Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have found missing piece to solving Sprint Cup championship puzzle

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For Dale Earnhardt Jr. to become a true championship threat, critics have said for a number of years that he’d have to learn how to master 1.5-mile tracks – particularly since five of the 10 Chase for the Sprint Cup races are on tracks of that distance.

If what he’s done thus far this season is any indication – including his showing in Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway – we may very well start anointing Earnhardt as indeed a true championship threat this season.

In five 1.5-mile races thus far this season, Earnhardt has now recorded three top-fives, including Saturday’s fifth-place finish.

Even better, Earnhardt has recorded a win, three top-fives and two other top-10s in his last seven starts.

It was a true team effort to get Junior that kind of finish, particularly since he started 27th.

“The pit crew did an amazing job tonight,” Earnhardt told TNT after the race. “They were gaining me a number of spots for me every stop.

“Even when we were taking four tires, we were beating a lot of guys off pit road. They’re a great group and deserve a lot of credit.”

Much like the first top-10 finish of his career last week at Sonoma, Earnhardt was a bit surprised at his finish at Kentucky (although he did earn a fourth-place showing there in 2012).

“It was way better today, a lot more fun to drive,” Earnhardt said. “This place is a bit of a handful for me. I don’t know if I have it figured out just yet. I don’t really know exactly what I’m looking for and how I need the car to drive.

“Steve (crew chief Steve Letarte)  and the guys did a good job having to deal with me and putting a good car under me this weekend. It was a lot of fun in the race. Strategy was great in the race. Steve’s fuel strategy gave us a lot of good track position.”

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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.