By Matt Crossman, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- This weekend marks the last time the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series' most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., will compete in the series at Michigan International Speedway.
And while Michigan is one of many tracks Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be saying good-bye to this season, he thinks the two-mile track in the Irish Hills is one of the best.
"This place here is, to me, the standard for the 1.5-mile or two-mile race track," he said on Friday, two days before the Pure Michigan 400 (Sunday, Aug. 13 on NBCSN at 3 p.m. ET). "This place is so much fun to race on for a driver. It's a great race track."
Some of Junior's fondest memories from his racing career came at Michigan. And they're not all wins. He won here twice in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and twice in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. But one of his strongest memories comes from a race he lost -- the 1999 IROC race, the end of which he has rewatched numerous times. Alas, the outcome has not changed.
Coming out of Turn 4 toward the checkered flag, he and his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., were battling for the win. Rusty Wallace came up behind them. Wallace could have pushed Junior to the win -- which would have been poetically perfect, Junior said.
Wallace and Earnhardt Sr. flipped between friends and rivals throughout their careers. That was true on and off the track. If one of them bought a plane, the other one bought a bigger plane. So Junior thought that if Wallace pushed the son past the father for the win, Wallace would have been able to hold that over Earnhardt Sr.'s head forever. But Wallace didn't get behind either one of them, and the elder Earnhardt won the race.
Junior said, half-jokingly, that he's still mad at Wallace, 19 years later, for not helping him.
KAHNE ON THE SEARCH FOR A RIDE NEXT SEASON
Kasey Kahne's job hunt started soon after it was announced that he would not return in 2018 to the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Kahne has won six races in his nearly six years at Hendrick Motorsports and 18 in his career. He is widely considered to have underperformed in his time at Hendrick. He hopes he will be able to land a ride in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and that the new job will rejuvenate his career.
"I think that it's all about people," Kahne said. "If you can get the people behind you and believe in you and then I believe in them, and we work together for the same goal to win races. It's a competitive series it is a super tough series to win in and so many things have to go right for the entire race weekend and then throughout the race."
Team owner Rick Hendrick shouldered the blame for the No. 5 team's subpar performance and says he will help Kahne get a new ride.
"To have him behind you is a really good thing," Kahne said. "I respect him a ton. Yeah, I hope we can build something out of that, but I also have been working in my own direction as well on certain things to make sure I just check out everything that is out there for sure."
DIBENEDETTO WILL RETURN TO GO FAS RACING IN 2018
Matt DiBenedetto will return to the No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford, he and team general manager Mason St. Hilaire announced on Saturday at Michigan International Speedway. Amid a flurry of silly season moves, this is the rare one that affords a driver and his team to build on consistency.
"Our business model in the beginning was be able to survive," St. Hilaire said. "We had a revolving door of drivers for a long time, and it kept the doors open, and it kept people working, and I wouldn't take it back for anything."
Still, working with DiBenedetto and crew chief Gene Nead has given the team stability, and with that stability has come improvement. The team's average finish this year (26.1) is more than six spots better than the team's historical average.
The team has its first two top 10s this season--in the season opening Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. "We had some little growing pans and had a couple little issues happen a few (races) in a row, but we've had that speed there all year and the more we go along, the more that we're prepared and keep bringing better racecars to the racetrack," DiBenedetto said.
HENDRICK TEAMMATES WILL GO TO BACKUP CARS
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Kahne will start the Pure Michigan 400 in backup cars after both were involved in separate incidents during the two practices on Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.