Dale Earnhardt Jr
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Dale Earnhardt Jr.: By the numbers

A statistical look at the NASCAR career of Dale Earnhardt Jr., with numbers as of April 25, the day he announced his retirement from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at the end of the 2017 season.

For a deeper statistical dive, visit Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s page at racing-reference.info.

0 -- The number of laps completed in Earnhardt Jr.'s shortest race, the result of a first-lap crash in the 2001 Dura Lube 400 at Rockingham. The event was the first for NASCAR after the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500.

1 -- The number of NASCAR All-Star Race victories in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career. He became the invitational event's first rookie winner in 2000.

2 -- The number of Daytona 500 victories recorded by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

3 -- The car number made famous by his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt. Also, Earnhardt Jr.'s highest-ranking finish in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, in 2003.

6 -- The number of wins recorded by Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega Superspeedway, the most among active drivers. Also, the number of victories Earnhardt achieved in his winningest season (2004).

8 -- Earnhardt Jr.'s first car number in NASCAR premier-series competition. Also, his starting spot in his premier series debut in the 1999 Coca-Cola 600.

10 -- The number of seasons that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has driven for Hendrick Motorsports, which fields his No. 88 Chevrolet.

11.3 -- The best average finish in a single full season in Earnhardt Jr.'s career, recorded in his three-win campaign of 2015.

12 -- The number of tracks where Dale Earnhardt Jr. won in his premier-series career -- Talladega (6), Daytona (4), Phoenix (3), Richmond (3), Pocono (2), Michigan (2), and one each at Atlanta, Martinsville, Bristol, Chicagoland, Texas and Dover.

13 -- The number of Coors Light Pole Awards that Earnhardt has collected in his career in NASCAR's top division.

20 -- Over two seasons (2012 and 2016), the number of races that Earnhardt missed due to concussions.

21 -- The age at which Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his debut in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series. He finished 14th on June 22, 1996 at Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Speedway.

22 -- The number of top-10 finishes Earnhardt Jr. posted in both of his NASCAR XFINITY Series championship seasons.

24 -- The age at which Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his debut in NASCAR's premier series.

42 -- The age at which Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his decision to retire from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

50 -- The number of NASCAR national series victories for Dale Earnhardt Jr., with 26 in premier-series competition and 24 in what is now known as the XFINITY Series.

88 -- The car number the Dale Earnhardt Jr. has campaigned since moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

100 -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. reached this milestone number of premier-series starts on Sept. 1, 2002 in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. He finished 16th.

143 -- The number of races in the longest losing skid of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career, spanning 2008-12. Both wins that bookended the dry spell were recorded at Michigan International Speedway.

149 -- The number of top-five finishes that Earnhardt Jr has registered in his career at NASCAR's top level.

291 -- The number of starts that Earnhardt Jr. made for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his father that gave him his start in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

312 -- The number of starts -- as of April 25, 2017 -- made by Dale Earnhardt Jr. for Hendrick Motorsports.

426 -- The number of laps led by Earnhardt in his first full season (2000) in NASCAR's top division.

540 -- The number of times that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was scored as running at the finish in his career, an 89.6 percent rate.

595.5 -- The number of miles Dale Earnhardt Jr. completed in his big-league debut May 30, 1999 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Earnhardt placed 16th, three laps down in the Coca-Cola 600.

600 -- The milestone number of premier-series starts Earnhardt achieved in March 2017 at Auto Club Speedway.

1,131 -- The number of laps led in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s most prolific season (2004) in that category.

8,195 -- The number of laps led in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career to date.

Junior endears himself to fans by being the real deal

How appropriate that after an emotional, heartfelt press conference to formally share his decision to retire at the end of the 2017 NASCAR season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. walked outside into the Hendrick Motorsports parking lot to find a large crowd waiting for him.

Some were there to ask him for his autograph, but many more had come to give Earnhardt their support and appreciation as he competes in his final season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

The adoration is something Earnhardt, 42, receives in bulk every time he goes anywhere in public. The fan love and positive feedback have translated to more than 2 million followers on Twitter.

Sure, two Daytona 500 trophies, the amazing run of restrictor-plate victories and the racing lineage have helped earn him these loyal fans. But perhaps it's the real triumphs and real struggles of Earnhardt's career -- the high highs and low lows -- that the masses of people relate to and appreciate most.

"One thing that's made this career the incredible ride that it's been, is Junior Nation," Earnhardt acknowledged. "The fan support that I received straight out of the gate, was in large part because of my famous last name.

"But throughout the ups and downs it occurred to me that the fans that stuck it out and the new ones that joined us, they were there because of the person I was and not who they wanted me to be."

While Tuesday's news may have caught some off-guard, the sport's reigning 14-time Most Popular Driver seems genuinely content about the decision. And that should give his fans some peace.

Earnhardt openly shared the process behind his decision and then answered questions from the media. Often there were long pauses between question and answer and that's because Earnhardt actually thinks about his responses instead of replying with clichés and soundbites.

He is honest and heartfelt -- even in the moments after he's just climbed out of his race car. He is genuine.

And that -- not just his ability to win big races or even his racing lineage -- is what fans seem to appreciate most about Earnhardt.

His time behind the wheel has evolved -- much as the sport's fan base has as well.

There was the "Junior" I first met in the mid-1990s -- young, worry-free and sporting bleach-blond highlights. He was learning about the sport, winning Busch Grand National races and hoisting championship trophies under the watchful eye of his dad, seven-time premier-series champion Dale Earnhardt.

It was fun to watch their interaction and see the pride on the elder Earnhardt’s face. I remember vividly the way Earnhardt shut down an interview in the Daytona press box one afternoon during Speedweeks just so he could watch his son run practice laps on the speedway down below.

Fans were intrigued by the young Earnhardt then -- those that cheered for his father and those that cheered against him. He was a "typical" 20-something making his way up the ranks, having fun and winning.

After his legendary father passed away on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, Junior's world naturally shifted. Almost immediately he received new fans. So many felt for this young man who had suddenly lost his beloved dad. Many others had already taken him in as "their guy."

And Junior never disappointed. Whether he won or not.

His career highlight reel includes winning the summer Daytona Monster Energy Series race five months after losing his father and a streak of four consecutive Talladega victories from 2001-03.

He has collected 26 trophies in all -- huge triumphs at Daytona and Talladega and workmanlike wins at Phoenix and Pocono. He has challenged for season championships -- finishing a career-best third in 2003.

It's the success he's collected without trophies that will be remembered most -- the way he has shown how to persevere after tragedy, overcome doubt and recover from injury.

Perhaps Earnhardt's announcement this week wasn't honestly a total surprise to his fans and friends. He is 42 years old, just got married on New Year's Eve and maybe there's a "Dale III" in the future.

As Junior stressed on Tuesday, his decision to retire after an incredible career came of his own free will. It was not dictated by injury or loss of ability, team orders or even a sponsor decision.

It is what Junior wants to do. It is best for him.

And what more could you ask. He deserves that.

Earnhardt: With young talent, 'sky's the limit for NASCAR'

High-profile departures have been a recent trend in NASCAR's top division, a development that began with transcendent four-time champion Jeff Gordon's retirement at the end of the 2015 season.

Popular three-time champ Tony Stewart followed after 2016, then fellow star Carl Edwards stepped away just before this season. That list will include the most popular of all -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- at the end of 2017, a move he signaled in a Tuesday announcement at the Hendrick Motorsports compound.

But instead of sounding an alarm about a possible void, Earnhardt issued a strong vote of confidence for the sport's future with positive remarks about the stock-car racing's recent influx of spellbinding talent, a group of young stars that have the potential to dazzle fans for future generations.

"We definitely have tons of talent. There is no question, but I love the people they are," Earnhardt said, naming 21-year-old teammate Chase Elliott and current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points leader Kyle Larson, 24, as two brilliant examples. Being marketable, approachable and having a level of savvy with social media certainly hasn't hurt.

"These guys are effortless at it," he added. "So once they start to pick it up and understand the power of what they have at their fingertips, the sky's the limit for NASCAR. I'm super excited about the future."

Earnhardt has done plenty himself to help cultivate the next crop of stock-car prodigies, fielding JR Motorsports' four-car effort in the NASCAR XFINITY Series as a developmental program for next-gen stars. Among those is 19-year-old William Byron, a product of the NASCAR Next youth initiative and a top prospect for success at the sport's highest level.

It's why team owner Rick Hendrick was quick to echo Earnhardt's sentiment.

"I've never seen so much young talent," the 67-year-old team owner said. "I can remember when the question was all of our drivers are in their 40s or they're going to be, what are we going to do when they retire? I think we've got the answer. They're here, they're young, they're aggressive, they're fun.”

The current group of 20-somethings -- or younger -- includes a diverse group of Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidates in the Monster Energy Series. Erik Jones, 20, was the first to throw his hat into the rookie race with a full-time jump hitched to a newly expanded Furniture Row Racing operation. Ty Dillon and Daniel Suarez, both 25, followed with their offseason announcements.

Their task now: To become better acquainted with fans who have long-running associations of support for Gordon, Stewart, Edwards and Earnhardt. Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer, said that transition and exposure to a broader stage will come in time.

"It's something that evolves," O'Donnell said. "That's you getting to know them more, them being in Victory Lane more. People like winners. … As they win and compete for top fives and are exposed more, we have no doubt that people will see their personalities and then it'll be up to them as well to take those personalities outside the sport also."

Brian France statement on Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"Dale Earnhardt Jr. is among the most recognizable athletes in the world, unequivocally serving as the sport's most popular driver for more than a decade. His passion for the sport will leave an impact on NASCAR that will be felt over its entire history. Over his 20-plus year career, Dale has proven himself a leader with a deep commitment to so many areas of the sport -- all the way to its roots. We're excited about the next chapter of his NASCAR career and wish him success for the remainder of 2017."

NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retire after 2017 season

Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, announced Tuesday that he will retire at the end of the season.

The two-time Daytona 500 winner set an afternoon news conference with team owner Rick Hendrick to discuss his decision. Hendrick Motorsports said in a news release that Earnhardt informed his team of his decision early Tuesday.

A third-generation NASCAR driver, Earnhardt has been plagued by concussions the last several years, and he missed half of last season recovering from the latest head injury. It’s caused him to delay contract talks on an extension to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet, and now he appears ready to call it quits.

Earnhardt turns 43 in October, was married during the off-season and has stated he wants a family. He’s become a vocal advocate for research of sports-related brain injuries.

Earnhardt has won NASCAR's most popular driver award a record 14 times. He has 26 career Cup victories, and that includes a pair of wins in the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt is a two-time champion in NASCAR's second-tier series. But the son of the late seven-time champion has never won a Cup title.

Earnhardt has driven for Hendrick since 2008 after a nasty split with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his father but run by his stepmother. He was unhappy with the direction of DEI since his father's 2001 death in a last-lap accident at the Daytona 500, and a frosty relationship with his stepmother led him to bolt to NASCAR's most powerful team.

Hendrick Motorsports said Earnhardt first discussed retirement with his boss on March 29.

Earnhardt made his first career Cup Series start on May 30, 1999, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Kannapolis native is in his 18th full-time season at the Cup level and he made his 600th career series start earlier this year at California.

Jimmie Johnson says Dale Earnhardt Jr. has shaken off rust, is ready to win

(sbnation.com) Before the season began, Dale Earnhardt Jr. acknowledged it would take some time to re-acclimate after missing the entire second half of the 2016 season with concussion-like symptoms.

So now seven races into his return and coming off his best finish of the season (fifth) two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, how do Earnhardt’s peers evaluate his performance thus far?

“To go to Texas and for him to run as competitive as he did at a treacherous track, I mean your sensitivity to the car and sliding the tires needed to be as sharp as ever,” Jimmie Johnson said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I think that is a great indication of him finding that last little bit and he is ready to go to victory lane.”

Johnson has witnessed Earnhardt’s comeback firsthand. The two are Hendrick Motorsports teammates and frequently cycle together, an activity Johnson recently introduced Earnhardt to and something Earnhardt has fully embraced.

Earnhardt missed 18 races last season after experiencing symptoms doctors determined was a concussion stemming from an accident June 12 at Michigan International Speedway. It was his third concussion in four years. Following a rigorous rehabilitation program, he was medically cleared to return in December.

“When you miss that much time from the car the sport changes,” Johnson said. “Your sensitivity to what you feel in the racecar kind of fades and to be as sharp as you need to in order to find five-hundredths of a second to be competitive it’s tough and it takes reps.”

Johnson wasn’t alone in believing Earnhardt has shook off whatever rust may have accumulated while sidelined. Kurt Busch said he saw at Texas that Earnhardt returned to being the same driver he was before his injury, comparing it to the comeback his younger brother, Kyle Busch, made after leg injuries caused him to miss 11 races in 2015.

“My little brother was out for 11 races I think in 2015 and you could see a little bit of the rust the first couple weeks, and I think we all saw that with Junior the first couple of weeks,” Kurt Busch said. “But by Vegas and especially with what he did at Texas last week, he’s back.”

Similar to Johnson, Busch thinks it takes time for a driver to regain their feel for the little things it takes to put down a fast lap; from the chassis setup to knowing just how far one can push it going into a corner.

“There are things that you need to do personally,” Busch said. “And then, there are things the sport has done while you were gone because there are notes that we have from nine months ago that we look at and kind of giggle like, ‘Oh, wow. We ran that setup? We haven’t done something like that in a long time.’”

Junior beats fitness guru Johnson in weekly workout

Before making their way down to Key West, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his wife Amy spent some time in Texas, and despite the lack of racing, Junior seemed to keep busy.

"I went and rode 60 miles on Monday and Tuesday -- or was it Tuesday and Wednesday?" Earnhardt said on Tuesday's "The Dale Jr. Download" podcast.

"I don't know, does it matter? You rode a lot on that bike," said Amy, who was guest co-hosting the podcast. "You rode more than you needed to."

What really mattered is the 60 miles Junior rode during the offweek were 60 miles more than Jimmie Johnson did during his offweek in Mexico.

"Sorry, Jimmie," said Amy, who revealed Johnson's lack of workout time on the Download. "Throwing you way under the bus there, but Dale's so proud of himself."

He certainly was.

"We've talked about our (driver) workout routine at (Hendrick Motorsports) and every week we get a report emailed to us about what everyone did," Earnhardt explained. "I did quite a bit of cycling, basically four hours of cycling, 60 miles. And I'm like 'Yes! This is going to be awesome for the report.' But I didn’t do any strength so I got a big zero on the strength.

"But I got the report in and I did the most and Jimmie Johnson, the workout beast that he is, did nothing."

So, Johnson, perhaps for the first time since Hendrick Motorsports started its driver workout program, gets "a pink zero" next to his name for the week.

Dale Jr. 60, Johnson, 0. You’re up, "Seven-time!"

Dale Jr., Ryan Blaney patch things up at Texas

The chatter of a potential rivalry between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Ryan Blaney can simmer down now. Because the two have made up, Earnhardt says.

The duo made amends this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. mentioned on his weekly Dirty Mo Radio podcast "The Dale Jr. Download" on Tuesday.

"Me and Blaney patched things up in the bus lot this weekend," Junior said. "We talked about trying to run races without running into each other so we can get back to drinking beer together.”

"The important things," his wife Amy, who was this week's guest on the podcast, said with a laugh.

The first of two on-track incidents came on March 19 at Phoenix Raceway, when on-track action caused Blaney to call Earnhardt Jr. a derogatory term via in-car radio. It continued two weeks later at Martinsville Speedway when the two made initial contact and then again when Blaney's No. 21 Ford caused Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevrolet to spin out.

Earnhardt initially denied the 23-year-old's post-race phone call to patch things up, but told NASCAR.com last week that while he was frustrated, he was "having a lot of fun with it; kind of messing with him a little bit about it."

Junior also spoke to Blaney's recent success, as the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford won Stages 1 and 2 at Texas and led a race-high 148 laps. He's currently ranked sixth in the standings.

"It's not surprising for me to see him run good, but I do have to remind myself that he's in a Wood Brothers car 'cause that's pretty incredible for that team, that car to be relevant again in the sport," Earnhardt said. "It's great for NASCAR."

Monster Energy All-Star Race format 101

The 2017 Monster Energy All-Star Race will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first All-Star Race under the lights in 1992. That race signaled a new era that became a tradition for the fan-favorite event. Below is a breakdown of how the event will unfold and answers key questions on the format, eligibility and more.

Programming info for the Monster Energy All-Star Race

When: Saturday, May 20, events start at 6 p.m. ET with the Monster Energy Open followed by the Monster Energy All-Star Race

Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway


Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

What is the format?

The race will have stages of 20 laps, 20 laps, 20 laps and 10 laps for a total of 70 laps, run over four stages, as a nod to the 1992 race, which also had 70 laps. Only 10 cars will earn a spot in the final 10-lap segment.

How does one advance to the 10-lap segment?

The winners of the first three stages will lock up a spot in the final segment as long as they remain on the lead lap. The rest of the 10-driver field will be determined by the drivers with the best average finish in the first three segments. Yes, that means drivers will be eliminated from the race before the final stage.

How is the starting lineup for the last segment determined?

Cars are lined up by average finish of the first three stages with the best average finishing driver starting positioned first and the worst average finishing driver positioned 10th. Pit road is then open for an optional pit stop. The order off pit road sets the lineup for the final segment.

Are there any strategy plays in this race?

Great question. Yes, there are. Each team will be granted one set of softer tires to use at their discretion as part of the tires allocated for the race. A softer tire provides the car with more grip and thus, speed. There is a catch, though, as teams that choose to put on softer tires for the final stage must start behind those drivers that choose regular tires.

How does a driver qualify to be part of this event?

Those eligible for the Monster Energy All-Star Race include drivers who have won a points event in either 2016 or 2017. Drivers who have won a previous Monster Energy All-Star Race and compete full time or drivers who have won a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship and compete full time also are eligible for the event.

Based on that criteria, these 15 drivers are already in the field (as of April 11): Chris Buescher, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.

How else can one make the field?

The Monster Energy Open is back, and will take place on Saturday night prior to the All-Star Race. The Open, comprised of those full-time teams not already in the All-Star Race field, includes three stages: 20 laps, 20 laps and 10 laps. Each stage winner earns a spot in the All-Star Race.

In addition, the Fan Vote returns, and the winner (excluding Open segment winners) also will make the field.

How is the starting lineup for the race determined?

Qualifying will be held Friday night and include a no-speed-limit, four-tire pit stop. Each team will have three timed laps, one of which will include the mandatory four-tire stop. The five quickest teams will advance to the final round of qualifying to determine starting positions one through five.

What is the prize?

No points are on the line, but the winner gets a cool $1,000,000.

All-Star Race format unveiled, Monster Energy hops on board

As the engines fired, the lightbulbs buzzed -- a first for the annual non-points extravaganza. Never before had an All-Star Race been run under the lights. Dubbed "One Hot Night," the 1992 race signaled a new era, one that became tradition for the fan-favorite event.

And now, 25 years later, past meets present … as another new era begins with the first All-Star Race under the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series banner.

NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway today announced the format for the 2017 Monster Energy All-Star Race, one that rewards winning and incorporates a fascinating strategy component.

The race format is as follows:

- The race will feature four stages (20 laps, 20 laps, 20 laps, 10 laps), totaling 70 laps, an ode to the 1992 edition of the same distance.

- The goal for all competitors: Earn a spot in the final 10-lap, 10-car stage.

- The winner of each of the first three stages will lock up a spot in the final stage, as long as they remain on the lead lap after the third stage.

- The cars with the best average finish in the first three stages will make up the remaining spots needed to fill the 10-car final stage.

- The remaining 10 cars will be lined up by average finish of the first three stages and given the option to pit. Exit off pit road determines starting order for final stage.

- The winner will be awarded $1,000,000.

Crew chief strategy has been at a premium throughout this season, and that won't change in the All-Star Race thanks to a unique opportunity granted each team: A coveted set of softer tires. Each team will have one set of these tires available to use at their discretion. A softer tire provides the car with more grip and, thus, speed. In other words, it's a game-changer. But there's a catch: Teams that choose to put on their softer tires to start the final stage must start behind those that choose regular tires.

"The Monster Energy All-Star Race is designed to be fun for fans, showcasing the best drivers and race teams in NASCAR," said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “With the effort that Goodyear has put into this race with multiple tire compounds, I am excited to see how the stages play out, especially the final 10-car, 10-lap sprint to the checkered flag."

"The Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race is etched in the history of our sport for the most memorable moments, trend-setting innovation and big-money payouts," said Marcus Smith, president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. "This new 70-lap format pays tribute to the 25th anniversary of 'One Hot Night' while pushing the drivers to the brink of insanity with the chances they'll take to win $1 million. I'm as ready as our fans for a May 20 Saturday night shootout where only a daredevil behind the wheel truly has a shot at Victory Lane."

Qualifying for the main event, which returns to Friday night, will again include the wildly popular 'no speed limit' four-tire pit stop. Each team will have three timed laps, one of which will include a mandatory four-tire pit stop with no pit-road speed limits enforced. The five quickest teams will advance to the final round of qualifying to determine starting positions one through five. The team that completes the fastest stop will earn the Pit Crew Competition Award.

The Monster Energy Open will occur Saturday evening prior to the Monster Energy All-Star Race and will include three stages (20 laps, 20 Laps, 10 laps). The winner of each stage will earn a spot in the All-Star race. The Monster Energy Open field will be set by two rounds of traditional knock-out qualifying.

Those eligible for the Monster Energy All-Star Race include: Drivers who won a points event in either 2016 or 2017; drivers who won a Monster Energy Series All-Star Race and compete fulltime; and drivers who won a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship and compete fulltime. Those who have not already earned a spot via the above criteria can still lock-in by winning a stage in the Monster Energy Open or by winning the Fan Vote.

Drivers who have already clinched an All-Star spot: Chris Buescher, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.

Weekend passes for the Monster Energy All-Star Race start at just $79 and include admission to the May 19 N.C. Education Lottery 200 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, May 20 Justin Moore All-Star pre-race concert presented by Rayovac and Kwikset and the Monster Energy Open. Individual adult tickets for the May 20 Monster Energy All-Star Race start at just $39 and tickets for children 13 and under are just $10. To obtain tickets, camping or race-day upgrades, fans should call 1-800-455-FANS (3267) or shop online at www.CharlotteMotorSpeedway.com.

The Monster Energy All-Star Race and Monster Energy Open will air live on FS1 starting at 6 p.m. ET. The races can also be heard on MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90.

Dale Jr. after Texas top five: 'We needed this bad'

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was hot and happy when he climbed out of his No. 88 Axalta Chevy on Texas Motor Speedway's pit road Sunday afternoon.

Wiping his brow and his neck with a cool towel, Earnhardt smiled and leaned against his car, ready to talk about a hard-fought, fifth-place finish in Sunday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. It was his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series top five since a runner-up effort last June at Pocono Raceway.

"We needed this bad," a smiling Earnhardt said.

Temperatures were in the mid-80s outside the car and much hotter inside during the course of the 334-lap race. Even Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammate -- race winner Jimmie Johnson -- needed fluids after his Victory Lane celebration.

"It was kind of like a vacuum, pulling air out of helmet going down one side of the track so I just ran with the visor up all day,'' Earnhardt said. "I was glad to see that late caution so I could get some Gatorade and cool off a little bit. It was hot."

Earnhardt talked about being a little more prepared for the weather conditions, thanks to a new physical fitness program he's been enjoying with the encouragement of his teammate Johnson. Earnhardt said he rode his bike 20 miles on both Friday and Saturday.

"Jimmie rode like 100 miles, though," he added quickly with a grin.

And while Earnhardt didn't hoist any hardware this week, he still felt encouraged, back on course.

The fifth-place showing was a marked uptick in performance. He hadn't had a top-10 finish since returning to competition full time this year after missing the second half of 2016 recovering from concussion symptoms.

His previous best finish this season was 14th at Phoenix. He also has three finishes of 30th or worse. The Texas result actually vaulted him five positions in the standings to 20th place.

"I figured we'd get one sooner or later, but it's nice,'' Earnhardt said. "I know our fans are pulling for us. Could have finished a little better, but we'll take a top five."

The longtime reigning Most Popular Driver in the series readily conceded the result was a perfect send-off for NASCAR's Easter off-week. Having been out of the car for half of the last season and still struggling for a top 10 coming into April, Earnhardt was visibly encouraged with the Texas showing.

"Confidence is probably half the battle for me," he allowed. "I need all I can get to have a shot. If I don't believe in it and have confidence in it, it's hard for me to go for it and drive with confidence. Me and (crew chief) Greg (Ives) have been talking about that all offseason and yesterday. We talked about getting the confidence on restarts and I think we had it today. He was great at giving me some input to get the car working good.''

Earnhardt said he was certain the showing not only capped a good weekend but perhaps launched a return to form.

"We haven't had a top-five finish since like four races before we stopped racing last year," Earnhardt said. "This is great for us and the guys are excited. It was big for us.

"I will say this about our team: We spend a lot of time communicating during the week. With what we've been through last year and this year especially, it would have been easy for a lot of those guys to give up and not really keep pulling their work. But we've motivated each other.

"We need to be ready when the car is there, and we were today."

Nine teams miss Monster Energy Series qualifying

Nine cars failed to make a lap during Friday's Coors Light Pole three-round qualifying session at Texas Motor Speedway after they were not cleared in pre-qualifying inspection.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Chris Buescher, Derrike Cope and Timmy Hill were the drivers whose cars did not pass inspection in time to make a qualifying attempt. They all will start from the back in Sunday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 (1:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

NASCAR officials passed rules ahead of the season that require vehicles to travel through all stations on each pass through technical inspection. Any issue mandates that teams must complete their inspection pass, then address any issues in their garage stall before beginning the process of cycling through each station again.

"We don't feel good about anybody missing qualifying, but it is something that happens when teams are pushing the envelope," said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR Vice President, Officiating and Technical Inspection. "Teams know our expectations and every team was afforded the opportunity to go through inspection. Some needed multiple tries and some weren't able to get their cars ready in time to qualify."

Earnhardt, scheduled to start 37th in the 40-car field, said he wasn't overly concerned about how his starting spot would impact the No. 88 team's efforts in Sunday's race,

"I ain't too worried about it," said Earnhardt, who is set to start 37th Sunday. "The races are pretty long. Pit selection bothers you a little bit because we won't be able to get out there and get a better pit stall, but we'll see where we end up on pit road. I don't know what was wrong with our car going through tech, but if you don't make it, you don't get out there and I like that. I like the rules being the same for everybody so we'll just -- we'll work on our car for tomorrow in practice. I'm anxious to get more track time. Certainly, the track's going to be changing so freakin' much. We didn't really get a chance to see where it was going today."

Larson, a winner two weeks ago at Auto Club Speedway and the current series points leader, was slightly more concerned by his starting spot.

"I don't know exactly what happened; We just didn't make it through tech," said Larson, scheduled to start 32nd on Sunday. "Yeah, this is not the place you want to not make it through tech. It will be really hard to pass, I think, on Sunday. Wherever we end up starting is going to hurt us."

Reed Sorenson and Paul Menard were the last cars to make it through tech in time to make a lap.

Busch's team worked feverishly to repair his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota this afternoon, as Busch smacked the wall with approximately 40 minutes remaining in Friday's opening practice.

"There's an awful lot of cars coming through … if we get out there, we get out there; if we don't, we don't," Busch told FS1, standing in the garage during the opening round.

Adam Stevens, crew chief for Busch's No. 18, attributed the car's failure to make it to the pre-qualifying grid on pit road to a mistake made in the rush to make repairs to the team's primary car. Busch is scheduled to start 34th in Sunday's 500-miler.

"Well, we were just behind the eight ball having to fix that car, so obviously we got in line really late and in our haste, we didn't get our tech blocks set correctly," Stevens said. "So we passed templates, passed the grid, passed undercar, passed everything except when we got to the scales, which is the very last thing, and the wedge has to be within a certain number and we were below that number. That's just for tech -- it's not for on the race track -- so the car was all set to go and we didn't get a chance to set our tech blocks because we were in such a hurry, so just an error on our part."

Jimmie Johnson's spin during the opening round of qualifying brought out the red flag momentarily and allowed several cars more time to get through tech. It was the only on-track issue during the three rounds of qualifying on the repaved and revamped 1.5-mile track.

Kevin Harvick eventually won the pole position in the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford, clocking a lap of 198.405 mph in the final round to notch his second pole of the season.

Earnhardt Jr. on Blaney: 'We'll sort it out'

Dale Earnhardt Jr. admits he's "having fun with it," but suggests that he and Ryan Blaney will chat about recent on-track incidents involving the two Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers.

While he said he doesn’t think it's crucial, Earnhardt said Tuesday that "I think it would be good for us to have a couple of conversations."

Earnhardt met with members of the media during an appearance at the South Carolina Governor's Mansion in support of this year's Bojangles' Southern 500, scheduled for Sept. 3 at Darlington Raceway.

Blaney, the 23-year-old driver of the No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing, took issue with Earnhardt's driving last month during the Camping World 500 at Phoenix Raceway, calling the series' 14-time most popular driver a derogatory term over his team's radio and incurring the wrath of Earnhardt Nation.

This past weekend at Martinsville Speedway, contact between the two eventually led to a spin by Earnhardt.

"He did call and leave a message -- 'Just bad timing, it wasn’t intentional' and all that stuff," Earnhardt said, "and I don't think it was. But you remember those things just to make sure down the road if it happens again you're kind of like 'what the heck?'

"But we'll sort it out. I usually don't have a problem figuring out a way to work things out. We either do it off the track or on the track."

It's noteworthy that Blaney, in just his second full season in the Monster Energy Series, lives in a house located next to Earnhardt's home.

"We can't seem to stay away from each other," Earnhardt said. "I raced him a little too hard I guess, in his opinion, at Phoenix and he called me a dirty name. We've had a little fun about that. And then this weekend (at Martinsville), I kind of ran him into the fence on the front straightaway and then coming off the turn I got loose and he spun me out.

"It was frustrating. I was glad I didn't hit anything. We rebounded really quickly so I wasn't too upset with it. I'm having a lot fun with it; kind of messing with him a little bit about it.

"We've talked some. We haven't talked since the Martinsville race but we will eventually and we'll get an opportunity to smooth it out."

• Much of the back-and-forth between the two drivers has thus far been through social media -- both drivers have weekly podcasts and Earnhardt has more than 2 million followers on Twitter (Blaney has approximately 95,000).

Earnhardt's also begun using the platform Periscope after races and his weekly "Dale Jr. Download" podcast is a must-listen for his fans.

"The Periscope is a really more unscripted and a little more personal because I'm literally doing it from the seat of the rental car on the way back to the airport most of the time," he said. "… I think it gives people a view into part of our weekend that nobody ever sees. It's the wind-down after the event; I think people always want to go into the locker room after the game and hear from the players themselves and I think that's what that is. …

"I think they both complement each other because sometimes something you will say or do in the Periscope after the race creates content for the podcast. But the whole reason for doing either one of them is to control your message. If you do something live and in your own voice, then there's the context right there, it's built in. If somebody wants the real story, they can get it right from the horse's mouth."

Drivers aren't shy about sharing their opinions and Earnhardt said he believes all drivers will eventually turn to such forms of social media to "control content they put out there. I think that's going to be the norm."

"I think especially in trying times, like during this struggle we're having now, it kind of helps the fans understand where your head's at," he said. "It helps them maybe relax a little bit and feel confident that things are going to get better. I hope that's what's working and what it's doing. I think I'll do it after every race; I've started it up now, we can't just up and quit. So we'll keep digging."

• Although he is winless on the season and 25th in points, Earnhardt said it's not for a lack of confidence or a carry-over from last year when he missed the final 18 races while recovering from a concussion.

He has only one finish inside the top 15 through the season's first six races and only three of 16th or better.

"I feel like I feel and understand the car, what I need to feel from the car as far as how it's handling and how to communicate with (crew chief) Greg (Ives)," he said. "All those things are where they need to be. I don't think I've lost a step; I'm doing my own self-analysis there and being really honest with myself.

"I'm healthy and I think I can go out there and do as good of a job as I did before the injury last year. As a company, we want to find a little more speed in our cars; me and Greg are still polishing our communication and how we conduct ourselves throughout the race weekend.

"I saw a huge gain in not only the speed of the car this weekend but how me and Greg did business. And I was really proud of that. I was proud of how much of a leader he was; he did a lot of things that I liked, that I know he's capable of and I've seen before."

That confidence is contagious and it's important to the welfare of the team.

"We can't let these struggles bring all the team down, we have to stay positive," he said. "Because when we show up, we could show up this weekend with the opportunity to win and if we don't have our head on straight, we're not going to be able to get that done."

The series heads to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend for Sunday's running of the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 (1:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

"Everybody's still got their chin up," Earnhardt said, "and expecting our car to start seeing results real soon."

Earnhardt says he has felt great all season after concussion

Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he has felt great all this season after missing the final 18 races a year ago because of the lingering effects of a concussion.

Earnhardt said Thursday that he wouldn’t be driving the No. 88 car if he didn’t feel like he was 100 per cent healthy.

"You can’t go out there with any kind of limitations," he said while headlining a media and fan event for Texas Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt has suffered numerous concussions in his career, and was sidelined for the final half of last season.

The 42-year-old Earnhardt said he only races cars because it's fun and that he doesn't feel an obligation to stay in NASCAR because of his standing as the sport's most popular driver.

"I just enjoy working with my team and my guys, the camaraderie and the friendships," he said. "That's why I drive. Obviously we've got a big fan base that has a lot of fun when we do well, so you'd like to be out there and run well while you're doing it."

Earnhardt Jr. supports peers attempting Indy-Charlotte ‘double’

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a big fan of fellow NASCAR drivers crossing over to the Verizon IndyCar Series for the classic Memorial Day weekend “double” and believes it is a benefit to the overall health of motorsports.

On hand today for Texas Motor Speedway’s media day ‘No Limits Luncheon’ at Gilley’s, the two-time Daytona 500 champion expressed his excitement in seeing talent tested from running both the NASCAR race in Charlotte and the Indianapolis 500 on the same day.

