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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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  • DVD- NASCAR 2014 Daytona 500
  • DVD: Dale Earnhardt Jr: Shifting Gears
  • DVD: Cars
  • DVD: 'Any Given Day'
  • 2017 Race Results

    DateRaceTrackStartFinishPt. Pos.
    2/23Can-Am Duel 2Daytona Int'l Speedway16--
    2/26Daytona 500Daytona Int'l Speedway23725
    3/5Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500Atlanta Motor Speedway123033
    3/12Kobalt 400Las Vegas Motor Speedway181627
    3/19Camping World 500Phoenix International Raceway31423
    3/26Auto Club 400Auto Club Speedway181621
    4/2STP 500Martinsville Speedway213425
    4/9O'Reilly Auto Parts 500Texas Motor Speedway37520
    4/23Food City 500Bristol Motor Speedway203824
    4/30Toyota Owners 400Richmond International Raceway123024
    5/7Geico 500Talladega Superspeedway22225
    5/13Go Bowling 400Kansas Speedway332025
    5/20Monster Energy All-Star RaceCharlotte Motor Speedway618--
    5/28Coca-Cola 600Charlotte Motor Speedway191023
    6/4AAA 400 Drive for AutismDover International Speedway111122
    6/11Pocono 400Pocono Raceway283823
    6/18FireKeepers Casino 400Michigan International Speedway17923
    6/25Toyota Save Mart 350Sonoma Raceway10622
    7/1Coke Zero 400Daytona International Speedway13222
    7/8Quaker State 400Kentucky Speedway131221
    7/16Overton's 301Kentucky Speedway181821
    7/23Brickyard 400Indianapolis Motor Speedway133622
    7/30Overton's 400Pocono Raceway231222
    8/6I Love New York 355Watkins Glen International283723
    8/13Pure Michigan 400Michigan International Speedway191422
    8/19Bass Pro Shops NRA Night RaceBristol Motor Speedway312322
    9/3Bojangles' Southern 500Darlington Raceway222222
    9/9Federated Auto Parts 400Richmond International Raceway211322
    9/17Tales of the Turtles 400Chicagoland Speedway201722
    9/24ISM Connect 300Chicagoland Speedway153422
    10/1Apache Warrior 400Dover International Speedway7722
    10/8Bank of America 500Charlotte Motor Speedway231222
    10/15Alabama 500Talladega Superspeedway1722
    10/22Hollywood Casino 400Kansas Speedway19722
    10/29First Data 500Martinsville Speedway211122
    11/5AAA Texas 500Texas Motor Speedway173522
    11/12Can-Am 500Phoenix International Raceway141021
    11/19Ford EcoBoost 400Homestead-Miami Speedway242521

    NEWS

    (Click Here to submit news, articles & rumors)

    Emotions hit Dale Jr. the hardest when thanking Rick Hendrick

    (11/21/17) Rick Hendrick has a knack for bringing out the heaviest of emotions in his drivers who have gone into retirement from full-time racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

    In 2015, Jeff Gordon stepped out of a No. 24 car he made famous with four championships and 93 victories during his 24 years with Hendrick Motorsports. Not only was Hendrick a car owner for Gordon, he was a role model and a friend, which led Gordon to tears when thanking Rick and wife Linda on stage during that year’s banquet in Las Vegas.

    Fast forward to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final weekend as a full-time driver. Piloting Hendrick’s No. 88 for the last time in Miami, Earnhardt called it a career with 26 victories over his 19-year tenure — 10 of those years while driving for HMS.

    The two-time Daytona 500 winner and 14-time Most Popular Driver immediately embraced his boss for a lengthly period of time after climbing from the car with swarms of people surrounding them on pit road.

    For Earnhardt, it was those interactions with Hendrick that got him the most.

    “Really didn’t get seriously emotional … only when I talked to Rick,” Earnhardt said during his Dale Jr. Download podcast.

    Not only did Hendrick hire Earnhardt when Dale Earnhardt Inc. was facing rocky times, he was also by Earnhardt’s side during some of the toughest moments in his personal life.

    “It’s easy to thank him for hiring me,” Earnhardt said. “But when I think about what he did for me personally, for some reason it’s hard for me to thank him. I don’t know why. But, for some reason, when I try to do that, it brings up all the feels.”

    As Earnhardt trades his firesuit for a business suit next season in the NBC Sports broadcast booth, the relationship between he and Hendrick will remain special and unwavering.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth made their own ways as friends and racers for 14 years

    (11/20/17) The crew in black and yellow fire suits went methodically about its business, check-listing last details before the beginning of the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

    A few feet away, the crew in the red and black fire suits were performing the same series of tasks, but a throng of onlookers and well-wishers pressed in at every movement.

    It was a surreal scene, or rather scenes, both on Sunday and 14 years ago. But in each case, the careers and personas of NASCAR’s most popular driver and his understated friend and contemporary had intersected. In 2003, it was in the garage bays in the hours before Matt Kenseth finished off his first and only championship at NASCAR’s highest level. On Sunday, it was as he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. posed for a series of photographs for friends and family beside their cars staged in Turn 4 as they prepared to undertake their final races before retirement.

    Earnhardt Jr. eventually broke from his gathering on Sunday, slinked under a rope and waited through a television interview to speak with Kenseth. He’d been “adamant” Kenseth said, that their cars be parked next to each other for their moments, and was particularly intrigued that they were both using versions of their early career paint schemes for their farewells. They shared a quip and a hug and then prepared to get on with the last vestiges of their careers. In keeping with their divergent personalities — Earnhardt Jr.,compelled to accommodate the scores who wanted to share in the moment with him — and Kenseth joined the field of cars to begin the start of the race, and NASCAR’s 14-time most popular driver slowly drove pit road to exchange handshakes with crewman from other teams waiting near the wall.

    Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth have always been different people seeking the same career goals, since they entered first the Busch Series (now XFINITY Series) and then Cup together, and it can be argued that Kenseth accomplished more. Both won the Daytona 500 twice, but Kenseth claimed the 2003 championship and contended for others more frequently than his friend, who finished a career-high second in the same season. Kenseth won 39 career Monster Energy Series races, Earnhardt Jr. 26. When Earnhardt Jr. won consecutive XFINITY titles in 1998 and 1999, Kenseth finished second and third, respectively.

    But Earnhardt Jr. always was and always will be the focus. It was his birthright and burden. Understated and wry, Kenseth saw up close the scrutiny and demands on his friend and wanted no part of them. He learned that early. In 2002, the bachelor Earnhardt Jr. hitched a ride with Kenseth and his wife, Katie, driving back from a race at Rockingham, when they cruised into a McDonald’s. Earnhardt Jr. was inundated. Kenseth and Katie walked to the front of the line. Demands came with such fame and Earnhardt Jr. came to accept them as his part of the bargain.

    NASCAR legend dictates that Kenseth’s march to his championship for Roush Racing was so banal — after winning one race he entered the finale 226 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson — that it prompted the series to institute the first version of what was then called the “Chase” in 2004. Earnhardt Jr. arrived in third place, 264 behind for Dale Earnhardt Inc. and still gathering momentum as the standard-bearer of the sport and a crossover marketing star just two years after his father and namesake perished on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. In keeping with the Budweiser sponsorship on his red No. 8 Chevrolet, the mood on the edge of his camp that November was festive bordering on hysterical. Such was the reason that security stations theater ropes extended several feet beyond the mouth of his garage bay so crew members could work and push through mobbing fans carrying gear back to their transporter. Kenseth’s crew went about its business unbothered.

    Ultimately, their departures from the series were in keeping with the way they conducted their careers, or at least had them dictated to them. Returning this season after missing half of the 2016 season because of a recurrence of concussions, Earnhardt Jr. announced in April that he would discontinue full-time racing at the end of the season. A hashtagged farewell tour ensued, allowing his scores of fans and appreciative admirers to partake in his moment. Kenseth, who will be replaced next season at Joe Gibbs Racing by 21-year-old Erik Jones, refused to accept a lesser job and eventually accepted his career was over.

    Earnhardt Jr. chugged a beer as a massive mob surrounded his rubber-clumped car and engaged in a long embrace with team owner Rick Hendrick after exiting the car following a 25th-place finish. Hendrick, whose son, Ricky, died with nine other Hendrick family members or employees in a 2004 plane crash, claimed Earnhardt Jr.’s helmet as a souvenir and slid away from the scene. He’d done the same in 2015 after four-time series champion Jeff Gordon’s last race as a full-time driver at Homestead and wouldn’t be without a token from someone he said he loves “like he’s flesh and blood.”

    “I don’t want to get any more helmets,” Hendrick said, becoming emotional. “He and I have such a special relationship. We were talking about it. Now we can go fishing. So, it’s unbelievable to see his driving career come to an end, but he’s excited about the next stage and I am, too, We have a special bond, so we are going to do a lot of fun things together, and that’s a commitment we made this year, early on when he told me he thought it was time. I’ve turned the page now and we’re going to start planning the trip tomorrow morning.”

    At the absolute end of pit road, in the quiet, Kenseth sipped on a sports drink and joked with crew chief Jason Ratcliff. It was fitting.

    There is the feeling that their paths will cross again, as Earnhardt Jr. remains around the sport as an XFINITY Series team owner and NBC analyst. Kenseth, with three daughters younger than eight and another imminent said his life will become filled with recitals and sports events. In the near-term, he planned to “go up to Wisconsin and be cold.”

    “That was fun,” he said of exiting alongside Earnhardt Jr., including taking a group photo with their teams on Friday. “We went for a bike ride when we were in Darlington and I told him this was going to be it, but I never really announced it just because I kind of knew by September, I pretty much had my mind made up the way things were going and kind of knew it then. It’s kind of cool we came into Cup together and now we go out together.”

    And in their own ways.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. throws epic retirement party after finale

    (11/20/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr. threw his own retirement party on pit road. Earnhardt popped out of his car, flashed a thumbs-up sign and chugged a Budweiser. Drenched in sweat and suds, he grabbed another cold one. It was easy enough to keep happy hour rolling since the beer cooler was stashed on the trunk of his Chevrolet.

    Earnhardt passed the brews around to his crew members. One by one, they huddled like frat brothers around the car and raised — and sprayed — their Buds in a career toast to NASCAR’s most popular driver.

    The most popular party boy at Homestead was more like it for Junior.

    Earnhardt cut loose like he won the NASCAR championship that eluded him in an 18-year-career.

    The No. 88 on the hood served as a de-facto coaster for his posse as they hugged and laughed and called for more beers in a Sunday night bash that seemed poised to stretch into Monday morning.

    "We’re going to miss you Junior!" a fan screamed at Earnhardt.

    Earnhardt finished 25th in his final NASCAR Cup race, the result a mere footnote in a career that counts two Daytona 500s, 14 straight most-popular driver awards and a universal respect in the garage.

    One example why he’s earned the love : Earnhardt left his party to seek out hunting buddy and best friend, new NASCAR champion Martin Truex Jr. on the stage.

    Earnhardt still left with some hardware. He gets to keep the weathered Chevy as a parting gift from team owner Rick Hendrick. Hendrick kept Earnhardt’s race-worn helmet. Earnhardt planted a kiss on Hendrick’s cheek after the race and they smothered each other in a bear hug that neither man seemed to want to let go.

    "He’s like a daddy. Trying to tell him how much he means to me is really hard," Earnhardt said.

    Earnhardt, whose father died in a last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500, surrounded himself with family Sunday. Before the race, he embraced his pregnant wife as fireworks crackled in the sky and fighter jets roared over the track.

    Earnhardt kissed Amy three times on the lips, then pulled on his helmet and slid into his car as dozens of cameras clicked in unison.

    All the video tributes , gifts and heartfelt gratitude Earnhardt received in the months since he announced his retirement seemed to fade as he pulled onto pit road. Earnhardt stuck his left arm outside the window and slapped hands with all pit crews from the entire series as he prepared to take off for a ceremonial pace lap.

    Driving the car must have been a relief to the 43-year-old Earnhardt. He spent Sunday morning doing his final rounds of interviews and earned a standing ovation from his peers at the drivers’ meeting.

    Earnhardt was the last one brought out before the four championship contenders. It was moments after a video aired about Earnhardt’s impact on NASCAR, which was narrated by "This Is Us" star Justin Hartley.

    As the video closed, Hartley said of Earnhardt: "Talent is a gift. Character is a choice."

    Earnhardt then walked across a special stage, where he tried to high-five as many fans as possible. He hopped into the back of a pickup truck, flipped his baseball cap backward and waved to the crowd during his final trip pre-race parade around the track.

    Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate, stopped by the car for a chat. Hendrick hugged him. Amy dabbed her eyes with tears after each photo shoot, and Junior gently patted her tiny baby bump.

    Earnhardt laughed when a couple of fans shouted they wanted to buy him a round at Shots and Giggles, a pub near his Key West vacation home.

    The fans at Homestead-Miami Speedway who usually stick Sharpies in Earnhardt’s face demanding autographs instead crammed the 88 pit box and wrote messages for him on the concrete wall.

    NASCAR played a tribute video during the drivers’ meeting that was filled with celebrities, including actor Adam Sandler, late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel, actor/director Mark Wahlberg, country music singer Brad Paisley and retired NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley.

    After it ended, the entire room stood and clapped for Earnhardt.

    "We’re going to miss him for obvious reasons," NASCAR chairman Brian France said. "He’s not going to be that far away. He’s going to be glued to the sport, and that’s going to be good for us."

    Earnhardt, who became the sport’s face of concussion awareness and persevered in the wake of his father’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500, won’t desert NASCAR: He has two or three Xfinity races planned for next season and tossed out the Homestead finale in 2018 as a potential race. He owns second-tier Xfinity race teams and will call the action next season in the NBC Sports broadcast booth.

    "I still want to have a purpose in this sport," Earnhardt said.

    Miami finale a stepping stone to new beginnings for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    (11/20/17) After all the hugs and handshakes, well wishes and heartfelt thank yous, the only thing left for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to do was climb in his No. 88 Chevrolet, fire the engine and begin his final start as a full-time competitor in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

    Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway signaled the end of more than just a driver’s career, it signaled the end of an era of sorts as well.

    The record will show that Earnhardt finished 25th, two laps down and never quite in contention at the 1.5-mile track in south Florida.

    But the disappointment of his final finish with crew chief Greg Ives and crew won’t last, he said. He’ll look back fondly on the day, thanks in part to a big reminder located nearby.

    “I’m going to keep the car so I’ll always be reminded about how the race went,” Earnhardt said shortly after sharing a hug with Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick.

    “I’ll never forget being with my crew before the race and right now. I’ll never forget shaking all the over-the-wall guys and crewmen’s hands on pit road. That meant a lot to me to be able to shake their hands because I have so much respect for everybody in the garage and the commitment it takes to work in that garage is very difficult.”

    Crew members from all the teams in Sunday’s field greeted the 43-year-old as he rolled off pit road prior to the start of the race.

    No less memorable, he said, was the fact that former teammate and good friend Martin Truex Jr. won the race and the series championship

    “I ran into (him) with my car so I would have marks on it and would remind me of Martin,” Earnhardt said of the side-by-side contact on the cool-down lap. “I think I wasn’t the only one that hit him though.”

    Earnhardt is stepping aside but is scheduled to compete in select XFINITY Series races next season. He will continue to be a co-owner of JR Motorsports along with sister Kelly Earnhardt Miller and Hendrick, and he will do television work with NBC next season, as well.

    He wasn’t one of the Championship 4 contenders – Earnhardt had missed qualifying for the playoffs for the second time in as many years – but in the eyes of many, Sunday’s season-ending race was as much about what he has meant to the sport as it was the battle for the 2017 title.

    Earnhardt qualified 24th for his final start, and paced the field for one “honorary” pace lap before dropping to the rear for an engine change made by the team on Friday.

    An early caution sent him to pit road and he lost much of the track position he had gained but the trade-off was fresh tires and a few adjustments to his car.

    But by Lap 56 he was a lap down in 20th; he later brushed the wall, and 130 laps into the 267-lap race found him two laps behind the leader.

    The throng surrounding the car once he pulled onto pit road afterward couldn’t have been any bigger had he won the event.

    Earnhardt was on social media early on race day, giving his followers something of a “good morning” when he posted via Twitter.

    @DaleJr : Woke up at 6. Made a pb&j and went back to bed. Woke up for good at 930. This is gonna be a weird day.

    The son of seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt, the younger racer made his 631st career start Sunday at Homestead. In a Cup career that began in 1999 when he made five starts, Earnhardt won 26 times, including twice in the series’ biggest race, the season-opening Daytona 500.

    He is also a two-time champion in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, where he won titles in 1998 and ’99 and 24 races.

    There were non-points wins as well for the series’ 14-time most popular driver. He is a two-time winner of the series annual All-Star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the annual Bud Shootout held at Daytona. He has five career wins in qualifying races at Daytona (used to set the field for the Daytona 500) as well.

    Moments after taking the stage for what has become an annual wrap-up of the NASCAR season and state of affairs in the sport, NASCAR CEO Brian France singled out Earnhardt for his role on Sunday morning at Homestead.

    “He has made an obviously big contribution on and off the track for a long time,” France said. “So while we’re going to miss him for obvious reasons, he is not going to be that far away, being an owner and working with NBC. So he’s going to be glued to the sport, and that’s a good thing for us.”

    Fellow drivers and team owners, dignitaries and officials gave him a standing ovation at the conclusion of a video presentation featuring athletes, fellow competitors, actors and numerous others from across the sports and entertainment industry.

    As for the car, Earnhardt said it will go “wherever (wife) Amy lets me put it.”

    “We’ve got that 2 car coming from Talladega, which still ain’t there yet, dammit,” he said.

    As a parting gift from Talladega Superspeedway, officials there and in conjunction with the International Motorsports Hall of Fame arranged for him to obtain the No. 2 Chevrolet Monte Carlo driven by his legendary father in 1979 and ’80.

    “She said that (car) is going in the main garage,” Earnhardt said, “and we’ve only got four (garage) stalls. We’ll put this one in there and have to park the good (expletive) outside I guess.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. emotional after standing ovation in driver meeting

    (11/19/17) The screams and applause from the assembled red-carpet audience in the garage area served as an alert to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s arrival for perhaps his final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver meeting.

    Dressed in a red cap, red T-shirt and jeans, he slowly made his way in, stopping to sign autographs and pose for impromptu photos with fans before stepping into the meeting three minutes before it was set to start.

    Before the formal driver instructions were issued, NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton took the podium to recognize a trio of NASCAR’s biggest stars making Sunday’s race their final full-time start. After calling Danica Patrick “an incredible force” and saying “it’s been a lot of fun” watching Matt Kenseth, Helton turned his attention to Earnhardt Jr.

    “People will write about different legacies in our sport and different moments in our history, and I suspect every one of them will touch on the Dale Earnhardt Jr. era,” Helton said. “You have done great things for us and it’s been a great personal and professional pleasure watching you grow up in this industry, watching you take responsibilities … you have been a great asset to NASCAR, we thank you and wish you the best and are glad you will be close to the sport.”

    Then Helton introduced a specially made video to further confirm what Earnhardt has meant to so many — the people that make a living in the sport but also the passionate fandom who watch, cheer and sustain it.

    Videos posted on social media showed an emotional Junior wiping his eyes during the ensuing standing ovation, which lasted approximately 30 seconds.

    Current drivers such as Ryan Blaney, Earnhardt’s good friend Truex, his former XFINITY Series driver Brad Keselowski and his former crew chief Steve Letarte were among those that spoke in a celebrity-heavy ode to Earnhardt.

    “The biggest way he affected all of us,” former Cup champion Dale Jarrett said, “is putting more eyes on the sport.”

