Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally break 34-race restrictor plate track drought Saturday at Daytona?

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. once was the undisputed king of restrictor plate racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.

From 2001 to 2004, Earnhardt won seven plate races. Five came at Talladega Superspeedway (including four in a row from 2001 to 2003).

Two other wins came at Daytona International Speedway: the 2001 Pepsi 400, an emotional homage to his father, who was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 less than five months earlier, as well as the 2004 Daytona 500.

But Junior has not won a plate race in nearly nine years, the last being in October 2004 at Talladega.

Add it up and he hasn’t won a restrictor plate race in his last 34 attempts!

Sure, he’s come close with three runner-up and three other third-place finishes at Daytona, and a runner-up at Talladega, but the fact remains he isn’t the plate racer he once was.

And no one knows that better than Junior.

“We’ve come awfully close trying to win the 500 in the last few years,” Earnhardt said during his weekly media availability Thursday at Daytona. “We’ve been finishing well, but haven’t really been able to figure out what I need to do to get into first place on the last lap.

“We’ve had no problem finding our way to the front, but not been able to overtake the leaders. So, I think we might need to try to be at a better position sooner, where we’re not having to have to do so much right at the end of the race and not have an opportunity to challenge for the win.”

As he prepares for Saturday’s Coke Zero 400, Earnhardt knows what he has to do in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – both in the race itself as well as for the remainder of the season as he once again continues to chase his first Sprint Cup championship.

“Maybe throughout the race trying to be a little more proactive toward improving track position, being a little more aggressive just trying to improve track position might be in our best interest if we want to try to have a shot at winning,” Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt was aggressive earlier this season, with finishes of second (Daytona 500), fifth, seventh, sixth and second (Fontana) in his first five starts. In fact, Earnhardt even was No. 1 in the Sprint Cup standings after Fontana – albeit for just one week.

But in the last seven weeks, Earnhardt hasn’t had the same kind of performance as earlier in the season, battling inconsistency and, surprisingly, engine issues in at least two races.

As a result, he’s dropped from third to a season-low of seventh before climbing back to sixth place in the weekly standings the last two weeks.

He’s looking to climb back up even further Saturday and has his strategy already set in his mind.

“Being aggressive and trying to get track position or make track position happen or move forward, just mentally aggressive, not out there driving in the side of everybody, more so, just trying to force myself to take a few more chances,” Earnhardt said.

One other thing that Earnhardt, who hasn’t won a race now in more than a year, will likely change for Saturday: to make what he hopes is his race-winning kick a little bit sooner than he typically does.

“You just continue to leap frog one at a time, but that one guy you aren’t successful with (as a drafting partner) you go all the way to the back,” he said. “It’s a gamble, but maybe if you want to win the race, I’ve got to be further ahead than fourth on the last lap.

“We had enough race car to win the (Daytona) 500 and just ran out of laps. I need to be a little further forward to be able to have that shot.”

(By the way, in case you want to take a trip back memory lane to see Junior’s last plate race win, here it is:)

NHRA: Pritchett, Capps, Butner capture wins in Springnationals near Houston

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Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Bo Butner (Pro Stock) had some spring in their step – and gas pedal – on Sunday, capturing their respective classes in the NHRA Springnationals.

Here’s how the final round broke down at Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, Texas, the fifth race on the 24-race NHRA national event schedule:

* In Top Fuel, Pritchett (3.781 seconds at 321.96 mph) earned her third win of the young season, defeating Steve Torrence (3.787 seconds, 322.11 mph) in the final round.

“Our goal was to leave as the points leader and that was not easy at all,” Pritchett said. “Going into the final we said this is our bounce back and we’re going to keep it interesting.

“I’ve never been in a position to really be counting points and I know it is early in the season, but I’m definitely enjoying that.”

On the way to the final round matchup with Torrence, Pritchett defeated Scott Palmer, Doug Kalitta and defending Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who is also her teammate at Don Schumacher Racing.

Pritchett’s bragging rights were a bit more than usual, as her husband works on Torrence’s pit crew.

* In Funny Car, Capps – who won his first national championship last season – earned his first win of the season.

Capps (4.004 seconds at 284.33 mph) defeated Robert Hight (4.107 seconds, 202.88 mph) to claim the 51st win of his NHRA career, as well as his third triumph at Royal Purple Raceway.

“These things become so hard to win these days,” Capps said. “But you take things for granted where I felt like we should’ve won at any of those first three races of the season.

“NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car division has to be the most competitive thing in the world right now; its cut-throat.”

The final matchup was anything but ordinary for both drivers: Capps’ engine exploded just before the finish line, while Hight had engine issues and crossed the center line, marking an automatic disqualification.

Along the way to the final round, Capps defeated Todd Simpson, 16-time world champion John Force and teammate Jack Beckman.

* In Pro Stock, Butner (6.550 seconds, 212.26 mph) claimed his first career Pro Stock win, defeating No. 1 qualifier Jeg Coughlin (6.562 seconds, 212.03 mph).

It was Butner’s first win and seventh career final round appearance, while Coughlin reached his first final round since ’s first final round appearance at Seattle in 2015.

“Any win that you stand on that stage, Super Stock, Super Street or whatever it is (the feeling) never gets old,” Butner said. “It’s a great feeling and you can’t explain it unless you experience it.

“To make four consecutive win lights is very tough and a lot harder than I expected.”

Butner defeated Allen Johnson and four-time champ Greg Anderson before facing Coughlin in the final round. Only 13 cars qualified in Pro Stock, short of the usual 16-car field.

MORE: NHRA: Pro Stock teams get into confrontation during Houston race

The series now moves on to zMax Dragway in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, April 28-30, for the eighth annual Four-Wide Nationals.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Steve Torrence; 3. Antron Brown; 4. Clay Millican; 5. Doug Kalitta; 6. Bob Vandergriff; 7. Tony Schumacher; 8. Troy Coughlin Jr.; 9. Shawn Langdon; 10. Terry McMillen; 11. Shawn Reed; 12. Brittany Force; 13. Terry Haddock; 14. Scott Palmer; 15. Steven Chrisman; 16. Troy Buff.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Ron Capps; 2. Robert Hight; 3. Courtney Force; 4. Jack Beckman; 5. J.R. Todd; 6. John Force; 7. Alexis DeJoria; 8. Jonnie Lindberg; 9. Cruz Pedregon; 10. Del Worsham; 11. Jim Campbell; 12. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 13. Matt Hagan; 14. Tim Wilkerson; 15. Jeff Diehl; 16. Todd Simpson.

PRO STOCK: 1. Bo Butner; 2. Jeg Coughlin; 3. Greg Anderson; 4. Tanner Gray; 5. Chris McGaha; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Richie Stevens; 8. Erica Enders; 9. Alex Laughlin; 10. Allen Johnson; 11. Drew Skillman; 12. Jason Line; 13. Alan Prusiensky.

PRO MODIFIED: 1. Steve Matusek; 2. Shane Molinari; 3. Mike Castellana; 4. Jonathan Gray; 5. Danny Rowe; 6. Mike Janis; 7. Troy Coughlin; 8. Shannon Jenkins; 9. Chuck Little; 10. Michael Biehle; 11.Eric Latino; 12. Steven Whiteley; 13. Larry Morgan; 14. Khalid alBalooshi; 15. Sidnei Frigo.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Leah Pritchett, 3.781 seconds, 321.96 mph  def. Steve Torrence, 3.787 seconds, 322.11 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.004, 284.33  def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, Foul – Centerline.

PRO STOCK: Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.550, 212.26  def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.562, 212.03.

PRO MODIFIED: Steve Matusek, Chevy Camaro, 8.985, 124.96  def. Shane Molinari, Pontiac Firebird, Foul – Red Light.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Tony Schumacher, 3.758, 322.11 def. Troy Buff, Broke; Clay Millican, 3.729, 326.79 def. Steven Chrisman, 9.654, 83.58; Troy Coughlin Jr., 3.852, 277.20 def. Brittany Force, 3.871, 274.55; Doug Kalitta, 3.761, 325.06 def. Terry McMillen, 3.833, 315.86; Antron Brown, 3.752, 321.04 def. Terry Haddock, 3.931, 283.79; Steve Torrence, 3.748, 324.20 def. Shawn Reed, 3.867, 315.86; Leah Pritchett, 3.748, 324.59 def. Scott Palmer, 4.766, 152.52; Bob Vandergriff, 3.770, 323.43 def.Shawn Langdon, 3.813, 318.84;

QUARTERFINALS — Brown, 3.766, 326.00 def. Vandergriff, 3.778, 323.89; Millican, 3.784, 320.97 def. Schumacher, 3.779, 317.34; Torrence, 3.755, 324.20 def. Coughlin Jr., 6.779, 93.70; Pritchett, 3.763, 324.05 def. Kalitta, 3.759, 326.56;

