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dale earnhardt jr
Height: 6-0
Weight: 165
Born: Oct 10, 1974
Birth Place: Kannapolis, NC
Number: 88
Cup Wins: 26
NNS Wins: 23
Sponsor: National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet
Crew Chief: Steve Letarte

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Upcoming Cup Races/ Appearances

  • Jul 23 Brickyard 400 Indianapolis Motor Speedway NBC/3pm (ET)
  • Jul 30 Pennsylvania 400 Pocono Raceway NBCSN/3pm (ET)
  • Aug 6 Watkins Glen 355 Watkins Glen International NBCSN/3pm (ET)
  • Aug 13 Pure Michigan 400 Michigan International Speedway NBCSN/3pm (ET)
  • Aug 19 Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race Bristol Motor Speedway NBC/7:30pm (ET)
  • Sept 3 Bojangles' Southern 500 Darlington Raceway NBCSN/6pm (ET)
  • Sept 9 Federated Auto Parts 400 Richmond International Raceway NBCSN/7:30pm (ET)
  • Sept 17 Chicagoland 400 Chicagoland Speedway NBCSN/3pm (ET)
  • Sept 24 New Hampshire 300 New Hampshire Motor Speedway NBCSN/2pm (ET)
  • Oct 1 Dover Fall Race Dover International Speedway NBCSN/2pm (ET)
  • Oct 7 Bank of America 500 Charlotte Motor Speedway NBCSN/7pm (ET)
  • Oct 1 Alabama 500 Talladega Superspeedway NBC/2pm (ET)
  • Oct 22 Hollywood Casino 400 Kansas Speedway NBCSN/3pm (ET)
  • Oct 29 Martinsville Fall Race Martinsville Speedway NBCSN/1pm (ET)
  • Nov 5 AAA Texas 500 Texas Motor Speedway NBC/2pm (ET)
  • Nov 12 Can-Am 500 Phoenix International Raceway NBC/2:30pm (ET)
  • Nov 19 Ford EcoBoost 400 Homestead-Miami Speedway NBC/2:30pm (ET)
  • Netflix- CHELSEA
  • DVD- NASCAR 2014 Daytona 500
  • DVD: Dale Earnhardt Jr: Shifting Gears
  • DVD: Cars
  • DVD: 'Any Given Day'
  • 2017 Race Results

    DateRaceTrackStartFinishPt. Pos.
    2/23Can-Am Duel 2Daytona Int'l Speedway16--
    2/26Daytona 500Daytona Int'l Speedway23725
    3/5Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500Atlanta Motor Speedway123033
    3/12Kobalt 400Las Vegas Motor Speedway181627
    3/19Camping World 500Phoenix International Raceway31423
    3/26Auto Club 400Auto Club Speedway181621
    4/2STP 500Martinsville Speedway213425
    4/9O'Reilly Auto Parts 500Texas Motor Speedway37520
    4/23Food City 500Bristol Motor Speedway203824
    4/30Toyota Owners 400Richmond International Raceway123024
    5/7Geico 500Talladega Superspeedway22225
    5/13Go Bowling 400Kansas Speedway332025
    5/20Monster Energy All-Star RaceCharlotte Motor Speedway618--
    5/28Coca-Cola 600Charlotte Motor Speedway191023
    6/4AAA 400 Drive for AutismDover International Speedway111122
    6/11Pocono 400Pocono Raceway283823
    6/18FireKeepers Casino 400Michigan International Speedway17923
    6/25Toyota Save Mart 350Sonoma Raceway10622
    7/1Coke Zero 400Daytona International Speedway13222
    7/8Quaker State 400Kentucky Speedway131221
    7/16Overton's 301Kentucky Speedway181821

    NEWS

    (Click Here to submit news, articles & rumors)

    Hendrick tabs Bowman as Earnhardt replacement in No. 88 car

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the replacement he wanted. Alex Bowman got his dream job.

    Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday that the 24-year-old Bowman will replace one of the series’ biggest stars in the No. 88 car next season after Earnhardt retires.

    Bowman has big shoes to fill. Earnhardt was named NASCAR’s most popular driver each of the last 14 seasons and fans of his late father often tracked Junior’s results following Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 season opener at Daytona.

    "Ever since I was a kid, racing is all I’ve wanted to do," Bowman said. "I’ve had so many people believe in me along the way. My family has sacrificed a lot and always been behind me. I would never have this chance without the support of Dale and everyone involved with the No. 88 team. To be part of Hendrick Motorsports and for Mr. Hendrick to have this confidence in me, it’s just amazing."

    Bowman already has some experience in this job. When the 42-year-old Earnhardt missed 18 races because of a concussion last season, Bowman started 10 of them in the No. 88, winning the first Cup pole of his career and finishing in the top 10 three times.

    That was enough to get Earnhardt’s attention and eventually an endorsement in May.

    "Alex Bowman to the 88 next year — is that what you guys want?" Junior asked during a livestream on Periscope following the series’ All-Star race. "That would be pretty awesome to see Alex in that car. That’s the plan, I hope. . Yeah, Alex in the 88. That sounds good to me. That kid earned it last year. He ran good."

    The 24-year-old Bowman performed well enough to get several full-time offers to drive in the Cup series this year.

    Instead, he stayed patient. Bowman said he turned down each offer as he continued searching for the right situation. The Tucson, Arizona, native wound up with no full-time ride in 2017.

    But with Earnhardt’s concussion history, Bowman likely knew it wouldn’t be long until he stepped away. Rick Hendrick’s team contemplated its options for months before finally deciding bring back Bowman.

    In 81 career Cup starts and 50 career starts in the Xfinity Series, Bowman has never won a race. But he had 13 top-finishes and won three poles on the Xfinity circuit before blossoming in Earnhardt’s car last season.

    He joins a series that is clearly in transition.

    With television ratings and attendance sagging and three major stars — Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Earnhardt — retiring since 2015, Bowman will become yet another prominent fresh face in a series that currently has five drivers who are in their 20s in the top 15.

    The announcement comes two days Earnhardt attempts to qualify for his final Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis. The race is scheduled to be run Sunday.

    Amy Earnhardt on Dale Jr. running 2018 Clash: ‘Not worth the risk’

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., despite plans to step away from the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet after the season, is eligible for the 2018 Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway.

    Many have speculated that the 42-year-old could suit up in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series one more time before he officially hangs up the premier series fire suit, but wife Amy put any possibility to rest on Tuesday evening.

    @AmyEarnhardt: (Read Statement Here)

    Earnhardt missed nearly half of the 2016 season after suffering concussion-related symptoms.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s throwback paint scheme a nod to his XFINITY Series past

    (Pic) During a recent post-race Periscope video, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said his throwback paint scheme for the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway would be personal. Earnhardt and sponsor Nationwide revealed just how personal Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

    On Sept. 3, the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will mimic the paint scheme Earnhardt ran in 1998 and 1999 with ACDelco in what is now the XFINITY Series. Junior was in that primarily blue car with white trim and lettering for two consecutive XFINITY Series titles, a span in which he also won 13 times.

    Earnhardt also won back-to-back XFINITY Series championships in the car.

    As for Darlington, in his four XFINITY starts at ‘The Lady in Black’ with the ACDelco car, Earnhardt grabbed a career-best finish of second in the September 1998 race.

    Earnhardt’s final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start at Darlington comes during the track’s annual throwback weekend. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is still seeking his first win at the track, but does have 10 top-10 finishes in 21 starts. Earnhardt’s career-best finish at Darlington is a second-place effort in 2014.

    This will be the third consecutive year Darlington Raceway has hosted throwback weekend. The suggested time period being celebrated is 1985-89.

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at New Hampshire

    Race: Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway

    Date: Sunday, July 16, 3 p.m. ET (NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at New Hampshire: 25th, 5th, 9th, 10th, 6th

    Notable: Although he’s winless at New Hampshire, Earnhardt has performed well at the ‘Magic Mile’ in recent years. Among active drivers, Earnhardt is tied for the fifth-best average finish (10.8) over the course of the last 10 New Hampshire races. And that’s with the driver of the No. 88 having missed both races in 2016 because of a concussion. Earnhardt has also led 368 laps in his 33 New Hampshire starts with 15 top-10 finishes.

    Memorable: While it wasn’t a career-best result for Earnhardt at New Hampshire, the fall race of 2003 has been to date his career-best performance. Earnhardt started sixth and led a race-high 120 of 300 laps. However, he faded to a fifth-place finish over the course of a 101-lap green-flag run to the finish. A year later, Earnhardt did grab his career-best result when he finished third. It is one of eight top-five finishes Earnhardt has at New Hampshire.

    Quotable: “I’m looking forward to New Hampshire. It’s a fun little racetrack,” Earnhardt said. “Obviously, it’s flat, and it’s kind of tricky to get around, but it’s fun. We haven’t been as good as I want to be there. I’ve seen some guys on the last couple of trips there do some things that I want to be doing, and we’ve got to figure out how to get our car to work that way. It should be a pretty fun race for us. I heard they’ve been working on the track surface, so it will be interesting to go there and see exactly how the track is.”

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Kentucky

    Race: Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway

    Date: Saturday, July 8, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Kentucky: 13th, 21st, 5th, 12th, 4th

    Notable: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not yet won at Kentucky Speedway, which has only seen six Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races. Of his six starts there, Earnhardt has two top fives and a pole that came in 2013. He’s led a total of 10 laps in Kentucky and has an average finish of 14.2.

    Memorable moment: Last season during the Quaker State 400, Earnhardt expressed frustrations behind-the-wheel from a combination of conservative tires, a lower downforce package, and the track repave. On top of that, he ran out of gas on the final lap. Still, Earnhardt managed to snag a top-15 finish (13th), a placing not even he thought was feasible.

    Quotable: “The bumps were extremely bad at Kentucky – it was rough. The corners were great, and I think a lot of drivers would have liked to keep the corners ‘as is,’ just because they were aged and slick, and provided a lot of opportunity and different lines to run,” Earnhardt said in a team release. “But as the track ages, it should be incredible.”

    Earnhardt hits wall in potential final Cup start at Daytona

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. scraped the wall in a race billed as his final Cup Series start at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night.

    NASCAR's most popular driver had a flat right rear tire as he entered a turn, started to slow and then brushed the wall and flattened the right front tire.

    He made his way to pit row, but lost two laps while getting repairs. The damage likely will end Earnhardt's chances of picking up his 18th career victory at the famed speedway.

    Earnhardt was the pole-sitter and overwhelming favourite to win the race. He clearly had one of the fastest cars in the field and spent much of the first two stages up front.

    Several other top contenders found trouble, too.

    Points leader Kyle Larson and second-place Martin Truex Jr. were involved in a 10-car accident on Lap 72 that knocked out Truex and Joey Logano. Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Danica Patrick, Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, Kurt Busch and Michael McDowell also were involved in the wreck that Kyle Busch started when he got sideways and started to spin in tight pack racing.

    "Wrong place at the wrong time again for us," Logano said. "It's superspeedway racing. Sometimes you're on the good side of it, sometimes you're on the wrong side of it. That was the bad one."

    Earnhardt's troubles earlier seemingly silenced the stadium.

    Earnhardt announced in April that this would be his final full-time season in NASCAR's top series. He plans to drive a handful of races in the second-tier Xfinity Series, but has not committed to running at Daytona again.

    So the track billed this race as his Daytona finale , even painting a No. 88 logo on the infield grass and dubbing the entire weekend "Daletona." Track officials also presented Junior with a painting featuring three of his most memorable wins at the superspeedway: His July 2001 victory that came 4 1/2 months after his father's fatal crash in the Daytona 500; his July 2010 win in the second-tier series in which he drove a No. 3 Chevrolet with a throwback paint scheme; and his February 2014 win in "The Great American Race."