    Late night television host Jimmy Kimmel, country superstar Brad Paisley, former NBC anchor Brian Williams, former NBA superstar Charles Barkley and movie star Adam Sandler — wearing a No. 88 hat — praised Earnhardt’s impact and offered good wishes.

    The ending featured a long list of people — not only celebrities, but team members and race fans — each offering a most simple, but poignant message: “Dale, I appreciate you.”

    And judging by the love and attention Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, has been showered with this weekend, there is no doubting that.

    William Byron gives Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race team Xfinity title

    (11/18/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the best retirement gift he could have asked for when William Byron won the Xfinity Series championship for JR Motorsports on Saturday, one day before Earnhardt’s final race as a full-time driver.

    NASCAR’s most popular driver is a part owner of the race team with sister Kelley and boss Rick Hendrick, and JR Motorsports went in to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a 75 per cent chance of winning the title. JRM drivers Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and Byron were up against Daniel Hemric of Richard Childress Racing for the championship.

    Hemric appeared up for the challenge at the start and he led the title contenders until he headed to pit road with a dead battery early in the second stage. The team frantically changed the battery, but his car still had no power after the swap. When Hemric finally got back on the track, he was down 12 laps from the leaders.

    That sealed the title for JRM, and the organization only had to watch to see which of its three drivers would take the crown.

    Earnhardt and Hendrick watched intently from the top of Byron’s pit box. Kelley Earnhardt Miller watched from another. Earnhardt moved to Sadler’s pit stall.

    Calling the race for Allgaier? Seven-time championship-winning crew chief Chad Knaus, who was filling in for Allgaier’s suspended crew chief. Earnhardt likened the call to the bullpen to having Joe Gibbs coach a kid in Pop Warner football.

    Although a second title for JRM was in the bag, it wasn’t without anxious moments.

    Sadler and Byron had a spirited battle for the championship as they raced each other for position for several laps. The two had contact at least once, and it took Sadler until 36 laps remaining to get past Byron. But Byron came charging back, and the two again raced aggressively for position with nine laps remaining.

    Sadler was held up by Ryan Preece, who was trying to win the owner championship for Joe Gibbs Racing, and Byron passed him for good with nine remaining as Sadler was stuck in the top lane behind Preece.

    As the laps wound down, Sadler grew more aggressive and hit the wall. After fading to eighth, Sadler angrily charged toward Preece on pit road.

    "He cost us a championship and he’s not racing anybody," said Sadler. "It’s just devastating to me to have one taken away from me like that."

    Sadler has now finished second in the standings four times in the last seven years.

    Preece argued he was racing for position — he finished fifth — and Gibbs. But he felt horrible to have played a role in the title race.

    "If there’s a person you don’t want to cost a championship to it is Elliott Sadler," said Preece. "It’s not where I want to be right there. I can’t take it back."

    Cole Custer, meanwhile, easily won his first career Xfinity Series race. It came a week after he was eliminated from the playoffs. He had leads of up to 15 seconds as he was out front for all but 15 of the 200 laps.

    The Custer race victory was a win for Ford, which has so far won both the Truck Series and Xfinity Series races on a weekend it sponsors. Ford has two drivers racing for the Cup championship on Sunday in Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, and Ford has not won a Cup title since 2004.

    The driver championship, though, went to Chevrolet. That was a given before the race because all four finalists were in Chevys.

    Team Penske won the owner championship, and Chevrolet won the manufacturer title.

    It’s the second championship for JRM, which won its first title with Chase Elliott in 2014. Elliott graduated to the Cup Series, and Byron is taking over the No. 24 at Hendrick Motorsports next season.

    Byron is a rapid climb through NASCAR’s ranks, and has gone from an 18-year-old rookie in the Truck Series last season, to Xfinity Series champion next season, to Jimmie Johnson’s teammate next year.

    He probably should have two titles, too.

    Byron was the strongest driver in the Truck Series last year but was eliminated from the playoffs a week before the championship when his engine blew at Phoenix. He responded by winning the finale, when he had nothing but pride on the line, the next week at Homestead. That had been Byron’s seventh victory in the series.

    Byron settled for four wins this season, but he and his JRM teammates were statistically the class of the field all year among the Xfinity Series regulars.

    Byron finished third to win the title. Allgaier was 12th and Hemric was 34th, 13 laps down.

    Byron, at 19 years, 11 months and 20 days, is the second-youngest driver to win a championship in any of NASCAR’s national series. Chase Elliott was 18 years, 11 months and 18 days when he won the Xfinity title for JRM.

    Byron, who grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina and trick-or-treated at the houses of Hendrick, Johnson and Jeff Gordon, is the newest alumni of JRM drivers who graduated to top Cup rides. Elliott is at Hendrick, Brad Keselowski is racing Sunday for the Cup title, as is Martin Truex Jr., who won two Xfinity Series titles under Earnhardt Jr.’s first company, Chance 2.

    Earnhardt Jr. to start from the rear in Sunday’s finale

    (11/17/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr. is scheduled to make his farewell Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start from the rear of the field after his Hendrick Motorsports team changed engines in his No. 88 Chevrolet.

    Earnhardt’s car — adorned with a brilliant red paint scheme borrowed from early in his career — sputtered during opening practice at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He coasted back to the garage, telling his crew that something in the engine had broken.

    Per the NASCAR Rule Book, Earnhardt is set to start at the back of the field in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM), the season-ending race. He indicated through Twitter that he would still make a qualifying run in Friday’s Coors Light Pole Qualifying session (6:15 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM).

    Earnhardt had announced in April that this season would be his last as a full-time driver. He has said he still plans for a handful of races in the NASCAR XFINITY Series next year.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. at ease with final start this weekend

    (11/17/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his final weekly pre-race press conference Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, touching on a variety of subjects ranging from his health to his competitiveness to his championship pick as he prepares for his final scheduled start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

    Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, will step away from full-time competition in the series following Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). He’ll remain deeply entrenched in the sport as co-team owner of JR Motorsports, which fields multiple entries in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, and through work with NBC, which broadcasts the second half of the NASCAR season.

    “In the car, I just want to run all the laps,” Earnhardt said of Sunday’s season-ending, championship-determining race. “I want to finish the race in one piece. … Obviously you want to do as well as you can. But no matter where we finish, to be able to pull down pit road, stop the car and get out. Then see my guys and do all that. It would be a bit of a heartbreaker if we have any kind of issue that would take us out of the event and not be able to finish.”

    The 2017 season is Earnhardt’s 18th as a full-time competitor. He’s a two-time champion in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, has 26 career victories in Monster Energy Series competition and is the winner of the series’ most popular driver award for 14 consecutive years.

    After sitting out the final half of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion, Earnhardt announced on April 25 of this year that he would step down from full-time competition at year’s end. Asked if he had reconsidered the decision at any point this year, Earnhardt didn’t hesitate when answering.

    “No, I don’t need to reconsider,” the 43-year-old said. “This is great timing for me. It’s time for somebody else to get in that car and get out of it what they can. “And with Alex (Bowman) coming in behind, it’s just a great opportunity for him. It’s his time. And mine, in my heart, has ran its course.

    “With everything we’ve been through, with the concussion and trying to come back, the emotion was man, I’m so glad I get to run this last year. It was always this is the last year. And I’m glad I get to run it.”

    Bowman made 10 starts for the team while Earnhardt was sidelined in ’16, winning the pole in the fall race at Phoenix. He will take over full-time duties in the car beginning next season.

    Neither Earnhardt nor his teammates, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne, made it to this year’s Championship 4 round here at Homestead.

    Earnhardt said he will be “Team Martin for this weekend for sure,” indicating his choice of champion is Furniture Row Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. The two were teammates earlier in their career at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

    Truex, Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Brad Keselowski (Team Penske) will compete for the championship on Sunday.

    “He’s the guy,” Earnhardt said of Truex. “Me and Brad are great friends. I love to see Brad do well. But with what Martin, just as a driver, what he has been through it would just be awesome to see him put his name on that trophy.

    “I don’t know how you put into words what it would mean for him to win. I don’t know how you describe what that means. It’s bigger than words.”

    In the day’s opening practice, Earnhardt started out fifth-fastest, but returned to the garage with engine issues.

    Friday afternoon there’s qualifying, then two more practice sessions on Saturday.

    Sunday, he’ll climb aboard his No. 88 for the final time.

    Forever family

    (11/17/17) (nascar.com) The years slipped by unnoticed, one and two and then five and now 10, and suddenly Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring from full-time competition in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and Rick Hendrick wonders where the time went.

    Hendrick owns the car, the No. 88 Chevrolet, that Earnhardt has driven for the last decade. Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Earnhardt is scheduled to make his final start in the series. The Ford EcoBoost 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) signals the end of the 2017 racing season. It also signals the end of a career for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

    Amid the palm trees and warm breezes of South Florida, Earnhardt Jr. will close the books on a driving career that will have seen 631 starts and, barring one final victory, 26 wins. There have been 149 top-five and 260 top-10 finishes thus far.

    The 68-year-old Hendrick always has enjoyed a close relationship with his drivers, but perhaps none have been as close as he and Earnhardt Jr.

    “We have had some heartbreaking finishes,” Hendrick told NASCAR.com, sounding apologetic. “There should have been a lot more wins. But at the end of the day, I got to spend a good part of my life with a young man that I’ve become extremely close to. We have almost like a father/son relationship. Now I get to see him grow through all those stages of life, get a girlfriend, get married and now be a father.

    “The biggest regret I have is that he got hurt in the car. But I wouldn’t take anything for the time. I would like to have won championships, I would have liked to have won more races but the good times we had together, the bond that we have with each other, the fun we’ve had together and the relationship that’s been developed is so important to me. That’s not going to end.”

    In 2018, Earnhardt will make at least one previously arranged start in NASCAR’s XFINITY Series. It will come in a car fielded by JR Motorsports, the organization he co-owns with sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Hendrick.

    He also will join NBC for work during its portion of the NASCAR season, as well as other projects.

    But his Monster Energy Series career officially ends Sunday in Miami when he shuts off the engine of the No. 88 Chevrolet for a final time.

    • • •

    On May 10, 2007, Earnhardt announced he was leaving his family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc. organization following months of tense negotiations with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt.

    The son of seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt wanted controlling interest in a multi-car organization that had been built by his father, but that had begun to flounder in the years after his passing.

    Unable to strike a deal, Earnhardt Jr. decided his best career move would be to leave DEI.

    “At 32 years of age, the same age my father was when he made his final and most important career decision, it’s time for me to compete on a consistent basis and contend for championships now,” Earnhardt Jr. said in announcing his decision.

    Hendrick was the most successful outfit at that time with Johnson headed toward a second consecutive title and Hendrick drivers winning 10 of the first 14 races that season.

    Although HMS had no room, fielding teams for Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears, Hendrick went to work.

    Earnhardt Jr. had 17 wins, including a Daytona 500 title, 76 top-five and 121 top-10 finishes in 291 starts at DEI. But the stats were only part of the reason Hendrick said he felt a need to bring Earnhardt Jr. into the fold.

    “You know, sometimes in life there are things that you just feel are so right that you just want to make happen,” he said. “And that’s the way I felt about him.”

    The Earnhardts “were family,” he said, “because of Robert Gee and knowing Dale and Kelley since they were kids.”

    Gee was the Earnhardt’s maternal grandfather and a legendary fabricator who had done business with Hendrick before there was a Hendrick Motorsports.

    Ricky Hendrick, Rick’s son, had competed against Earnhardt Jr. in the XFINITY Series. The two had become friends and “Ricky had this big idea that they were going to get together and Dale was going to drive here,” Hendrick said.

    The younger Hendrick died, along with nine others, in 2004 when a private plane ferrying the group to a race at Martinsville crashed into the mountainside outside Stuart, Virginia.

    After 36 days filled with rumors and conjecture, Earnhardt Jr. made the announcement — beginning the following season, he would resume his driving career at Hendrick Motorsports.

    By season’s end, Busch had been released and Earnhardt Jr. was beginning a new chapter in his racing career.

    • • •

    In 2007, Steve Letarte was crew chief for Gordon, by then a four-time champion. The acquisition of Earnhardt was not a surprise among those who knew and those who worked for Hendrick.

    “We never were shocked by Mr. Hendrick,” Letarte said. “He always seemed to have his hand on the pulse of the sport. … We knew getting (Earnhardt Jr.) with the company was going to be an improvement. We had no doubt that Mr. Hendrick, in his way, would get that done.”

    In 2008, Earnhardt, teamed with cousin and crew chief Tony Eury Jr., won in his first two outings on the track — the annual Clash at Daytona and Daytona Duel qualifying race.

    “I thought ‘Man, there’s going to be a lot of trophies.’ I remember telling him, ‘This is a great way to start,’ ” Hendrick said. “It was really special. I just knew, I thought, ‘Man, this is just going to be awesome.’ ”

    Earnhardt Jr.’s first points win came in his 15th start at Hendrick, a victory at Michigan snapping a 76-race winless streak that dated back to 2006.

    But it was nearly four years before Earnhardt took another checkered flag as the race winner. In the meantime, Eury Jr. had been replaced by Lance McGrew and McGrew was eventually replaced by Letarte.

    “I would have loved to have given him more wins and a shot at a championship, that’s the only regret I have,” Hendrick said. “I feel like maybe sometimes I moved a little slow to get him what he needed. He and I both have this same problem, we get attached to people and we don’t want to make a change. He gets that way; he doesn’t want to hurt anybody … sometimes it’s a hard decision.”

    By the end of 2010, however, it was apparent a change was needed. Letarte and Gordon had struggled through the season, so much so that Letarte believed when Hendrick called him into his office it was to tell him his services were no longer needed.

    Earnhardt, meanwhile, was mired in a two-and-a-half-year, 143-race winless drought.

    But instead of getting fired, Letarte said Hendrick told him, “I need you to do me a favor. I need you to go crew chief Dale Earnhardt Jr. We need to get him running better. He can’t run this poorly in our equipment. I’m trying to figure out why and we have to come up with a solution.”

    Letarte, who won 10 times with Gordon, immediately went to work. And he knew the parts and pieces were not the problem.

    “Jimmie Johnson was dominating and we all had the ability to have the same equipment, so you could rule that out,” Letarte said. “It was more than that; I didn’t know what the more was. I just knew it was more than that. And the only way to define the more was to spend as much time together with that guy as I could. That was my goal and that’s what I did.”

    Winning certainly would have helped soothe Junior Nation in 2011, but the issues for both driver and crew chief went deeper than that.

    “There was a point in that time that, and this is going to sound odd, but winning wasn’t the goal,” Letarte said. “It was enjoying going back to the race track. We had to start with that.”

    By the time Letarte stepped away from the pit box at end of 2014 to become an analyst with NBC for its NASCAR coverage, Earnhardt had won four more times, including that season’s Daytona 500.

    Since Letarte’s departure, Greg Ives has called the shots for the team. After a three-win season in ’15, Earnhardt Jr. missed half of ’16 while recovering from a concussion. He enters Sunday’s race winless in his last 54 starts.

    “I learned a tremendous amount,” Letarte said of his time with Earnhardt. “I cherish every race I had with Dale Jr. I was raised by Jeff Gordon; I’m thankful for every weekend I had with him, even the ones that weren’t as much fun, I learned something. His approach is very different than Dale’s.

    “Dale taught me a lot about the sport, taught me a lot about speedway racing. I think we taught each other … There was never a question of commitment, him to me or me to him.”

    • • •

    There wasn’t a championship, but there were wins and a deep friendship that developed and both the Hendrick organization and Earnhardt Jr. came away winners, you might say.

    Was his time there a success?

    “I think everyone has to define their own success,” Letarte said. “I think a Daytona 500 and a handful of wins, I think he was pleased that he was able to win those numbers and he would tell you himself, of course he wanted to win more. Any race car driver that doesn’t say that, I’d love to meet him because I’ve never met one that said they’d won enough.

    “I think overall, more than just the trophies, we became very good friends. He was very good to the people that worked on the teams. Rick and him have always been very tight. We all mature, we age, and I think he’s going to look back and be proud of those 10 years.”

    It’s obvious in speaking with Hendrick that the team owner is proud of what they accomplished, how he helped Earnhardt and just as importantly how Earnhardt helped Hendrick Motorsports.

    “He did tell me when we hooked up, he said ‘You know, I’m going to make you more popular. You’re not very popular right now,’ ” Hendrick said, laughing. “He brought a lot of excitement to our company. … He grew our fan base tremendously. You’ve got Jeff Gordon who could reach across different types of folks and then you get Junior with his fan base. All of a sudden it elevated our company. The people wanted to be involved with him.

    “I don’t know how to say it. … It was like you had Peyton Manning on your team, or Kobe Bryant.”

    • • •

    In 2008, more than a month before the season began, Earnhardt Jr. showed up in Daytona for preseason testing, even though his own Hendrick team wasn’t scheduled to test until the following week.

    Ten years later, and a bit further south, he makes his final start for the organization.

    Ten years. Hendrick wonders how the time went by so quickly.

    “I love watching guys like Jimmie come in and grow up and become a superstar and a family man,” Hendrick said. “Jeff, the same way. Dale, the same way. In life when you work so hard and you do things, relationships to me mean an awful lot. Being around people you like and love and do things with. That’s super important.

    “Dale and I have had so many special times. … It’s been more than a race car driver/team owner (relationship), way more than that. And it’s something that will go on forever.”

    Countdown to E-Day: Untold stories of Dale Jr.’s first race

    (11/16/17) Fifty-five years after “D-Day,” Budweiser was preparing America for “E-Day,” the name applied to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s debut in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. When Junior made the first of his now 630 Cup starts back in 1999, it was one of the most anticipated debuts of any driver in racing.

    “I don’t remember anyone coming in who’s gotten this much attention,” broadcaster Ned Jarrett said at the time of Junior’s debut. “It’s unusual to say the least. We might not ever see it again.”

    “The Countdown to E-Day” spanned the first half of 1999 and was a level of promotion never before seen in NASCAR. With all eyes on Junior, he entered the Cup Series to incredible fanfare and enormous pressure.

    As a 23-year-old in 1998, Dale Earnhardt Jr. first entered full-time competition in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, then the Busch Series. After winning seven times that year, Earnhardt claimed the championship by 48 points over Matt Kenseth. His talent was obvious and observers were crazy about the idea that NASCAR’s most famous driver had a winning son.

    In November 1998, NASCAR ran its final exhibition race in Japan, and Junior was entered. It was the first time he competed with his father, and Dale Sr. was just as thrilled as his son.

    “The one time I raced against my dad was at a dirt track,” Earnhardt Sr. reminisced. “I was racing this guy, and my dad, who was leading the race, came up behind me, and I couldn’t figure out what he was doing. Finally, he started bumping me, so I figured I better hold the car straight. He pushed me by this guy, and I beat him, then dad drove on past me. It was pretty neat.

    “It’ll be a great experience racing Dale Jr. in Japan. However, it wouldn’t look very good for him to beat his good old dad, now would it?”

    As it turned out, Dale Jr. did beat his dad and finished sixth, two spots ahead of his namesake. While that race was an exhibition, it helped set the stage for his first real Cup race.

    The details of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s debut came on Jan. 12, 1999. In an extravagant press conference at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, the Earnhardts, Senior and Junior, entered the building on a wagon pulled by the Budweiser Clydesdales.

    Driving the No. 8 Budweiser-sponsored Chevrolet, Junior would make his first start in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 30th. As NASCAR rules put a limit on the number of races a driver could run before their rookie season, Earnhardt’s schedule that year consisted of only five events run on different style tracks.

