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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

  • Apr 30 Toyota Owners 400 Richmond International Raceway FOX/2pm (ET)
  • May 7 Geico 500 Talladega Superspeedway FOX/2pm (ET)
  • May 13 Go Bowling 400 Kansas Speedway FS1/7:30pm (ET)
  • May 19 Showdown Charlotte Motor Speedway FS1/6pm (ET)
  • May 20 NASCAR All-Star Race Charlotte Motor Speedway FS1/6pm (ET)
  • May 28 Coca-Cola 600 Charlotte Motor Speedway FOX/6pm (ET)
  • Jun 4 AAA 400 Drive for Autism Dover International Speedway FS1/1pm (ET)
  • Jun 11 Pocono 400 Pocono Raceway FS1/3pm (ET)
  • Jun 18 FireKeepers Casino 400 Michigan International Speedway FS1/3pm (ET)
  • Jun 25 Toyota - Save Mart 350 Sonoma Raceway FS1/3pm (ET)
  • July 1 Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola Daytona International Speedway NBC/7:30pm (ET)
  • July 8 Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts Kentucky Speedway NBCSN/7:30pm (ET)
  • Jul 16 New Hampshire 301 New Hampshire Motor Speedway NBCSN/3pm (ET)
  • 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

    NEWS

    (Click Here to submit news, articles & rumors)

    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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