Sports

Playoffs? Sponsors, Twitter spats headline NASCAR opener

JOLIET, Ill. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is playing out the string in his final NASCAR season, leaving a mammoth opening for some driver to capture the sport's attention and become its next most popular star.

Junior had some advice on how the new generation can win fans — and it had more to do with Brooklyn and Nashville filters on Instagram than taking checkered flags at Dover or Kansas.

"I think the young guys are really, really crafty for social media and I think that's a great direction for them," he said.

Sure enough, it was social media that again got NASCAR talking — typing? — and not over a fun debate on who will win the playoff opener.

Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, who have long tussled on and off the track, poked each other some more Friday on Twitter — where else? — over Toyota's recent run of success. Led by Busch, Toyota took the top four spots in practice, prompting Ford driver Keselowski to tweet , "Haven't seen NASCAR let a manufacturer get this far ahead since the 70s." Busch retorted with a crying emoji and wrote, "STFU ." Keselowski then accused Busch of name-calling.

Get to your corners, guys!

OK, McGregor-Mayweather trash talk, this was not.

But the grade school back-and-forth perked up a few ears on a quiet Friday at the track for a sport that could use hot finishes and new stars to try and snap out of its funk.

Denny Hamlin, Busch's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, joined in the Twitter battle and Toyota crew chief Cole Pearn chimed in on the debate. Hamlin, Busch and Martin Truex Jr. of Furniture Row Racing have won a combined eight races this season.

Not bad, but hardly the dominant run Keselowski thinks the manufacturer is riding into the playoffs.

Keselowski spurred the Twitter chain, then dismissed a question about stirring the pot before he qualified for Sunday's race.

Busch piled on before his run.

"I feel like all he's doing right now is slapping his people across the face," Busch said.

Busch won the pole and Hamlin and Truex followed for a 1-2-3 Toyota start to Sunday's race.

Catching up hours after the Twitter clash, Earnhardt simply tipped his cap toward JGR's season.

"I got on a bike after practice and rode 40 miles with Jimmie (Johnson), which is a terrible idea. So I missed the whole debate," Chevrolet driver Earnhardt said Friday. "I think that Joe Gibbs and that whole organization have done an incredible job of getting four teams to work very closely together. And, I've never seen it done any better, where one organization literally has four cars that seem almost equal every week."

Oh yeah, results.

NASCAR headlines have been dominated of late by all sorts of hot topics that have little do to with actual results: Danica's Done! Smithfield pulled pork sponsorship from The King! Ambulance Chasers! Encumbered Finishes! Ratings Plunge!

Where will Aric Almirola drive in 2018? (Hey, not every headline was breathtaking).

The two most in-demand drivers Friday at Chicagoland were Almirola, with one career Cup win, and Darrell Wallace Jr., on the hunt for his first fulltime Cup ride.

"Damn, I didn't come here for this (stuff)," he said to a sizable media crowd at a promotional appearance for Nickelodeon.

But the field is set and it's time to fasten those lugnuts, slap down some PJ1 and try not to confuse a doughnut for a sandwich as NASCAR's version of the post-season within the regular season gets underway.

Yes, after all the sponsorship sniping, 140-character potshots, and enough open seats to heat up Linkedin, the chase (lowercase c) to become the first NASCAR champion under the Monster Energy sponsorship banner opens Sunday at Chicagoland.

But there are storylines over the final 10 races that will not only determine the champion, but could do more to shape NASCAR's direction than any other in years.

What to watch:

GR-EIGHT-NESS

Jimmie Johnson is trying to become the first driver to win eight NASCAR Cup championships.

Johnson would stamp his claim as NASCAR's greatest driver should he zip past Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in the record book and is trying to become the first repeat champion since he won the last of five straight championships in 2010.

He's had a bit of a quirky season in the No. 48 Chevrolet. His only three top-five finishes of the season were wins.

"We haven't fantasized about the eighth and what that would bring," Johnson said. "I look at it as a chance for nine and maybe even more. We will see where it leads us."

CHASE IS ON

Chase Elliott seems like the natural pick to become NASCAR's most popular driver. Elliott nearly won the race at Chicagoland a year ago and is still looking for his first win in the Cup series.

He'd like to follow in his father's path. Bill Elliott, the 1988 champion and Hall of Famer, won NASCAR's Most Popular Driver Award a record 16 times.

Elliott has the name that could spark interest in NASCAR again from some lapsed fans should he go on a hot streak over the final 10 races and at least thrust himself into the title conversation.

He can't save NASCAR. But he could make it more interesting.

"I'd love to advance as far as we can, but I'd love a win," he said. "That's what we're here to do. We've had a year and a half to do it, and haven't."

OUT ON TOP

Earnhardt's final season will end without a championship and Danica Patrick's career appears about over.

Matt Kenseth might go out on top.

Kenseth, whose pedestrian run to the 2003 title forced NASCAR to revamp its playoff format, is out of a job at Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of the season. He has no ride lined up for 2018.

"We got a good opportunity here, still," he said. "I don't know what's going to happen in 2018. But there's a lot to worry about yet in 2017 with 10 races to go, being in the playoffs."

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