Race Weekend Central

Pace Laps: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Return, Sebring Testing, Austin Theriault Wins and Florida Speedweeks

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series: Welcome back, Junior – Dale Earnhardt Jr. is officially back.

The weekend at Daytona International Speedway saw the two-time Daytona 500 champion have some fun again – so much, in fact, that he looked to actually be enjoying a rain delay for once on Saturday night.

While trading stories with Jeff Gordon and Darrell Waltrip in the Fox Sports 1 booth, we got to learn a little more about his traditional-yet-modern views on the sport along with some items in his racing memorabilia. It wasn’t long ago that Junior would keep those fun facts buried inside instead of going into detail in front of millions.

Sunday morning’s rain-postponed Clash was another first for Earnhardt, who, instead of calling the shots from behind the wheel, called his first Daytona race for FS1.

Minus his enjoyment of long green-flag runs, it was a perfect race to have Junebug keyed up: It’s back to the name Clash, it’s back to daytime running and a race full of three-wide competition, handling issues and capped off with one jaw-dropping finish.

“We got a crash! We’ve got cars out of control here,” the lively Earnhardt said during the last-lap contact with Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin. “They’ve gathered it back up! Oh no!”

Following more than seven months outside the racecar, Earnhardt has seemed to gain a new understanding of what the sport is about. Spending the Clash in the booth, it only expanded from there.

Later, it showed on the racetrack, as he earned his fourth front-row start in the Great American Race behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott.

With a healthy perspective in one quick racecar, this Speedweeks could kick off Earnhardt’s return season in fashion for Junior Nation. Zach Catanzerti

XFINITY Series: Let the Season Begin – 14 weeks have come and gone and the NASCAR season is upon us once again. The XFINITY Series will take to the high banks of Daytona on Saturday afternoon, in it’s first segmented race in the history of the series.

44 cars, the most of the three series will attempt to qualify for the biggest race in the XFINITY Series season. Defending winner, and Daytona 500 pole-sitter Elliott will not be a part of the 40-car field.

The pre-season team to beat is JR Motorsports, running four full-time cars, led by Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier, who both made the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. Michael Annett is back in the XFINITY Series after spending the last three seasons in the Cup Series and William Byron rounds out the JRM lineup, moving up from the Camping World Truck Series.

One of the most exciting races of the year is about to go down, and you won’t want to miss it. Coverage begins on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET. – Dustin Albino 

Camping World Truck Series: Returning to the Track at Daytona – As the off-season draws to a close, we’re a mere handful of days away from the Truck Series season opener at Daytona. Set to take the green-flag Friday night, the race will mark the first use of segmented racing announced by NASCAR earlier this year.

As of press time, 39 trucks are entered for a field that has enough room for 32 drivers. Among those entered include the new lineups for ThorSport Racing (Matt Crafton, Ben Rhodes, Cody Coughlin and Grant Enfinger) and Kyle Busch Motorsports (Christopher Bell, Noah Gragson and a third truck split by Myatt Snider and Harrison Burton). Brett Moffitt begins a two-race deal with Red Horse Racing and Ryan Truex is set to run the full season again this year.

The bottom line is you shouldn’t miss Friday night’s race on FoxSports 1. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET. – Beth Lunkenheimer

Sports Cars: Sebring Testing is Coming Up – This week, the vast majority of the racing world’s focus is on Volusia County, where three different tracks are hosting multiple days/nights of racing.  For IMSA teams, this is a relatively calm time of year in between Daytona and Sebring.  The Visit Florida Racing shop is an exception to that rule since they share space with K&N Pro Series East’s Ben Kennedy Racing.

However, IMSA teams will be back in action this week for a test session at Sebring International Raceway ahead of next month’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.  There are a combined 15 hours of on-track time available to teams in four sessions (two on Thursday, two on Friday).  None of those sessions will be held at night.

For the test, there will be rule changes in play.  The most notable change is a 1.5-millimeter reduction in the air restrictors on the 6.2-liter Cadillac engine.  This is as a result of the Cadillac DPi-V.R.’s dominating much of the Rolex 24 at Daytona weekend and simply being untouchable on pace in the dry.  Also, in an attempt to throw a bone to everyone else, new rules regarding rain lights have been instituted after drivers complained about the bright flashing lights in Daytona.  In GTLM, the BMW’s have had two liters of fuel capacity added (which brings them to 101 liters, highest in the class) and a large fuel filler restrictor to compensate.

