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Legendary No. 8 car set to make debut at Kentucky Speedway

Daniel Hemric drives through Turn 4 during the NASCAR All-Star Open auto race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Daniel Hemric drives through Turn 4 during the NASCAR All-Star Open auto race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Saturday, May 18, 2019. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Ninety-three drivers have sat behind the wheel of the No. 8 car in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. But none have piloted the legendary No. 8 at Kentucky Speedway.

The No. 8 – driven by Ralph Earnhardt in the 1950s and made most famous by Dale Earnhardt Jr. – marks another milestone when it hits the track for the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on July 13. Rookie Daniel Hemric pilots the car for Richard Childress Racing, which celebrates a milestone of its own with its 50th season of racing.

“For me growing up in Kannapolis, N.C., everything was based around the Earnhardts,” Hemric said of the legendary racing family’s hometown. “A blue-collar family name that came from the same area and was able to build themselves to an iconic figure in our sport. … It truly is an honor to be part of that legacy. Hopefully its something we can turn into our own legacy as times goes by.”

To do that at Kentucky, Hemric will need to negotiate the speedway’s tricky Turn 3. One of NASCAR’s toughest turns narrows as drivers’ carry higher speeds coming out of Turn 2. It’s a free for all into the corner with limited real estate.

Hemric, who visited the Cincinnati area on Tuesday to promote Kentucky Speedway’s tripleheader event on July 11-13, has fared well at Kentucky in NASCAR’s lower divisions. Last season he finished second in the Xfinity Series race at the 1.5-mile tri-oval last season. He was ninth in 2017. His best finish at Kentucky in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series was third in 2015.

“It’s a battle trying to get through turn three. You leave turn two and you look down the back straightaway and it can be treacherous,” Hemric said. “It’s a really small groove and you gotta really be on top of what you’re doing inside the race car. It’s a nightmare for a crew chief and a driver to try to dial in what we need out of our car to continue to go fast.

“I look forward to the challenge of trying to push ourselves to tame a place that is really hard to tame.”

Hemric sits 24th in the points standings after a roller-coaster start. He was running in the top five in the Daytona 500 with about 20 laps to go when he got collected in an accident to finish 34th. He was running in the top five at Atlanta Motor Speedway with 20 laps left a week later when a cut tire contributed to his 20th-place finish.

“It probably got us too excited,” said Hemric, adding he felt like he was approaching a breaking point with the on-track struggles.

A pep talk from Childress provided a confidence boost that has propelled Hemric. His best finish is fifth at Talladega Superspeedway. He’s also coming off a 12th-place finish at Michigan International Speedway to move him into first in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings. Hemric leads Ryan Preece by four points and Matt Tifft by 82.

“We have two guys I respect the heck out of we’re racing against,” Hemric said. “Battling with those guys, we gave a lot of points away at the beginning of the year. We’re slowly chipping away getting some of those points back. If we continue what we’re doing I think we’ll be fine.”

Kentucky Speedway, celebrating its 20th season of racing, hosts the NASCAR tripleheader on July 11-13. The Truck series races on Thursday followed by the Xfinity Series on Friday and the Cup race on Saturday.

And for the first time the No. 8 will be there, too, after sitting idle since 2009.

“The first time I saw my name on the roof of a Cup car with that number (as a full-time driver) … it’s something that makes the hair on my arm stand up,” said Hemric, who drove the No. 8 in two Cup appearances last season.

“I didn’t even know (driving the No. 8) was an option. Absolutely I wanted to. I grew up just wanting to race. I didn’t care what color it was or what number it was.”

NASCAR at Kentucky Speedway

July 11: Buckle Up in Your Truck 225, 7:30 p.m., FS1

July 12: Alsco 300, 7:30 p.m., NBCSN

July 13: Quaker State 400, 7:30 p.m., NBCSN