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Racing: Earnhardt earns another round of respect

<p>photo by ISC ARCHIVES via Getty Images</p><p>Dale Earnhardt Sr. &amp; Dale Earnhard, Jr. pose together at the raceway in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Feb. 4, 2001. The Earhnardts and Andy Pilgram earned second in the GTS category during the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.</p>

photo by ISC ARCHIVES via Getty Images

Dale Earnhardt Sr. & Dale Earnhard, Jr. pose together at the raceway in Daytona Beach, Fla., on Feb. 4, 2001. The Earhnardts and Andy Pilgram earned second in the GTS category during the 2001 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

Quicken Loans 400, Michigan International Speedway

Sunday, June 15, 11 a.m., TNT

NASCAR Nationwide Series

Ollie’s Bargain Outlet 250, Michigan International Speedway

Saturday, June 14, 12:30 p.m., ESPN

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

Drivin’ For Linemen 200, Gateway Motorsports Park

Saturday, June 14, 7 p.m., FOX Sports

Dale Earnhardt Jr. … finally, a contender.

Okay, granted, he has made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup before, with some fine finishes (third once, fifth three times) in the final series championship standings. But there’s something different about this year, right? Considered for so long by so many as a champion-in-waiting, Earnhardt (No. 88 National Guard/Superman Chevrolet) looks to be assuming the aura of a champion-on-deck.

What a road he has traveled to this spot – two victories in a season for the first time since 2004 and all but assured of making the newly expanded Chase field because of those wins. After years of spotlighted scrutiny and periodic victory droughts that left his legion of fans disappointed, Earnhardt may be ready to deliver a long-awaited, long-expected title in NASCAR’s premier series – or at the very least, come awfully close to doing so.

Earnhardt’s victory at Pocono Raceway this past Sunday sparked a litany of statistics that, collectively, seem hard to believe: First multi-win season in a decade; same number of wins as the previous seven seasons combined; first win at Pocono in 29 starts.

More important than any of those is this: Now with two victories, Earnhardt is guaranteed to be among the top 16 race winners – the most difficult criteria to meet in landing a spot in the Chase. As long as he finishes in the top 30 in driver points after race No. 26 and attempts to qualify for every race, he’s locked into NASCAR’s “playoffs.”

Years ago, race victories, Chase berths and a series championship or three all were predicted to come routinely to a young man with two NASCAR Nationwide Series championships and the consummate NASCAR family heritage, the heir apparent to his late father, seven-time Sprint Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.

That once-bright future, which once was considered derailed by critics – of which there were many, despite Earnhardt’s immense popularity overall – seemingly was only being delayed.

That future is now. Dale Jr. could be approaching a “Sr.” moment

“It’s elusive, man,” Earnhardt said at Pocono, regarding Sprint Cup success. “I don’t worry about [being criticized] as much anymore. I’m turning 40 this year, and the ‘over-rated’ talk is way behind me. That used to bother me when I was younger, but when you get old you don’t really care anymore about those kind of things. … I feel like I’m such a lucky guy to have this second opportunity almost to be competitive again, and so I don’t really worry about the detractors.”

Biffle going ‘home’ to Michigan

In contrast to Earnhardt’s every move being under weekly examination, Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M Military Salute Ford) has largely toiled under the radar during his NASCAR Sprint Cup career. Even though he advanced to the top rung after winning championships in both the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series, there was never an automatic expectation of Biffle completing an unprecedented sweep.

Thing is, also in contrast to Earnhardt, Biffle actually has come very close to winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, finishing as the series’ runner-up (tied with Carl Edwards) in 2005, only 35 points behind champion Tony Stewart.

In recent seasons, though, Biffle’s own career momentum has slowed slightly, with a total of only three victories form 2011-13 and none so far this season.

Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan could be a breakthrough opportunity for the Roush Fenway Racing driver. Roush Industries’ headquarters are located near Michigan International Speedway, in Livonia, Michigan. So, it’s fitting that Roush Fenway Racing has more wins at MIS (13) than any other team in NASCAR history – and four of those have been by Biffle, including two of the last three MIS races.

A win at Michigan, his most prolific track, would virtually lock Biffle into the 2014 Chase, provided he also meets the criteria outlined above.