    The Coca-Cola 600 was an interesting choice for Dale Jr. to make his debut. It almost seemed odd to make his first start in the longest race of the year, but it all had to do with family history. Twenty-four years earlier, Dale Earnhardt Sr. made his debut in the same race, also driving a car with the No. 8 on the side. With the pieces in place, Junior was ready.

    “I couldn’t have asked for a better situation to make my Winston Cup debut,” Earnhardt Jr. said at the time. “I’ll be racing at the track near my hometown, in a car owned by my dad, competing against the best drivers in the world on the same track where he began his Winston Cup career. Best of all, I’ll have my granddad’s No. 8. It’ll be a special day for the entire Earnhardt family.”

    The 138 days between the official announcement and Earnhardt’s debut were packed with a tremendous level of promotion. Budweiser devoted a section of their website to Earnhardt and sent him to countless appearances. There were “Countdown to E-Day” shirts printed, diecast cars made, commercials filmed and special 16-ounce cans of beer that featured Earnhardt’s picture.

    All that promotion nearly drove the young man insane. As a full-time XFINITY Series racer and with commitments from two major sponsors, the demands placed on Junior’s time came as a terrible shock to the 24 year-old.

    “The only thing I’m uncomfortable with is that there was never a break period,” Earnhardt Jr. told reporter Dustin Long for the Roanoke Times. “One year, I couldn’t scrounge up $20,000 to run my late model car, the next year I’ve got people knocking down the door to sign me. Having to do an appearance two to three times a week, we’re booked up solid.

    “I’m somewhere every single day of my life. That’s taking some getting used to. A year ago, I was sitting back at home hanging out with my friends doing what I want to. Now, I’m out of touch with just about everything I was in touch with last year. At times it’s a little frustrating. My father tells me that’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

    Amid the added pressure, Earnhardt went winless in XFINITY Series races prior to his Cup debut. In a revealing Sports Illustrated interview, Junior said he expected the week prior to the Coca-Cola 600 to be a sort of “Hell Week.” Filled with attention and sponsor commitments, racing seemed like an afterthought.

    Earnhardt’s Jr.’s team arrived at Charlotte in a plain white hauler and burdened with a great deal of pressure to perform. With no points or provisionals to rely on, it was possible that Earnhardt could miss the race. After all the promotion, it would have been a devastating embarrassment for Junior to spend E-Day at home on the couch.

    But to his complete relief, the car was fast. In first practice, Junior was 10th fastest as his teammate, Steve Park, led the session. And in his first qualifying session as a Cup driver, Earnhardt Jr. raced to an impressive eighth-place starting position. In that Wednesday night session, Junior qualified seven positions higher than his father and better than all former Cup champions in the field.

    “I have never been that nervous in my life,” he said after his run. “It’s a big, big relief. You just don’t understand. It’s a big, big relief.”

    The attention on “Little E” was not ignored by competitors. After winning the pole, Bobby Labonte joked to reporters, “Do you guys have any questions you want me to ask Dale Jr.?”

    Earnhardt Jr. would share the spotlight with Tony Stewart on race day, as Stewart also raced in the Indy 500 that day. While Stewart arrived at Charlotte just prior to the green flag, a mob of attention surrounded Junior. Breaking through the crowd of reporters was Ken Schrader with an unusual request. He wanted an autograph. Earnhardt signed the back of Schrader’s suit and climbed into his own car to start the race.

    Once the green flag dropped, it was clear the new team missed the setup. After two laps, Junior had fallen to 15th and struggled through the early part of the race with an ill-handling car.

    On the first green flag pit stop, Junior lost time on pit road when he couldn’t find his pit stall, his spotter directing him to Steve Park’s box by mistake. Junior fell a lap down on Lap 78. The rest of the night was calm and after 600 miles, Junior finished 16th, three laps down. The event was a learning experience.

    Once the attention, pressure and excitement was over, perhaps the most important part of Junior’s night was getting feedback from his father, who finished sixth. Long after the sun had set that night, Dale Jr. walked through the dimly lit garage to see if his father was happy with the way the night went.

    “He said, ‘You did good and stayed out of trouble,’ ” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I wanted to know he was happy as a car owner and a father.” Dale Sr. was certainly happy at the track less than one year later, when he was celebrating Junior’s win in the All-Star Race.

    Finally now, after more than 600 Monster Energy Series races, Earnhardt Jr. will end his career in a similar manner. He’ll drive his car back to the garage following a race ending after sunset, and hopefully upon reflection, he’ll be happy with the way a career went.

    This article was edited for brevity. To read the entire historical piece, visit racing-reference.info.

    Cain: Memories stir as Dale Jr.’s final race approaches

    (11/16/17) (nascar.com) I first met Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Charlotte when the massive NASCAR national media corps showed up for preseason interviews in January 1998. In between formal sessions with the sport’s biggest-name drivers and owners, we were given the option to move into a nearby smaller room to speak to a young man who was about to make his full-time debut in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series.

    The 22-year-old Earnhardt Jr. sat by himself at a table waiting to see who — if anyone — would essentially initiate him with this “process.” The chance to sit down one-on-one with the Earnhardt Jr. two decades later is a rarity, and I smile thinking how much everything has changed since.

    I distinctly remember that first interview, however, and how he spoke quietly, looked down a lot and seemed a bit overwhelmed and unsure at the process. I concede, I did this mainly as a favor to his father’s public relations team. In retrospect, I’m glad I did.

    In speaking with Junior, I discovered his seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion father made him work at his family’s car dealership — his first job was sweeping floors — that he attended military school for a bit and that he had played soccer and had some artistic ability.

    At the time Junior only had a handful of starts in NASCAR’s former Busch Grand National series — those coming at strategic venues no-doubt well thought out by his dad — an assortment of short tracks, 1.5-milers, a road course and a couple big tracks.

    His first XFINITY start came three weeks after a DNQ at Nashville, Tennessee, in a No. 31 Chevy owned by his dad, with his uncle, Tony Eury Sr., as the crew chief and sponsored by “Gargoyles.” He completed only 87 of the 320 laps and finished 39th, victim of his car’s oil pump failure. Another young driver, a future close friend of Junior’s, and an eventual Cup champion, Matt Kenseth, finished 11th in that race.

    Up-and-coming young drivers may find some solace to know that the future two-time Daytona 500 winner Earnhardt finished 39th, 39th and 38th in his first three NASCAR national series races.

    In many respects, I’m guessing his father didn’t mind the lessons in tough luck and pick-yourself-up attitude. And Junior was a good student.

    Not only did he pick himself up, but he also raised several trophies beginning the very next year. He found himself. And he found Victory Lane, winning seven races in 1998 on the way to the series championship, and six the next year winning a second consecutive title and establishing himself ready to be a big-time player in the sport’s big stage.

    At one of his father’s press conferences after the seven-time champion won an early race in Daytona Speedweeks, he stood in the Daytona International Speedway press box high above the track’s famous front straightaway and was constantly turning away from reporters so he could stare out the wall of windows overlooking the track, where XFINITY Series cars were turning practice laps.

    I got a kick out of his timing. He was far more interested in his son’s — whom he called “June Bug” — lap times and drive lines than answering questions about his own latest, greatest win there. After a few questions, he got the timing down so that he could answer a question then turn around toward the track just in time to proudly watch his son zoom around the tri-oval. He had that full-on, mustache-extended Earnhardt grin looking down at the track.

    Those were the platinum hair and rock n’ roll halcyon days for Junior — winning races, working with his dad, enjoying all the perks of success and stardom.

    “Sometimes we’ll go places and it’s like I’m walking with Elvis,” this year’s Monster Energy Series championship favorite Martin Truex Jr. once said of his good friend Junior.

    Everything changed for Junior, however, that gut-wrenching day, Feb. 18, 2001 at the Daytona 500.

    Sitting across the track high above in the Daytona press box, I remember too vividly watching Junior park his car after finishing runner-up to Michael Waltrip in the 500; a 1-2 showing for his dad’s team. Immediately after climbing out, Junior started running down pit road toward the infield care center — wanting desperately to understand the situation. It was absolutely heartbreaking.

    There was no transition time really for Junior or for the fans — those that had cheered for his dad, immediately shifted their adoration to the son — absolutely willing to change driver allegiance to support this young man in the midst of a tragedy.

    For all the good intentions, it was a lot for a 26-year-old to have thrust upon his shoulders.

    And as Junior prepares to step out of the driver’s seat now 16 years after that fate-twisting Daytona 500, the grace, strength and resilience he showed in handling that unimaginable grief has been as important to him as the talent he has shown behind the wheel as a NASCAR champion, multi-time Daytona 500 winner and 26-time Monster Energy Series race winner.

    Earnhardt Jr. has always reminded that his deep drive to win and succeed was not because his father had, it was because he wanted to — although obviously their presence in NASCAR has understandably been linked.

    And for some, Junior’s decision to step away from full-time competition now affords many the “goodbye” fans never got to give his father — the thank you.

    This is one of the most significant and emotional transitions the sport has ever experienced.

    For Earnhardt, this life-changing shift should make him feel proud and will one day make his children — the first, a daughter, due in early May — feel proud, too.

    He has handled the immense attention and fame with class and remained competitive and championship worthy through it all.

    Something Junior told me for a story 15 years ago still resonates every bit today.

    “(Being an Earnhardt) has opened a lot of doors for me,” he said. “I’ve never wished I was anybody else. Sometimes it gets a little bit over the top, but I just kind of ride it out. It’s been a lot of fun.”

    Somewhere high above, his dad is smiling. And so will people everywhere Junior looks Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway as he makes his last full-time start.

    He has lived the spectrum of emotion with millions of eyes upon him and here’s hoping he gets out of the car Sunday feeling deservedly tremendous and accomplished for a career he should be proud of.

    And it will be difficult to tell who is more grateful, Junior for the love and support, or NASCAR fans for the lessons in grace and strength.

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway

    (11/15/17) Race: Ford EcoBoost 400

    Date: Sunday, Nov. 19, 3 p.m. ET (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Miami: 40th, 14th, third, 10th, 11th

    Notable: The weekend JR Nation has been anticipating since April is here: Earnhardt’s final start in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series as a full-time driver. Fittingly, he will do it while running a paint scheme he is most known for, a throwback to his beginnings at Dale Earnhardt Inc., in the famous red and black Budweiser machine. Sunday will be Earnhardt’s 17th start at Homestead-Miami Speedway and the 631st of his career.

    Memorable: Miami has not been a place to get excited about for Earnhardt. While the track allows him to do something most drivers enjoy — run up along the wall — Earnhardt’s results haven’t been as pleasant. In 16 starts at the 1.5-miler, Earnhardt has just two top-10 finishes, both of which came in back-to-back seasons (2012-13). In 2013, Earnhardt found himself in contention for the victory as he led inside the final 30 laps before being overtaken by Denny Hamlin. However, Earnhardt put up an entertaining fight with Matt Kenseth, as the two traded paint and the second spot back and forth. Earnhardt, who led 28 laps, finished third and wound up fifth in the final championship standings.

    Quotable: “I am not sure that I’m ready to be going through all of the emotion that I will have in Homestead, but it’s coming. I hope that I can handle it well, but it’s definitely going to be interesting to see how that feels. All these videos and all these things that our partners are creating, this content has just been incredible. It makes you feel so good in your heart.”

    Dale Jr.’s distinctive voice resonates, even through retirement

    (11/14/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s voice has long been a distinctive one. The North Carolina twang didn’t skip a generation after his famous father, who handed down his name, his affinity for fast cars and that trademark drawl.

    Two decades after Earnhardt Jr. was introduced to racing on NASCAR’s national stage, that voice has become the sport’s most resonant, with unvarnished colloquialisms seamlessly blending with deeply incisive thoughts.

    We’ll hear that voice one more time in Earnhardt’s final media rounds as a full-time competitor this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he’ll round out his appreciation tour as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. Those farewell interviews ahead of Sunday’s championship race promise to be appointment viewing for fans and reporters alike.

    It’s why veteran ESPN reporter Marty Smith — himself the proud keeper of a vibrant Southern accent — remarked on a recent visit to Richard Deitsch’s SI Media Podcast that Earnhardt Jr. “is the best interview in sports and it is not even close,” owing to Earnhardt’s intelligence and his ability to process questions with genuine, profound answers.

    It wasn’t always that way, Smith noted. In the early stages of Earnhardt’s career, drawing responses out of the young, frosted-haired kid in the red fire suit was sometimes like extracting teeth. The relatable plain-spokenness was always there, but there was often an underlying arms-length distance, almost a reluctance to fully connect.

    When he did open up early on, Earnhardt’s words sometimes had the subtlety of a flying elbow off the top rope. Provocative profiles in Rolling Stone (2001) and Playboy (2003) revealed a brash twenty-something still in the acquaintance phase with the responsibilities of his newfound stardom. And the on-air profanity he blurted out in Talladega Superspeedway’s Victory Lane in 2004 was especially ill-timed, with the FCC still on high alert in the months after the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” Super Bowl performance. NASCAR fined Earnhardt $10,000 and stripped him of 25 points in the midst of a late-season championship pursuit.

    Earnhardt’s interviews have remained must-see TV as his career has progressed. But the tenor of those media sessions has turned, transforming into opportunities to spend time with a mature, self-assured man whose soul-baring opinions — both about the sport and life outside it — carry real weight. He shared his decision to donate his brain to concussion research with us in spring 2016 at Martinsville with unflinching openness. And when he decided one year later that this season would be his last, he answered every question in an hour-long news conference — down to the wildest hypothetical — with patience and grace.

    Earnhardt has often been at his best when asked to draw from his appreciation of stock-car racing history. I attempted to tap into those memory banks two years ago, enlisting Earnhardt as a participant in our oral history of his father’s breathtaking final win at Talladega in 2000, an undertaking we had internally dubbed “The Earnhardt Project.”

    Earnhardt had been briefed about the subject matter when we connected on a sweltering Labor Day Saturday in the drivers’ motorcoach lot at Darlington Raceway. I offered a general first question about that season’s rules package as a table-setter.

    “Man, that was 15 years ago,” Earnhardt said, inspiring faint initial confidence in his recall ability with several questions still in the queue. What happened instead was 15 minutes of brilliance as he fondly recounted the specifics of a race almost a decade and a half old.

    Vivid details about his father’s determination to win that day sprang to life. Earnhardt Jr.’s description about his own efforts spilled out, as if we were watching a replay and he was doing play-by-play commentary. I wanted to use every word; the final product came close to hitting that mark.

    As reflective as Earnhardt’s sense of history has been, his perspective on current matters has been just as illuminating. His weekly media availabilities this season have unfolded in 30-minute blocks, expanded from the usual 15 to allow for farewell gifts from each track but also to satisfy media demand and provide Earnhardt time for his typically thorough answers. It’s also why Team Chevy public relations has often split up transcription duties for Earnhardt’s wide-ranging interviews among two or three staffers each week in his final season.

    After this weekend, Earnhardt’s competitive career on the track will end, but his voice will still be a familiar sound on race weekends next season. He’ll offer his views, likely with the same characteristic depth and charm but on the opposite side of the media divide, as an analyst for NBC Sports.

    Whether it’s as an interviewer or interviewee, the future should hold many more years of Earnhardt’s enlightened, conversational insights.

    All served up with a distinctive dash of twang.

    Dale Jr.: My Last Run At Talladega

    (11/13/17) My Last Run At Talladega: theplayerstribune.com.

    Preview: Dale Jr.’s final Phoenix race

    (11/10/17) Nearly two decades ago, a pair of fresh-faced drivers stared back at the many subscribers of “ESPN the Magazine” as they pulled the Spring 2000 issue out of their respective mailboxes.

    “Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth are on your tail,” the tagline read.

    Now, they’re on their way out.

    After more than 600 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races together, Earnhardt and Kenseth find themselves with but a pair of foreseeable races remaining in their Cup-level racing careers in Sunday’s Round of 8 cutoff at Phoenix Raceway (2:30 p.m ET, NBC) and next weekend’s Championship 4 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 19, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

    Neither of the accomplished drivers are among those racing for a title. Right now, it’s about race trophies – and memories, which the duo have shared throughout their careers despite never racing for the same team.

    It kind of all started with that “First kid you meet in kindergarten becomes your best friend for life” principle, way back in the mid-1990s.

    “(Our friendship has) really kind of stayed the same,” Earnhardt said Friday afternoon at Phoenix, of his perennial motor coach-lot neighbor and cycling pal. “Matt engaged me early in our careers in the XFINITY Series and I was really shy; didn’t have an understanding of how to interact with my peers and competitors that well. I was just trying to do well.

    “I was really nervous coming up into the ranks, but Matt engaged me and we became friends through conversations with him really quickly. We were both sort of coming into the XFINITY Series at the same time and then we went into the Cup Series together. We did a lot of things together. We supported each other and enjoyed seeing each other have success.”

    Their mutual success blossomed in the new millennium after starting as rookies in 2000 – as foretold by that ESPN cover – with 64 Monster Energy Series wins combined.

    Earnhardt edged Kenseth for a pair of XFINITY Series titles in 1998 and 1999 (with the latter earning a runner-up finish in ’98 and a third-place result in ’99), but it was Kenseth who earned the only premier-series title between the two – and with equipment that may not have been top-of-the-line, no less.

    “Matt won his championship in 2003. I bet he was probably down 40 horsepower to everybody else. Roush (Fenway Racing) probably wouldn’t admit it, wouldn’t like to hear that, but he was just an amazing driver,” said Earnhardt, who finished third in the standings that year – the closest he’d come to a title.

    “We beat him in the championship in the XFINITY Series. We had a whole lot more race car than he did, and he ran us pretty hard. I felt like he did a lot in those two years with very little. … I had always been impressed with his talent and his ability. He was as good a driver as anybody that is in the series today.”

    While that may be true – and Kenseth’s 14 wins over the past four years alone indicate it is – Joe Gibbs Racing has plans to move on from its current, 45-year-old driver of the No. 20 Toyota to usher in its future with 21-year-old Erik Jones, currently driving for Furniture Row Racing.

    After announcing last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway that he’d be stepping away from driving in 2018 – without going so far as actually calling it a “retirement” – it’s evident that we could be seeing the last of a pair of superstars racing at the sport’s highest level.

    And, given all the fanfare, gifts and recognition thrown at Earnhardt and the hushed, humbling nature of Kenseth’s announcement, they’re going out just the way they came in.

    “One funny thing that we talk about; we were getting our picture made for the cover of ESPN magazine back when we were coming into the Cup series and everybody knew that Matt had so much potential, so they had me up front and then they kind of had him behind me,” Earnhardt said. “The image was to express that there is all this hoopla about me coming in and there is all this attention on me, but you better watch this guy Matt, that was sort of what the image was trying to express. This guy is one you need to keep your eye on and he is lurking over my shoulder.

    “But, Matt was really frustrated because the photographer kept sliding Matt a little further and a little further behind me. He kept getting more and more angry and he is whispering in my ear how pissed off he was at this photographer because he was like ‘they can’t even freaking see me.’ And I’m like ‘Matt the story, really … the image is to sort of show you as the real threat,’ you know, and people are talking about me and they should be talking about you. But, we still talk about that today.”

    It’s hard not to look at their relationship and see a brotherly bond, Kenseth being the older, wiser sibling and Junior, well, being the junior sibling that tends to get all the attention. It’s a friendship that has benefitted each tremendously, and one that will soldier on – even as one continues to soak up the spotlight in an NBC Sports commentator role and the other sinks heavily and happily into a deep family life, even if he’d still like to be racing.

    Both have children on the way – Earnhardt’s first and Kenseth’s fifth – and plenty of photos will likely be exchanged, even if Kenseth was slightly miffed and gave Junior a hard time for finding out about wife Amy’s pregnancy via social media and not through a text.

    That kind of humor is what Junior loves about his friend, and the overall ‘Matt Kenseth package’ is something he draws from.