It was just three seasons ago that Kurt Busch finished sixth in the 2014 Indianapolis 500, taking rookie of the year honors in his first-ever Indy car race in a one-off deal with Andretti Autosport. Busch then hurried off to drive in the 600-mile race that night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, though his car didn’t make it to the finish.

Busch is the most recent of four drivers who have attempted the double, with only Tony Stewart completing all 1,100 race miles in 2001. Following Busch’s win in this year’s Daytona 500, some have looked for him to make a second go at the two-race marathon.

The fascination is also there to see NASCAR phenom Kyle Larson race in the Indianapolis 500, especially with two factors at his disposal – he drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, who runs cars in both series, and is fresh off a win Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

The possibility of drivers testing their mettle across different racing disciplines is salivating to many fans. Earnhardt is no exception.

“I love it,” Earnhardt said today. “I think it’s fun to see. I don’t really have connections with INDYCAR as a driver, so it’s nothing I have any interest in doing myself, but I love to see it happen.

“I think that the motorsports world in general, there’s a throng for specific guys in motorsports and the people that sit there are the ones that do that – the guys like A.J. Foyt and Mario (Andretti) that raced everything, (along with) Tony Stewart.

“So, it’s good, I think.”

The 42-year-old North Carolina native puts a premium on seeing current drivers test their talents in different racing platforms. Earnhardt admitted that part of what makes it difficult is the different obstacles and obligations that didn’t hinder legends like Foyt and Andretti.

“I love to see modern drivers do those things because it’s harder these days for modern drivers to do those things,” said Earnhardt, a 26-time Cup race winner.

“The schedule in NASCAR is really tough. You know, back when Mario ran the Daytona 500 or A.J. was racing with us, we had 28 races, not 36 plus two (non-points races). It’s a little harder for guys (now) to jump around in different cars like they did back then, and also you have the manufacturer contracts and obligations to be in a certain make and model. Little restrictions like that also make it a challenge to put together programs and partnerships to be able to move from one series to the next.”

Earnhardt, a Chevrolet driver in NASCAR, was quick to turn to former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, fresh off a win in this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona sports car race, as someone who transcends the sport.

“We see Jeff Gordon driving the 24 hours of Daytona, that to me (shows) we need those guys in American motorsports,” said Earnhardt. “We need those guys that race everything and win in everything.”

Further pushing his belief of what made Foyt and Andretti so special, Earnhardt added that their abilities helped make them an icon.

“That really creates heroes and icons that transcend more than just NASCAR and INDYCAR,” said Earnhardt. “People love A.J. Foyt and love Mario because they were winning at Pikes Peak one weekend, then they’d go win a NASCAR race, then go run an Indy race and then they would go run a little bullring in a neighborhood somewhere. That was just incredible to people that they could just do all these things.

“They were superheroes outside of their own chosen discipline of Indy car or what have you.

“So I think that’s awesome when you see that. Especially, you know, you want them to do well. I want our NASCAR guys to go anywhere you want them to represent us and do well. It makes me think, ‘Well, if that NASCAR guy can go and do that, that’s great for us NASCAR guys and it makes all us all look good.’

“It’s a little jealousy or selfishness about that, but it’s good for American motorsports to have those guys do that.”

Junior reflects on first race, more ahead of milestone 600th start

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will make his 600th career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start Sunday at Auto Club Speedway. And for all the glory, trophies and adoration, his two-time Daytona 500 winning career hasn't necessarily been as NASCAR's most popular driver imagined it to be.

Earnhardt's initial motives were simpler and his goals modest. But he's enjoying the long ride and the achievement and respect he's accumulated in 18 full-time seasons on NASCAR's main stage.

"I just wanted to drive," Earnhardt said of the milestone. "I wanted to race cars for a living. I wanted to do it well enough to be able to afford to make a living doing it.

"I didn't have vision or assume that I was going to make all of the money and success that we have made, but all I really wanted to do was to do it long enough so I didn’t have to get a real job. I mean that as sincere as I can. I'm real thrilled that I've had the opportunity to stay around and drive for some really great teams. Some really awesome owners. Worked with a lot of amazing crew chiefs and crew members."

Earnhardt, who missed the second half of the 2016 season recovering from concussion symptoms, returned to competition this year more grateful for the opportunity and with perhaps a different perspective.

He acknowledged Friday in California that he has had preliminary talks with team owner Rick Hendrick about extending his contract with the championship organization. Earnhardt has maintained that he wanted to see how he felt behind the wheel again before committing to a contract process.

"We have had some discussions about planning to get together," Earnhardt said. "It's not something I put on the shelf for sure. We are getting closer and closer.

"I have done some things that I really think have (given) me a lot of confidence in the car and in my ability to continue to race and so … yeah, I'm not in any hurry to sit down and have those discussions, but we have been chit-chatting a little bit about what we need to go ahead and start heading in that direction."

As for the weekend's important milestone, only Matt Kenseth has more (618) starts among active drivers. And despite the large number, Earnhardt concedes there are typically a few he hears about most -- and he gets it.

"They talk about wins," Earnhardt said of his fans. " 'I was at Daytona when you won in '04, I was at Daytona when you won in '14, I was at the All-Star race when you won or I've watched every race you've ran.' You know you hear … really, they remember the moments on the track more than anything. And I do the same thing.

"I think back about the wins and maybe not even the wins, some races are really fun and satisfactory, but you are the only one that will remember them because you ran third or fifth or something like that and they are kind of obscure in most people's minds.

"I think about winning the All-Star race as a rookie, just how fortunate we were to do that. Winning the Daytona 500 twice. I didn't know that I would even win it once and everything that has happened. The list goes on and on."

Despite the success -- the Daytona 500 wins, the dramatic Daytona summer race win in 2001 following his father's death in that year's Daytona 500, the All-Star race win, the streak of four consecutive Talladega trophies -- Earnhardt humbly and vividly remembers the first of his 599 starts.

"My first Cup race? I was really nervous," Earnhardt said. "I remember sitting on the starting grid or sitting in qualifying for the race and telling (then crew chief) Tony (Eury) Jr. that I would switch with him for a million dollars so he could do this instead of me because I was scared to death.

"Just they had made such a big deal about that whole thing."

And to think, that was only the beginning of the making of a superstar, the most popular driver -- a talent that earned his place in the record books. And in hearts.

Dale Jr prepares for 600th race after creating own legacy

While Dale Earnhardt Jr. prepared for his 600th NASCAR Cup Series race this weekend, he couldn't help thinking about his first time.

He still recalls his conversation with Tony Eury Jr., his cousin and crew chief, as he sat on that starting grid in Charlotte in 1999.

''I remember telling Tony that I would switch with him for a million dollars so he could do this instead of me,'' Earnhardt recalled Friday with a chuckle. ''Because I was scared to death. ... I was overwhelmed with the weight of the situation, and how much attention it was getting, and it made it really hard to soak in and enjoy it, I guess.

''We just wanted to do so well and not fail. It was fun. It was a wild time.''

The son of racing royalty once felt crushed by expectations, yet he persevered and established his own legacy in the sport. Along with being NASCAR's most popular driver for most of his career, Junior has 26 victories, 252 top-10 finishes and two Daytona 500 trophies in his first 599 races.

''I just wanted to drive,'' the 42-year-old Earnhardt recalled. ''I wanted to race cars for a living. I wanted to do it well enough to be able to afford to make a living doing it. I didn't have vision or assume that I was going to make all of the money and success that we have made, but all I really wanted to do was to do it long enough so I didn't have to get a real job.''

Earnhardt has done it effectively and consistently for 17 straight years. Only 24 drivers in NASCAR history have started 600 races, and Earnhardt would love to celebrate his entry into the club Sunday with his first win on the well-aged asphalt at Fontana, where he has typically run well for most of his storied career.

Earnhardt hasn't won a race since late 2015, and he has never won at Fontana in 24 starts despite finishing second twice and landed inside the top 12 in six consecutive outings at Auto Club Speedway.

He missed the second half of last season with a concussion, at least the fourth of his racing career. The absence was his longest break from competition since his debut season back in the 20th century, but he has returned with optimism and confidence, if not results: He hasn't finished higher than 14th in the first four races of this season, leaving him 23rd in the standings.

Yet Earnhardt has evolved into an elder statesman of the garage, and his easygoing personality even allows him to squash most beefs with a smile - and some beer.

After Ryan Blaney cursed him out on the radio last week in Phoenix, Earnhardt played it off by texting with his young rival - and forcing Blaney to furnish the beverages whenever they hang out this spring.

Blaney incurred the wrath of Earnhardt's legion of fans, particularly on social media, but Junior himself took it good-naturedly. Blaney had ample reason to make good with his neighbor in North Carolina.

''He owns the land that I live on,'' Blaney said with a grimace. ''So strategically, that may not have been the best thing for me to do that to him last week, but we're good. He's a great guy and a good friend of mine.''

While he crosses his latest historic mark, Earnhardt doesn't appear to be done soon. He confirmed Friday that he intends to begin talks soon with Hendrick Motorsports about a new contract to replace his expiring deal.

''It's only been a few races, but I feel really good and we have had some discussions about planning to get together,'' Earnhardt said. ''It's not something that I put on the shelf, for sure. We're getting closer and closer.''

Although he realizes some fans, including legendary driver Richard Petty, would have liked to see him retire for his health after that last concussion, Earnhardt is feeling new appreciation for the simpler aspects of this high-profile job.

''You get older, you start to understand how you prioritize the things that are most important to you about the sport,'' Earnhardt said. ''The camaraderie and the friendships that I've made kind of started down the list, and as I've gotten older, that has crept up the list. If it's not No. 1, I don't know what is.

''That probably is what you will miss the most once you are done driving, is the people.''

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg takes spin with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

(Video) Mark Zuckerberg sits in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 Chevrolet with a huge grin on his face Tuesday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Facebook co-founder and CEO just finished a 175-plus-mph ride around the 1.5-mile track with Earnhardt Jr. as his driver.

And he's impressed.

"OK, if this is all we get to do in Charlotte, that will be enough," Zuckerberg says via Facebook Live. "What an amazing experience. … I think there were probably millions of people who would die to do what I just did."

He certainly looks the part, dressed in a white helmet and blue fire suit, the coloring similar to Earnhardt Jr.'s own ensemble. Zuckerberg has a relaxed, easy demeanor about him as he chats with cameramen, crew members and speedway employees.

But those initial laps with Junior behind the wheel were anything but a Sunday morning jaunt.

"Holy s---t!" he says, as Junior veers the No. 88 machine around Turn 2 and up the banking. "All right we're a little close to the wall."

"I wanted him to get a sense of the speed and the grip and the G-Forces," Earnhardt says on the ride-along. " … I'm sure it was exhilarating. I couldn't imagine getting into a car with a race car driver having never driven before myself."

Zuckerberg's foray into NASCAR began with his desire to learn more about the racing community. He has been traveling around the country throughout the year, visiting different states in hopes of learning about the diverse groups of people that make up America.

The NASCAR community is one that intrigued him.

"NASCAR and driving and sports in general form the basis of a lot of communities," Zuckerberg says. "You think about not only the community of drivers and the families around them, but NASCAR's probably, I think, the biggest sport in the country that people go to and attend live.

"… I have this big belief with Facebook and what we're doing to help people try to build community that we all need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and certainly all the fans -- I think you have three million fans on Facebook who follow Dale Jr. For them, NASCAR's a huge part of their identity and a lot of people pin their hopes on you going out and winning."

"They're very supportive," Earnhardt Jr. says of his fans later.

But Zuckerberg is privy to Junior Nation: "Well, you have good fans, though," he says with a chuckle.

• • •

Zuckerberg's quest to learn more about the NASCAR community began earlier that day in a sub-community of racing: The Hendrick Motorsports race shop in Charlotte, North Carolina.

He arrived at the Nos. 48/88 shop -- that builds and prepares race cars for Earnahrdt Jr. and reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson -- dressed in a gray hoodie, jeans and Nikes, with an appetite for racing knowledge apparent.

Who better to give it to him than No. 48 crew chief Chad Knaus?

"The crew captain!" Zuckerberg exclaims as he walks into the shop and shakes Knaus' hand. Knaus is giving Zuckerberg a private tour today. The two walk into the shop, and almost immediately Zuckerberg begins asking questions. His brow furrows and there's a "Wow!" often dancing around his mouth.

Knaus leads the group from the shop and into a side room where the 7-post machine is testing one of the unpainted cars. Zuckerberg's face lights up when the car starts to rattle and shake.

"Super nice guy, shockingly normal," Knaus tells NASCAR.com after the tour. "Very inquisitive. He was definitely curious about what it is that we do and he had a ton of questions. They were actually very good questions. I was happy to hear that.

"... He was asking about what we do, how the cars are built, where we take them, the differences between a short track car and a high speed track car," Knaus continues. "He was asking about the tire stagger, how we choreograph our pit stops."

Hendrick Motorsports presents Zuckerberg with a personalized team jersey and signed helmet upon the conclusion of the tour.

"Now don't wear that when you're driving your car, that's for display purposes only," Knaus jokes.

No matter: In a few minutes, he'll get his own racing-ready helmet anyway.

• • •

After a few laps with Junior, it's time for Zuckerberg to wheel a race car on his own. He had a few practice laps earlier that day, with Dale Jr. coaching him via in-car radio.

"You're going to come down the apron, down pit road," Earnhardt said earlier.

"Where's that?" Zuckerberg asked.

"Where you came from," Junior said with a smile.

"Oh, that's a wall, there's nothing good over there," Zuckerberg said cheerfully, piloting the race car around Turn 4 and down pit road.

Now, he's relatively prepared, as he climbs into the car for another run.

"I kind of showed you the line," Junior coaches. "Down the front straightaway, nice and broad, good smooth arc down the front straightaway. And then on the back straightaway, you get out against that fence, as close as you're comfortable with."

"I think probably a little further away than you were," Zuckerberg says. "You got pretty close there."

"I know, I was doing that on purpose, we probably wouldn't race that close," Junior says with a grin.

Zuckerberg gets going, hitting 5,000 RPMs soon into his run. He hugs the white line, moving toward the high line later. He seems to grow more comfortable as his run continues.

"We're just down here hanging out," he says with a smile. "After driving with you, I don't feel that we're pushing it that hard here."

"Get a little more aggressive!" Junior urges, as Zuckerberg hits the rev limiter on the car.

"I don't think it wants me going faster than 5,000 RPMs," Zuckerberg says.

He takes a couple more laps and then comes down pit road, the grin still plastered on his face.

And he's worked up an appetite.

"I heard there was something about fried chicken," he says, inviting Junior to join him for a post-race meal.

• • •

Zuckerberg and Earnhardt engage in a conversation after their ride, a plate of fried chicken and a biscuit sitting by Zuckerburg. They talk for a while quietly, away from the cameras and lights from today.

It has been a day of immersion for Zuckerberg, whose knowledge about racing has significantly increased since he arrived in North Carolina.

But it was just as beneficial for NASCAR, too, as the worlds of racing and ever-growing social media industry merged on a different front.

"When you have someone that has that many touch points, that many people that he influences, having him come and experience what NASCAR was all about is a tremendous opportunity for our sport," Steve Phelps, NASCAR executive vice president and chief global sales and marketing officer, told NASCAR.com. "Watching him ride along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the expression on his face and truly to get to experience what it's like to be in car and how fast it is, how loud it is, how much the vibration of the car is.

"I think he has a newfound respect and we're trying to get new fans, one fan at a time. Having someone like Mark out here is certainly an opportunity for us to get more than one fan at a time."


Dale Earnhardt Jr. slammed into the wall and walked away unscathed, an early exit from the Daytona 500 that could be viewed as a positive step in his recovery process.

NASCAR's most popular driver missed 18 races, half the season, in 2016 because of lingering concussion symptoms that included nausea as well as vision and balance issues. He got back in the car in early December and gained medical clearance to return this season.

He was looking to make a triumphant return at Daytona, the track where his famous father died, but ended up driving to the garage and parking it for the day shortly after the midway point of the 200-lap event. He finished 37th, but made progress.

''I feel good,'' Earnhardt said. ''I don't have any symptoms or anything I've experienced in the past. It wasn't that hard of a hit, but it still doesn't mean you can't get injured.''

Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, others wreck hard at Daytona

Trouble arrived for several drivers at Daytona International Speedway, as Kyle Busch spun entering Turn 3 at Lap 104 of Sunday's Daytona 500, collecting Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Ty Dillon and Erik Jones and bringing out the caution.

Elliott Sadler received contact as well, but assumed the race lead after the wreck.

Busch, whose No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota was too damaged to repair on pit road and was declared out of the race due to NASCAR's new damage vehicle policy, said he had a rear tire going down that caused him to spin out.

"Just getting into Turn 3 as soon as we started picking up load it just started to come out from underneath me and started spinning," Busch said. "I could feel the rear tire kind of start to flap in there and I knew one of them was down. I couldn't tell left or right. I want to say it was a left because of how long it took it to spin.

"But man, we tore up three really good JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars there. We also tore up the 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), so I feel horrible about that but man, it's nothing I can do. Nothing that I did wrong."

Earnhardt Jr. -- who was making his return to racing after missing half of last season due to concussion-like symptoms -- Kenseth, Dillon and Jones all were ruled out of the race.

"I really enjoyed the whole week," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We had a lot of fun. … Everybody's support meant a lot to me, just sorry we weren’t able to deliver a better result today for all our fans."

The race was ultimately red-flagged for clean up.

Prior to the wreck, Busch had won Stage 1 of the 500-mile event, collecting 10 race points and one playoff point at the Lap 60 mark.

At place of peace, Dale Jr. still 'craves' racing

He tested at Phoenix earlier this year, qualified on the outside of the front row for Sunday's Daytona 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and on Thursday he led the bulk of his Can-Am Duel qualifying race before finishing fifth.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is officially back.

Today marks his return to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points races, and no one is more pleased about it than the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

"I really had fun," Earnhardt said Thursday evening after a strong return at a track where he's typically one of a handful of drivers expected to run well. "I hated to lose but still we have to be aware of how far we've come to get back here. To go out there and lead all those laps and be able to make some good smart moves, it felt great."

The road back has been a long one for the 42-year-old Earnhardt, who missed the final 18 races of 2016 while recovering from concussion-like symptoms. It marked the second time he had been sidelined by such an injury, and he admitted there were times he questioned what his racing future held.

"There was a lot of time during the recovery where there were days I was 90 percent sure I wasn't going to drive again," he said. "There were days when it was 50 percent. It was just moving all over the place depending on what I felt that day. Your recovery is up and down, you have good days and bad days. …

"When it came down to it, I had to decide for myself if I wanted to drive anymore. I'm not going to race because of any other reason than I want to be out there."

Earnhardt will roll off second alongside Elliott, the pole winner, for the 59th running of the Daytona 500. He is a two-time winner of the "Great American Race" and one of the favorites based on past success and this year's efforts thus far.

Restrictor-plate races are breeding grounds for multi-car crashes, with cars running two-, three- and sometimes four-wide, a dozen or more rows deep at 200-plus mph. Earnhardt doesn't dwell on the possibility of another accident and what might result.

"I don't want to wreck to sort of quantify my recovery," he said. "I think should that happen and I come out the other side of it feeling great, that will add a ton of confidence. I can't sit here and say that I know exactly how I'm going to react in those situations with confidence. So yeah, when I go through that process, there's a box or two to check that aren't checked yet."

Three-time series champion Tony Stewart hung up his NASCAR uniform at the end of the '16 season. Two of Stewart's final four years driving for Stewart-Haas Racing were cut short due to injuries the Columbus, Indiana, native suffered in non-NASCAR events.

But there was no apprehension about climbing back in the car following lengthy recovery periods, he said.

"Never. It was more excitement to get back because you have to remember, we're drivers," Stewart, the winner of 49 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, said. "That's what we want to do, drive.

"When you have an injury, all it is is a pain in the ass. It's keeping you from doing what you want to do. That's why you heard so many drivers praise Junior last year (when) he chose not to run. And that's hard."

Fellow driver Martin Truex Jr. has a close relationship with Earnhardt -- the two were teammates from 2004-07 at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and spend time away from the track each fall on hunting trips.

"I know he's got a lot on his shoulders," Truex said. "A lot of people put a lot of pressure on him, obviously. I think in a lot of ways he sometimes feels like he needs to be here for other people. But hopefully he made the decision based on what's best for him. I think he did. I know he's excited about racing still. He obviously still loves it and wants to do it and hopefully things will all work out for him."

It has been 20 races since Earnhardt won his last race and just five -- due to his shortened '16 season -- since his last top five. Sunday affords the opportunity to reset both those streaks. After that? He's yet to win a championship at NASCAR's top level, but has finished as high as third. And, yes, he did say if he wins the title in '17 "it would be hard to not call it a career."

He has a new outlook and seems to be at peace with the road he's traveled. For the longest time, he said "I let racing be who I was instead of what I did.

"Like Richard Petty said, 'I've got a whole other life beyond driving' and I really believe that," Earnhardt said. "I've got a lot of things I'd love to do. Even outside of having a family, there are a lot of things in business that I'd love to see if I could succeed at. I think we got a glimpse of what that would be like; it looks pretty awesome."

For now, though, the Daytona 500 and another season of crisscrossing the country await. And Earnhardt is more than OK with that.

"Like I said, I crave to drive the car," he said. "I love the position I'm in with the team I'm with, (crew chief) Greg (Ives) and the guys, and until that feeling … and that 'want' to be there is gone, I want to keep going."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. busy in final Daytona 500 tune-up

In Saturday’s final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran 30 laps at Daytona International Speedway, second only to the 36 posted by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne.

The No. 88 team changed from a qualifying engine to the race engine after practice on Friday, a practice customary at the Daytona 500. But Earnhardt found his car less responsive with the new engine; in addition, the car developed a slight vibration that led to the team changing drive shafts in the car.

"We changed the motor and went to the race engine today, took the qualifying motor out last night," Earnhardt explained. "I thought our car was a little better yesterday in practice. In the pack, it would develop runs a little bit better. It just seemed like I had to get a little luckier today with what was happening behind me, where yesterday the car would do some things or develop some things kind of on its own.

"The thing about that is every time you get out there -- you might not even change anything -- it just depends on what kind of pack you get in, what kind of cars are around you, and your car’s performance can change and kind of fool you a little bit. I’m just hoping that today was a little more laid back, not quite as many cars out there, not quite as active in the draft, and maybe that’s why we didn’t see our car respond like it did yesterday."

The vibration was of particular concern.

"You worry about that, because any kind of thing that is out of balance is going to hurt that straight-line speed," Earnhardt said. "We tried to work on that and were able to fix it right there on that last run. It’s just simple stuff like flipping drive shafts and things like that.

"You want to get all that out of there so you don’t have any doubts about anything holding your car back. Otherwise, it’s been really uneventful. We haven’t had any issues or problems with the car mechanically, and nothing happened on the race track, so it looks like we are going to get this thing on the grid tomorrow and ready to go."

The change in drive shafts won’t affect Earnhardt’s second-place starting position on Sunday.

Goodyear hands Earnhardt Jr. keys to Goodyear Blimp

In celebration of his return to racing at this Sunday's Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. donned a Goodyear Blimp pilot uniform and took a different kind of lap in the Goodyear Blimp on Wednesday, surprising a U.S. military veteran with the experience of a lifetime.

Earnhardt Jr., who missed 18 races last season while recovering from a concussion, will get behind the familiar wheel of his No. 88 car Sunday seeking his third Daytona 500 victory on the confidence of Goodyear tires. But it was an altogether different experience sitting at the controls of the iconic Goodyear Blimp.

"This was such a cool day -- being able to co-pilot the Goodyear Blimp and connect with a fan who has so honorably served our country," said Earnhardt Jr. "I'm proud to be involved with Goodyear. Ever since we started working together, I've wanted to ride in the blimp, so this was a great experience I will never forget."

With weather less than ideal in the Daytona Beach area Wednesday, the blimp was limited in flight and only got off the ground for a few minutes. But the day was all about Paul Siverson, a Vietnam and Gulf War veteran who served in the military for 30 years. Siverson describes Earnhardt as his "first, second and third favorite NASCAR driver."

Coupled with his Earnhardt Jr. fandom, it was Siverson's dedication to NCServes, a charitable organization that provides comprehensive services to veterans, service members and their families, that made Siverson the perfect candidate for the surprise ride with NASCAR's most popular driver.

In honor of soldiers like Siverson, Goodyear donated $10,000 to NCServes with Earnhardt Jr. on hand for the check presentation. In addition to the blimp flight, Siverson will receive access at Daytona Speedweeks including tickets to the Great American Race on Sunday.

Goodyear has more than 100 years of history building innovative tires and equipment to help support and protect U.S. troops and is the largest producer of military tires in the country. The tire manufacturer has helped build more than 150 blimps for the U.S. Navy and continues to recognize the skills of Veterans through a robust hiring program and was recently recognized with the Secretary of Defense Freedom Award.

"We're honored to celebrate the return of Dale Jr. to NASCAR and recognize an American hero like Paul," said Seth Klugherz, Goodyear's director of North America marketing. "Connecting American icons NASCAR and the Goodyear Blimp to provide an experience for a military veteran is a natural way to extend Goodyear’s unwavering support to the U.S. Armed Forces."

Tune-in to watch the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. ET on FOX, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and MRN.

Earnhardt's confidence sky high amid return for Daytona 500

Dale Earnhardt Jr. traded in his T-shirt, jeans and sneakers for a head-to-toe pilot uniform, climbed up the portable stairs and slipped into the cockpit of the iconic Goodyear Blimp.

He kept his head down and turned away from a 65-year-old military veteran who thought he was onboard for a once-in-a-lifetime ride. Retired Marine Corps sergeant major Paul Siverson settled into his seat near Earnhardt - unbeknownst that his ''first, second and third favorite NASCAR driver'' was at the controls of the 246-foot helium-filled airship.

When Earnhardt turned and said hello, Siverson jumped in delight .

''Been talking about you all week,'' Siverson said.

Everyone has, really.

Earnhardt is the biggest story of Speedweeks. While it's fairly common for the two-time Daytona 500 winner to be the center of attention at Daytona International Speedway, especially given his father's fame and tragic fate at the superspeedway, it's been considerably different this year.

All those cheers have been joined by fears.

NASCAR's most popular driver missed 18 races, half the season, in 2016 because of lingering concussion symptoms that included nausea as well as vision and balance issues.

He struggled to keep his eyes focused while simply riding in a car last July. During a ride from his home to Raleigh, North Carolina, to taste wedding food with his then-fiancee Amy, he couldn't look out the windshield. He had to stare at the floor for two hours each way.

He would pick something on a wall to focus on, but couldn't keep it in sight once he started taking a few steps.

''I could go sit on my couch and convince myself I was 100 percent,'' he said. ''That was my comfort zone. Nothing was happening there. No anxiety. Anytime I went out in the world, any little bit of anxiety would make everything crazy. ... I couldn't put one foot in front of the other without falling over like a drunk-driving test.''

Forget racing. Sudden movement, loud noises and busy places all made Earnhardt cringe.

Even in November, after months of treatment and recovery, Earnhardt went hunting with friend and fellow driver Martin Truex Jr. and would stumble to one side or the other after five or six steps.

But that was progress, albeit minor, and it continued every day for the next month.

His vision cleared. His ability to focus returned. He slowly started feeling better, and by early December, he was back in a race car and had gained medical clearance to return this season.

Now, he's back at Daytona, back in the No. 88 Chevrolet and back at the front of the field. Earnhardt was second in pole qualifying last Sunday, meaning he will start on the front row for the Daytona 500 for the fourth time in his career. He also was scheduled to start one of the twin qualifying races Thursday from the pole.

The real test will be after that first head-jarring crash.

''I don't want to wreck to sort of quantify my recovery,'' he said. ''I think, though, should that happen and I come out the other side feeling great, that will add a ton of confidence. I can't sit here and say I know exactly how I'm going to react in those situations with confidence. So yeah, when I go through that process, there's a box or two to check that aren't yet (checked).''

Earnhardt sat down with NASCAR officials recently to go over details about the inside of his car, specifically about how and where his headrest is mounted. He estimates having at least five diagnosed concussions during his 18-year Cup career.

''Am I nervous at all about it? I'm nervous about it until I get in the car,'' he said. ''When I get into the car, I can't have any concern. I can't have any worry or fret, or I'll drive completely different. ... I know what a result I can get by driving without fear, and I know what kind of result I can get if I have even a sliver of apprehension. I won't be able to win the race. Once you second-guess yourself one time, it snowballs and it just continues throughout the rest of the race.''

At least publicly, there has been no second-guessing of Earnhardt's decision to get back in a race car.

''Well, I hope he's competitive and he goes out there and has fun because he sure is fun to talk to these days,'' retiring driver and former teammate Michael Waltrip said. ''He's just really energetic and really open and honest and is really cool to be around. He's always been cool to be around if you know him, but it seems like he's opened up to the world more, and so to see him go out there and win a race, I'd like to see that happen.''

Earnhardt has 26 victories in NASCAR's top series, but he's still chasing that first championship. He created a stir this week when he told ''The Dan Patrick Show'' he would consider retirement if he won the title. After a day to reflect on something he initially said was a tongue-in-cheek statement, it started to sound like the perfect exit strategy for a 42-year-old driver who just got married and wants to start a family.

''I didn't expect people to be like, 'Seriously? You really mean that?''' he said. ''Yeah, if you want to really think about it, God almighty, yeah. If I retire and won this championship, it's be hard not to spike the football on stage at Vegas and call it a career. Why not?

''There's still a lot about it that I haven't done just the way I want to do it. I want to learn how to enjoy it all the way, fully. I've got a couple more years that I'd like to keep going. But, dang, yeah, if I won a championship, shoot, that's the motivation for me in competing. Once that's checked off the list, that'd be everything.''

With so much attention focused on Earnhardt, he's been the busiest driver in the garage this week.

He did a media tour in New York City on Tuesday, was bombarded with questions at Daytona 500 media day and then traveled to nearby New Smyrna Beach Airport for the Goodyear Blimp surprise.

Earnhardt spent close to two hours in and around the blimp and getting to know Siverson and his 47-year history of service. Siverson retired after 30 years in the Marine Corps in 2000 and now helps other veterans at NCServes in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Earnhardt presented Siverson with a $10,000 check from Goodyear for the charity.

Earnhardt, who had never been in a blimp, even joked about bringing home a keepsake from the experience.

''I'm going to keep this outfit for Halloween,'' he said.

Hamlin spoils Earnhardt return with last-lap pass for win

Denny Hamlin didn't need a Toyota teammate to grab another win at Daytona International Speedway.
  • Hamlin charged past Dale Earnhardt Jr. with one lap remaining Thursday night to deny Earnhardt a victory a 150-mile qualifying race that Earnhardt dominated. Earnhardt led 53 of the 60 laps in the second qualifying Duel, but couldn't hold off a Hamlin charge at the end.
  • Hamlin got a push from Chevrolet driver Austin Dillon to gather the momentum needed to get past Earnhardt. Typically, the Toyota drivers have teamed together to navigate through traffic in restrictor plate races.
  • In the qualifying race, Hamlin didn't need his fellow Toyota drivers and even overcame a pit road penalty to get the win.
  • ''I don't know what I could have done differently to defend that,'' Earnhardt said. ''Denny is so smart, he knows what he's doing out there. Any which way I went, I knew he was going to go the other way and probably get by me. If it's the Daytona 500, it's the same thing, ain't nothing you can do about that.''
  • It was Earnhardt's first race in his return from a concussion that caused him to miss the second half of last season. He faded to sixth.
  • Hamlin is the defending Daytona 500 winner and has won a Duel qualifying race three times in his career. The twin 150-mile races are used to set the field for Sunday's season-opener, and Hamlin got this win on the same day he announced a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and sponsor FedEx.
  • Chase Elliott won the first qualifier, but he had already earned the top starting spot for Sunday's race based on speed. He and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Earnhardt will start on the front row in ''The Great American Race.''
  • There were two open slots for the Daytona 500 and they were claimed by Corey LaJoie and Canadian driver D.J. Kennington.
  • LaJoie had the harder road to race into the Daytona 500.
  • He ran into the back of Reed Sorenson, one of the drivers he was racing for the slot in the 500. It caused Sorenson to wreck.
  • ''I know it looked like I meant to do it but I didn't,'' LaJoie said on his radio. ''I was running the middle and he came down on me.''
  • He said he would have preferred not to have wrecked Sorenson, but insisted it was unintentional and noted the race was his first time in a Cup car at a plate track. LaJoie had to politic through December to get this ride, but still asked Jimmie Johnson to put in a good word for him to help him get a chance to race in the Daytona 500.
  • So, he wasn't going to let anything stand in his way of making Sunday's race.
  • ''I didn't want to be sipping margaritas on the beach on Sunday. I wanted to be out there racing,'' LaJoie said. ''If that was my mom, I would probably spin her out to make the Daytona 500, too. That's just frank. I'm sure I'm not going to be on Reed's Christmas card list this year, but that's all right.''
  • Sorenson was not pleased.
  • ''I guess he felt like he did what he had to do to make the race,'' Sorenson said. ''I hope he's proud of that part of it. There's a lot of pressure going in to making this race. It's a very big deal for a small team like ours.''
  • Elliott, meanwhile, was thrilled with his first Cup victory.
  • ''I know this was just a Duel win, and doesn't mean a lot for the playoffs, but it still means something to me,'' said Elliott.
  • Indeed, this was technically just an exhibition race. But new rules for this season earned Elliott 10 points with the win. NASCAR's new format this year including a provision that awards points on a 10-to-1 declining scale to the top-10 finishers in Thursday night's races.
  • Points were not the goal for Elliott, though. His Hendrick Motorsports team instead wanted to test his Chevrolet to see how strong it will be in Sunday's big event.
  • ''We didn't say one word about points before the race,'' Elliott said. ''We just kind of set out and wanted to race, not ride around. I think sometimes you ride around and you don't know what your car is like and if it's going to be the way you want it for Sunday.
  • ''We took chances and it worked out, so excited for Sunday.''

