.' That was kind of cool that we hit it off right away once again." Says Bellicourt: "We just have a good time. I understand what he's saying when he's talking about the truck, and he understands when I'm trying to make a point with him. His understanding of the race car has just come a long way since I first met him when he was 15. He understands that a lot, and all the set-up stuff. That just helps a lot, too, with the driver having that knowledge. We've just been able to roll with it so far this season." Rolling with it has meant gradual gains in the early stages of the year, but one accomplishment stands out -- winning the pole position last month at Martinsville Speedway . Though a late-race wreck saddled Rhodes with a midpack 16th-place result, the speed shown in qualifying and out front for 42 laps made a solid impression. "It felt really good to get the pole because it validates what we know that we have," Rhodes says. "We're trying to show others what my crew chief and I know. We have an awesome relationship and we know how to set up the race cars, we know how to get speed, it's just a matter of getting the experience together now. It just validates that." The fact that Sprint Cup star Kyle Busch was among the competitive field in qualifying that day didn't hurt the team's confidence, Bellicourt says. "You look at that and say there's no reason we can't run with any of these guys," Bellicourt says. "Now Ben knows it. We knew it before, but you always want to make it happen and then you just get that extra confidence. I know it, the guys know it, Ben knows it, and hopefully now everybody else sees what we're capable of. "We're looking to continue to do more of that to show that it wasn't just a flash-in-the-pan, one-time thing. We're going to try to do it at Kansas again." On the mic Rhodes has visions of keeping his racing aspirations going, climbing the ladder, chasing victories. But if his NASCAR dream somehow ended tomorrow, he has an entertaining backup plan -- in television. The 19-year-old is in his fifth season as co-host of "On Track with Ben Rhodes ," a 30-minute weekly show that chronicles his racing career and allows him to meet and interview personalities in the Louisville area. Kent Spencer -- the sports director at WHAS-11, an ABC affiliate in Louisville -- has served as the show's other co-host since its inception. "I'd met Ben before, but in kind of a different realm," Spencer says. "He was a young man trying to come up, went to a local high school, trying to make it in NASCAR, so we interviewed a few times there. This was obviously a different beast. He and I have a really good rapport together, we like to be around each other, so we kind of knew early on that this was going to work." The experience has allowed Rhodes to interact with community leaders from all walks of life. This season, Rhodes and Spencer have taken their show on the road, spending time with charitable organizations, returning to Holy Cross High School (the driver's alma mater), and paying visits to Churchill Downs, site of Saturday's 142nd Kentucky Derby. Rhodes' comfort on camera has grown not only in his hometown, but also during media sessions in the garage on race weekends. "I get to see and build new relationships with people, but it's also trained me to talk to the media and how to talk on camera," he says. "Before the show, I was really, really bad. Now that I've done the show for a couple seasons, I've done a lot better and it makes the job at the race track a lot easier for me." Even Bellicourt has noticed. "You give that kid a microphone and you're going to have to rip it out of his hand before he quits talking," he says with a laugh. "He's very outgoing and does a good job with that. He's kind of a total-package guy. He's got the marketing side, he's really good in front of the camera and obviously has performed on the race track great, so he's got an enormous amount of talent." It all circles back to the versatility and composure that extends beyond Rhodes' years. "I got that feeling from him back when he was 17," Spencer says. "You could definitely tell he's not a normal high school junior, not a normal high school senior. It's just the way he goes about things and the way he can communicate, and I think a large part of that is because the way that his mom and dad make him do a lot on his own. "If you want this dream, it's not easy. You're going to have to work for it. Every week, we get done taping the show and Ben helps tear down the set. He does a lot setting up his own schedule. He's out there and he's doing it, getting the job done, but there's a lot of times where it just blows me away." Several drivers with successful NASCAR credentials have made smooth transitions to the broadcasting booth for second careers after their driving days are done. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon added his name to the list this season, joining FOX Sports for its coverage of the sport. Rhodes says he'd love to see a similar trajectory for his career, but right now he's one-upping it -- by taking on both jobs at once. "Hopefully my racing career goes on for a long time and I can build up a great reputation and go out on TV broadcasting," he says. "I think it's really cool that drivers do that once they're done, and they're able to go up in the broadcast booth and shine new light on the subject and able to give fans kind of the inside scoop on things. As things change and progress, maybe some of the other broadcasters might not be aware of it. "New drivers like Jeff Gordon and the guys that are fresh out of the race car can show them and talk about what's changing in the sport. I think that's really cool that drivers can do that." Spoken like a kid who is wise beyond his years.