Keselowski after second victory of season

Brad Keselowski (No. 2 Miller Lite Ford) is teed up for a victory in the Quicken Loans 400 in several ways.

He’s back in his home state. Keselowski is from Rochester Hills, approximately 90 miles from MIS, which is located in Brooklyn.

He’s coming two consecutive runner-up finishes, at Dover and Pocono.

Although he has two NASCAR Nationwide Series victories at MIS, Keselowski has not won there in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Winning would be a great thing to celebrate with car owner Roger Penske, who used to own MIS.

And last but certainly not least … winning would be a great way to celebrate Father’s Day with his dad, Bob, a former driver and team owner.

“When I think about racing, and people ask me this question a lot, how I got into racing, and the simple answer is my family,” Keselowski said. “I think if you look through a lot of those that are in the sport, at least at a competitor level, there’s some family traditions that involve racing and a lot of them are based around dads. That makes Father’s Day, I think, uniquely special to motorsports, but it’s special to the whole sports world in that sense, and it’s something that I’m very proud of with the relationship I have with my dad, how he got me started in racing, and I know it makes a win or any achievement you have even more special to win on that day.

“Hopefully we can pull that off.”

Larson turns heads toward victory lane

Are we sure this guy’s a rookie?

Kyle Larson, who tops the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, scored his third top five of the season, this time at Pocono. That matches the top five totals of Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards, three of the sport’s top talents. Tenth in points, Larson would earn a Chase spot if the playoffs began today – but they don’t.

So, he now heads to Michigan International Speedway to pad his dynamic rookie resume – and there are plenty of reasons he’ll do just that. And maybe even win.

Though it’ll be his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start at two-mile Michigan, Larson did score a runner-up finish there in last year’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race event.

Also, his performance earlier this season at Auto Club Speedway – the only other two-mile track on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule – suggests a strong weekend in MIS. Larson won the NASCAR Nationwide Series event at Auto Club Speedway, and followed it up with a thrilling runner-up finish to Kyle Busch in the Sunday NSCS event.

Larson currently leads Austin Dillon in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings by 26 points, 171-145.

Montoya returns to NASCAR

Up and down, right and left – it describes Juan Pablo Montoya’s driving wheelhouse, and his seven-year NASCAR career.

There were plenty of highs. The Colombian excited a robust NASCAR fan base, winning twice and making the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup in 2009. Of course, there were lows, including championship points finishes outside the top 20 in each of his last three years.

No matter the finish, however, he was never bland – a shoving match with Kevin Harvick at Watkins Glen remains a lasting image.

These days, Montoya competes in the IndyCar Series, and is currently seventh in points with a podium and three top fives.

But he’s back. Montoya will run the No. 12 Ford for Team Penske this weekend at Michigan International Speedway as part of a two-race NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. He’ll also race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July.

In 14 races at Michigan, Montoya scored three top-10 finishes.

There’s one factor that may play into Montoya’s hands – speed, something he encounters in abundance while driving in open wheel. Michigan’s Coors Light Pole winning speed has eclipsed the 200 mph mark in three of the last four qualifying sessions – including last August’s record breaking run of 203.949 mph by Joey Logano.

Smith, Elliott seek JR Motorsport’s elusive first title

Hard to imagine, especially when you hear it for the first time, but: JR Motorsports has yet to win a NASCAR Nationwide Series championship.

At first thought, “That can’t be right.”

Notables like Brad Keselowski, Aric Almirola, Danica Patrick, Mark Martin, Cole Whitt and many others have driven for car owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., but all have fallen short of the elusive championship title. Still, all that might change come November. JR Motorsports’ full-time series drivers are in championship form this season, as veteran Regan Smith and Sunoco Rookie standout Chase Elliott have combined to lead the standings the entire 2014 season. So, title guaranteed, right? Not so fast.