    Duel win slips away, but no rust on Junior's return performance

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. was two laps away from potentially winning for the first time since November of 2015, leading the second of two Can-Am Duel qualifying races here Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.

    Then Austin Dillon cleared the No. 41 of Kurt Busch, slid up in line behind second-place Denny Hamlin and Earnhardt's goose was cooked.

    With no drafting help from behind, Earnhardt could do little but watch as car after car zoomed by on the high side. By the time the freight train had passed, Earnhardt was battling just to get back inside the top five with one more trip around the 2.5-mile layout remaining.

    "I was hoping he would go with me but I would have probably done the same thing he did," Earnhardt said of Dillon's move. "He finished fifth. He pushed that 11 in the lead, he was in second; it didn't really work out that awesome for him."

    Dillon's No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing finished just one spot ahead of Earnhardt's No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, which led 53 of 60 laps. It was Earnhardt's first competitive appearance since mid-season of last year. He sat out the final 18 races of the season after suffering concussion-like symptoms.

    If there was any rust, it wasn't evident. Earnhardt, who will still start on the front row of Sunday's Daytona 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR) battled briefly with Hamlin in the early portion of the qualifying race before settling down to lead 23 laps. Ryan Blaney (Wood Brothers Racing) won the race off pit road and led three laps before Earnhardt moved back on point at Lap 31.

    And for most of the remaining laps, it was vintage Earnhardt, one of the series' best at restrictor-plate racing and a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 as he was able to move high and low to keep the lines of traffic in his rear-view mirror.

    Until the very end.

    "I felt great," he said. "I felt like I'm a really good plate racer, there are some guys out there that are sure picking it up. Denny is one of them, (Joey) Logano ... there are a few other guys that sure make it harder to win these things each time we come here. But I felt great out there."

    Hamlin is the defending Daytona 500 winner. Dillon is a four-year veteran but still searching for that first trip to Victory Lane in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Both had capable rides Thursday evening.

    "I think that we just worked together the entire race," Hamlin said of Dillon's move that got him to the front. "It's no different than if it was the other way around ... I'd have a hard time not pushing him to a win."

    As long as the drivers ran side-by-side behind Earnhardt and Hamlin, the two lines of cars kept each other in check and unable to make a run on the front two. That changed when Dillon was able to slide in behind Hamlin and leave a big gap with no help behind the race leader.

    "Maybe if he would have gone with me we might have run first and second," Earnhardt said. "You never know. He did what he had to do and I might have done the same thing.

    "Denny had such an awesome run. The 3 (of Dillon) is feeding off that energy and had that same momentum. He's got to take his opportunities to try to get to the front. Hell, he might have won the race, you never know, if a couple of things had worked out for him."

    Earnhardt Jr. would consider walking away as a champion

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat on stage for his Daytona 500 Media Day interview session Wednesday morning and at the end of his 20-plus minutes taking questions, he conceded that if he were to win the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title, he would at least consider stepping away from full-time competition after this season.

    Earnhardt, who will start on the front row for the Daytona 500, is returning to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup competition for the first time since last July -- sitting out the second half of the 2016 season while recovering from concussion-like symptoms.

    The two-time Daytona 500 winner and restrictor-plate racing expert refused to call himself a shoo-in for Sunday's trophy even though he likes his chances. But he did allow that hoisting NASCAR's season-ending trophy may just present the ultimate racing exit for the newly married 42-year-old.

    "Hell yeah. I would definitely not want to come back and race anymore if I won the championship, I'd be outta of here," he said smiling. "I've always wanted to win a championship so badly. And coming back from this injury, we've worked so hard. So to come back this year and win the championship, it would be hard not to hang it up.

    "This is the last year of my deal. I would like to race more, but if I won the championship I'd have to consider going out on top."

    Earnhardt smiled as he spoke but did pause often to reflect and think. The sport's 14-time -- and reigning -- Most Popular Driver has four top-five finishes in the championship standings, the last a fifth place in 2013.

    His father, the late Dale Earnhardt, won seven championship trophies, and his Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson just won his seventh in November.

    "It just really depends on a lot of different things," Earnhardt said, reflecting on the idea of the 2017 championship. "I said that a little tongue in cheek yesterday (that he would retire), but I'd definitely consider it because that's the last box I don't have checked really.

    "There's a few races I'd like to win. But the championship would definitely be the icing on the cake for my career."

    Earnhardt Jr., Keselowski deadlocked atop Daytona 500 odds

    (Video) Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be aiming to bounce back from a 2016 season marred by inconsistency and injury on Sunday when he pursues a third career victory at the Daytona 500 as a +600 betting favourite at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

    It has been 15 months since Earnhardt took home the checkered flag at a NASCAR Cup Series event. The 42-year-old veteran claimed victory at the rain-shortened Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 in November 2015, but his sole victory of 2016 came in the Xfinity Series Toyota Care 250 last February.

    Sunday afternoon’s 59th running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway also marks Earnhardt’s first Cup Series race appearance since last July, when he was sidelined for the season with a concussion.

    The 14-time defending Cup Series Most Popular Driver previously won the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014, but finished a career-worst 36th last year despite starting the race in the No. 3 position.

    Earnhardt is joined as the Daytona 500 betting favourite by Brad Keselowski, who also sports +600 odds. Keselowski sits atop the odds despite finishing better than 20th just twice in seven career Daytona 500 appearances.

    The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion tallied four victories last year. However, he finished no better than 35th in three of his final six races.

    2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano maintains strong +800 odds, ahead of three drivers at +1000, including Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch. Logano closed out last season on a strong note with top 5 finishes in five of his past six races, and has finished in the top 10 at Daytona on three occasions.

    Johnson earned a record-tying seventh career Cup Series crown a year ago, and also has two Daytona 500 victories to his credit, but finished a disappointing 16th last year. Busch finished third last year, both at Daytona and in the standings, while Harvick finished fourth in last year’s race, and earned four victories on the season.

    Defending Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin joins pole sitter Chase Elliott at +1200 odds, followed by Matt Kenseth at +1400, Martin Truex Jr. at +1600, and Clint Bowyer at +1800.

    Other notables on the Daytona 500 odds include Kurt Busch at +2200, Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman deadlocked at +5000, and 53-year-old Michael Waltrip, who is a +10000 bet to claim his third career win at the race.

    Get ready for the Daytona 500 with driver interviews

    Drivers take center stage starting at 8:30 a.m. ET Wednesday for the Media Day live stream presented by NAPA as excitement builds toward Sunday's Daytona 500. Don't miss any of the stories, banter and laughs as NASCAR.com live streams the event til 3:30 p.m. ET. Watch here.

    Hosts Jonathan Merryman and Kim Coon will talk with drivers about the Daytona 500 and the 2017 season.

    Here's the event lineup (all times Eastern):

    8:30 a.m.: Aric Almirola

    8:40 a.m.: Austin Dillon, Matt DiBenedetto

    8:45 a.m.: Chris Buescher

    8:50 a.m.: Joey Gase

    BREAK (35 min)

    9:35 a.m.: Michael McDowell, AJ Allmendinger

    9:40 a.m.: David Gilliland

    9:45 a.m.: Joey Logano

    BREAK (25 min)

    10:20 a.m.: Chip Wile

    10:30 a.m.: Brendan Gaughan, Darrell Wallace Jr.

    10:35 a.m.: Cole Custer

    10:40 a.m.: Blake Koch

    10:50 a.m.: Brennan Poole

    11:05 a.m.: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    11:10 a.m.: Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones

    11:20 a.m.: Spencer Gallagher, Ben Kennedy

    BREAK (1 hr. 40 min)

    1:10 p.m.: Ryan Blaney

    1:20 p.m.: Chase Elliott

    1:50 p.m.: Kevin Harvick

    1:55 p.m.: Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett

    2 p.m.: John Hunter Nemechek, Denny Hamlin

    2:10 p.m.: Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch

    2:20 p.m.: Landon Cassill, Kasey Kahne

    BREAK (15 min)

    2:45 p.m.: Erik Jones

    BREAK (10 min)

    3:05 p.m.: Ryan Reed

    BREAK (5 min)

    3:15 p.m.: Brad Keselowski

    Dale Jr. regales podcast listeners with family storytime

    (Listen) Dale Earnhardt Jr. turned his weekly Dale Jr. Download podcast into family storytime where he spoke for more than 50 minutes regaling listeners with tales of his famous father and the Earnhardt family history at the Daytona 500.

    Among the gems Earnhardt Jr. shared was the story of how his father, Dale Earnhardt, taught him how to be fast in qualifying.

    As Earnhardt Jr. tells it, when he was 16 years old, working in a dealership changing oil, his dad called and told him to come to Talladega, where he was testing.

    Earnhardt was testing new V8 engines for the XFINITY Series, and told his son to take the wheel for a few turns around Talladega Superspeedway. Junior was astonished to be keeping time with his father during his first lap.

    "So then I get out there and open the wheel up and get out to the fence on the straightaway, drive it down into the corner," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'm letting the wheel kind of do what it wants to do on bumps -- and I ran a second slower."

    As soon as he came in, his father stopped him.

    "What the hell are you doing?" he asked.

    "Well, I'm letting the car feed out off the corner against the wall," Junior responded.

    "Don't do that, you're adding feet to the lap," his father scolded.

    "I let the wheel be loose in my hands, kind of let it do its thing through the bumps," Junior continued.

    "Don't do that; hold it solid and steady," his father reminded.

    That experience changed how Earnhardt Jr. approaches qualifying -- and what helped him to qualify second for Sunday's Daytona 500.

    "What I do now when I go to qualify is I hold the wheel as hard as I can and I do not let it move when the car goes through a bump," Earnhardt Jr. said. "And I run pretty tight, which everybody does now; everybody's figured that out."

    Earnhardt Jr. also recounted some of his favorite moments from past Daytona 500s. Among those he talked about:

    * The 2000 Daytona 500, which was the first he saw in person -- and the first he raced in. "I felt like I had joined a fraternity," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I was on the starting grid looking around at guys like Terry Labonte and Dale Jarrett and going, 'Wow, I can't believe I'm here.' "

    That was also a race where his father wasn't happy that his son didn't work with him. Earnhardt finished 21st while Earnhardt Jr. finished 13th.

    "After the race he was very upset with me that I did not work with him," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I said, 'I don't want to work with nobody, I'm trying to get to the front.' ... He said, 'No wonder neither one of us did any good, you wouldn't work with anybody.' I said, 'You're not my responsibility, Dad.' He always took it out on me. When we raced together, if he had a bad day, in some way, it was my fault."

    * The 1998 Daytona 500, which was his father's only victory in the race, despite 34 triumphs at the track. Earnhardt Jr. missed the race because he was recovering from a concussion.

    * The 1990 Daytona 500, when Earnhardt blew a tire on Turn 3 of the final lap, and ended up finishing fifth. "What a badass," Junior said of his father. "Drove a damn car into Turn 3 with no right rear tire at 190 mph and didn't even hit the wall."

    * The 1979 Daytona 500, which was his father's rookie season. Earnhardt finished eighth. "It's so funny how they talked about him then (compared to) how we know him and remember him now," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He wasn't the Intimidator. He was a young guy racing with the veterans."

    Earnhardt Jr. also had one more comment about his family's history at the Daytona 500: "We got a lot of great history in Daytona. Hoping we can go down here and have some success and add to those wins. I'd love to go down there and pass Tony Stewart and be second (for most all-time wins at Daytona International Speedway)."

    Dale Jr. jumps back into familiar surroundings with plenty of speed

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't take any credit for his qualifying effort Sunday, a 192.864 mph lap that put his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on the front row for next week's season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

    "Ain't much to it," Earnhardt quipped. "The car does all the work."

    Earnhardt, twice a winner of the "Great American Race," won't be on the pole, but he'll start alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott, giving the team a front-row sweep for the second time in the last three years.

    His previous wins in the 500 came from third (in 2004) and ninth ('14).

    Earnhardt is regarded as one of the best at restrictor-plate racing but qualifying is a solo effort. There are no other cars off which to pick up a push or gain an advantage. It's all about horsepower. But there's a bit of technique required as well.

    "The transitions are kind of important as far as feeding the car into the corner and also running as tight as you can on the apron without bouncing the skirt off the apron or giving up any speed, or just time adding feet to your lap by running high, at least a little bit, can make a big difference," he said.

    "But other than that, the driver, I don't think he's feeling like he's in control of too much. The car is doing most of the work."

    Sidelined for the last half of the 2016 season after suffering concussion-like symptoms, Earnhardt is eager to be back behind the wheel. He chose not to compete in Sunday's Advance Auto Parts Clash, instead allowing Alex Bowman to field his entry. Bowman had won the pole at Phoenix driving in relief of Earnhardt last fall, a distinction that Earnhardt said earned the driver the opportunity.

    But after spending "The Clash" working as an analyst in the booth for Fox Sports, Earnhardt traded in his suit and tie for a firesuit, and eased his way back into more familiar surroundings.

    He was second-fastest in the opening round of qualifying; Elliott ended the session atop the board. In the final round, the No. 88 went to the top of the board with only one driver, Elliott, remaining.

    "I certainly would have loved to have gotten a pole, but my boss man is happy," Earnhardt said of team owner Rick Hendrick. "I just talked to him on the phone and he's got to be thrilled with having his cars up front."

    Elliott's final-round run, a lap of 192.872 mph, gave the Dawsonville, Georgia, youngster his second consecutive Daytona 500 pole. It was the third straight No. 1 qualifying effort for his No. 24 team, which also started out front here in '15 with four-time series champion Jeff Gordon behind the wheel.

    "Obviously Dale is good down here, and we all knew he was going to be fast today," Elliott, 21, said. "That's no surprise. But I don't really care who it is. I'm not going to feel bad about beating somebody.

    "It's cool to share a front row with a teammate is really the biggest thing I look at with that. But Dale is a good guy. I'm happy to share the front row with him, but happier to beat him, obviously, but regardless of who it is, that's what you're trying to do, you know."

    Elliott and Earnhardt were the only two drivers to officially lock in their starting positions for next weekend's Daytona 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The remainder of the field will be determined through the Can-Am Duels, a pair of 150-lap qualifying races scheduled for Thursday evening (7 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    Dale Jr. waiting on 'confidence in my health' before signing new contract

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he intends to race "for more years," but NASCAR's most popular driver also said he won't sit down to discuss his contract with team owner Rick Hendrick until he's confident his health isn't an issue.

    Earnhardt, 42, missed the final 18 races of the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season while recovering from a concussion suffered at mid-season.

    He is in the final year of his contract as driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

    "I told Rick (Hendrick) that I would like to get a couple of races, a couple of months under my belt to get confidence in my health," Earnhardt said Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, site of next week's season-opening Daytona 500.

    "This is the only reason I feel that way. There's no underlying crap about it. When I got hurt last year, what I saw it put the company through, how I saw it frustrate certain aspects of the company -- maybe not frustrate but it put a strain on our relationships. Our partners were worried about my future, Rick and everybody was worried. I don't want to do that again.

    "I want to get some races under my belt and get confidence in my health before I can commit to him. I don't want to make him a promise that I can't deliver on.

    "Once I feel like, 'You know what? I think I'm good. I think I can withstand the wear and tear of driving these cars to do a couple more years,' I’m ready to do it. Because I want to race; I want to be here and I want to race."

    Earnhardt joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 after eight seasons with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company founded by his father, the seven-time series champion and inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee. Nine of his 26 career victories have come since the move to HMS.

    In addition to competing for HMS, Earnhardt also co-owns JR Motorsports, a race organization that fields four teams in NASCAR's XFINITY Series.

    He will make his first start since his injury next week here at DIS. He's a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 and considered one of the sport's best on the big superspeedways, where NASCAR mandates the use of restrictor plates to limit speeds.

    Retirement has been on his mind, Earnhardt admitted, even before last season's setback. But he said the injury made him realize that it might now be best to put off such thoughts until he knows his health isn't a concern. Earnhardt said in December that he hoped to sit down and discuss a contract extension before the '17 season got underway.

    "I've been trying over the last year or two to put a number on it, say, 'This is when I'm going to retire,'" he said. "'This will be the year or the day or the age.' But I've decided that maybe it's best that I don't. Considering my health, I can't even think about putting a date on it because I don't know what's going to happen to me going forward.

    "I want to get a couple of races under my belt, a couple of months, and then we'll sit down and say, 'You know, if everything is going great and we haven't had any issues, I'm confident to continue to race.'"

    Earnhardt has twice signed five-year contracts with HMS – the first from 2008 through '12 and the most recent, an extension which ran from 2013-17.

    Hendrick Motorsports also fields Monster Energy Series teams for seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott.

    Earnhardt Jr. returns to action in Daytona practice

    Great patience surpassed high anticipation surrounding Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s return to the race track Saturday morning at Daytona International Speedway.

    Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports crew was still working feverishly on his No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet in the garage area as his competitors rolled out for Daytona 500 opening practice. Earnhardt, meanwhile, stood back still wearing a ball cap, his arms crossed as he alternated between glancing at the scoring screen and watching his team prep the car -- computers on the roof, hood up.

    About 30-40 fans lined up four- and five-deep in the fan area behind the garage while a dozen photographers waited just outside his stall. The two-time Daytona 500 winner put his helmet on 30 minutes into the session and climbed into the car for his first official practice laps since July of 2016. (He missed the final 18 premier series races of 2016 because of a concussion.)

    And then just as it looked like he would join competition for the first time in seven months, a caution flag came out for debris.

    Earnhardt was the 36th car to roll onto the track, nearly 50 minutes into the almost four-hour session. His first lap was 17th-fastest at 190.504 mph.

    NASCAR expands concussion protocol

    NASCAR today announced updates to its concussion protocol for competitors, adding a consistent screening tool for all venues and increasing available neurological support for race event weekends through its new partnership with AMR.

    "NASCAR has worked very closely with the industry to ensure our concussion protocol reflects emerging best practices in this rapidly developing area of sports medicine," said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations. "We will continue to utilize relationships we’ve had for years with leaders in the neurological research field who helped to shape these updates."

    NASCAR's protocol now includes:

    • As part of the new rule regarding damaged vehicles, a driver whose car sustains damage from an accident or contact of any kind and goes behind the pit wall or to the garage is required to visit the Infield Care Center to be evaluated.

    • The medical portion of NASCAR's Event Standards now require that Infield Care Center physicians incorporate the SCAT-3 diagnostic tool in screening for head injuries.

    • AMR will provide on-site neurological consultative support at select NASCAR events during the 2017 season and will work directly with NASCAR in the continued development of concussion protocol.

    The new protocol goes into effect immediately for all NASCAR national series.

    Updated deterrence system aims to 'police within the event'

    NASCAR competition officials issued an updated deterrence system Thursday for its three national series, shifting toward an officiating process that penalizes pre-race infractions within a given race weekend. The updated system is months in the making, with the sanctioning body and teams working concurrently on the new procedures.

    The move was one of several fundamental changes made to the penalty structure ahead of on-track activity this week at Daytona International Speedway.

    The new system replaces the P1-through-P6 penalty classification which had been in effect since the start of the 2014 season. The new structure grades significant penalties into Levels 1 and 2, both of which involve points deductions and crew chief or team member suspensions that increase with a given violation's severity.

    Elton Sawyer, NASCAR Vice President of Officiating and Technical Inspection, said that in the event that less severe infractions are found before a race, teams or crew members would be disciplined from a menu of penalty options available to NASCAR's three series directors. Those range from the loss of practice time to loss of lap(s) at the start of a race.

    "Our goal was to be able to, more like football or basketball or any sporting event to where we could officiate and police within the event," Sawyer told NASCAR.com. "I think the real message is that we want to get these infractions, the smaller infractions, we want to get them corrected at the race track.

    "It's very similar to a 15-yard penalty. If you can get three 15-yard penalties and you can still win the game or drive down and score a touchdown, then good for you. If we can issue these penalties and you lose pit selection or you start at the back or a drive-through (penalty), and you can still come back and win the race, well then we feel like what that infraction was, the penalty fits the crime."

    A chief reasoning behind the updated policy is to mete out potential penalties more closely to the time – and at the event – in which they occur.

    "The Tuesday penalties, they wouldn't necessarily go away," Sawyer told NASCAR.com. "We're hoping that we don't have to write those penalties. That's not what we look forward to. We want all the positive storylines to be around the excitement of the race, and as the stewards of the sport -- or the umpires, if you will -- we want to kind of be in the background. But we have a role and responsibility in this as well to make sure it's a level playing field for all."

    The updates also detail the schematics of a new pre-race inspection protocol, which requires that vehicles must proceed through all four inspection stations, regardless of whether issues are found in any stage in the process. Fixes must now be made in each team's garage stall, rather than off to the side of any given station, and then vehicles must proceed through all four inspection sites again.

    Sawyer said that the additional time it takes to make a full inspection pass serves as a deterrent for teams, which could miss portions of practice or qualifying in the event of an issue. Eliminating repairs made off to the side of inspection stations also tightens up any gray areas on the fringes of the garage.

    "I think it's fair to say that if we make them go back to the garage, then that's a central location for all cars to be fixed," Sawyer told NASCAR.com. "They know they have to come back through every station again, so it does put the deterrent back on the teams and puts the responsibility back on the teams to present their vehicles in compliance with the rule book."

    Among the other highlights from Thursday's updates to the rule book:

    • The penalty structure for violations that rise to the L1 or L2 level were unveiled, subject to enforcement at the following event(s):

    L1 penalties concern areas of minimum heights and weights, the Laser Inspection Station (LIS), gear ratios, and flagrant lug nut violations where 17 or fewer are properly secured. L2 penalties involve more egregious infractions concerning tampering with the three "no man's land" technical areas of tires, engine and fuel. Major safety violations, the use of telemetry or traction control, plus breaches of the testing policy also fall under the L2 designation.

    Penalty options for all three NASCAR national series call for the deduction of 10 to 40 points for L1 violations and 75 points for L2 infractions. In the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, L1 penalties call for crew chief or team member suspensions for 1 to 3 races, plus a $25,000 to $75,000 fine. L2 penalties in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series come with a six-race suspension and fines ranging from $100,000 to $200,000.

    The disciplinary action is scaled back in the other two national series. In the NASCAR XFINITY Series, L1 penalties will result in the same one- to three-race suspension range, but with fines from $10,000-$40,000. L2 violations in XFINITY events also come with a six-race suspension guideline, but a $50,000-$100,000 range for fines.

    In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, L1 penalties carry a one- or two-race suspension with fines from $5,000 to $20,000. L2 infractions will result in a four-race suspension with monetary penalties of $25,000 to $50,000.

    • Specific penalties were outlined for lug-nut and LIS violations in the Monster Energy Series.

    LIS infractions discovered after Coors Light Pole Qualifying will result in a team's time being disallowed. Post-race, the violation falls under an L1 heading with a three-race crew chief suspension, a $65,000 fine and the loss of 35 championship points.

    Teams with one improperly attached or missing lug nut post-race are subject to a $10,000 fine. That fine doubles and includes a one-race suspension for the crew chief if two lug nuts are improperly attached or missing. If three or more lug nuts are in violation of the rules, the penalty rises to the L1 level with three-race suspension for the crew chief, a $65,000 fine and the deduction of 35 championship points.

    • "Encumbered" finishes -- a rules concept introduced before the Monster Energy Series' playoffs last year -- will remain in effect this season for post-race L1 and L2 violations. The rules allow a victory to stand in the event of an infraction, but a winning team will be stripped of the benefits associated with the win.

    • The list of pre-race penalties within a race weekend at the series directors' disposal, in order of increasing severity: Loss of annual "hard card" credential, loss of practice time, loss of pit selection position, tail of the field penalty, a green-flag pass-through on pit road after the initial start, a green-flag stop-and-go in the pits after the start, and lap(s) penalty.

    • Sawyer said that NASCAR competition officials will continue the practice of taking select cars back to the R&D center for further inspection after a race weekend.

    Full stage lengths for every race revealed

    NASCAR today announced the 2017 stage lengths for each race in all three of its national series. A number of factors went into determining the lap count for Stage 1, Stage 2 and the Final Stage of each race, with a singular goal in mind -- the best racing for NASCAR fans.

    "Every track is unique for its characteristics in length, surface and overall racing conditions," said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition. "We worked closely with race teams on expected fuel and tire runs over the entirety of an event when considering stage lengths. And in the end, stage lengths were decided based upon what would provide the best race for fans."

    Last week, NASCAR announced the stage lengths for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season-opening DAYTONA 500 (Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). For "The Great American Race," the stages are scheduled to end on Lap 60, Lap 120 and Lap 200.

    For the full list of stages for the remainder of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, as well as the NASCAR XFINITY Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series seasons, see below.

    * Note: Laps listed below are what lap each segment will end

    Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race Stage 1 Stage 2 Final Stage
    Daytona 60 120 200
    Atlanta 85 170 325
    Las Vegas 80 160 267
    Phoenix 75 150 312
    Auto Club 60 120 200
    Martinsville 130 260 500
    Texas 85 170 334
    Bristol 125 250 500
    Richmond 100 200 400
    Talladega 55 110 188
    Kansas 80 160 267
    Charlotte 115 230 400
    Dover 120 240 400
    Pocono 50 100 160
    Michigan 60 120 200
    Sonoma 25 50 110
    Daytona-2 40 80 160
    Kentucky 80 160 267
    New Hampshire 75 150 301
    Indianapolis 50 100 160
    Pocono-2 50 100 160
    Watkins Glen 20 40 90
    Michigan-2 60 120 200
    Bristol-2 125 250 500
    Darlington 100 200 367
    Richmond-2 100 200 400
    Chicagoland 80 160 267
    New Hampshire-2 75 150 300
    Dover-2 120 240 400
    Charlotte-2 90 180 334
    Talladega-2 55 110 188
    Kansas-2 80 160 267
    Martinsville-2 130 260 500
    Texas-2 85 170 334
    Phoenix-2 75 150 312
    Miami 80 160 267.

    What's in a Number? Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Daytona 500 dominance

    The 59th annual Daytona 500 is just around the corner, so we sifted through the numbers on Racing Reference to find some interesting tidbits for you to chew on while you wait for the Feb. 26 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) running of The Great American Race.

    10: Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads active drivers with 10 victories on restrictor-plate tracks. That's double the amount for the next-closest competitors, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, who have five apiece. Two of Junior's 10 restrictor-plate wins have come in the Daytona 500, his last being in 2014.

    9: Dale Earnhardt Jr. also leads active drivers with nine second-place finishes in restrictor-plate races. Tony Stewart had eight, followed by Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett and Jimmie Johnson all tied at six apiece. So in 19 of Junior's 67 restrictor-plate races, he has finished either in first or second place.

    1967: The last time the Daytona 500 was run on Feb. 26 was 1967, and the winner was Mario Andretti. It was Andretti's only win in 14 NASCAR premier series starts. He drove for Holman-Moody and beat Fred Lorenzen in a race that ended under caution. Andretti, of course, was better known for his open-wheel career.

    No. 11: When Andretti won the Daytona 500 he was driving the No. 11 car. That number has been on the Daytona 500-winning car just two other times: In 1977, eventual NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough drove it to Victory Lane. Last year, Denny Hamlin won in the race's closest finish ever (.010 seconds over Martin Truex Jr.).

    22: The number of DNFs for Michael Waltrip in his restrictor-plate racing career, tying him with Bobby Labonte for third-most all-time. However, Waltrip has the most starts in restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega with 108 and has won four times, including twice in the Daytona 500 (2001 and '03). Waltrip will be making the final start of his career in this year's Daytona 500.

    NASCAR will not permit damaged race cars to return to track

    NASCAR will not permit damaged race cars to return to the track this season unless the repairs can be made on pit road within a tight window.

    The ban on wrecked race cars continuing to compete was announced Wednesday in a series of a rule updates for the 2017 season.

    Beginning later this month at Daytona, if a car receives enough damage during an on-track incident that it must go to the garage for repairs, the team will not be allowed to repair it in an effort to get back on track. Damaged vehicles can be repaired on pit road during a five-minute cumulative time limit.

    Under the new process:

    - Body repairs are limited to the removal or reattachment of original parts with fasteners and tape.

    - Rods and supports may be used to reinforce original panels.

    - New or previously unused body panels are prohibited.

    NASCAR said the new rule prevents severely damaged race cars from returning to the track and creating a safety hazard for other teams. Under NASCAR's new format of running races in stages, it also means a car that wrecks in an early stage won't be eligible to return for the final race-winning stage.

    Not allowing teams to repair cars in the garage should be a significant saving on costs for teams.

    It also could have cost Jimmie Johnson the 2009 title. He was involved in an early accident at Texas Motor Speedway, and his crew worked feverishly in the garage to make enough repairs to get Johnson back on the track. That effort by the Hendrick Motorsports crew is widely considered to have saved his title chances.

    NASCAR also announced that it will have a traveling safety crew starting this season, creating a consistent medical staff that drivers have been pushing for the last several years.

    The safety crew will come from American Medical Response and ensure that a physician and paramedics are in the safety vehicle at all Monster Energy Cup events. AMR will also provide a small group that will travel to each race, and a physician who will serve as NASCAR's primary doctor.

    NASCAR had long relied on local emergency crews to treat drivers while rival series have dedicated teams. IndyCar's team is lauded as the best in the business, and is credited with saving James Hinchcliffe's life when he crashed during a 2015 practice for the Indianapolis 500. That accident raised another round of calls from NASCAR drivers for a consistent and regular crew.

    ''This partnership further strengthens NASCAR's medical response capability, making our well-established, medical response system even better,'' said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. ''AMR is a leader in the emergency services sector, and its doctors and paramedics add another layer of expertise to the immediate response team.''

    AMR will position doctors and paramedics in a chase vehicle along with two NASCAR Track Services team members for on-track incidents.

    Length of stages announced for Daytona

    This year's Daytona 500 will consist of two 60-lap stages, followed by a final 80-lap stage to make up the 200 scheduled laps in the annual season-opening race for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

    The Daytona 500 is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 26 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    NASCAR officials announced last month that all points-paying races in its three national series -- Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series -- would consist of three stages and that the format change would include the awarding of points to the top 10 drivers after the first two stages.

    Points will be awarded in much the same fashion as previous years upon the completion of the third and final stage.

    Upon the completion of each of the first two stages, drivers finishing first through 10th will be awarded additional points (10th for first, nine for second, etc.) that will be included in their final total for that race only.

    Additionally, one point per stage win will be awarded to those drivers qualifying for the 10-race playoff at the end of the season. Race-winning drivers also will earn five bonus points per win to be applied following the completion of the regular season.

    Stage lengths for the season-opening NextEra Energy Resources 250 Truck Series race and Powershares QQQ 300 XFINITY Series race have also been announced.

    The first and second stages of the Camping World Truck Series race will be 20 laps each, with a 60-lap final stage to round out the 100-lap event (not including any additional laps should the race go into overtime).

    Stages 1 and 2 of the XFINITY Series race have been set at 30 laps, while the final stage will be 60 laps (also not including any additional laps should the race go into overtime).

    Stage lengths for most races beyond the Daytona 500 have yet to be announced.

    NASCAR announces updated damaged vehicle policy

    Repairing damaged vehicles during a NASCAR race sometimes is as common a sight as pit stops, restarts and checkered flags.

    But the extent to which teams can make repairs will be more tightly policed beginning with the 2017 season.

    NASCAR officials unveiled a new Damaged Vehicle Policy on Wednesday at the sanctioning body's Research & Development Center, a policy that will be enforced in all three national series -- Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series.

    Under the guidelines, teams no longer will be allowed to replace damaged body parts that are the result of accidents or contact. Repairs, such as fixing damaged sheet metal, will be allowed; however, teams will be given five minutes to fix damage once they enter pit road. If the damage requires the car to go behind pit wall or to the garage for repairs, the car will not be allowed to return to the race. Also, if the repairs take longer than the five minutes allowed, the car will not be permitted to return to the race.

    Once repairs have been made, a car is still required to maintain the minimum speed determined for that event. Once that has been accomplished, the five-minute clock is reset in case the car needs to come back down pit road.

    Previously, teams were allowed to replace any damaged panels or parts with no time limit and no penalty. Quarter panels, splitters, hoods and deck lids damaged in accidents were often removed and replaced. Some repairs were completed on pit road; more extensive damage often meant a trip to the garage. Each time, the driver was sent back out onto the track as quickly as possible.

    That will no longer be the case.

    "We have a lot of cars that are going back on the track that end up in 38th position, for instance, that probably don't need to be out there from a safety and competition aspect," Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told NASCAR.com, "because they always tend to bring out more yellows with stuff falling off."

    Heavily damaged cars that need extensive repairs that can't be done on pit road, Miller said, "are essentially going to be out of the race.

    "There will be many circumstances and many things happen and you will continue to see it where cars are in wrecks and never go to the garage area. They come down pit road, they work on things … and they go back out and make minimum speed. They continue to work on the car as the race goes on. That will still completely be in play."

    Miller said the move is to help officials, who didn't often see what goes on in the garage but can better observe repairs on pit road.

    Miller has worked "on the other side of the fence" as a crew chief and is aware of the hurried atmosphere surrounding a car undergoing significant repairs in the garage.

    "I've been involved in crash repairs and that's not a great situation down there in the garage with 20 people running around, oil leaking on the floor, things catching on fire and sharp sheet metal being cut off," he said. "It's a fairly unsafe situation. And at times it would be unsafe really for the driver to get back in a car that was damaged that heavily. There's nothing that doesn't come with some downside, but I think there is a lot of upside to where we are going with this."

    Safety is a crucial component of the policy, and for any vehicle undergoing repairs, the integrity of the safety systems "must be maintained."

    Teams will be allowed to correct mechanical or electrical failures that aren't the result of an accident or contact without penalty. Such repairs may be done on pit road or in the garage area, and the five-minute clock will not be in play in those instances.