    Earnhardt told NBC broadcasters he was a little overwhelmed with all the attention on pit road before the race.

    Fans crowded around his Chevrolet, snapping pictures and screaming well wishes to NASCAR's favourite son.

    Earnhardt acknowledged earlier in the week that winning at Daytona, a venue that has delivered personal tragedy and professional triumph, was his best last chance to make the playoffs. He is winless this season and ranks 22nd in points, well out of the post-season picture.

    "We are running out of time, and I am aware of that," Earnhardt said. "Yeah, this is probably our best shot to win, but we can win at other race tracks. We've got that ability to do that. It's been a very frustrating, tough year statistically."

    With fans’ hearts and pole won, Junior eyes Daytona next

    It was hard to tell who was happiest after Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet was atop the scoring pylon following Friday’s final qualifying round for the Coke Zero 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). It might have been Junior, or it might have been anyone else at Daytona International Speedway.

    Fans high-fived and screamed loudly enough to hear over the sound of Junior’s car making its way back around the track for a cool-down lap.

    “Dale Yeah! D-a-l-e yeah,” yelled an especially enthusiastic Earnhardt fan, jumping into the air on pit road and holding his Earnhardt-autographed hat up high off his head like a trophy.

    Other race teams, still standing on pit road, smiled knowingly and walked away realizing they had better prepare for some big-time “Little E” competition.

    For NASCAR’s reigning 14-time Most Popular Driver, it marks the first pole position he’s earned in four years and positions him for the fondest of farewells in his final full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season at the one venue most associated with his legendary racing name.

    “I just heard him on the radio say he might come back for the Clash,” his teammate, and fellow front-row qualifier Chase Elliott said with a laugh about the annual Daytona Speedweeks exhibition race featuring the previous year’s pole winners. “Did you all hear him? I’m just going to start that rumor right now!”

    The two will line up next to each other in an event Earnhardt has won twice and is considered a favorite for Saturday.

    “I think I will look at it as just a great opportunity to go out there and get a win,” Earnhardt, 42, said. “There are a lot of things that you have to do before you see the checkered flag. But I don’t know if I am feeling any more pressure than we typically feel when we come do Daytona.

    “We always seem to be in the conversation when we show up and one of the guys that is the favorite or a contender, and that has always been the case when we come here. So we have always had a little bit of that to deal with, so I don’t think it makes me feel any different about it this weekend.”

    Earnhardt had spoken to the media earlier Friday to discuss his final Daytona start. He was heartfelt and open. And coming into the media center again late Friday afternoon after winning the pole position, he was energetic and reflective. He didn’t answer questions as much as share stories.

    And what a story Daytona has been for him. He has 19 top-10 finishes in 35 starts, 13 top fives and four victories that includes the 2004 and 2014 Daytona 500.

    One Earnhardt “fan family” came to Daytona Beach from Hot Springs, Arkansas, just to see him perform here. It was 9-year-old Andrew Grisham’s first plane ride — all just to see his favorite driver’s potential final Daytona Monster Energy Series start.

    Dressed in an Earnhardt T-shirt, wearing an Earnhardt hat and sipping water out of an Earnhardt cup, he and his uncle, Matt Milks, 30, stood outside Earnhardt’s garage window in Daytona’s “Fan Zone” for six hours waiting for a chance to interact with the two-time Daytona 500 champion.

    They left with autographed dollar bills, hats, jackets, drink koozies, even their tickets for Saturday’s race.

    “I love my mom and dad and Dale Jr.,” Grisham said with a huge smile. His grandmother leaned in and explained with another grin, “This has been passed down through generations.”

    And Earnhardt gets that and appreciates it. He hears the crowd’s cheers. He feels the crowd surround him wherever he walks.

    Sure, it happens everywhere, but there is a special “feel” here where his legendary father Dale Earnhardt also collected 34 top 10s before being killed in the 2001 Daytona 500.

    Earnhardt Jr. has 17 race wins here, including XFINITY Series and non-points events, and knows this is a logical — and emotional — place to score his first Cup win of 2017.

    “We haven’t had a lot to be happy about on the race track this year, we haven’t had a whole lot to celebrate,” Earnhardt acknowledged. “As a driver and I think as a team, you feel responsible to deliver. The fans have expectations. You have expectations of yourself and what you should be able to accomplish on the race track and you feel that responsibility to deliver.

    “They come to the race track to see you lead. And when you don’t, you can feel the frustration coming through Twitter and social media after the races where you’re not a factor. They want it. They want you to be up there.

    “It’s a responsibility. I’m supposed to get up there and do it. They think I can do it. I think I can do it. It feels good to give ’em something to cheer about. Hopefully that gets them excited for (Saturday) and hopefully … we’re a part of the celebration at the end and part of the excitement at the finish.”

    Asked repeatedly about his expectations at Daytona this weekend, Earnhardt insisted his fate depends as much on the car as his great talent behind the wheel. Even if his fans would beg to differ.

    “We have had some really, really good cars here,” Earnhardt said of his success at Daytona. “When I get the car that I need or when I’ve had the cars that I have had that were so good here, you could just do whatever you wanted with them.”

    Pressed about whether it was the cars or his own talent behind the wheel, Earnhardt paused.

    “I think I know what I’m doing out there,” he said, carefully considering his answer. “But I don’t know how you rate one guy versus the next because we are all in kind of different cars every time we come back here.

    “Sometimes Denny’s [Hamlin] car gets the job done and he whoops us; sometimes we get the job done and sometimes it is somebody else. I watched Dad. I didn’t know what I was seeing when I was watching him. But once I got out on the track and I started doing things with my car, I realized what I was seeing all of those years, and why things were happening the way they were. I started to understand why.

    “How does a side draft feel if you have never been out there? Why do they do that? Why do they side draft and sling away? Why is it happening? You don’t know that until you get out there in the car.”

    So far, Earnhardt’s time in the car at Daytona couldn’t be more encouraging. Even he had to smile sizing up his chances.

    “If I’m behind the No. 88 I’m probably going to let him win; hell yeah,” he said laughing. “I’m a little different than the other drivers. I won’t pass him.”

    Pole winner Dale Jr. plays it coy on returning for the ‘Clash’

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., in his final full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, is eligible to run in the “Clash” preseason race at Daytona by virtue of being a previous event winner. Earnhardt, though, said earlier this year he would rather earn his way in by winning a Coors Light Pole Award.

    Well, Earnhardt earned it. He’ll start first in Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) after winning the Coors Light Pole Award on Friday at Daytona International Speedway.

    In the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Earnhardt Jr. was the final driver to take a lap in the second and final round of group qualifying. His speed of 190.973 mph topped teammate Chase Elliott’s mark of 190.795 mph for his first pole since 2013.

    So, how about the “Clash,” Junior?

    “I’ll talk to the boss (Rick Hendrick) and see what he’s got in the shed,” Earnhardt Jr. said with a wry smile.

    In other words, stay tuned.

    Earnhardt lands pole for what could be Cup finale at Daytona

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement tour is making an emotional stop at NASCAR’s most famous track.

    Earnhardt won his first pole Friday since Sept. 29, 2013, and will lead the field to the green flag in what could be his final Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway.

    Earnhardt reached 190.973 mph during his fast lap, putting his No. 88 Chevrolet in the top spot for the Saturday night race. The pole also earned Earnhardt an automatic spot in the exhibition Clash at Daytona in 2018, giving him an opportunity to cut his impending retirement short and get back behind the wheel at the famed track for Speedweeks.

    "I’ll talk to my boss and see what he has in the shed," Earnhardt quipped.

    Earnhardt was the final driver to qualify and bumped Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott to second. The front row is a reverse from the Daytona 500, when Elliott landed the pole and Earnhardt started on the outside of the front row. It was a strong day overall for Hendrick, with Kasey Kahne qualifying fourth. Wedged between the top Hendrick cars was Brad Keselowski, who qualified third for Team Penske.

    Kevin Harvick was fifth, followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

    All the attention, though, was on Earnhardt. No surprise for NASCAR’s favourite son, especially this weekend.

    Although Earnhardt hasn’t ruled out racing at Daytona in the future, especially in the second-tier Xfinity Series, his trip to NASCAR’s birthplace is being treated like a career finale.

    The track developed a "Daletona" mosaic in the stadium’s Axalta Injector that allows fans to create a piece of artwork to commemorate what could be Earnhardt’s final Cup Series start at Daytona. Officials also presented Junior with a painting featuring three of his most memorable wins at the superspeedway: His July 2001 victory that came 4 1/2 months after his father’s fatal crash in the Daytona 500; his July 2010 win in the second-tier series in which he drove a No. 3 Chevrolet with a throwback paint scheme; and his February 2014 win in "The Great American Race."

    "A lot of great things have happened here," he said. "A lot of drivers have made their careers here. It is something to be proud of if you are in the industry. It is a pretty fun race track."

    He admittedly got teary-eyed watching a replay of his 2004 Daytona 500 victory Thursday night.

    "When I see those kinds of highlights or something like that, it kind of brings some emotion around," he said.

    Little else has affected him so far, but he expects the weight of walking away — he is retiring from full-time racing at the end of the season — to hit him during the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

    "I’m not having any anxiety about the end coming," he said. "I feel pretty good about that. I feel pretty good about my decision. I haven’t had any second guesses or regrets about that. So, I don’t’ believe I will have any anxiety as it starts to get closer to Homestead. I just don’t want to miss anything. I don’t want to miss a moment that I should take in. I don’t want to miss opportunity to let people know how much they mean to me, everybody in the industry means to me."

    So he’s welcoming the weekly tributes from track officials and fans. He’s also trying to balance saying goodbye and doing his job as best as possible.

    There’s no question Junior is the sentimental choice to win the race. He’s winless this season and ranks 22nd in points, well out of the playoff picture. Making it to victory lane at one of his best tracks would change all that.

    "We are running out of time, and I am aware of that," he said. "Yeah, this is probably our best shot to win, but we can win at other race tracks. We’ve got that ability to do that. It’s been a very frustrating, tough year statistically."

    Even his fellow drivers know this could be Earnhardt’s best chance to turn around his season.

    "I guarantee he’s going to be elbows up, sleeves up, and he will be the car to beat this weekend," defending Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch said.

    Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch: Junior ‘the car to beat this weekend’

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is Daytona’s favorite son, with a record at the 2.5-mile track to match it — four wins, including two Daytona 500 victories and two more in the annual summer race, the most among active drivers.

    Earnhardt, in his final year of full-time competition, was leading the Daytona 500 earlier this year before getting clipped and wrecked, yielding a 37th-place finish.

    His 2017 results haven’t recovered. Still, history precedes him. That’s not lost on Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kurt Busch, who has identified the No. 88 Chevrolet as the favorite for Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    “This could possibly be Dale’s last time in a top Monster Energy Series car at Daytona,” Busch said Thursday. “It’s going to be a good battle. I guarantee he’s going to be elbows out, sleeves rolled out, going hard. He will be the car to beat this weekend.”

    It’s high praise from the reigning Daytona 500 winner, especially in the midst of one of Earnhardt’s toughest season’s to date.

    Earnhardt is 22nd in the points standings through 16 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races. Ten races remain until the 16-driver playoffs field is set. The 42-year-old likely needs a win to make the postseason field — what better, more appropriate place than Daytona?

    Dale Jr. rises atop Daytona speed chart in final practice

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. shot to the top of the leaderboard Thursday in final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice at Daytona International Speedway.