The Rundown: Talladega driver grades
RELATED: Full race results " Updated series standings Breaking down the full field for the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway : 1. Brad Keselowski, No. 2 Ford, Team Penske. Keselowski stayed out of trouble all day, and that was the difference in picking up his second win of the year and fourth at Talladega. Big pushes from Jamie McMurray and Kyle Busch helped, too. Keselowski led a race-high 46 laps, including the final 17. Grade: A+ 2. Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. The No. 18 was stout all day and kept Busch ahead of the crashes, although the 18 did receive a nudge at the outset of the 21-car wreck on Lap 161. He finished second for the second consecutive week for his eighth top-five finish of the season. Grade: A+ 3. Austin Dillon, No. 3 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing. Car chief Greg Osborne summed up Dillon's day on Twitter: "We pitted 17 times. Wrecked 4 times. Ran out of tires. We were 32nd 1 lap down. We NEVER quit." Dillon was thrilled with the finish and credited the team for not panicking: "It was wrecked, and we finished third!" Grade: A+ 4. Jamie McMurray, No. 1 Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Despite being collected in the 21-car wreck on Lap 161, McMurray scored his first top five of the season. It was his seventh at Talladega, tying the superspeedway with Charlotte for McMurray's most top-five finishes. Grade: A 5. Chase Elliott, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. Elliott started from the pole and led the first 13 laps and 27 overall. Even though he posted his third top-five finish in the past four races, Elliott said the No. 24 team was "pretty lucky to get where we got to." He avoided trouble -- and all the wrecks -- by running near the front most of the race. Grade: A 6. Tony Stewart /Ty Dillon, No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. Stewart made his second start of the season, but unlike last week at Richmond, he didn't finish the race. Stewart, who missed the first eight races of the season because of a back injury, gave way to Dillon -- as planned -- during the second caution. Dillon then navigated through two big, multicar accidents to bring home the No. 14 with its second top 10 of the season. Stewart gets the points and the top-10 finish, but it doesn't take away the spotlight from Dillon. Grade: A+ 7. Clint Bowyer, No. 15 Chevrolet, HScott Motorsports. Bowyer survived involvement in the 12-car wreck on Lap 161 to post his best finish of the season and second top 10 in the past three races. Grade: A 8. Kurt Busch, No. 41 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. Busch was the catalyst for the 21-car wreck on Lap 161 when he got into the back of Jimmie Johnson while running in the top 10. Busch emerged unscathed to restart fourth. Later, he couldn't hold the lead after the last restart on Lap 186 and is now 0-for-61 in restrictor-plate races. Grade: C. 9. Ryan Blaney, No. 21 Ford, Wood Brothers Racing. Blaney survived the 21-car wreck on Lap 161, and the 12-car wreck on Lap 181 happened right behind him. His good fortune resulted in his third top 10 of the season. Grade: A 10. Trevor Bayne, No. 6 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing. A speeding penalty on his first pit stop was no omen. Bayne spent plenty of time in the top five on Sunday, while leading 22 laps. (He led 12 laps in the previous nine races.) His average running position was 8.6, fourth best, and that -- along with good fortune -- kept him out of every wreck Sunday. Grade: A 11. Landon Cassill, No. 38 Ford, Front Row Motorsports. Cassill had an eventful day to find himself just outside the top 10 with one lap to go after surviving a pit-road penalty on his first stop and eluding big trouble in the race's two biggest multicar wrecks. But his grade drops a notch because it was Cassill who started the final multicar wreck. He was running 12th when he turned Cole Whitt into Kevin Harvick , touching off a seven-car wreck and a caution just before the leaders reached the finish line. Grade: B- 12. Michael Waltrip , No. 55 Toyota, Premium Motorsports. Making his 60th start at Talladega, Waltrip posted his best finish at the superspeedway since finishing fourth three years ago. Waltrip survived an early scare on Lap 59 when Joey Logano pushed Martin Truex Jr . into the back of Waltrip, who was running fifth at the time. Waltrip went onto the apron but came back onto the track and spun, narrowly avoiding contact. Grade: B+ 13. Martin Truex Jr., No. 78 Toyota, Furniture Row Racing. Truex was running in the top 10 immediately behind Kurt Busch when Busch made contact with Jimmie Johnson to ignite the 21-car wreck on Lap 161. Truex's Toyota returned to the track all taped up before sustaining even more damage in the seven-car wreck that happened just before Brad Keselowski took the checkered flag. Grade: B- 14. AJ Allmendinger, No. 47 Chevrolet, JTG Daugherty Racing. The multicar wreck at the finish had Allmendinger on his knees next to his battered Chevrolet, but it couldn't overshadow his fourth top-15 finish at Talladega in 13 starts and his first lap led of the season. Grade: B 15. Kevin Harvick, No. 4 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. Harvick raced among the leaders for most of the afternoon and led four times for nine laps before sliding across the finish line sideways in a damaged car, one of seven cars involved in a crash leading up to the checkered flag. Grade : A 16. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., No. 17 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing. Stenhouse was able to avoid major damage in the 21-car wreck on Lap 161 but sustained heavy damage coming to the finish line when he was collected in the seven-car pileup. Grade: B 17. David Gilliland , No. 35 Ford, Front Row Motorsports. Gilliland survived the late wrecks for a top-20 finish in first start of the season (he failed to qualify at Daytona). It was his best finish since an 11th in the 2015 Daytona 500 . Grade: B 18. Cole Whitt, No. 98 Toyota, Premium Motorsports. Whitt was just outside the top 10 with one lap to go but couldn't improve his position before taking a hard hit against the outside wall as he approached the finish line. It was the fifth top-20 finish of his career and first since his career-best 13th at Talladega a year ago. Grade: A 19. Bobby Labonte , No. 32 Ford, Go Fas Racing. Making his second start of the season (he finished 31st at Daytona), Labonte avoided major damage in the 12-car wreck on Lap 181 and scored his first top 20 since the 2014 Daytona 500 . Grade: A 20. Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford, Roush Fenway Racing. That Biffle finished 20th should come as little surprise. His average finish at Talladega is 19.7, and he finished 20th last October at Talladega, too. Grade: C 21. Michael McDowell, No. 95 Chevrolet, Circle Sport-Leavine Family Racing. McDowell produced his second-best finish of the season (he finished 15th at Daytona) despite being involved in two of the day's biggest wrecks along with drawing the ire of Danica Patrick . Grade: B- 22. Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. The No. 48 was caught up in two wrecks, the second the 21-car monster on Lap 161, which sent the 48 to the garage for repairs. Johnson returned and finished six laps down. Grade: C 23. Matt Kenseth, No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. Hard-luck Kenseth's eventful day didn't end when his car got airborne after contact from Danica Patrick and came down on its roof on the backstretch with eight laps to go. Well after the race, he had heated words for nemesis Joey Logano , who had forced him below the yellow line with 15 laps to go. Those two events obscure the fact Kenseth led 39 laps, second only to winner Brad Keselowski 's 46. Grade: B 24. Danica Patrick, No. 10 Chevrolet, Stewart-Haas Racing. Patrick's race ended with her hitting the inside wall violently with eight laps to go after contact from behind by Michael McDowell . "I've hit the inside wall of a superspeedway I think maybe like four times now and that was the worst," she said. "I know I got drilled from behind and turned sideways … and hello wall." Grade: C 25. Joey Logano, No. 22 Ford, Team Penske. Logano was still sore from his wreck on the final lap of Saturday's XFINITY race, and his day ended in the 12-car wreck on Lap 181. His aggressive driving initiated the second caution, and there also was his contact with Matt Kenseth that resulted in an earful from Kenseth after the race. Logano didn't want to discuss what Kenseth said, instead saying, "Two days in a row, a couple big hits; can't wait to get out of this place." Grade: C- 26. Paul Menard, No. 27 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing. Menard was in the top 10 having a good run -- but at the wrong time. He was running beside Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson on the outside when Busch turned Johnson right into Menard's Chevrolet, setting off the 21-car wreck on Lap 161. Twenty laps later Menard's day ended in the 12-car wreck on Lap 181. Grade: C 27. Aric Almirola, No. 43 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports. Almirola was collected in two wrecks, with the second one, a 12-car mashup on the backstretch with eight laps to go providing the knockout blow to the No. 43. Grade: C 28. Ryan Newman, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing. Newman was running around 15th place when the 21-car wreck on Lap 161 began right in front of him. His Chevrolet sustained damage and left the scene trailing flames. He finished 10 laps back. Grade: D 29. Kyle Larson, No. 42 Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Larson led nine laps and had the lead three-quarters of the way through the race. Larson was running just outside the top 10 when Kurt Busch hit the back of Jimmie Johnson two cars in front him, touching off a 21-car accident that collected his Chevrolet. Grade: C 30. Brian Scott, No. 44 Ford, Richard Petty Motorsports. The rookie's promising day was derailed after the big wreck on Lap 161. He finished 16 laps back, his most off the lead this season. Grade: D 31. Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. Hamlin's trouble on the track extended to pit road, where he had two incidents and several penalties. He also sustained damage in the 21-car pileup on Lap 161. Grade: D- 32. Regan Smith, No. 7 Chevrolet, Tommy Baldwin Racing. Smith was running in the top 10 with 30 laps to go but was collected the Lap 161 wreck and finished 20 laps back. Grade: D 33. Casey Mears, No. 13 Chevrolet, Germain Racing. Mears spun into Aric Almirola on Lap 59 after he was hit by Michael Waltrip , sending the No. 13 to the garage for repairs. It wasn't Mears' fault, but he still finished 22 laps back. Grade: C 34. David Ragan, No. 23 Toyota, BK Racing. Ragan was running 24th and within a second of the lead when his engine expired on Lap 151. Grade: D 35. Carl Edwards, No. 19 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing. Edwards' two-race winning streak came to an abrupt halt. On Lap 110 "something let go" and the No. 19 ran up the track and pinned Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s No. 88 to the wall, ending the day for both drivers. Grade: F 36. Matt DiBenedetto, No. 83 Toyota, BK Racing. The No. 83 suffered damage in the first wreck of the race. Engine issues ended his day after 98 laps run. Grade: F 37. Chris Buescher, No. 34 Ford, Front Row Motorsports. Just past the halfway point, Buescher's car became the first of the day to go airborne and flip. Buescher called the wreck "miserable" and a "bummer." He was right. Grade: F 38. Michael Annett, No. 46 Chevrolet, HScott Motorsports. Annett was collected in the same wreck that sent Chris Buescher flipping. Annett's Chevrolet smashed hard into the inside wall, ending his day. Grade: F 39. Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. Kahne followed his best finish of the season (fourth at Richmond) with a two-crash dud, the second a single-car accident that brought out the fifth caution. Grade: F 40. Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. Terrible day for the 88. Earnhardt's first crash was similar to his crash in the Daytona 500 -- the back of his car came around. "We missed something this morning," he said. "It shouldn't have been on the splitter that hard." Then when he returned to the track after repairs, his steering wheel came off. On Lap 110, Earnhardt's day ended when Carl Edwards ran up the track and smashed into his Chevrolet. Grade: F.
Dale Jr.: 'I didn't check' steering wheel at 'Dega
RELATED: Junior explains steering wheel mistake MOORESVILLE -- Barely 50 laps had been completed when Dale Earnhardt Jr ., his team and his No. 88 Chevrolet were found in the garage Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway . Repairs to fix the damaged entry, which had unexpectedly swung around and collected Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne , took time. Rain was threatening to shorten the 188-lap GEICO 500 , which was nearing the halfway point when the car was deemed ready to return to action. But in a rush to get back out on the track and avoid a potential DNF (Did Not Finish), the series' Most Popular driver didn't notice that his steering wheel was not fully engaged as he rolled back out onto the 2.66-mile track. Until it came off in his hands. "I put the wheel on and never grabbed the coupler and made sure it was locked," Earnhardt said Tuesday. "… You're out of your element because you've crashed, you're in the garage, they're fixing the car, it's starting to rain, the caution's coming out, you're going to climb back in." Before the race went back green, crew chief Greg Ives asked his driver to check his safety belts and steering wheel. When Earnhardt pulled back on the wheel, it came off the column. Earnhardt quickly grabbed the column to momentarily steer the car before reattaching the steering wheel. "I was out of my element," he said. "Just scrambling, trying to get going and I didn't check it. We always put the wheel on and pull it and I didn't do it." RELATED: What grade did Junior get for the day? While his chances at victory were non-existent, to be still running whenever the race ended was important. "There are these little things that people don't think about that are a source of pride for drivers, teams, crew chiefs," Earnhardt said. "You don't want a DNF. Even if that means get back out and run the last lap. That counts; you finished. … "Anytime you crash a car, you load it up and you know you might, could have fixed it, it's a feeling you just can't get over. Because you didn't do everything you could have. And if you take that home with you, it's just an empty feeling. "You go there to run all the laps. When you get kicked and beat down and knocked off the top or you're having a bad day … the best