Smith, the defending Michigan winner and current series standings leader, is staring at the same conundrum he faced in 2013. He heads to Michigan, the first of a grueling 18-race stretch of the schedule. This time last season, he won, but followed it up with two finishes of 30th or worse at Road America and Kentucky, ultimately unraveling his championship hopes. But in 2014, Smith has set the stage for redemption. He kicked the season off with a big win at Daytona and since has finished in the top 10 in each of his 12 starts. His consistency has garnered an average finish of 7.1 this season, and also a four-point lead over second-place Elliott Sadler in the series driver standings. Smith’s season-to-date Driver Rating is 99.8. In three starts at Michigan, Smith has posted an average finish of 17.3 which includes last season’s victory.

Smith’s JR Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott, is third in the driver standings and will be making his series debut at MIS this weekend. Elliott has posted two wins, six top fives and nine top 10s this season.

Bayne, Dillon on ‘next to win’ short list

The top three in the standings, Regan Smith, Elliott Sadler and Chase Elliott have all won this season, begging the question, ‘Who’s next?‘

The first driver that quickly comes to mind is Trevor Bayne. Roush Fenway Racing’s hottest NNS driver is fourth in the standings, just 27-points behind standings leader Regan Smith. Bayne heads to Michigan riding the momentum of his second-place finish (best of 2014) at Dover International Speedway and his 10th top-10 finish of the season two weeks ago.

The 23-year old straps into his Ford Mustang this weekend having made four previous starts at Michigan, posting two top fives and an average finish of 12.8. Don’t be surprised if Bayne is smiling extra big at the track this weekend, he just celebrated his one year anniversary to his wife, Ashton, while the series was on break this past weekend. This time of year has been fruitful for Bayne; he won at Iowa on June 9 last season. Bayne has a pre-race Driver Rating of 97.1 and an Average Running Position of 9.2 at Michigan. His Roush Fenway Racing team leads the series in wins at MIS with five.

Not far behind Bayne is Richard Childress Racing’s Ty Dillon. The Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate came into the series with a mountain of expectations, driving the famed No. 3 car that brought his brother Austin a championship last season. He is fifth in the standings, 34 points behind leader Regan Smith. Dillon has posted one Coors Light Pole (Las Vegas), nine top-10 finishes and an average finish of 9.7 this season. This will be Dillon’s series debut at Michigan, though he has been successful in the NCWTS at the two-mile track, posting an average finish of 4.5 in two truck starts.

Michigan entry list boasts NASCAR’s famous

To the fans delight, some big names from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are entered in this weekend’s Ollie’s Bargain Outlet 250 at Michigan International Speedway, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kyle Larson and Paul Menard.

It’s always something special when two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion and two-time NNS Michigan race winner Earnhardt joins the party. This weekend will be Earnhardt’s fourth start of the season; in his previous three starts he has posted two top fives and an average finish of 6.7.

Earnhardt has made four series starts at Michigan posting two wins (1999, 2006), three top fives and an average finish of 3.5 (his second-best average finish among active NNS tracks). He also leads all drivers entered this weekend in pre-race Driver Rating (122.2).

The winningest driver in series history (66 wins), Busch is coming off his most recent victory in the series at Dover two weeks ago. Busch, no stranger to Michigan, has made six starts at MIS, posting one win (2004), five top fives and an average finish of 4.7.

Logano, a former winner at Michigan (2012) for Joe Gibbs Racing, returns to the speedway driving for Team Penske this weekend. Logano has made five starts at Michigan posting one win and four top fives.

Larson continues to show why he is one of the hottest prospects in the sport. In his 11 series starts this season he has two wins (Auto Club and Charlotte) and an average finish of 6.4. He has made one series start at Michigan and finished second.

Menard will be making his series season debut this weekend driving for Richard Childress. Menard has made eight series starts at MIS posting three top fives and an average finish of 8.5 (his second-best average finish among active NNS tracks).

NASCAR Nationwide Series Etc.

Sam Hornish Jr. returns to the series, driving the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in his third start of the season. Hornish won in his last series appearance at Iowa (May 18, 2014). He has made four series starts at Michigan posting one top-10 finish. … James Buescher is currently eighth in the standings. He won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Michigan last season. He has one series start (2012) at Michigan where he finished second. … Joe Nemechek will attempt to make his 425th career NASCAR Nationwide Series start this weekend at MIS. Nemechek is fourth on the all-time NNS series starts list.