    "We're not going to tell a guy who breaks his transmission at Watkins Glen or Pocono, for instance, and coasts into the garage area that he's out," Miller said. "Because that doesn't create an unsafe situation; that is a mechanical failure.

    "It's more about crashed vehicles and all that is involved with that, from the crew guys to the drivers to dropping more debris on the track, which always happens. … So there are exceptions for mechanical failures, those things can be rectified in the garage. That's going to be up to the series director's discretion to make those calls, but it's not going to be that difficult."

    There will be modifications to at least two pit-road penalties under the policy for those making repairs. Any driver receiving a pit-road speeding penalty (entry or exit) will lose 15 seconds from the five-minute clock. Any team sending too many men over the wall will result in that car being removed from the race.

    "Speeding comes with an additional penalty because speeding in or out is a way to circumvent the clock," Miller said.

    When a car is damaged and repairs are made on pit road, teams know they will be at the tail end of the longest line, so extra men often go over the wall. (Each team is allowed six to work on the car and one to service the driver and/or windshield.)

    "That's another thing we discussed with the teams and internally," he said. "Too many men over the wall is also defeating the purpose of the policy; it would encourage teams to bring extra people well-versed in going over the wall to repair cars. So too many men over the wall just has to signal the end of that car's day."

    What will race fans see with the new policy? It's what they won't see, Miller said, that is behind the change.

    "What they won't see is stuff we don't like to see, cars running around out there with stuff flying off," he said. "We don't like that because it creates yellows, it creates debris for other cars to run over, it creates a dangerous situation. That's what they won't see. What they will see are quality cars on the race track racing one another."

    The 2017 NASCAR season gets underway Feb. 24-26 with all three national series competing at Daytona International Speedway. The Daytona 500, the season's first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points race of the year, is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 26 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets 'Simpsons' treatment

    (Pic) Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans watching Super Bowl LI on Sunday may have been surprised to see their favorite driver as a "Simpsons" cartoon character. Turns out the driver was surprised as well.

    A short clip on FOX used animated series "The Simpsons" to promote the upcoming Daytona 500 on Feb. 26 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), and Earnhardt Jr. was in the driver's seat.

    @AmyEarnhardt : Holy smokes Dale Jr Simpson wth

    @AmyEarnhardt : Neither one of us were expecting that! ??

    Apparently, Junior's camp gave the OK while Dale and wife Amy were attending to more important matters.

    @MikeDavis88 : Y'all were honeymooning. Sorry. ?? https://twitter.com/amyearnhardt/status/828426440454598656 …

    Earnhardt Jr. to join broadcast booth for The Clash at Daytona

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. will serve as a guest analyst during the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona on Feb. 18, FS1 announced on Race Hub Thursday. The Hendrick Motorsports driver will join full-time FOX analysts Darrell Waltrip, Mike Joy and former teammate Jeff Gordon in the broadcast booth.

    This isn’t Earnhardt’s first time in the booth; he called the premier series events at Talladega Superspeedway and Martinsville Speedway in the NBC booth in October. He also offered commentary during the XFINITY event at Michigan International Speedway on June 11, 2015, marking his television debut.

    Several other Monster Energy NASCAR Cup drivers have joined the broadcast group for XFINITY races, including Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer.

    Alex Bowman, who qualified for The Clash (Feb. 18, 8 p.m. ET, FS1) with a Phoenix pole last season while filling in for Earnhardt, was previously announced as the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for the 187.5-mile event under the lights. After missing the final 18 races of 2016 due to concussion-like symptoms, Earnhardt will make his return to racing in the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26 (2 p.m. ET, FOX).

    Teams leave Phoenix test ready to dissect data

    Everyone had their checklists, some longer than others, and all left with more information than when they arrived.

    Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams wrapped up a two-day organizational test here at Phoenix Raceway on Wednesday, and now all that data is in the hands of laptop-wielding engineers. Let the deciphering begin. It will be six weeks before teams return to put to use the majority of what was learned here.

    "We … kind of put a test plan together based on all the different departments within Team Penske," said Todd Gordon, crew chief of the No. 22 Ford driven by Joey Logano. "Some of the stuff the aero group wants to test; there's stuff the motor group wants to test, there's stuff that we as the competition side in mechanical want to test. It's how you take all those pieces and put them into a test plan so that we can actually gather data."

    Logano won here last November; this week's test, with a different rules package, produced somewhat similar results. You don't "win" a test, but Logano did his best. His Ford was among the fastest both days.

    Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates), Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were also quick. Consistently so.

    Such testing opportunities are limited – the organizational test was the first of only five provided to teams for the 2017 season. Another won't arrive until midpoint of the regular season, at New Hampshire at the end of May. Twelve races, nearly half a season's worth, will have been run by then.

    "On a race weekend we can gather driver feedback but at a place like this we can gather all sorts of measurements on the car," Gordon said. "We're working through all the pieces that are hard to quantify when you don't have a data system on it.

    "That's the biggest part here. I've gone through brake cooling pieces because it's a braking race track. Tire usage and what's going on there. Just gather data that we can bring forward to the next race weekend and look at in our development of the package that we'll come back with."

    Thirteen teams couldn't pass up the chance to get a fender up on the competition. There were rookies and veterans and those who fall in between.

    Harvick was among those on hand, getting acquainted with his tea'ms No. 4 entry that now carries the blue oval of Ford. An eight-time winner at Phoenix, Harvick knows what winning requires at the 1-mile track.

    A new manufacturer and new aero package raises questions that require answers.

    "The main thing is we have a starting point now," Harvick said. "There's not a lot of guessing anymore. You know what's going on and where you're at; going around the race track is what we needed to be doing so that we knew where to work from here."

    There's little difference in driving a Ford versus driving a Chevrolet, he said. "But the balance of the car is definitely different than what we've had in the past.

    "I think there's just not one reason for that though and I think that's a little bit of where we’re at right now. Just trying to say 'alright, is it the balance on the car? Is it the balance with the new aero package?' But that doesn't matter. Now you know the problems you're going to fight."

    Whatever it is, he said, "is irrelevant at this point. It's just fixing those problems and start moving forward."

    Some drivers want to be privy to the changes made on their cars as teams work through their checklists. Others do not. Dale Earnhardt Jr. falls into the latter category. Not because he does'nt care, but it's a carryover, he said, from his Late Model racing days. If you know the changes ahead of time, it might impact your feedback to your crew chief.

    "A lot of times when we go through a certain section of changes I ask Greg (Ives, crew chief) not to give me what we're doing so I'm giving him direct, unfiltered feedback," Earnhardt said. "Then, when we get done, at the end of the day we'll go through the changes and comments. Then I can start to understand why those comments are the way they are, why I said what I said, start to understand how that particular change is working with the car."

    Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of the ’16 season, the result of concussion-like symptoms following a pair of crashes. Getting back in the car this week wasn't a chore.

    "I feel like I've had my vacation and it was over a long time ago," he said, "and I'm ready to go back to work."

    Watch: Part 2 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. docuseries

    (Video) The second episode of "Unfinished Business," a six-part series that documents Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s return to competition in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, was released Tuesday on the Nationwide 88 Facebook page.

    Nationwide is the primary sponsor of Earnhardt's No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and came up with the idea for the series.

    In Chapter 2: The Art of the Helmet, Earnhardt goes deep on the reasoning behind his colorful race helmets, and the man who designs the skull.

    The episodes will air on Tuesdays between now and the Feb. 26 Daytona 500 (two episodes will air the final week).

    Dale Jr. back behind the wheel at Phoenix test

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., sidelined for the second half of the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, climbed back behind the wheel of a race car here at Phoenix Raceway shortly before 11 a.m. ET.

    It was his first time in a race car since a private test at Darlington Raceway in December, a necessity to receive medical clearance to return to competition.

    The Hendrick Motorsports driver and fan favorite is one of more than one dozen drivers taking part in a two-day organizational test for teams at the 1-mile track. His No. 88 Chevrolet was the first to put in a lap Tuesday morning, but others weren't far behind in rolling out onto the track.

    "What are you guys doing?" Earnhardt asked reporters waiting outside his team's garage stall. Conversations with those waiting for his return were brief, and before long Earnhardt, 42, was easing his way into his vehicle.

    Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of the '16 season after suffering concussion-like symptoms that came on the heels of on-track incidents at Michigan and Daytona. Alex Bowman and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon replaced Earnhardt for the remainder of the season.

    Bowman was also on hand for Hendrick Motorsports as a test driver.

    Harvick, Junior, Suarez highlight crucial preseason Phoenix test

    Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick has won six of the last nine races at Phoenix International Raceway in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

    Which is why, teammate Clint Bowyer said, it makes sense for the 2014 champion to represent SHR during next week’s organizational test at the 1-mile track located in Avondale, Arizona.

    The two-day test is scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 31-Feb. 1.

    Only one team per organization is allowed to participate in NASCAR organizational tests and Bowyer, being the new kid on the SHR block, no doubt could use the seat time as he begins the next chapter in his racing career.

    "I probably could have really pushed and pouted and tried to get that test, but ultimately here’s a guy that’s won out there eight times," said Bowyer, one of four drivers for SHR. "I would be a fool not to let him go out there and establish that baseline for all of us across the board, and then go out and try to beat him and everybody else with it.

    "That’s the kind of teamwork that you have to have and that you can have when you’re at an organization like this -- as big as it is and the depth that it has with the drivers."

    Bowyer joined SHR after a one-year stint with the now-defunct HScott Motorsports. He replaces team co-owner/driver Tony Stewart in the organization’s No. 14 entry. Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick round out the SHR driver lineup for 2017.

    Thirteen Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams are scheduled to participate in the two-day test. Among them are Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, and Daniel Suarez, driver of the No. 19 Toyota, for Joe Gibbs Racing.

    Earnhardt Jr., the series' most popular driver and for many the face of the sport, missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season due to concussion-like symptoms. His last official start came July 9 at Kentucky Speedway.

    "Being out of the car, you hope you can jump back in … and not miss a beat," Earnhardt said. "But … this is the top series and any time you’re away you’re getting behind.

    "I’m really anxious and curious where we shake up early in the season, how competitive we can be (and) what, if any, learning curve there is for me."

    Suarez, the 2016 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion, was scheduled to defend his title this year. The surprising departure of Carl Edwards, however, expedited Suarez's advancement into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

    The test will be the first for many teams with NASCAR’s newest rules package. Four teams took part in a two-day Goodyear tire test earlier this month at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the ’17 setup.

    This year’s race package features reductions in the size of the splitter and spoiler height, a tapered rear deck fin and zero net rear steer.

    On the safety front, enhancements include anti-intrusion plating and toe board foam in the footbox area of the car, the addition of a roof hatch and changes in steering column mounting. The structural changes resulted in NASCAR increasing the minimum vehicle weight by 20 pounds for all events.

    The safety moves are mandatory for competition on superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega) and optional for all other venues. They will become mandatory for all tracks in 2018.

    Other drivers scheduled to attend the test are Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing), Ty Dillon (Germain Racing), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing), Ryan Blaney (Wood Brothers Racing), Joey Logano (Team Penske), Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates), Aric Almirola (Richard Petty Motorsports), AJ Allmendinger (JTG Daugherty Racing), Erik Jones (Furniture Row Racing) and Michael McDowell (Leavine Family Racing).

    Additional organizational tests for 2017 are slated for New Hampshire Motor Speedway (May 30-31), Chicagoland Speedway (Aug. 15-16), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 10-11) and Homestead Miami Speedway (Oct. 24-25).

    A single-day open test for NASCAR XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series teams is set for May 2 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    Nationwide reveals primary races with Dale Jr., 88 team

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back behind the wheel of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports for the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, much to the delight of Junior Nation.

    As activity for the upcoming season ramps up with media tour appearances, sponsor shoots and much more, Nationwide has unveiled the slate of races for which the insurance company will serve as the primary sponsor for the No. 88 team.

    Below is the list of the 21 races that Nationwide will be the primary sponsor on the No. 88 -- including the exhibition event of the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona in which Alex Bowman will pilot the car (which is noted with an asterisk*).

    2017 Nationwide primary races on the No. 88 car Date Track
    February 18 The Clash at Daytona*
    February 26 Daytona International Speedway
    March 5 Atlanta Motor Speedway
    March 12 Las Vegas Motor Speedway
    April 23 Bristol Motor Speedway
    April 30 Richmond International Raceway
    May 7 Talladega Superspeedway
    May 28 Charlotte Motor Speedway
    June 4 Dover International Speedway
    July 1 Daytona International Speedway
    July 8 Kentucky Speedway
    July 16 New Hampshire Motor Speedway
    July 23 Indianapolis Motor Speedway
    July 30 Pocono Raceway
    September 3 Darlington Raceway
    September 24 New Hampshire Motor Speedway
    October 1 Dover International Speedway
    October 22 Kansas Speedway
    October 29 Martinsville Speedway
    November 5 Texas Motor Speedway
    November 12 Phoenix International Raceway.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. thrilled to be cleared for NASCAR return

    There is nothing more tedious to a NASCAR driver than preseason promotional work, which can often be full-day photo shoots and interview sessions. It can be the most dreaded part of the job.

    Consider Dale Earnhardt Jr. the rare exception. His turn Wednesday at the Charlotte Convention Center was like the first day of summer vacation for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

    He was thrilled to be back at work after missing the second half of last season with a concussion.

    “I’m excited to be here for media day, which is new for me this year,” he said. “I’m excited for the season. It can’t get here fast enough.”

    Earnhardt was cleared to get back in a race car in December, shortly before he married his longtime girlfriend, Amy Reimann, on New Year's Eve and then embarked on a lengthy Hawaiian honeymoon. All this has him in a fantastic mood, eager not only to test drive next week at Phoenix but get to Florida next month for the season-opening Daytona 500.

    All the time out of the race car gave Earnhardt time to reflect, and he recognizes how much life has changed.

    "Getting married has been incredible. I wish I had figured all this out sooner," Earnhardt said. "I'm frustrated with myself that I took so long to grow up because I've got an amazing wife and she has changed my life. She has really helped me as a person become better on all fronts.

    "Personally, in all my friendships and relationships, how I interact with people and meet people and obviously in my professional life she has helped me as a driver."

    Earnhardt has suffered numerous concussions in his career, and his Hall of Fame father, the late Dale Earnhardt, was killed in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. As he was sidelined for 18 races last year, many wondered if he would ever get back in a race car.

    But Earnhardt worked through an intense recovery process in which he challenged his brain -- and his desire to race.

    "Mentally, you have to make the decision if you want to keep racing, and if you want to keep racing you've got to go in 100 per cent," Earnhardt said. "This is the top elite series for motorsports in North America. If you want to be out there you can't do it without 100 per cent. I had to answer a lot of personal questions of myself and buy in. All that was a big process and I'm really happy with what I've decided to do."

    Retirement, he insists, is a decision he wants to make on his own and not because a doctor tells him he can't medically compete any longer.

    "I don't know when I'm going to stop driving," he said. "I want to be able to make that choice and not have it made for me."

    Earnhardt learned quickly how the sport can just go on without someone, even the 14-time most popular driver. He has grown up in NASCAR, and being relegated to spectator was difficult. He initially stayed at home and tweeted a bit during the races. Then he began showing up at the track and watching events from his Hendrick Motorsports pit box.

    By the end of the year, he was in the broadcast booth as a guest analyst.

    All the different roles made him appreciate his job much more.

    "As a society we get better and better at complaining and drivers aren't any different," Earnhardt said. "We moan and complain about everything, but when you get the chance to step back and watch it -- it was a really eye-opening experience to see, almost an out-of-body experience. I got to see the drivers from a different point and got to see the whole sport from a different point of view.

    "All that stuff really showed me how much I have going for me and how fun this really is. Driving the cars is fun. Doing the photo shoots, making the commercials, talking to the media, all those things are fun. You can make it not be fun if you want to and sometimes we've got a tendency to do that."

    Junior: 'Season can't get here fast enough'

    The Daytona 500 may be 32 days away, but that's not soon enough for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    "I'm excited to be here for media day, which is new for me," Earnhardt said Wednesday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Usually you tell everybody Daytona will get here when it gets here. But I'm excited about the season. It can't get here fast enough."

    The Hendrick Motorsports driver will be making his return to the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet this season after missing 18 races last year with concussion-related symptoms.

    The annual Charlotte Media Tour generally is the first opportunity for members of the media to interview drivers in more than a month. For Junior, it had extra significance given that he missed so many races.

    Earnhardt also said it was an "out-of-body experience" having to watch the garage function without him there.

    Beard wars: Jimmie Johnson vs. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    (Pic) Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won't compete against each other on track until next month at Daytona International Speedway, but that doesn't mean the Hendrick Motorsports teammates aren't already trying to best one another.

    Johnson, the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, may have another trophy to add to his collection after stomping on the field in the beard category when he showed up at the annual Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour on Tuesday, sporting a hefty mountain man look.

    Junior, who typically sports a thick man mane of his own, would like to compete with Johnson in the face game, but conceded the W to Johnson on Wednesday during his media session.

    "Jimmie, I told him. He sent me a picture of him skiing and he said 'Man, I'm getting ready to know this beard off.' I said, 'You better have that in Daytona, because you'll get more drafting help. That's a bad ass beard and I'd keep it if I were you,' " said Earnhardt. "He's hung onto it. I don't know if he's taking my advice or what. I'm certainly pro-beard. If I'd have known he was going to come so strong, I would've worked on mine a little more.

    "Amy's got me keeping it pretty short these days. I certainly envy what Jimmie's got going on, it's awesome."

    With 32 days left before the Daytona 500, there's still plenty of time for Earnhardt to up the ante.

    What do you think -- does Johnson have the silver (gray?) standard for facial hair right now, or is Junior just being nice?

    Drivers' outlook: 'The best racing you've ever seen'

    NASCAR's top drivers certainly gave the series' newest enhancements a double thumbs-up Monday night as the racing sanctioning body unveiled an exciting new brand of racing. And winning.

    Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski joined a Who's Who of NASCAR representatives on stage in downtown Charlotte to formally introduce and strongly endorse the format, which will award points throughout designated portions of the race in addition rewarding the final results.

    "Every single race matters and not only that, every lap matters," defending Daytona 500 winner Hamlin said. "The old-school fans actually should love this. We're getting back to crowning your champion over 36 races and every single race matters."

    Added retired driver turned television broadcaster Jeff Burton: "It bridges what it used to be to what it is today."

    Finding an exciting, sensible and fair way to divvy up points and reward effort was the fundamental reasoning behind the change.

    And "listening to the fans," was a common refrain throughout the night.

    NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O'Donnell reiterated that the sport values its fan feedback and anticipates the new points format as a way to spike interest for the fans and to give the drivers and teams new strategies toward a season championship trophy.

    "It's a real subtle change once you stand back and look at it," Earnhardt said. "A lot of things we do bring fan interest only or driver interest only. And I think this kind of does both."

    As expected, NASCAR drivers took to social media to offer their reviews of the sport's big change and it was met with resounding encouragement.

    "Let's see. ... WIN. WIN. WIN. Sounds good to me," reigning seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson posted on Twitter.

    Stewart-Haas Racing driver Clint Bowyer tweeted, "Digging the new @NASCAR racing format. Going to be interesting to see how these stage points affect the way the teams race the entire race."

    Certainly the different format -- which will give points to the top-10 finishers in the first two stages, plus points to the ultimate race winner and rest of the entire field -- means new tactics. And new opportunity.

    As part of the revised format, the regular-season points leader will be honored as the regular-season champion and given 15 playoff points when the standings are reset to start the 10-race playoff run.

    "Basically you're going to throw two cautions," Earnhardt said, simplifying the in-race changes. "You're going to know when they are, which is actually kind of comforting.

    "You're going to see basically the same format as far as who wins the race and how the races are decided. The playoff doesn't really change at all. You're just going to have two breaks in every race that are going to be potentially rewarding to your driver.

    "That, to me, creates interest. "

    Keselowski said confidently of the new system, "I would tell anybody, when you want to get up at Lap 30 for that bowl of chips, you're not going to want to get up. It's going to be the first segment and you're going to see some great action.

    "You're going to see a moment like the pass in the grass that's going to be for the end of the first segment. Those are the moments that are going to make you really want to watch and love NASCAR racing for a long, long time.

    "Wait until you see it on the race track," Keselowski promised, "When you see this on the race track, this is going to be the best racing you've ever seen."

    Axalta reveals No. 88 paint scheme for 2017

    The No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet is getting a new paint scheme for 2017, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. helped unveil it Tuesday morning along with local artist Sam Bass.

    Calling it perhaps one of his favorite paint schemes ever, Earnhardt pulled back the car cover to reveal a bold yellow-dominant scheme. Watch the video below to see it. (Video)

    Axalta announced in 2015 it would serve as primary sponsor of the No. 88 for 13 races per season through the 2018 season. Junior, naturally, was super excited about the schematics. He saw a sneak peek earlier Tuesday morning and posted a video to Twitter about it (also revealing his helmet). (Video)

    FAQ for NASCAR's 2017 race format enhancements

    NASCAR's race enhancements announced Monday detailed how and why races will be run in stages in 2017. Below are answers to some of the potential questions.

    How many stages are in a race?

    Three -- Stage 1, Stage 2 and the Final Stage. Stage 1 and Stage 2 will reward drivers who are leading, or in the top 10, at the conclusion of each stage. The Final Stage will determine the race winner.

    What is Stage 1?

    The green flag begins the race, and therefore Stage 1. Its length is approximately 25-30 percent of the event's total length -- it is different for each race, dependent on track size and race length -- with the ending marked via a stage checkered flag (the stage can end under caution, if necessary).

    Who benefits most?

    Drivers who are running first through 10th at the conclusion of Stage 1 will receive stage bonus points, starting with 10 points for first place, nine points for second place, down to one point for 10th place. Additionally, the driver who finishes Stage 1 first will receive one playoff point to carry into the postseason, should that driver qualify. Those can add up quickly over the course of a season.

    What about Stage 2?

    At the conclusion of Stage 1, there is a caution period for drivers to come down pit road (innovative strategies will be crucial under these enhancements.) Stage 2 will then begin with a drop of the green flag for the restart. Its length is approximately 25-30 percent of the event's total length -- it is different for each race, dependent on track size and race length -- with the ending marked via a stage checkered flag (the stage can end under caution, if necessary).

    What about Stage 2 bonus points?

    Same as Stage 1: Drivers who are running first through 10th at the conclusion of Stage 2 will receive stage bonus points, starting with 10 points for first place, nine points for second place, down to one point for 10th place. Additionally, the driver who finishes Stage 2 first will receive one playoff point to carry into the postseason.

    What about the final stage?

    Following another caution period, which gives fans another natural break in the action, the final stage begins with another green flag drop and restart. Drivers then race for the event win ... and the five bonus points that come with it.

    How are points distributed?

    The final stage produces the race results, so the end of the final stage is the end of the race. Whoever crosses the start/finish line first at the checkered flag is the race winner. Race points are then awarded to the entire field based on finishing order. The winner receives 40 points. Second place receives 35 points, third place receives 34 points, fourth place receives 33 points ... down to one point for drivers who finish 36th-40th.

    There no longer will be a bonus point for leading a lap, or a bonus point for leading the most laps.

    And the winner?

    The race winner receives five bonus points toward the postseason (this is up from three last year under the new enhancements), plus postseason eligibility. If a driver leads at the end of both Stage 1 and Stage 2, and then wins the race, then he or she would receive seven bonus points to carry into the postseason.

    For which series were these enhancements designed?

    The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the NASCAR XFINITY Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will all use this enhanced format.

    By rewarding hard racing through the duration of the season, will there be an official regular-season champion?

    Yes, there formally will be a regular-season champion. That driver will earn 15 additional playoff points to carry into the postseason.

    Any more bonus points for points standings at the end of the regular season?

    Yes. In addition to the regular-season champion, drivers who finish in the top 10 of the regular season all receive some measure of playoff points to take into the postseason. Here's the breakdown:

    First place in regular season points earns a driver 15 playoff bonus points in addition to the points earned with race or stage wins; second place earns 10 playoff points; third place, 8; fourth place, 7; fifth place, 6; sixth place, 5; seventh place, 4; eighth place, 3; ninth place, 2; 10th place, 1.

    In this enhanced format, when is a race official?

    At the conclusion of Stage 2.

    How does the postseason work?

    Once the postseason begins, points will be reset to 2,000 for the opening round, with each driver's accrued bonus points tacked onto that total. Four drivers still will be eliminated in each round of the postseason, setting up a final four in Miami for all three national series.

    What is the tweak for playoff points?

    Playoff points earned for race wins or for leading at the end of Stage 1 or Stage 2 now will carry over round-by-round if a driver continues advancing. It's not just for the first round any more. Additionally, drivers can build off and add to those bonus points.

    So if a driver has 70 playoff points heading into the postseason, and then wins the playoff opener (five-point bonus), he or she would advance to the next round and carry 75 additional points -- or more, depending on his or her results over the next two races in the round.

    Does winning a race in the postseason still automatically qualify that driver for the next round, regardless of points?

    Yes. Winning trumps all.

    Will bonus points still carry over to Miami?

    No. Miami is the exception. All four drivers competing for the championship will start with the same amount of points. There will be no bonus points for this race for those final four drivers. First to the line wins the title.

    NASCAR implements stage-based race format, playoff-point incentives

    NASCAR, in collaboration with its industry stakeholders, announced today competition format enhancements that will be implemented in all three of its national series -- the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR XFINITY Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

    The new race format is designed to emphasize aggressive racing and strategy, with the goal of delivering more dramatic moments over the course of a race and season. Monday's announcement came with NASCAR Chairman & CEO Brian France and NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O'Donnell sharing the stage with drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin, along with additional team and track representatives. All industry stakeholders collaborated on the format.

    "Simply put, this will make our great racing even better," said Brian France, NASCAR Chairman & CEO. "I'm proud of the unprecedented collaboration from our industry stakeholders, each of whom had a common goal -- strengthening the sport for our fans. This is an enhancement fully rooted in teamwork, and the result will be an even better product every single week."

    Under the new format, races will consist of three stages, with championship implications in each stage. The top-10 finishers in each stage will be awarded additional championship points. The winner of the first two stages of each race will receive one playoff point, and the race winner will receive five playoff points. Each playoff point will be added to a driver's reset total following the 26th race, if that competitor makes the playoffs.

    The structure also ensures that competition will be dialed up throughout the duration of the 26-race regular season, as points for both stage winners and race winners will transfer into the postseason -- and an official regular-season champion will be crownded, and rewarded with 15 playoff points to the driver's playoff reset of 2,000. The stage format also gives fans a pair of natural breaks in the action.

    All playoff points will carry through to the end of the third round of the postseason (Round of 8), with the Championship 4 racing straight-up at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the title.

    Championship points following the first two stages of each race will be awarded on a descending scale, with the stage winner receiving 10 points, second earning nine points, and so on. The race winner following the final stage will receive 40 points, second-place will earn 35, third-place 34, fourth-place 33, and so on.

    In addition, the top-10 drivers in regular-season points also will receive playoff points with second place earning 10 points, third place getting eight points, fourth place obtaining seven points, and so on.

    "These are enhancements that the NASCAR fan has long sought, and the entire industry has worked hard to develop a better racing format for our fans," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. "This format puts a premium on every victory and every in-race position over the course of the season. Each point can eventually result in winning or losing a championship."

    NASCAR enhances on-track product with new stage-based race format

    NASCAR, in collaboration with industry stakeholders, announced today an enhanced competition format that will be implemented in all three of its national series -- the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the NASCAR XFINITY Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

    Increasing the sense of urgency and emphasizing aggressive racing and strategy, the race format will deliver more dramatic moments over the course of an entire race and season, with playoff point incentives on the line throughout.

    The enhanced format consists of the following:

    • Races will now consist of three stages, with championship implications in each stage.

    • The top-10 finishers of the first two stages will be awarded additional championship points.

    • The winner of the first two stages of each race will receive one playoff point, and the race winner will receive five playoff points. Each playoff point will be added to his or her reset total following race No. 26, if that competitor makes the playoffs.

    • All playoff points will carry through to the end of the third round of the playoffs (Round of 8), with the Championship 4 racing straight-up at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the title.

    • Championship points following the first two stages will be awarded on a descending scale, with the stage winner receiving 10 points, second receiving 9 points, and so on.

    • The race winner following the final stage will now receive 40 points, second-place will receive 35, third-place 34, fourth-place 33, and so on.

    "Simply put, this will make our great racing even better," said Brian France, NASCAR Chairman and CEO. "I’m proud of the unprecedented collaboration from our industry stakeholders, each of whom had a common goal -- strengthening the sport for our fans. This is an enhancement fully rooted in teamwork, and the result will be an even better product every single week."

    NASCAR also announced a playoff bonus structure that will see the regular season points leader honored as the regular season champion, earning 15 playoff points that will be added to the driver’s playoff reset of 2,000. In addition, the top-10 drivers in points leading into the playoffs will receive playoff points, with second place receiving 10 playoff points, third place will earn 8 points, fourth place will receive 7 points, and so on. All playoff points will carry through to the end of the Round of 8.

    "These are enhancements that the NASCAR fan has long sought, and the entire industry has worked hard to develop a better racing format for our fans," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. "This format puts a premium on every victory and every in-race position over the course of the season. Each point can eventually result in winning or losing a championship."

    2017 NASCAR Media Tour live stream schedule

    The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season kicks off with the 35th annual NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte, North Carolina. The two-day tour, beginning on Jan. 24, is hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway and features full-time drivers from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series as well as XFINITY Series, Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Next drivers.

    NASCAR.com will live stream the press conferences via Press Pass. See the live streaming schedule below.

    All times are listed in Eastern Standard.

    Tuesday, Jan. 24

    Jimmie Johnson 10:22-10:32 a.m.
    Chase Elliott 10:33-10-43 a.m.
    Erik Jones 10:44-10:54 a.m.
    Martin Truex Jr. 10:55-11:05 a.m.
    Brennan Poole 11:38-11:48 a.m.
    Landon Cassill 11:48-11:59 a.m.
    Matt Kenseth 12:00-12:10 p.m.
    Cole Custer 12:11-12:21 p.m.
    AJ Allmendinger 12:55-1:05 p.m.
    William Byron 1:06-1:16 p.m.
    Kurt Busch 1:17-1:27 p.m.
    Danica Patrick 1:28-1:38 p.m.
    Ty Dillon 2:10-2:20 p.m.
    Jamie McMurray 2:21-2:31 p.m.
    Matt DiBenedetto 2:32-2:42 p.m.
    Aric Almirola 2:43-2:53 p.m.
    Eddie Gossage 2:55-3:10 p.m.
    Chris Buescher 3:27-3:37 p.m.
    Ryan Newman 3:38-3:48 p.m.
    Trevor Bayne 3:49-3:59 p.m.
    Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 4:00-4:10 p.m.
    Michael McDowell 4:44-4:54 p.m.
    Kyle Busch 4:55-5:05 p.m.
    Clint Bowyer 5:06-5:16 p.m.
    Kevin Harvick 5:17-5:27 p.m.

    Wednesday, Jan. 25

    BK Racing FT 10:22-10:32 a.m.
    Julia Landauer 10:33-10-43 a.m.
    Dale Earnhardt Jr. 10:44-10:54 a.m.
    Kasey Kahne 10:55-11:05 a.m.
    Christopher Bell 11:38-11:48 a.m.
    Matt Tifft 11:49-11:59 a.m.
    Darrell Wallace Jr. 12:00-12:10 p.m.
    Ryan Reed 12:11-12:21 p.m.
    Alon Day 12:55-1:05 p.m.
    Paul Menard 1:06-1:16 p.m.
    Daniel Suarez 1:17-1:27 p.m.
    Denny Hamlin 1:28-1:38 p.m.
    Reed Sorenson 2:10-2:20 p.m.
    Cole Whitt 2:21-2:31 p.m.
    Matt Crafton 2:32-2:42 p.m.
    Timothy Peters 2:43-2:53 p.m.
    GMS Racing 2:55-3:05 p.m.
    Ryan Blaney 3:27-3:37 p.m.
    David Ragan 3:38-3:48 p.m.
    Austin Dillon 3:49-3:59 p.m.
    Elliott Sadler 4:00-4:10 p.m.
    BK Racing PT 4:10-4:20 p.m.
    Kyle Larson 4:44-4:54 p.m.
    Justin Allgaier 4:55-5:05 p.m.
    Joey Logano 5:06-5:16 p.m.
    Brad Keselowski 5:17-5:27 p.m.

    Nationwide to give fans inside look at Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    NASCAR fans will get an inside look into Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s return to racing beginning next Tuesday thanks to a six-part series provided by Nationwide Insurance.

    Nationwide is the official primary sponsor of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driven by Earnhardt in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

    "Unfinished Business" documents the offseason preparation and work behind Earnhardt's return to competition following last year's injury-shortened season. NASCAR's most popular driver missed the final 18 races of the year after suffering a concussion.

    The series is scheduled to go live on the Nationwide 88 Facebook page each Tuesday between Jan. 24 and this year's Feb. 26th running of the Daytona 500. Two episodes will air the week leading into the season-opening race.

    A preview (trailer) of the series was posted to the Nationwide 88 Facebook page Thursday just before 6 p.m. ET. https://www.facebook.com/nationwide88/videos/1838309239771443/

    "Based on everything that happened last year, we wanted to really capitalize on Dale getting back in the car and all the excitement and interest, just the fans' general hunger for as much Dale Jr. content as we could provide," Jim McCoy, director of sports marketing for Nationwide, told NASCAR.com.

    "Going into the offseason as we did our production shoot for 2017 as we normally do, we wanted to add on a new layer ... a behind-the-scenes unique look around Dale. The offseason processes around production shoots, around designing the car, all the things that go into getting ready for Daytona. And having a real personal view from Dale conveying that."

    Each segment of the six-part series is short, informative and entertaining.

    For 2016, Nationwide produced a successful paint scheme unveil for Earnhardt's No. 88 entry. But following his injury officials wanted to go a little deeper this year.

