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Saturday Indianapolis Notebook

Dale Earnhardt Jr. preoccupied with staying competitive in his final season

SPEEDWAY, Ind. - In his last season as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn't have time for nostalgia-even as he makes his last visits to a succession of tracks.

He has simply been too busy trying to find speed in his race cars.

"Well, it's certainly different to have an end point," Earnhardt said after Saturday's final practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "To have a time and a date out there that you know is coming... For years and years, you just never knew when you were going to retire.

"I still feel like I have to allow myself to get competitive, and I want to go out there and do well in all the practices and all the races, and I want our team to have success. There's not as much probably stopping and smelling the roses as I would like. I guess if we were maybe running a little better, it would be a little more of that. But we're just grinding away trying to get our cars better."

Earnhardt wasn't happy with the balance of his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet during the first two practice sessions, but he was eighth fastest in Happy Hour at 185.147 mph versus 185.854 mph for Erik Jones, who topped the speed chart.

And like every other race car driver, Earnhardt is willing to sacrifice comfort for speed.

As a memento for his final run at the Brickyard, speedway president Doug Boles gave Earnhardt the number "8" from the old pylon that used to display the running order of the cars. Figuratively speaking, Earnhardt doesn't need reminders to realize he's in the home stretch of his career.

"We turned the corner and we are coming down the last straightaway and going to these race tracks, and this year is going to wrap up pretty quickly before you know it," he said. "Just trying to enjoy being behind the wheel. When you are out there driving and beating your head against the wall trying to figure out how to get faster, you've got to remind yourself a little bit to enjoy it, enjoy these last few runs, because it's fun.

"It's fun driving the car. Just the pure enjoyment of racing and driving is always going to be there, and that's going to be there long after I retire, and I'll miss some things about that. So I'm just trying to make sure I'm really taking that in, just the driving part. There is a lot of stuff that you try to take in, but we're still trying to get faster and get better.

"Farewell tours aren't quite as graceful as they sound. You can't really kind of skip through a season, even if it's your last."

HAMLIN SEES THE LIGHT-AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL

Nineteen races into the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Joe Gibbs Racing had eight victories to its credit.

This year, it took 19 races for the organization to get its first win. Denny Hamlin finally took a checkered flag last Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and if one race can constitute momentum, Hamlin believes JGR may have found a launching pad at the Magic Mile.

In qualifying trim, Hamlin led Saturday's opening practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of Sunday's Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 (on NBC at 2:30 p.m. ET).

"Yeah, it looked like all of our cars were pretty fast even besides us today - the 78 (Martin Truex Jr. of affiliated Furniture Rowe Racing) and 20 (Matt Kenseth) and 18 (Kyle Busch),' Hamlin said.

"So, yeah, I'm pretty confident that we have turned the corner and we've just got a little bit more to go."

Busch has won the last two races at the Brickyard, and one of the lessons Hamlin has learned from his teammate is how important qualifying is at the 2.5-mile track. Accordingly, Hamlin's team emphasized the time trial package in opening practice.

"They've qualified well, and we've talked about how hard it was to pass - nobody's just been able to pass - and, you know, there's been times where I feel like we were equal to him last year.

"We were second for most of the day - second or third - but just couldn't overcome the aero side of things... I think that qualifying is a very big key. If you look at the winners here, most of them have started up front, so it's important to start your day off being fast and being up there in qualifying. So that's where we focused today."

LARSON HAS A RECOMMENDATION FOR THE NO. 77 CAR

Does Kyle Larson have inside information on future plans for the No. 77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota?

With Erik Jones moving from Furniture Row Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing next season, the No. 77 is currently without a driver. And team owner Barney Visser has said the fate of the No. 77 is still to be determined, pending funding.

When discussing up-and-coming drivers on Saturday, Larson had a strong recommendation for the empty ride.

"I definitely think you have to have Christopher Bell at the top of that list (of young, talented drivers)," Larson said. "I got to see his potential a couple years before he ever made it to truck (NASCAR Camping World Truck Series).

"Seeing how good he is, I don't know what the Furniture Row situation is, but I hope Bell gets to go in the No. 77. There are so many kids in dirt racing that deserve an opportunity to make it...at least get a shot at a solid K&N Series ride and then see how they can progress from there. It just comes down to funding these days."

Bell currently is in his second full season with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, after advancing to the championship race in 2016. He is also scheduled to run eight NASCAR XFINITY Series events this season.

--- NASCAR Wire Service ---