Series returns to Gateway Motorsports Park

The much-anticipated return to a track with roots in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ formative years has arrived.

Gateway Motorsports Park, in the shadows of St. Louis and its breathtaking arch, had held truck races from 1998 until 2010 – welcoming such names as Rick Carelli, Greg Biffle, Jack Sprague, Ted Musgrave and Ron Hornaday Jr. to its Victory Lane.

Now a new roster of young stars head to the 1.25-mile track, names like Erik Jones, Jeb Burton, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Ben Kennedy.

New names, same side-by-side, must-see action.

Ron Hornaday Jr. is the lone competitor scheduled to race in Saturday night’s Drivin’ For Linemen 200 who has won at the track in the truck field.

The Fallen Linemen Organization will be guests of MAKE Motorsports and driver T.J. Bell during the event. This event will highlight the International Linemen Museum and Hall of Fame which was created to honor linemen who work alongside first responders throughout the country during situations that arise due to natural disasters and weather issues throughout the country. Several family members will be guests of the team during the Drivin’ for Linemen 200 on Saturday.

Crafton accomplishes career first

Although he already has built an impressive resume in the series and is the defending NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion, Matt Crafton accomplished a first in his career last Friday night when he won the Winstar Casino & Resort 400. The Tulare, California native has now won twice this season marking the first time he has multiple wins in his truck series career.

Crafton enters this weekend’s race with an 11-point lead over his teammate Johnny Sauter (232-221) and 23-point cushion over third-place Ron Hornaday Jr. The defending champion now has five career wins and has finished either first or second in four of the last five races.

Crafton also enters this weekend’s race as a driver with the most experience at Gateway Motorsports Park. He has 10 career starts at the track with one top-five finish (2010) and seven top-10s. While he has yet to lead a lap at the track, Crafton has not suffered a DNF at Gateway.

Gaulding, Townley perform double duty

NASCAR Next driver Gray Gaulding and fellow truck competitor John Wes Townley are going to be busy this weekend. Gaulding will be in Pensacola, Fla. for the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race at Five Flags Speedway on Friday night. He will then hop a plane and fly to Gateway Motorsports Park in time for final practice and qualifying for the Drivin’ For Linemen 200.

Townley will compete in the ARCA race at Michigan International Speedway on Friday afternoon and travel to the St. Louis area late that night for Saturday morning’s on-track activity. Gaulding has secured Jason Lofton to practice his truck on Friday and Nelson Piquet Jr. will do the same for Townley.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Etc.

The Drivin’ For Linemen 200 will be the first of two events this season at tracks that have returned to the schedule this season. New Hampshire Motor Speedway welcomes the truck series back in September. The trucks last race at NHMS in 2011. … A total of nine drivers who have competed before at Gateway Motorsports Park in a truck are entered to participate this weekend at the 1.25-mile track.

K&N Heads To Five Flags

NASCAR K&N Pro Series East points leader Ben Rhodes will make his first start at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, Friday. Unfamiliarity didn’t slow him on May 31, when the 17-year-old from Louisville, Kentucky, led all but one lap in winning the NASCAR Hall of Fame 150 at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Rhodes, a NASCAR Next member, will carry a 49-point lead over Gray Gaulding into the eighth of 16 races. One driver who is familiar with Five Flags is Kenzie Ruston. The NASCAR Next driver was fifth at the half-mile banked asphalt oval in 2013 and returns driving for Ben Kennedy Racing, who won last year’s race. Gaulding, like Rhodes and Ruston a member of the NASCAR Next class, will have a busy weekend. In addition to the Pensacola 150, Gaulding will make his way to Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ Drivin’ For Linemen 200. It will be the third career start in the Camping World Truck Series outing for the 16-year-old out of Colonial Heights, Virginia. … The second round of 2014 NASCAR Canadian Tire Series presented by Mobil 1 action is set for this Saturday with the inaugural Budweiser 300 at Autodrome Chaudière in Vallée-Jonction, Quebec. The Budweiser 300 will mark the series’ first visit to the fast quarter-mile oval, located approximately 40 miles southeast of Quebec City. In the first seven seasons of Canadian Tire Series competition, D.J. Kennington leads the series in oval-track wins with 16.

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