    Portions of the series include Earnhardt's wife, Amy, car owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Greg Ives. "Just the people that are really close to everything ... that fans don't normally get," McCoy said.

    Earnhardt's prior medical condition didn't hinder the process, but sensitivities surrounding the issue were addressed with the Hendrick organization. McCoy said it is "a very small part of this six-episode series."

    "This is truly more about getting ready for Daytona; we absolutely touch on the subject of him being out of the car because you have to," he said. "But I would say the majority of it is around what goes into the offseason preparation, why he is even more excited for this year and all that."

    Among the information provided to fans will be why there may be a different look to this year's No. 88 Nationwide paint scheme. Earnhardt has always been actively involved in determining the appearance of his race cars and coming up with the look for this year's car was no different.

    "There was a unique little nugget that came out that we'd not heard on him growing up around his grandfather and his dad racing based on the car coming back from the race track," McCoy said. "The lighter cars you could always tell how the race went based on where the tire marks were, the dirt and everything else. On a white car you always had a better sense of that and we've really transitioned to a lighter paint scheme this year with more white mixed into it.

    "He pulls in some of those personal stories that we hadn't heard and I think the fans will get a really big kick out of learning a little bit more about why he likes lighter paint schemes."

    Earnhardt has 26 career wins in NASCAR's top series, and his final three -- at Talladega, Daytona and Phoenix in 2015 -- came with Nationwide on the car in a primary role. The company, which previously was the title sponsor for what is now the XFINITY Series, has been affiliated with Earnhardt and his family for many years.

    McCoy said the series sponsorship, which ran from 2008-14, was crucial in helping to prepare Nationwide for its relationship with Earnhardt.

    "We learned a lot and we would not have been ready and in position to be able to take over as majority primary (sponsor) of the No. 1 driver in the sport, for the fans' demands and what they would want out of a sponsor," he said. "I think the Nationwide Series allowed us to really learn and do a lot of great things.

    "But we've taken the program to new levels and heights in partnership with Dale. He's our best customer and we can authentically connect with him and our products and services because it's real. It's been real since he was 16 years old. As we're trying to expand the message of who Nationwide is and what we do, the many sides of our company."

    The race to 30: Three drivers eye career mark

    In December we analyzed three drivers who are closing in on 40 wins in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. This week, we'll look at those close to a lesser milestone, but a milestone all the same -- 30 career wins.

    In premier series history 24 drivers have reached the 30-win plateau, from Richard Petty (200 wins) to fellow Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett (32). Of those 24 drivers, 18 have been eligible for the NASCAR Hall of Fame … and all 18 have been inducted, or in the case of Mark Martin, will be inducted.

    Jeff Gordon (93 wins) and Tony Stewart (49 wins) aren't eligible yet, but are widely considered locks to be enshrined as well. The other four drivers above 30 wins in NASCAR history are active and ineligible at this time.

    Here's a look at the three current drivers (it was four prior to Carl Edwards' announcement last week) with 30 in their sights, as well as a full list of drivers with 30 or more wins in NASCAR's history.

    Denny Hamlin

    Career wins: 29

    Rank all time: 25th

    Outlook: Best-case scenario? Hamlin goes back-to-back in the Daytona 500, earning his 30th career win in the biggest race of the season. Winning consecutive 500s is rare, though, so it's much more likely he'll get win No. 30 … at any point during the season. He's won at least one race every year as a full-time driver, so he's as close to a lock as they come.

    Kurt Busch

    Career wins: 28

    Rank all time: Tied for 26th

    Outlook: This one is tough to call. Busch has been a full-time driver for 16 years, so with 28 wins, that's an average of 1.75 per season. He needs two. We're pretty sure he'll get one -- Tony Gibson had the No. 41 humming at a pretty good clip last year -- but we are less confident in Busch getting multiple.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Career wins: 26

    Rank all time: Tied for 29th

    Outlook: The true wild card of the group. Earnhardt Jr. has won four races in a season as recently as 2014, and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates produced good, fast race cars during the postseason. We know the No. 88 group will be fast. What we're unsure of is how long it'll take Earnhardt Jr. to knock off the rust, given his missing 18 races with concussion-like symptoms in 2016. Could be the first practice session … could be a full race or two. Given all the unknowns, he's probably the least likely from this group to reach 30 wins by the end of 2017.

    Drivers with 30 or more Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins Rank Driver Wins
    1. Richard Petty 200
    2. David Pearson 105
    3. Jeff Gordon 93
    t-4. Bobby Allison 84
    t-4. Darrell Waltrip 84
    6. Cale Yarborough 83
    7. Jimmie Johnson* 80
    8. Dale Earnhardt 76
    9. Rusty Wallace 55
    10. Lee Petty 54
    11. Ned Jarrett 50
    12. Junior Johnson 50
    13. Tony Stewart 49
    14. Herb Thomas 48
    15. Buck Baker 46
    16. Bill Elliott 44
    17. Mark Martin 40
    18. Tim Flock 39
    t-19. Kyle Busch* 38
    t-19. Matt Kenseth* 38
    21. Bobby Isaac 37
    22. Kevin Harvick* 35
    23. Fireball Roberts 33
    24. Dale Jarrett 32
    * denotes an active driver.

    Tire limits, plate-race tweaks among 2017 rules updates

    NASCAR competition officials issued memos detailing rule book changes for the 2017 season in its three national series, including limits on tire allocation, restrictor-plate and spoiler size, and an allowance for drivers to use biometric devices.

    The 80 total pages of revisions released Friday afternoon pertain to Sections 20 (Vehicle and Driver Safety specifications) and 21 (Pit Equipment and Crew Safety specifications) across the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR XFINITY Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

    Among the highlights in the rules updates:

    • NASCAR set its regulations on tire allocation for all three series in 2017. In the Monster Energy Cup Series, the number of tire sets available to teams per event dropped for 13 of the 36 points-paying races and increased for eight events compared to last year. With the exception of the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the number of tire sets was only adjusted by one. Teams will have two fewer sets in the season-ending event this season, a reduction from 2016's 12 sets to just 10 in 2017.

    Tracks with one fewer set of tires allowed next season: Daytona (500 only), Phoenix (both races), Auto Club, Martinsville (both races), Bristol (both races), Kansas (both races), Kentucky and Chicagoland. Tracks with an additional set of tires allowed next season: Talladega (both races), Sonoma, Daytona (July only), New Hampshire (both races), Watkins Glen and Darlington.

    • In 2017, Monster Energy Cup teams will be required to start the race on the tires they used in Coors Light Pole Qualifying. This change does not apply to the XFINITY or Camping World Truck Series.

    • Drivers in all three series may use biometrics devices in their vehicles in 2017. The wrist-worn health tracking devices may not transmit data, may not connect to the vehicle in any way and must operate on an internal battery. Devices eligible for use are certain models made by Garmin, Misfit, Polar, Samsung, Tom Tom and Jawbone.

    • The 2017 aerodynamic package for non-restrictor plate tracks in the Monster Energy Cup Series will feature a shortened rear spoiler, measuring 2.35 inches tall. The standard rear-spoiler height for premier series teams last season was 3.5 inches, with a 2.5-inch tall spoiler used at Kentucky and both Michigan races as auditions for this season.

    • For superspeedway events at Daytona and Talladega, the restrictor plate opening will be smaller by 1/64 of an inch -- reduced from 57/64 to 7/8. The change affects only the Monster Energy Cup and XFINITY series for those two tracks.

    • Additional safety guidelines were issued for restrictor-plate events for Monster Energy Cup and XFINITY teams. Among them, the previously optional roof hatch is now mandatory as an alternate escape route. Competition officials have also required the use of energy-absorbing materials to strengthen the area occupied by the drivers' feet in the cockpit.

    • Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams will be required to carry a roof-mounted camera assembly at all times, whether in use by broadcast partner networks or not.

    Chevrolet to debut new race car in 2018

    Toyota Racing made offseason waves Monday, unveiling the new Camry for this season's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series alongside its road-going counterpart at the North American International Auto Show.

    Team Chevy will have its own ripple effect in place for the following 2018 season.

    Chevrolet racing officials confirmed Monday that the automaker will cease production of the Chevrolet SS at the end of the 2017 model run. The news means the manufacturer will have a new race car for NASCAR's top division for the 2018 season.

    Jim Campbell, Chevrolet's US Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, said in a statement that there was no firm timetable for a 2018 replacement.

    "It was already known that the Chevrolet SS was going to be discontinued in 2017," Campbell said in a statement provided by Team Chevy. "That information was originally announced last summer. As you know, we don't talk about future projects. We'll make any announcement regarding our next Cup entry at the appropriate time."

    The SS made its major-league debut in the 2013 season, when NASCAR introduced the Gen-6 stock car to reinforce brand identity among its manufacturers. The SS succeeded the Impala, which Chevrolet used in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series from 2007-2012.

    Dale, Amy wed in New Year's Eve ceremony

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. and fiancée Amy Reimann married Saturday night on New Year's Eve in front of family and friends that included scores of NASCAR drivers and personalities. The two awoke in 2017 as a married couple, thanking friends and fans for support on social media.

    The celebration appears to have lasted deep into the night (and morning) as well. At 11:45 a.m. ET on New Year's Day, Amy -- who changed her last name to Earnhardt on Twitter -- was still waiting for her husband to wake up.

    Drivers such as Danica Patrick (who caught the bouquet!), Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney and plenty of others shared sparse photos of the event, a black-tie affair that was heavy on the disco balls.

    The two were engaged for nearly 18 months, with Earnhardt Jr. popping the question in June 2015 while on vacation in Germany. It was at an old Lutheran church that Earnhardt's relatives had attended hundreds of years prior where the 14-time most popular driver dropped to one knee.

    It was at Champion's Week in Las Vegas where Junior and his now wife confirmed the date.

    "I'm really excited and have enjoyed going through the process," Earnhardt Jr. said at the time. "I've never been married before and I'm excited to be marrying Amy."

    The wedding was the capstone of what previously had been a tough year for the two-time Daytona 500 winner. Midway through the season, Earnhardt Jr. was out of his No. 88 Chevrolet after experiencing concussion-like symptoms. He would not drive again for the rest of the year, but previously announced -- also earlier this month -- that he has been cleared for 2017.

    Earnhardt Jr. shared updates of his recovery on social media, and credited Amy with helping fuel his desire to get back in the car.

    Dale, Amy set to wed on New Year's Eve

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. and fiancée Amy Reimann are set to get married today, revealing earlier this month that New Year's Eve was indeed their wedding date.

    Junior thanked fans for the well wishes Saturday afternoon, but he and his bride-to-be have otherwise been mostly silent on social media during their special day.

    @DaleJr: Thanks for the well wishes and kind comments. @Amy_Reimann and I are very excited to be married today. Also, Happy New Year to everyone!

    The two have been engaged for nearly 18 months, with Earnhardt Jr. popping the question in June 2015 when the couple visited Germany together. It was at an old Lutheran church that Earnhardt's relatives had attended hundreds of years prior where the 14-time most popular driver dropped to one knee.

    Steven Tyler among celebs selling off classic cars for charity

    Celebrities from Steven Tyler to Kurt Russell will hawk their hot wheels at the annual Barrett-Jackson classic car auction next month, where star attendees have included gear heads like Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld.

    This year at the Scottsdale, Ariz., auction, Tyler will sell off his 2012 Hennessey Venom GT Spyder and donate proceeds to his charity, Janie’s Fund.

    Also for sale will be Russell’s “personal ranch truck,” a 1986 Chevrolet Silverado 3500 pickup. He originally bought the ride in Glenwood Springs, Colo., with 27 miles on it.

    A 1956 Austin Princess once owned by John Lennon will also be up for auction, as well as a 1934 Ford Custom Sedan that belonged to Eddie Van Halen, Sammy Hagar’s 1967 Shelby GT500, and a 1972 Oldsmobile the late James Gandolfini called his “Bada Bing.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. will sell off two of his Chevys for charity. Last year the show sold nearly $33 million worth of cars.

    Chase Elliott has best-selling die-cast in NASCAR

    It's not often that Dale Earnhardt Jr. loses a popularity contest, but that was the case Thursday when Lionel Racing -- The Official Die-Cast of NASCAR -- announced its best-selling die-cast of 2016.

    For the first time since 2011 it wasn't Junior's No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet at the top of the list. Instead, it was Earnhardt's teammate, Chase Elliott, whose No. 24 NAPA Chevrolet claimed the top spot.

    "Chase Elliott's arrival on the NASCAR scene has been big, and the overwhelming popularity of his first rookie NASCAR Sprint Cup Series die-cast is further proof that race fans relate to him and everything he represents," said Lionel Racing President Howard Hitchcock in a company press release.

    Never fear Junior Nation, as Earnhardt's car still accounted for four out of 10 of the company's best sellers.

    Making the list for the first time was Kurt Busch, whose Monster Energy Chevrolet secured the seventh spot. Monster Energy recently became the sponsor for NASCAR's top series, signing a multi-year deal.

    Here's the complete top-10 list of best-sellers for 2016:

    1. Chase Elliott No. 24 NAPA Chevrolet
    2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. No. 88 Nationwide/Batman Chevrolet
    3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet
    4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet
    5. Kevin Harvick No. 4 Busch Chevrolet
    6. Jimmie Johnson No. 48 Lowe's/Superman Chevrolet
    7. Kurt Busch No. 41 Monster Energy Chevrolet
    8. Jimmie Johnson No. 48 Lowe's 7X Time Champion Chevrolet
    9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. No. 88 Nationwide/Gray Ghost Darlington Chevrolet
    10. Kevin Harvick No. 4 Busch Light Chevrolet.

    Next up for Hendrick, Junior: Contract discussion

    Rick Hendrick considers it a wonderful early Christmas present.

    Having Dale Earnhardt Jr. medically cleared to resume driving Hendrick's No. 88 Chevrolet has been six months in the making.

    And the whole storied, championship organization couldn't be happier with Thursday's official word that NASCAR's reigning Most Popular Driver will be behind the wheel for the 2017 season after missing the final 18 races of the 2016 season recovering from a concussion.

    "We're as big a fan of Dale's as the rest of the community and when you have the most popular driver in the sport and then lose him. ... He's a big spark plug to this place," Hendrick said. "Having him out of the car kinda deflates the place and you know, when that test finished and he came through with such flying colors, the text I got and conversation I had, you could feel it in the place even today with the rest of the teams.

    "It elevated the whole place."

    So much so that Hendrick and Earnhardt are already prepared to resume contract extension talks, Earnhardt revealed Friday in his first teleconference with the national media since getting the go-ahead to return to competition.

    "We're probably going to revisit that before the season starts," said Earnhardt, 42, whose current contract runs through 2017. "Before I got sick, Rick and I sat down and talked about my future and the extensions. That stuff was starting to come together and we'll revisit that shortly."

    It should only be a matter of ironing out details because these two NASCAR A-listers shared that they both feel re-energized by Earnhardt's recovery and return to competition.

    Hendrick said he was very optimistic about Earnhardt re-joining the team and resuming racing, but conceded that he realized early on in the process, that might take an extended amount of time. And he was OK with that.

    "You might worry about that but I think after talking to [Earnhardt's doctor] Dr. Collins, he didn't see any reason he couldn't come back if we did it the right way," Hendrick said. "A lot of credit goes to Dale for just working hard outside of the car to get himself better, stronger.

    "You could just see him getting stronger every week and participating here with the team and other drivers.

    "I just kind of refused to accept he wasn't going to be in the car."

    It was a good method of coping.

    "First of all, we care about him as a friend and a person," Hendrick said. "That's first -- and just seeing him healthy and himself, rather than trying to rush him back into the car ...

    "His health is priority one. We don't want him back in the car until he's OK. And we're OK. Everyone was OK with him sitting out. Once we realized he wasn't going to be in the Chase we were OK, we wanted him for the long term.

    "It's a tough decision to pull the plug on the year. You didn't know that maybe he would be healed up enough to come back with a few races left. But we were very fortunate with our sponsors. They put his health first. That was never a question."

    Now Earnhardt is OK. Listening to him speak Friday morning, he is more than OK. The two-time Daytona 500 winner is excited about his New Year's Eve wedding, the honeymoon and the promise of more competition that awaits him in February. Junior's back.

    "I think with Dale back in the car and Jimmie's championship, it's going to be a nice Christmas for all of us," Hendrick said.

    Earnhardt Jr.: I feel stronger than before

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't just back. He's better.

    That's the message the Hendrick Motorsports driver delivered Friday during a conference call with media members, one day after announcing he was medically cleared to race and two days after a private -- and secret -- test at Darlington Raceway.

    "We worked to get stronger than we were before," Earnhardt said. "I wouldn't be coming back … if there was any risk other than the typical risk that every driver faces on Sunday. I feel very confident in what I've seen in myself and my improvement, and I feel confident in what my doctors are telling me about my future and the risks that I'm taking.

    "We all feel pretty confident not only am I as healthy as I was before, but I'm actually stronger."

    Earnhardt Jr. missed 18 races in 2016 after being diagnosed with a concussion, and then dealing with the lingering aftereffects for months.

    The Hendrick Motorsports driver took his battle public, providing updates on social media, before being declared fit to race on Wednesday night.

    The test at Darlington helped get him there.

    "I have nerves and butterflies every time I get into a race car," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Certainly I was very anxious to get in the race car. I was having a hard time sleeping the night before. It's been a long, long time since I drove the car.

    "Personally, just by going through that process, you learn a lot. … I felt I had a lot left in the tank."

    Dale Jr.: Bowman 'deserves' to run The Clash

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is set to resume his NASCAR career at Daytona International Speedway in February, but one week later than he potentially could. It's a move borne of deference and appreciation for the driver who admirably filled in last season during his recovery from a neurological ailment.

    Both Earnhardt and substitute driver Alex Bowman meet eligibility requirements for The Clash, a non-points exhibition race scheduled Feb. 18 (8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the 2.5-mile Florida track. But Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday that Bowman would drive the team's No. 88 Chevrolet in the invitational, a week before the season-opening Daytona 500.

    Earnhardt had heard rumblings about rules for the Clash format and field as last season drew to a close. His hunch that 2016 pole winners would make up the majority of the starting lineup was correct.

    The Clash rules were still up in the air when Bowman -- who ran 10 of the 18 races Earnhardt missed in the second half of last season -- claimed the first Coors Light Pole Award of his career in November at Phoenix International Raceway. After watching the qualifying results play out on pit road, Earnhardt's first words to Hendrick general manager Doug Duchardt were that Bowman should keep the driver's seat for the Daytona preliminary.

    "For whatever reason that was just my initial gut reaction and it feels important to me that that's owed to Alex," Earnhardt said on a conference call Friday, one day after NASCAR issued medical clearance for him to return to competition. "He deserves it. It is a bit of a tip of the cap to not only his pole win and how well he did at Phoenix, but how he stepped in and did a great job every week for our guys. That is not an easy job to do."

    Earnhardt had his own eligibility in the Clash by virtue of his 2008 victory in the event, then billed as the Budweiser Shootout and most recently known as the Sprint Unlimited. That preparatory win kicked off his first season with Hendrick Motorsports.

    Earnhardt said he couldn't remember the last time he had won a pole position in NASCAR's top series. A deeper dig into the stat books shows it came in September 2013 at Dover International Speedway.

    The 42-year-old Earnhardt had been sidelined from NASCAR competition since July. Under close supervision, he drove a race car for the first time since his head injury diagnosis, turning laps Wednesday at Darlington Raceway.

    Bowman, 23, has no announced driving plans for next season. Aside from serving as a substitute in the No. 88, Bowman ran nine races for Earnhardt-owned JR Motorsports in the NASCAR XFINITY Series and helped the Hendrick organization with simulator work.

    But it was the performance and the bonds Bowman helped to forge as a NASCAR pinch-hitter that stood out to Earnhardt as he preps for a 2017 return.

    "He helped maintain and improve the health and performance of the team in a critical time, so we can go into Daytona this year confident that we are going to be competitive and we are not behind the 8-ball or have any catching up to do," Earnhardt said. "I'm excited for Alex to get that opportunity and I'm happy that it's with Greg (Ives, crew chief) and the guys that he has worked with over the last several races."

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. cleared to resume NASCAR competition

    NASCAR premier series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has received medical clearance to resume his racing career, Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday.

    Earnhardt Jr., 42, was sidelined for the final 18 races of the 2016 season after suffering a concussion.

    On Wednesday, he participated in an on-track testing session at Darlington Raceway under the supervision of Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty.

    Earnhardt was cleared by Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh. Collins, who consulted with Dr. Petty following Wednesday's on-track activity, has overseen Earnhardt's rehabilitation program and also treated him for a similar injury in 2012.

    "I expected things to go really well yesterday, and that’s exactly what happened," Earnhardt said of an afternoon spent behind the wheel at the 1.366-mile South Carolina track. "Actually getting in a race car was an important final step, and it gives me a ton of confidence going into 2017."

    Earnhardt completed 185 laps in his No. 88 Chevrolet during the course of the nearly five-hour session. Crew chief Greg Ives was on hand to oversee his driver’s efforts as well.

    Earnhardt, recently voted the series most popular driver for the 14th consecutive season, said he expects to do more testing in January "to help knock the rust off."

    "When it's time to go to Daytona, I'll be ready," the winner of 26 premier series races said.

    The 2017 racing season officially gets underway with the 59th running of the Daytona 500, scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 26 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    Earnhardt will not compete in the annual non-points, season-opening race, The Clash at Daytona International Speedway (Feb. 18, 8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Instead, HMS officials said Alex Bowman, who filled in for Earnhardt in 10 of the final 18 races of 2016, will drive the team's No. 88 entry.

    Bowman won the pole at Phoenix in November, his first in the series.

    "Everyone agreed that he more than earned (the opportunity)," Earnhardt said, "and (sponsor) Nationwide was 100 percent on board."

    It's possible Earnhardt could participate in up to two additional tests – Hendrick Motorsports is one of four teams expected to take part in a Goodyear tire test scheduled for Jan. 10-11 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the season's first organizational test is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 31/Feb. 1 at Phoenix International Raceway.

    Collins called Earnhardt "one of the hardest-working patients I've ever encountered."

    "He's done everything we've asked, and we believe he is ready to compete at a professional level again and can withstand the normal forces of a race car driver," Collins said. "Dale has been very open with us, and we've had plenty of time for his treatment, so we feel very good about his long-term prospects and how this has been managed by everyone involved."

    Team owner Rick Hendrick said he's proud of Earnhardt "for listening to his body and standing up to take responsibility for his health.

    "He's worked extremely hard and set a terrific example for others," Hendrick said. "It's great news as we go into the offseason, and we can't wait to see him back on the race track at Daytona."

    In addition to Bowman, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon also drove for the team in eight starts during Earnhardt's absence.

    Earnhardt was 13th in points with six top-five finishes before being sidelined prior to the July race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and wound up 32nd in the final standings. The 2012 injury forced him to miss two races; he finished 12th in points that season.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. reflects on long concussion recovery

    The longer Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn’t drive because of the debilitating effects of a concussion, the more uptight he became.

    The stress slowed his brain’s healing process, leading to more anxiousness and lingering symptoms. It was a vicious cycle that led his doctors to issue an ultimatum: Drop everything or you won’t get better.

    Weeks off the grid with his fiancee not only helped him get well physically. He learned valuable lessons he hopes will make him an improved driver and person when he returns to NASCAR next season.

    "When I did that I became a better version of myself," Earnhardt said. "I was a much nicer, pleasant person. Caring and thoughtful and less agitated by stress and everyday life that we all kind of deal with. We all get a little short sometimes and let things get under your skin.

    "It showed me the person I can be."

    Earnhardt spoke to reporters Friday night after accepting the award as NASCAR's most popular driver for a record 14th straight year. That despite missing the final 18 races of the season with nausea, vision and balance issues after at least the fifth concussion of his career following a June wreck.

    "I was worrying about whether I was going to race again, whether I was going to get healthy again," Earnhardt said. "We were talking with my partners, my owner, my business manager, my sister and (fiancee) Amy. Every day I was in some sort of a discussion about my future. And my doctor told me I couldn't get well until I dropped all that and didn't think about it."

    At first, the 42-year-old Earnhardt was incredulous.

    "I thought, 'How am I supposed to not think about that? It's the most important thing in my life,"' Earnhardt said. "He said to get healthy quicker, you've got to really quit worrying about anything that's going to draw anxiety and stress."

    So that's what Earnhardt did. While his fellow competitors were racing for a series championship, Earnhardt turned off his phone, went on day trips, had no set schedule and did what he wanted.

    "As soon as everybody backed off and I just disappeared for a few weeks, I immediately started improving," Earnhardt said. "With concussions, anxiety is a huge factor and can be a major problem with people trying to recover."

    Treated by noted concussion expert Dr. Micky Collins of Pittsburgh, Earnhardt showed improvement. A variety of activities and tests followed and Earnhardt started feeling more like himself.

    "He worked his butt off," car owner Rick Hendrick said. "People didn't see the amount of exercise and commitment he had in getting healthy again."

    Earnhardt kept the media and fans informed of his status. He's been credited for his honesty about concussions but said he needed strong support to get through it. He called Amy Reimann, whom he will marry Dec. 31, the key.

    "I couldn't have fixed myself without her," Earnhardt said. "I couldn't have done it just on the help of the doctors because it takes such a good support group at home."

    Before the wedding, Earnhardt has a yet-to-be-announced date later this month when he'll get behind the wheel of a stock car for the first time since his last race on July 9. Earnhardt hopes to have no vision issues or pain and gain the confidence he needs to drive competitively again.

    So far, Earnhardt has suffered no symptoms in a race simulator.

    "The doctors are happy NASCAR is going to allow this to be an option for drivers going forward, whether it be broken bones or whatever injuries drives may sustain," Earnhardt said. "I think all drivers would like to have the opportunity to get in a car somewhere, just to know before they tackle a full race week."

    The time away from the sport he learned from his seven-time champion father was difficult. Earnhardt enjoyed being back with his fellow drivers at the Las Vegas awards event. He didn't even mind the endless photo shoots, something that would have gotten on his nerves in the past.

    "I look forward to being back in the swing, back in the garage, back in the bus lot. I miss all of that," Earnhardt said. "The best part of the sport is the people, and I just miss being around everybody and look forward to next season."

    Earnhardt, Johnson, Stewart honoured as NASCAR closes 2016

    Jimmie Johnson called winning a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup title "insane" Friday night, while Tony Stewart was sent off into retirement and Dale Earnhardt Jr. told his adoring fans at the season-ending banquet that he’ll be ready to race in 2017.

    Johnson’s dramatic victory in the finale last month at Homestead moved him into a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most series championships. Johnson was introduced by 23-time Olympic gold medallist swimmer Michael Phelps at the Wynn Las Vegas.

    "I’ve won as many championships as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but I’ll never be the King or the Intimidator," Johnson said. "I’m just a guy from California who always wanted to race."

    NASCAR honoured Stewart, who retired after an 18-year career that included three series championships, with a video poking fun at his coarse language, weight and temper and with a surprise appearance by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.

    Car owner Rick Hendrick then announced a $1.8 million donation by the the motorsports industry to Vedder's children charity in Stewart's name.

    "Totally caught off guard," Stewart said. "But really honoured that Eddie Vedder would come here for this and I'm so excited the racing community raised that kind of money to help that charity."

    Earnhardt Jr. was voted most popular driver by fans for a record 14th time despite missing the second half of the season following at least the fifth concussion of his career. While not announcing the date or track, he intends to drive a test session this month, the final hurdle before he'll be cleared to return.

    "It made the bad days better," Earnhardt said of the unending fan support. "Once I started feeling good about coming back, it gave me a lot of motivation and maybe a reminder of why I want to be back in the car. You race to have fun and win races, but it wouldn't be worth even making the trip if the fans didn't show up."

    The unflappable Johnson was in his tuxedo more than two hours before the red carpet ceremony smiling for numerous photo shoots. He knows how the process works as the 2016 title secures his spot atop the sport's hierarchy.

    "This was an emotional one," Johnson said, adding the final laps at Homestead were "the most spiritual experience that I've ever had in my life."

    Stewart enjoyed his final awards week before becoming just a NASCAR team owner. His boyhood hero, A.J. Foyt, made a surprise appearance at a Thursday fan event that turned into an impromptu Stewart roast as the sport said goodbye to one of its strongest characters.

    "It's just been one hell of a journey, a lot of fun," Stewart said. "Everybody keeps saying I'm retiring, but I'm still going to be the same pain in the (rear) with all the NASCAR officials. I'm certain there's already a pool going on back there at the NASCAR officials' table on what the over-under is for me getting called to the trailer as an owner."

    Earnhardt sustained a concussion in a June 12 wreck at Michigan. His last start was July 9 at Kentucky as he continued to suffer serious aftereffects that included balance and vision problems.

    Earnhardt, who missed the final 18 races, stopped taking medication in October. He's confident he'll be healthy for drive the No. 88 Chevrolet in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. His busy off-season will include getting married on New Year's Eve and also participating in January's testing session at Phoenix.

    "We'll get out there and spend half a day somewhere running some long runs and getting a good idea if I'm ready to go," Earnhardt said. "I feel 100 per cent. I don't think there will be any issues."

    Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez and Craftsman Truck Series winner Johnny Sauter were also reconginzed at the black tie banquet that included a musical performance by Sting and was hosted by comedian Jay Mohr for the sixth time.

    "Sorry it's not seven," Mohr told Johnson.

    It also marked the final event sponsored by Sprint in NASCAR's top series. Sprint's yellow and black logo, splashed all over the casino ballroom and above the red carpet, will be replaced by Monster Energy's green-clawed 'M' in 2017.

    Sprint and the company it merged with, Nextel, sponsored the series since 2004.

    "That's 13 years, kindergarten through 12th grade," Sprint corporate marketing chief Steve Gaffney said. "Thank you."

    Field, format set for 'The Clash' at Daytona

    Recently crowned seven-time NASCAR premier series champion Jimmie Johnson will join a star-studded elite field as NASCAR kicks off its 2017 season with The Clash at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017.

    The annual season-opening event will be broadcast live on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. The 75-lap race again will be split into two segments with a competition caution at Lap 25 separating the segments.

    "What better way to kick off the 2017 season than the sport's brightest stars under the lights at Daytona International Speedway," said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. "Coming off a thrilling season finale at Homestead-Miami, we're looking forward to continuing that momentum into Daytona. With bragging rights and no points on the line, The Clash will set the tone for what should be a season full of great racing and tough competition."

    "We're bringing back The Clash at Daytona," said Chip Wile, Daytona International Speedway president. "The Clash was a race name that has always been popular among both the competitors and race fans. We're looking forward to bringing it back and building on the rich history of this thrilling and always unpredictable event that kicks off the NASCAR season."

    The eligible drivers include 2016 Coors Light Pole Award winners, former Clash race winners and former Daytona 500 pole winners who competed full-time in 2016. All 16 drivers from the 2016 Chase are also eligible.

    Eligible drivers are:

    2016 Coors Light Pole Awards winners (14)
    · Greg Biffle, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Carl Edwards, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr.

    Former Clash Race Winners (2)
    · Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart

    Former DAYTONA 500 Coors Light Pole Award winners (1)
    · Danica Patrick

    2016 Chase drivers (3)
    · Chris Buescher, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray

    Tickets for The Clash at Daytona are available online at DaytonaInternationalSpeedway.com or by calling 1-800-PITSHOP.

    Dale Jr.'s 2017 No. 88 Nationwide scheme unveiled

    (Pic) Earnhardt tweeted out a preview of his car's new paint job a day prior to the unveil.

    The company has been a primary partner with Hendrick Motorsports since 2014 and was featured as a primary sponsor on the No. 88 ride for 21 races in 2016. Here is a look at the 2016 scheme on track.

    Earnhardt, who was sidelined for 18 races in 2016 due to a concussion, is expected to return to make his first start since July in the 2017 season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. Both the driver as well as team owner Rick Hendrick have expressed their confidence that Earnhardt will be cleared for the start of the season.

    Dale Jr. on offseason: 'We're going to go testing'

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. discussed Monday -- one day into the 2016 NASCAR offseason -- his plans to get back inside the race car on the Dirty Mo Radio podcast.

    "We're going to go testing this offseason," he said. "Obviously I need to get in a race car. I'd love to get in a car and go run a little bit somewhere just to shake the rust off and get some confidence. I can do the basics before we ever go to Daytona.

    "We'll go do that sometime this offseason. We have to squeeze it in there somewhere because I'm getting married and have my honeymoon, and I have to certainly devote proper time to (fiancée) Amy (Reimann).

    "But it'll be no problem. … All signs point to us being in the car for Daytona."

    The Hendrick Motorsports wheelman, who was sidelined for 18 Sprint Cup Series races this year due to a concussion, has not stepped inside his No. 88 Chevrolet since July.

    Following the July race at Kentucky Speedway, Jeff Gordon (eight races) and Alex Bowman (10 races) took turns wheeling his Chevrolet to complete the team's season.

    Dale Earnhardt expects medical clearance in December to race

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. should be medically cleared from his concussion in December and ready to race in the 2017 Daytona 500.

    Team owner Rick Hendrick said Earnhardt recently sent a text that said he was just waiting for Daytona to return to the track. Earnhardt has not raced since July 9. The Daytona 500 opens the NASCAR season on Feb. 26.

    "He feels great. Everything’s on track," Hendrick said Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "Every step that we need to go through, we’ve gone through. I don’t see anything holding us back."

    Hendrick said Earnhardt’s absence has not affected sponsorship for 2017. Alex Bowman and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon shared the ride in the No. 88 Chevrolet. Bowman will start in Sunday’s Cup finale. The 23-year-old Bowman has three top-10 finishes in nine starts and has been solid in a fill-in basis. Bowman’s Cup future is unclear.

    Hendrick said Bowman was "helpless in a lot of ways" in finding a ride for next season.

    It's not clear when Earnhardt was injured. He was in crashes at Michigan on June 12 and Daytona on July 2, and his symptoms originally led Earnhardt to believe his problem was allergy or sinus related. He raced at Kentucky on July 9 not feeling well, and when his condition didn't improve, he saw a neurological specialist who diagnosed concussion-like symptoms.

