Saturday Watkins Glen Notebook

Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs more speed to be a contender

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. - To Dale Earnhardt Jr., the No. 78 Toyota of Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 42 Chevrolet of Kyle Larson aren't just in a different zip code.

They're in a different time zone, figuratively speaking, when it comes to speed on the race track.

"The No. 42 has been really strong all year," Earnhardt said during a media availability at Watkins Glen International prior to Sunday's I LOVE NEW YORK 355 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). "The No. 78, they are really strong, they are in a different world, man. We want to go out and win races...it is easy to say that, but, damn, we have a lot of speed to find.

"It isn't like we are going to show up and drive around those (guys). We have some work to do before the end of the year if we want to feel like we can legitimately contend for a win."

The contrast is even more acute to Earnhardt, who has been struggling to find speed in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsport Chevrolet throughout the season.

"We had a little speed earlier in the season, I thought," Earnhardt said. "We got through Texas, and I felt like that things are where they should be. We have lost a little bit along the way at a few stops. Just losing a little bit here and there.

"We haven't really developed any speed through the season as we have progressed through the year; we sort of have not found anything additional to what we had at the start of the year. A lot of teams have, and we are sort of playing catch up right now."

That Earnhardt is competing in his final season of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing only adds to the urgency.

"Certainly, if we miss the playoffs, we're still going to try to win a race," he said. "We're still going to show up and try to give it everything we've got. There's nothing worse than leaving the race track feeling like you didn't try your best or didn't give everything you had.

"And I certainly ain't going to finish my last season like that and carry that with me the rest of my life. So we're going to work hard all the way to the very end, and hopefully we have something to smile about at some point before it's over with."


At the stroke of midnight on Tuesday, Aug. 1, Kurt Busch became a free agent when Stewart-Haas Racing declined to pick up the option on the 2017 Daytona 500 winner.

That doesn't mean, necessarily, that Busch won't be back in the No. 41 SHR Ford next year. In fact, the organization announced in a tweet that the expectation is that Busch will be back.

However, Busch also has the opportunity to negotiate with other team owners about filling potentially empty seats.

"They chose not to pick up their option, but I see it as good options for me," Busch told reporters before Saturday morning's first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice. "I'm not too worried about it. I feel like there's more options out there than exist here (at Stewart-Haas alone)."

Busch, who celebrated his 39th birthday on Friday, indicated he has already heard from a number of interested suitors.

"The phone didn't stop ringing all week, not just because it was my birthday," he said. "I'm looking for the best possible option to race a competitive car that's got a chance to win races, win poles and compete for a championship. There's different cars that are options for me, and Stewart-Haas is one of them...

"The disruption of them not picking up my option, it gets the crew guys all flustered. Ford is very surprised by it. And so we've just got to stay focused, stay sharp. There's no reason to not think that I couldn't be back here. It's just a matter of making it all work out. I'm not too worried about it."


Kyle Busch won last Sunday's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Pocono to reduce his magic number to one, in terms of active Cup tracks where he hasn't yet recorded a victory.

All that's left for Busch is to win a points-paying event at Charlotte, where he has already won the non-points All-Star Race.

Other drivers have come close in recent years. Jeff Gordon retired with one hole in his resume - Kentucky. Tony Stewart lacked Kentucky and Darlington when he hung up his Cup driving shoes.

"I'm so out of touch with stats that I felt like Jeff and Tony were the only guys kind of in that conversation," said seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who is missing wins at Kentucky, Chicagoland and Watkins Glen, the venue for Sunday's I Love New York 355. "And then last weekend I learned that Kyle is now down to one. And I'm like well, dang, there's somebody else in the party here.

"And Kyle will get it. I can't believe he hasn't won at Charlotte already in a Cup car. It's safe to say that Kyle is going to be the first one to close out all the tracks, I think, with the way he runs and how good he runs at that track. I still have here (Watkins Glen), Kentucky has been a disaster for me, Chicago I should have closed a long time ago. I think Kyle, if you're a betting man, I'd put Kyle as closing out all the tracks first."


Like NBA superstar Stephen Curry, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Denny Hamlin is a single-digit handicapper on the golf course. In other words, he's quite good.

And though Hamlin is preoccupied with "baby watch" this week, with long-time girlfriend Jordan Fish expecting the couple's second child - and with Regan Smith standing by as a relief driver in case the new baby arrives before the due date on Thursday - Hamlin nevertheless had time to take note of Curry's surprising performance in the Web.com Tour's Ellie Mae Classic.

Curry, who was playing in the tournament proper on a sponsor exemption, shot 74-74 at TPC Stonebrae in Hayward, California, and though he missed the 36-hole cut by 11 shots, he made a strong impression across the spectrum of professional sports.

"What he did was, I think, amazing," Hamlin told the NASCAR Wire Service. "Even scratch golfers at their home course struggle to shoot 74, and then in a competition like he was in, on a real course, real competition, that was pretty impressive. He didn't finish last. I mean, I feel bad for those guys that he beat, because they do it every single week.

"But, it's just fun to see guys that can cross over sports and be competitive. He still would have a ways to be truly competitive, but still he didn't stink up the show, and I think that it was a good thing for the Web.com Tour, because normally they have nobody watching their event either in person or on TV, and I'm sure the ratings and attendance were probably through the roof."

--- NASCAR Wire Service ---