No conspiracy: Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t handed Daytona 500 win, he earned it

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch raised a lot of eyebrows when he said early during last Sunday’s front row qualifying for the Daytona 500 that there might be a conspiracy theory to put both Austin Dillon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the pole and outside pole.

Busch was kind of half-right in the sense that Dillon won the pole. And when Earnhardt rallied to win the actual race Sunday night, there’s the potential that conspiracy theories could light up again.

Forget it, said third-place finisher Brad Keselowski. Earnhardt earned his win in the Great American Race, pure and simple, fair and square, by effort not divine intervention – or gift – from the NASCAR gods.

“This particular race, there’s no drama, there’s no feeling that I don’t feel like anyone can legitimately have that there was some voodoo magic reason why he won. He earned it in every sense,” Keselowski said.

Even though he was disappointed not being able to get past Earnhardt to win the race himself, Keselowski couldn’t have been happier for his friend.

“He did a great job,” Keselowski said when asked by MotorSportsTalk. “If there’s ever a guy who’s due, it’s a guy who’s finished second three out of the last four years. That’s really saying something.

“He’s been right there, he’s knocked on the door, he runs restrictor plate races as an elite driver, probably in the top three, hadn’t got the win he probably deserved a couple times from a whole bunch of circumstances out of his control. He was due and today was his day. I’m happy for him.”

Keselowski probably feels a greater affinity for Earnhardt winning than most other competitors. Earnhardt provided Keselowski his big break to drive the No. 88 for the Earnhardt-owned JR Motorsports’ team in the Nationwide Series in 2007, after Keselowski had lost his main ride midway through the season.

“Dale obviously gave me my big opportunity and is probably my best friend in the garage outside of my teammate, Joey Logano, and his spotter is my neighbor,” Keselowski said. “There’s a lot of cross-pollination there. It’s good for them. I’m happy for him.”

Runner-up Denny Hamlin was especially bummed to finish second, telling reporters several times how disappointed he was.

But when asked by MotorSportsTalk if he was happy for Earnhardt winning his first race in nearly two years and only his third race since the start of the 2007 season, Hamlin seemed to temporarily snap out of his funk.

“It’s big for a lot of reasons,” Hamlin said. “He’s going into the last year with his current crew chief. They’re going to start making Chase plans now early. It’ll be good for the race team. They’re very flexible going forward with what they can do and try.

“It’s very significant if any Earnhardt wins at Daytona,” he added. “You’re going to have a tough time getting around Earnhardt in a green-white-checker at Daytona, anyway. Obviously, it’s a very significant day for their family and it’s great for the race team.”

Seated next to Hamlin on the media center stage, Dillon also chimed in on his thoughts about Earnhardt.

“It’s awesome,” Dillon said. “Junior has been so supportive of me bringing back the 3. … I want to thank him and congratulate him. For me, he’s been a little bit of a bigger brother for me, so it’s kinda cool.”

But perhaps the best quote of the night came immediately after the race from Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, who finished fourth in the race.

“Congrats to Junior, the world is right, Dale Jr. just won the Daytona 500. That’s a sign the 2014 season is going to be a good one,” said Gordon, who finished fourth in the race.

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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.