    “Matt, I love his sense of humor. I love the person he is and the person he has become, the father he is. And so, you know, he has always had an influence on me as far as how I race or the person I want to be or become,” Earnhardt said.

    “All us drivers have terrible egos and we can hardly stand each other and being around each other sometimes, but I’ve never felt that way about Matt. Matt has never done anything where I have felt like he was inflating his ego. He has always just been Matt and was such a pleasure to race with and to know and be friends with. So, I hope that … and I know we will … he is more than likely going to be hard to find once he is out of the race car, but I hope we can spend time together and we will definitely remain friends.”

    Preview: Dale Jr.’s final Phoenix race

    (11/9/17) Race: Can-Am 500

    Date: Sunday, Nov. 12, 2:30 p.m. ET (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Phoenix: 14th, fifth, first, 43rd, eighth

    Notable: Phoenix Raceway is one of Junior’s best tracks when it comes to total wins — three. His average finishing position of 16.0, though, ranks the 1-mile track among the lower third of his best venues. He has 14 top 10s and nine top fives in 29 races in the desert. Junior has had a resurgence at Phoenix lately; in his last eight races there, he has one win, five top fives and six top 10s. The only race among those eight when he finished outside the top 15 was when a blown right tire ended his day on Lap 180 of the March 2015 race.

    Memorable: Earnhardt Jr.’s 2004 Checker Auto Parts 500 was significant not so much for how he won that day at Phoenix, but for what that victory meant. It was Junior’s sixth trip to Victory Lane that season, a mark that still stands as the most wins he’s logged in a single season. Earnhardt did start 14th and needed to pass Jeff Gordon with 12 laps remaining to claim the victory, too.

    Quotable: “Phoenix is a good track for us. We have certainly had a great car there the last several times,” Earnhardt Jr. said in a team release. “Knowing we have won there helps you just go in there with a good attitude. I don’t think that we’ve lost hope on winning a race by any means. So, we’ll go in there with a solid attitude and see how it works out for us.”

    Texas Motor Speedway provides special scoreboard section to Dale Jr.

    (11/4/17) Texas Motor Speedway provided a Lone Star State-sized gift to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s season-long send-off, giving him part of the track’s scoreboard from his first win.

    Track president Eddie Gossage supervised the festivities on horseback before opening practice for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 (2 p.m. ET, Sunday, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM).

    Earnhardt is set to make his likely final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start at the 1.5-mile track, where he scored the first win of his premier series career as a rookie in 2000. Gossage unveiled a large scoreboard segment, with his former No. 8 illuminated in the first position as a parting gift.

    “That’s it. That’s the one,” Earnhardt said. “Isn’t that something?”

    The track also made the gift of naming a horse from a nearby therapeutic horse ranch in his honor as part of the Jr. Nation Apprecia88ion Tour. Gossage also provided a baby gift for Earnhardt and his wife, Amy — a kids’ hot-rodded push car stroller.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. says Ryan Blaney is a leader in engaging with fans

    (11/4/17) As each week passes in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final full-time NASCAR season, he is asked about not only his legacy but also about the new generation of drivers who will crowd the Monster Energy Cup Series grid for the foreseeable future.

    Judging by Earnhardt’s remarks and smiles Friday morning at Texas Motor Speedway, he feels like the future is in great hands — both on track and away from the track. Specifically, he had high praise for second-year Monster Energy Series driver Ryan Blaney, one of two young drivers (Chase Elliott is the other) still challenging for this year’s championship.

    “I’m excited about all these guys, Alex (Bowman) and William (Byron) and (Ryan) Blaney — he’s just so much fun outside of the car just to observe and watch,” Earnhardt said, speaking at length about his high expectations of the 23-year-old Blaney. “We all kind of enjoy seeing what he’s up to. He’s doing something every week.”

    This year’s Pocono winner, Blaney may be NASCAR’s version of the “Most Interesting Man in the World.” The son of sprint car legend Dave Blaney, Ryan has established himself as a big fan favorite and is always a candid interview — win or lose.

    His “Glass Case of Emotion” podcast on NASCAR.com is so popular, it just topped 1 million listens this season.

    “He’s the guy I think that’s taking the lead and a lot of guys could follow as far as how he self-promotes and engages with the fans,” Earnhardt said of Blaney. “He does such a good job with it and he’s up for anything. I think that’s a great example if those guys want to look for somebody to follow.”

    And best of all for Blaney, his performance on the race track has only legitimized and stoked his popularity away from it. He finished runner-up in the Daytona 500 and won the pole position at Kansas earlier this year before claiming his first Monster Energy Series win at Pocono three weeks later. | Blaney’s career stats

    He moves to Team Penske next year, teaming with former champion Brad Keselowski and perennial title favorite Joey Logano.

    He is ranked fifth among the eight drivers still playoff-eligible – only six points below the cut-off line with two races remaining to set the Championship 4 for the season finale Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami.

    Preview: Dale Jr.’s final Texas run

    (11/1/17) Race: AAA Texas 500

    Date: Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET (NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Texas: 5th, 2nd, 6th, 3rd, 6th

    Notable: Earnhardt Jr. won the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points race of his career at TMS, but he has failed to repeat the feat in the 28 other visits to the 1.5-mile track. However, statistically speaking Texas has been a good track for the Hendrick Motorsports driver, with seven top-five and 18 top-10 finishes there. His average starting and finishing positions are identical — 13.1 and second best among all 24 tracks he’s raced on in the series through the years. His fifth-place run at TMS in the spring was his first top five since June of 2016.

    Memorable: Earnhardt Jr.’s victory in the DirecTV 500 at TMS came in his 12th career start in the series. After qualifying fourth, he led 106 of the race’s 334 laps, including the final 53. His winning margin over Jeff Burton was a comfortable 5.920 seconds. It was the first win for crew chief Tony Eury Sr., as well as the first victory for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the MENCS organization fielded by seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt. “He’s like a wild horse,” Eury said of his young driver. “He’s something else; we knew the kid could do it,” the elder Earnhardt said.

    Quotable: “Dad wasn’t one to waste a lot of time. There were some race tracks where he’d drive out of the race track in his uniform. He’d jump out of his car and into the rental car; he’d tell Teresa (Earnhardt) — I think he’s actually said over the radio before the race was over with to tell Richard (Childress, team owner) to tell Teresa to get the rental car ready. He was in a hurry to get out of the race track no matter what. So we won the race in Texas and he comes in there and he grabs me, said he was happy and all that. He said ‘I’m proud of you, I’m happy, enjoy this but you’ve got to find another ride home.’ He didn’t stay around for pictures or nothing. He was out of there.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. opens driver confessional with #IWreckedEm

    (10/31/17) After admitting on his Dale Junior Download podcast Tuesday that he has wrecked several drivers intentionally during his career — including himself — Dale Earnhardt Jr. opened the Twitter confessional to his fellow drivers Halloween night, using the hashtag #IWreckedEm.

    In the podcast, Junior addressed the race- and playoffs-changing incident at Martinsville in which Denny Hamlin put his No. 11 Toyota’s bumper to Chase Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet, after Elliott had just taken the lead with four laps to go and appeared on target to claim his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory before wrecking.

    Junior said, “I’d be surprised if there’s a driver who hasn’t intentionally wrecked somebody in their career.” Then he admitted to wrecking Kerry Lawrence, Stanton Barrett and Kasey Kahne over the years — and lastly Kyle Busch in 2008 at Richmond. The No. 88 driver admitted he was fined for a self-spin at Bristol because he bragged about the strategy play too much afterward.

    He opened up the floodgates of self-cleansing with a reply to Landon Cassill later on social media, who tweeted, “In light of Dale’s humble admissions, I want to be the first to say to anyone I may have wrecked in the past, … you probably deserved it.”

    Amy Earnhardt: Pace car ride ‘incredible’ at Martinsville

    (10/29/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr. had twice the luck on track with him before the green flag dropped ahead of his likely final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway.

    Leading the field in the pace car, Amy Earnhardt, who is pregnant with the couple’s baby girl, wheeled her way around the .526-mile track like a natural … and with a smile from ear-to-ear.

    “It was incredible,” Amy Earnhardt told NASCAR.com. “I had no idea what it was going to be like. Everyone told me that the perspective of the (track) was going to be the best part, and they were totally right.”

    It’s not unusual for the drivers behind the pace car to give an innocent tap. Martin Truex Jr., good friends with Dale and Amy, qualified second for the First Data 500 and started on the front row. He told Earnhardt to check her rearview mirror just in case she saw the No. 78 coming behind her.

    “He threatened to, and he got pretty close a couple of times, but he didn’t,” she said laughing. “He was easy on me.”

    With the Earnhardt family expanding by one, all eyes were on the track when Amy wheeled the pace car off pit row. It was the first time the littlest Earnhardt would take a ride in a race car — and it may not be the last, either.

    “I’m not sure if she’ll be into or racing or not,” Amy Earnhardt said. “We’ll just have to see, but she got to go for a ride around the race track with me, so that’s pretty neat.”

    Martinsville Speedway President Clay Campbell said having Amy as the honorary pace car driver was a way to give back to Dale Jr. for all of his contributions to the Virginia track, and for everything he has done for NASCAR.

    “The Earnhardt family has meant so much to Martinsville Speedway through the years, Dale in particular, and we wanted for him to be able to share his last Cup race here with the person closest to him,” Campbell said. “Dale has often talked about how much Amy has meant to him and this is one small way in which we can say thank you to the both of them; to Dale for what he has meant to the sport and to Amy for what she has meant to Dale.”

    Earnhardt: ‘It would be great for the sport to have an Andretti’

    (10/29/17) Another Andretti in NASCAR racing? It’s not that far-fetched.

    IndyCar legend Mario Andretti ran 14 races in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, winning the 1967 Daytona 500. John Andretti, Mario’s nephew, competed in 393 Cup races, winning at Daytona and Martinsville.

    Jeff Andretti, Mario’s youngest son, tried his luck in three NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races in 1999, all ending as DNFs because of mechanical issues.

    And on Saturday morning at Martinsville Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. acknowledged discussing the possibility of providing a NASCAR XFINITY Series ride for Marco Andretti, Mario’s grandson.

    Only one problem: with four Chevrolets set to compete full-time for the XFINITY title next year – with drivers Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and Tyler Reddick — Earnhardt doesn’t have an “all-star car” to make occasional starts with a variety of drivers.

    “We’ve got four teams and they are all full,” Earnhardt said. “So it’s probably not got any life, but we are friends and we’ve talked about it for two to three years. He has some interest in coming over and running some road courses and so does (Graham) Rahal and a bunch of other guys.

    “If I had a field full of race cars, we would have a blast, all our buddies racing, but it’s just hard to do. We’re really thankful to be in the position we are in to have four full cars racing for a championship. As fun as the all-star idea and car is, and as many races as we won with (Kevin) Harvick, the real goal is to have a team running for the championship.”

    Though he’s leaving the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet at the end of the season, Earnhardt is committed contractually to run at least one XFINITY Series race next season at a track still to be determined.

    When that happens, he’ll have to field a fifth car, but that situation likely won’t be available to other drivers, even if their names are Andretti or Rahal.

    “If we did have those opportunities, we certainly would entertain it, and I think it would be great for the sport to have an Andretti out there running in stock car,” Earnhardt said. “No matter where it is at, it would be awesome.”

    (Earnhardt) Junior on (Truex) Junior: ‘I’m not surprised by his success’

    (10/29/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s history with Martin Truex Jr. has plenty of depth, dating back to Truex’s first forays into NASCAR’s national ranks. They’ve grown closer in the years since they were first teammates back in the middle of the 2000s, but Earnhardt has always had an appreciation for Truex’s talent at driving a stock car.

    That recognition was so strong that Earnhardt said he lobbied current team owner Rick Hendrick to hire Truex during a time of transition for his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series organization.

    “There was a particular time when I think when Rick was making a change on the 5 car, whether it was before Mark (Martin) or after Mark, I’m not real sure, but I like begged Rick,” Earnhardt said Saturday before practice at Martinsville Speedway. “I was like, ‘(I’m) telling you if you get Truex in here, he can do anything that any of these other guys in your company are doing, myself included. I think that he’s got that kind of talent. You’d be surprised at how well he’ll do.’

    “And he didn’t have the track record or statistics to be in that conversation, but I tried to push him into that conversation. So, I believed in him since the first race we ran together. …”

    So count Earnhardt among the least surprised at Truex’s current tear through the 2017 campaign, a march that’s included a series-best seven victories, a regular-season championship and a surplus of playoff points that make him a sizable favorite for his first premier-series title.

    The two were first closely connected by the Earnhardt family-owned Chance 2 Motorsports, where Truex won two championships in what is now called the XFINITY Series. When Earnhardt suffered burns in a sports-car accident in 2004, his Dale Earnhardt Inc. team turned to Truex as a relief driver making his first premier-series appearance.

    From his rookie Cup season with DEI in 2006, Truex’s career has had its share of highs and lows — his six-year wait between his first two wins, his split from Michael Waltrip’s operation and his agonizing first season with Furniture Row Racing, the Colorado-based team he still calls home. The adversity off the track has been gut-wrenching, standing beside longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex in her fight against ovarian cancer.

    Though Truex and Earnhardt went separate ways as on-track teammates after the 2007 season, the two remained close. It’s given Earnhardt an intimate look at Truex’s perseverance.

    “The way he ran in our cars in those two seasons when he won the championship and knowing the equipment that he’s been in his entire career and how he performs in it and to me, he’s always overachieved and always at least gotten everything out of the car that the car was capable of getting, if not more,” Earnhardt said. “And so, also, I think he had a lot of years there where he could have allowed himself to get frustrated. I think his ability to remain professional, his ability to be strong-willed and see opportunity down the road says a lot about his personal character.

    “He is a guy where if you get a chance to go hang out with him, go deer hunting with him, he’s a tough, tough person mentally. And so, I think that has served him really well. I’m not surprised by his success.”

    Truex’s ascension from upstart to championship heavyweight has paralleled Furniture Row’s rise. The Barney Visser-owned organization — a geographical outlier in Denver — made its first postseason appearance with Kurt Busch in 2013, a year before Truex’s arrival.

    Truex led just one lap in his first season with Furniture Row, struggling to a career-worst 24th-place finish in the yearlong standings. Buoyed by a new crew chief (Cole Pearn) in 2015 and a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing in its switch to Toyota in 2016, Truex clawed back into week-in, week-out contention.

    With all the pieces in place, Truex won four times last year in a breakout performance that foreshadowed this season’s stunning star turn.

    “I think I’m more surprised by the team and how far that team has come,” Earnhardt says. “I think that’s an incredible story. As hard as it is to come into this sport and create a team out of thin air and be an owner that succeeds amongst the teams that are solidified in this sport, it’s so impossible to do that. It’s so hard. There are so much financial resources that have to be poured into it and I think that team should be commended. They found an incredible crew chief and he’s done an amazing job building great chemistry and it’s just incredible to watch.

    “Personally, I’ve pulled for Martin to have this chance and this opportunity. And when he went over there I thought this could be the start of something great. And I know I’m not the only one to feel that way. It’s awesome to see.”

    That’s a tough admission to make when Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott are also locked into the Round of 8, scrapping for one of four slots in the championship phase at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month.

    “It makes it harder for me because I want my teammates to do well,” Earnhardt said. “I’m a company man. I want them to win the championship and here’s one of my best friends, regardless of racing, we’re incredibly good pals and it’s hard not to want to see him win it too, you know? I’ve loved seeing him win and celebrate his success. They’ve had such a difficult journey over the last couple of years.”

    Going ‘ghost:’ Earnhardt Jr. gets another chance to drive iconic scheme

    (10/26/17) (Pic)This weekend at iconic Martinsville Speedway, the “Gray Ghost” will ride again. This time Dale Earnhardt Jr. will indeed be behind the wheel.

    Junior’s personal history with this particular paint scheme dates back to 1980. Buddy Baker won the Daytona 500 that year in a black-and-silver entry that a young Earnhardt Jr. (he was 5 at the time of Baker’s win) never could quite get out of his head.

    The car was named the “Gray Ghost,” a reflection of its color scheme, which blended in with the racing surface of the track and its apparent ability to appear out of nowhere, speeding past unsuspecting rivals at a moment’s notice.

    “He just seemed to be a great match with the car,” Earnhardt Jr. said last year. “They were just so good, so fast. When they won the Daytona 500 after such a devastating loss after 1979 — they were the greatest thing down there, nobody could touch them throughout the entire weekend and then they didn’t even really get to race.

    “And then they went back in ’80 and won, it was pretty neat; I know that was pretty special for Buddy to get that win. You can tell in some of the interviews from back then how important the Daytona 500 win was to him.”

    Prior to the 2016 Darlington throwback race, Earnhardt Jr. unveiled a Nationwide-sponsored car that paid homage to the “Gray Ghost.”

    He never got to run it.

    Lingering effects from a concussion forced the Hendrick Motorsports driver to sit out Darlington that year. Instead, Earnhardt Jr. watched as Jeff Gordon drove the No. 88 to a 14th-place finish in a substitute driver role.

    For his final full-time season as a driver, Earnhardt Jr. and Nationwide held a fan poll to determine Earnhardt Jr.’s livery for the Martinsville fall race (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    The winner? The “Gray Ghost,” which would appear to delight Junior, who responded to a @NASCAR Instagram post in kind — check out his comment below (we’ve highlighted his user name).

    “Martinsville this weekend should be a lot of fun. We’ve got the Gray Ghost — I appreciate everybody voting for that paint scheme so I can run it,” Earnhardt Jr. said earlier this week on his podcast. “I didn’t get to drive that car last year and I love that car, so I may have swayed the vote because I went on social media and said, ‘That’s the one I’d love to run.’ I’m excited to get the opportunity to drive that car this weekend. Martinsville is a great track for us. I love the short tracks and short-track racing.”

    The old-school, black-and-silver scheme belongs perfectly at the oldest track on the NASCAR circuit, a facility that celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

    Imagine how it would look under the lights.

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Martinsville run

    (10/25/17) Race: First Data 500

    Date: Sunday, Oct. 29, 3 p.m. ET (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Martinsville: 34th, 14th, 4th, 36th, 1st

    Notable: In 34 starts at Martinsville, Earnhardt has just one victory at the short track, but he has finished in the top 10 18 times, including four times in the last seven races. The No. 88 team was forced to exit April’s race early after a crash on Lap 418. Sunday’s Martinsville finale will be extra special for the Earnhardts as wife Amy, who recently announced the couple would be expecting a baby girl, will drive the pace car. Earnhardt will also wheel the ‘Gray Ghost’ paint scheme that the fans voted on.

    Memorable: Earnhardt’s lone Victory Lane celebration at the .526-mile track came in October 2014. The No. 88 team sat in fifth position for a restart with just five laps to go. He had just been eliminated from the playoffs the week before at Talladega, but stole the coveted grandfather clock trophy from several drivers still in the hunt, including former teammate Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt credits his team’s decision to take tires with eight laps left as a key to grabbing the win he had desperately wanted. The win also came on the 10th anniversary of the tragic plane crash that claimed the lives of several Hendrick Motorsports employees.

    Quotable: “Martinsville this weekend should be a lot of fun. We’ve got the Gray Ghost – I appreciate everybody voting for that paint scheme so I can run it,” Earnhardt said in a team release. “I didn’t get to drive that car last year and I love that car, so I may have swayed the vote because I went on social media and said, ‘That’s the one I’d love to run.’ I’m excited to get the opportunity to drive that car this weekend. Martinsville is a great track for us. I love the short tracks and short-track racing.”

