The Latest: Larson wins Stage 1, just ahead of contenders
HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — The Latest on NASCAR’s season finale (all times local):
Kyle Larson won the first stage of NASCAR’s season finale, and the four championship contenders were right behind him.
Larson was one of the strongest drivers during the regular season, but he was eliminated from the playoffs in the second round when his engine failed at Kansas. It knocked Larson out of title contention, and many believed he was a legitimate threat to win the title because Homestead-Miami Speedway suits his driving style.
Larson is able to run closer to the wall than anyone else because he’s comfortable in that high line. He built a 10-second lead over the nearest competition.
Championship contenders Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. ran second through fifth behind Larson. The highest finisher of those four will win the Cup title.
NASCAR’s championship race has begun at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. are racing for the title.
Before the green flag dropped, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the man of the hour.
Earnhardt shook hands with team owner Rick Hendrick, former teammate Jeff Gordon and fellow driver Matt Kenseth. He kissed his wife Amy and slapped hands with the entire Cup series pit crew as he prepared to take off for a ceremonial pace lap in his final race.
Earnhardt thanked everyone who had an impact on his career, and said over the radio.
“The fans that are here and home watching made this all possible,” he said.
NASCAR gave Dale Earnhardt Jr. a proper send-off during driver introductions before his final Cup race.
Earnhardt was the last one brought out before the four championship contenders. It was moments after a video aired about Earnhardt’s impact on NASCAR, which was narrated by “This Is Us” star Justin Hartley.
As the video closed, Hartley said of Earnhardt: “Talent is a gift. Character is a choice.”
Earnhardt was then brought on stage, where he tried to high-five as many fans as possible as he crossed to a separate stage. There, he signed dozens of autographs, then had a lengthy embrace with NASCAR security director Mike Lentz.
NASCAR’s most popular driver then hopped into the back of a pickup truck, flipped his baseball cap backward and waved to the crowd during his final trip pre-race parade around the track.
Drivers, crew chiefs and executives gave retiring NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. a lengthy standing ovation during the pre-race meeting.
NASCAR showed a tribute video that included actor Adam Sandler, late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel, actor Justin Hartley, retired NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, actor/director Mark Wahlberg, country music singer Brad Paisley, several active drivers and some of his current and former team members as well as team owner Rick Hendrick. After it ended, the entire room stood and clapped for Earnhardt.
He stood up briefly and quickly sat back down.
Earnhardt also will lead a ceremonial pace lap before the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
NASCAR chairman Brian France says he’s doing his part to generate a younger fan base by noting his 7-year-old son, Luke, is an avid fan.
When asked who Luke thinks is going to win Sunday’s championship, France let his son answer. Luke chose Martin Truex Jr.
“That’s a good pick,” France said.
France and NASCAR president Brent Dewar then quickly noted that the series is impartial.
“We’re neutral, just to be clear,” Dewar said.
Truex is considered the favorite because he has seven wins this season.
Typically, Luke France has been spotted as a Joey Logano fan, but Logano is not eligible to win the championship.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. started his final race day with an early morning PB&J and the feeling that “this is gonna be a weird day.”
Earnhardt tweeted to his 2.3 million followers that he woke up Sunday at 6 a.m., ate a sandwich and went back to bed. He was “up for good” at 9:30, a little more than six hours before the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
So Earnhardt had plenty of time to read the thousands of replies, most of them wishing him good luck.
Danica Patrick tweeted to Earnhardt: “No one will ever forget you. Ever. I know I will always be grateful for your help getting me into nascar.”
Earnhardt will retire Sunday, ending a career that saw him emerge as NASCAR’s most popular driver 18 full seasons.
NASCAR chairman Brian France opened his state-of-the-series news conference by lauding retiring star Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“He has been an obviously big contribution on and off the track for a long time,” France said. “While we’re going to miss him for obvious reasons, he’s not going to be that far away being an owner and working with NBC. He’s going to be glued to the sport, and that’s a good thing for us.”
Earnhardt is making his final Cup start in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It’s championship Sunday for NASCAR’s premier series.
Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. are the four championship contenders. The highest finisher of the finalists will claim the Monster Cup Series title.
It’s also the final Cup race for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. Earnhardt is retiring from full-time racing but plans to drive in a few second-tier Xfinity Series events in 2018. Kenseth remains without a ride for next season. Earnhardt and Kenseth were rookies together in 2000 and now appear to be leaving together.
Danica Patrick also is done with NASCAR on a full-time basis. But she announced earlier this week that she will drive in the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500 in 2018.
Denny Hamlin starts on the pole in the finale, with Truex second, Busch third, Keselowski fifth and Harvick ninth.
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