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Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in position to boost NASCAR

By Jim Utter
jutter@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/06/23/55/1cLyqc.Em.138.jpeg|201
    Tom Pennington - GETTY
    Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, and Jeff Gordon are atop the Sprint Cup series points standings. Should the popular drivers continue their success into the Chase, NASCAR as a whole could benefit.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/08/06/23/55/q05G.Em.138.jpeg|453
    Robin Marchant - Getty Images for ESPN
    Racecar driver Ryan Briscoe and TV personality Nicole Briscoe attend ESPN The Magazine's 2012 "NEXT" Event in Indianapolis.

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Look at the top two drivers in the Sprint Cup Series standings and you understand there is plenty of reason for team owner Rick Hendrick to be happy.

There is also plenty of reason NASCAR executives should be pleased as well.

Two of the sports most popular drivers – Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon – not only continue to remain popular with NASCAR fans but are winning as well.

That’s a combination that can travel far beyond NASCAR-specific media attention.

Gordon, a four-time series champion, has two victories this season and 90 in his career. He has a large fan base and for the past two decades has been one of NASCAR’s biggest ambassadors in the mainstream media.

Earnhardt has had a successful career but has yet to win a series championship, and went through some lean years when he first joined Hendrick Motorsports. He has remained the sport’s most popular driver but his crossover appeal was lacking without the performance to accompany it.

There is no shortage from either driver this season.

Even before NASCAR embarks on its new Chase format, a multitude of potent storylines have developed, including Earnhardt’s win in the season-opening Daytona 500 and Gordon’s record fifth win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Should either or both drivers continue their strong performances deep into the Chase – particularly should Earnhardt have a shot at his first championship – all of NASCAR will benefit.

Look back over the past several decades and NASCAR has never been on stronger ground than when the names Gordon and Earnhardt have filled its headlines.

Notes

NASCAR issues penalties: NASCAR issued penalties to a pair of Truck series teams and one Nationwide team this week.

Paul Richmond, crew chief of Red Horse Racing’s No. 17 team, was fined $7,500 and placed on probation until Dec. 31 for the use of an improperly designed throttle shaft assembly.

The No. 6 team in the Truck series was penalized with the loss of practice time at the upcoming race at Michigan for improper use of a battery powered impact wrench during a pit stop.

Jonas Bell, crew chief of the No. 23 Nationwide team, was fined $10,000 and placed on probation through Dec. 31 for improperly attached weight which became dislodged during practice for the race at Pocono.

Briscoe moving to ESPN SportsCenter: Nicole Briscoe, who has hosted NASCAR on ESPN’s “NASCAR Countdown” pre-race show since 2011, agreed to a new contract with the network and will become an anchor on the network’s flagship “SportsCenter” show.

Briscoe, who is in the process of relocating with her family from the Charlotte area to Bristol, Conn., expects to begin her new role on SportsCenter by the end of January.

“I consider ESPN my home and I’m confident this is the best option for me because it’s a great company and I have a lot of great friends there, but then to have the opportunity to do SportsCenter? Show me a sports fan who doesn’t know or watch SportsCenter,” Briscoe said.

Briscoe joined ESPN in 2009 after stints as a sports reporter in Indianapolis and on the former Speed Channel.

Piquet to make Cup debut: Nelson Piquet Jr., who currently leads the standings in Red Bull Global Rallycross series, will make his debut in the Cup series this weekend at Watkins Glen with Randy Humphrey Racing.

“Ever since I made my NASCAR Nationwide Series debut at The Glen in 2010, I’ve wanted to do the same in a Sprint Cup car,” said Piquet Jr. “I’ve really enjoyed racing in other series this year, but I’ve missed being in the NASCAR garage.”

The Brazilian already holds victories in both the NASCAR Nationwide and Truck series.

Double duty duo: Drivers Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Reed will pull varied versions of double duty this weekend at Watkins Glen.

Ambrose will compete in both the Nationwide and Cup races with Richard Petty Motorsports. He has won the Nationwide event at the road course three times and has two wins in the Cup series event.

Nationwide regular Ryan Reed will compete in the Nationwide and NASCAR K&N Pro Series East races at the Glen. Reed will make his first appearance at the track in both series.

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