Christian Espinoza

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Southern California native who has made the trek across country to North Carolina to chase down my dreams and aspirations in the motorsports industry.

Matt Kenseth emotionally captures Phoenix victory

45-year old Matt Kenseth has experienced a rollercoaster-ride like none other in what will most likely be his final year competing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The Cambridge, WI native broke the news back in July at Kentucky Speedway that he wouldn’t be returning to compete at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018 as Erik Jones is set to take over the No.20 ride. Jones, a talented 21-year old, has competed sort of “on loan” for Furniture Row Racing in the No.77 car this year. Many knew that Jones would return to JGR at some point in the near future, but for some the idea of him replacing Kenseth in 2018 was hard to swallow.

Contrary to what normally happens to veteran drivers, Kenseth’s on-track performance hasn’t been waning any as he has gotten older. Bad luck has bit the No.20 team on numerous occasions throughout the past few years, most recently at Kansas Speedway in October where Kenseth’s championship hopes were crushed after a pit road violation. But in the last three Monster Energy Cup seasons combined, Kenseth has racked up eight victories and led over 2,000 laps. Kenseth has the second-highest win total at JGR since 2015, only behind Kyle Busch’s 14 victories.

With successful numbers still on his side, Kenseth hoped he’d be able to land a competitive ride for the 2018 season, but that hasn’t been the case. Many competitive rides were open at other organizations, but they were filled up with other drivers. Two rides at Hendrick Motorsports were filled with young drivers, Alex Bowman and William Byron. The No.10 at Stewart-Haas Racing got filled with Aric Almirola, who brought along a full-time sponsor. The No.77 ride at Furniture Row Racing isn’t going to be used next season as the team wasn’t able to secure sponsorship. Long-story short, none of the dominos fell in Kenseth’s favor for 2018.

Matt Kenseth heading out for practice earlier this year at Daytona International Speedway. Photo by Zach Darrow.

Knowing that he was still one of the most competitive drivers in the series, Kenseth wasn’t going to settle for a lower-tier ride. On race weekend earlier in the month at Texas Motor Speedway, Kenseth confirmed to NBC Sports what many saw coming.

“I’ve put a lot of thought into it and pretty much decided after Martinsville, which I kind of already knew anyway, but we decided to take some time off,” said Kenseth during an NBC Sports podcast episode. “I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if that’s forever. I don’t know if that’s a month or I don’t know if that’s five months. I don’t know if that’s two years. Most likely when you’re gone, you don’t get the opportunity again. I just don’t really feel it’s in the cards.”

While Kenseth has avoided calling it an official retirement, many know that it’s most likely the end to the Monster Energy Cup veteran’s career. He may still have the talent to win races and compete for championships, but that doesn’t really seem to matter in today’s racing world. A huge youth movement has overtaken the sport in recent years, and Kenseth has unluckily fallen victim to it.  Sponsors and teams are looking to work with young drivers who’ll normally take rides for less money than veteran drivers, and who’ll be around the sport for many years to come. A 45-year old veteran like Kenseth, who’s still highly competitive, just doesn’t appeal to teams and sponsors in the long-run.

The bitter part of it all for Kenseth is that he isn’t ready to hang up his helmet, and most everyone knows it. While many of his peers have enjoyed retirement tours in the past few years after personally deciding it was time to quit, Kenseth has experienced the opposite. When he announced that he wasn’t going to have a ride for the 2018 season a few weeks ago, it meant he only had three races left – possibly in his entire career. A three race retirement tour isn’t the most ideal situation for any driver, but Kenseth proved that he’s making the most of it on Sunday in Phoenix.

The middle-aged driver took on young phenom Chase Elliott in an exciting battle for the lead late in the race at Phoenix International Raceway. Shortly after a late race restart, Elliott wrestled the lead away from Kenseth. It was a crucial pass for Elliott, because if he won the race he’d advance to the Championship Four. But with all that had happened recently to Kenseth, the victory meant much more. Kenseth didn’t let Elliott get too far out of his sights. With nine laps to go, Kenseth took the youngster to school and battled the race lead back away. On seemingly the penultimate event of his career, Kenseth drove off into the sunset – pulling away with the race lead before capturing the victory.

Emotions immediately began to pour out from the 45-year old, who’s normally reserved and kept-to-himself. Kenseth climbed out of the car at the start/finish line and jumped up and down on top of his car, pumping his fists while the sold-out crowd cheered and hollered.

“I don’t know what else to say except thank the Lord. It’s been an amazing journey and I know I’m a big baby right now,” Kenseth told NBC after the race. “Just got one race left. Everybody dreams about going out a winner. We won today and nobody can take that away from us. It was a heck of a battle with Chase (Elliott) there. Golly, just thanks DeWalt, Circle K, Toyota, all our sponsors and JGR for a great five years. It’s been quite the journey here the last 20 (years).”

Matt Kenseth celebrating on top of his car after capturing the checkered flag. Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images.

In true walk-off fashion, Kenseth was able to bring home a victory in restless, troubled times. Despite all that had been going on – all the talk about Kenseth being out of a ride after 2017, he was able to put it all behind him and compete like everything was alright.

Many of Kenseth’s competitors came up and congratulated him during the post-race festivities. Elliott, Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney and others came to pay their respects to the veteran. Dale Earnhardt Jr. sang his praises for Kenseth after the race in an interview with NBC.

“Proud of Matt. How about that,” said Jr. “Win, going out. He kind’ve had to announce his, not retirement, he don’t want to say retirement. He had to say that he’s heading on out and might not be racing anymore. Pretty awesome for him to get a win, and I know that made him really happy.”

Sunday’s victory at Phoenix was Matt’s 39th career victory in the Monster Energy Cup series. With only one race left next weekend at Homestead-Miami, Kenseth hopes he can win one more, for a special reason.

“I’ve raced against great drivers, so, you know – but last year, we won a couple races and I usually never look at stats and I saw Mark (Martin) had 40 and I was like, ‘I just want to get 40 so I can tie my hero Mark.”

Matt Kenseth celebrates in Victory Lane with his No.20 Joe Gibbs Racing team at Phoenix. Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images.

Whether Kenseth captures his 40th career win next weekend or not, he was still able to end his career on a high note. His impromptu retirement tour has may not be the ideal way to end a career, but the 45-year old Wisconsin native has certainly made the most of it. In a time where Kenseth is slowly being pushed out by younger competition, if Phoenix ends up being his final career win, he’ll be able to say he went out and beat them one last time.

NASCAR can survive without Dale Earnhardt Jr. on track

As the checkered flag falls on the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season in just a couple weeks, the career of one of NASCAR’s most favored drivers will come to a close. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been the sport’s flagship driver for numerous years now. He hasn’t been the most successful nor the most consistent, but his incredibly large fanbase has unwaveringly stayed behind him through thick and thin. The Kannapolis, NC native has won NASCAR’s yearly ‘Most Popular Driver’ contest since 2003, a 14-year streak. Earnhardt’s popularity has been great for the sport, but with his inevitable retirement nearing, some people have been wondering how the sport will do once he retires in less than a month.

Will the sport experience a decrease in attendance and ratings? Will Dale Jr. fans stick around and find a new driver? Will they leave the sport for good? Is NASCAR strong enough right now to lose such a popular figurehead?

Nobody can predict the future. Nobody knows whether the sport will survive losing Dale Jr. But if these recent weeks hold any indication for the future of NASCAR, there shouldn’t be any worry at all. It may sound crazy, but Earnhardt’s retirement probably couldn’t come at a better time for the sport.