    Rick Hendrick: Dale Jr. 'on track' for Daytona 500

    Team owner Rick Hendrick shed light Friday on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s timetable to return to NASCAR competition, saying he anticipated his driver to be on pace to compete in the 2017 Daytona 500.

    Earnhardt Jr., 42, has been sidelined from the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet since July with concussion-like symptoms.

    "I think sometime in December the doctor's going to give him the final clearance and then we'll get him in a car," Hendrick said Friday after a news conference with the Sprint Cup Championship 4 car owners at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "He feels great. Everything's on track. I mean, every step that we supposedly need to go through, we've gone through, and I don't see anything holding us back.

    "He sent me a text the other day that he was excited and waiting for Daytona. I think we've just got a couple more hurdles to clear."

    Earnhardt Jr. pulled over for speeding to NASCAR race at Texas

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still driving fast, even though he has been sidelined from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series because of a concussion.

    Earnhardt was pulled over for speeding while driving to Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday morning before the AAA Texas 500.

    His fiancee, Amy Reimann, who was in the car with him, posted a picture on Twitter of a police officer writing out a warning for NASCAR’s most popular driver. According to her tweet, Earnhardt didn’t get ticketed. She didn’t say how fast he was going.

    @Amy_Reimann : My little speed racer. #WheelingIt #warning

    Earnhardt first began experiencing concussion-like symptoms in late July, and said in September he would miss the rest of the season. He plans to be back in No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports for the start of next season at the Daytona 500.

    Even though he's not racing, Earnhardt is still doing appearances at the track, and watches some of the race from the No. 88 pit box.

    Dale Jr. predicts Gordon will race at Martinsville - under the lights

    Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Martinsville is Jeff Gordon's last planned race, but he's still atop Rick Hendrick's short list of substitute drivers, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. thinks we haven't seen the last of the four-time champion on the Virginia track.

    While thanking Gordon for filling in as driver of the No. 88 in his absence while recovering from a concussion, Earnhardt Jr. said Monday on his "Dale Jr. Download" podcast on Dirty Mo Radio that he thinks one upcoming development will lure Gordon back to the track where he has nine wins in 29 starts.

    "I doubt it's Jeff Gordon's last race," Dale Jr. said. "He'll probably have to come out of retirement to race in Martinsville if they ever race there under the lights in the next couple years. You know, he'd love to try that."

    Martinsville Speedway track president Clay Campbell announced earlier this month that LED lights will be in place at the track for the 2017 season, though no night races are scheduled yet.

    Gordon's sixth-place finish at Martinsville was his best showing driving the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports car this season.

    Over the last three races of the 2016 season, Junior says he's rooting for Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and will be at Homestead-Miami for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup finale.

    "I know he's excited about this opportunity; he's been talking about it a couple years," Junior said in the podcast of Johnson's pursuit of a seventh title. "Being able to tie my father and Richard Petty for championships is something he's always dreamed about since he got within a few titles of those guys.

    "I'll be at Homestead cheering him on. And when our teammates do great, it's great for the whole company."

    Junior also said he had a good time in the NBC broadcast booth the last couple weeks and appreciates fans' positive feedback on his first two Sprint Cup broadcasting appearances.

    Dale Jr.: 'Being in the car is what I'm supposed to do'

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. and officials with Goody's announced a new promotion Sunday that will consist of trading cards featuring NASCAR's most popular driver inside boxes of the pain relief product.

    But the Hendrick Motorsports driver believes fans will see him back on the track in the future as well.

    "My intentions are to race and that's the plan that we have going forward so we're booking things as normal," Earnhardt said during the morning press conference at Martinsville Speedway. "We're doing all our photo shoots and everything with the anticipation of our sponsors marketing me as the driver of the (No.) 88 car. I think that that's perfectly on track and a reasonable goal, to be in the car (and) to be competing at Daytona.

    "We can't sort of sit and wait … those types of things have to be decided quite early. So we're moving forward with the plan for me to be in the car and I don't see anything that says that's not going to happen. Things are good."

    Earnhardt has been sidelined for the latter part of the Sprint Cup Series season due to concussion-like symptoms. He will resume his driving duties no sooner than the start of the 2017 racing season.

    Returning to the track to kick off campaigns such as the Goody's promotion, spending time in the television and radio booths and attending other functions, he said, has been crucial to helping expedite his recovery.

    "Obviously I miss being in the car; I want to be in the car," Earnhardt said. "I'd rather be racing. But until that happens, until I can get back in the car I have to do things to keep myself busy. Sitting at home is not a lot of fun. Those first few weeks trying to get better sitting at home and not really wanting to go anywhere wasn't any fun at all.

    "It's awesome to be able to drive up here to do this press conference and talk about one of our promotions with Goody's. To be able to have a chance to go in the booth, things like that are really, really good for me. It's not only good therapy but I need to be doing something. I love being around the sport and I want to feel like I'm an asset. It's very helpful."

    In his absence, Hendrick officials have split seat time between three-time series champion Jeff Gordon and youngster Alex Bowman in the No. 88 entry. Gordon is making his final start as a fill-in this weekend at Martinsville.

    Earnhardt got high marks from fans and the media for his TV appearance -- he spent time in the NBC broadcast booth last week when the series competed at Talladega Superspeedway. He is also a part of the broadcast team at Martinsville.

    Easing his way back into the public eye has been different, but the transition appears to have gone smoothly.

    "I wasn't really sure how that was going to feel being around and coming to the track and stuff; I was a little nervous," he said. "I talk to Rick (Hendrick) and I tell him all the time … being in the car is what I'm supposed to do and not being in the car brings on a sense of guilt that I'm not fulfilling my responsibilities. Maybe I’m actively seeking out these opportunities to be visible and be relevant, work with my partners and handle all the responsibilities that we have and had planned before all this happened.

    "So I've been open and happy and excited to start booking all these photo shoots; if we want to go somewhere and do something that we've never done before -- the (Carolina Hurricanes) hockey game, football game, stuff like that, that's been a real good time."

    Behind the scenes in TV booth with Dale Jr.

    An NBC assistant in the broadcast booth had an urgent message to deliver, one of huge importance. As 40 drivers barreled around Talladega Superspeedway at 200 mph a few hundred feet below him, he grabbed a marker and started writing on a dry erase board. "17-13," he wrote. "Final 5th straight win."

    He showed this to Dale Earnhardt Jr., a guest analyst for NBC's coverage of the race. Upon reading it, Earnhardt Jr. turned around, away from the track, and smiled broadly at Tyler Overstreet, his road manager, and pumped his fist. The handwritten note purported to report the score of the Washington Redskins, of whom Earnhardt Jr. is a big fan. Alas, that news was premature. A few minutes later, the same assistant showed him another dry erase board, this one apologizing for the first and reporting that the Lions had come back to win the game.

    Junior half smiled, half grimaced and turned his attention back to the race track, where he wished he could be on this sun-kissed late summer day. Earnhardt Jr. has missed the last 14 races, and he will miss the rest of the season, with concussion-related symptoms. But talking about the race was the next best thing, and the hour-plus he spent in the booth was vintage Earnhardt -- funny, insightful and candid.

    Wearing dark-framed glasses, sneakers, jeans and a blue and gray plaid shirt, he sat atop a stool between NBC analysts Steve Letarte, his former crew chief, and Jeff Burton, against whom he raced hundreds of times. They lapsed into a conversation like old friends.

    His eyes darted from the track to the TV screen in front of him to Letarte to Burton. His body language was almost exuberant. He smiled often and at one point raised his hand excitedly when he wanted to interject a point.

    He seemed relaxed and at ease with Letarte, Burton, play-by-play announcer Rick Allen and the race's producers. "Has he got in the top 10 yet?" Earnhardt Jr. joked off camera about his replacement, Alex Bowman. "Damn, I told him everything I know."

    As his appearance wound down, NBC announced Junior would return to the booth at next week's race at Martinsville Speedway. Producer Matt Marvin, who was just outside the track in the production truck, keyed the microphone that allows him to talk with the broadcasters off air and told Junior what a great job he had done. He paused for just a second and said, "Next time, if you're not as good, we'll kick you out early."

    Junior laughed at that. This was the Earnhardt Jr. that fans have loved for more than a decade -- living and dying with the Redskins, offering transparent insight into his life and breaking down racing like few others.

    Consider this exchange with Burton at Lap 68, when Earnhardt Jr. discussed his drafting philosophy: "I look at the air coming off of the front of the car as a boat wake. And it's very dense coming off of around the headlights of that car that you're trying to side draft. So you don't want to continue to be beside that guy as you get toward the front, or pretty much dead even, because you run into that dense air coming off of the lead car. So you have to 'jump' that wake, much like if you were water skiing. You also have to get away from him so that he cannot side-draft you, because then you're both sort of bouncing back and forth. That's why it's so much easier to side-draft on the outside, because you can pin the guy on the bottom, side-draft him, drive up the race track and take the lead."

    Burton: "Now, you know all the drivers are going to play this race back and listen to all of this, right?"

    Earnhardt Jr.: "From what I've seen, these guys have got it all figured out."

    After months of his public appearances being focused almost exclusively on his health, it was refreshing to see him confident and comfortable. At least for this hour, the pensiveness that saturated so much of what he has said lately was gone.

    And on the topic of his health, he sounded upbeat. The simple fact he was able to make the appearance was a sign of improvement. In previous comments he has said large crowds sometimes trigger his symptoms, and it's hard to imagine a larger crowd than Talladega. His doctors have encouraged him to challenge himself, and certainly being on live TV would accomplish that.

    "I'm feeling great and all of the progress that we've made over the last several months has been really good," he said. "Obviously, I'm able to get out and do things. I'm having so much fun at the race track, and to be able to come up to the booth has been a lot of fun for me."

    Dale Jr. backs Bowman, will tackle Talladega on the air

    Talladega's favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., won't be racing this weekend but much to the pleasure of his massive fandom, he will be trackside helping his Hendrick Motorsports team and even working in the MRN radio and NBCSN television booth during Sunday's Hellmann's 500.

    Earnhardt, who is sidelined for the remainder of the season while he recovers from concussion-like symptoms, was a popular sight in Talladega's garage Friday afternoon.

    He shared his thoughts in an impromptu interview outside his team's hauler just before opening Sprint Cup Series practice.

    Earnhardt seemed eager to return to the announcing booth during the race -- something he'll do on both radio and television.

    "It gives me an opportunity to see the racing from a different perspective and that's an opportunity to learn something about the sport," Earnhardt said. "It'll be fun. It'll be a neat experience.

    "I've been in the booth before and had a great time at Michigan this year for the XFINITY race. I won't be doing the whole race [Sunday], but … I'm glad I have the opportunity and to be able to still kinda be around and be a witness to what's happening at the race track. It's better than sitting at home.

    "I don't really get nervous any more," Earnhardt added with a smile. "The only thing that ever made me nervous was driving race cars. I don't feel nervous. I feel good about going up there. What's the worst thing that could happen, right?"

    Earnhardt was very complimentary of Alex Bowman, who along with veteran Jeff Gordon, has been filling in for him in the No. 88 Mountain Dew Chevrolet.

    In six starts for Earnhardt, Bowman has a pair of top-10 finishes. He scored his best showing of seventh place last week at Kansas -- while suffering from a stomach bug that made him so sick, the 23-year-old was on a stretcher getting an IV after the race.

    "The night before [the race] was a terrible evening as far as how he felt even getting a good night's sleep," Earnhardt said. "I was very surprised he was as competitive as he was, as bad as he felt. He was very nauseous throughout the race. He was a real trouper. Most of those guys on track have that grit and determination.

    "But he can do it. And he's capable and belongs out there."

    This weekend's race at Talladega will be a new challenge for Bowman. However, Earnhardt has high expectations.

    "I think he's going to do great," Earnhardt said. "He's going to have fun and he's going to really enjoy the car because it's going to be competitive. We'll sit down and talk a lot and give him all the opportunities and understanding he can. He's already had some experience so some of the things we'll talk about will already make sense to him.

    "I'm looking forward to sharing what I can throughout the weekend to help him. I've told him from the start, now that's he's getting more opportunities and I'm out of the car for the rest of the year, he's able to kind of relax and realize he doesn't have to bottle up lightning for one particular weekend. He'll have a lot of opportunities this year to show what he can do.

    "He did that last weekend and pretty much every time he's been in the car he's shown he's fast and very capable and I expect that this weekend."

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. will join broadcasts for Talladega, Martinsville

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. will join NBC's broadcast team for parts of the network's coverage of the Sprint Cup Series races at Talladega Superspeedway and Martinsville Speedway, NBC announced Wednesday on "NASCAR America."

    Junior, who has not raced since July as he recovers from a concussion, will reunite with his former crew chief Steve Letarte, and work alongside race announcer Rick Allen and fellow analyst Jeff Burton. Sunday marks Earnhardt’s first ever NASCAR Sprint Cup broadcasting assignment.

    "I'm excited to see these races from a different vantage point and hopefully offer some insight to the viewers," said Earnhardt. "I thoroughly enjoyed my opportunity to broadcast the XFINITY race at Michigan earlier this year, so I expect getting to spend time in the booth with the NBC team to be just as fun."

    NBCSN presents the second elimination race of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup from Talladega Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET. Next weekend, NBCSN presents the first race in the playoff Round of 8 from Martinsville Sunday, Oct. 30, at 12:30 p.m. ET.

    "With five races left in the Sprint Cup playoffs, we are thrilled to welcome Dale Earnhardt Jr. into our broadcast booth as we present two of the most unpredictable and exciting races in the Chase," said Jeff Behnke, VP of NASCAR Production for the NBC Sports Group. "Dale is incredibly respected and the viewers and fans will be treated to his perspective on two very different race tracks."

    A release outlining NBC Sports' complete coverage from Talladega Superspeedway will be issued Wednesday.

    Junior celebrates 'Jeansboro Day,' says he expects to race '17 Daytona

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. may not be competing in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series as the 2016 season begins to wind down, but the series' most popular driver still has plenty to keep him busy.

    "Going to the races, doing all my (sponsor) appearances, doing everything I was doing before, just not driving," Earnhardt said Wednesday during a stop at the corporate headquarters of Wrangler.

    "Take the driving part out of it and everything else I'm still doing."

    Earnhardt was joined by team owner Richard Childress to help kick off the second annual "Jeansboro Day" celebration and reminisce about the long relationship Wranger has enjoyed with Childress and Earnhardt.

    Earnhardt has been sidelined since midseason after suffering concussion-like symptoms following a pair of crashes. In his absence, drivers Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman have handled the driving duties in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet.

    After missing two races in 2012, this marks the second time in his premier series career that Earnhardt has missed races due to a concussion or concussion-like symptoms.

    Although he won't be back behind the wheel this season, Earnhardt told the crowd that he plans to be back in the car when the 2017 season gets underway at Daytona International Speedway.

    "It's coming along pretty good," Earnhardt said when asked about his recovery. "We got dinged up, had a lot of wrecks this year, got dinged up pretty good.

    "(I'm) starting to feel real good, starting to be able to get out and do things, enjoy myself.

    "I miss being in the car but we have every expectation of being in the car come February for the Daytona 500."

    The Sprint Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend for Sunday's Hellmann's 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). It is the final race of the Round of 12 in this year's Chase, with only the top eight advancing to the next round.

    Earnhardt, who has six career victories on the 2.66-mile track, said he plans to be at Talladega "all three days."

    But just watching. Not driving, yet.

    Junior eager to get back in a race car, has been driving simulator

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. said in the latest edition of the Dale Jr. Download podcast released Monday that his rehabilitation from a concussion is "going along as planned" and that he has been driving a simulator but still misses competing in a race car most.

    Earnhardt Jr. talked for about eight minutes at the start of the podcast, praising the efforts of his substitute driver Alex Bowman, who finished seventh at the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

    Junior added, however, that he wished he could have been the one driving the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

    "We've been running around and trying to do everything we're supposed to be doing outside the car while we're not able to drive just yet," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Boy, today (Sunday) was a day where I would have liked to have been in there for sure running that high side. That's really enjoyable."

    He added that he's "still working on all my rehabilitation and doing all the stuff the doctors have been asking me to do. All of that is going along as planned, no setbacks."

    The simulator work is part of the "outside the car" activities that have kept him busy in recent weeks, along with sponsor appearances and a visit to Martinsville Speedway last week to help unveil the track's new lights.

    "I've been doing that (simulator), which has been a lot of fun," Earnhardt Jr. said.

    Still, it's no substitute for actually taking the wheel of a race car. Earnhardt Jr. said he will be at Talladega Superspeedway Friday through Sunday, and it will be difficult to simply watch; Bowman again will fill in for Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88.

    "There'll be a part of me each lap wanting to be in there making decisions as far as what's going on in the draft," Junior said.

    The full podcast can be found here.

    NASCAR announces 2017 premier series rules package

    A further reduction of downforce and the implementation of additional safety developments highlight the 2017 NASCAR premier series rules package announced by sanctioning body officials on Friday at Kansas Speedway.

    Aerodynamic adjustments similar to those in place for races at Kentucky Speedway and Michigan International Speedway in 2016 form the framework for the 2017 performance platform. However, slight modifications to the overall base package have been made.

    According to officials, the 2017 race package will include:

    • Rear spoiler dimensions for all non-restricted events will be 2 3/8 inches x 61 inches. Current spoiler dimensions are 3 1/2 x 61; for the Kentucky and Michigan races, the dimensions were 2 1/2 x 53 inches.

    • Splitter measurements for the 2017 package will be the same as those for the 2016 Kentucky and Michigan races, with a 3-inch reduction in the outboard (side) areas;

    • A tapered rear deck fin;

    • Net rear steer setting of zero.

    The aero changes are the next evolution of the platform first rolled out for select events in 2015. Mandatory for 2016, those changes reduced downforce (the pressure exerted on a vehicle as it moves through the air) from 2,700 pounds to approximately 2,000 pounds. The 2017 package is expected to reduce downforce by approximately 500 pounds, landing in the 1,500-pound range.

    "The objective there is to give the drivers, put the driving back in their hands a bit more … take less aero dependence off the car," Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development, told NASCAR.com. "That's the big thing.

    "The amount we are taking off the front and the rear is the same proportion; we try to keep the balance of the car identical. So it's been taken off in the same proportion to maintain the balance of the car as it was last year.”

    Safety enhancements, which include strengthening the interior driver compartment, will be mandatory for superspeedway events at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway and optional at the remaining venues for 2017.

    Officials previously announced thicker anti-intrusion plating where it already existed in the cockpit as well as additional plating in areas not currently covered. Toeboard foam will also be mandatory at superspeedways, as will the addition of a roof hatch.

    Changes to steering column mounting and the use of a garage-only fuel coupler (mandatory for all events) complete changes in the safety arena.

    "Basically … there is going to be a strengthened dash firewall; (on the) front left of the chassis there will be a piece zippered in; also in the back, near the rear clip, another piece that will be zippered in," Stefanyshyn told NASCAR.com. "The floorboard and toe board area will be made out of one piece, beefed up, also.

    "This has a couple of elements to it; one is to manage front crash, the other to manage if you are hit in the side."

    A stronger floorboard, with toe board foam, should lessen the odds of a driver involved in a hard impact suffering a broken limb.

    The fuel coupler designated for garage use only is intended to lessen spillage by more efficiently closing the valve upon disengagement. It is a safety as well as environmental initiative.

    The aero package for superspeedway races at Daytona and Talladega will remain unchanged, although there will be a decrease in restrictor plate size (from 57/64ths to 7/8ths of an inch) to combat increasing speeds at the two tracks.

    Additionally, the vehicle weight will increase by 20 pounds to accommodate structural changes to the cars.

    NASCAR will also reduce the tire allotment provided to teams next season and require teams to start the race on the tires used in qualifying.

    "We've been tracking tires for two or three years now and we see how many are purchased and how many remain," Stefanyshyn said. "We are seeing that there is an opportunity to trim some tires. … Also we're starting to creep up to trying to bring some strategy around the tires.

    "It's not a huge reduction, it's a comfortable reduction but it's kind of moving in that direction."

    Despite veteran status, Dale Jr.'s passion for sport remains

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. turned 42 on Monday, marking another trip around the sun for the Hendrick Motorsports star. Adding another candle to the cake may solidify his place among the so-called elder statesmen in the NASCAR garage, but it hasn't made him feel any older or any less passionate about stock car racing.

    Earnhardt Jr., sidelined since July through the remainder of the season after being diagnosed with a concussion, cited several fellow competitors who have had success into their 40s -- Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle, in particular -- to illustrate that there's no firm timetable for retirement.

    "I don't know if age is really a factor. It's really about the passion you have for it, if you can get out of bed and get up on the wheel and want to do it," Earnhardt said Wednesday at Martinsville Speedway's announcement for its offseason lighting project. "When you get up and you don't want it as much as the next guy, then you've got to start thinking about whether you belong there, whether the team deserves that kind of commitment.

    "The team's going to go in there and work their guts out; they need a driver with the same attitude. And any time you feel like you just don't have that attitude, you need to start thinking about letting someone else get in there and giving the team an opportunity."

    Earnhardt said he was unsure why some drivers' careers fade, chalking it up to several different factors: "The cars, the team, the organization, maybe." The common thread -- regardless of age, he said -- was the desire to compete at a high level, especially with a young crop of teens and 20-somethings knocking down the door to NASCAR's national series.

    "It came real easy when you're young, but the older you get, it's a little bit harder," Earnhardt said of staying motivated. "And them young guys, man, they're coming. They're coming into the sport wide-open and it's getting harder and harder to keep up with 'em. But I feel good, I feel young. I feel younger than my years, but as long as you have the passion and commitment to do what you have to do, not just on Sunday and Friday and Saturday, but during the week.

    "There's a lot of commitments, not only with sponsors, but you've got meetings and you've got to be at the shop and you've got to make yourself available and accountable with the team. There's just so much that goes into being successful, and if you don't have the passion for that, then you probably don't need to be wasting anybody's time. I think that's probably what happens is you sort of lose that want-to, to be able to get up and go do it."

    Junior finds new perspective in time away from racing

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. said it would be hard to explain, the perspective that he's gained being sidelined from NASCAR competition.

    The driving part, he clearly misses. The related appearances, autograph sessions and other obligations have gained newfound enjoyment during his absence from the cockpit. The challenge for when he plans to return to driving full-time is finding a way to savor the two parts together.

    Earnhardt described the contrasts Wednesday at Martinsville Speedway, taking part in the announcement that the .526-mile track would add a lighting system as part of its 70th-anniversary season celebration in 2017. The driver, sidelined since July with concussion-related symptoms, also discussed how his time out of the car has spurred a recent health kick, offered him time to assist in planning his offseason wedding to fiancée Amy Reimann, and how it's taught him to relish race-weekend moments that go beyond his driving duties.

    "When I was driving, I really didn't enjoy everything I did outside the car, reluctantly, just to do the driving part," Earnhardt said. "Now that I'm not in the car, I enjoy all the stuff that I'm doing outside the car that I've always done. I'm getting up in the morning race days to do the hospitalities or coming to do the winner's circle (appearances) here or Talladega, I've really enjoyed doing those things.

    "The pressure of racing made the majority of everything that came with it miserable, and I probably am responsible for controlling that, right? And so, I think being out of the car has shown me that I've got to find a way that if I'm going to race more how to not feel so much pressure that it makes everything else intolerable or hard to do."

    Earnhardt Jr., who turned 42 earlier this week, had his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season cut short after 18 races because of concussion-like symptoms. The unexpected absence has allowed Earnhardt to participate in activities he would've otherwise missed, such as attending a drag-racing event in Concord, North Carolina, and taking in his high school's homecoming football game.

    But his time away from the circuit's entry lists has also meant an unburdening, removing the weekly stress of performing for his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team, which has found able substitutes in Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman while keeping Earnhardt Jr.'s name on the windshield and above the drivers' side window.

    "I think once I get back in the car, I've got to have a whole new frame of mind about how I handle the pressure of driving and the pressures of performing and finishing well and all that good stuff," Earnhardt said. "… The driving is fun, and I never really had a problem with that. I enjoy being at the track, and I enjoy doing the hospitalities. I'm going to go do a Wal-Mart appearance somewhere in freakin' who-knows-where, and I would be so frustrated about that because of what I was going to be doing on a race weekend.

    "It wasn't the appearance that had me bent out of shape. It's just the pressure of week to week to week, performing, performing, performing -- the expectations of everything, myself and everyone else made all that sort of a heavy, heavy weight on my back. Now without the performance and the worry of having to perform, I go do this stuff and have fun. So I've got to figure out how to race and have fun, if that makes any sense."

    Another unintended byproduct of his time away has been weight loss. With Reimann's encouragement, Earnhardt said he's had more of a dedicated fitness routine, something he never had to consider much during his weekly racing obligations since drivers routinely burn hundreds of calories inside the car during a race weekend.

    "The only thing I ever had to worry about was just making sure I fit in my suit," Earnhardt said, adding that he's lost roughly eight pounds since beginning his rehab regimen for his concussion-like symptoms. "Any time we had to alter the suit, I had to start watching what I was eating, like we're getting out of control here."

    And Earnhardt Jr. has also kept busy with planning his upcoming nuptials with Reimann in the offseason.

    "We're definitely not being lazy and pushing everything off until the last minute, but it feels like it's right around the corner," Earnhardt said. "We just want it to be a great day. I think that's the same way everybody kind of feels. They just want everything to go right and not have anything go wrong. We're just making sure we've got all our T's crossed and all our I's dotted, so that that day's a special day for us."

    While he's finding advice on floral arrangements and other details to make the event go off without a hitch, he's also been receiving unsolicited advice from all corners about his treatment plan. If there was a Highlights for Children etiquette lesson on how best to interact with people with his condition, the would-be physicians lighting up his XFINITY Series team's switchboard fall under the heading of Goofus as opposed to Gallant.

    "I think the wrong thing to say would be to give any kind of medical advice because you've got to listen to your doctors," Earnhardt said. "We've got people calling every single day to JR Motorsports: 'tell Dale to try this, tell Dale to drink this drink, tell him to eat this, tell him to quit milk' -- all kinds of crazy, hare-brained reasons why I'm ill or need to get better, what'll speed it up and all that stuff. I've got doctors, they're smart, they know everything I need to do and that's who I need to listen to, obviously."

    And the right way to offer support?

    "'Look forward to seeing you back at the track,' sounds awesome," Earnhardt said. "I want to hear that. 'Get well' is great. I like to know that people want me to be well, so anytime, that feels good."

    Dale Jr.: Rooting for Jimmie to get seventh title, tie father

    Jimmie Johnson just got the biggest endorsement in NASCAR: from Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    "To be honest, yes I am rooting for Jimmie to get this championship," Junior said in "The Dale Jr. Download" posted on Dirty Mo Radio Monday afternoon, which coincidentally was Earnhardt's 42nd birthday. "I believe he does deserve it after everything he has put into the sport."

    A seventh championship for Johnson, a Hendrick Motorsports teammate of Junior, would tie the No. 48 driver with Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for the most championships ever won by a driver.

    "I'm real excited for Jimmie," Junior said. "He's chasing that seventh championship to put him up there with Richard and my father. He wants that so badly. We've had a few conversations about that, and I know how much that would mean to him.

    "He is one of the greatest drivers this sport has seen. Obviously to win five championships in a row is undeniable, and the arguments are undeniable that he is one of the greatest. He ranks right up there with the old man and anyone else you want to bring into that conversation."

    All the Hendrick cars looked good at Charlotte Motor Speedway, said Junior, whose No. 88 was piloted by Alex Bowman, who wrecked early and finished 39th in the Bank of America 500. He predicted that both Johnson and Chase Elliott's No. 24 team would advance to the Round of 8.

    Tony Stewart fills in for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    (Video) Dale Earnhardt Jr. again found himself in need of a substitute driver. Tony Stewart was there to answer the call.

    Earnhardt Jr. was at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for a Dale Jr. Foundation charity ride-along event. The problem: Earnhardt Jr. has not been cleared to drive by his doctors as he recovers from concussion-like symptoms. The event raises "quite a bit of money," Junior said in a video posted to Twitter.

    Never fear, 'Smoke' is here. The three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion volunteered to fill the seat so Tuesday's event could go off without a hitch. Earnhardt Jr. posted the thank-you video, calling Stewart a "good dude" for filling in.

    Earnhardt Jr. returns to Dover to support Hendrick teammates

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched his ol’ No. 88 Chevy roll onto pit road and felt a tinge of melancholy knowing Jeff Gordon would slide into the seat.

    Earnhardt was back at a NASCAR track, yet far removed from a NASCAR comeback.

    "It’s hard not to climb in the car before Jeff does," he said.

    Without a ride, Earnhardt instead took a temporary spot as NASCAR’s most popular crew member. He wore a hoodie and a hat instead of a firesuit as he made one of his few public appearances at a track since his season ended in July because of a concussion. Earnhardt posed for selfies with fans and seemed in good spirits watching practice from the pit box on Saturday at Dover International Speedway.

    Earnhardt enjoyed being one of the guys again at Hendrick Motorsports. He assisted with his No. 88 team and took an interest in helping crew chief Greg Ives during Gordon's practice run on a session interrupted by rain.

    He was even teased by friend Elliott Sadler as they waited out the rain.

    "I didn't know you had your own entourage following you around," said Sadler, laughing. "That's pretty cool, man."p>The 41-year-old Earnhardt said he was feeling better, though he didn't know when he would be cleared to return to racing. Earnhardt has used a race simulator to aid in his rehabilitation, which helped him work on his motor skills, and he's added more exercises to his daily routine.

    But the symptoms linger.

    "Walking through the garage and signing autographs is tough," he said. "Your balance gets bad. A lot of it is visual, a lot of the things happening with your peripheral (vision) and stuff. That's something that's going to challenge it. That's pretty much it. My eyes got a lot better. I didn't really notice issues with my eyes quite as much anymore. The balance stuff is still needing some work."

    Earnhardt, long NASCAR's most popular driver, has said he hoped to be cleared for the 2017 Daytona 500. But when that date might come? He has no idea.

    "I'm not ready, I know that. I'll know when I'm ready," he said. "It's not one of them things that has a schedule. You don't know when you're going to be like, 'all right, I'm good. Let's go do this."'

    It was an odd sight: Earnhardt in street clothes talking with Gordon in a firesuit in the garage. Gordon retired at the end of last season before he was pressed into service by team owner Rick Hendrick to replace Earnhardt in select races.

    Gordon will substitute for him in one more race in the 88. Alex Bowman will drive in the other races left this season.

    With a boost from a two-time Daytona 500 champion, Gordon topped the speed chart with a lap of 160.514 mph. Kyle Larson was seventh on the speed chart and the fastest of the 16 Chase drivers at 158.898.

    Teammates were excited to have Junior back.

    "I haven't seen a lot of Dale away from the race track. I completely understand how difficult it is to come to the track and feel productive," six-time champion Jimmie Johnson said. "I can only imagine how hard it is to go to the track and watch your car race and then also how boring it would be because we do have the coolest job to sit in that race car."

    It's not clear when Earnhardt was injured. He was in crashes at Michigan on June 12 and Daytona on July 2, and his symptoms originally led Earnhardt to believe his problem was allergy or sinus related. He raced at Kentucky on July 9 not feeling well, and when his condition didn't improve, he saw a neurological specialist who diagnosed "concussion-like symptoms."

    "I feel so much better than I did five weeks ago," Earnhardt said.

    Earnhardt has made other public appearances and tweeted that he spent Friday night cheering on local Mooresville High in his first high school football game in 20 years.

    "I told (my fiancee) Amy, I said, 'Man, let's just go so we can say we went.' I didn't even know it was homecoming, so that was pretty neat," he said.

    Earnhardt said going out in crowded, public events helped make him feel normal again. But he won't feel complete until his symptoms subside.

    "If I come to an environment like this and go walk through the garage and get into those busy moments and I don't have any reaction to it, I would consider that being 100 per cent normal," he said.

    Earnhardt once revealed in an interview that he thought he'd driven with concussion symptoms several times in 2001. His admission led to a tightened medical review policy in which Earnhardt had to be seen by a doctor before he could race after he was briefly knocked unconscious in a 2002 crash at Dover. He missed two races during the 2012 Chase because of a pair of concussions suffered in a six-race stretch and sitting out those events immediately ended any title shot.

    Earnhardt said there was no deadline for him to get cleared in time to possibly race in February at the Daytona 500.

    "If there is," he said. "I don't know it."

    Dale Jr. watches dad's Monte Carlo take a lap; more from 'Dega trip

    (Video) Six-time Talladega Superspeedway winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. visited one of his favorite tracks Thursday for an action-packed day of greeting fans, mingling with the Alabama Gang, assisting the track with its landscaping duties and watching his father's No. 2 Chevrolet take a lap around the superspeedway.

    The Hendrick Motorsports wheelman, sidelined for the rest of the season by concussion-like symptoms, was welcomed by Alabama Gang members Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison and short-track legend Red Farmer as an honorary member of the group.

    The Alabama Gang, with deep roots in stock-car racing's early days, was the nickname earned by a group of notable NASCAR drivers -- the Allisons, Neil Bonnett, and Farmer among them -- with ties to the state. Talladega's back straightaway was named "The Alabama Gang Superstretch" in their honor in the spring of 2014.

    Although Dale Earnhardt was not a part of the group, he remained great friends with the drivers -- especially Bonnett, a fellow outdoorsman. The group paid tribute to the first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee as Donnie Allison wheeled Earnhardt's famous No. 2 Monte Carlo around the 2.66-mile track.

    Dale Jr. will be on the No. 88 pit box at Dover

    Jeff Gordon isn't the only member of Hendrick Motorsports returning to the track this weekend. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will also be at Dover International Speedway, but in a much different capacity.

    Earnhardt Jr. said Monday on "The Dale Jr. Download" podcast on Dirty Mo Radio that he would be at Dover on Saturday and Sunday, and would sit on the No. 88 pit box on race day. Gordon returns as the substitute driver.