SEMIFINALS — Pritchett, 3.772, 319.45 def. Brown, 3.815, 322.11; Torrence, 3.760, 323.27 def. Millican, 8.621, 87.00; FINAL — Pritchett, 3.781, 321.96 def. Torrence, 3.787, 322.11.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.897, 327.90 def. Todd Simpson, Chevy Camaro, 11.347, 81.01; Courtney Force, Camaro, 5.344, 132.02 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 10.819, 77.81; John Force, Camaro, 4.216, 220.08 def. Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 4.485, 205.51; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.870, 331.77 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.543, 195.51; J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.959, 323.58 def. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.935, 322.04; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.224, 222.62 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 5.142, 162.12; Jonnie Lindberg, Camry, 3.944, 326.16 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.556, 190.16; Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.927, 327.03 def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 8.109, 112.19;

QUARTERFINALS — Capps, 3.951, 321.04 def. Lindberg, 5.159, 153.63; Hight, 3.898, 327.82 def. Todd, 3.958, 324.36; Beckman, 3.897, 329.18 def. J. Force, 4.134, 273.39; C. Force, 3.947, 294.37 def.DeJoria, 4.146, 260.16;

SEMIFINALS — Hight, 3.908, 324.98 def. C. Force, 3.943, 324.28; Capps, 3.926, 325.37 def. Beckman, 6.126, 114.85;

FINAL — Capps, 4.004, 284.33 def. Hight, Foul – Centerline.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.565, 211.86 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.548, 211.89 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.581, 210.97; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.555, 212.03 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.563, 210.90; Richie Stevens, Dodge Dart, 6.589,210.64 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.536, 211.46 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 6.588, 211.03; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.523, 213.33 def. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.567, 211.16; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.499, 213.03 was unopposed;

QUARTERFINALS — Gray, 6.547, 211.86 def. Stevens, 6.628, 209.75; Anderson, 6.558, 211.73 def.Nobile, 6.590, 211.73; Butner, 6.544, 212.06 was unopposed; Coughlin, 6.546, 211.73 def. McGaha, 6.574, 211.43;

SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.558, 211.63 def. Gray, Foul – Red Light; Butner, 6.536, 212.69 def.Anderson, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Butner, 6.550, 212.26 def. Coughlin, 6.562, 212.03.

PRO MODIFIED: ROUND ONE — Bob Rahaim, Chevy Corvette, DQ def. Sidnei Frigo, Corvette, DQ; Troy Coughlin, Corvette, 5.789, 251.77 def. Khalid alBalooshi, Chevy Camaro, 10.699, 82.60; Steve Matusek, Camaro, 5.817, 250.18 def. Steven Whiteley, Cadillac CTS-V, 6.273, 175.11; Mike Janis, Camaro, 5.825,246.53 def. Eric Latino, Camaro, 5.934, 224.06; Danny Rowe, Corvette, 5.811, 250.00 def. Larry Morgan, Camaro, 6.707, 161.83; Shane Molinari, Pontiac Firebird, 5.815, 254.76 def. Chuck Little, Corvette, 5.816, 247.34; Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 5.815, 223.17 def. Shannon Jenkins, Ford Mustang, 5.809, 240.68; Mike Castellana, Camaro, 5.722, 251.77 def. Michael Biehle, Mustang, 5.845, 254.66;

QUARTERFINALS — Castellana, 5.685, 252.99 was unopposed; Gray, 5.801, 250.04 def. Coughlin, 10.018, 81.15; Matusek, 5.793, 251.77 def. Rowe, 5.944, 208.42; Molinari, 5.811, 255.92 def. Janis, 6.446, 167.72;

SEMIFINALS — Molinari, 5.843, 240.38 def. Gray, 9.355, 94.35; Matusek, 5.804, 251.95 def.Castellana, 7.361, 130.30;

FINAL — Matusek, 8.985, 124.96 def. Molinari, Foul – Red Light.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 494; 2. Antron Brown, 440; 3. Tony Schumacher, 438; 4. Doug Kalitta, 358; 5. Steve Torrence, 352; 6. Brittany Force, 282; 7. Clay Millican, 269; 8. Troy Coughlin Jr., 228; 9. Terry McMillen, 195; 10. Scott Palmer, 180.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan, 400; 2. Ron Capps, 398; 3. John Force, 371; 4. Tommy Johnson Jr., 357; 5. (tie) Courtney Force, 301; Robert Hight, 301; 7. Jack Beckman, 282; 8. Jonnie Lindberg, 235; 9. J.R. Todd, 222; 10. Jim Campbell, 211.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 457; 2. Bo Butner, 426; 3. Jason Line, 403; 4. Jeg Coughlin, 372; 5. Tanner Gray, 370; 6. Shane Gray, 278; 7. Erica Enders, 255; 8. Chris McGaha, 246; 9. Vincent Nobile, 235; 10. Drew Skillman, 225.