    An aerodynamic pull in a six-car pack carried Earnhardt to a lap of 193.328 mph in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet. Earnhardt, in his final full season of competition, is a four-time winner at the 2.5-mile track.

    Earnhardt led a clean sweep of the top five by Chevrolet drivers, who benefited from the aero boost of racing in a close-quarters pack. Michael McDowell was second-fastest at 193.249 mph in the Leavine Family Racing No. 95 Chevy during final prep for Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    Seven-time series champ Jimmie Johnson (193.228 mph), XFINITY Series regular Brendan Gaughan (193.224 mph) and Kasey Kahne (193.220 mph) completed the top five, all separated by .001 seconds. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer, the lone Ford driver in the six-car group, was another .001 second back in sixth.

    Only 19 cars participated in the final 55-minute session. Coors Light Pole Qualifying is scheduled Friday at 2:10 p.m. ET (NBCSN).

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona

    Race: Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway

    Date: Saturday, July 1, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Daytona: 37th, 21st, 36th, 1st, 3rd

    Notable: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has four wins at Daytona International Speedway, with two coming in his last seven starts — one at the Daytona 500 (2014) and one at the Coke Zero 400 (2015). Junior has 13 top-five finishes at Daytona and an average finish of 14.3. Two of his last three starts at Daytona have ended with wrecks.

    Memorable moment: Probably the most iconic win of Dale Jr.’s career came at Daytona in July 2001. With NASCAR still reeling from the death of his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., on the last lap of the Daytona 500, his namesake son led 116 laps and captured his first win at the track in just his fourth start there.

    Quotable: “I have great memories at all of these tracks, Daytona included,” Earnhardt Jr. said in a team release. “I am going to be coming back to these tracks whether I’m driving or not, and I want to continue to be part of the sport. It’s hard for me to put into words what it being my last Cup race at Daytona might feel like because I don’t know what that is going to feel like, and you never say never. Our whole idea on finishing up the season is to try to show our appreciation and express that to our fans and everyone in the industry on making this an incredibly enjoyable ride.”

    Appreciation for fans, memories — and even practice — prevalent in Junior’s final season

    The buzz around Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s impending retirement follows the No. 88 driver wherever he goes. With the constant questions, conversation and commentary, the sport’s most popular driver can hardly forget this season will be his final full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series run.

    Not to say it has changed his weekends much; during the race, he’s the same ole Dale Jr., wheeling the No. 88 Chevrolet to the cheers of Junior Nation and chatting with his team on the radio.

    But pre-race, the sights, sounds and routine actions that he’s experienced for 19 years and 611 Monster Energy Series races sometimes feel a little different for the 42-year-old this season.

    There’s a sense of appreciation, he says.

    “There’s a couple times during pre-race, either during the national anthem or just right before you get into the car,” Earnhardt told NASCAR.com. “That’s kind of where you get the most emotional, I think – I don’t know why, but in those moments, that’s where it kind of sinks in, the weight of the situation and the circumstances.”

    That appreciation carries over to his fans, which he is paying tribute to with his applicably named #Appreci88ion Tour. Designed to share memories at race tracks, celebrate his storied career, and identify, interact and thank his fans, the tour stretches over Earnhardt’s final five months as a full-time driver beginning at Daytona.

    In his 19 years behind the wheel, Earnhardt hopes he’s done his fans proud.

    “I hope they think we represented the sport well and represented our sponsors well,” Earnhardt said. “You know, we always try to be ourselves and be relatable and approachable and I hope that we succeeded in doing that.”

    As the season rolls on and Earnhardt makes his last stop at several tracks on the circuit, he has begun to value simply being at the race track as a driver. Like the last day of a vacation, he takes in the sights, the sounds, the feelings, and holds onto them for the day that he will no longer stand on pit road in a No. 88 fire suit.

    “I think you do start to get a little more emotionally and personally invested in the remaining races because you know that as the races click off, there’s less opportunity to enjoy being behind the wheel,” Earnhardt mused. “There’s parts of driving the car and being around the garage and being part of a team. There’s parts of those things that I’m really, really, really going to miss. You start to maybe absorb more of that and not speed through everything.

    “We’re always taught to kind of hustle through everything and get the most out of every moment and do it quickly,” he continued. “And as the season goes, there might be some dialing that back and wanting to kind of take in the moment and enjoy what you’re doing, knowing that you’re not going to be out there too much longer.”

    Even practice – which Earnhardt says he’s never looked forward to – doesn’t seem so bad.

    “I used to not really like practice all that much – it was kind of like a necessary pain-in-the-butt to get through the weekend to get to the race,” Earnhardt said. “This year, I look forward to working on the car and talking and communicating and working with the team, and on Friday and Saturday during practice is when we have the most communication during those times as we do all week … Little things like that that you don’t even think about start to become more important to you.”

    Little moments are a little bigger, little tasks take on a bit more meaning. But his last-season agenda isn’t long; he’s content, both with himself and how his storied career has unfolded.

    Other than, maybe, another trip to Victory Lane.

    “(We want to) try to get another win and just be able to celebrate one last time in Victory Lane, no matter where that is, is the only thing I’ve thought about as far as what I want to accomplish in this season,” Earnhardt said. “The list is very short as far as bucket-list items for me.

    “I’m pretty fulfilled and pretty satisfied – there’s not a whole lot of holes in my career for me.”

    Burton, Letarte, NBC weigh in on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s broadcasting prospects

    As NBC Sports prepares to take over the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race broadcasts for the second half of the season, NBC executive Sam Flood fully conceded Tuesday that the possibility of having Dale Earnhardt Jr., set to step out of the No. 88 Chevrolet at year’s end, in the sport’s broadcast booth in 2018 wasn’t a bad idea.

    “I think he’d be an excellent broadcaster,’’ Flood said. “Obviously, we need to see what he decides to do. I think it’s up to him where he wants to be in the future.

    “He’s a talented guy and I think he’d be quite an addition to any broadcast because he’s curious, asks good questions and cares deeply about the sport.”

    Earnhardt hasn’t revealed all his plans for 2018 beyond acknowledging he will compete in a handful of XFINITY Series races. He’s been vigilantly open-minded about his future and NASCAR’s reigning 14-time Most Popular Driver will undoubtedly have broadcast opportunities as well as racing opportunities.

    He worked in the broadcast booth earlier this season during the non-points“The Clash” race at Daytona International Speedway and has also been on the television team for a handful of XFINITY races.

    “I think the thing about Dale is his love for the sport,’’ said Earnhardt’s former crew chief Steve Letarte, now an analyst for NBC Sports. “He by no means takes for granted his situation and the legacy he is trying to continue on with his father’s success and his success.

    “I think anything Dale does to continue to be a part of the NASCAR group, whether as team owner or racing a partial schedule or in the TV booth, any of that would be good for NASCAR because of how much he cares about the sport.

    “From all the quotes I’ve heard, it sounds like to me he hasn’t closed any doors (on broadcasting.) What I’ve learned from Dale is you never know what you can expect.”

    One of Letarte’s partner’s in the television booth, Jeff Burton agreed that it wouldn’t surprise him to see Earnhardt holding a microphone and calling races.

    “It allows you to, quite honestly, talk about something you’d be watching anyway,’’ Burton said. “Junior’s no different. It’s been a great transition (for me) and I think it would be for Junior as well.’’

    For now, Earnhardt is focused on kicking off his “Appreci88ion” farewell tour as he visits the Cup tracks in the second half of the season. And he is particularly excited to race on the Daytona high banks where he is a four-time winner — twice each in the Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400.

    Winless on the season, a victory in Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 would likely be his ticket to a playoff berth in his final run at his first Monster Energy Series title; the happy ending he and his devoted fans would love to see.

    “From everything we’ve talked about this year, this race is important to Dale and to his team and his sponsors,’’ Letarte said. “The year probably hasn’t gone exactly like they hoped, but arguably from here to Chicago, this is the race I have circled. It is without a doubt the best chance for the 88 to make the playoffs.”

    BLAKE SHELTON AND 20 NASCAR DRIVERS STAR IN SHOW OPEN FOR NBC SPORTS GROUP’S COVERAGE OF 2017 NASCAR SEASON

    Country music superstar, and coach on NBC’s Emmy Award-winning series The Voice, Blake Shelton returns to perform NBC Sports Group’s 2017 NASCAR on NBC opening theme. The refreshed show open, set to Shelton’s song “Bringing Back the Sunshine,” will make its on-air debut this Saturday at 7 p.m. ET, during NBC’s coverage of the Coke Zero 400, from Daytona International Speedway.

    This year’s NASCAR on NBC show open kicks off NBC Sports Group’s third season of NASCAR coverage, and includes all-new scenes with more than 20 current NASCAR Cup Series drivers. The high-energy production, set within the infield of two NASCAR racing venues, features drivers connecting with fans throughout the track, and on stage with Shelton as he performs a pre-race concert for driver introductions.

    In addition, the open also includes members of the U.S. military from both Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., and NOSC Bessemer in Bessemer, Ala., interacting with two-time Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. An advanced look at the show open, prior to its debut Saturday night, is available on NASCAR on NBC’s Facebook page and NBC Sports Group’s YouTube page.

    “We are excited Blake is back this season to kick off our 2017 NASCAR coverage. He resonates well with both the avid NASCAR fan and casual viewer,” said Tripp Dixon VP and Creative Director at NBC Sports Group. “This year’s show open focuses on the drivers that make this sport shine, and highlights moments with them interacting with their families, crews, and fans.”

    Like a fine wine, Junior improves in final Sonoma race

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. closed the book on his Sonoma Raceway career, from a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standpoint, with a sixth-place finish and a somewhat different perspective of the winding 1.99-mile road course.

    “It’s like the wine out here, I think you get better with age getting around this place,” Earnhardt said out on pit road following Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350.

    It’s no secret that Earnhardt, who will retire from full-time competition at the end of this 2017 season, has never quite taken to competing on the series’ two road course tracks, Sonoma and Watkins Glen. But the popular driver has shown marked improvement at both venues in recent years.

    Sunday’s result was his third top-10 in his last four starts at the 1.99-mile Sonoma facility.

    “I know all the drivers say this when they run good but I can’t do it without a good car and I’ve had some great, great cars the last several trips here,” Earnhardt said. “We stuck with what we know and it’s working.”

    Incidents early in the 110-lap race threatened to take the Hendrick Motorsports driver out of contention almost before it started. On Lap 15 he locked up the brakes on his No. 88 Chevrolet, slid into Turn 11 and was hit by Danica Patrick.

    Barely 15 or so laps later, he and Patrick (Stewart-Haas Racing Ford) again were involved in an incident, along with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing Ford).

    “Wrong place, wrong time,” was how Earnhardt described the initial incident.

    “Danica was trying to protect her position going into (Turn) 11 and I went in even lower than we normally go and … just locked up the rear tires,” he said. “I hate that I hit the 42 (of Kyle Larson) and Danica there.

    “Then down in (Turn) 4 I don’t think Danica knew that the 42 had gone to the inside and we just kind of all sandwiched together.”

    “After all that we settled in, ran our own race, Greg (Ives, crew chief) and the guys had good strategy and the car had real good speed,” Earnhardt continued.

    Sunday’s top-10 finish was just the third overall for Earnhardt in 18 starts at Sonoma. He led a total of nine laps here, all coming in 2004.

    Dale Jr. a three-time Daytona 500 winner? Don’t count it out

    As he retires from full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has two Daytona 500 victories to credit.

    But that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t ever have a third.

    True, next week Earnhardt will compete for the last time at Daytona as the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. But that doesn’t mean it’s the last time he’ll compete at Daytona.