    NASCAR Champion’s Week schedule announced

    (10/25/17) Soon after the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series™ champion is crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 19, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup will head to Las Vegas as NASCAR hosts its annual Champion’s Week festivities. Fans will gather in Las Vegas for events honoring the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion, Playoff Drivers, Sunoco Rookie of the Year and other season-ending award recipients.

    Beginning on Tuesday, Nov. 28 and culminating Thursday, Nov. 30, NASCAR Champion’s Week will feature the annual NASCAR National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) Myers Brothers Awards at the Wynn Las Vegas as well as the return of the NASCAR Fan Lounge at Beerhaus located at The Park, situated between New York-New York Hotel & Casino and Monte Carlo Resort and Casino.

    This year, a special celebration of the storied driving career of Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Appreci88ion An Evening with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Presented by Nationwide” will take place at Rose. Rabbit. Lie. at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 28. The exclusive fan event will feature surprise guests from Earnhardt’s career with proceeds benefitting Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

    Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs drivers will take to the famed Las Vegas Strip when they get behind the wheel of their race cars for NASCAR Victory Lap Fueled by Sunoco on Wednesday, Nov 29. Fans will be treated to burnouts along Las Vegas Blvd. at the Spring Mountain Rd. and Harmon Ave. intersections before finishing with a post-lap driver tell-all on Toshiba Plaza outside T-Mobile Arena. The event will be simulcast live on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and NASCAR.com.

    NASCAR and live music rev up the Las Vegas night at NASCAR After The Lap Supporting the Vegas Strong Fund, Wednesday, Nov. 29 at The Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. This year, the fan event will feature a concert by country music star Lee Brice and the first-ever live-on-stage episode of Glass Case of Emotion, with Ryan Blaney as a host and guests to include Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff drivers. VIP areas hosted by event sponsors, Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota will feature appearances by Playoff drivers. All ticket proceeds from this event will benefit the Vegas Strong Fund assisting victims & strengthening the Las Vegas community.

    Festivities will conclude with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards, a star-studded event featuring the Champion, 16 Playoff drivers and a fan red carpet at Wynn Las Vegas. NBCSN presents this year’s awards on Thursday, Nov. 30 at 9 p.m. ET, while Motor Racing Network (MRN) and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, will carry the award show live beginning at 8 p.m. ET.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. shares details on his best day ever

    (10/24/17) The 2017 season is not over yet but Dale Earnhardt Jr. already has his favorite moment.

    “Probably the day I found out Amy was pregnant,” Earnhardt said to answer a fan question on his latest Dale Jr. Download podcast episode.

    But Earnhardt revealed that day ended up being extra special because he was informed of the big news after arriving home from another exciting trip. A huge Washington Redskins fan, Earnhardt spent that day, Aug. 30, at the team’s luncheon as a guest speaker.

    “I go to this Redskins luncheon, freakin’ having a blast, right? Hanging out with the whole team and all the execs; just incredible to be able to be there. Fan-boying like crazy. Thinking, what a great day,” Earnhardt describes.

    “Come home. Excited. Telling Amy all about it and then she tells me that she’s pregnant. It was a lot going on. I came home, just like that tweet that the guy said, this is the greatest day ever, Amy! And she’s like, well, let me tell you.”

    Oh, and don’t worry Earnhardt also has some favorite memories from what he’s done on track, too.

    “I think getting the poles at Daytona and Talladega,” he said. “We don’t have a win to brag about or we usually have a win at this point that sticks out, so I’ll say getting those two poles. I mean, when’s the last time we won a pole, much less two poles in same season?”

    That’d be 2013, Dale. But we can blame it on pregnancy brain.

    Keselowski announces Talladega T-shirt proceeds will go to Dale Jr. Foundation

    (10/24/17) Brad Keselowski stole the show at Talladega with a win in the throwback paint scheme that honored Dale Earnhardt Jr., who drove in his final race at the Alabama track — a place nicknamed ‘Earnhardt Country’ rightly so.

    Just weeks later, the No. 2 Ford driver is going above and beyond (again) to show his admiration for Junior’s career and their friendship.

    Keselowski announced on Twitter that all proceeds from his Talladega victory T-shirts will be donated to the Dale Jr. Foundation to show his appreciation to the No. 88 driver and JR Motorsports.

    @keselowski :Out of respect to @JRMotorsports and @DaleJr I’m donating my proceeds from this to Dale Jr foundation https://twitter.com/team_penske/status/922815826658516992 … Earnhardt Jr. responded to Keselowski’s kind gesture with a tweet of his own thanking him.

    @DaleJr : Brad! You da man. https://twitter.com/keselowski/status/922820049945219073 …

    In his pre-Talladega blog, Keselowski gave thanks to Dale Jr. and added, “Dale, there’s not a doubt in my mind that you’ll excel at whatever it is you do next, but it’s not going to be the same out there without you. I’m going to miss racing against you, my friend. I’m going to miss seeing you out there in the 88 on Sundays.”

    Is there a bromance brewing for a good cause? Cheers to this.

    Video message from family friend Ned Yost moves Dale Jr.

    (10/21/17) For a few minutes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t the focal point of his own press conference Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

    As has become customary in 2017, the Hendrick Motorsports driver came into the media center ahead of his final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at a particular track to humbly accept a gift – often an 88-themed charitable donation on his behalf — which Kansas did, in the form of a paperback copy of “The Expectant Father” and a check for $8,800 to the University of Kansas Health Systems Pediatric Unit.

    The projector screen then lowered, a familiar face shone brightly, and perhaps the most heart-warming message Earnhardt has received yet began to play.

    “Hey Dale, I’m always amazed at how time flies by,” boomed the voice of affable Kansas City Royals manager and great friend to the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., Ned Yost. “I sit back and I think about being with your dad and walking into the old (XFINITY Series) shop and seeing you and Tony (Eury) Jr. underneath the late model stock cars, beating and banging trying to get a piece of weight out from the frame.

    “But watching you develop as a race car driver, I remember being with your dad, driving around the farm in the winter of ’97 and he was telling me he was going to put you in an (XFINITY) car full-time. And I asked him, ‘You think he’s ready for that?’ Dale said, ‘You’re damn right he’s ready for that.’ Of course, you proved him right, winning the championship in ’98 and then again in ’99. Then it took 12 whole races for you to win your first (Monster Energy Series) victory at Texas.”

    Earnhardt, sitting in the media center crowd, took it all in. Moved.

    “It’s been fun to watch that. It’s been fun to watch you grow. It’s been fun to watch you become a two-time Daytona 500 champion,” Yost, who chose to wear No. 3 in honor of Senior, continued. “But more than anything, I can flash back to that win in Texas and yeah, it was great that you won, but what was more impressive to me was how proud your dad was that day. It’s been a wonderful experience sitting back and watching you accomplish what you’ve accomplished. What you’ve accomplished is kind of hindsight to what you’ve become, for me. You’ve become an outstanding person. You’ve become an outstanding man. It’s just been a fantastic career. I just wanted to take a few minutes to congratulate you on that. I know you and Amy are going to have a blast in your retirement. It’s been fun watching you compete. It’s been fun watching you grow up. Once again, congratulations on a tremendous career, and a tremendous life. Good luck, Dale.”

    The track then presented Junior with his own Royals home jersey with not his, but his dad’s number on the back.

    As the final weeks of Earnhardt’s full-time career wind down, much of it will likely be a frenzied blur when he recounts his final season in the coming months, years, decades.

    Saturday will be a moment he’ll carry with him.

    “Yeah that is really emotional,” Earnhardt said. “Ned has been a great family friend and just so supportive of me and it is really nice to hear his memories and his thoughts, and I appreciate the track for the donation within their community here. That means a lot to me. That is really what we were hoping the tracks would take the initiative to do and it’s been great all year to see that happen.

    “So, I’m glad you guys did that and that really makes my heart full.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. overwhelmed with joy about baby news

    (10/21/17) As NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver and the sport’s all-around biggest superstar, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is typically enthusiastic and quite comfortable discussing his place in the sport heading into his retirement at season’s end.

    However, his demeanor noticeably changed some Saturday morning at Kansas Speedway. Listening to him speak about his wife Amy’s recently announced pregnancy was both moving and memorable.

    He bowed his head for several moments to collect his thoughts when asked about the fantastic news he and his wife Amy would be welcoming their first child, a daughter, come May 2.

    “We’ve known since actually August and oh man, it’s just been really hard keeping that in and wanting to share,” Earnhardt said smiling.

    “I just couldn’t wait to tell everybody. … We have a lot of check-ups and we’re thankful and I’m looking forward to the whole process of watching and being involved.

    “I’m just trying to be as supportive as I can for Amy, making sure she feels well and is comfortable. I’m trying to soak in all the experiences of going to the doctor and hearing the heartbeat. They are incredible.”

    At one point Earnhardt, 43, pulled out his cellphone to try to play the audio recording he keeps of the baby’s heartbeat.

    “I mean it made it more real,” he said grinning. “We are pinching ourselves even still. We look at each other if we’re sitting on the couch or walking around the house or something and just have to remind ourselves we’re going through this pregnancy and we just can’t believe it.

    “So, anytime you hear the heartbeat or go to an ultrasound or something like that, it makes it like ‘Hey, it’s happening.’ You get a little scared. You get excited, you know?”

    And he animatedly recalled that first doctor’s visit to confirm that Amy was pregnant. She had taken some at-home pregnancy tests, but Earnhardt joked that he wasn’t gonna believe the news until he heard it from the doctor.

    “We went to the doctor and I’m still thinking man, I’m not believing crap until this doctor tells me,” he said smiling. “So, we’re sitting in there for like 20 minutes. And their talking woman language and I’m not understanding (laughter). They are just talking about things and I’m like well, when is she going to say it? I want to hear it from the doctor’s mouth (laughs) that she’s pregnant, so we can rejoice.

    “It took them a while. I was scared to speak up. Finally, they said something that confirmed it for me and I was like, ‘Awesome.’

    “And then we had the ultrasound and got to hear the heartbeat and all that right there, and that was great. We go back for another checkup here soon, in a couple of days, and those are awesome.

    “They are so much fun because it’s like the closest you can get to it before they’re born and I’m looking forward to each and every one of them.”

    And he spoke at length about the efforts he’s made to keep Amy comfortable and happy during the pregnancy. From letting her rest to keeping her company to sharing in the happiness and big plans, Earnhardt seems to be living in the most happy of moments.

    “Everybody says obviously, to try to get your sleep now because the first several months are very difficult, but we can’t,” Earnhardt said. “We’re lying in bed and can’t sleep. We’re so excited.

    “You can read books and I’ve got an app on my phone and am trying to get as much information as I can to understand how to make Amy as comfortable as I can.

    “I think some of the most helpful advice for me is probably what can I do to make it easier for Amy. And the advice that I’ve gotten is that she doesn’t care what you did that day. She doesn’t care how your day was (laughs). So, don’t try to tell her. If you had a rough day or whatever, just shelve it and try to keep on being an assistant to whatever she needs at all times.

    “And that’s pretty easy to remember because I feel that way already about her.”

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Kansas

    (10/18/17) Race: Hollywood Casino 400

    Date: Sunday, Oct. 22, 3 p.m. ET (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Kansas: 20th, 15th, 21st, 3rd, 39th

    Notable: Kansas is one of 11 active tracks where Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not won, and his performance hasn’t been too memorable in America’s heartland — he has just three top-five finishes and nine top 10s in 21 starts. He has one pole at the track, coming in 2002. His average finish of 16.2 ranks in the lower third among his all-time average finishes.

    Memorable: Earnhardt only qualified 28th for the 2011 STP 400 at Kansas Speedway. Still, he managed to race his way through the pack to be in contention as the race wound down at the 1.5-mile track. But Brad Keselowski held on for a fuel-mileage victory in what was just the second win of his career at the Monster Energy Series level. Earnhardt crossed the finish line second — and that remains his best finish at Kansas.

    Quotable: “Kansas is a great racetrack for me,” Earnhardt Jr. said in a team release. “That place has widened out pretty good and you can run against the fence there, which is a line that I like to run. It’s a very fast race track and very smooth – a lot of fun, so we should have a good time.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. Reveals the Adorable Way He and Wife Amy Found Out the Sex of Their Baby

    (10/17/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr. used a pair of pink baby Converse to announce that he and wife Amy are expecting a daughter — their first child! And the way the couple found out about the sex of the baby is even more adorable.

    “You get an email with a link to click to find out the gender. We actually sent that to Amy’s sister in Texas and she ordered the shoes and mailed them to us. We opened the box on the front doorstep,” said Earnhardt, who publicly spoke about becoming a father for the first time on Tuesday during an interview with NBC Sports Network.

    The couple, who were married last New Year’s Eve, shared the happy news on Instagram Monday afternoon.

    “It is a very exciting thing. Amy and I are thrilled and over the moon,” the father-to-be said, joking: “I have no idea what I’ve gotten myself into.”

    “I’m hearing so much advice already, and I couldn’t be more excited about it. This is something that Amy and I have been working toward for a long time,” added Earnhardt, who is retiring from full-time Cup Series racing after the season finale Nov. 19.

    “There are so many cool little moments. We have been sitting here giddy for so long, it is finally good to be able to tell everybody,” he concluded.

    And a new baby isn’t the only joint project the parents-to-be has in their future.

    In May, the stock car racing champ tweeted that he and Amy will star in a home renovation series on the DIY Network.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Amy expecting first child

    (10/16/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr. has told us how much he wants to start a family, and he and Amy shared the good news with NASCAR fans Monday that they are expecting a little girl.

    Junior is retiring from full-time driving in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after this season. He talked at Dover recently about how much he is looking forward to having children.

    “I’m excited to start a family, and I hope I’m fortunate enough to do that with Amy,’’ he said. “We definitely want to do that. And it would be weird not being a race car driver if I have a daughter or son, I think about that, would they understand what I’m telling them or what I did for a long time. I’m hoping to find out all that stuff soon.’’

    DALE EARNHARDT JR. JOINS NASCAR AMERICA LIVE FROM THE NASCAR HALL OF FAME – TOMORROW, OCTOBER 17, AT 5 P.M. ET ON NBCSN

    (10/16/17) As part of NBC Sports Group’s continuing coverage of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, two-time Daytona 500 winner and NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for an unprecedented 14 consecutive years (2003-16), Dale Earnhardt Jr. will join NASCAR America tomorrow, October 17, at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

    Earnhardt Jr. will join NASCAR America host Marty Snider (@HeyMartySnider), “The Mayor” of NASCAR Jeff Burton, and Hall of Fame driver Dale Jarrett (@Dalejarrett), live from the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. thrills, finishes seventh in likely final Talladega start

    (10/15/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed out of his No. 88 for the last time at Talladega Superspeedway as the sun began to set on Alabama.

    After an immediate inspection of the damaged right-front splitter that plagued his final laps and left him with seventh instead of first, Earnhardt debriefed with his team, shaking their hands in a circle.

    There was plenty riding on this race for the undeniable crowd favorite. For many drivers, a seventh-place result at a place like always-unpredictable Talladega is considered a good day. It’s different for Earnhardt.

    Ultimately, he wanted the win for the folks in the grandstands.

    “It’s been better than the last couple of trips here, the last couple of trips we had a lot of trouble in wrecks and hadn’t been able to come home with a decent finish,” Earnhardt said. “I would have loved to have won the race for all the fans that come out here. I know a lot of folks came to see this race just for the fact that it was my last plate race and trust me, I wanted to win it for all those folks more than myself, but just couldn’t get it done.”

    Earnhardt was one of 14 cars that made it through the perils of Talladega on Sunday afternoon in a race that saw three red flags. Indeed it seemed that the No. 88 driver certainly seemed to have a guardian angel on his shoulder throughout the afternoon; he squeezed through a multi-car melee with minimal damage at Lap 171 that took out 16 cars then just barely avoided hitting a crashing Ryan Blaney and Trevor Bayne near the yellow line at Lap 178.

    Four laps later, he escaped a wreck that collected his teammate Chase Elliott and rookie Daniel Suarez.

    The No. 88 team “got lucky,” he said.

    “I (was) carrying Stevie Waltrip’s scripture in the car,” Earnhardt said, referring to the Bible verse that Darrell Waltrip’s wife places in his car each week. “She probably had me a little luck there. So, it never hurts to have an angel on your shoulder.”

    A portion of this week’s verse, coming from Lamentations 3:22-24, read, “By His mercies we have been kept from complete destruction,” which seems eerily fitting in regards to Earnhardt’s day of near misses. After the verse, Stevie wrote “Hope you feel loved and hugged.”

    He was certainly loved — and has been loved — at Talladega on Sunday. The roar of the grandstands when he led the field to green as the polesitter at the start of the race or when he made a move for position is a testament to that.

    He loves it here, too — that started even before he won six races at Talladega in the premier series, when he was a young child running around the garage as his father made a name at the Alabama track.

    “I really do owe a lot to this track and the support that we have had here from the fans, owe a lot to them,” Earnhardt said. “You know, it just has been a very fun place. When I was a little kid going to -- we got to go to a handful of race tracks throughout the year, and this was always a fun trip. There was a pay-to-ride go-kart track down where the hotels were where all the drivers and everybody stayed, and me -- I’d get a hundred bucks from Dad maybe, and then … a bunch of us would run over there and spend all our daddies’ money riding go-karts … Me and the boys, we’d run around the garage looking at the cars that came in there, they were broke or wrecked or whatever, and they’d just bring them in there and park them and leave them.

    “Just so many good memories as a kid coming here, and that was back before hot passes and pit passes, garage passes. Man, you could run anywhere you wanted to go, and we were all over the place having fun and goofing off … A lot of great memories here, and then obviously the career in Cup here, four in a row, all those things mean a lot to me.”

    Even though his career in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has come to a close at NASCAR’s largest track, the Earnhardt connection will remain; he’ll be back in a different form.

    “I hope to always have a great connection here, and trust me when I say that whatever the track needs from me, anytime they want anything, I’ll be here to help promote and support this place no matter what the request is,” Earnhardt said. “They’ve done so much for me, and I want to remain very close.”

    This last one is a bag of mixed emotions for him; his slight disappointment is evident, but he maintains a slight smile and cheerful spirits during interviews. He finished the race, earned a top 10 and gave his devoted fans something to watch up until the very end.

    “I’m always disappointed when we don’t run well at tracks I know we should, but we did run well today, but I know that everybody was probably -- is a little bit of air out of the bag there at the end to finish seventh,” Earnhardt said. “I hate to leave slightly disappointed, but hopefully they enjoyed everything else they saw. I mean, we ran as hard as we could, did the best we could.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. takes pole for final Talladega race

    (10/14/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the pole for his final scheduled Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

    Earnhardt is retiring from full-time competition at the end of the season, and the Alabama crowd has always embraced NASCAR’s most popular driver. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has declared race day "Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day" across the state.

    The field will be led to green by Donnie Allison, a two-time Talladega winner and original member of the Alabama Gang, while driving the late Dale Earnhardt’s No. 2 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Talladega officials presented Earnhardt Jr. with the car , which his father raced during his 1979 rookie season, as well as some races during his 1980 championship season, as a retirement gift.

    Now, with the pole — the first of his career at Talladega — it has turned into quite the special weekend for Earnhardt.

    "This place has meant a lot to me," he said. "It’s awesome to hear those fans happy for us and hopefully we’re going to give them a lot more to cheer about before this weekend is over."

    Could he add a seventh victory?

    "Certainly," he grinned. "You think about that every time you suit up and get in the car, you imagine if that’s going to be the day you get a win. But, this would be a real important one if we could win for all the fans, all year long, we certainly owe them a win."

    Earnhardt is winless this season and didn’t make the playoffs. He’s got just six races left before he turns over his No. 88 Chevrolet to Hendrick Motorsports and replacement driver Alex Bowman.