thing you can do to go home with a clear conscience is to work as hard as you can to do everything you can before the checkered flag. You run every lap you can run, even if it's pointless." This time, it was just that as the Toyota of Joe Gibbs Racing driver Carl Edwards collected Earnhardt just a short time after his return. "Literally, it was pointless for us to be back out there," Earnhardt said. "We might have gotten one point. "That's what you do. You get out there and you fix it. You've got all that crash-cart (equipment) there for a reason. You make your guys go through the process of fixing the car because next time they fix it, they might do it 15 minutes quicker because they find some shortcuts and that might be important in the Chase ." The car, now-famously nicknamed "Amelia" by Earnhardt won't be making any more starts. The combination of damage from the two incidents was too severe. Instead, it'll eventually be added to Earnhardt's "graveyard" of crashed vehicles on his private property. "I'll put it in the dirt, in the woods, and let the weeds take it," he said. "We'll build a new one and it will be good at Daytona. "I hate that that car ran those two races and had those two awful finishes because it did have such a good 2015. We should have parked it and built a new one and said that's the end of the deal with that one." Earnhardt drove the car to victory last season at both Daytona (in July) and Talladega (in May), and finished second (at Talladega in fall Chase race) and third ( Daytona 500 ) in '15 as well. RELATED: Edwards finishes off Junior's bad day This year, he crashed at Daytona and the car was repaired in time for Talladega. But there'll be no more fixing for this one. "We need to build a new car and we probably should have done that in the offseason," he said. "We got attached to this thing and really liked what it did last year. We were hoping we could keep having success with it; it was still a pretty good car."
RCR makes changes to pit crews for Nos. 3, 31
Richard Childress Racing made changes to the pit crews for the No. 3 of Austin Dillon and the No. 31 of Ryan Newman . Chase Masterson is the new front tire changer on the No. 31. RCR promoted Masterson from the No. 62 XFINITY team to replace Tim Sheets. Sheets is now changing on the fronts of the No. 13 Germain Racing team. Meanwhile, the No. 3 team of Austin Dillon also made a move, bringing rear carrier Justin Voss up from the No. 62 XFINITY team. Rear carrier Josh Shipplett moved from the rear of the No. 3 to the front. For more pit-crew news, visit PitTalks.com .
SpongeBob, NASCAR team up for new apparel
SHOP: SpongeBob NASCAR gear Do fire suits come in size square? NASCAR and Nickelodeon launched on Monday a new line of SpongeBob SquarePants-themed fan merchandise highlighting the absorbent yellow icon and his underwater cast of characters from Bikini Bottom. The new offerings include apparel for kids of all ages (yes, adults too!) as well as lanyards, beach towels, flags, koozies and more. So whether you want to show your fandom for the Krusty Krab pit crew or fly your Bikini Bottom colors with pride, the NASCAR Superstore has got you covered. But that's not all. This summer, Nickelodeon will unveil a line of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-themed NASCAR gear as the season heats up for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway , the kick off of the 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . Fans can grab the new merchandise at the Fanatics Trackside Superstore and the NASCAR.com Superstore.
NASCAR: Tony Stewart granted Chase waiver
RELATED: Full Stewart coverage Tony Stewart , who will return to the track this weekend at Richmond International Raceway after missing the first eight races of the season, has been granted a waiver making him eligible to qualify for the 2016 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup , according to NASCAR. "NASCAR received the appropriate medical clearance documentation allowing Tony Stewart to resume normal racing activities," NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O'Donnell. "We also have granted the request from Stewart-Haas Racing for a waiver for Tony to be eligible to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . As he begins his final season, we wish Tony the best of luck." Because he did not attempt to qualify for every race, Stewart would not have been eligible for the 2016 postseason without the waiver. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver and co-owner is now in the same position as Kyle Busch in 2015. The clearest path to the postseason, as Busch proved last year, is for Stewart to win one race before the regular season ends at Richmond in the fall, and climb into the top 30 in the points standings. "Smoke" injured his back in an all-terrain vehicle accident in late January, and has been sidelined since. He's been prevalent at the track, though, as drivers Ty Dillon and Brian Vickers have filled his seat.