Throughout the past few seasons, an unprecedented youth movement has swept across the sport. The list of drivers currently 25-years old and younger that will compete in the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is both extensive and promising. It includes; Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Darrell Wallace Jr., etc. A majority of these drivers are all already well-known in the racing world, and they are all set to compete with competitive teams for next season. But the major positive is that they each have their own unique stories and personalities that combined with success, could carry them into the limelight of the racing world.

From a popularity standpoint, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are already two major standouts. Elliott, son of former Cup Series driver Bill Elliott, is a talented 21-year old who many claim is the one who will replace Dale Jr. as the sport’s most-favored driver. Need proof? My ears are still ringing from the roar of the crowd after Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway. No, not really – but the thunderous level of exuberance that came from the stands Sunday evening certainly won’t go unnoticed.

Elliott was leading the race with three laps to go when he got spun into the wall by then second-place Denny Hamlin. After the race, Elliott and Hamlin had a near-confrontational conversation. As NBCSN interviewed Elliott, the crowd hollered and screamed in his favor. It seemed almost uncanny, because for a second the roar of the crowd for Elliott seemed eerily similar to any reaction Dale Jr. has ever gotten. It’s not the first time Elliott has received “Jr-like” cheers from the crowd, and after Sunday’s race it probably won’t be the last.

Chase Elliott racing with Brad Keselowski under the lights at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday. Photo by Zach Darrow Photography.

Then there’s Blaney, a reserved but well-liked 23-year old from High Point, NC. The high point of Blaney’s MENCS career so far came earlier this season when he earned his first career victory at Pocono Raceway. It was an impressive win for the young driver, since he was able to hold off a hard charging Kevin Harvick throughout the latter stage of the race. But that victory came after he almost shot himself in the foot after multiple run-ins with Dale Jr at the start of the year. There’s one thing you don’t want to do in NASCAR and that’s mess with Earnhardt, because his fans won’t be happy (just ask Kyle Busch). Many un-repeatable words were exchanged between the two on their radios, but luckily for Blaney their relationship has been gradually repaired throughout the season. Now the two are friends, actively hanging out with each other and having fun. With Earnhardt on his side and talent behind the wheel, Blaney definitely stands out as a bright light in NASCAR’s future.

But what about Larson? The Elk Grove, CA native really hit his stride with Chip Ganassi Racing this season. The No.42 Chevrolet has visited Victory Lane four times already this year whilst leading over 1,000 laps. But Larson’s popularity can be attested to the fact that he’s one of the most diverse drivers in today’s era of racing. Fans often find Larson competing in many other racing avenues, most commonly on dirt in events such as the Chili Bowl and others across the country. With fans across the world not only in NASCAR, Larson’s future could be the one that really helps NASCAR stay relevant in the racing world as a whole.

Kyle Larson driving through the garage area earlier this year at Watkins Glen. Photo by Aaron Fisher.

Sounds like a lot of budding star power, right? Well the list keeps on going.

Hendrick Motorsports, arguably the largest and most prestigious organization in NASCAR, will field two rookies in the MENCS next season. Alex Bowman will take over Earnhardt’s No.88 ride and William Byron will move up into the No.24 car. 19-year old Byron has quickly worked his way through the ranks of the sport, finding success quickly in both the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series. He gained a lot of fans and credibility in 2016 when he went on a tear winning seven races in his first year in the Truck Series. This season, Byron has been competing for one of Earnhardt’s teams in the Xfinity Series, earning three victories already. With Byron’s quick adaptability and deep talent, the door is wide open to what he could accomplish in his Cup career.

Then there’s Bowman, who will probably have the largest amount of pressure on his shoulders next season. The 24-year old will step into the seat that Dale Jr. is going to be vacating at the end of this year. But luckily for Bowman, he’s already felt the pressure that comes with driving Earnhardt’s No.88 car. When Earnhardt was sidelined last season due to his concussion, Bowman filled the seat for numerous races. His shining moment was at Phoenix International Raceway, where he lead numerous laps whilst staying in contention for the win all throughout the race. That race gave everyone a lot of confidence in Bowman’s abilities, and if it’s any indication on how he’ll perform in the 2018 season – Earnhardt and his fans should be eager to cheer him on.

From a far-reaching standpoint, NASCAR certainly has to be excited about Suarez and Wallace. They are two graduates of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, and they both have the potential to reach audiences that NASCAR’s typically had a hard time finding. Suarez, a Monterrey, Mexico native, made history last season becoming the first foreign-born driver to win a NASCAR national series championship. He’s competed full-time this season in the Monster Energy Cup Series in the No.19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Wallace, commonly called “Bubba”, made a major announcement last week that he’d drive the famous No.43 Richard Petty machine next season. Bubba will become the first full-time African American driver in the top-level of NASCAR since 1971. NASCAR has made great efforts to strengthen the diversity in the sport over the last decade, but nothing is more helpful than seeing it take place on the track in the Cup Series. Suarez and Bubba are both great talents and will certainly have a lot of say in NASCAR’s future.

The youth movement hitting NASCAR will certainly help the sport battle with losing Earnhardt, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any veteran drivers who can also take the reigns.

Martin Truex Jr. has undoubtedly been one of the biggest storylines in the entire racing world this season. Truex’s story is one of both triumph and tribulation. The 37-year old has experienced both spectrums of the sport, but has seemed to find his stride in recent years at Furniture Row Racing. This year he has absolutely dominated the Monster Energy Cup Series, winning seven races so far whilst leading over 2,000 laps.

Martin Truex Jr. celebrating earlier this season at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Photo by Zach Darrow Photography.

Truex’s story off-track may be more compelling though, as his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex has been in a strenuous battle with ovarian cancer throughout the past couple years. The two have shared their love in front of the racing world, as they are normally both teary-eyed in Victory Lane together after a win. Recently, Pollex’s time at the track has been limited as she is going through her second round of chemotherapy treatment. But the NASCAR world has taken her battle personally, and the community tends to rally around Truex and Pollex whenever she isn’t doing well. Their story, combined with Truex’s success, is easily one of the most-humbling in all of sports right now.

Then there’s someone like Jimmie Johnson, who some claim hasn’t gotten the recognition that he deserves for all he’s done in the sport. The El Cajon, CA native became only the third driver in NASCAR history last season to win seven Cup Series championships. At 42 years old, Johnson has said he still has a few good years of racing left in him. If he’s able to pull off an eighth championship, it would not only solidify his place as one of NASCAR’s greats, but as one of the greatest athletes of all-time in all of sports. Johnson has the possibility to sit alone at the top of the sport’s record books, and NASCAR can still thrive on his storyline for a few more years to come.

Or how about Kyle Busch, the driver who is loved by some, but hated by others. He’s definitely one of the most talented drivers on track, but some of his off-track antics have strayed many away from being a fan. Some think he’s hurting NASCAR, but every sport has to have their “villain” figure, and right now Busch is the closest thing we have to it – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Aside from drivers, it’s also important to look at how NASCAR is doing as a whole. The 2017 season has seen a lot of positives. The implementation of stage racing has completely changed the way drivers race. Daring strategy calls and bold moves which used to be saved for the end of the races are now coming into play at any point. The on-track action can always be improved, but it’s been pretty exciting this season. The sport has seen some very thrilling races in the last few weeks. Talladega was a wreck-fest, Kansas was a thriller and Martinsville was insanely entertaining. There seems to be a certain feeling of “hope” around the sport right now. Drivers are starting to show more emotion, tracks are starting to spice things up to add intrigue, NASCAR’s ramping up it’s efforts to look for ways to improve the sport, and the youth fountain continues to run strong.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. racing around Charlotte Motor Speedway. Photo by Zach Darrow Photography.