    “Well, you never say never,” Earnhardt said. “I’m just retiring from full-time racing. I’m going to run some XFINITY races next year. I don’t know that I won’t ever run the Daytona 500 again, if the right deal comes along. All these tracks you have memories at, all of them, Daytona included.

    To some degree, Earnhardt can draw on the experience of his former crew chief, Steve Letarte, who left the pit box for a perch in the NBC Sports television booth.

    “When he wasn’t working a race he had a hard time being there,” Earnhardt said. “He had a hard time watching it and not wanting to be a part of it. … It will be interesting I guess when we get to the 500 next year and see how that all feels emotionally.”

    Earnhardt also addressed reports that he, too, might be under consideration for a broadcasting role.

    “We are certainly open to discussing the possibility of seeing what options I have,” Earnhardt said. “Who wanted us, what kind of job they want me for, and we are sort of in the middle of understanding that, and that just goes along the lines of doing due diligence on everything. I’m not retiring from work. I want to keep seeking out opportunities to make a living and make money and be relevant and be a value to my partners.

    “I want to continue to be a part of the sport, and not just as an owner in the NASCAR XFINITY Series. I want to be a valuable asset to the growth of the sport and continue to help raise the bar and raise the awareness of the sport and promote the sport as much as I can. So we were just kind of looking at what opportunities there are out there for me.”

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Sonoma

    Race: Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway

    Date: June 25, 3 p.m. ET (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Sonoma: 11th, 7th, 3rd, 12th, 23rd

    Notable: In his last three starts at Sonoma, Earnhardt has earned three consecutive top-11 finishes, including a career-best third place in 2014. That finish was also his first top-five at the road course. In 17 career Sonoma starts, Earnhardt has just one DNF and nine laps led in addition to having completed 95.3 percent of the laps run.

    Memorable moment: Although Earnhardt is winless at Sonoma, he admitted his 2014 result of third felt like a victory without the trophy. Not only was it a career-best result, things finally fell into place to earn a finish he and his team were deserving of as it was Earnhardt’s first top 10 at the track in 15 tries. It was also one of Earnhardt’s more skillful driving exhibitions on the 12-turn course as he worked his way up the leaderboard from a 17th starting position to contend with the frontrunners.

    Quotable: “We’ve had great race cars at the road courses the last few years, which has helped me a lot,” Earnhardt said this week in a team release. “Sonoma is the most challenging track that I race at. We’ve just got to take care of our car and make it through to the end.”

    Complex Networks team up with Film 45, Markay Media and Hendrick Motorsports for ‘Road to Race Day’

    Complex Networks, Film 45, Markay Media, and NASCAR champions Hendrick Motorsports have teamed up on an original, eight-part documentary series that journeys deep inside the teamwork, sophistication and heart that makes stock car racing an American institution.

    Road to Race Day goes behind the scenes with Hendrick Motorsports during the 2016 season, delivering unprecedented access to witness the passion, determination, and talent that propels its superstar drivers — Kasey Kahne, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — and crew to be the winningest team in professional stock car racing. Directed by Cynthia Hill (A Chef’s Life, Private Violence) and executive produced by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Patriot’s Day), Road to Race Day premieres on Complex Networks’ Rated Red available on go90 on Wednesday, July 19.

    “At the heart of the series is a team of people who share an incredible passion for and dedication to stock car racing and a drive to win. Hendrick Motorsports believed in us and gave us unparalleled access to share their story, and we’re grateful to them for inviting us into their family,” Berg said. “Road to Race Day adds a personal dimension to the sport, and it spotlights the passionate individuals who make Hendrick Motorsports one of the most successful racing teams of all time.”

    Hill added, “Stock car racing is an essential part of the American fabric. My team and I wanted to demystify the sport and its unique culture while celebrating the rich personalities whose lives intersect on race day.”

    “Cynthia Hill, Film 45 and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports have delivered riveting storytelling that humanizes the sport and brings to life all that’s involved in getting to the finish line,” said Rich Antoniello, chief executive officer of Complex Networks. “The series goes deep into the culture of racing to show the emotion and excitement of the sport, and we’re thrilled to be working with Film 45 again and honored that Hendrick Motorsports entrusted us with sharing their story with audiences.”

    Founded by Rick Hendrick in 1984, Hendrick Motorsports has earned nearly 250 points-paying race victories and an all-time record 12 championships in the premier NASCAR Cup Series. The organization fields four teams on the circuit with star drivers Kahne, Elliott, Earnhardt and 2016 champion Johnson.

    Each weekly episode showcases the energy of racing through the stories of four superstars of the sport and their colorful teams. Strategy, preparation, and focus for each race are propelled by intensity and emotion as Road to Race Day crisscrosses the country to capture each dramatic moment as it unfolds.

    In 2016, Elliott, heir to the car formerly driven by racing legend Jeff Gordon, began his rookie-of-the-year campaign, while veteran Earnhardt faced one of the most challenging seasons of his storied career. Johnson continued to chase his record-tying seventh championship, as Kahne fought to get back to Victory Lane. From North Carolina to Northern California, Road to Race Day follows these merchants of speed, their crew chiefs and teams as they confront ever-changing rules and unrivaled competition at more than 200 mph.

    Complex Networks and Film 45 have previously teamed on the critically-acclaimed series QB1: Beyond the Lights for go90, which has been renewed for a second and third season. Road to Race Day is the latest Complex Networks original series in a growing lineup of high profile shows that also includes: Thanksgiving created by Dan Powell and Bethany Hall and starring Chris Elliott and Amy Sedaris; Embeds from Megyn Kelly and Michael DeLuca; Top Grier starring Hayes Grier; and Drive Share created by and starring Paul Scheer and Rob Huebell.

    Follow Road to Race Day on Twitter, Facebook or join the Fan Club and get exclusive content, behind the scenes access and unique offers.

    Trailer: https://youtu.be/lNQqigkKN3I.

    NBCSN CELEBRATES DALE EARNHARDT JR’S FINAL RACE AT DAYTONA WITH #NASCARTHROWBACK SPECIAL, THURS., JUNE 29TH AT 7 P.M. ET

    NBCSN will celebrate Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final time racing at Daytona International Speedway, as a NASCAR Cup Series driver, with a #NASCARThrowback social media special, Thursday, June 29 at 7 p.m. ET. Through real time on-air integrations, fans will have the ability to re-live Dale Jr.’s 2004 Daytona 500 win, and interact with current NASCAR drivers, NASCAR on NBC on-air personalities, and race teams.

    Viewers are encouraged to join in the social media conversation by using #NASCARThrowback, to share their thoughts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Hall of Fame driver Dale Jarrett (@DaleJarrett), and NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman (@Pkligerman) host the show, live from Daytona International Speedway’s race broadcast booth in Daytona Beach, Fla. Carolyn Manno (@Carolynmanno) will contribute from NBC Sports Group’s International Broadcasting Center in Stamford, Conn.

    Unlike traditional television replays of classic events, NBCSN’s #NASCARThrowback allows those involved in the original event to contribute their memories and perspectives in real-time during the two-hour, cut-down version of the race.

    NBCSN’s first #NASCARThrowback viewing party, in July 2016, drew a highly engaged audience of fans, race teams and drivers, including Dale Jr. himself. The first-of-its-kind television event reached the No. 1 U.S. Trending Topic on Twitter within an hour.

    NBC Sports Group's production team is just 10 days away from its 2017 debut of live NASCAR Cup and XFINITY Series racing. On Friday, June 30, at 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN kicks off its coverage of the 2017 XFINITY Series, live from Daytona International Speedway. On Saturday, July 1, at 7 p.m. ET, NBC presents its first NASCAR Cup Series race of 2017, and the first of 20 final races to determine the 2017 Series Champion.

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Michigan

    Race: FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway

    Date: June 18, 3 p.m. ET (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Michigan: 39th, 10th, 2nd, 5th, 7th

    Notable: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has two wins at Michigan, the latest victory on June 17, 2012. In that race, Earnhardt started 17th and led for 95 laps. He has the fifth-highest driver rating (96.0) at the 2-mile track with an average finish of 13.2 since 2005.

    Memorable: Earnhardt said, according to a 2014 tweet, he had one of his favorite races in the Irish Hills. It was a 1999 IROC (International Race of Champions) race, where he battled neck-and-neck against a high-profile driver: his father. Earnhardt Jr., though, came in second by inches to his dad. The race wasn’t a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event, but father and son displayed a fierce, albeit friendly, competition and an enduring familial tie to the sport.

    Quotable: “Michigan is a great track,” Earnhardt said in a team release. “I look forward to it aging and widening out. As that happens, the track loses grip. Before they paved it, we were running down next to the apron and against the wall. That is all you can ask for when you’re talking racetracks and what drivers like about them.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Pocono race ends early after blown transmission

    History repeated itself this weekend for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as an engine issue brought on by a bad shift ended his day in the Axalta presents the Pocono 400 and resulted in a 38th-place finish.

    A two-time winner at Pocono, Earnhardt entered this race with six top-five finishes in his last seven starts at the 2.5-mile track. However, the weekend started off rocky when the No. 88 team had to change engines on Friday.

    After missing a shift Sunday on Lap 57, Dale Jr. said over the radio: “I don’t know what it is about the shifter this week, but it’s not natural to me.”

    This race marked the second DNF for Earnhardt in 34 starts at Pocono.

    “It’s going in the wrong gear,” a dejected Earnhardt Jr. told FS1 on the race broadcast. “I wish I could blame it on something else, because it’s awful. It feels awful.

    “It’s just my fault. I wish I could say that the shifter is different and something’s out of line. This really concerns me. … I don’t really have an answer other than me having to pay more attention.”

    Crew chief Greg Ives came over the radio to offer encouragement as the team will move on to Michigan, a place where Junior has two wins.

    “We’re going to go to Michigan. We will be fine,” Ives said.

    Engine issue will send Earnhardt Jr. to rear of field for Sunday’s race

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start at the rear of the field in Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway due to an engine change in opening practice.

    Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet lost power and coasted to pit road after eight practice laps in the early stages of the 85-minute session. TV replays from his on-board camera showed his car over-revving when shifting, shortly after exiting the 2.5-mile track’s third turn.

    @DaleJr : Update on practice: I blew the motor up. Went into 2nd gear (was aiming for 4th) and grenaded it. Will have to start last Sunday.

    Earnhardt’s crew rushed to swap out the engine. The unapproved adjustment will relegate his No. 88 to the rear of the 39-car field for Sunday’s Axalta presents the Pocono 400 (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Earnhardt has two career wins at Pocono, both coming in a 2014 sweep.

    Coors Light Pole Qualifying is scheduled Friday at 4:15 p.m. ET (FS1). Earnhardt tweeted that though his starting spot is predetermined by the unapproved adjustment, competition officials prefer the team make a qualifying attempt. Earnhardt indicated he would make one lap using the race setup to gather information for Sunday’s event.

    Preview: Dale Jr. at the Tricky Triangle

    Race: Axalta presents the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway

    Date: June 11, 3 p.m. ET (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Pocono: 2nd, 4th, 11th, 1st, 1st

    Notable: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s career average finish at Pocono equals 14.4 – but his average finish in the last five races is 3.8. He swept the track with a pair of wins in 2014 and most recently nabbed a runner-up victory in last year’s June races won by Kurt Busch. Junior has also seen consistency in recent years at the Tricky Triangle; he has only finished one race outside the top 11 in his past 11 races.