In GT Daytona, the Acura NSX GT3’s have been given a 20-kilogram weight break, while the Ferrari 488 GT3 and Lexus RC F GT3’s have had 10 kilograms added. The Lamborghini Huracan GT3 has gotten a one- millimeter increase in their air restrictor while the Lexus gets a two-millimeter increase.  The Lamborghini and Lexus entries have also received fuel capacity.

The Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring (Round No. 2 of both the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup) is on Mar. 18.  Coverage will start on FOX Sports GO at 10:30 a.m. ET.  TV coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on FOX Sports 1 and will run all the way to the finish. – Phil Allaway

NHRA: Big-Time in 2017 – NHRA kicked off the 2017 season last weekend in Pomona with the Circle K NHRA Winternationals, where three of the four Mello Yello Series pro categories crowned their first winners of the year. Leah Pritchett will be competing full time with Don Schumacher Racing this year and made a statement by claiming the first Wally of the year in Top Fuel, scoring the win over Doug Kalitta.
Pritchett’s DSR teammate, Matt Hagan, beat Courtney Force for top honors in Funny Car, giving the team the Nitro category sweep.
Jason Line, reigning Pro Stock champion, picked up right where he left off last season, as did teammate Greg Anderson, when the two squared off in the Pro Stock final. The win went to Line.
The overall win, though, perhaps, goes to NHRA, with over one million viewers tuning in for the Winternationals on the FOX broadcast network. 1,224,000 viewers saw those first winners of 2017 claim the trophy, the most watched broadcast in the 57-year history of the series. It’s important to note this was without a lead-in from NASCAR, as was the case for some of the highest viewed broadcasts of last season. – Toni Montgomery

ARCA: Austin Theriault Makes it Two for Three in ARCA Competition – You don’t have to lead a large number of laps to win a race. Austin Theriault only led four laps on Saturday night, but he led the most important one. Theriault passed Terry Jones on Lap 73 and was still leading on Lap 75, when a wreck on the front straight brought out the red flag.

The incident resulted in damage to the SAFER barrier at the start-finish line of Daytona International Speedway. The time needed to repair the barrier was greater than the time allotted to the ARCA Series so the race was called five laps short of the scheduled 80-lap distance. Shane Lee, Dalton Sargeant and pole-sitter Tom Hessert rounded out the top five.

The race had five leaders who exchanged the lead nine times. The race was slowed by six cautions and one red flag. Justin Fontaine was taken to a local hospital for evaluation and was diagnosed with a compression fracture of his L1 vertebrae. He was in good spirits on Twitter following the race.

The next race for the ARCA Series is the Music City 200 at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville April 8. – Mike Neff

Short Tracks: Florida Speedweeks is in Full Swing While Myrtle Beach Kicks off the Whelen All-American Series Season – The IceBreaker at Myrtle Beach Speedway was contested last Sunday. Three-time National Champion Lee Pulliam made a late race charge past local racer Brian Vause to claim the second annual race. The Modifieds saw three-time defending Whelen Modified Champion Doug Coby make a well timed mid race charge to the front and hold off the field as the race went green for the majority of the event.

Florida Speedweeks has seen events contested at North Florida Speedway, East Bay Raceway Park, Bubba Raceway Park, Volusia Speedway Park, New Smyrna Speedway and Bronson Speedway. All-Star Circuit of Champions, World of Outlaws Sprints and Late Models, UMP Modifieds, Lucas Oil Dirt Late Models, Tour Type Modifieds and multiple local divisions have all raced in the past week. The list of winners is extensive but includes Spencer Davis, Jimmy Zacharias, Tyler Erb, Nick Hoffman, Kyle Strickler, Kevin Adams, Scott Bloomquist, Tim McCreadie, Josh Richards, Brandon Sheppard, Jeff Mathews, Donny Schatz, Kerry Madsen, Matt Kurtz, Mike Pegher Jr., AJ Maddox, Phillip Cobb, Jason Johnson, Brian Ruhlman, Jacob Hawkins, Ronnie Bassett Jr., and David Gravel

New Smyrna Speedway, Volusia, and Bubba will continue to run Speedweeks events for the next week.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the fans who were injured at Volusia Speedway Park Sunday night, and their families.- Mike Neff

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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These drivers in ARCA should not be racing at Daytona. Someone always seems to get hurt due to these guys inexperience. Waiting another 2 months before their next race makes it even more silly. I get it. Daytona is like the 500 for this series, but this is a feeder series and doesn’t belong at Daytona.

On a side note, those of you that are ARCA fans, keep an eye on Austin. He is a quality talent out of Maine that most people haven’t heard much about. He is in good equipment (Ken Schrader team) this year and could be a sleeper contender for the title this year.

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