Now it should be noted that Earnhardt does plan on sticking around the sport. Earlier this season, he announced a deal with NBC Sports to be apart of their broadcasts starting in 2018. His Xfinity Series team will also continue to compete next season, and Earnhardt has said he plans on doing one or two Xfinity races next year.

But long-story short, NASCAR certainly won’t perish at the end of this season. At a time when the sport is losing it’s most popular driver, its future may actually be brighter than ever.

Talladega demolition derby

Carnage is expected when the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series visits Talladega Superspeedway, but usually not as much as we saw on Sunday. From the drop of the green flag to the end of the race, the drivers ran every lap like it was the last. The fans in the stands we’re treated to quite the spectacle – with three and four-wide racing, daring moves and superhero-like blocks from drivers desperate for a win.

But great racing can sometimes lead to destruction, and some of the team owners’ wallets were hit very hard by the time the checkered flag dropped.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. leading the field to the green flag on Sunday. Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images.

The first incident of the day took place on Lap 27. As the field was trying to get on pit road for green flag pit stops, Jamie McMurray got turned around. McMurray slid up the track and was hit hard by Jeffery Earnhardt, sending the No.1 Cessna Chevrolet airborne. Six cars ended up being involved in the accident.

“It was my fault,” said McMurray. “I assumed that they said the 18 was going to let me in, so I thought we were all going to pit. I didn’t even know where the 77 was. When I got on the brakes, I thought we were all coming to pit road as a group. I’ll take the blame for that. I just kind of assumed we were coming to pit road right there. Obviously not everyone was.”

Some smaller incidents took place throughout the middle of the race, including a wreck on a restart that involved Clint Bowyer and multiple others. But the major wrecks really started to reel off as the race winded down.

With 16 laps to go, Martin Truex Jr. tried to squeeze into a hole that would’ve made it four-wide down the backstretch. The hole closed up however, and Truex made contact with David Ragan. Ragan spun down the track into Kurt Busch, and the wreck was on. Busch spun back up the track, collecting Truex, Dillon, and many others along the way. After the incident stopped, a total of 16 cars ended up being involved.

“Well I tried to get into a hole that was closing up at the wrong time and by the time that I got in the brakes trying to get out of there I got in the 38 (Ragan) a little bit on the right rear and he got squirrely out there and all hell broke loose,” said Truex outside of the medical center. “Just was trying to get to the end and get some track position and try to get towards the front and have a good day and ended up causing a wreck, so I hate it for everybody. We definitively had nothing to lose today, but at the same time you don’t want to be the person that causes others problems.”

Close racing between drivers during Sunday’s Alabama 500. Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images.

The 16-car wreck resulted in a red flag that lasted nearly 13 minutes for cleanup. This incident was the biggest of the day, but it certainly wasn’t the last.

As the race got back underway, the drivers left on track kept battling hard for the lead. Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano had two of the fastest cars and worked together well for a majority of the race on Sunday, but that all changed shortly after the restart. Logano got loose and bounced back and forth between Trevor Bayne and Blaney heading down the backstretch, sending both Blaney and Bayne spinning. The incident ended Blaney’s day, as well as Harvick who also wound up involved.

The race was put under another red flag as NASCAR worked to clean up the track.

The race then got restarted once again with eight laps to go. One would think that the wrecking would’ve been over – but it wasn’t. Daniel Suarez had gotten himself out into the race lead, and was battling hard to block all comers. Chase Elliott was one of those looking to get by, and he tried to do so going into Turn 3 with 6 laps to go. Suarez attempted to block the run, but he wasn’t clear. The No.19 Camping World Toyota was sent spinning, collecting Elliott and Kyle Larson in the process. Both Elliott and Larson slammed hard into the outside wall.

“I think the 24 got into the 19 and got him sideways and into me,” said Larson after the race. “There were a lot of torn up cars…”

The Elliott/Suarez incident resulted in the third and final red flag of the race. Combined, there was over 35 total minutes of red flag time in Sunday’s race.

The final restart of the race took place with three laps to go. With less than 15 cars left running on the track, the race was able to stay clean and green. Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski battled hard for the victory, swapping the lead multiple times. As the checkered flag flew, Keselowski was able to come out as the victor – earning his fifth career win at Talladega Superspeedway.

“This is still sinking in,” said Keselowski in Victory Lane. “It is a special place to get to race and a special place when you win here. It was really a collaborative effort with the team and getting a real fast car and making the right moves as a driver and a lot of help from above with staying out of those wrecks.”

Brad Keselowski celebrating with the American flag after winning on Sunday. Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images.

Newman, Bayne, Logano, Aric Almirola, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Gray Gaulding, and David Ragan rounded out the rest of the top-10 finishers.

Sunday’s race was Earnhardt’s last race at Talladega Superspeedway, a place he has loved and been loved in return. With his recent health issues, the Kannapolis, NC native was more than pleased to leave the 2.66-mile track without being involved in any major incidents.

“This was one that I was worried about, you know, in the back of my mind I was a little concerned,” said Earnhardt after the race. “But you can’t win the race if you race scared, and I’ve raced scared here before, and you don’t do well when that happens, so you have to block it out and just go out there and take the risks an hope that it’s just not your day to get in one of those accidents, and it wasn’t.”

In total, Sunday’s Alabama 500 featured 11 caution flags. Of the 40 cars that started the race, 37 were at some point involved in an accident. The only three not involved in a wreck were Keselowski, Newman, and Hamlin. Talladega Superspeedway is known for putting on memorable races, but Sunday’s demolition derby is one that certainly won’t be forgotten for quite sometime.

Martin Truex Jr. victorious in Charlotte

To put it simply, Martin Truex Jr. has been on rails this season. Heading into this weekend, the Mayetta, NJ native had accumulated five wins and led over 1,800 laps. The Furniture Row Racing team has seemed invincible, bringing un-paralled speed to each track on the circuit. But for a majority of the weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Truex and his FRR team seemed to struggle. The No.78 was seventh in the weekend’s only practice session, but the car didn’t seem to have it’s normal speed. In Friday evening’s qualifying session, Truex failed to make it to the final round of qualifying for only the second time in the last 12 events.

Truex lined up 17th for the start of Sunday’s Bank of America 500, and the team was hopeful that they’d be able to make some ground up in the first part of the race. That’s not what happened though, as Truex struggled to move forward with an ill-handling car early on. For the first time since Daytona in July, the No.78 team failed to finish inside the top-10 in the first stage of the race.

Forecasted weather held off long enough for Sunday’s race to run the full distance. Photo via Christian Espinoza from the press box.

But as Stage Two got underway, they began to turn things around.

As Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick swapped the lead out front, Truex began to gain some momentum. With a combination of adjustment calls and quick pit stops, Truex inched his way into the top-10 and then some. As the green and white checkered flag flew signaling the conclusion of Stage Two, Truex had worked his way up to fourth.

As their steamroll of positive energy continued, Stage Three began to fall right into the No.78 team’s hands. Truex had found his way to the front, and had the race lead in sight. As the field came down pit road with just over 100 laps to go, Truex’s team performed a blinding fast pit stop. The stop was quick enough to get Truex off pit road in front of Harvick, giving Truex the race lead.