    Memorable moment: Clever pit strategy by then-crew chief Steve Letarte played into Earnhardt Jr.’s win at Pocono in August 2014 that gave him a season sweep of the Tricky Triangle. With 39 laps to go, Letarte instructed the crew to put four fresh tires on the No. 88 before taking a splash of fuel — rather than a full tank — 10 laps later to put him ahead of the field. Junior held off a fast-charging Kevin Harvick for the remainder of the race to win the GoBowling.com 400 by .228 seconds. It marked Earnhardt’s second sweep of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career (the first at Talladega in 2006).

    Quotable: “Pocono is a good track for us,” Earnhardt said in a team release. “I like both Pocono and Michigan, so we have some solid tracks coming up for the No. 88 gang. We were in the simulator this week working on Pocono. We’ve been working really, really hard the last three weeks. It’s been going great – the cars have gotten better in practice and we’re seeing some good improvements, so we’re going to keep grinding. We’re going in the right direction.”

    Dale Jr.’s top 10 drivers to root for after he leaves — plus, a dark horse pick

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s legacy in NASCAR is unlike that of anyone else in the garage. His name, his talent, his personality and his avid fan base with Junior Nation are rare and special in sports.

    So, his departure from full-time racing after the 2017 season begs the question: Who will Junior Nation root for after Earnhardt’s gone?

    But as Junior points out, there are plenty of drivers to cheer on when he hangs up his fire suit — and he gives us a top-10 list.

    “This is a talented list. When you’re talking about these drivers … no one stands apart in talent,” Earnhardt Jr. said on his Dirty Mo Radio podcast on Tuesday afternoon.

    So, here you go, Junior Nation: In no particular order of greatness, Earnhardt Jr.’s top picks (with commentary from Junior) to root for:

    Ryan Blaney: “If you’re a fan of social media, you follow racing through social media, Ryan Blaney’s going to be your guy. He’s going to give you the most content, he’s going to run good … he’s going to go on the late shows, he’s going to be a guy that says ‘yes’ to all those things. So, if you like seeing your driver here and there doing things and him being interactive, social, that’s your guy.”

    Austin Dillon: “He drives the No. 3 car. Bit of a goofball, good, outgoing attitude, outdoorsman, bit of a cowboy. He has a reputation that I think maybe appeals to some of the core NASCAR fans or some of the older NASCAR fans. He obviously drives for a really established old team with a great reputation … if you like the fact of a healthy Richard Childress Racing, he’s going to be part of that.”

    Chase Elliott: “He has the last name, he has the talent. Very similar situation (to me) carrying on the legacy. I think his popularity — it’s already pretty big and I think it’s just going to continue to get bigger, especially when he starts clicking off some wins. He’s with HMS and a great team.”

    Erik Jones: “Super fast, raw speed — he’s got it. Great talent … He’s wearing this mullet so he kind of knows how to pick on himself and doesn’t take himself too seriously. I think he has a great personality — I would encourage him to show that more. But when I’m around him at the race track, you do see a very, very focused, game-face kind of guy. But there is a side of him that’s kind of the opposite that I think he could probably show the fans more to give them an opportunity to get to know him. But I think there’s going to be great things for Erik Jones in his future.”

    Kyle Larson: “He is dominating the series … he’s the modern-day A.J. Foyt, Tony Stewart … Kyle Larson is another incredibly skilled driver. Another guy with a great personality, really funny, family man. Squeaky clean, doesn’t get in trouble, races hard … there’s a little bit of chatter in the media of whether he’s aggressive enough, he’s finishing second a lot and why is he not winning more races … trust me, Kyle Larson has no problem putting the chrome horn to you. That guy there is one I personally would be inclined to consider to pull for.”

    Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: “Fun guy, good friend, great personality. He’s a hard racer. When he’s on the race track, he doesn’t race aggressive or silly or over his head, but he’ll run you hard. And now he’s in a pretty good situation where his cars have pretty good speed and now he’s having his best year to date in the series. He’d be a good guy that I think’s going to be around for a while and going to continue to get better.”

    Daniel Suarez: “There’s one thing I like about Daniel Suarez being part of the series and being good and talented — NASCAR’s kind of always been an American sport with American drivers. We’ve had a couple guys come in (Juan Pablo) that are international talents. But we haven’t really broken through that barrier and became a global sport … And I think that’s the logical progression for NASCAR. At some point, you want it to become a sport that goes and races in Mexico, Brazil, Canada, even overseas. … So, having drivers that are born outside of America I think increases our ability to be an appealing sport globally. And Daniel is a great guy, I’ve had a lot of interaction with him trying to get to know him and he’s super nice, man. Really cool. He’s a guy that I personally pull for.”

    Jimmie Johnson: “A veteran driver, obviously you’re going to be able to get a guy that’s winning races now — and championships. If you’ve become an admirer of what he’s accomplished — tying Cale Yarborough in wins; seven-time champion, tying my dad and Richard Petty. He’s all-American, great personality, family man, not afraid to get his hands dirty — just an all-around cool guy. So he’s an obvious choice for the good guy. And then …”

    Kyle Busch: “He wears the black hat. He wins a lot of races, he creates a little controversy here and there. Not liked by everyone, but he does have an avid, core fan base. He does drive the candy car — a lot of young fans like Kyle Busch just because he drives the candy car. And I do like M&Ms myself. Kyle is going to keep it interesting, you’re going to be entertained.”

    Martin Truex Jr.: “Martin Truex Jr. is a neat choice because it’s unorthodox; they are a team up in Denver, Colorado. For the longest time, if you weren’t in Charlotte you were an outsider … it was almost impressive that RCR was as good as they were way up in Welcome, North Carolina … No one ever took that team seriously, the Furniture Row team. Now, they’re one of the best teams in the sport, doing it all the way up there in Colorado … Martin Truex Jr. is an outdoorsman, avid hunter – a lot of race fans connect to that – incredible charitable work outside the race car. He is a ‘Jr.’ – came from a family of racers, great story there.”

    Leave it to Junior to be unpredictable; he also includes a “dark horse” pick — as well as someone who No. 88 fans might naturally be drawn toward.

    “If you want to start with a guy that’s not really established just yet — we’ve named a lot of people that are in pretty good position with teams and so forth,” Earnhardt said. “If you want to pick a guy that I think is just as talented as these guys but you want to work your way up with him — Chris Buescher. I think that Chris did an amazing job in the XFINITY Series — outran our cars with the Roush stuff, which nothing against the Roush cars, but I thought he did an amazing job. I think he really does a good job in the car he’s in now, it’s a brand new team, it’s not one of the more higher-funded operations and I think he gets quite a bit out of that race car … what I’m trying to do here is set you up with a guy that I think’s going to make it and you can go on that ride with him.

    “And then there’s one driver that we haven’t mentioned — whoever drives the 88 car next year. You could pull for whoever gets in that car. I can’t wait — I’m excited for them to figure all that out … you can take these 10 drivers or whatever’s behind Door No. 3.”

    Or, in this case, No. 88.

    Chef Gordon Ramsay roasts banana-mayo sandwich

    Chef Gordon Ramsay has made a name for himself over the years reviewing other culinary adventurers’ creations, often harshly.

    NASCAR.com tasked Sunday’s AAA 400 Drive for Autism grand marshal with perhaps his most challenging review yet – the Dale Earnhardt Jr. banana-mayonnaise sandwich.

    He, uh, didn’t hold back.

    “Wow. That would give me (a not-too-pleasant gastrointestinal situation) for three weeks,” the ‘F-Word’ star said at Dover International Speedway. “Throw it away and start again. I would not be eating (expletive) banana and mayonnaise, no. Whatever Muppet put those two together needs to clean their core. Dale Jr. needs to call me.”

    That seemed to be the general consensus when the Hendrick Motorsports driver shocked the world and created a phenomenon of grandi-gross proportions in April 2016 by tweeting a picture of the Dalewich, albeit with less profanity.

    Ramsay, who is a self-proclaimed “car nut” who races in his spare time and loves the “electric” atmosphere at the “Monster Mile,” did have some suggestions to spice the sandwich up.

    “Mayonnaise? Crème fresh. Way better,” he said.

    “Mashed banana, crème fresh, little touch of vanilla. I’d take that thing to the Premier League.”

    Junior beginning to see simulator work pay dividends

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always been a “gamer.” He was one of the pioneers of iRacing, often spending hours online racing against armchair drivers across the globe.

    Now Earnhardt is making full use of technology to up his game on the asphalt.

    “We went to the simulator, which is something we’ve been trying to infuse into our process a little bit more,” Earnhardt said after qualifying 11th on Friday at Dover International Speedway. “It’s been bearing some fruit and helping us out and making us feel more confident going into the race weekends.

    “We first really experienced that in Kansas and had a great practice the first day. Same thing here, we went to the simulator, picked a few things we liked, threw out some stuff that didn’t work.”

    That’s one of the main efficiencies of simulator work – eliminating ideas that won’t work before the car gets to the track.

    “We come to the race track and we unload, and there is obviously going to be some comments about the car that we want to fix,” Earnhardt said. “We know what not to mess with that is going to waste a lot of practice time, and we can just hit the things that we thought we liked in the sim.

    “They correlated really well today (in Friday’s practice). We got the car better in race trim. We only made one change and then swapped over really quick (to qualifying trim). Then for qualifying, we improved the car each run … I’m really happy. We’ve been working, trying to get better.”

    Earnhardt forced to scrap Philadelphia Eagles car at Pocono

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride in a Philadelphia Eagles car has been benched.

    Earnhardt was scheduled to race next week at Pocono Raceway in the No. 88 Chevrolet wrapped in team colours and with the Eagles logo. Hendrick Motorsports and the Eagles say the sponsorship is off because the NFL doesn’t allow team designs accompanying the promotion or presentation of another sport.

    Earnhardt will drive the NASCAR Cup race with the Axalta paint scheme at Pocono.

    The Eagles had agreed to team with Axalta as part of the All-Pro Teachers program, which recognizes outstanding sixth through 12th grade teachers concentrating on STEM education in the Delaware Valley.

    Earnhardt is a Washington Redskins fan and had joked he hoped the team would not disown NASCAR's most popular driver.

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the ‘Monster Mile’

    Race: AAA 400 Drive for Autism at Dover International Speedway

    Date: June 4, 1 p.m. ET (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Dover: 32nd, 3rd, 14th, 17th, 9th

    Notable: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has seven top-five finishes at Dover. Up until last fall’s Citizen Soldier 400, Earnhardt had raced in every Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at the Monster Mile since joining the series full time in 2000. However, that came to an end last year when Earnhardt missed the second half of the season — including the Dover race — due to a concussion. Junior has an average finish of 16.2 at Dover, but perhaps he can bring back the magic from 2001 to the concrete track this weekend.

    Memorable moment: Junior has one victory at Dover International Speedway, but it was a meaningful victory for the sport. On Sept. 23, 2001, he took the checkered flag at the MBNA Cal Ripken, Jr. 400, the first NASCAR event following the tragic Sept. 11 attacks. With American pride at a peak in the grandstands, Junior led nearly half the race — 193 of the 400 laps run to win and later circled the track in celebratory fashion in his then No. 8 stock car, hoisting the American flag.

    Quotable: “This sport cycles around and I never lose faith that Hendrick Motorsports will find the speed we need. I’m ready for Dover.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. improving, but still not satisfied after final Coca-Cola 600

    As badly as he wanted to win the Coca-Cola 600 before stepping away from full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 10th-place finish in the sport’s longest race offered a little gratification.

    Earnhardt, who has not won a Monster Energy Series points race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 34 tries, kept digging through the 400-lap, 600-mile event and jumped into the top 10 at the end of Stage 3. From there, he withstood a fuel-mileage frenzy at the finish of the race to score his second top 10 of the 2017 season — his first since last month at Texas.

