Dale Jr. aims to continue strong start

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His last-lap efforts to win a second Daytona 500 may have fallen short, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. still got his season off on the right foot.

A second-place finish in the season-opening race has him, of course, second in the Sprint Cup standings at five markers behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate and Daytona winner Jimmie Johnson. With Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway looming, he also won’t have to worry about the unappetizing prospect of starting the 2013 campaign with two bad races in a row.

“I think it’s important to get a good start points-wise,” Earnhardt Jr. said after the ‘500.’ “It’s important to put a good foundation of points together. If you get behind early, it seems like you’re still chasing that [Chase for the Sprint Cup] spot at Richmond. It’s good to get a good start, get a couple points on some guys.

“We’re a good team. Hopefully, we can keep the pressure on them and stay up in the top five in the points and win some races. I want to really try to win some more races this year. That’s our focus.”

Earnhardt Jr. has won twice at PIR in his career (2003 and 2004), but his fortunes in the Valley of the Sun have varied since then with him collecting just one top-10 finish in his last eight races at Phoenix.

That said, a solid result this weekend will have him sitting in a pretty good spot early on in the championship – and while the Earnhardt Nation would’ve loved to have seen their guy hoist the Harley J. Earl Trophy last weekend, you know they’ll gladly celebrate a Sprint Cup title for Driver #88 as well.

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.