Truex battled Harvick and Kyle Larson multiple times for the lead throughout the latter part of the race. The No.42 and No.4 were some of the strongest cars all day at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but Truex wasn’t going to give up without a fight. Throughout a rash of late race cautions and even an overtime finish, Truex pulled his gloves tight and got up on the wheel. As the checkered flag flew, Truex, one whom many didn’t think had a shot, crossed the finish line first.

“Unbelievable win. Just a total team effort,” said Truex in Victory Lane. “Every single guy – every guy on this team just did a perfect job today and I can’t be more proud of them and at this time of the year is just when you want it to happen. You dream about days like today. I don’t know if we had the best car, but we damn sure go it in victory lane”

Martin Truex Jr. celebrating at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Photo by Zach Darrow.

Sunday’s victory in the Bank of America 500 was Truex’s sixth of the 2017 season, and his second career win at Charlotte Motor Speedway. For Truex and his No.78 team, the win was incredibly hard-fought.

“I’m so lucky to get to do this and I don’t know, it’s just one of those weekends – lot of pressure,” said Truex. “We qualified horribly and I was mad about it. Cole (crew chief) was mad about it and twenty minutes we’re like alright, I think this is where we went wrong. And he’s like yeah, that’s where we went wrong. We screwed up, we’ll get them Sunday. Just thankful to him and this whole team and Barney (owner) and everybody for giving us everything we need.”

Chase Elliott jumped to the runner-up spot on the late overtime restart, earning his second runner-up finish in a row. Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Daniel Suarez, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Kasey Kahne, and Kyle Larson rounded out the rest of the top-10 finishers from Sunday.

Kyle Busch, who led early on in the race, struggled towards the end of the event with heat and carbon monoxide issues. Busch collapsed on the infield grass after the conclusion of Sunday’s race, but was later treated and released from the infield care center .

Denny Hamlin captures pole on a treacherous day at Charlotte

Bank of America 500 race weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway kicked off to a hazardous start on Friday. In efforts to help improve the on-track action at the facility, Charlotte Motor Speedway put down a special sticky substance in the turns to try and help widen out the groove. The substance, most commonly called PJ1, worked well in Turns 1&2 but caused mayhem in Turns 3&4.

In Friday’s lone practice session, several competitors got loose coming off Turn 4 and slammed the outside wall. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the first to do so, pancaking the right side of his car, thus forcing the team to bring out a back-up car. Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, and David Ragan also found themselves in trouble, forcing NASCAR and the track to try and dissect the issue.

Picture-perfect night for Friday evening’s qualifying session in Charlotte. Photo by Christian Espinoza.

According to a story by Motorsport.com, track officials reported that they had found an issue with one of the machines that put down the PJ1 on Thursday. When the machine went through Turns 3&4, it encountered an issue and didn’t spray nearly as much as it had in Turns 1&2. The track didn’t realize the issue until today, telling Motorsport.com that it was their mistake.

“It is not the same in Turn 4,” said Don Hawk of Charlotte Motor Speedway to Jim Utter of Motorsport.com. “We discovered the sprayer heads on our machine – one was partially clogged, the other was not spraying enough and there is not enough substance on the race track in Turn 4.”

“Certainly I don’t think anyone expected it to be as challenging as it was,” said competitor Martin Truex Jr. “Maybe for the future we definitely need to look at a different way to prep the track so when we go out there guys aren’t running into the wall.”

With an eventful practice session, teams headed into Bojangles’ Pole Night with the treacherous conditions on their minds. But as a surprise to some, qualifying wasn’t very chaotic. Kevin Harvick wound up atop the scoring charts in the first two rounds of Friday night’s qualifying session, but he couldn’t hold onto it in the final round. Denny Hamlin, who was fourth fastest in Friday’s lone practice session, clicked off a fast lap in the last round and knocked Harvick off the top spot.

“The day really started off really well,” said Hamlin after winning the pole. “The first time we hit the track we were P1 and just kind of ran the same lap time throughout the whole first practice and then we ran about the same lap time again in qualifying and it was enough. The good part about it with our cars it seemed like we got just a tiny bit faster each and every round when a lot of guys started backing up and that was the key for us to get the pole.”

Denny Hamlin zooming by on Bojangles’ Pole Night. Photo by Zach Darrow.

Friday night’s pole is the 25th of Hamlin’s career and his second at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Hamlin will be joined by his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Matt Kenseth, on the front row for Sunday’s race.

“Our qualifying run was good,” said Kenseth. “Obviously saved our best lap for last. Practice was very challenging today. I was probably the last one to kind of be aggressive enough and run through that stuff on the track. I was pretty conservative most of the time.”

Harvick, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson rounded out the rest of the top-10 starters for Sunday’s Bank of America 500. The race is set to get underway at 2:00PM on Sunday, with race coverage on NBC.

With concern to the track conditions, Charlotte Motor Speedway also reported to Motorsport.com that they will re-apply the PJ1 in Turns 3&4 before tomorrow’s on-track action in order to try and fix the track surface.

NASCAR College Party

Stuck wondering what you should do during this upcoming Fall Break weekend? Do you need some thrill in your life? Are you looking for something exciting to do with your friends without breaking the bank? Well then get ready, because Charlotte Motor Speedway has a deal for you.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is set to return home to North Carolina for Sunday’s Bank of America 500, the kickoff race in the second round of NASCAR’s 2017 Playoffs. Twelve drivers are left with a shot at the 2017 MENCS championship, and this weekend’s race stands as one of the most crucial of the season. In addition, Sunday’s event is also one of the most-anticipated races in quite sometime for the speedway, and thousands of racing fans are ready to enjoy it.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. racing around Charlotte Motor Speedway. Photo via Zach Darrow.

In an effort to try and get a larger college demographic out to the track, Charlotte Motor Speedway announced a ticket package for college students around the Charlotte area. With a valid student ID, a ‘Speedway College Party’ ticket will allow students access to the Turn 4 Sun Deck for Sunday’s race. The Sun Deck provides fans with one of the most unique experiences in racing. It’s an open-air terrace area with a DJ, lawn games, up-close views of the racing and a bar for those 21 and older. Free parking is included with the ‘Speedway College Party’ package, accompanied by an exclusive free area in the parking lot where college students are encouraged to come partake in the pre-race college tailgate party.

Sound like fun? Well wait, there’s more.

Sunday’s race will mark the final start at Charlotte for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. He announced earlier this season that he’d retire at the end of 2017, meaning Sunday’s race is the last chance for many racing fans to see him compete in person. To help send him off in style, Charlotte Motor Speedway helped put together a ‘Salute to Junior Nation’ concert, which is scheduled for Saturday night. Country music stars Brad Paisley and Tim Dugger are set to perform at the concert, which is set to start at 7PM at zMAX Dragway. The concert is free to all Sunday ticket holders, including those with the ‘Speedway College Party’ package.

College students with a valid student ID can take part in all of these things, as well as the normal activities that go on during a NASCAR raceday, including the FanZone and Monster Energy activation areas, for only $29.

So for just less than the price of six Cookout trays, college students can revamp their Fall Break weekend from one of potential boredom into one full of unforgettable life-long memories. Tailgating, a Brad Paisley concert, racing, friends, and much more all for just less than $30.

If you would like more information or are interested in the ‘Speedway College Party’ deal, visit online at http://www.charlottemotorspeedway.com/tickets/college/ or on the phone by calling 1-800-455-FANS.