    On Saturday, Earnhardt turned a lap at 190.544 mph to knock teammate Chase Elliott from the top starting spot. Elliott wound up second with a lap at 190.412 mph in a Hendrick Motorsports sweep of the front row.

    "We’ve been fighting our teammate Chase and his group for poles at these tracks for a long time and it’s been a lot of fun to be honest with you, how these two teams have pushed and elevated each other," Earnhardt said. "Really, all the credit for getting a pole at a place like this goes to the team. … I just hold the wheel straight and try not to bounce into the apron. There ain’t much to it as a driver."

    Joey Logano was third in a Team Penske Ford, followed by Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer. Ford drivers took positions third through seventh.

    Stenhouse knocked Earnhardt from the pole in May , and then went on to win his first career Cup race at Talladega. Stenhouse added a victory at Daytona in July, making him the winner of the last two restrictor-plate races. Busch’s victory in the Daytona 500 has made the Ford engines built by Doug Yates 3 for 3 so far this year in plate races.

    So Stenhouse wasn’t thrilled to qualify fifth.

    "That was a bummer," he said. "I was hoping we’d get another pole and I think it would have been cool to knock (Earnhardt) off the pole again. But obviously this shows our Ford is still fast. We’ve got speed."

    It was a rough qualifying effort for Toyota, with none of its playoff contenders advancing to the final 12. That’s an odd development considering Toyota drivers have won the first four playoff races.

    Eliminated in the first round were Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth, as well as points leader Martin Truex Jr. Starting position doesn’t mean much at Talladega, and Truex won at Charlotte last weekend so he’s already in the third round of the playoffs.

    "You know it is superspeedway qualifying — just been a little bit off on superspeedway qualifying," Hamlin said. "We obviously race pretty decent. It looks like the Fords are pretty strong, so we’ll have to race those guys tomorrow and we’ll just kind of see how we all stack up."

    Historic car gift from Talladega leaves Dale Jr. beaming

    (10/13/17) It was an Earnhardt behind the wheel and it was at Talladega and one of the places that helped make his father a legend in the sport of NASCAR had a grand parting gift for the son.

    Talladega Superspeedway officials, in conjunction with the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and the state of Alabama, handed Dale Earnhardt Jr. the keys (figuratively speaking) to the 1979 Chevrolet Monte Carlo that his father drove to the Rookie of the Year title that year, and possibly wheeled in a few ’80 races as well.

    Earnhardt the elder won the first of his seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series titles in ’80 while driving for team owner Rod Osterlund.

    “This car is a 1979 Monte Carlo,” a beaming Earnhardt Jr. told NBC after taking the car for a spin on the 2.66-mile Talladega layout. “Dad drove this car in his rookie season; he probably ran it in his championship season too in 1980.

    “They ran a Monte Carlo here in ’79 but in ’80 they ran an Oldsmobile 442. This was the kind of car he ran at Bristol and all the short tracks and the mile and a halves.”

    The International Motorsports Hall of Fame is located on the grounds of Talladega Superspeedway.

    After climbing behind the wheel, Earnhardt Jr. drove the blue and yellow Monte Carlo, with its long front end and No. 2 emblazoned on the sides, at only moderate speed for a couple of laps around the track. But he did make a quick side trip after starting down pit road to drive it through the Monster Energy Series garage before heading back down pit road for pictures with dignitaries and a quick interview.

    “Actually the state of Alabama owns this car,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “They’re going to let us take it to Mooresville, North Carolina, and show it around in our shop so that’s going to be fun for the guys.

    “I got to take it for a couple of laps; that was fun. I drove it through the garage so all the guys on the team could see it. Pretty neat just trying to imagine what it would be like running one of them around here at 180-190 miles an hour.”

    In addition to the permanent loan of the vehicle, Earnhardt was presented two unopened magnums of champagne by track officials. The first was from the lot that was used during his father’s final victory here in 2000; the second came from the post-race celebration following Earnhardt Jr.’s first Talladega win in 2001.

    Earnhardt Jr. said he did get the opportunity to drive his father’s race cars previously, but none of the older models.

    “I drove his No. 3 Goodwrench car a couple of times, did some tests that first year we were together,” he said. “But never anything old like this, you know, with some real history. “I love to be able to sit in the car and just see the perspective of … what the view was like. So different than our cars today. No headrests or nothing like that. Just kind of see everything and a lot of wind moving around and pretty crazy.”

    Earnhardt Jr. will make his final Talladega start Sunday when the Alabama 500 gets underway here (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Six of his 26 career wins have come at Talladega.

    “I’m pretty surprised,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to take home a race car from this weekend. I just have to thank Talladega Superspeedway and the state of Alabama. They’ve been really good to me and hopefully we can get them a win this weekend.”

    Dale Jr. describes what it’s like to take the lead at Talladega

    (10/13/17) Racing fans know all too well when NASCAR’s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. takes the lead during a race.

    There’s the roar that suddenly arises through the grandstands, piercing the air over the already-loud sound of exhaust systems, and then often the standing ovation that unfolds like a choreographed routine.

    This is especially true at Talladega Superspeedway — or as it’s often dubbed, Earnhardt Country. The place where both Junior and his father Dale Earnhardt have always been held in high esteem, holding a combined 16 wins at the Alabama oval.

    NASCAR’s favorite son often sees it, too.

    “You can visually see a difference in the grandstands,” Earnhardt told NASCAR.com in June. “At Talladega, for example, when you take the lead. The difference visually between everybody sitting down and everybody standing up with their arms in the air is extremely easy to see.

    “You come off of Turn 4, if you get the lead on the back straightaway and going into Turn 1 or something, the next time you come off Turn 4, you see everybody kind of waving their arms in the air and going crazy.”

    It’s something that sticks with Earnhardt, giving him a bit of motivation while out front.

    “It kind of makes that pass for the lead a lot more memorable and more fulfilling,” he said. “And it certainly motivates you to try as hard as you can to keep the lead and stay toward the front, keep fans excited and glued to what’s going on.”

    So, Junior Nation: Stand up if Dale Jr. takes the lead in Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    He’ll likely notice.

    Alabama governor declares Oct. 15 ‘Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day’

    (10/12/17) Race: Alabama 500

    Date: Sunday, Oct. 15, 2 p.m. ET (NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Talladega: 22nd, 40th, second, first, 31st

    Notable: It didn’t take Dale Earnhardt Jr. long to pick up where his father left off at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, winning four times in his first seven visits to the track. That includes four straight victories that began in the fall of 2001 and went until the spring of 2003. Since then, Earnhardt has added two more wins to his resume, making him the winningest active driver at Talladega. Of course, he’s also the active leader in top-five finishes (12) and laps led (960). In other words, Talladega really is “Earnhardt Country.”

    Memorable: Winning at Talladega does not come easy and Earnhardt has had his share of dramatic moments. The 2004 season was the inaugural year of a playoff format in NASCAR, and Earnhardt arrived at Talladega third in points and looking for some momentum going into the final few races. The dominant car on the day, Earnhardt lost his track position when the caution flew on Lap 180 (of 188) as he made his final pit stop and crew chief Tony Eury Sr. quickly called for two tires. With five laps to go, Earnhardt restarted 11th, but he didn’t stay there long. Charging to fourth with four laps to go and to the lead with three laps to go, Earnhardt picked up his fifth victory at Talladega and leaped into the points lead. At least he did for a few days as Earnhardt would be fined and docked 25 points for having used a four-letter word in his Victory Lane interview.

    Quotable: “I’d like to fly under the radar a little bit,” Earnhardt said in a team release. “I don’t want to put too much pressure on us – it messes up the way you think, the way you use strategy in the race, everything. But Talladega is a great track and a great opportunity to win. I think we’ll also have a chance to win at Martinsville and Texas, and some of these other tracks we go to.”

    Alabama governor declares Oct. 15 ‘Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day’

    (10/10/17) With the Alabama 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway just days away, Governor Kay Ivey has declared this Sunday, Oct. 15th as ‘Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day’ in the state of Alabama.

    Ivey, who also will serve as Grand Marshal for the Alabama 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) made the announcement in celebration of six-time Talladega winner Earnhardt Jr. and his legacy at the superspeedway. This Sunday — Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day — will be an emotional one for Earnhardt Jr., who will make his final start at the track he calls a “second home.”

    “Nowhere else in the world are there more Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans than in the state of Alabama,” said Ivey, the 54th Governor of Alabama, who will give the command “Drivers, Start Your Engines” to get the Alabama 500 underway. “He has always made it clear of his love for Talladega Superspeedway and the millions of fans that lay claim to him as their favorite NASCAR driver. He has been an impressive, positive role model for so many and we are proud to honor him this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, but also across the entire state.”

    Dale Jr. scored his first Talladega Superspeedway Monster Energy Series win in October 2001, igniting a seven-race stretch that is unprecedented in the history of the 2.66-mile venue. Between the fall of 2001 and fall of 2004, Earnhardt Jr. won five out of seven races, including a record four straight. The other two races ended in runner-up finishes. His most recent triumph came in the 2015 GEICO 500.

    “We are thrilled that Governor Ivey has proclaimed Sunday, Oct. 15 as ‘Dale Earnhardt Jr. Day’ in the State of Alabama,” said Talladega Superspeedway Chairman Grant Lynch. “Dale Jr. has meant so much to Talladega Superspeedway. He’s one of us, and has left a mark on our state for many years to come.”

    A victory in the Alabama 500 would move Dale Jr. into sole place on the all-time Talladega MENCS wins list, trailing only his father – Dale Earnhardt Sr. – who had 10 Talladega Superpseedway triumphs.

    Brad Keselowski’s throwback tribute to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    (10/10/17) (Pic1, Pic2) Brad Keselowski will run a throwback paint scheme, but at Talladega, not Darlington — and it’s honoring Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Brad Keselowski's Talladega paint scheme

    Keselowski announced Monday via his blog that he will run a No. 2 Miller Lite Team Penske Ford that resembles the No. 88 Navy Chevrolet he drove for JR Motorsports in what is now the XFINITY Series from 2008-2009. Keselowski had six wins and 33 top-five finishes in that stretch.

    In conjunction with the announcement, Keselowski republished his first blog entry, which was a history of his friendship and personal relationship with Earnhardt. He added, “Dale, there’s not a doubt in my mind that you’ll excel at whatever it is you do next, but it’s not going to be the same out there without you. I’m going to miss racing against you, my friend. I’m going to miss seeing you out there in the 88 on Sundays.”

    This weekend’s Alabama 500 (2 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be the last race at the superspeedway for Junior, who has six wins at the track.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. to be inducted into Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame

    (10/10/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Texas Motor Speedway will forever be synonymous as the NASCAR superstar captured milestone victories in two national series at the world-renowned motorsports facility.

    That connection from his first career wins in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and XFINITY Series coming at Texas Motor Speedway will be further strengthened by Monday’s announcement of his induction into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame during November’s AAA Texas 500 NASCAR tripleheader playoff weekend.

    Earnhardt Jr. will become the 19th member inducted into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame when he is honored during a special ceremony held in The Grand Ballroom of The Speedway Club on Saturday, Nov. 4, beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET. Other honorees during the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame event include Vice Chairman of NASCAR Mike Helton, Texas Motor Speedway’s winningest NASCAR driver Kyle Busch and Verizon IndyCar Series driver James Hinchcliffe.

    The Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame ceremony serves as a major fundraiser for Speedway Children’s Charities-Texas. Tickets are appropriately priced at $88 to reflect Earnhardt Jr.’s iconic No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and admission also includes a barbecue lunch buffet.

    Earnhardt Jr. took an immediate liking to Texas Motor Speedway, earning his first career XFINITY Series win on April 4, 1998 at the 1.5-mile speedway. He earned the victory with a thrilling last-lap pass of Joe Nemechek and then held off Elliott Sadler to capture the Coca-Cola 300.

    Nearly two years later to the day Earnhardt Jr. would strike again, winning his first Cup Series race on April 2, 2000 in the DIRECTV 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Earnhardt Jr. proved to be the class of the field, leading 106 of 334 laps to become the first Cup rookie driver to win at Texas Motor Speedway. The celebration that ensued in Victory Lane on that day with he and his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., provided moments that are embedded in NASCAR history.

    “This place definitely has always been one of my preferred stops because of the success we’ve had in the XFINITY and Cup Series in our first races here,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “You never forget where you won your first race and neither do your fans. I always look forward to coming here.”

    Helton will receive the Bruton Smith Legend Award for his leadership in his role as NASCAR President and shaping the legacy of the sport. Helton was instrumental in expanding NASCAR to new markets, both nationally and internationally. New tracks in Chicago and Kansas City were added to NASCAR’s schedule in 2001. Later, NASCAR’s presence grew with the addition of series in Mexico and Canada in 2007. He also was a key figure in the formation of the NASCAR Research & Development Center in Concord, N.C. Dedicated to strengthening NASCAR’s competition and safety initiatives, it is the first R&D center owned and operated by a sanctioning body of a major motorsports series.

    Busch will be honored with the 2016 Racer of the Year award following yet another impressive overall performance at Texas Motor Speedway last season. For the second time in his career, Busch swept both the Cup and XFINITY Series races at Texas in the same weekend after winning April’s Duck Commander 500 and O’Reilly Auto Parts 300. The wins were his 12th and 13th at Texas Motor Speedway among NASCAR’s three national series, the most among any driver.

    For more information or to purchase tickets, call Speedway Children’s Charities at (817) 215-8421 or visit www.scctexas.org.

    The Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame event, traditionally held during Texas Motor Speedway’s April NASCAR weekend, will now become part of November’s NASCAR playoff tripleheader weekend. The race weekend features the Camping World Truck Series JAG Metals 350 Driving Hurricane Harvey Relief on Friday, Nov. 3; XFINITY Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 on Saturday, Nov. 4; and the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 on Sunday, Nov. 5.

    For more race information or to purchase tickets, please visit www.texasmotorspeedway.com or call the speedway ticket office at (817) 215-8500.

    Dale Jr. on helmets, race cars — and who gets his own at season’s end

    (10/7/17) He’ll keep the car, but the helmet will go to his team owner.

    That’s the season-ending scenario for Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s 14-time most popular driver who steps away from full-time competition following this year’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead Miami Speedway.

    The race, scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 19, will be the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the season and the final MENCS race of Earnhardt Jr.’s career.

    At each stop along this year’s MENCS trail, tracks have presented the Hendrick Motorsports driver with a “parting gift” of some sort — Friday at CMS, track officials in conjunction with Speedway Children’s Charities announced the establishment of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Concussion Research Fund at Levine Children’s Hospital and are launching the initiative with a $100,000 donation.

    As Earnhardt Jr., soon to turn 43 and the son of seven-time champion and NASCAR Hall of Fame member Dale Earnhardt, eases toward the conclusion of one occupation, what’s happening with some of his own racing “memorabilia” such as the helmet he wore in his final Daytona 500? Or the fire suit he wore for his last start in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?

    “Well, if you want to know the truth, I only have one helmet and I’ve only used one helmet each year for a long time,” Earnhardt said Friday at CMS. “So, when people come asking for helmets, it is kind of hard to give them away because that is the only helmet I have from that season. And I like to keep it myself and store it away. So, I don’t have a whole lot of helmets floating around.”

    Perhaps, he said, he should have taken a page from three-time series champion Tony Stewart, who had a number of helmets produced for his final year behind the wheel in ’16.

    “I know that Tony was really smart wearing a different one each week; I probably should have done something like that,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “The Stilo’s (brand of helmet) I’ve got are $3,000-$5,000 apiece and I ain’t buying them. So, I just wear the same one all year.”

    Uniforms are likewise less than abundant, he said, and used ones typically get cut into small pieces and included in trading cards or used in similar ways. Others might be donated for charitable causes.

    “We get one or two and Hendrick (Motorsports) gets one or two, we split them,” he said. “And I like to keep one of those. I do give them to … usually I give the uniforms away to drivers for their charity events, Clint (Bowyer) called this week wanting one for his and so, we will give him a uniform out of our allotment.

    “So, there is just not a lot of that stuff floating around.”

    A special paint scheme will adorn the No. 88 Chevrolet for his final start and there will be a unique scheme for the helmet at Homestead as well. Barring any problems, Earnhardt said, the helmet will go to his boss and he’ll get to keep the car.

    “That is our deal,” Earnhardt Jr. said of the agreement struck with team owner Rick Hendrick. “That is the same deal he had with Jeff (Gordon) … that Jeff gave him the helmet and Jeff got the car. And so, I think that is the same deal I’m going to get with Rick.”

    Gordon, a four-time champion, retired at the end of the ’15 season.

    Charlotte track’s $100,000 gift to honor Dale Jr., fund concussion research

    (10/6/17) As he moves through his final season of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had one consistent request — that gifts and recognition in his honor have a broader societal impact.

    On Friday, Charlotte Motor Speedway honored Earnhardt’s wishes — and then some — with a gift of $100,000 to establish and underwrite the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Concussion Research Fund at the Carolinas Healthcare System’s Levine Children’s Hospital.

    During two separate seasons, Earnhardt missed races because of concussion symptoms. In 2012 he was sidelined for two events, and last year he sat out the final 18 races after his symptoms from a wreck at Michigan worsened drastically in subsequent weeks.

    During Friday’s presentation, the football team from Mooresville High School, Earnhardt’s alma mater, was ushered into the media center as part of the surprise.

    “We have a lot of history with concussions and awareness and rehab and all that good stuff, so this is something that is actually very close to my heart,” Earnhardt said. “I hope to be able to continue to help others going forward. This is a great way to do that, so thanks again.”

    Earnhardt didn’t play football at Mooresville. In fact, his Twitter profile lists him as “Former backup fullback for Mooresville Blue Devils varsity soccer.”

    “I was four 4-feet-10-inches tall at the time,” Earnhardt said of the year he entered high school. “I think I was 5-foot-3 when I got my driver’s license. So I was real short, and we were driving by the football field — well, the practice field — and they were out there practicing, and I said, ‘I want to play football.’ And the guy said, ‘I’m going to take you down and introduce you to the soccer coach, because I don’t think you need to be playing football.’

    “So I played soccer anyways. I got me a letter jacket and all that. We went to State and lost, but it was a lot of fun. I played one year, and I was the back-up, so I sat on the bench all year and I got to play a couple of games. We were a pretty good team, so we would get a big lead, I would get in a couple of games.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. crashes in practice at Charlotte

    (10/6/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final weekend as a full-time driver at Charlotte Motor Speedway got off to a rough start when he crashed moments into Friday’s opening practice.

    Earnhardt drove into the high line of the track and slipped in the grippy substance Charlotte officials had used on the surface. It caused him to hit the wall and his Hendrick Motorsports team had to pull out his backup car.

    Earnhardt wasn’t very happy about his misfortune and felt the substance — known as PJ1 — was too slick.

    He had to make a quick visit to the care centre before he was cleared to return to practice.

    Earnhardt is retiring at the end of the season, in part because of multiple concussions he’s received while racing.

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last race at Charlotte

    (10/6/17) Race: Bank of America 500

    Date: Sunday, Oct. 8, 2 p.m. ET (NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Charlotte: 10th, 14th, 28th, third, 20th

    Notable: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has never scored a points-paying Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Sunday afternoon at the 1.5-mile D-shaped oval will be Earnhardt’s final opportunity to make it happen. In 34 races, NASCAR’s 14-time Most Popular Driver has earned six top fives and 13 top-10 finishes — which equates to an average finish of 18.8.