    "It's going to be kind of different, tough, maybe not a ton of fun," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It's a bit weird to be not in the car but at the track when you're a driver. You don't know what to do with yourself. But I'm going to try to support the guys and maybe learn a thing or two.

    "It's going to be different, but we'll see how it goes."

    Gordon, who retired following the 2015 season, has driven in six races this year in place of Earnhardt Jr. The four-time premier series champion will split time with Alex Bowman in the No. 88 for the remainder of the season.

    Earnhardt Jr. also provided an update on his recovery from a concussion. He said he had another evaluation with his doctor last week and continues to make progress.

    "The only thing that triggers the symptoms is going somewhere I'm unfamiliar, somewhere I've never been … somewhere where it's busy," Earnhardt said. "If I can find a busy place, if I go with (fiancée) Amy (Reimann) to the grocery store … that's basically rehab.

    "(But) it's getting better. My doctors talk about getting me back to where I can be a normal person, and then there's getting me back to being a race car driver. I'm almost back … to being a normal, functioning person with no issues. To become that guy I need to be inside the car, we really have to train my senses to be perfect."

    Earnhardt Jr. to make football picks at Bristol

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. will return to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend, but not in the manner one might expect.

    The Hendrick Motorsports driver will serve as the guest picker on ESPN's "College GameDay" football show Saturday morning, which is being broadcast in advance of Saturday night's "Battle at Bristol" college football game between the University of Tennessee and Virginia Tech.

    Prior to the day's games kicking off at noon ET, Earnhardt Jr. will join hosts Rece Davis, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and others for a roundtable prediction of the day's big games.

    "The Battle at Bristol is something we've been anticipating for a long time, and I'm fortunate to be invited by Goodyear to participate in ESPN's College GameDay broadcast," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'm sure it will be a crazy college atmosphere, especially around the GameDay set, and I look forward to having this new experience at a familiar place."

    Hendrick Motorsports announced last week that Earnhardt would miss the rest of the 2016 season as he recovers from the effects of a concussion.

    This is perfect timing for NASCAR fans -- watch Junior in the morning, then catch the final regular-season race at Richmond International Raceway later that evening (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    Dale Jr.: Recovery going well, but 'I don't belong in a race car today'

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. traveled to Darlington Raceway on Sunday, meeting with media members to give a health update just days after Hendrick Motorsports announced he would miss the rest of the 2016 season.

    "I feel like the recovery is going really good," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'm starting to see improvements. It seems like this has lasted a really, really long time, but when you look at it on paper, it's been a short period. ... All the hard work we're doing is paying off.

    "I'm looking forward to getting well. Definitely on the right track."

    But, Junior added, "I don't belong in a race car today by any stretch of the imagination."

    Earnhardt, along with team owner Rick Hendrick and Dr. Micky Collins, shed even more light on his condition Sunday afternoon during a press conference at the track.

    "Dale has been a model patient," Collins said. "I know this is cliché, but Dale has worked as hard as any patient I've ever treated."

    That's because Earnhardt wants to get back in the car next year.

    "I have the passion and desire to drive," he said. "I enjoy it. … My heart is there to continue. If my doctor says that I am physically able to continue, then that's an easy decision for me to make."

    The driver of the No. 88 had planned to drive a personal favorite paint scheme, Buddy Baker's "Gray Ghost" look, prior to his diagnosis over the summer.

    Prior to the July race at New Hampshire, Hendrick Motorsports announced that Earnhardt Jr. would miss that race due experiencing concussion-like symptoms. He has not been back in the car since, with Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman taking over fill-in duties.

    On Friday, the team announced Earnhardt would miss the rest of the season.

    Earnhardt to miss rest of NASCAR season with concussion

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss the rest of the NASCAR season — 18 races total — as he continues to recover from a concussion.

    NASCAR’s most popular driver first began experiencing concussion-like symptoms in late July. He has been undergoing treatment from Dr. Micky Collins at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program. He’s also being treated by Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty.

    "To say I’m disappointed doesn’t begin to describe how I feel, but I know this is the right thing for my long-term health and career," Earnhardt said in a statement Friday. "I’m 100 per cent focused on my recovery, and I will continue to follow everything the doctors tell me."

    Earnhardt said doctors have seen progress in his recovery, and he plans to be back in the car next February for the season-opening Daytona 500.

    Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman will continue to share seat time in the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon will drive four races, including Sunday at Darlington Raceway, as well as Richmond, Dover and Martinsville. Bowman will finish the year with eight more starts.

    "Jeff and Alex will give us a great opportunity over the rest of the season," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "Jeff is one of the best of all time and knows our system. He brings things to the table that no one else can. Alex is a young driver with a lot of talent, and he will give us a fresh perspective. We know they're not only capable of running up front and giving us a chance to win, but they'll help us get better."

    Earnhardt has struggled with concussions before, including the 2012 season when he missed two races after suffering a pair of concussions over a six-week span.

    NASCAR has been updating its focus on concussions and treatment programs, beginning in 2002 in part because Earnhardt admitted he was unable to fully concentrate or communicate with his crew chief after an accident at California. He self-diagnosed himself with a concussion, which he revealed weeks later.

    NASCAR then said doctors at infield care centres could require drivers to undergo CT scans or MRIs if they suspected a concussion. Clearance to race after suffering a concussion is not given until after a driver obtains a medical release.

    More than a decade later, Earnhardt also spurred a baseline testing program that is now required of all drivers every preseason.

    "I know how hard Dale has worked and how frustrating this is for him," Hendrick said. ""He wants to be back, and we want him back, but we want it to be for the long haul. We've had incredible support from everyone involved with the team, including all of our sponsors. They've put Dale's health first every step of the way."

    Junior causes PR freak-out after 'married' Instagram photo


    When the Hendrick Motorsports driver posted the above photo to Instagram on Friday, it sent off alarms that likely sounded a lot like the above in the heads of just about every commenter on the photo, but also to his public relations staff, whose collective blood pressures undoubtedly hit an all-time high.

    However, if you read the caption on the photo, it's clear that Junior is not married. Yet, anyway.

    "First time I've seen it in print. It's not quite official yet but sure is cool to think its about to be," Earnhardt said in the caption.

    Mike Davis, director of Brand and Communications for Earnhardt, gave the driver a hard time about it on Monday's edition of "The Dale Jr. Download," saying,"You sort of caused a little bit of a ruckus over the weekend, did you know that? ... You sent off 100 fire alarms for the PR people."

    The photo was just a mistake on a form. Earnhardt was just excited to see it in print for the first time.

    "I did not know that people didn't read," Earnhardt said.

    Always read the fine print, people. Always.

    Junior: Jimmie wanted to wear dad's fire suit

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Monday that Jimmie Johnson had asked him to borrow one of his father's old uniforms to complete his retro look for this weekend's NASCAR throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway.

    Earnhardt Jr.'s remarks came on Monday's edition of the "Dale Jr. Download," a 70-minute episode that he co-hosted on his Dirty Mo Radio network.

    Earnhardt did not provide a health update on the concussion-related symptoms that have forced him to miss the last six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races, but offered an anecdote about his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, who will be running a blue-and-yellow paint scheme on his No. 48 Chevrolet that pays tribute to Earnhardt's father and the legendary David Pearson -- both NASCAR Hall of Famers.

    "He's texting me, he's like, 'You got one of your dad's old uniforms and all that stuff?' " Earnhardt said of a recent exchange with Johnson. "He wanted to actually wear it to intros, and it would fit probably. It smells like … every bit of 40 years old."

    Earnhardt Jr. clarified that Johnson had asked about a different uniform than the one from the 1982 season that he recently modeled on social media. He also had to clarify for Johnson the level of Lowe's involvement with stock-car racing back in 1979, the elder Earnhardt's rookie season.

    "He sends me a picture of this car, and I said 'David Pearson ran second in that car at Talladega in relief for my father,' " Earnhardt Jr. said. "My father was out four weeks with broken collarbones (from a crash at Pocono), and David drove that car, ran second. That was the only race Lowe's was on the hood. I don't know why. Must've been a local chain, but they had Lowe's on the hood for that race, and that race only.

    "And so, it's kind of unique, kind of weird. Jimmie gets excited about it and then I have to tell him the story. He's like, 'Man, I'm going to run one of your Dad's throwbacks,' and I'm like, 'Well, David Pearson drove that car and Lowe's was on the hood for just that race,' but it's still really cool. I've always wondered what that paint scheme would look like on one of the modern cars."

    Earnhardt will be replaced by interim driver Jeff Gordon in this Sunday's Bojangles' Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM) as his recovery from concussion-related issues continues. Earnhardt said he was "real sad" he won't be driving his own throwback paint scheme, a No. 88 Chevrolet that pays homage to Buddy Baker's "Gray Ghost" look from the early 1980s.

    Alex Bowman made his second substitute start last weekend at Michigan International Speedway, placing 30th after slowing early with engine trouble. Still, Earnhardt Jr. gave him a vote of confidence.

    "That was disappointing. I know Alex was upset," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He doesn't know how many opportunities like that he'll get to show he's capable. I believe in him, and I know he's got the ability to do it, to be in the Cup Series and to be in a competitive car and do a good job behind the wheel. It was a shame because I think he could've shown again -- like he did at New Hampshire -- that he belongs."

    Though Earnhardt Jr. will sit out Sunday's event at Darlington, co-host Mike Davis -- brand and communications director for Earnhardt and his JR Motorsports team -- teed up what's scheduled to be a busy week for the 41-year-old driver.

    Earnhardt Jr. is scheduled to participate in competition meetings Tuesday, before traveling to a Wal-Mart in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, for a Wednesday driver appearance. Wednesday's schedule also includes an interview on Nickelodeon's "NASCAR Hammer Down" program, hosted by Karsyn Elledge, Earnhardt Jr.'s niece.

    Earnhardt's JR Motorsports organization in the NASCAR XFINITY Series also has a busy week on tap. Davis said JRM planned to unveil nostalgic paint schemes for its three Darlington entries, which will be piloted by XFINITY regulars Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler, plus Sprint Cup star Kevin Harvick.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. to miss at least 2 more races

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not been cleared by doctors to return to racing and will miss at least two more races — at Michigan and Darlington — as he recovers from a concussion.

    Hendrick Motorsports announced Earnhardt’s status Wednesday. Earnhardt was evaluated by doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program.

    Owner Rick Hendrick said Earnhardt is working hard to get back and will follow doctors’ recommendations for his recovery. Hendrick said the program is fully behind Earnhardt.

    Alex Bowman, who drove for Earnhardt at New Hampshire, will return to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet at Michigan this weekend. Jeff Gordon will fill in at Darlington, where he has won seven races.

    Gordon has driven the past four races for Earnhardt.

    Car owner: Dale looks great

    Car owner Rick Hendrick said injured star Dale Earnhardt Jr. ''looks great,'' but the organization will wait until the driver is 100 percent before he returns to the track.

    Hendrick said Saturday that Earnhardt is scheduled for a medical check next week and that will help determine if he'll drive at Michigan next week. Earnhardt has missed the past four races and won't be driving at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday night.

    Jeff Gordon has run the previous three races and will compete at Bristol. However, Gordon is unavailable to drive next week and if Earnhardt can't go, Alex Bowman will return to the No. 88. Bowman subbed for Earnhardt in New Hampshire last month.

    Earnhardt was diagnosed with a concussion from a hard crash Michigan and two wrecks at Daytona.

    Jeff Gordon won't drive No. 88 car at Michigan

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s return to NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition remains undetermined.

    But if the series' most popular driver remains sidelined when the series heads to Michigan International Speedway next weekend, it will be Alex Bowman and not Jeff Gordon handling the driving duties of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet.

    Gordon, who will make his fourth start for the team Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, will not be available due to a prior commitment, according to HMS officials. However, the four-time series champion will travel to MIS to support the team on Sunday.

    Earnhardt is recovering from concussion-like symptoms that have kept him sidelined since July. Saturday's Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at BMS will be the fifth race he's missed.

    Bowman drove for the team at Loudon, New Hampshire, following Earnhardt's initial diagnosis. Gordon took over the following week, and has competed at Indianapolis, Pocono and Watkins Glen prior to Bristol.

    Bowman, 23, finished 26th in his fill-in role for Earnhardt at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Gordon, meanwhile, has finishes of 13th, 27th and 14th, respectively, in his three starts with the team.

    Gordon qualified 11th for Saturday night's race at BMS.

    When Jeff met Junior: Gordon recalls first meeting with Dale Jr.

    The first time he met Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon never imagined that he would one day drive in relief for his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

    Yet here Saturday night, Gordon will do just that, suiting up for the fourth consecutive race to drive the organization's No. 88 Chevrolet in place of Earnhardt in the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    Earnhardt has been sidelined since mid-July due to concussion-like symptoms and the timing of his return has yet to be determined.

    Their first meeting came in the mid 1990s at North Wilkesboro Speedway when Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Earnhardt Jr.'s father, were at the top of their game. The elder Earnhardt was already a legendary figure in the sport; Gordon was on his way to becoming one.

    The cheering and jeering of the Earnhardt and Gordon fans was a weekly occurrence at tracks across the country. That the two would go on to become both friends and business associates seemed unfathomable to those in the grandstands.

    "I remember sitting there on pit road and Dale Sr. and he came walking by … it was the first time I ever met (Junior)," Gordon told NASCAR.com recently. "They were getting ready to qualify; I don't remember if he was driving a Late Model maybe … I don't exactly remember but I knew he'd been doing some racing and was building some momentum.

    "I remember that he was very respectful. It was cool to meet him and then shortly after that see him rise as quick as he did."

    Gordon "retired" from competition at the end of 2015, with four series titles and 93 career victories. The last time he visited Bristol, he was working in the television booth, just two months into his new role as a FOX NASCAR analyst.

    Now, he's back behind the wheel at a track where he notched five wins and five of 81 career poles.

    Hendrick officials announced July 14 that doctors had not cleared Earnhardt Jr. to compete the following weekend at New Hampshire. Alex Bowman stepped in and finished 26th in his only start with the team.

    Gordon took over the driving duties for races at Indianapolis (13th), Pocono (27th) and most recently Watkins Glen (14th).

    Getting back in the car, and the No. 88 in particular, was an unusual feeling for Gordon although the 45-year-old certainly garnered his share of the spotlight throughout his career.

    "I knew it was a big story," he said of the return, "but still until you’re living it and the reality of it is there, you don't know how your heart's going to beat, how your hands are going to sweat. That first time on track at Indy, I was sweating. And not just because of the heat.

    "It would be different if I had been out for one week or two weeks. But I'd been out for eight months. I hadn't really driven this package. There's added pressure because of the situation, it being Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car. To me the pressure was more about the performance."

    Earnhardt, who also missed two races in 2012 after suffering a concussion, is a two-time champion in NASCAR’s XFINITY Series and has 26 Sprint Cup victories. His absence from competition has seen him fall from 13th to 21st in the points standings.

    His move to the XFINITY Series (then Busch Grand National) is one Gordon hasn't forgotten either. Earnhardt made one start in the series '96 and eight in '97 before going full-time the following season.

    "I went to see Dale Sr. about some business and he said 'Hey come check out Dale Jr.'s car for Watkins Glen," Gordon said. "… I looked at the car and remember it wasn't fancy, wasn't some super premium piece of equipment. The shifter on it was so long. Total old school. At that point we had been making really nice transmissions, road course cars, short shifters and all those things."

    Gordon said he took the opportunity for a bit of friendly ribbing.

    "I gave Senior a hard time," he said. "I was like 'What's this? You're going to make him go to Watkins Glen in this? That shifter is just wrong. This car is not at all what he deserves.'"

    Earnhardt wasn't swayed by the comments, according to Gordon.

    "He goes, 'Oh no. I'm going to make him work for it. He's not going to have it easy; he's going to work on it himself. I'm not going give him the best equipment. He's not going to learn anything being in the best equipment. He's going to have to drive some mediocre equipment so he can learn.'

    "And I thought that was pretty cool."

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his own words

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. met with members of the media Friday at Watkins Glen International to discuss his health, a potential timeline of his return to racing and many other topics. Here's what he said:


    "It is great to be back and seeing everybody. I'm super nervous coming back. I miss my team and my teammates. Amy (Reimann, fiancée) is gone on a trip for the weekend, so I was at the house by myself and was just looking for some things to do. Figured coming to the track wasn't a bad idea. I get to hang out with my guys a little bit. It just felt so weird not being there, so here we are."


    "I think my doctors have a good understanding of my history and what I have been through and with their own personal knowledge that they have throughout their careers to give me a clear understanding of when I will be ready to go back and get into a race car. Our intentions are to get cleared and get back to racing. We are just taking it one evaluation at a time. It is frustrating to have to do it that way, but that is the process, and we hope and expect that when we go back for the next evaluation that we are symptom free and can start to see a timeline develop. Until then, we are just taking it one evaluation at a time. Those are typically every two to three to four weeks."


    "I just want to get better. You put everything ... nothing else is really a priority except for just getting the symptoms to clear up and get back to feeling like yourself. That is all that I am thinking about. The process isn't as fast as you would like it to be. I talk to my doctor every other day, sometimes for an hour or two about the psychological side of it because it can become very frustrating and obviously being a race car driver, we don't have a lot of patience to begin with. This is a challenge. But we've got some great doctors, and I really believe and trust what they are telling me. I am confident and positive that they tell me without question that we are going to get back to normal."


    "No. My doctor thinks that to get through the therapy and to get through the symptoms you don't need to be adding stress to your life. The stress will slow down the process. So, going into those kinds of conversations aren't even necessary at this particular point. The point right now is just to get healthy. Just to get right. I'm not thinking about the what-ifs. I'm just listening to my doctors. ... My doctors feel great about the opportunity that I will not only be healthy again, but they can actually make my brain stronger to be able to withstand these common events. The event that I had at Michigan which they have tied this concussion to, I shouldn't have had a concussion from. I should be able to get through events like that without having any issues. So, they are not only working to get me healed up, but are working to make it to where I can compete and go through events like that without any concern."


    "I think the podcast was just a great outlet for us to give updates. People are wondering; people are curious so that was a great avenue for us. It is effective. I don't mind being honest about what is going on and I think that is maybe helped some people to when they are going through the same situation. The one thing I worry the most about and I think I said on the podcast is that I don't like people to make assumptions on where I am at and how I am doing and what I am up to."


    "I don't know what the doctor would choose there. Whether you could go symptom free and go immediately back in the car. Or if they would maybe want you to be symptom free for a week or two weeks. I don't know what he will do. We haven't really talked about that. I personally would like to get in a race car and drive it at a closed course somewhere. Whether that is one of my late models, or if NASCAR would lift the restrictions on the testing policy to go to Gresham or someplace I want to get in the car and run for a day. I think I should do that."


    "I'd love to speak on the support. It's been awesome. All the NASCAR fans are supportive of all the drivers when they find themselves in situations that are challenging. It's been no different. That's helped me a lot and gave me a lot of motivation to get back and get back in the car. Even hearing from not only the fans, but also the other drivers and my peers is such a positive motivation. The more of that I see, the better. I think it helps me keep going and keep working hard and take my therapy seriously.


    "It's really hard, as a driver, to say that you've got a problem. And it's hard to tell someone what to do in that situation. If you're not feeling good; for me, I was sort of scared straight into getting checked out. When I got hurt in 2012, it was so severe and my body changed and my mind changed so much, I just had to get it looked at. I couldn't go every day trying to self-manage my issues. And I just feel like, hopefully, anytime anybody gets dinged-up, or realized that they're just not right, or they're foggy, or whatever their symptoms are, that they would reach out to a neurologist and get checked out. And there's easy access with our sport. We've got a lot of great people that are part of the sport and who have been part of the sport for a long time, that handle those issues and can get you to the right people.

    "It's hard because you basically put yourself out there to be pulled out of the car. But man, your quality of life is so important. Your health beyond your driving career is so important. If you plan on having a family, or have a family already, those things are going to be a priority."


    "I don't know. I just know I'm trying to take care of myself. I've talked to a lot of drivers. I've talked to a lot of people. You get in this situation and a lot of people reach out and a lot of people have their own experiences that they want to share. And when you're going through that, you definitely want to share your experience with people who have had a common experience."


    "I think about that. I'm so thankful that there is knowledge and there is rehabilitation that is specific to what I have going on. There is just not this umbrella of treatment that they sort of give to everybody. They have specific ways to help and heal specific types of concussions and certain symptoms. That is why I think I enjoy talking to my doctor so often and going to see him so often is because you have so many questions. Every day you get a new concern or a new question and you really can't wait to get in the room and be able to talk to him about it. For them to have the knowledge they have today versus where we were 10 or 20 years ago is something I am very thankful for."


    "What? You didn't say the word. (Laughs)"


    "When I went to see Dr. Petty for the first time in 2012 and then he set me up with the guys in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) they told me that our process was to get better and go back to racing. This one is no different. When I first went to see my doctor in this particular instance it was 'I need to get right because I need to get back in the car as soon as I can.' I'm surprised that I've missed this many races. ... I have every intention of honoring my current contract. I sat with Rick (Hendrick) before this happened a couple of months ago to talk about an extension. That is the direction that we are going. As soon as I can get healthy and get confident in how I feel and feel like I can drive a car and be great driving it then I want to drive. I want to race. I miss the competition. I miss being here. I miss the people and as Rick likes to say 'We've got unfinished business.' I'm not ready to stop racing. I'm not ready to quit."

    Junior: 'I'm not ready to stop racing. I'm not ready to quit.'

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. said in a news conference at Watkins Glen International that he is trying to remain patient in his recovery from concussion-like symptoms and that his "intentions are to get back to racing."

    "I'm not ready to stop racing," he said. "I'm not ready to quit."

    Earnhardt Jr. said, in fact, that he had discussions with team owner Rick Hendrick a couple months ago about extending his contract with Hendrick Motorsports.

    The timeline for returning to the car remains uncertain, however, as Earnhardt Jr. said he still spends 2-3 hours per day working on therapy to alleviate the symptoms. He has evaluations every 2-3 weeks with his doctors, he said.

    "My doctors have a good understanding of my history and what I've been through, and with their own personal knowledge that they have throughout their careers to give me a clear understanding of when I'll be ready to go back and get in a race car," Earnhardt Jr. said.

    Friday's meeting with the media was Earnhardt Jr.'s first time in such a setting in a month. He's missed the past three races with concussion-like symptoms that his doctors believe stem from a crash at Michigan International Speedway on June 12.

    After visiting the doctor when balance issues and nausea symptoms emerged and never faded, Earnhardt Jr. was ruled out for the New Hampshire race on July 17. He subsequently missed the races at Indianapolis and Pocono. Alex Bowman drove the No. 88 Chevrolet at Loudon, while Jeff Gordon came out of retirement to drive for him in the last two races.

    Earlier this week, Hendrick Motorsports announced Earnhardt will miss Sunday's race at Watkins Glen and the ensuing race at Bristol on Aug. 20 following an off week. Gordon will serve as substitute driver in both races.

    Earnhardt talked at length about his recovery earlier this week on "The Dale Jr. Download" podcast, saying his plan for the future is "to race more."

    Dale Jr. to speak with media in first appearance since Kentucky

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., sidelined since early July by concussion-like symptoms, will be at Watkins Glen International on Friday as NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams begin preparations for Sunday's Cheez-It 355 at The Glen.

    The Hendrick Motorsports driver will not be back behind the wheel of the familiar No. 88 Chevrolet but he is scheduled to meet with members of the media at noon ET Friday. The event will be live streamed on NASCAR.com.

    It will be his first appearance at a track since he finished 13th at Kentucky Speedway on July 9. Five days after that race, HMS officials announced he had not been cleared by doctors to return to competition.

    Alex Bowman handled the driving duties for the team the following week at New Hampshire. Jeff Gordon, four-time Sprint Cup Series champion and winner of 93 Sprint Cup events, took over at Indianapolis and Pocono, and will remain the team's driver this weekend at The Glen as well as at Bristol on Aug. 20.

    Gordon, who retired from competing after the 2015 season, has nine career road-course victories, including four at The Glen. Sunday's race will mark career start No. 800 for the 45-year-old.

    Earnhardt's continued absence from the car was announced Aug. 2. Team owner Rick Hendrick said missing the Watkins Glen race, followed by an off-week for the series "will certainly be a benefit."

    "Dale will be back when he's ready, and we're looking forward to that happening, but the priority continues to be his health and well-being," he said. "We'll keep our focus on that and let the doctors guide us."

    Earnhardt has fallen from 13th to 20th in the series points standings. He has yet to win this year, meaning if he returns before the start of this season's Chase for the Sprint Cup, he would need either a victory or the points necessary to earn a berth in the 10-race playoff.

    Jeff Gordon to fill in for Dale Jr. in next two races

    Jeff Gordon will be behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet for the next two races as Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms, Hendrick Motorsports announced Tuesday.

    Earnhardt Jr. underwent further evaluation Tuesday at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program, according to the team.

    "We have a break in the schedule after Watkins Glen, so the extra week of recovery time will certainly be a benefit," team owner Rick Hendrick said in a press release. "Dale will be back when he's ready, and we're looking forward to that happening, but the priority continues to be his health and well-being. We'll keep our focus on that and let the doctors guide us."

    Gordon will drive the No. 88 Chevrolet when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series comes to Watkins Glen International for the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen this weekend (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, USA, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Watkins Glen will be his 800th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start.

    Following an off week, Gordon will then pilot the No. 88 at Bristol in the annual night race on Aug. 20.

    Watkins Glen and Bristol are the fourth and fifth races, respectively, that Earnhardt Jr. will miss due to concussion-like symptoms. Junior opened up about his recovery, the process, protocol and much more on this week's edition of "The Dale Jr. Download."

    Last weekend at Pocono Raceway, Gordon indicated he looked at his stint in the No. 88 "as a very temporary thing" but is willing to remain in the role "as long as they need me."

    The four-time series champion later added: "I wouldn't be here in Pocono if I wasn't committed to be there for Hendrick Motorsports and this team in any way that they need me. I think there is a balance between trying to make this transition. First of all, you want Dale to have the comfort of knowing that somebody is there for him. He doesn't have to worry about that aspect of it through this process.

    "… Then there is the side of who is the best person to be in the car to get the most points. And then there is the sponsorship side of it as well. So far, from what Rick (Hendrick, team owner) is telling me, that seems to be me. That is why I was at Indy and that is why I'm here."

    Gordon has driven the No. 88 the past two races at Pocono (27th) and Indianapolis (13th). Alex Bowman drove the car at New Hampshire to a 26th-place finish.

    In his career, Gordon has four wins in 23 starts at the New York road course and nine total road-course wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. He also has five wins at Bristol.

    First practice at Watkins Glen is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. ET Friday on NBCSN, when Gordon will climb into the No. 88 for the third consecutive week -- one day after his 45th birthday.

    Earnhardt Jr. gives update on condition

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave some health-related updates Monday on "The Dale Jr. Download" podcast, including a revelation that his doctors think his latest concussion occurred at Michigan on June 12 and that his plan for the future "is to race more."

    "The symptoms have sort of plateaued," Earnhardt Jr. revealed. "There are days when I feel like that the balance is better and then there's certainly moments when it's not. "

    It is still unknown if Earnhardt Jr. will race this weekend at Watkins Glen, but NASCAR's Most Popular wheelman is itching for a quick recovery.

    "I'm very impatient and I want change now and I want improvement now. I'm constantly texting my doctor. (I told him), 'tell me you can fix this.' "

    Earnhardt missed the past three races after experiencing concussion-related symptoms. Jeff Gordon filled Junior's seat in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway. Alex Bowman replaced Junior at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

    Here are more quotes from the podcast:

    -- "My doctor's don't want me sleeping much. ... (I) can't be lazy and laying around all day."

    -- "The balance is up and down. The main issue that I have is called gaze stability. That's the main problem and that is, what I believe, is tied to the balance."

    -- " ... the problem is with my eye being able to fix on an object from a great distance. That's the problem, when I move my head, I lose the object that I'm trying to target."

    -- "It's only been three weeks since I really first got checked out so that's really a short span of time in the grand scheme of things."

    -- "I have to follow their (the doctors) orders with everything they want me to do and hope that over time that's going to make a difference."

    -- "This particular time, my doctor wants me to expose myself to situations that drive the symptoms. And that would be going places that I'm super unfamiliar with. Even going over to JR Motorsports just on a weekday drives the symptoms up."

    -- "You don't even realize you have anxiety until it affects you. I didn't think I had much anxiety in my life. ... Just the simple things you take for granted."

    -- "He (the physician) wants me to go to the grocery store with Amy. He wants me to live my life."

    -- "The hardest thing to understand is what's most important in life."

    -- "I'm not a doctor. So I have to lean on the professionals I'm working with. When I first went to get checked out, we went through every single test. We went through every possible issue from inner ear, blood tests, checked for Lyme disease. Everything we could think of."

    -- "They seem to really feel confident that this occurred in Michigan. I've never had a concussion that came on weeks after the event. Most of them you feel it immediately and they sort of get better over time. So this has been the opposite. This is scary for me because of the way it's been different."

    -- "In my mind, my plan is to race more."

    -- "You go to bed at night hoping you're going to be able to wake up the next morning and tell a difference. That drives you absolutely crazy."

    Earnhardt says no change in concussion-like symptoms

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. says his concussion-like symptoms haven’t changed and his return to NASCAR doesn’t appear imminent.

    NASCAR’s most popular driver is scheduled to miss his third consecutive race Sunday because he suffers from symptoms of a concussion.

    Earnhardt tweeted Saturday there was no change in his condition. He wrote: "Symptoms have plateaued over the last week. Balance/Gaze Stabilization are only issues. Docs preaching patience."

    Jeff Gordon came out of retirement to drive for Earnhardt last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Gordon will race the No. 88 car again this weekend at Pocono Raceway. No decision has been made by Hendrick Motorsports about next week’s race at Watkins Glen.

    Earnhardt had said on his weekly podcasts that he was struggling with balance and nausea. He said Monday that doctors have given him daily exercises to improve his balance.

    Earnhardt’s return to NASCAR could take more time

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. warned Monday that his return to NASCAR could take longer than planned.

    NASCAR’s most popular driver is scheduled to miss his third consecutive race this Sunday with concussion-like symptoms. On his weekly podcast, he said he will have another evaluation soon to see "what kind of gains we’ve made and get in front of my doctors . and let them tell me where they think I’m at and that will help us make the decision on what we’re going to do for Watkins Glen."

    Jeff Gordon came out of retirement to drive for Earnhardt on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Gordon will race the No. 88 car again this weekend at Pocono. No decision has been made by Hendrick Motorsports about next month’s race at Watkins Glen.

    Earnhardt said on last week’s podcast he was struggling with balance and nausea, and said Monday doctors have given him daily exercises to improve his balance.

    "That stuff takes about two hours, two and a half hours," he said. "I've got to do it every day. There's worse things to have to do. Some of it is tedious. Some of it is pretty tough. Some of the visual stuff is pretty tough.

    "You can race with some ailments. You can race with a bad wrist ... there's been some guys that have done some pretty incredible things. I've raced with a broken shoulder blade. There's certain things you can race through, but one of the things you cannot race through is concussion-like symptoms. The balance deal is a critical part of being able to drive a race car."

    Earnhardt also asked his fans to thank Gordon for taking over. Gordon was on vacation in France with his family when team owner Rick Hendrick asked him to drive for Earnhardt.

    "I'm not sure I would have made the decision he made to leave an awesome vacation with his family," he said. "Make sure you guys send special thanks to Jeff, my crew went through all that heat (at Indy) as well. Keep sending them good vibes. When we get back together, it's going to be on."

    Dale Jr. tweets update: 'I sensed improvement'

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave an update on his condition Friday morning via Twitter, something that likely perked up Junior Nation.

    The driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet revealed that he "sensed improvement" in his concussion-like symptoms and saw the "light at the end of the tunnel."

    Junior missed last week's race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after seeing a doctor when symptoms of nausea and loss of balance persisted. He was not cleared for the race.

    On Wednesday morning, Hendrick Motorsports announced Earnhardt would miss at least the next two races at Indianapolis and Pocono. Jeff Gordon , who retired at the end of the 2015 season, is the replacement driver.

    In making the Wednesday announcement that Gordon would serve as a fill-in driver, the team indicated that Earnhardt was evaluated Tuesday at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program. The team also said the 41-year-old driver did not receive medical clearance to resume competition and that there was no clear-cut timetable for his return.

    Gordon comes out of retirement to replace Earnhardt at Indy, Pocono

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss two more races as he recovers from concussion-like symptoms and retired NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon will replace him at Indianapolis and Pocono.

    The announcement came Wednesday from Hendrick Motorsports, which said Earnhardt has not been cleared by doctors to drive. He missed last weekend’s race in New Hampshire and was replaced by Alex Bowman.

    Team owner Rick Hendrick says the team is looking forward to having NASCAR’s most popular driver back racing "soon."

    Gordon is the only five-time winner of the Brickyard 400 and race organizers billed the 2015 race as his "last ride" in Indy. Since retiring at the end of last season, he served primarily as a commentator for Fox Sports.

    Dale Jr.: Recovery is going to take 'a lot of patience'

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. said problems with balance and nausea prevented him from driving in Sunday's New Hampshire 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and he is encouraged by concussion test results that match his baseline test.

    Earnhardt Jr. spoke for about three minutes in "The Dale Jr. Download" on his weekly audio update on Dirty Mo Radio, providing his first comments on his condition since Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday that he would miss the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire race for concussion-like symptoms.

    "The symptoms that I have are balance and nausea," Earnhardt Jr. said in the episode recorded Sunday night. "I've struggled with my balance over the last 4-5 days, and I definitely wouldn't be able to drive a race car this weekend. Making the right decision really was out of the question; I made the decision I had to make."

    Earnhardt Jr. said he was encouraged by the results of concussion tests he took, however.

    "My mind feels real sharp," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I took the ImPACT tests, which measures thought process and the speed of your thought process, and memory and retaining memory, and my results matched my baseline -- which made me feel confident that my brain was pretty sharp. It feels good."