Denny Hamlin salvages Darlington win

With just over 50 laps to go in Sunday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500, Denny Hamlin had seemingly thrown away his chances at victory. Hamlin, playing a risky strategy game, stayed out on the race track longer than the rest of the front-runners in order to ensure that he would have enough fuel to finish the race. The strategy call seemed full-proof, so all Hamlin and his pit crew needed to do was perform a flawless pit stop.

Denny Hamlin’s No.11 machine going through the turns on Sunday night at Darlington. Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Image.

Hamlin made a jaw-dropping mistake though. Darlington Raceway’s pit road is notorious for being one of the most difficult on the schedule, and Hamlin soon found that to be true. As the No.11 Sports Clips Toyota pulled off the track towards pit road, Hamlin realized he was carrying way too much speed. Instead of making a dangerous last-ditch effort to try to make it onto pit road, he got back on the throttle and went back around the track.

Their pit crew was able to perform a quick stop, but Hamlin cycled back out onto the track nearly 18 seconds behind the race leader. As Hamlin settled back into his groove with his eyes set on making up the deficit, he got some noticeable help from the leaders. Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr. raced each other for the top position for a number of laps, ultimately slowing them both down. Truex was finally able to break out to the lead with about 40 laps to go, but Hamlin was coming fast.

As Truex battled through traffic, his lead continued to shrink. With under 5 laps to go, Hamlin had knocked his deficit down to under 2-seconds. It seemed as if it was shaping up to be a hard-fought battle between the two, but it didn’t work out that way. Truex had been pushing his car hard to maintain his lead, and with less than 3 laps to go his luck turned. The right-front tire on the No.78 blewout going into Turn 3, and Truex’s chances of victory diminished. Despite losing the race, Truex walked out of Darlington Raceway with a chip on his shoulder as he locked up the 2017 regular-season championship.

“Just sometimes it’s just not your night, you know,” said Truex after the race. “Tonight wasn’t our night. Guys did a fantastic job. Obviously we had a super strong race car, and I think we lost the lead four or five times in the pits. The guys had a little bit of an off night, and we were able to get back to the lead on those long runs. We had a great car, just didn’t work out for us tonight, but a lot to be proud of, like I said, and to come here and have a shot at winning this race two years in a row, it’s a hell of an accomplishment.”

Truex’s car steaming after the conclusion of Sunday night’s race. Photo by Christian Espinoza.

On the other hand, Hamlin was able to squeak by Truex cleanly – capturing the checkered flag and bookmarking a remarkable rebound in one of the sport’s biggest races.

“You know, it’s just I think a lot of that came from Truex beating us on a green flag sequence earlier in the day, and so I pushed it a little more on pit entry, and I didn’t want it to happen again, and I just pushed it a little bit too much,” said Hamlin about his pit road mistake. “Kind of a rookie move, but also just trying to optimize everything, and it was just we got our car better as soon as it turned into night. We kept getting the car better, kept making adjustments and kept working on it, and we had something we could win with.”

Sunday night’s win is Hamlin’s second-career in the famed Southern 500, and his 31st overall career victory in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The victory also capped off the weekend sweep for Hamlin, who also won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity race at Darlington. Hamlin now stands alone as the only driver in history with multiple weekend sweeps at the famed track.

“It means so much. I mean, this is the Southern 500,” said Hamlin post-race. “It doesn’t get much bigger than this. This is the granddaddy of them all. This has so much history. I’m so happy to be in victory lane at Darlington. This is where I got my very first start in Joe Gibbs Racing, so this track, these fans means a lot to me.”

Denny Hamlin celebrating after winning Sunday night’s race. Photo by Christian Espinoza.

NASCAR now heads out of Darlington Raceway and will travel up north to Richmond Raceway for the final race before the start of the 2017 Playoffs. For drivers currently outside the points cutoff; such as Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, etc., next Saturday night’s race stands as one last attempt to win their way into NASCAR’s postseason.

NASCAR community helping Harvey relief

While Texas continues to re-group after one of the largest natural disasters in the country’s recent history, the NASCAR community has decided to step in and help. Hurricane Harvey made landfall on August 26th, and has since flooded and ruined the lives’ of many in and around the Houston, TX area.

Ahead of one NASCAR’s biggest race weekends, the sport is doing it’s best to help those in need. The NASCAR Foundation announced that it will be accepting donations for Hurricane Harvey relief  on their website (http://nas.cr/2ey1Glx). Donations sent to The NASCAR Foundation will help supply children and families directly impacted by the storm with necessary items; such as water, food and hygiene products. In accordance with the donations, NASCAR also announced that every vehicle at Darlington Raceway and Canadian Tire Motorsports Park will showcase ‘Texas Strong’ decals.

The logo that is being used this weekend at Darlington and Canada. Photo via NASCAR.

Some of the sport’s competitors have also decided to step in and help.

Earlier this week, Shell-Pennzoil, sponsor of Monster Energy Cup driver Joey Logano, announced that it would be donating $1 million to the American Red Cross Harvey relief fund. Logano quickly decided to join in on their efforts, throwing in another $25,000 while also opening up the Joey Logano Foundation (https://joeyloganofoundation.com/donate-now/) to disaster relief donations for the next 30 days.

“Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast have suffered a disaster of historic size – one that is going to take months if not years of recovery,” stated Logano. “In the last couple of days, we have seen sports icons and organizations step up for Texas and the Gulf Coast. With our strong ties to Shell and the community, we wanted to rally the passionate NASCAR base for this cause as well.”

In hopes of drawing even more attention to Harvey relief efforts, Logano and Shell also announced they’d be running a special American Red Cross-themed car next weekend at Richmond Raceway.

Logano’s Richmond paint scheme. Photo via Team Penske on Twitter. (@Team_Penske)

NASCAR Xfinity Series driver, Elliott Sadler, also announced personal efforts to help those in need. On Friday morning at Darlington Raceway, Sadler told the media that he would be donating his portion of his race winnings to the hurricane relief victims in Texas.

“Before I answer any questions, I do want to send my thoughts and prayers to everybody in Houston,” said Sadler during a press conference on Friday morning. “We have some friends down there and we’ve been getting some video and direct contact from them. What they are going through, nobody should have to go through that kind of devastation. We’ve been blown away, my wife and I, by everybodys’ generosity…”

Another NASCAR team also jumped on board during the week. Rick Ware Racing’s No.51 Chevrolet received a makeover on Wednesday evening. What was originally suppose to be a complete throwback paint scheme honoring the movie Days of Thunder now showcases ‘Pray for Texas’ logos all around the car. The team plans to make diecast cars and T-shirts showcasing the relief-focused car, with all of the proceeds going to victims of the hurricane.

“Pray for Texas” logos on the No.51 at Darlington. Photo via Rick Ware Racing on Twitter. (@RickWareRacing)

It’s been a rough week for those around the Houston area, but with companies and organizations such as NASCAR coming together to help those in need, relief may come quicker to those who desperately need it.

“It’s neat to see Americans rallying around each other. It’s all for a greater good” – Elliott Sadler.

Ryan Blaney moves to Team Penske

On Wednesday morning, Team Penske announced that it will be adding a third car to it’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series fleet, and Ryan Blaney will be behind the wheel.

The High Point, NC native has spent the last few years on loan racing for Wood Brothers Racing, a team that shares a technical alliance with Penske. But at the conclusion of the 2017 season, Blaney will say goodbye to the No.21 and hello to the No.12.