PRO MODIFIED: 1. Mike Castellana, 169; 2. Steve Matusek, 147; 3. Steven Whiteley, 146; 4. Danny Rowe, 129; 5. Troy Coughlin, 125; 6. Shane Molinari, 106; 7. Mike Janis, 104; 8. Michael Biehle, 82; 9. Eric Latino, 78; 10. Jonathan Gray, 77.

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Rossi charges to fifth after starting 18th at Barber

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Alexander Rossi has had a black cloud hanging over his head in each of the first two races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season. Last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner suffered an ill-timed caution at St. Petersburg that hurt his team’s strategy and then dropped out at Long Beach after an engine failure when he was running in the top three.

That misfortune continued on into Saturday, as he and the Andretti-Herta Autosport team couldn’t find the speed in qualifying, leaving him 18th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, everything turned up roses come race time and Rossi had arguably the drive of the day. Rossi was immediately on the charge and used a combination of strategy and speed to run seventh after the opening sequence of pit stops. He hung around the top five the rest of the day, eventually moving up to fifth after Charlie Kimball and Will Power made late-race pit stops.

All told, it was a remarkable run for him.

“It’s good considering we started 18th,” Rossi told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “We were pretty disappointed yesterday. We were on the verge of desperation. We had to diagnose what happened Saturday.”

The result vaulted Rossi all the way up to 10th in the championship standings, one point ahead of Tony Kanaan. He trails points leader Sebastien Bourdais by 57 markers heading into the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

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Bourdais hangs on to points lead after Barber

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Sebastien Bourdais’ drive to eighth is not quite the headline-maker to match his win at St. Petersburg or his second at Long Beach, but it was still a championship-caliber drive on a weekend where he and Dale Coyne Racing didn’t quite have the pace they had in the opening two races of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Bourdais advanced out of his Round 1 qualifying group, but went no further after turning the 12th fastest time in Round 2, leaving him 12th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, he managed to weather the storm and keep his nose clean, taking home an unspectacular but respectable eighth.

“Yeah not quite sure what did what. Maybe the conditions got us more in the operation of the tires,” he told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee when asked about his struggles during the weekend.

Bourdais also added that might have been able to pass Tony Kanaan for seventh in the final laps, but he couldn’t quite do enough to make a run at him.

“I really thought I had (Kanaan) there. He used the pushed to pass. I didn’t forget! I really thought I had him. He used the push to pass on the way back. Shame on me. It was a good fight. Not the greatest day but top 10 is good for the guys and the Sonny’s BBQ car.”

Bourdais leads Scott Dixon by six points and Josef Newgarden by seven. Simon Pagenaud sits 10 markers behind while James Hinchcliffe is 15 back after three races.

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A full day of Fernando: Alonso takes Barber by storm (VIDEO)

Brown and Alonso. Photo: IndyCar
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Fernando Alonso was a busy man today at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, as he prepares for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and made the rounds of media and promotion in doing so as part of his joint entry into the race thanks to McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport.

The two-time Formula 1 World Champion arrived on pit lane for Sunday’s morning warmup and set up in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda pit, where he’d interact with Michael Andretti and the rest of the team.

Alonso had a quick sit-in in Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Honda:

Alonso then made it to the media center for a formal press conference with Andretti, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, the head of INDYCAR’s parent company. Alonso was high on life through most of the press conference and had a few playful jabs at some of his competitors.

Before the race, Alonso signed some autographs for fans, who were pleased he was on site.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

From there, it was a chance to head to the grid and speak with NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell.

Alonso’s day wasn’t done, as he visited both the NBCSN booth and the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network booth for further interviews. A portion of the NBCSN interview is below.

Alonso will now head to Indianapolis with the team this week for a seat fit and further preparation for his May 3 test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his first run in the car. He’ll then be off to Sochi, Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, which you can see on NBCSN (times here).