    Earnhardt Jr. repeated that there remains no timeline for his return to the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. If he cannot race this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Jeff Gordon already has been tapped to be his replacement. Alex Bowman replaced Earnhardt Jr. in the New Hampshire 301 and finished 26th.

    "I'm going to continue to work with my doctors to understand more about the injury and how to treat it," Earnhardt Jr. said. "They can give me a lot of exercises that will retrain my brain to handle what I need to handle. It's just going to take a lot of patience. I put my health and quality of life as a top priority. I'll always do that. I'm going to take this slow and strictly follow the advice of my doctors and try to learn as much as I can to be smarter and wiser."

    Earnhardt Jr. also praised the performance of Bowman in filling in for him in New Hampshire, and thanked fans and fellow drivers for the supportive messages he's received.

    "It's always been a real experience going through this kind of stuff because you learn so much through the experience," he said. "I've got some great doctors to learn from. I miss everybody. I really appreciate all the support I've got. It's really unnecessary, but it really does make me feel good, I have to be honest. To hear everybody wishing me well really does my heart good. This kind of thing can beat you down and get you sad, but I've got a lot of good people around me and a lot of people supporting me."

    The full audio recording can be found here.

    Junior's health news was unexpected, Hendrick official says

    Doug Duchardt, general manager for Hendrick Motorsports, says there was no indication that driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. was dealing with concussion-like symptoms during the organization's weekly competition meeting earlier this week.

    Two days after that meeting, Duchardt and others were informed that the 41-year-old would not be competing in this weekend's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

    "Tuesdays we have our competition meeting and he shows up and he's just normal Dale," Duchardt said during a press conference Friday morning at NHMS. "It was Mexican day, so he was in a good mood. … It was just a normal day. If you sat down and listened to him discuss the Kentucky race … you would just think he was no different."

    On Thursday, HMS officials announced that Earnhardt had not been cleared by doctors to compete this weekend, and that Alex Bowman would replace Earnhardt in the team's No. 88 Chevrolet.

    In Thursday's statement from the team announcing the driver change, Earnhardt said he was not feeling well going into last weekend's race at Kentucky Speedway. After returning from the race, he saw doctors for what he initially thought was a severe sinus infection.

    "When that didn't help, I decided to dig a little deeper," Earnhardt said. "Because of my symptoms and my history with concussions, and after my recent wrecks at Michigan and Daytona, I reached out and met with a neurological specialist. After further evaluation, they felt it was best for me to sit out."

    His timeline for returning to competition is unknown and Earnhardt is expected to see doctors again next week for an update on his condition. Duchardt said if Earnhardt is unable to return for next week's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, former HMS driver Jeff Gordon , a four-time series champion who retired from driving at the end of 2015, would be his replacement in the No. 88 entry.

    Duchardt would not speculate on any potential replacements beyond next weekend's event. "We will obviously be thinking about contingency plans, but we don't have anything formalized for sure past Indy," he said.

    This weekend's race will mark the second time Earnhardt has been sidelined by a concussion or concussion-like symptoms. In 2012, he missed two races late in the season following a hard crash during a test at Kansas Speedway.

    According to David Higdon, Chief Communications Officer for the sanctioning body, NASCAR "requires drivers to submit a baseline neurocognitive assessment, such as an impact test … as a prerequisite for being licensed to compete."

    The requirement became mandatory in 2013 following "comprehensive, industry-wide education process," Higdon said.

    "Additionally, NASCAR's medical advisory group, a team of consulting physicians who work directly with the league on policy development while regularly meeting with drivers to continue the education process, includes many leaders in the neurological field. …

    "Another important element worth noting is the active role our drivers and teams take in monitoring their health. Drivers approach this responsibility very seriously and that ultimately benefits their entire team, the sport and their fellow competitors.

    "We applaud Dale Earnhardt Jr. for being a great example dating back to 2012 where he chose not to race in Charlotte and in Kansas during the Chase and has made that decision this weekend as well."

    At Michigan last month, Earnhardt was involved in an incident with fellow drivers Chris Buescher and AJ Allmendinger, but was able to drive his car back to the garage. At the time he told FS1 that the impact "wasn't too bad, actually."

    Barely one month later, Earnhardt was one of 22 competitors caught up in a crash at Daytona.

    Duchardt said there was no advance warning that something was amiss following the incidents at MIS or Daytona. "We didn't know of anything until he started talking to Greg (Ives, crew chief) about not feeling quite right in Kentucky," he said.

    "I think this weekend he is just, per doctor's orders, laying low like most people in these situations – minimum stimulation and just work to get better and keep activities down."

    Higdon said officials would "need to receive a notice from an independent board-certified neurologist" before Earnhardt, or any driver diagnosed with a similar injury, would be allowed to return.

    "That would be our expectation that the driver is prepared and able to compete in our sport," he said.

    Earnhardt is 13th in points and has yet to win this season. His eligibility for one of the 16 positions in this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup upon his return, should he be in position to qualify for a spot, would be determined by NASCAR. Attempting to compete in all races is one of the Chase eligibility requirements, although NASCAR can award an exemption based on each individual situation. Defending series champion Kyle Busch was provided a waiver last season after missing the first 11 points races due to injury; three-time series champion Tony Stewart has also received a waiver after missing this year's first eight races due to injury.

    Because of Earnhardt's initial concerns of potential sinus issues, Bowman was already on standby with the plan to replace the veteran once Earnhardt started Sunday's race at New Hampshire, according to Duchardt. When Earnhardt wasn't cleared to return to competition, the team moved forward with Bowman as the replacement.

    "The most important thing in this whole process is for Dale to get better and feel better," Duchardt said, "and we're going to let that happen on the timeline it's going to happen on.

    "And so, basically, less than 24 hours ago we found out that Dale couldn't run. We had Alex lined up to be in the car. It made perfect sense. And I have confidence that he and Greg will go a good job this weekend."

    Retired NASCAR champion Gordon may race for Earnhardt

    Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon could come out of retirement next weekend and drive the No. 88 Chevrolet if Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not cleared to race.

    Earnhardt will sit out this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway because he shows symptoms of a concussion. Alex Bowman will drive in his place.

    Hendrick Motorsports general manager Doug Duchardt said Friday that Gordon has agreed to return and drive next week if he is needed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Gordon won the last of his record five Brickyard 400 victories in 2014.

    Gordon has not raced since last season’s finale at Homestead, wrapping up a career that included 93 career Cup victories and series championships in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001. He has called NASCAR races for Fox Sports television.

    Gordon tweeted he was in France this weekend, which him ruled him out for a potential return at New Hampshire.

    Duchardt said a decision will likely be made on Wednesday. He also did not say if Gordon would continue to drive in the 88 should Earnhardt not be cleared beyond the Brickyard.

    "It's about making sure that he gets better and supporting him and his decision," Duchardt said. "It takes a lot to come out and address some of the health concerns that he had. It's not about what are we going to do when he does come back. It's all about getting better on a timeline that's satisfied to him."

    Earnhardt was evaluated in Charlotte, North Carolina, this week and doctors did not clear him to race. NASCAR's most popular driver, Earnhardt was involved in a 22-car wreck in Daytona this month and also wrecked last month at Michigan International Speedway. He says he was feeling fine last week and thought the problem was allergies. There is no timetable for his return.

    "I appreciate everyone's support and prayers and will miss my team terribly this weekend. I'm working with some great doctors to get well," Earnhardt tweeted.

    Earnhardt also missed two races in 2012 when it was determined he'd suffered two concussions in six weeks.

    Duchardt said Earnhart told the team last weekend at Kentucky that he wasn't feeling well and again on Tuesday that he was feeling worse. Earnhardt said the team needed to at least consider a backup driver for New Hampshire.

    Earnhardt eventually visited a team of neurologists and underwent concussion testing.

    "My understanding was, Dale was told that he shouldn't race," Duchardt said. "He knew he wasn't feeling well and had concerns about being in the car and running the whole race. To get healed, he needed to be out of the car."

    Duchardt could not say if Earnhardt actually had a concussion and declined to speculate on just how long NASCAR's most popular driver could be out of action.

    NASCAR mandated in 2013 for drivers to submit a baseline neurocognitive assessment. When a driver in NASCAR can't return his damaged car to the garage, a trip to the care centre is required, and under a new three-step process a driver showing any indication of a head injury must go immediately to a hospital. Concussed drivers must be cleared by an independent neurologist or neurosurgeon before they can get back in a race car.

    Earnhardt had already pledged his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The group works with Boston University on research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative disease that doctors believe is caused by repeated blows to the head.

    The 41-year-old Earnhardt is winless this season and 13th in the points standings. Because he will not start every race, Earnhardt will need a waiver from NASCAR to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship if he meets other eligibility requirements.

    The 23-year-old Bowman has not raced in the Cup series this season and had no top-10 finishes in 71 starts over the 2014-2015 seasons. He drives part-time in the second-tier Xfinity Series for Earnhardt's JR Motorsports team.

    "I'm not here to try and be Dale Earnhardt Jr," Bowman said.

    Earnhardt Jr. a scratch in NH with concussion symptoms

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. has dropped out of the Sprint Cup race Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway because of symptoms of a concussion.

    Earnhardt was evaluated in Charlotte, North Carolina, this week and doctors did not clear him to race. Hendrick Motorsports said Thursday it had no timetable for his return.

    Alex Bowman will drive in his place.

    NASCAR’s most popular driver, Earnhardt was involved in a 22-car wreck in Daytona this month and also wrecked last month at Michigan International Speedway. He says he was feeling fine last week and thought the problem was allergies. When that didn’t help, he met with a neurologist.

    Earlier this year, Earnhardt pledged his brain to researchers looking into the connection between concussions and traumatic brain injuries.

    "I'm looking forward to treatment with the goal of getting back in the race car when the doctors say I'm ready," Earnhardt said.

    Earnhardt Jr. at least twice in his career hid concussion symptoms to avoid being removed from his car. In 2012, he sought medical attention several days after a crash at Talladega because of symptoms he knew were concussion-related. During that examination, it was determined he'd suffered two concussions in six weeks and was sidelined for two weeks of healing.

    NASCAR required the next year for drivers to submit a baseline neurocognitive assessment. When a driver in NASCAR can't return his damaged car to the garage, a trip to the care centre is required, and under a new three-step process, if a driver shows any indication of a head injury they go immediately to a hospital. Concussed drivers must be cleared by a neurologist or neurosurgeon before they can get back in a race car.

    The 41-year-old Earnhardt is winless this season and 13th in the points standings. Because he will not start every race, Earnhardt will need a waiver from NASCAR to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, if he's meets other eligibility requirements.

    Hendrick Motorsports will provide an update next week on Earnhardt's status for the July 24 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

    "I'm proud of Dale for standing up," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "The number-one priority is his health, so we're going to give him all the time he needs. We completely support the decision by the doctors and will be ready to go win races when he's 100 per cent. In the meantime, we have full confidence in Greg (Ives) and the team, and we know they'll do a great job."

    The 23-year-old Bowman has not raced in the Cup series this season and had no top-10 finishes in 71 starts over the 2014-2015 seasons. He drives part-time in the second-tier Xfinity Series for Earnhardt's JR Motorsports team.

    Earnhardt Jr. the top name of drivers on the Chase bubble

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. candidly declared two weeks ago that he has too good of a race team to be worried about making NASCAR's playoffs.

    Since then, he has produced underwhelming finishes at Daytona and Kentucky and slipped to 13th in the Sprint Cup standings. Earnhardt hasn't scored a top-10 finish in a month and, yes, he is indeed in danger of missing the championship Chase.

    With eight races remaining to complete the 16-driver field, Earnhardt ranks third among drivers who have yet to secure a win this season but are ranked high enough to make the Chase. It's not a safe position by any means: Earnhardt has slipped from seventh in the standings since May and has led only four laps since mid-March.

    He's not the only driver in a precarious position. Because 11 drivers have so far won races this season, any first-time winners in the next two months will claim the remaining five Chase berths. Among those looking for automatic berths in the Chase are two of Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammates - Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne - as well as 2015 qualifier Jamie McMurray.

    Ryan Newman, who has made the Chase the last two years without a win, is on the bubble. Austin Dillon, rookie Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson are all eyeing wildcard spots but they could solidify a berth with their first career Cup wins.

    The chances of some of the bubble drivers over the final two months of NASCAR's ''regular season'' before the playoffs begin:


    NASCAR's most popular driver is probably the most puzzling performer this season. After winning seven races the past two years, this is the deepest he has gone into a season without a victory since his 2013 winless campaign. Earnhardt's numbers are down across the board. He's got only five top-five finishes, six top-10s and 53 laps led.

    He told reporters after Saturday night's 13th-place finish at Kentucky that he is not nervous about his positioning for the Chase.

    ''What am I going to do?'' he asked. ''We're running as good as we can. It's either going to be good enough or won't be enough. I'm not really going to lose any sleep over it, at least at this moment. When we miss the Chase, it'll be frustrating and disappointing, but we're going to plan on not doing that. We're going to plan on making it.''

    In the coming month, Earnhardt could gain some traction at Pocono, where he has two career victories, finished second in June and has seven consecutive finishes of 11th or better.

    He has also won at Bristol, Michigan and Richmond, where the Chase field will be finalized Sept. 10. Even if he doesn't get a win, mediocre results at his strong tracks should be enough to get Earnhardt into the Chase.


    Elliott is having a very nice rookie season and has climbed from 10th in the standings in early May to as high as sixth. He is currently eighth, the highest-ranked driver without a victory but three consecutive finishes outside the top-20 weakened his position.

    What could work against Elliott is a lack of experience at some of the upcoming tracks. He's yet to run a Cup car at New Hampshire, site of Sunday's race, or Watkins Glen. Elliott has only been to Pocono in a Cup car once, same with Indianapolis. But he won Xfinity Series races at Darlington and Richmond, so both tracks are very familiar.

    Kahne is in much rougher shape at 17th in the overall standings, but seventh among winless drivers.

    Kahne has only one win in almost three full seasons, and he's not exactly knocking on the door of victory lane. He's finished in the top-five only twice this season and has yet to lead a lap.

    He's likely going to need to steal a win somewhere to have any shot at making the Chase.


    He is the sneaky driver in this field and has successfully made the Chase the last three seasons. Despite not winning a race since 2013, Newman was runner-up in the championship in 2014 and made it to the second round of the Chase last year. Now he's on another quiet run toward a Chase berth. Newman has climbed from 18th in the standings in May to 12th, and he's ranked only behind Elliott among winless drivers. Also in his favor? He's really good at Indy, where he's got one career victory and five consecutive finishes of 12th or better.


    NASCAR has high hopes for the future of the Cup Series with fresh talent in Elliott, Dillon, Blaney and Larson. Of that crop, Elliott is having the best year, but the others have shown flashes of stepping it up a notch.

    Dillon is currently on the Chase bubble at 14th in the standings and only one point below Earnhardt. His season is up one week, down the next, and he needs consistency to maintain his footing.

    Blaney is ranked 18th in the standings and is probably the longshot for victory lane. He has yet to lead a lap and only has six top-10 finishes, but Ford has turned it up of late and he's got de facto Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano to lean on for assistance.

    Larson might be the first of the group to get a win, which would be long overdue. He has been erratic since his 2014 rookie campaign, though his drop-offs are much shorter now He was third at Michigan, followed by 12th at Sonoma. Then he was sixth at Daytona, followed by 19th at Kentucky.

    If he's going to make his first Chase, he either needs a string of top-10 finishes, or to finally get that first win.

    NASCAR season launch campaign honored at 2016 CLIO Sports Awards

    (Video) Inspired by the simple truth that all human beings love to race, NASCAR's season launch marketing campaign, Ready. Set. Race, was celebrated as the winner of three Silver CLIO Sports Awards during the ceremony last night in New York.

    The overall campaign was awarded Silver honors in the Integrated Campaign category, while the unique social media promotion, the Hashtag 500, and lead creative spot were recognized in the Social Media and Film categories, respectively.

    Developed by Ogilvy & Mather New York, Ready. Set. Race introduced the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series™ season leading up to the 2016 Daytona 500 ® through a blend of digital and social media activation, and advertising creative.

    "Ready. Set. Race is a significant campaign for NASCAR in that it represents an evolved approach to how we market the sport," said Jill Gregory, NASCAR senior vice president, Marketing and Industry Services. "We're prioritizing fan engagement above all else and leading campaigns with digital and social marketing, and that's created a more immersive experience for NASCAR fans."

    The Hashtag 500 was designed to engage fans around the Great American Race and last month garnered awards at the annual Cannes Lions festival in France. The social promotion, where fans tweeted custom hashtags to win race-used memorabilia from drivers and the Daytona 500 , won a Cannes Silver Lion in the sports entertainment category, and a Cannes Bronze Lion in Digital & Social for best use of social platforms.

    The Ready. Set. Race campaign and "It's In Our Blood" spot were shortlist honorees at Cannes Lions 2016.

    "Our goal for Ready. Set. Race was to help NASCAR engage with its fans in new and different ways," said Teddy Lynn, chief creative officer, Content & Social, Ogilvy & Mather. "This year we created a campaign that encouraged consumers to bring their natural-born racing mentality to life. We're thrilled with the response the work received at the CLIO Sports Awards and last month in Cannes, but even more so with the reaction from our most important audience: NASCAR fans."

    Another NASCAR creative spot, titled "What If," received a Bronze CLIO Sports award in the Short Form category. The 90-second spot launched in 2015 and recounts the history of NASCAR, from the earliest days of stock car racing through to today's action-packed events at iconic race tracks like Daytona International Speedway.

    Halfway through the 2016 season, the combination of great racing and a marketing strategy driven by digital and social media have helped drive fan consumption of the sport. From January through June, NASCAR has more than doubled its follower growth compared to the same period last season. In addition, engagement with social content has increased by 83 percent year-over-year, with more than 114 million total engagements.

    The 2016 Daytona 500 saw more NASCAR-related social conversation than any single day since the inception of the NASCAR Fan and Media Engagement Center (FMEC). Social conversation was up 44 percent compared to last year’s race.

    The Hashtag 500 fan race on Twitter to win Dale Earnhardt Jr. 's firesuit generated the most NASCAR-related mentions in one minute (13,000) since the inception of the FMEC.

    The Rundown: Daytona driver grades

    21. Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. Earnhardt sustained damage in the big wreck but survived and just missed the Carl Edwards wreck on Lap 155. Despite that good fortune, he was not happy with his car. We can't print what said about it over the radio. You'll have to trust us on this one. Grade: C

    Earnhardt hopes new Chevrolet gets him a Daytona victory

    Amelia is in the graveyard located in the woods of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s property in North Carolina, where he collects ruined race cars.

    The beloved Chevrolet failed Earnhardt in the Daytona 500 and again at Talladega. He thought he'd drive Amelia to another victory in both races - after all, she'd won four times in six restrictor-plate starts over a 13-month period - but he crashed in both superspeedway races this season.

    After the Talladega wreck, he retired Amelia and added her to his eclectic graveyard.

    So when NASCAR's most popular driver races Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway, it will be in a new Chevy built by Hendrick Motorsports that won't have a name.

    ''We're not going to be naming cars anymore,'' Earnhardt said Thursday. ''I knew as soon as we did that, it sort of took off and put a lot of pressure on that car and the team. These cars just don't stick around long enough to get names. You used to race cars for years and years and they would show a personality.

    ''These days, you only keep a car for maybe a year before it's unrecognizable or it's cut out of the herd.''

    In fact, Earnhardt believes Amelia probably outlived her worth. In hindsight, he doesn't think he should have raced her at Daytona or Talladega.

    ''There are newer ideas and theories and better ways to do things that that car didn't have,'' he said. ''We assumed, hey, it was doing so well, why wouldn't it keep going? It seems like over the offseason there's so much improvement and gains made by every organization that you can't afford to rest on what you did the year before.''

    While it's true that a driver is only as good as his car, Earnhardt has proved to excel at restrictor plate races. Of his 26 career Sprint Cup victories, Earnhardt has won 10 times at Daytona and Talladega. He's the defending race winner here at Daytona, and he won an exhibition race in February. Counting non-points events, Earnhardt has won 11 times at the famed speedway.

    He's done it with an aggressive driving style that he possibly inherited from his late father, Dale Earnhardt, who won 13 points races at Daytona and Talladega before he was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

    ''You've got to get yourself out there and put yourself in some pretty compromising situations that are touch and go,'' Earnhardt said. ''If you want to go up there and win the race, you've got to put yourself in some situations that are really sketchy.

    ''Sometimes in plate racing it's as hairy as you can stand. It's about as much excitement and nerve-wracking anxiety as you can stomach.''

    Earnhardt will likely drive that way on Saturday night when he seeks his first victory of the season. He sits 12th in the standings - only behind teammate Chase Elliott among drivers inside the top 16 still looking for a win.

    But 12 drivers already have wins this season with 10 races remaining to set the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field. A win should essentially lock a driver into the Chase - unless there are more than 16 winners.

    So Earnhardt isn't very comfortable with his current position, especially since there have been eight different winners in the last eight races. He admitted being frustrated over his May races - he didn't have a finish higher than 14th - but is encouraged by what speed crew chief Greg Ives has seemed to find.

    ''Where we are in points is very frustrating,'' he said. ''It creates a lot of anxiety between me and Greg. I think that we both are not happy with where we are in the points. We are wondering and worrying about trying to make the Chase - it shouldn't be something that this team is concerned with.

    ''I think we are way better than where we are.''

    He lamented that success came easier in years past. He noted the number of accidents he's been in is uncharacteristic but said his team is giving him good cars.

    ''Hopefully, we just get to Richmond and we don't have a lot of pressure about trying to make the Chase,'' he said. ''Hopefully, we can put a string of races together that will give us a good cushion between us and the next guys fighting for those last few spots. Obviously, we need to get a win to put all that to bed, but nothing is guaranteed. If we don't get a win going into the Chase we are going to have to do well in these next 10 races and just be real consistent.''

    For Junior, confidence is key to winning at Daytona

    The speed has been there. The results, in terms of wins, have not.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., considered perhaps the best restrictor-plate racer competing in NASCAR today, is 12th in points as drivers and teams arrived this week at Daytona International Speedway, site of Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola (7:45 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    His last victory came last November in Phoenix, 17 races ago. Not an extraordinarily long time, but notable just the same.

    Notable, in part, because Saturday's race kicks off a 10-race run leading up to this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Earnhardt Jr. plans on being one of the 16 drivers competing for the title.

    "Obviously we need to get a win to put all that to bed but nothing is guaranteed," Earnhardt said Thursday at DIS. "If we don't get a win going into the Chase we're going to have to do well in these next 10 races and just be real consistent."

    Consistency has been something of an issue for the No. 88 team, one of four fielded by Hendrick Motorsports, this season. And his involvement in on-track incidents has been more frequent.

    Sixth in points after back-to-back runnerup up finishes earlier this year, Earnhardt has scored just one in the eight races that followed.

    The month of May, he said, was both disappointing and frustrating.

    "We're a little frustrated with how we ran through the month of May," Earnhardt said. "We've seen more speed out of our cars (but) had some bad finishes, wrecks … tore up a lot of cars this year, uncharacteristic, I think, for us to be in so many accidents.

    "So where we are in points is very frustrating. It creates a lot of anxiety between me and Greg (Ives, crew chief). I think we are both not happy with where we are in the points.

    "Wondering and worrying about trying to make the Chase shouldn't be something that we're concerned with. I think we're way better than where we are. In the past several years, we've sat around the top five in points throughout the season. Things just came easier for us. They're not coming so easy today and we've just got to keep working."

    Earnhardt has qualified for the Chase for five consecutive years and eight times since he made the move to Sprint Cup fulltime in 2000. Recent efforts have been promising, in spite of the end result. He was 11th at Sonoma, "a place that I really don't like to race and don't really think I'm very good at," he said.

    He finished 39th a week earlier at Michigan, where he said the car was fast, but "we just didn't get a chance to see it and get up there and see where we could go with it.

    "So I'm not real worried about our speed because I feel like we've had good speed over the last couple of weeks; certainly in May we didn't and that was hard to do and frustrating. Hopefully we just get to Richmond and we don't have a lot of pressure about trying to make the Chase. We've just got to put a string of races together that will give us a cushion between us and the next guys fighting for those last few spots."

    That string could start this weekend. Ten of his 26 career victories in Sprint Cup have come in restrictor-plate races (four here at Daytona and six at Talladega Superspeedway), making him a favorite anytime the series visits the two mega-facilities. He's the defending winner of this weekend's race.

    But this year it was rival Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing) scoring the win in the season-opening Daytona 500 and some two months later Brad Keselowski (Team Penske) was celebrating in the Winner's Circle at Talladega. Both races ended long after Earnhardt had exited the scene.

    In order to contend for the win here, Earnhardt said, a driver needs a car that is nearly perfect in all aspects. With rain delaying the majority of Thursday's practice sessions, just how good his No. 88 entry is this weekend remains an unknown.

    "That really makes the driver's job a lot easier when the car is a dominant car," he said. "I've had plenty of dominant race cars down here. And when you're out on the race track and you have such a good car, you gain more and more confidence as the weekend goes and your confidence really starts to create more opportunities.

    "When you're confident about your car, you're trying more passes and trying to do more things. If you don't feel confident in your car, you might second-guess a decision or not do something. Every little move you make out there sort of puts you in position to win."

    The Rundown: Sonoma driver grades

    11. Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. Junior was on the short end of Joey Logano's mishap with 14 laps to go. Earnhardt saved his car, but the No. 88 sustained heavy damage to the left side, including a tire rub. Hats off to Earnhardt for bringing his car home 11th … and not bringing out a caution flag. Grade: A

    Dale Jr. interested in going back in the booth

    Saturday's NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Michigan International Speedway saw the much-anticipated debut of Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the broadcast booth alongside Adam Alexander and Michael Waltrip.

    Earnhardt talked about his experience contributing to FS1's race telecast on Dirty Mo Radio's "The Dale Jr. Download."

    "I had been procrastating about going in there and doing that," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'd been asked for a couple years to do it. My great friend Michael Waltrip was really encouraging me, Jeff Gordon, couple other people, Darrell (Waltrip). A lot of people in the industry, producers and so forth that I'm friends with were very encouraging to try it out and I've watched all my peers go up in the booth to do that and they all do such a great job, so I felt like that I had to try it once. It doesn't sound like a big deal but for me, personally, I am really shy, so for me putting myself out there like that was a really challenging thing.

    "I had way more fun than I thought I'd have. My eyes were open to a lot of things that were happening up there."

    Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Danica Patrick are among the drivers who have served as race analysts this season for NASCAR on FOX's XFINITY race coverage.

    Junior's broadcast day started with a 7 a.m. ET production meeting, but the most hectic part came when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series final practice came to an end at 12:55 p.m. ET. He had to shower and get to the booth ahead of the 1:30 p.m. ET start time for the XFINITY event -- not to mention cool down from a hot race car.

    "Hustling up there was tough," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I got that shirt and tie on and I was sweating like crazy having come out of that car. The car was 140 degrees on Saturday in practice so it took me a while to cool off.

    "Michael and those guys were great, gracious, so supportive. My dad and Michael were great friends, so being up there with him made the whole thing a lot sweeter and way more comfortable for me. I felt like I was just standing there with a friend and we were just talking about the race. Adam's a pro. He's up there doing all the hard work and gives you a ton of confidence. Those guys just tee you right up to help you spit out a thought."

    Dale Jr. is open to a return visit to the booth and was glad that he had this experience at Michigan.

    "I enjoyed the hell out of being in the booth and talking about the race," he said. "I really got consumed with the race, itself, and really enjoyed trying to give my take on what I was seeing. And I think that if I spent more time with it and put a little more preparation and effort into it, I'd really enjoy it. I don't know if that's something in my future. Now that I went up there and did this, I know that I have more interest in it. I didn't know whether I'd like it before I did. So now that I know I did enjoy it, I'm going to try and learn more.

    "… I don’t know when I'll do another race but more than likely I'll talk myself into another race before you know it."

    Dale Jr. looks to recharge, discusses Michigan wreck

    The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series off weekend could not have come at a better time for Dale Earnhardt Jr. after a 39th-place wreck-induced finish in the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

    "Damn, I needed one," Earnhardt said on Dirty Mo Radio's "The Dale Jr. Download." "I'm going to have some fun. Get my battery recharged for the rest of the year because we don't have another off week until August. This break couldn't have come at a better time. I was cooked. All the bad luck we've had, racing hasn't been a whole lot of fun lately.

    "We took off at the start of the year, having such a good time and really enjoying everything that was going on. This break, hopefully, will give us a chance to reset, come back with a good attitude. Get some points back, get some good finishes back in the bank."

    After five top-eight finishes in the season's first nine races, Dale Jr. has had three finishes of 32nd-or-worse in the past six races. The latest a result of a three-car incident involving Chris Buescher (No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford) and AJ Allmendinger (No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet) on Lap 61 with a No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet that Junior believed to be a "solid top 10 car." On the podcast, Junior explained what happened and why he took issue with Buescher's role in it.

    "Went down the front straightaway going into (Turn) 1, the 47 (AJ Allmendinger) got loose and went real high. I went underneath him in the middle lane to try and challenge the position shortly after a restart. The 34 (Chris Buescher) was underneath me on the bottom and he got pretty loose. I seen him coming and he clipped a car and I couldn't keep it out of the fence. We got hooked up with the 47 I think and got into the wall pretty hard.

    "I was real mad and I'm mad at Chris because you know, you try to take care of each other there. I know when I drive my car I try to think when I'm going into the corner, 'Am I going to bust my ass and take this guy out?' I mentally have concern for not only my well-being but his. You don't want to ruin anybody's race. I know Chris didn't want to ruin my race and Chris probably is disappointed it happened. And I know that I made mistakes and everybody does but it doesn't mean that I can't have an opinion about it when it happens. If anybody wants to give me any (expletive) about being upset, you'd be singing my tune if you was riding shotgun when that car hit the fence.

    "It's easy to sit on the couch and play armchair quarterback. I'm not going to hold it against Chris. I like the guy. I've talked to him several times. He's a nice guy. He's a good racer and just made a mistake and cost us a big chunk of points. I still think we're a good team. We're going to be OK. We can't have a lot of bad luck but things like this are out of our control. Can't help getting taken out, wadded up. We just got to do what we can in the races we can run good at and take care of ourselves."

    Crew chief Greg Ives took to Twitter on Sunday night to shoulder the blame for the team's qualifying woes. The 88 team started Sunday's race 27th on the grid and Earnhardt's 16.8 average starting position is his worst since 2011.

    "Greg is going to put that on his shoulders and take a lot of the blame for that but ... I don't quite agree with it." Earnhardt later added that "Greg and those guys are working their guts out. They are a good team, full of good guys and they deserve a lot of respect."

    Junior is heading out of town for the off weekend as evidenced by a Twitter photo of he and fiance Amy Reimann at the airport. Last year's June off weekend saw the pair get engaged.

    And when the 41-year-old returns, he knows the task at hand as he sits 11th in points and winless after back-to-back seasons of four and three wins, respectively.

    "Richmond (site of the regular-season finale and the season's 26th race) is going to be here before we know it and we don't want be sitting at Richmond having to run, having to finish X to make the Chase. I mean that's crazy for a team like us, I just feel like that's insane. We are definitely a top-10 team easy, maybe even a top-five team. We can run with them when we put it all together so I got good confidence that things are going to work out."

    NASCAR drivers make highest-paid athletes list

    It's doesn't take much to figure out that when it comes to getting paid, some athletes have it pretty good these days. Two NASCAR drivers in particular are doing quite well when it comes to providing for their teams and families.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson made Forbes.com's recently released list of the World's Highest-Paid Athletes for 2016, coming in at No. 71 and 82, respectively.

    According to the website/magazine, Johnson's pay was $22.2 million, broken down into $16.2 million for salary and winnings and $6 million for endorsements.

    Meanwhile, NASCAR's most popular driver, Earnhardt Jr., earned $23.5 million, with $15 million coming from salary and winnings and $8.5 million for endorsements.

    Proof positive that mamas and papas should want their babies to grow up to be NASCAR drivers, not cowboys.

    To see the full list, go to Forbes.com.

    The Rundown: Michigan Driver Grades

    39. Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports. See AJ Allmendinger for the particulars. Junior was not happy with Chris Buescher as he looked over the remains of his car in the garage. Earnhardt was running 19th at the time. It was his fourth DNF of the season, one more than his previous two seasons combined. Grade: F

    Earnhardt Jr.'s day ends early after Michigan wreck

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. was knocked from contention Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, sent behind the wall by a crash that ended his day in the 61st of 200 scheduled laps. Based on Kyle Busch's early exit from the race as well, Junior will likely finish in 39th-place for the day.

    Earnhardt -- a two-time Michigan winner -- started 27th in the FireKeepers Casino 400, the first of two races this season for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at the 2-mile track. He took the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet to the garage for repairs after driving away from the incident.

    Shortly after a restart, rookie Chris Buescher slid up out of the lower groove in Turn 2, his Front Row Motorsports No. 34 Ford making contact with the left-rear fender of Earnhardt's No. 88. Earnhardt slid high, collecting the JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47 Chevrolet of AJ Allmendinger and sending both cars into the outside retaining wall.

    Buescher accepted blame for the crash over his radio communications during the race's third caution period. Earnhardt agreed in an interview from the garage.

    "(The impact) wasn't too bad, actually," Earnhardt Jr. told FS1. "I knew I was going to hit the wall. The 34 (of Chris Buescher) just drove into my left rear quarter panel, man. I don't know. On restarts you have a responsibility to take care of everyone out there, even when you're three-wide. I'm disappointed in that."

    Dale Jr. later tweeted about his vacation getting an early start with the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series off next weekend.

    @DaleJr : The car was good today and getting faster. Easy top 10. Haven't been wrecked in a while but that is part of racing. Vacation starts early.

    Click here to vist the Dale Earnhardt Jr New Archive Part 2