“This is a huge opportunity for me and my career,” said Blaney in a Team Penske press release. “I’ve always enjoyed racing whatever car I was in and trying to win each and every race. I’ve had some great moments with both Team Penske and the Wood Brothers over the last few years. I know for a fact I wouldn’t be where I am today without Roger (Penske), Eddie and Len (Wood) and the opportunities their organizations have given me.

Ryan Blaney in Victory Lane after capturing his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory earlier this season at Pocono. Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images.

It had been rumored for quite sometime that Blaney would be making the jump back to compete for Roger Penske. “The Captain” as most people in the racing industry know him, has made subtle comments for quite sometime now that he’d been trying figure things out to get Blaney a team ready for 2018.

“For some time now, we have wanted to bring Ryan in to run a third car for us, but things just needed to make sense from a timing and business perspective,” said Roger Penske in a Team Penske press release.  “We have been working on making this a reality and 2018 is the right opportunity to make this move and return our organization to a three-car team.”

Roger Penske talking with Brad Keselowski earlier this season. Photo by NASCAR via Getty Images.

Paul Menard, the current driver of the No.27 Richard Childress Racing Chevy in the Cup Series, will fill Blaney’s void at Wood Brothers Racing. Menard will compete full-time in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series behind the wheel of the No.21 machine, with sponsorship from Menards for 22 races.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time in NASCAR and as a Cup Series driver, but to get the chance to drive the iconic No. 21 for the Wood Brothers is the coolest thing I’ve ever got a chance to do,” said Menard in a Wood Brothers Racing press release. “I’m looking forward to working with the team, working with Roush Yates, Ford Performance and Team Penske to see what we can do.”

Plans to fill or not to fill his spot at Richard Childress Racing for the 2018 season have not yet been announced.

Blaney and Menard join an ever-growing list of drivers who have now publicly announced their plans for the 2018 season. Erik Jones was quickly announced as the replacement driver for Matt Kenseth, who broke the news of his departure from Joe Gibbs Racing earlier in July. Last week it was publicized that Alex Bowman will be taking over the No.88 Hendrick Motorsports ride after Dale Earnhardt Jr’s retirement at the end of the 2017 season. Brad Keselowski also re-upped his contract with Team Penske on Tuesday of this week.

The dominoes continue to fall.

NASCAR’s ‘silliest’ Silly Season is brewing

Got your mind cleared? If not, try your best to do so. You are going to need to be fully focused to be able to keep track of all the rumors racing around NASCAR right now.

With eighteen races down and eight remaining in the regular season, many would think people would be talking about the fierce battle amongst the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers who are vying for a coveted spot in the Playoffs. Big names such as Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, and many others have yet to lock themselves into NASCAR’s championship battle. Or perhaps you’d think the limelight would be taken up by Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. 2017 marks the retirement season for Earnhardt, closing the illustrious storybook career of NASCAR’s 14-year Most Popular Driver.

But the funny thing is, no one really seems to care about any of that right now.

The main buzz in the stock car racing world stems around a vast majority of dominoes that have yet to fall regarding the 2018 season. Who will be racing here? Who will be racing there? Who’s going to fill this person’s ride? Who’s going to take that person’s ride? Are any of the active 2017 drivers not going to be competing? Is a new manufacturer coming to the sport?

Let’s try to recap all the potential scenarios that’ve been talked about. Try to stay with me.

Now the biggest domino in the entire 2018 equation lies over at Hendrick Motorsports. With Earnhardt’s retirement at the end of this year, the No.88 remains up for grabs for next season. Whoever lands the spot as Earnhardt’s replacement will be filling some of the biggest shoes in the sport. Some of the potential candidates floating around the rumor mill include Matt Kenseth, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Brad Keselowski, etc.

The No.88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet being raced around Charlotte Motor Speedway. Photo by Zach Darrow.

Kenseth stands out to some as potentially the biggest threat to take over the No.88 ride in 2018. During a press conference last weekend at Kentucky Speedway, Kenseth broke the news that he doesn’t believe returning to his current team at Joe Gibbs Racing is an option.

“I don’t think so. I don’t think it is,” said Kenseth. “Like I said, I don’t have a ride at this moment for next year. I haven’t really worked on anything real hard. I do not think I will have the option to race at JGR next year, unfortunately.”

Kenseth, a veteran of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, isn’t believed to be leaving the sport however. Kenseth has been outspoken in his belief that he still has a few more years of racing left in him. That faith was backed up at Kentucky Speedway when Earnhardt commented on the ordeal.

“Matt is going to have a job,” Earnhardt said on Friday. “I don’t think he’s got to worry about that. I think that it’s smart for him to let everybody know early what his plans are or the lack thereof. He is a talented guy who is just a couple of races removed from being a winner and could show up any week and get to victory lane.”

Earnhardt’s comments may have been meant as support for his fellow competitor, but they further steamrolled the rumor that Kenseth may in fact be the one who will be taking over Earnhardt’s ride after he hangs up his helmet at the end of the season. Kenseth taking over the seat, even if for one year, wouldn’t be the best news for Hendrick Motorsports simulator driver Alex Bowman. Bowman, who filled in for Earnhardt for a majority of the races in the latter-part of the 2016 season, has proved that he has the talent to run competitively in the Cup Series. The Arizona native hasn’t had much sponsorship money flowing in throughout his career however, which is probably his biggest hindrance in his pursuit for the No.88 ride. But if Earnhardt’s current sponsors, such as Nationwide, were to get behind Bowman, there could be nothing stopping him.

But what if another seat opens up at Hendrick Motorsports for next year? Their other three drivers are all contracted throughout the 2018 season, so where would it come from? Well if performance has any say, another vacant ride could come at the expense of Kasey Kahne. It’s been no secret that Kahne, who has driven the No.5 Chevrolet for six years now, hasn’t been living up to Hendrick’s expectations. The Washington native has finished inside the top-10 in points only once, and accumulated only five wins since joining Hendrick Motorsports back in 2012.

So if Hendrick was to give Kahne the boot at the end of 2017, that could mean there’d be two rides available at one of the sport’s most prestigious organizations. If Byron were to be ready to advance to the Cup Series in 2018, many have rumored that he’d take over the No.5 car. That would leave Bowman or Kenseth, or possibly someone else, the No.88 ride.

So what if Kenseth doesn’t get a ride at Hendrick Motorsports? Does that mean he’s out of available rides? In other years we may be saying yes, but thanks to the craziness that is this silly season, there’s still a plethora of options.

Matt Kenseth in the No.20 Toyota heading out onto track earlier this season at Daytona International Speedway. Photo by Zach Darrow.

The driver who is believed to be taking over Kenseth’s ride at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018 is Erik Jones. Jones, who took a one-year deal to drive the No.77 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing in 2017, has been in the eyes of Joe Gibbs for quite sometime.

“Hopefully, I know soon,” said Jones last Thursday. “You know it’s kind of getting down to that point. I guess it’s July now, so I’m sure we’ll have an answer here soon.”

If Jones was in fact to head back to JGR then that may leave the No.77 ride open for Kenseth, if they decide to continue running that car. Furniture Row Racing’s Barney Visser didn’t open up much this past weekend at Kentucky Speedway when he was asked about the potential of running two cars again next year.

“We’d love to be able to do that, but I’m not sure the finances are going to allow it. We’ll see what we’re able to put together. There’s nothing concrete right now for the second team.”

If Furniture Row Racing decides to fall back to a one-car team with Martin Truex Jr., that would shut the door on one opportunity.

But there’s still more to come.

