Brian France: Daytona 500 win good for Dale Earnhardt Jr., good for NASCAR

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As Dale Earnhardt Jr. goes, so goes NASCAR.

If Junior wins races – and potentially and finally wins a Sprint Cup championship – it would likely be the big shot in the arm NASCAR needs to completely recover from several years of struggling at-track attendance and slumping TV ratings.

NASCAR chairman Brian France alluded to that back in 2009 and it remains as relevant today as it did when France first said that.

“It’s sort of like when the NBA doesn’t have the L.A. Lakers or Boston – a couple of their key historic franchises – in the race, that impacts the league,” France said in an interview back then with the Charlotte Observer. “We’re in the same boat.

“Our No.1 franchise, which happens to be Dale Jr. right now, (when he struggles) that’s going to have some impact on his fan base. It just does. … He has won a lot of races in the past. We could have a resurgence and the world would be a better place.”

In light of Earnhardt’s win in Sunday’s Daytona 500, the second time in 10 years that he’s won the Great American Race, could 2014 be both Earnhardt’s year and NASCAR’s year?

Granted, there’s still 35 races to go – including the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s marquee event of the season.

But Earnhardt’s win at Daytona has certainly got NASCAR fans, particularly Earnhardt’s large Junior Nation, excited and hopeful.

“Any time his fanbase gets revved up, that’s a good thing,” France said in an interview Wednesday with SportingNews.com. “That’s good for him, and that’s good for us.”

Earnhardt has been so excited since Sunday’s win that after several years of prodding from fans, he finally took to Twitter late Sunday evening and has continued to post a number of entries, particularly from his celebratory media tour that has crossed the country since then.

Needless to say, Earnhardt’s tweets have helped rev up what had been a somewhat dormant Junior Nation in recent years.

France covered a number of topics with SN, but the conversation drifted back to Earnhardt and his big win, his first time in victory lane in 55 races, dating back to 2012, and his third overall victory since the start of the 2007 season.

“The really great thing is how authentic he’s been throughout the week here as he’s doing (on Junior’s promotional media tour),” France said. “That’s great. We’ll have to see (how much of an impact Earnhardt’s win will have over the entire season).”

Earnhardt has been voted by fans as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 11 years, second most to Bill Elliott’s stout mark of 16 years as the sport’s most popular driver.

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IndyCar Grand Prix of Alabama final practice report

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Will Power posted the fastest lap in the third practice session for the Grand Prix of Alabama with a speed of 122.953 mph.

Rookie Robert Wickens (122.552 mph) was second fast, foretelling a continuation of his incredible rookie season.

Scott Dixon (122.237), Ryan Hunter-Reay (122.231) and Alexander Rossi (122.106) rounded out the top five.

The practice was interrupted several times for incidents. 

Ed Jones spun off track in turn five after locking up his brakes with 30 minutes remaining in practice three. He was able to drive back to the pits under his own power.

With 20 minutes still on the clock, Jordan King took a trip into the fence after posting a fastest lap of 121.753 mph. He sustained substantial left side damage to his car and came back to the pits on the hook.

“I’m annoyed really,” King said afterward on the live stream at IndyCar.com. “I slightly locked the inside front, then just stayed off onto the grass and that was it. But I wasn’t really even pushing that hard.”

With two minutes remaining, Charlie Kimball lost power and pulled off the track, bringing an end to the practice session.

Dixon also had an off-road excursion.