    The result was a strong turnaround from last week’s result in the Monster Energy All-Star Race at Charlotte where Junior came in 18th out of the 20 cars in the event.

    “We think we should be running in the top five every week as a team, so that is still not really good enough, but compared to last week it’s a huge improvement,” Earnhardt said.

    Entering the race weekend, Earnhardt said the team “totally eighty-sixed all that stuff we ran last week.” Instead, the team turned to a setup used by Jimmie Johnson, a Hendrick Motorsports teammate of Junior’s and an eight-time winner at Charlotte. Earnhardt was very appreciative of the time the seven-time champion spent with him.

    “We’ve got to thank Jimmie (Johnson) and the No. 48 guys, Jimmie especially,” Earnhardt said. “He was communicating with me all week, calling me, talking on the phone. He would come across the garage and get in my window even during practice. Get out of his car and come talk to me. What a great teammate. I hated to see him run out of gas.”

    Johnson was one of several drivers to gamble on a fuel mileage strategy late that ultimately paid off for Austin Dillon, who led the final two laps for his first win in the Monster Energy Series. Was that play something the No. 88 team considered?

    “Right now, we need to get finishes under our belt and we weren’t really in a position to gamble with the fuel mileage we were getting,” crew chief Greg Ives told NASCAR.com. “Being four laps short is really a hard place to be. When you’re looking at 3 or 2 (laps) … I’ve calculated fuel mileage for a lot of years and when you’re trying to save four laps of fuel it is not an easy thing to do. If we are in a position with maybe three laps (short), I think we could have been able to do that.”

    Earnhardt will now turn his attention to Dover, where he has one career win in the sport’s top series and will go into Sunday’s AAA 400 Drive for Autism (1 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) 23rd in the points standings.

    Junior aims to emulate teammate Johnson’s success in final shot at Coca-Cola 600

    With the majority of teams based in North Carolina, drivers often consider the races at Charlotte Motor Speedway “home” races.

    But Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of the few drivers left in the sport who can truly call the 1.5-mile speedway his “home track.” Hailing from Kannapolis, North Carolina — which sits approximately 14 miles northeast of the track — Earnhardt recalls attending the Charlotte races early in his life.

    “Some of the first memories of being at a 1.5-mile race track (are) here at Charlotte,” Earnhardt said Thursday in Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Media Center. “I used to go to the dirt tracks with Dad when I was very small, but the first memories of actually being at a Cup event were here. The Eurys and the Earnhardt family would park up on the hill of the road course, about the tallest peak of elevation there.”

    The hill of the road course is where he used to race his plastic cars of Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough. The asphalt oval is where he used to watch his father Dale Earnhardt race — and where “The Intimidator” won five times in NASCAR’s premier series.

    But Charlotte has eluded its hometown son for nearly 18 years, who has yet to earn a points-paying victory in 33 races.

    Junior would love to change that during this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600, the race that he named as the one he’d most like to win before he hangs up his fire suit after the 2017 season.

    “I thought, considering we’ve had some decent success in the sport, I would have guessed I’d have got a win here in a points race at some point, but it just hasn’t happened,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve had some close ones … but since the repave, for whatever reason it’s really been tough for me. We just really haven’t been able to hit on how to get around here. Either how to set the car up or what I’m looking for or what I need to be doing with the car driving it.”

    His 18th-place result in last week’s exhibition Monster Energy Series All-Star Race at Charlotte didn’t bestow much confidence, and left Earnhardt disappointed. The No. 88 team needed to try something different if they didn’t want Sunday night’s 600-mile marathon race to feel even longer.

    Enter Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who certainly has a grasp on Charlotte. The all-time track winner with eight victories, Johnson has led nearly 2,000 laps in 31 races and is the most recent winner at the speedway (2016 Bank of America 500).

    The fact that Johnson’s No. 48 team shares a race shop with Earnhardt’s No. 88 camp has been especially helpful this week.

    “We totally eighty-sixed all that stuff we ran last week and we put in Jimmie’s set-up, we’re just like him,” Earnhardt said. “I was just asking Greg (Ives, crew chief), ‘How are we just like him if he ran a flat and we ran a 30 in practice?’ Greg and Chad (Knaus, No. 48 crew chief) got real close this week and me and Jimmie have been in communication and Jimmie has come by the car a couple of times in practice already looking at notes and printing out our driver traces and trying to figure out whatever we can do to help me.

    “ … He comes over with these print outs and says this is what I’m doing with the gas and this is what you are doing and this is where the time is getting lost and maybe try this and that and the other, he is a super teammate. I’m lucky to be able to work in the same shop with him. He has certainly been an influence on my success and my enjoyment in the sport.”

    Earnhardt ran 22nd in opening practice, while Johnson ran second. But Earnhardt expected that, given his team’s struggles last week and the VHT resin laid on the track prior to this weekend.

    “If we get it right, we can get in the top 15. That’s a start. That ain’t good enough, still,” Earnhardt said. “But that’s progress compared to last week. And I’m really looking forward to getting in race trim. We’ve got some practice time. We really ran short last week on practice time, so I’m anxious to get in there and practice and see what we can do.

    “We’ve got a completely different set-up. So, hopefully it doesn’t go like it did last week.

    “It shouldn’t. And let’s hope it doesn’t.”

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Coca-Cola 600

    Race: Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway

    Date: May 28, 6 p.m. ET (FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results: 14th (2016), 3rd, 19th, 39th, 6th

    Notable: In Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final full-time season as a driver, he was asked which race he’d most like to win. The answer? The Coca-Cola 600. This is one of NASCAR’s most iconic races, and Junior grew up at the track and watching races. This is his backyard — and he has yet to win a points-paying race at the 1.5-mile Charlotte facility.

    Memorable moment: Plenty of memorable moments exist, but the one we’re thinking of led to some heartbreak in Junior Nation. Earnhardt was out front when the white flag fell in 2011, seeking to end a winless skid that dated back to 2008 and win his first Coca-Cola 600. He was fast, he was clear … and then he was out of gas. His No. 88 Chevrolet went dry on the backstretch, allowing Kevin Harvick to speed around him for the victory.

    Quotable: “NASCAR has always had a close relationship with the military of our country, and always has service men and women out to the track as guests. That’s always been an important addition to the weekend. I like that we ramp it up for this particular weekend.”

    Dale Jr. endorses Bowman for the No. 88 in 2018

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. answered a bevy of fan questions Saturday night after the Monster Energy All-Star Race in what is a now-weekly tradition, including a handful of inquiries on if Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 Chevrolet next year.

    Bowman, 24, served as a substitute driver for 10 races last year when Earnhardt was sidelined with a concussion. The 14-time Most Popular Driver will retire from full-time racing following the 2017 season, opening a primo seat with Hendrick Motorsports.

    “Alex Bowman to the 88 next year — is that what you guys want?” Earnhardt Jr. asked the fans who were following his Periscope live stream. “That would be pretty awesome to see Alex in that car. That’s the plan, I hope. … Yeah, Alex in the 88. That sounds good to me. That kid earned it last year. He ran good.”

    Earnhardt Jr. has previously said he’d like to give input into the driver who replaces him, but also noted that ultimately was team owner Rick Hendrick’s decision.

    Junior’s words on Bowman were his strongest yet as the team’s search for a replacement.

    One driver Junior Nation shouldn’t expect to see in the car next year, though? Earnhardt’s neighbor Ryan Blaney.

    “Blaney is working for (Roger) Penske,” Earnhardt said. “He’s not going anywhere. Penske’s not going to let Blaney go anywhere, and neither would I.”

    Dale Jr. makes new addition to car yard — Danica’s No. 10 car from Kansas

    (Pic) Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a collector of wrecked race cars. He keeps them in the woods of his property around Dirty Mo Acres.

    On Sunday morning, Earnhardt tweeted about his latest addition — the No. 10 Ford driven by Danica Patrick at Kansas in the Go Bowling 400. Patrick was involved in a three-car wreck on Lap 199 that involved Joey Logano and Aric Almirola in last weekend’s race.

    The incident left Almirola sidelined for at least the next two months with a fracture of of his T5 vertebrae suffered in the accident.

    On why he collects wrecked race cars, Earnhardt told ESPN’s “SportsCenter” in 2014 that “when we would build a car, you’d put so much into that one vehicle. Then when you would destroy it, or it was beyond repair, I just couldn’t bring myself to throw it away because we had spent so much money on it. So I started throwing them in the woods out behind the house, and we’ve got around probably 25 to 30 cars out there just from JR Motorsports alone.

    “I started getting other cars like the Juan (Pablo) Montoya car that was in the Daytona (500 in 2012) accident with the jet dryer, stuff like that. Cars that have some sort of neat story behind them so we started getting those cars as well. I don’t pay for them or anything. I just call up the owner and see if they’re willing to give them up.”

    Earnhardt offers insight into Almirola’s mindset, safety protocols

    The impact that lifted the rear of Aric Almirola’s car off the ground last week at Kansas Speedway resulted in the loss of both rear springs, increasing the severity of the impact when the back of the car hit the racing surface, according to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Following a sponsorship announcement with Maaco for this weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Earnhardt said he had spoken with the Richard Petty Motorsport driver Wednesday evening about the three-car crash that occurred during the Go Bowling 400.

    “I talked to Aric last night and he said when his car went up in the air both rear springs fell out of the car, so the car came back down and hit the frame,” Earnhardt said. “He said it was the highest-recorded g-force vertically that they’d ever seen. And I can imagine that if the car slams down on the chassis.”

    Almirola, 33, suffered a fracture of the T5 vertebra following the incident. How long he will be out of the car has not been announced. Richard Petty Motorsports officials have announced that former series driver Regan Smith will pilot the team’s No. 43 Ford in this weekend’s Monster Energy Open qualifying race.

    “They can look at why that happens and how to fix that so that when the car lands it doesn’t land directly on the frame,” Earnhardt said of NASCAR’s post-race safety evaluation. “Because there’s no breakaway or cushion at that point to the driver. He’s bolted to the frame.

    “They’ll look at all the things that happened in the series of events that happened during that accident to find ways to help guys that are in that situation again.”

    Almirola, RPM CEO Brian Moffitt and Bill Heisel, director of OrthoCarolina Motorsports, are scheduled to meet with the media Friday to discuss Almirola’s injury, rehabilitation and the team’s plans moving forward. The press conference will be streamed live on NASCAR.com. You can watch that here.

    The wreck occurred on Lap 199 of the 267-lap race and began when Joey Logano (Team Penske Ford) made contact with Danica Patrick (Stewart-Haas Racing Ford) in Turn 1. Patrick’s car slammed nose-first into the wall and caught fire; Logano’s Ford also hit the wall hard and the two were still sliding up against the wall when Almirola’s car piled into the left front of Logano.

    Both Logano and Patrick were visibly shaken, but neither was injured. Almirola, however, had to be removed from his car by rescue personnel after safety workers cut away the roof of his car.

    The race was stopped for nearly 28 minutes while rescue personnel attended to the drivers and workers cleared the track of debris.

    “That was an incredibly terrible accident,” Earnhardt said. “Danica was extremely lucky as were the other two drivers.”

    Earnhardt, NASCAR’s most popular driver, will step away from competing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after this season. He missed the final half of 2016 due to a concussion. He also missed two races in 2012 for a similar injury. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is well-versed in NASCAR’s safety protocol.

    “Having talked to NASCAR a lot over the last couple of years I really feel good about how proactive they are; they have specific individuals that that’s their job every day, to science this stuff out and be looking at ways to improve,” he said. “We never used to have that. It used to be more what the teams could do and what the drivers wanted to do and you did most of that safety advancing behind the closed doors of the shop. Now we have people within the industry that they have on payroll that that’s their job. So that makes me feel very comfortable.”