When Kenseth joined Joe Gibbs Racing back in 2013, he left behind a long-term relationship with Roush Fenway Racing and Ford. Now many don’t see him returning to Roush, but a renewal with Ford in another avenue could potentially be in the works.

The largest team in the Ford stable lies with Stewart-Haas Racing. SHR, which has only been apart of the Ford family since the start of the 2017 season, fields four cars in the Monster Energy Series. Two of those are for Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick. Busch, the winner of this year’s Daytona 500, still has a question mark over his head this late in the 2017 season, but it’s not because of his stats. If Busch was to fall to the wayside at SHR, it’d be because of a lack of sponsorship funding. But Patrick, much like her fellow competitor Kahne, hasn’t really done much since joining the team and NASCAR back in 2012. She has yet to accumulate a win in the sport, and constantly finds herself battling bad luck and constant naysayers. Many in the sport believe she could be hanging up her helmet at the end of the season, and if she does so that could leave a ride open for Kenseth or possibly someone else.

Danica Patrick signing autographs for fans earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway. Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images.

Aric Almirola, who has been sidelined the past few weeks after suffering a back injury earlier in the season at Kansas Speedway, could potentially make a move to SHR with his longtime sponsor Smithfield for the 2018 season if a ride does get vacated. If Almirola does make the jump to SHR, that’d leave open the No.43 ride for someone like Kenseth or possibly some young-guns like Ryan Reed, Chris Buescher, or Darrell Wallace Jr. to jump into.

Still following along?

Another major piece in this huge puzzle is the No.21. Wood Brothers Racing Ford. Ryan Blaney, the current driver, has been rumored to potentially be moving to a third car at Team Penske for 2018. Penske is a team where many, including Roger Penske himself, have seen Blaney eventually ending up.

“You know, I don’t really think about that stuff,” said Blaney in a teleconference after the July Daytona event. “Yeah, there’s been talks about it for years, really ever since I got with the Penske group, and things just haven’t really come together. I love the Wood Brothers, and driving for them has been really special for me and my family. I couldn’t ask for a greater group of people.”

If Blaney decides to go to Penske, that vacates the No.21 ride. If Blaney decides to stay with the Wood Brothers, that vacates a potential third car at Team Penske. Whichever route Blaney chooses to take, there’s one driver who may be ready to fill the gap. Paul Menard currently drives for Richard Childress Racing, but that could come to an end after this season if rumors are true that Penske may be wanting to bring him and his sponsor Menards on board for 2018. Sponsorship dollars are huge in the sport, meaning Menard will pretty much go wherever Menards takes him – and Team Penske or the Wood Brothers wouldn’t probably have an issue with it.

Some other big potential free-agents include Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Brad Keselowski. All three are some of the biggest threats currently in the Monster Energy Cup Series, and they are all in contract years for their respective teams. Larson, a young versatile driver who has proved he can win in just about anything, currently drives the No.42 Target Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. He has broken out in 2017 as one of the fastest drivers every week and is already being considered as one of the biggest championship threats, so why would he consider leaving? The same goes for Keselowski, who’s enjoyed a large amount of success since joining Team Penske, including winning the Monster Energy Cup Championship in 2012. McMurray has turned into one of the veterans of the sport. He’s had a few ho-hum years, but he’s really seemed to have gelled well together with his Chip Ganassi Racing team and they’ve racked off some great runs so far this season. While all three of these drivers seem happy where they are, if an opportunity from the likes of Rick Hendrick came floating into their office, should they consider it? It might be a long shot, but seeing one of them sporting new team colors next year certainly shouldn’t be counted out.

Kyle Larson putting on his Coors Light Pole Award sticker earlier this year at Auto Club Speedway. Photo by Diego Alvarado (18diego_dd).

Alright, there can’t possibly be anymore rumors, right? Well there always is, but let’s just hit on some final ones.

Any one of the free-agent drivers mentioned above could potentially find a home at a brand new Monster Energy Cup team in 2018. GMS Racing team owner Maury Gallagher told Motorsport.com not long ago that they were considering branching their current NASCAR Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series operations into the Cup level.

Also, many have been speculating that a fourth manufacturer may be making its way onto the NASCAR scene in the near future. Some have pointed towards Dodge, some have pointed towards others. NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell helped stir the pot on Monday, saying, “Those conversations are ongoing. It’s a tough process. There’s a lot to consider doing this, but that is a huge goal for the sport right now.”

And if the theorists haven’t had enough fun, many have also questioned if recent drivers who aren’t competing full-time behind the wheel in 2017 could potentially make a return in 2018. Carl Edwards making a return to the sport is something that probably won’t be happening, considering the abrupt nature of his departure and the high-level of happiness he seems to be sharing with his family now that he isn’t racing. But could someone like Greg Biffle who left Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the 2016 season maybe make a comeback to a competitive full-time ride?

Long-story short, there’s a lot of different scenarios that could play out ahead of the 2018 season. Some of the moves we may expect, some may blindside us. But we’ll all eventually watch the dominoes fall into place, and we’ll probably all proclaim that we knew everything was going to happen the way they end up.

Who’s going here? Who will race there? The 2018 silly season is downright chaotic, which is why it makes it so intriguing to follow along.

Kevin Harvick sweeps Sonoma races

Kevin Harvick couldn’t have asked for a better race weekend at Sonoma Raceway. The driver of the No.4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet was one of three drivers with a unique shot at capturing two trophies this weekend at the 1.99-mile course; and that’s exactly what he did.

In a sort of throwback adventure, Harvick entered into Saturday’s NASCAR K&N Pro Series West event. He is very familiar with the series, but it’s been awhile since he had competed in the series. The Bakersfield, CA native won seven West races and the 1998 West championship during his climb up the NASCAR ladder. Now one of the veteran drivers in the Monster Energy Cup Series, he hoped to rekindle some of that old magic as well as shine some refreshed light on the series and it’s young drivers.

Saturday’s victory didn’t come easily for the Cup veteran though. Harvick undoubtedly had one of the fastest cars, but so did his Jefferson Pitts Racing teammate, Will Rodgers. Rodgers, an up-and-coming driver competing full-time in the West Series, had captured the pole early on in the day and went into the event as one of the favorites. As the race began to wind down, Harvick and Rodgers found themselves in a spirited battle for the victory. Harvick had gotten out to the race lead, but Rodgers had a faster car and was able to run him down. Many expected Rodgers to move Harvick out of the way, but the two drivers kept it clean and Harvick was able to hold on for the victory.

Kevin Harvick and Will Rodgers talking on Saturday. Photo by Diego Alavardo.

“It always feels good to win no matter what it is,” said Harvick after Saturday’s win. “The main objective was to come have fun, shine a little light on the series and shine a little light on how much talent is in the series.”

Harvick had to battle hard for Saturday’s victory, but Sunday’s wasn’t as difficult.

The 2014 MENCS champion’s day started off a little shaky as he failed to receive points in either of the first two stages of the race. But Harvick’s car was fast and the team knew if they’d get out front they’d have a good shot. As his biggest competitor fell to the wayside with engine issues, the race fell into Harvick’s hands. The California native took the lead with 22 laps to go and cruised to the win, capturing his 36th career Monster Energy Cup victory and first at Sonoma Raceway.

Kevin Harvick in Victory Lane on Sunday. Photo by Diego Alvarado.