    Memorable: Although Earnhardt has never won a points race at Charlotte, he is still familiar with Victory Lane at his home track. Earnhardt’s first Monster Energy Series victory came during his rookie season at Texas Motor Speedway in April 2000, which locked him into the All-Star Race at Charlotte. The Kannapolis, North Carolina, native went on to have a special night on May 20, 2000 by winning the event. After making a late-race pit stop, Earnhardt rocketed to the front of the field in his No. 8 Chevrolet, passing Dale Jarrett with two laps remaining to take the checkered flag. His father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, was there to greet him in Victory Lane after the race.

    Quotable: “The challenge at Charlotte is not landing too tight in Turns 1 and 2 and being too tight in the center there,” Earnhardt said in a team release. “Something that I think we all fight and we all have to work on there is trying to get your car to roll the middle of the corner, have that front grip and keep the car turning in the middle. You get into the corner so fast in Turn 1 and transitioning into that banking, the car really lands hard and gets tight, so trying to make that transition is a real challenge. Charlotte is our home track and I haven’t won a points race there yet, so that’s certainly something I would like to do. We have been seeing some improvements in our performance and our speed, so I’m looking forward to Charlotte.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. confident for Sunday after stellar Dover qualifying run

    (9/30/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr. was all smiles and high hopes as he walked down pit road following qualifying for Sunday’s Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway.

    NASCAR’s reigning Most Popular Driver qualified seventh Friday on the Monster Mile — his best start since March on any non-restrictor plate track.

    His No. 88 Nationwide Chevy will be the second-highest Chevrolet on the grid — best of his Hendrick Motorsports team and one of only three non-playoff drivers who advanced to the final round of qualifying.

    And the good news for both him and his loyal legions? Earnhardt — the 2001 Dover winner — thinks his car could easily finish better than it starts.

    “Heck yeah I’m happy,” Earnhardt said while walking down pit road as fans in the grandstands cheered and shouted their approval.

    “I didn’t know what to expect. Our car was real fast off the truck. We had some pretty good comfort in practice. So I was feeling pretty confident about it, but yet we’ve had the same thing happen week after week where we’ve been confident and not backed it up. But this car was really nice right off the track. We ran some really good laps in the first run in practice and was right there with the 4 [Kevin Harvick], which I think he’ll be great.”

    Earnhardt got a slightly late start to qualifying as NASCAR officials spent extra time inspecting his car. As he walked back toward the garage following the qualifying session, he said he anticipated an extra “hold” time by NASCAR for tomorrow’s final practice session.

    “We ran some good laps on our qualifying mock runs and actually ran the mock runs on our race tires so we saved another set for tomorrow and we’ll have more stickers for practice tomorrow, but it came at a cost,” Earnhardt said.

    “Thankfully our car is good and comfortable. If we were really struggling with speed and balance I’d be real upset because we need all the practice we can.

    “I’m thankful the car is fast. So, hopefully we’ll learn what we can in the little bit of practice we’re going to get. I think we’ve got a chance at a real good run this weekend. I really do.”

    Just call Junior ‘William Bonney’ next year

    (9/30/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr. stressed Friday afternoon at Dover International Speedway that any post-Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing days will be the result of a mutual decision between him and his wife, Amy.

    But should he be inclined to enter a local short-track weekend feature, NASCAR’s 14-time and reigning Most Popular Driver grinned and confirmed he has used aliases before – a favorite, he revealed was “William Bonney,” Billy the Kid’s name.

    But, he conceded with a grin, “I doubt I’d even try it. I’d just come in there and race. I really don’t have any reason to hide I suppose.’’

    The two-time Daytona 500 winner Earnhardt is retiring at the end of the season and indicated he fully intends to enjoy his post-competition days. In addition to his work on NBC’s Cup Series telecasts next year, it would be only natural for him to still include an occasional short-track visit — to race or to watch.

    “I might enjoy signing some autographs and just kinda being in that environment as a driver,’’ he said. “It might be hard to just quit cold turkey. It might do me some good to hold those feelings again.”

    “I could be in the pits rumbling around. I’ve been there as a car owner. I was lucky enough to be there at one particular race we won and got some pictures in Victory Lane, which is a lot of fun. I’m sure I’ll miss that as a driver.

    “I don’t want to make this sound like I have plans to do this. I have a wife at home that’s part of this discussion. I have to make sure it’s good for both of us and fun to do and maybe I’ll go do that.’’

    Earnhardt mentioned several times during his press conference that he is most hopeful that he and his newlywed, Amy, will soon have children to consider.

    “I’m excited to start a family, and I hope I’m fortunate enough to do that with Amy,’’ he said. “We definitely want to do that. And it would be weird not being a race car driver if I have a daughter or son, I think about that, would they understand what I’m telling them or what I did for a long time. I’m hoping to find out all that stuff soon.’’

    Earnhardt won’t judge athletes who don’t stand for anthem

    (9/30/17) Two NASCAR team owners who said they would fire employees who do not stand for the national anthem do not speak for the sport, star driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday.

    Several owners and executives said last weekend they wouldn’t want anyone in their organizations to protest as NFL players have done to indicate their concern with social injustices, particularly against African-Americans. Richard Childress, who was Dale Earnhardt’s longtime team owner, said of protesting: "It’ll get you a ride on a Greyhound bus." Hall of Fame driver Richard Petty said anyone that refused to stand for the anthem "ought to be out of the country."

    Earnhardt, NASCAR’s most popular driver who will retire at the end of the season, tweeted Monday in support of peaceful protest . Earnhardt said he hasn’t discussed the issue with his teammates, crew or other employees at Hendrick Motorsports. He said he will continue to stand for the anthem.

    "But I’m not quick to rush to judgment on somebody who wants to do something different," Earnhardt said Friday.

    Earnhardt said on weekly podcast he had grown weary of the "same tired stigma that we’ve dealt with for many, many years."

    "I think the whole sports respects Richard Petty and Richard Childress for what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve done, but they speak for themselves," Earnhardt said at Dover International Speedway. "They don’t speak for the entire sport, I believe. I think that everybody would handle those situations differently."

    Austin Dillon, Childress’ grandson, said it was an honour to stand for the anthem.

    "I enjoy that part of my weekend so I can give a little bit back to those who have given their lives to allow me to go race," he said.

    President Donald Trump lauded NASCAR on Monday because no one protested during the national anthem before last weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motorspeedway.

    "So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag – they said it loud and clear!" Trump tweeted Monday.

    NASCAR, which is in the midst of its playoffs, was a punchline this week on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert " and "Late Night With Seth Meyers ."

    Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, who was not invited to the White House to honour his 2016 championship, said this week he supported peaceful protest. Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion, expressed his views in a series of tweets , writing: "Please don’t believe that when we stand it’s out of disrespect to civil rights; it is and always will be out of respect and love for our flag."

    Danica Patrick was among a handful of drivers asked about the issue at Dover and said she would continue to stand for the anthem.

    "You have to figure out what’s more important to you," she said. "If you think something should be done differently and you might sacrifice your job, that’s your choice. Otherwise, it’s your choice the other way, too. There’s plenty of platforms to speak your mind. If it comes in interference with putting food on the table or being able to do something that you love, I think that you should probably go by the rules."

    Legacy Series, Part 2: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Presented by John Deere

    (9/28/17) (Video) “We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.”

    When Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost his father in February 2001, NASCAR wept with him. Since that turning point, the sport has moved with Junior, who withstood the test of some of the most-trying adversity to become the face of NASCAR.

    Six months following the tragic death of Senior, a still-grieving Dale Jr. continued to move forward and build his own legacy in his father’s honor by winning in July at Daytona — the very same track that took his father’s life.

    The “Dale Jr.” persona was cemented in time that night and has grown bigger and bigger ever since.

    NASCAR.com has teamed up with John Deere to bring you the three-part series, Legacy: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Watch Part 2, Driven to Succeed, above, as Junior overcomes tragedy to find glory in tribute to his father at Daytona.

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final race at Dover

    (9/27/17) Race: Apache Warrior 400 Presented by Lucas Oil at Dover International Speedway

    Date: Sunday, Oct. 1, 2 p.m. ET (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Dover: 11th, 32nd, third, 14th, 17th

    Notable: Earnhardt has just one win at Dover, and that came 16 years ago. In 34 starts at the ‘Monster Mile,’ he has 12 top 10 and seven top fives. He finished second in 2013 after starting that fall race on the pole.

    Memorable: Earnhardt’s only win at Dover is one of the most memorable in NASCAR history. The Sept. 23, 2001 race was NASCAR’s first return to the track since the 9/11 attacks. Just like he did seven months earlier, when he shouldered the emotional burden of the sport after his father, Dale Earnhardt, was killed on a last-lap wreck in the Daytona 500, Junior was able to lift the spirits of NASCAR Nation when the favorite son returned to Victory Lane. He led 193 of 400 laps, though he later told ESPN.com, “I don’t remember hardly a thing about that race. I remember that amazing pre-race show and then I remember the celebration after we won. It wasn’t about me at that point. It was about celebrating America. And it was about feeling normal again. I remember thinking, ‘OK, we’re back at the track now. We’re all happy again, even if it was just for a few hours. Maybe now it’s OK to smile again. To feel normal again.’ "

    Quotable: “I’m looking forward to Dover,” said Earnhardt in a team release.”Well, I’m especially looking forward to some of the tracks that we have coming up after that — Martinsville, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix, etc. I don’t know how we’re going to do at Dover, it hasn’t been a great track for us the past several years. I appreciate everybody’s support, though, and it does help. We’re going to keep grinding and keep working hard and try to get a good run for everybody this weekend.”

    Fan vote: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Martinsville paint scheme up to you

    (9/26/17) There are eight races left in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, and paint schemes for the No. 88 Chevrolet driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. have been determined for seven.

    Fans will determine No. 8, slated to be run at Martinsville Speedway in the Oct. 29 First Data 500.

    Nationwide’s “Pick the 88 Paint Scheme” promotion gives race fans the opportunity to vote for one of eight Nationwide paint schemes run by the Hendrick Motorsports driver from 2015-17.

    Those who vote also can enter for a chance to win Earnhardt’s signed gloves from the Martinsville race as well as a signed replica helmet.

    To vote, go to www.Pickthe88PaintScheme.com. Current vote totals can be seen on the voting site.

    The promotion is scheduled to end at 11:59 p.m. ET, Tuesday, Sept. 26. The winning scheme will be revealed Sept. 27.

    Earnhardt, voted the National Motorsports Press Association Most Popular Driver for 14 consecutive years, is retiring from Monster Energy Series competition at the end of the 2017 season. He has 26 career wins in the series and is a two-time champion in the NASCAR XFINITY Series.

    Nationwide has been a primary sponsor of Earnhardt’s No. 88 entry since 2014.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. Breaks with NASCAR Owners, Approves NFL Protests

    (9/26/17) Not all NASCAR people are siding with Trump -- with Dale Earnhardt Jr. throwing his support behind NFL protesters ... despite several NASCAR owners bashing them.

    After POTUS said NFL owners should fire any "son of a bitch" who takes a knee, two of the most powerful men in NASCAR gave major stamps of approval.

    Richard Petty said, "Anybody that don’t stand up for that ought to be out of the country. Period."

    Team owner Richard Childress was asked what he would do if any of his staffers protested the anthem -- "Get you a ride on a Greyhound bus when the national anthem is over."

    But Earnhardt -- hands down the most popular NASCAR driver of the last 10 years -- sees things differently ... and weighed in Monday morning with a quote from John F. Kennedy.

    "All Americans R granted rights 2 peaceful protests," Dale Jr. tweeted.

    "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

    As for Trump, POTUS praised the NASCAR community early Monday morning.

    "So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won't put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag - they said it loud and clear!"

    JR Motorsports stable of drivers eye title for boss Dale Jr.

    (9/23/17) One. Two. Three. Four.

    One-third of the field.

    That’s how many JR Motorsports drivers are in the 2017 NASCAR XFINITY Series Playoffs — more than any other team.

    William Byron, Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and Michael Annett are the four horsemen who are galloping their way toward Miami to help bring a shiny trophy to the Earnhardt family once more — especially for Dale Jr., who is finishing out his own Appreci88ion Tour over the next couple of months.

    Byron, the lone rookie at JRM, is the clubhouse leader in the XFINITY Playoffs standings with teammates Allgaier and Sadler, the regular-season champion, peeking over his shoulder. A mere five points separate the three as they head to Kentucky Speedway on Saturday for the first playoffs race (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    Although the JRM drivers want to see their name on the trophy for selfish reasons, the weight of winning a title for Junior isn’t something they take lightly — and it’s something that adds even more motivation to succeed as they get behind the wheel.

    “We definitely want to try and win a championship for him in his last year in the (Monster Energy NASCAR) Cup Series,” Byron told NASCAR.com “Hopefully give him that excitement and thrill of that last weekend at the race track. I think we have a great shot to do that. We have four of us in the playoffs, and that would be really special to him I think.”

    Sadler, the veteran at JRM, has a long history with Earnhardt that goes back to when the men were just teenagers getting their first true taste of driving race cars. He understands his career is coming to the end of a chapter — just like Earnhardt. The two have a deep understanding of each other which helps as Sadler saddles up for an opportunity like the playoffs, where all eyes will be on him to celebrate in Victory Lane.

    “The biggest thing Dale has told me is be yourself and do your thing,” Sadler told NASCAR.com. “You know how to do this, we’ve been leading the points all year. We’ve been getting maximum points at almost every track that we go to. … Just continue doing those things to make it to Homestead to put yourself in position to become a champion. He has really (been) giving me a lot of comfort and support that they are going to do everything they can from their side of the race team to give us every possible tool that we need to become a champion.”

    Earnhardt Jr. is a two-time XFINITY Series champion as a driver, and he also is a championship owner (2014). He knows what it takes to win.

    Now, it’s up to his horsemen to make it to Miami — and it all begins now.

    I Love My Pet: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Dogs Love Car Rides as Much as He Does

    (9/22/17) (Pic1, Pic2, Pic3) I’ve had pets in my life since I was a kid – a yellow Lab named Domino, Rocket the Irish setter, a boxer named Killer and several cats – Buddy, Cuz, Dude and Tux. I even owned hamsters, which were named after characters from the Days of Our Lives soap opera.

    Today, my wife Amy and I have two dogs who bring so much personality into our house – Gus, an Irish setter, and Junebug, a Pomeranian. As true members of our family, we take them with us whenever we can and they love it. In fact, they would not have it any other way! As soon as I get out of the shower and start getting dressed, Gus anticipates a trip in the truck is near and will not leave me alone. When I get to the point of putting on my coat, Junebug gets into the act as well. Once I grab the car keys, it’s all over … they beat me to the front door with their noses pressed against it, just waiting for it to crack open for a sprint to the truck and a trip to somewhere, anywhere – they never care – they just want to be with us.

    This weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, I will have a new dog riding with me. For the first time ever, the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS will have an image of a dog on it when I take to the track for Sunday’s race. Marshall, a one-year-old German shorthaired pointer from Stone Mountain, Georgia, was the winner of Nationwide’s Paws and Racing Sweepstakes.

    His image will be featured on the back bumper of my No. 88 race car. I also look forward to meeting his owners at the race and hope to introduce them to both Gus and Junebug. When Nationwide launched the sweepstakes earlier this summer, tens of thousands of pet owners from across the country posted amazing photos of their pets on the Paws and Racing web site. Marshall was selected at random as the winner. I have no doubt he’ll bring me some extra speed and added luck throughout the race.

    If you can’t make it out to the track, be sure to be on the lookout for Marshall on the No. 88 car on NBCSN on Sunday, Sept. 24, at 2 p.m. ET.

    If your dog enjoys riding in the car with you as much as Gus and Junebug do, safety is of utmost importance. My friends at Nationwide®, the first and largest provider of pet health insurance in the U.S., offer these tips to ensure the safest ride with your furry, four-legged friends.

    Based on more than 1.5 million pet insurance claims Nationwide processed last year, the most common medical conditions related to traveling with pets include motion sickness, heat stroke, lacerations and bruises. You can alleviate these medical maladies by taking precautionary measures.

    Never leave your dog unattended inside a parked car for any length of time. Even on a cool day, the temperature inside the car is always higher than outside. Some dogs can start to have a heat stroke at 83 degrees. If you think leaving the car windows rolled down is a good solution, think again. Open windows do not circulate any cool air and it could end in theft of your dog or your car.

    Depending on the length of the trip, refrain from feeding your pet a large meal before starting out, especially if it is their first ride. A few small snacks along the way will be better for their stomach. Bring plenty of water and even some ice cubes for your dog to lick to keep him from becoming thirsty or sick.

    If your pet gets nauseous during car rides, talk to your veterinarian. There are medications that will ease an upset tummy.

    With the busy NASCAR schedule, we love to bring Gus and Junebug to the racetrack, but if we can’t, then there is nothing better than seeing their excitement when we get home from the track. As my travels lessen, Amy and I look forward to spending even more time with Gus and Junebug and keeping them safe and happy wherever our travels may take us.

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final race at New Hampshire

    (9/20/17) Race: ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway

    Date: Sunday, Sept. 24, 2 p.m. ET (NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at New Hampshire: 18th, 25th, fifth, ninth, 10th

    Notable: The ‘Magic Mile’ is a track where Earnhardt has had success, but a Victory Lane celebration has so far been elusive. In 34 career starts, Earnhardt has 15 top-10 finishes at Loudon and eight top-five finishes with the most recent coming in 2015 when he placed fifth after starting 19th. The closest Earnhardt has come to crossing the finish line first here was in Sept. 2004 as he finished third just behind winner Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth. More recently, Earnhardt was one of just six drivers who led the field (for 10 laps) at New Hampshire this past July.

    Memorable: Even without a win, Earnhardt has had a handful of strong performances in New Hampshire, including Sept. 2003 when his then No. 8 team led a race-high 120 laps. Unfortunately, Earnhardt fell back to finish fifth, but it ended up being good enough for his first top five at the track. A year later in the same race, Earnhardt improved his New Hampshire career-best by finishing third.

    Quotable: “We spent several hours in the simulator on Monday trying to figure something out for this week. We aren’t riding this year out or giving up,” Earnhardt said. “We’re going to keep working hard the rest of the season. I’m looking forward to New Hampshire – it’s a fun track. It’s flat and it’s kind of tricky to get around, but it’s fun.”

    ‘Made in Japan’: The time Dale Sr. threw a shoe at Junior

    (9/20/17) (Video) When NASCAR brought its road show to Japan for the first time in the 1990s, it meant transporting everything that makes the sport so great 7,000 miles — including the post-race drama American fans love to see.

    Little did they know the drama would center around the father-son duo of Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. But as Junior explains in this excerpt from “Made in Japan,” which airs tonight at 6 ET as part of FS1’s Race Hub, things got interesting when he felt his father’s shoe whiz past his head after the race.

    Find out what provoked Dale Sr. to do such a thing and what happened afterward, then tune in for the rest of “Made in Japan” to see the other stories that unfolded when NASCAR went to the Far East for a race.

    Dale Jr. shares thoughts on Johnson possibly winning eighth championship

    (9/20/17) Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked about his own and his father’s NASCAR records during the latest version of his Dirty Mo Radio ‘Dale Jr. Download’ podcast.

    As his final full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is down to just nine more races, Earnhardt was asked if he’s put much thought into not surpassing Bill Elliott’s Most Popular Driver Award record, which sits at 16. Earnhardt won for the 14th consecutive time in 2016.

    Earnhardt said it wouldn’t be fair if he stuck around a couple more years just to reach that feat.

    “I never thought about it,” Earnhardt noted. “It would be sticking around only for that and that would be wrong.”

    That question segued into a conversation about his thoughts on Jimmie Johnson possibly winning eight championships, which would surpass a record set by both his father, Dale Earnhardt, and Richard Petty.