    As for what the future holds for his fellow driver, Earnhardt said he offered no words of advice. Almirola competed for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports team in 2010-11 in the NASCAR XFINITY Series.

    “Aric’s really sharp. He knows he needs to take care of himself,” Earnhardt said. “The doctors told him how lucky he was, how easily that could have went the other way … had he gotten some spinal cord damage, how easily that could have happened for him. He’s well aware and he won’t be rushing back to put himself in any kind of danger going forward.

    “But it’s a tough situation for him. He certainly doesn’t want to give up his opportunity and lose his place in the sport as a driver and I can understand. I’m certain he has concerns in the back of his mind even though he knows he needs to take care of himself. But he loves driving; he wants that opportunity when he gets well.”

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the All-Star Race

    Race: Monster Energy All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway

    Date: May 20, 8 p.m. ET (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results: Third, 10th, fourth, seventh, fifth

    Notable: Since 2005, Earnhardt Jr. ranks first among all drivers in the Monster Energy All-Star Race in green-flag passes, with 434. … Over the past five All-Star events, Earnhardt Jr. has finished in the top 10 in every instance. No other driver can match that feat; Denny Hamlin is closest with four consecutive top-10 finishes.

    Memorable moment: It was pure jubilation in 2000 — hard to believe it was 17 years ago — when Junior was victorious in his first-ever All-Star event. Nabbing the lead from Dale Jarrett, passing his smoking car just before the white flag fell … being the first rookie to win the race … that unforgettable quote: “We didn’t come here to run third! We came here to take all the money!” … that iconic bear hug from Dale Earnhardt Sr. This wasn’t just Junior’s most memorable All-Star Race moment, it is one of the most indelible moments of his entire career.

    Quotable: “The All-Star Race to me has always been very important. As a kid watching that race and watching my father run it, hearing him talk about it and explain how important it was to him, what it meant to him and how hard he tried to win it, that really cemented in my mind what it means to the sport. It certainly stands alone and has a special meaning.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s favorite All-Star Race memories

    Heading into the Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. shared some of his most vivid memories of the race on his “Dale Jr. Download” weekly show on Dirty Mo Radio.

    As a kid, he recalled watching the race from the condominiums at the track, which opened in 1984. But it wasn’t until he was older that he really appreciated what he saw in 1987, when Dale Earnhardt won The Winston with the inaccurately-named but infamous “Pass in the Grass.”

    At the time, he was worried NASCAR was mad at his dad and the drivers were upset with each other.

    “I was scared. I thought dad was in trouble and they were all fighting,” he said of the beating and banging and post-race scuffling between Earnhardt, Geoff Bodine and Bill Elliott.

    Now Junior recalls that race as one of the greatest things he’s ever seen. “Dad really brought his A game,” he said in Tuesday’s radio show.

    Of his own experiences in NASCAR’s All-Star Race, Junior said 2000 and 2002 stand out.

    In 2000, he had a strong car, but it got stronger after hitting the wall. Something today the teams understand as skew and rear toe, then was mostly good luck.

    But the finish was all strategy. In the final 10-lap segment, Junior said crew chief Tony Eury Jr. used some qualifying strategy to run fast in the final 10-lap segment and win the big payday: putting a minimal amount of fuel in the car.

    “Tony Jr. doesn’t fill the car all the way up. … That put a lot of nose weight in the car, which is something you do in qualifying to really improve the stability and speed of the car. It’s something we had done a couple days before that in practice, but he didn’t tell me these things.

    “We go out there and haul tail,” Junior said. “I’m sure other teams were smart enough to do that, but that was one thing we would do to give our car an incredible amount of speed for a short time. We had a lighter car, sticker tires and a little more nose weight so we could haul butt.”

    A couple years later, Junior didn’t get the win, but he gave it his best — and worst. Known as a clean racer, Junior confessed to trying and failing to play rough against fellow young guy Ryan Newman in 2002.

    “I caught Newman on the last lap, hit him and he saved it,” Junior said, summing up the scenario. “It knocked him sideways, but I kinda lifted because I thought he was gonna wreck. It was the All-Star Race! If there’s one race where you can wreck a guy, this is it. It’s a lot of money, probably half a million at this time.

    “He saved it. No way he ever lifted. … We should have won that one, it was a fast car.”

    As for the 2017 race (8 p.m. ET Saturday, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Junior’s ready to go in the No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet — his last All-Star Race as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver.

    Dale Jr.’s patriotic Coca-Cola 600 paint scheme unveiled

    (Video) Nationwide unveiled Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Coca-Cola 600 paint scheme on Monday night with a video of the car being wrapped via Twitter.

    In honor of Memorial Day (May 29) the day after the race, the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet paint scheme is patriotic themed, with red stripes and a blue 88 on the side.

    The 2017 Coca-Cola 600 at will mark Junior’s 34th start at Charlotte Motor Speedway, his home track, and his last scheduled Coca-Cola 600 with his retirement from full-time racing coming at the end of the 2017 NASCAR season. He finished a career-best third in NASCAR’s longest endurance race in 2015.

    NASCAR Champ Dale Earnhardt Jr. To Topline Home-Renovation Series For DIY

    DIY Network has greenlighted a new home-renovation series featuring NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his wife Amy Earnhardt for premiere in early 2018.

    The series will follow the couple as they transform a dilapidated historic home into a gorgeous modern retreat in the Old Town historic district of Key West, FL. The four half-hour episodes will combine Dale’s love of home improvement with Amy’s interior design expertise. The couple will tackle renovation challenges that often come with older homes, including structural damage, faulty plumbing and ancient wiring.

    “We’ve seen how Dale Jr. races a car, so we’re confident that with Amy’s help he will easily navigate the typical trials and tribulations of a home renovation,” said John Feld, SVP Original Programming and Production at HGTV, DIY Network and Great American Country. “Fasten your seat belts because this one is sure to be a thrilling, unpredictable ride.”

    Loose wheel saddles Dale Jr. with 22nd at Talladega

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. lined up third for a restart on Lap 174 of Sunday's GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, after a massive 18-car wreck on the backstretch thinned the field.

    The anticipation in the air was palpable, as Earnhardt rolled through the tri-oval toward the start/finish line, but what happened next had fans in the front grandstands ripping the radio headphones off their heads and throwing them to the ground.

    As the field came up to speed, Earnhardt pulled out of line and moved to the top of the track, coming perilously close to the outside wall. As the pack sped away, Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevrolet slowed and rolled gingerly to pit road.

    "Oh, I had a wheel come off," Earnhardt said after the race. "The guys said it was real similar to the issue we had at Atlanta, but it was pretty bad. We were about to wreck. And we were lucky to get to pit road and get it changed. The left-rear tire come loose. We didn't change it on the last stop but the glue build-up on the stud didn't allow them to get the tire tight, and it just kind of worked its way loose.

    "We only had one nut tight when we come down pit road. It was real close to coming off. I hated it, because we were right there in good position to get a great finish -- if not win the race -- and I had to bail out. That was a hard decision to make. But, knowing what I know now when we come down pit road and they saw the tire, I'm glad I did, because it wouldn't have made it another lap or two."

    Earnhardt lost a lap because of the unscheduled stop but got it back as the highest-scored lapped car when NASCAR called the seventh caution on Lap 179. But over the final few circuits, which included a two-lap overtime, Earnhardt couldn't make progress and finished 22nd.

    "Yeah, it was very disappointing," Earnhardt said. "But the wheel was coming off, and I felt something in the caution. I thought I had a flat tire. But, (Jamie) McMurray said the tires were fine. Something just wasn't right. And, I'm glad I got out of there when I did because we only had one lug left on it and it was going to come off in the race.

    "It wouldn't have made it to the end, and that would have been pretty catastrophic. So it was a good choice to come down (to pit road). I was hoping we were going to be able to rebound and gain a couple of spots, but we just didn't get in the right lane, and our car wasn't very good in the pack."

    Having announced his retirement from Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing at the end of the year, Earnhardt will have one more shot at a seventh Talladega victory when the series returns during the playoffs on Oct. 15.

    Dale Jr. hints at 'Clash' run ... if he wins 2017 pole

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn't scheduled to compete in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2018, but hold that thought.

    The Hendrick Motorsports driver nearly won his first Coors Light Pole Award in four years Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway, and said afterward that a No. 1 qualifying spot, which would make him eligible for next year's "The Clash" at Daytona International Speedway, might put him back behind the wheel.

    "I got a 'Get-in-the-Clash free' card from this year; I got a credit," the 42-year-old Earnhardt Jr. said after speeding to the No. 2 starting spot with his lap of 190.780 mph. "If I get a pole, I'll talk to (team owner) Rick (Hendrick) and see if I can't line something up."

    "The Clash," a non-points event, is contested at Daytona. Among the criteria for entry is winning a pole the previous season.

    "'The Clash' isn't really an official race," Earnhardt said. "It'd be fun to talk about it."

    Earnhardt announced earlier this season that he will no longer compete full time in the Monster Energy Series following the 2017 season.

    His No. 88 Chevrolet was the next-to-last car on the track during the final round of qualifying for Sunday's GEICO 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and quickly sped to the top of the scoreboard.

    But Roush Fenway Racing driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., fastest in the opening round, knocked Earnhardt off the top spot and to second in the lineup with his lap of 191.547 mph.

    Earnhardt, the sport's 14-time Most Popular Driver, has 13 career poles but hasn't qualified No. 1 since the fall race at Dover in 2013.

    "Really impressive run by Stenhouse and his guys," he said. "We came close. We seem to come close at Daytona and Talladega quite a bit, second or whatever, but can't seem to get the pole. Hopefully we can get one before the season's out. That would be nice to get one my last year knowing that I don't really qualify all that well … especially since we went to this two, three rounds. I don't think I've gotten a pole since. So it would be nice to get one before the end of the season."

    The current qualifying format consists of multiple rounds with the field trimmed after each round.

    Sunday's front-row starting spot will be his first at Talladega, a track where he has six career victories -- making him the winningest active driver here.

    Earnhardt just misses pole in final Talladega qualifying

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s farewell tour has officially started.

    All eyes are on NASCAR’s favourite son as he races Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, a place where he’s adored by the fans and expected to win every time he gets in his Chevrolet.

    The crowd roared Saturday in qualifying when he shot to the top of the board, but it was short-lived. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the last driver to qualify, immediately bumped Earnhardt to second. Stenhouse turned a lap at 191.547 mph to put the Roush Fenway Ford on the pole.

    Earnhardt leads all active drivers at Talladega with six wins, but has never started from the pole. His lap was 190.780 mph in a Chevrolet.

    "I'm pretty happy," Earnhardt said. "Great lap by Stenhouse and the Roush crew. Would have liked that pole."

    Stenhouse didn't mind spoiling the Talladega party with his first pole in four years.

    "It will be nice to lead the field to the green here," Stenhouse said. "It's a cool way to start the weekend."

    Earnhardt announced last week he's retiring at the end of the season, and this first of two stops at Talladega has him nostalgic for one of his favourite race tracks.

    "Thrilled with our car, good speed," said Earnhardt, who didn't seem to be joking when he noted a pole would make him eligible to run the preseason "Clash" at Daytona.

    "Probably could have sat down and talked to Rick (Hendrick) about running the Clash or something, but let's see if we can't try to get another one later on this year."

    There's some notion that Sunday is a must-win race for Earnhardt, because the start to his final season has not been great. He's also won only one race at a track other than Daytona or Talladega since 2014. So with his playoff chances dwindling, a victory would be a big boost to this goodbye tour.