“This is worth the wait,” said Harvick after Sunday’s race. “To come to Sonoma for so many years, and to win yesterday coming back to the K&N Series, and come back here today…I guess we’ll have to do that again because it worked out pretty good. Just really proud of everybody. They had a great strategy and were able to make it happen.”

Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, and Jamie McMurray rounded out the rest of the top-10 finishers from Sunday’s race.

Harvick’s win made him the 11th different winner of the 2017 Monster Energy Cup season, and the 10th overall driver locked into the Playoffs.

Kevin Harvick fastest so far in Charlotte

There’s fast, and then there’s Freaky Fast – Kevin Harvick proved just that on Thursday evening in Monster Energy Cup qualifying at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

NASCAR has descended upon their home track in Concord, NC for one of the sport’s biggest race weekends of the year. Tradition, speed, and patriotism all collide together on this Memorial Day weekend for the longest race of the season; the Coca-Cola 600.

Kevin Harvick’s machine sitting on pit road after laying down the fastest lap in Thursday night’s qualifying. Photo by Christian Espinoza.

Charlotte Motor Speedway is a venue in which track position has become king, and qualifying up front is more important than ever. Harvick and his SHR team will be in the best position for the start of Sunday’s race after the No.4 Mobil 1 Chevrolet easily topped the charts in the final round of qualifying. The Bakersfield, CA native ran 193.424MPH, nearly one second faster than second-place qualifier Kyle Busch, who went 192.513MPH.

“The car unloaded fast. It was very edgy to drive, definitely a hairy lap,” said Harvick in the media center post-qualifying. “But I think the main thing is our car worked very well through Turns 3 and 4 and that’s always our goal – to get the car to turn through the middle of 3 and 4 and be able to stay in the gas.”

Thursday night’s pole is the third of the season for Harvick, and his second-straight at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Harvick, a two-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600, heads into Sunday’s race with confidence on his side.

“Our cars have been fast. We’ve qualified well. We’ve had a lot of speed. We just haven’t put together the weekend, but we’ve been running well and tonight is no different,” said Harvick.

Starting next to Harvick on the front row is Busch, who is looking to sweep Charlotte Motor Speedway’s May events after winning last weekend’s Monster Energy All-Star race.

“You know once we unloaded off the truck, our M&M’s Red, White, and Blue Camry was really fast,” said Busch after qualifying. “We were kind of the fastest guys there through the beginning part of practice and then everybody else kind of caught up to us there, but overall great run for us. Shows that we have the potential, we just need to put it all together.”

Kyle Busch standing next to his car prior to Thursday evening’s qualifying session. Photo by Christian Espinoza.

Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth, Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr, Clint Bowyer, and Brad Keselowski rounded out the rest of the top-10 qualifiers. Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, one of the biggest Memorial Day traditions, is set to get underway at 6:00PM ET – televised on FOX.

It’s time to move the All-Star race

NASCAR has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at their All-Star event in recent years. From ever-changing formats and elimination processes, to adding money incentives and field sizes; the sport has never shied away from trying new ideas.

But there’s one change they continue to avoid; moving it.

Since the inaugural All-Star event in 1985, all but one race has been ran at Charlotte Motor Speedway. For many years Charlotte was a venue that provided great action and exciting races, but in recent years the All-Star event has seen the exact opposite. The final segment, which is annually hyped up as some of the most exciting 10 laps in all of racing, has left fans with a empty feeling throughout the past few years. Whomever is able to get out into the race lead rarely gets chased down due to the fact that clean air is so important on 1.5-mile tracks.

Kyle Busch easily cruised to victory in Saturday night’s event after leading the entire final 10-lap segment. Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images.

So that brings us to what seems to be a popular topic of conversation, is it time to take the All-Star away from Charlotte? The simple answer is yes.

While some traditionalists may argue that moving the event from Charlotte would be too unconventional, there really isn’t any limelighted argument in favor of keeping it at the 1.5-mile track. Everyone knows that a majority of the people working in NASCAR enjoy it being in Charlotte because it’s so close to home, but their desires shouldn’t outweigh what the fans want. Drivers and team members have an obligation with the sport; the fans don’t. The fans aren’t paid to come to the All-Star race or to watch on TV; which is why NASCAR needs to change something to help the event withhold it’s significance.

Moving the All-Star race to different venues could easily fix the issue NASCAR has with fans complaining about the event being too boring and predictable.

“The race should either be moved to daytime or moved to a different track,” said passionate NASCAR fan Elijah Burke after Saturday night’s event. “Fans want to see passing and this is a race purely for fans, racing hard and bragging rights. You can’t pass on a 1.5 miler when everyone’s hugging the bottom!”

Tight racing from earlier this year at Bristol Motor Speedway, a track that many say would be the perfect venue to play host to the All-Star race. Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images.

There are many different ways in which the sport could go about moving the race. Put on a All-Star bidding event each year, in which the track’s who are interested in hosting the event bid against each other for the race. Maybe let the All-Star winning driver choose where the event will be hosted for the next year. There’s no doubt that other racetracks would love to play host to the event, and there are others who quite frankly based off of previous races deserve the All-Star event more than Charlotte.

“I think you look at other sports and there All-Star games switch venues all the time,” said second-place finisher Kyle Larson. “It’s the same game, so it doesn’t really make a difference other than the venue. But for us I think its really cool to change the venue. I don’t know if racetracks could bid on the All-Star race or bid on the final race of the season, but I think that’d be really cool and it would open up different fan bases to come see a big event. You know you’re not gonna get many people from the West Coast to fly out here for the All-Star race, I don’t think. It’d be cool have like a All-Star race at Fontana or Vegas or Sonoma… It’d be cool to switch it up every year…”

Can you imagine a All-Star race under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the drivers would be bumping and banging for the $1 million prize? Maybe take it to Talladega, a track that would undoubtedly provide a memorable All-Star event. Or take it a whole ‘nother direction and put it on a road course, where some of the most exciting racing has taken place in the sport’s recent years.

3-wide pack racing at Talladega Superspeedway. Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images.

Bottom line is the All-Star race needs to be moved, and there are plenty of other tracks that could easily put on an action-filled spectacle. Charlotte has had a long tenure as the home track to NASCAR’s All-Star event, but too much of one thing usually leads to stale feelings. That stale inkling is how a majority of the folks around the sport feel, and have felt for too long now.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. retiring from NASCAR

Hendrick Motorsports sent out an official release on Tuesday morning announcing the retirement of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the end of the 2017 season.

The Kannapolis, NC native sat out a majority of the 2016 season after suffering from concussion symptoms nearly halfway through the season. Earnhardt Jr. made his return to the sport in this year’s Daytona 500 with a lot of hope and promise, but it has been anything but. The No.88 Nationwide Chevrolet has finished inside the top-10 only once, and has led a small number of only eight laps all together.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. standing in the garage earlier this year at Daytona International Speedway. Photo via Jerry Markland/Getty Images.

Earnhardt, who has won NASCAR’s most popular driver award a record 14 years in a row now, will compete in his final Monster Energy Cup event later this season in the championship finale race on Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Earnhardt Jr. has competed in NASCAR’s premiere series for 18 years now, accumulating over 600 starts and 26-career victories. The Hendrick Motorsports driver most recently competed on Monday at Bristol Motor Speedway, where he once again took another hard hit into the wall.

The departure of the most popular driver is something that many in NASCAR have dreaded from quite sometime. Earnhardt Jr. will discuss his decision with team owner Rick Hendrick in a press conference later on Tuesday afternoon. Plans have not been finalized yet about who will fill the seat of the No.88 machine starting in the 2018 season.