    "We have had a dry spell, haven't won a lot of races," Earnhardt admitted. "I think if I go in thinking this is a must-win, then I'm probably going to get in there and make a few mistakes."

    Earnhardt is 24th in the standings behind five finishes of 30th or worse this season. But he's got a strong mindset for Sunday, in which he knows he needs to be strongest and smartest in the third and final segment.

    "Every move and decision, every slight turn of the wheel has to be the right decision," he said.

    Earnhardt used his 2014 victory in the Daytona 500 as the example for how he needs to race at Talladega. In that event, he had an aggressive late battle for position with Greg Biffle to earn the victory.

    "The only way I could keep myself from sliding backward was to run like one inch off the door and squeeze him against the wall," Earnhardt said of his . "It really kind of killed both of our cars. But at least he wasn't passing me. It was a bit outside of character for me to drive so much like a jerk, I guess, but that's what you're got to do. You've got to keep on cracking the whip, keep telling yourself, 'This is what has to happen, this is how I have to do this to make this work if I want to win."'

    Junior looks for more Talladega magic

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a simple explanation for the fan reaction at Talladega Superspeedway, site of Sunday's GEICO 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR).

    "If you go to a race at Talladega, your driver can literally, possibly take the lead at any moment in the race," Earnhardt Jr., a six-time winner at the 2.66-mile track, said Friday. "You can't say that anywhere else.

    "So, with that comes a responsibility, I think, as a driver to try to make that happen because when you come off Turn 4 you can see a big difference in arms in the air and people excited about what just happened when you take the lead. … You can't create that anywhere else.

    "And they want you to keep doing that all day long because they just want to celebrate all day. They want to have fun. When you get up there and mix it up it gives them what they want. So, I think that is why I like running here and definitely makes it a unique experience as opposed to any other track we go to."

    When it comes to lead changes, Talladega is the hands-down, foot-to-the-floor leader in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. In the spring race of 2010 and again in '11, there were an amazing 88 lead changes. In the fall race of '10 the lead changed hands 87 times. In fact, nine of the top 10 races for most lead changes took place here.

    Some of that can be traced to the rules packages of the day, but it's worth noting that the '73 race, held in the heat of the summer, featured 64 lead changes.

    Dale Earnhardt was one of the sport's best when it came to the 200 mph game of chance known as restrictor-plate racing, winning 10 times at Talladega and three times at Daytona. Maybe he couldn't really "see" the air as some thought, but the seven-time champion understood the nuances of drafting probably better than anyone.

    And Earnhardt Jr. has enjoyed similar success. Six of his 26 career victories have come at Talladega, where the Hendrick Motorsports driver is scheduled to make only two more starts.

    Only 17 races remain in the series' regular season, and 10 more after that, the playoffs that will determine this year's champion. Earnhardt Jr. has spent nearly two decades trying to reach the pinnacle of the sport and now just one final opportunity remains.

    Twenty-fourth in points, winless thus far this season and with only a single top-10 finish, it's been a rocky start for the series' most popular driver.

    Three plate races provide three more opportunities, but no more than the others that have yet to be run elsewhere. If some feel this is a "must-win" race for Earnhardt Jr., he's not buying it.

    "That mindset might actually work and produce results for some guys," he said. "I don't know if that's probably the best way for me to go about it. But I definitely need to go in there and be aggressive and I know when I've won races here what approach I took that day that helped me get there. And I know I need to be a certain way mentally … to have success.

    "I don't buy the notion that we can't win anywhere but Talladega and Daytona; we have had a dry spell, I haven't won a lot of races, but we have won at other tracks in the past. But I think if I go in thinking this is a must-win, I'm probably going to make mistakes ...

    "I just know what I need to do, I'm going to go out there and try to do it. I've said it in the past, you've got to run the last 50 laps mistake-free. The guy that does that will win the race. …

    "Every move and decision and turn of the wheel has to be the right decision."

    There's concern, but trust too, he said. Trust in his team and crew chief Greg Ives and the Hendrick Motorsports organization for whom he has spent the last dozen years.

    "We've got a good set-up under the car and we are doing the best thing we can for ourselves to be competitive whether we are in the playoffs, whether it's the second race of the year or the last race of the year," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We take the best car we can and give it our best effort.

    "We just need to put together some races here. We've got to get a good handful of races under our belt that are finishes that we can be proud of and see where that nets us on the points deal, but it would be nice if we could just go ahead and get a win out of the way and get on with it."

    No matter the results, he said, "It's going to be a fun year."

    "I do think we can win some races," he said. "I really do."

    Earnhardt has seen the fans standing, arms raised in unison as he charged out of Turn 4 with the lead and the race on the line here at Talladega on numerous occasions in the past.

    Sunday, he hopes to see it once again.

    Dale Jr. paint scheme to benefit Nationwide Children's Hospital

    (Pic) Dale Earnhardt Jr. revealed the special paint scheme for the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet he'll drive at Kentucky Speedway, a design that is helping to make a difference for the Nationwide Children's Hospital.

    Nationwide -- Earnhardt's sponsor and the namesake of the pediatric center in Columbus, Ohio -- helped debut the paint scheme Tuesday over Twitter with the help of three patients at the hospital. The design incorporates Earnhardt's favorite color -- orange -- and the hospital's trademark butterflies.

    The scheme is designed to help raise awareness for the hospital's cause, but also to help raise funds with the opportunity for fans to put their names on the hood. For a $250 donation, fans will have their names listed on the hood of the No. 88 Chevy that Earnhardt will drive in the Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts in the Bluegrass State on July 8 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    Only 315 spots are available, and that donation also reserves a limited-run 1/24-scale diecast of the car. More information is available at nationwidechildrens.org/dalejr.

    Jimmie, Dale clear the air over the air on Dale Jr. Download

    Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. unintentionally collided at Richmond International Raceway in Sunday's Toyota Owners 400, saddling the latter with his fifth finish of 30th or worse of the season.

    While the incident was clearly a mistake acknowledged by both drivers, the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion decided to call into Junior's "Dale Jr. Download" podcast on Tuesday to ... clear the air.

    Johnson explained that his water bottle got dislodged from its holster inside the car and caused him to miss the call from spotter Earl Barban that Earnhardt was close behind him exiting the corner.

    "I think we were both pretty shocked ... I clearly came out to the wall with all intentions to have the entire race track to myself," said Johnson, who explained that he truly did not see the No. 88 Chevrolet. "... Is your mom OK with me?"

    Johnson was referring to the backlash of Junior Nation, with Earnhardt's mom Brenda even chiming in via text to Junior.

    "Yeah, she's a trip. She texts me after every race and usually they're pretty funny. She doesn't mean to be funny, but she's new to social media ... she's new to texting, to be honest with you, as you can tell by her shorthand," Earnhardt said. "It's funny to share with folks what she says, sometimes. She's old school and been around racing a long time.

    "She's fine and (you and I are) all good. Fans think that whenever we have a run-in that we're going to get mad at each other, but teammates don't get mad at each other too often."

    Earnhardt went on to say, "As wild as it was, I knew it was a mistake. I knew it wasn't like he just wasn't giving me room. I knew how hard we hit, and I was like, 'he didn't even know I was there.' "

    Earnhardt also mentioned a time at Bristol Motor Speedway when he and former teammate Jeff Gordon got into each other ... but that was a bit of a different result.

    "Me and Jeff ran into each other at Bristol ... well, I ran into him and cut his left rear tire," Earnhardt said. "Now, that, he was mad. So, that's understandable. But I knew when we hit, Jimmie had no clue that I was even there."

    Dale Jr. opens up at Richmond after retirement announcement

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he had some concerns about how the bombshell news he dropped on the NASCAR world this week would be received, worried that it would be upsetting, met with a mix of emotions. He seemed relieved by the generally positive feedback and strong outpouring of support after making his decision to retire from full-time driving at season's end.

    With that part behind him, Earnhardt turns his attention to getting "back to my routine" this weekend at Richmond International Raceway, site of Sunday's Toyota Owners 400 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM Radio) for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. But his at-track habits might take on a more freewheeling approach, with little to lose in the 28 points-paying races left in his career.

    "The team, the guys, they all and myself we would love to win some races," Earnhardt said Friday after opening practice at the .75-mile track, where he is a three-time premier-series winner. "I'm going to say 'a race,' but 'some races' would be great going out in your last season to get some victories. We just want to go to Victory Lane one more time, just to get that experience one more time would be awesome for me and I think the guys would love it, for sure.

    "But, I certainly did feel a lot more relaxed now. I don't know whether it's because I finally got to tell everybody and let everybody know what we are doing, get that over with, but I certainly felt real relaxed today in the garage during practice. I felt like there was less pressure from somewhere and a large amount, a lot different."

    Earnhardt, 42, announced Tuesday that 2017 would be his final year driving the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Sunday's race will mark the unofficial start of his farewell tour, which is sure to come with a heaping helping of tributes and parting gifts.

    Earnhardt sits 24th in the series standings with just one top-five finish in the eight races so far this year, leaving him in need of a victory or momentous rally in the points to assure a playoff berth. Reaching the postseason by either method might require some risk-taking, something Earnhardt said is a ripe possibility.

    Earnhardt related the tale of his former crew chief Steve Letarte, now an analyst with NBC Sports' broadcast team. Letarte had announced before the 2014 season that he would mount one final campaign with the No. 88 group before making the transition to the television booth the following year.

    With his plans in place and a firm sense of direction, Letarte and Earnhardt picked their spots for well-calculated gambles and combined for their most successful year together -- four victories, including the driver's second Daytona 500 win, his first grandfather clock trophy from Martinsville Speedway and a season sweep of both Pocono Raceway events.

    "He called that whole season completely different," Earnhardt said. "He was more aggressive and I think it was because he had the freedom to be that way. He was like, 'What if it doesn't work?' And a lot of times it ended up working out. We won both of those Pocono races on pit calls that he made. We didn't just outrun everybody. There are things he did in the middle of the race that we might not have done had he not had his mind made up what he was doing and 'Hey, this is my last hurrah, we are going to go for it' kind of attitude.

    "I noticed that whole year he was a much easier going, approachable. I mean he's pretty damn likable, but he was much more likable and easier to be around. Everything rolled off his back, we didn't get frustrated as easily and I am anticipating that being similar for me."

    Also in the no-pressure department: The search for Earnhardt's replacement in the No. 88 Chevrolet. Tuesday's announcement included a note that Hendrick Motorsports would reach that decision at a later date. XFINITY Series rookie William Byron, a top Hendrick prospect, demurred earlier Friday when asked about the organization's soon-approaching driver vacancy, saying only that he was eager to get his chance to race in NASCAR's top division.

    For Earnhardt, he remains an interested party invested in the team's success, now and after his departure. He said he wouldn't demand to be included in the discussions to find his successor, but said he'd value the opportunity to offer his input.

    "I can't read their minds, but I'm sure they all have a direction that they want to go and they have ideas," Earnhardt said of Hendrick Motorsports' management team. "There are just things about the company that I'm not quite as in touch with that they are that will help them make that decision. They probably have everybody in the world telling them what they ought to do and they don't need me, but if they ask for it I'm certainly wanting to be involved in that.

    "I want the team to have more success. I want it to be … I said this every offseason: Every offseason is a chance to be better than you were the year before. It's an opportunity to make those personnel changes and those hard decisions. It's a chance to do it, the things you can't do in the middle of the river, in the middle of the season."

    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

    TV: FS1

    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."

    EARNHART'S HIT

    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?

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