    “There’s a little sliver of me that doesn’t want Jimmie (Johnson) to win eight,” Earnhardt said. “I like that Jimmie tied him because I see him and my father more as equals. I think Jimmie is definitely in the conversation of the greatest driver that’s ever been in the sport. Now, I’m biased because I think my dad’s awesome.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final season ends without championship

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. received a stamp of approval from fans wanting to write letters to the retiring star, wishing him luck.

    Jennifer Hoger has attended races at Chicagoland Speedway for 15 years and penned similar farewell notes to former NASCAR champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in their retirement seasons. She stopped at the red mailbox with No. 88 on the door to drop off her letter:

    Dear Dale,

    Thank you for all the memories here at Chicagoland Speedway!! Good luck in your future endeavours!!!

    The Hoger Family

    Bridgeview, Illinois

    "It’s just something I really wanted to do for him," she said. "He’s just a regular guy when you see the way he interacts with people on pit road. He’s just a great guy."

    Moments later, a track employee picked up the latest haul from the stuffed mailbox — she estimated 200 letters already had been written by Saturday morning — and promised they would be delivered to Junior by the end of race weekend.

    Randy Dunn had a simple note for NASCAR’s most popular driver:

    Hi Jr.

    Let’s Go Racing

    Randy Dunn

    Dunn wrote his Marion, Illinois, address on the note just in case Junior wanted to write back and maybe spend some time with him.

    "I hope so. I’m a very big fan," Dunn said. "Whatever he wants to do is fine with me."

    Fan enthusiasm hasn’t waned for Junior even as he’s stumbled through a disheartening final season that will end without a NASCAR Cup championship in his 18-year career. Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 champion, has just one top-five finish this season and hasn’t finished better than 12th in his last 10 races in the No. 88 Chevrolet. When NASCAR’s version of the playoffs open Sunday at Chicagoland, Earnhardt starts with a more modest goal of finishing the season inside the top 20 in the standings.

    "We should’ve run well all year and gotten ourselves into the playoffs for all of our fans," he said.

    Earnhardt has been feted at tracks all season, receiving donations in his name and framed photos of great moments. At Chicagoland, he cuddled a puppy as the track announced an $8,800 donation to a Chicago-based animal shelter.

    He strides through the garage hounded by autograph-seekers who know this is their last chance to receive that favoured souvenir on their die cast, hat or poster.

    There are 16 drivers in the NASCAR playoff field.

    There’s only one driver with the stature of Dale Junior.

    Earnhardt has been plagued by concussions the last several years, and he missed half of last season recovering from a head injury. He delayed contract talks on an extension to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet, and the winner of 26 career Cup races decided in the spring to call it quits this season.

    A third-generation racer, Earnhardt turns 43 in October, is newly married and has said he wants to start a family. He has won NASCAR’s most popular driver award a record 14 times.

    He wanted to win a championship for himself, his team and owner Rick Hendrick, but also for the fans who have idolized him because of his aw-shucks charm, candour and deep NASCAR roots. His late Hall of Fame father, Dale, won seven titles and was known as "The Intimidator."

    Earnhardt just could never get it going in a bit of a lacklustre season by Hendrick’s lofty standards.

    Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson had a quirky season in which his only three top-five finishes were wins. Chase Elliott made the playoffs on points and did not win a race. Kasey Kahne qualified with a Brickyard 400 victory but had otherwise been so inefficient over his Hendrick career that he’ll be dumped at the end of the season with a year left on his contract.

    "The pressure of trying to win the championship is not there, but that is a pressure that you kind of want," Earnhardt said. "Even though you want it, it is not there. There is a concern, I guess, that you could get sort of complacent and go through these races and maybe some of the urgency or importance falls away a little bit because there is no ultimate carrot about there like that championship trophy."

    Earnhardt is 22nd in points and qualified 20th for Sunday’s race. He has one career win at Chicagoland.

    He is the latest — and biggest — star to leave NASCAR over the last three years, a brutal blow for a sport reeling from sagging attendance and sinking TV ratings. Gordon and Stewart won a combined seven championships. Just 10 laps shy of a championship, Carl Edwards abruptly quit at the end of last season. Danica Patrick, once an endorsement darling, saw her sponsorship dry up, lost her ride at Stewart-Haas Racing and likely is finished in stock cars at the end of the season.

    Elliott, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney are the young playoff drivers expected to somehow carry that popularity torch held for so long by Earnhardt.

    "I thought building a brand, why would I want to do that? It should just build itself," Earnhardt said. "But you can actively build your brand and grow it up. By the time these guys are 28 or 30 years old, they could be bigger than anything we’ve ever seen in this sport."

    Kevin Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion, said NASCAR could still thrive without its stars.

    "Sports in general has a funny way of absorbing everything and moving on," Harvick said. "And whether it’s Dale Junior or Danica or myself, no matter what the case is, things move and they shuffle and people come and they go and you hope that as you look in the pipeline there are young and exciting drivers that are going to develop their own personalities and their own fan base and their own excitement."

    But can any driver truly rival Earnhardt’s following?

    Check the mailbox in 20 years.

    Legacy Series, Part 1: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Presented by John Deere

    (Video) When NASCAR fans think “Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” they think “legacy.”

    Following in the footsteps of his seven-time NASCAR champion father, Dale Earnhardt, Junior burst onto the scene as the calendar turned the page on a new millennium. Nearly two decades later, NASCAR’s most popular driver is riding into the sunset, hanging up the fire suit full-time at season’s end.

    Junior has always looked up to his father, bonding through racing — after all, it’s in his blood. He wanted his respect, his attention and to succeed in the larger-than-life shadow his dad cast, making “The Intimidator” proud in the process.

    NASCAR.com has teamed up with John Deere to bring you the three-part series, Legacy: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    Watch Part 1, Born to Race, above, as Senior brings the next generation of Earnhardt to the Cup level, and Junior delivers.

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Chicagoland Speedway

    Race: Tales of the Turtles 400 at Chicagoland Speedway

    Date: Sunday, Sept. 17, 3 p.m. ET (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Chicagoland: 12th, 11th, 35th, eighth, third

    Notable: The 1.5-mile Chicagoland oval has been hit or miss for Earnhardt during his career. In his first two visits to the speedway, Earnhardt rolled off two top-11 finishes. However, those were then followed by two finishes outside the top 20. Overall, Earnhardt has three top-five and five top-10 finishes in 15 starts at Chicagoland, including a 2005 victory. And in keeping with the hot or cold theme, Earnhardt has two DNFs at the track in addition to 123 laps led.

    Memorable: In the midst of a rough 2005 season, Earnhardt arrived at Chicagoland in July looking for something to write home about. After starting 25th, crew chief Shane Hmiel, who had taken over the team just six races prior, knew the car handled better with clean air. Hmiel called for two tires on Earnhardt’s final pit stop, putting him in position to take the lead with 11 laps to go. Earnhardt then fended off a challenge from Brian Vickers and pulled away just enough that a charging and a dominant Matt Kenseth – who had four tires – was not able to catch him. “We got us a win! Yaahoo!” was the cry from Earnhardt as he took the checkered flag for the first time that season and at Chicagoland.

    Quotable: “Chicago should be a good track for us. One of our teammates went out there and tested, so we’ve got some information that we can look at,” Earnhardt said in a team release. “[Crew chief] Greg [Ives] is going to be back. T-Mack [Travis Mack, last week’s interim crew chief] is still there as a car chief. I told all my guys at the end of the race last week that this is the team that Greg needs underneath of him to be successful. All of these guys stepped up a little bit and we need to be that way all year long. We should be able to do this going forward, at least that’s what I think we’re capable of, so we’re going to keep working hard for these last 10 races.”

    Dale Jr. on not making the playoffs: ‘It’s on us’

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave it all he could to get to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series postseason in his final full-time season, but ultimately struggles throughout the 2017 season dug too deep a hole for the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team.

    Earnhardt spent much of the night in the top 10 at Richmond Raceway and was out front for 13 laps (his most in a race all year, Laps 335-347) as part of a strategy play to stay out as long as possible and hold the lead. However, that came during the longest green flag run of the night (Laps 263-397) and ultimately, the strategy didn’t play out as hoped.

    “We were having a great night, but we weren’t going to pass those top five guys so we needed that kind of strategy to try and leap frog them on pit road and we needed the yellow to come out leading,” Earnhardt explained after the race.

    “We had everybody trapped down a lap and they would have ended up pitting and getting tires, and the other guys would have gotten the wave around but we would have had that track position finally. We would have come out of pit road after the stop in first or second and that might have set us up good for a run to the finish. We had a car that I think could have won the race if we had that track position.”

    Despite spending much of the night in the top 10, Earnhardt settled for a 13th-place finish under interim crew chief Travis Mack. Greg Ives, the regular crew chief for the No. 88 team, was suspended for one race due to a safety violation for missing lug nuts following a post-race check last weekend at Darlington Raceway.

    The 42-year-old was reflective about his season to this point and what had led the No. 88 team to be in a must-win spot in the Federated Auto Parts 400. Earnhardt sits 22nd in the point standings and has just four top 10s on the season.

    “I’m disappointed,” Earnhardt said about not making the playoffs. “We had some odd luck, but when we didn’t have bad luck, we didn’t capitalize. We had a long summer. We just didn’t capitalize. We didn’t run like we should have. We ran like we should have tonight. If we would have ran like that all year, like we did the last several years, we would have made it, but we didn’t.

    “It’s on us. We can’t really put it on anybody else. We just didn’t do the job. We’ll try these next 10 to keep running well. I’d love to win a race but damn, if we can just run as well as we did tonight in the next several races that would be great for all of these guys. They got another year coming up with Alex (Bowman) and they got to get buckled in and get going again.”

    Brad Paisley honors Dale Jr.’s last ride with JR Nation Appreci88ion Tour concert

    Before drivers battle in the afternoon sun during the Oct. 8 Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, stars will shine the night before at zMAX Dragway when award-winning country music singer, songwriter, guitarist and entertainer Brad Paisley lights up zMAX Dragway with a spectacular pre-race concert.

    Paisley revs up his involvement in America’s most high-octane sport with a rocking salute to race fans with hometown hero Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Nation Appreci88ion Tour.

    While Paisley and Earnhardt are prominent models of success in their chosen fields, fans who attend this year’s Bank of America 500 will win big as well.

    Paisley’s concert is open exclusively to Bank of America 500 ticketholders. As an added incentive, fans who buy two adult tickets to this year’s Bank of America 500 — Earnhardt’s final Charlotte Motor Speedway start as a full-time driver — will receive concert admission and a commemorative Earnhardt bobblehead while supplies last. Tickets are available as a two-pack for $88.

    TICKETS: Kids 13 and under can get into the Bank of America 500 for just $10. As a salute to Earnhardt’s final race, adult tickets are available as a two-pack for $88. For tickets, camping and upgrades, fans can call the ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS (3267) or shop online at www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.

    Earnhardt, Logano facing win or else scenario at Richmond

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he hasn't imagined a fairy tale finish to his last NASCAR regular season.

    Retiring at the end of the season, the sport's most popular driver is one of several racers whose only hope for getting into the 10-race playoffs that begin next weekend is by winning Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

    But even Earnhardt seems to realize the likelihood of his 27th career victory — and fourth on the 0.75-mile oval — isn't high. It has been 62 races since his last victory, at Phoenix in November 2015, and he said Friday after practice that he has what feels like "a sixth- to 12th-place car."

    He added: "If we could come out of here with a win, it would be quite the surprise, not only for all you guys, but us included."

    Earnhardt's laid-back attitude contrasts greatly with those of other drivers in his same shoes.

    Joey Logano, for example, won the Cup race here in April, but then became the first driver to have a race "encumbered," NASCAR parlance for being allowed to keep the victory, but without the playoff points or the automatic berth in the post-season because of an infraction discovered after the race.

    He has struggled ever since.

    "We are in a do-or-die situation," Logano said. "Anytime you can win a race in that situation, there is no better feeling than that. Also returning here after our win in the spring and obviously the drama that followed, it would be very nice to be able to get back in victory lane and prove a point. I don't see any reason why we can't."

    Logano, who was second to Jimmie Johnson in the final standings last season, also likes the way his team is approaching the challenge.

    "This is a time that shows your true character," he said. "You can be either down on yourself and be beat before you show up to the race track or show up here ready to go and have the right attitude and confidence that we are going to win. That is where the team feels like they are at. I am proud I am with a team like that."

    Other drivers needing to win to qualify for the playoffs include Clint Bowyer and rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez. The three non-winners ahead of them, and thus most vulnerable to being knocked out of the post-season by a first-time winner, are rookie Chase Elliott, Jamie McMuray and 2003 series champion Matt Kenseth.

    "Really I'm still thinking about trying to get that win," Kenseth said when asked how much attention he or his team will pay to where Elliott and McMurray are running in the race. "Yeah, I mean, we want to get in, but if you win, you're in for sure, so I don't think you're going to pay much attention. Maybe at the end of the race you pay a little bit of attention who is leading, where those two guys are, but I think we just run our own race."

    Jones expects to do the same, though he's confident there will be anxiety before the green flag.

    "I've honestly felt just really locked in all week. I've felt like I've just been really excited to get here and get on track and get qualifying done and get the race going," he said. "... I'm sure once the race rolls around here tomorrow night the nerves will be high and we'll be itching to go and get things out of the way."

    Jones' team has been among the most consistent in recent weeks, finishing in the top five in the last three races and in the top 10 in each of the last five.

    He'd had just one top-five in the first 22 races of the year.

    "You know, we just need to keep running the way we've been running, and that win is going to come," he said.

    Dale Jr. tackles final playoff spot with interim crew chief at Richmond

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed calm and collected for a driver about to make his final regular-season start without his regular crew chief atop the pit box. And that good zen, he insists, actually says a lot about his No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet team.

    “I think we’re going to be fine,’’ Earnhardt said Friday at Richmond Raceway, insisting the back-up plan for his team relies on a lot of competent people — some perhaps getting a prime-time opportunity to shine and to step up.

    NASCAR suspended Earnhardt’s regular crew chief Greg Ives for Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 regular-season finale after Earnhardt’s car was found to have a safety violation (improperly installed lug nuts) after last weekend’s race at Darlington Raceway.

    In Ives’ place is longtime Hendrick employee Travis Mack, 34, Earnhardt’s current car chief and a former XFINITY Series championship crew chief at JR Motorsports while working with Chase Elliott.

    Earnhardt seemed very confident in Mack’s ability to handle the crew chief duties this weekend.

    “I like him a lot,’’ Earnhardt said. “When we got the news about Greg, I said, ‘I think Travis is the guy you put in charge.’”

    Further, Earnhardt said, “I think Travis certainly paid his dues and has a ton of ambition. It’s like you’re pulling the reins on him all the time, saying, ‘Be patient. Your time is coming. You’re going to get these opportunities.’

    “He’s just all the time seeking out what he needs to be doing and who he needs to be talking to. He asks for advice all the time. …I’ve worked with him a long time and he’s always been a very productive employee. He takes care of the company which is important.”

    Despite his calm demeanor, the 42-year old Earnhardt acknowledged this is a crucial weekend for his team. Ranked 22nd in the points standings — well below the 16th-place final playoff spot – and without a playoff-qualifying win so far, Earnhardt will need to hoist some hardware Saturday night to close out his Cup career with a shot at a title.

    He has three wins at Richmond – all in the spring race – and he hasn’t won here since 2006.

    He finished 30th here in May, however finished fourth in his last start in this race in 2015 (he missed last year’s race recovering from a concussion).

    “It’s competitive as hell out there,’’ he said. “You’ve got to push as hard as you can.’’

    Granted, the circumstances the No. 88 team faces this week make that mission more complicated, but perhaps prevailing against the odds is exactly the kind of boost the team could use.

    “There’s nobody that fills that the way Greg does, so in the hauler we’ll feel that void and absence,’’ Earnhardt said. “He has the ability to be that voice of reason and obviously, he’s the leader of the team.

    “With that said, I was watching practice and the teamwork and listening to Travis and our second engineer and the guys — and all of them are much more vocal than (they) usually are any other weekend.

    “And in my opinion, I plan to give them this advice: ‘I think that’s what they need to be doing every week, even when Greg is here. To be more supportive and active.’

    “Everyone on the team has to sort of raise it up a level with the situation we’re in here and I think that’s what we could be doing going forward that will help the whole team.

    “It’s been good to see, but I think if Greg were here in the garage to actually see it, he’d think, ‘This is how the guys need to be every week. This is what we need out of every individual every week. No idea is a bad idea – it’s an all-hands on deck kinda thing.”

    Car chief Travis Mack to serve as interim No. 88 crew chief

    Hendrick Motorsports will not appeal the penalty announced by NASCAR stemming from a post-race lug nut infraction Sunday at Darlington Raceway.

    Travis Mack, 34, will serve as interim crew chief for the No. 88 NASCAR Cup Series team with driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. during this weekend’s event at Richmond Raceway. The Louisville, Kentucky, native has been the team’s car chief since 2015, serving under crew chief Greg Ives.

    “We have a tremendous amount of confidence in Travis and everyone on the team,” said Jeff Andrews, vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports. “Our people have done a great job all year with the lug nut rule. We won’t dwell on it (the penalty) and will look forward to having Greg back on the box next week at Chicagoland.”

    After joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2004, Mack worked as a mechanic for the Nos. 24 and 88 Cup Series teams. In 2013, he moved to Hendrick Motorsports affiliate JR Motorsports, where he served as car chief for drivers Regan Smith and Chase Elliott in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Mack earned an XFINITY Series championship in 2014 as a member of Elliott’s team.

    No. 11 Monster Energy Series team handed L1-level penalty post-Darlington

    NASCAR handed the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series an L1-level penalty following the race last weekend at Darlington Raceway for violating sections 20.14.2 (rear suspension) of the NASCAR Rule Book.

    Crew chief Mike Wheeler was fined $50,000 and suspended for two races, the team was assessed with the loss of 25 owner points and 25 driver points, and Denny Hamlin’s first-place finish was ruled encumbered per Section 12.10.

    Also in the Monster Energy Series, the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team was handed a safety violation for lug nuts not properly installed following Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 22nd-place finish. Crew chief Greg Ives was fined $20,000 and suspended from the next race. Hendrick Motorsports will not appeal the penalty, according to a team statement. Travis Mack will serve as the No. 88’s interim crew chief.

    In the NASCAR XFINITY Series, the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team was handed an L1-level penalty for violating sections 20.14.2 (rear suspension). Crew chief Eric Phillips was fined $25,000 and suspended from two races, the team was assessed with the loss of 25 owner points, and Hamlin’s first-place finish was ruled encumbered.

    Also in the XFINITY Series, the No. 22 Team Penske team was given an L1-level penalty for violating sections 20.14.2 (rear suspension). Crew chief Greg Erwin was fined $25,000 and suspended from two races, the team was assessed with the loss of 25 owner points, and Joey Logano’s second-place finish was ruled encumbered.

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last race at Richmond

    Race: Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway

    Date: Saturday, Sept. 9, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Richmond: 30th, 13th, fifth, 14th, 12th

    Notable: Richmond Raceway has been very good to Earnhardt over the years. Earnhardt’s first race at the .75-mile Virginia oval was on Sept. 11, 1999, one of five Monster Energy Series races he competed in prior to his full-time rookie season in 2000. Earnhardt started 21st and finished an impressive 10th. In 35 races at Richmond, Earnhardt has three victories, 10 top fives and 14 top-10 finishes with an average finish of 13.7. His last win at the track came in May 2006.

    Memorable: Earnhardt had a night he will never forget at Richmond on May 6, 2000. Just four races after his first career Monster Energy Series victory in April at Texas Motor Speedway, Earnhardt gradually made his way to the front in his iconic No. 8 Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Chevrolet. Earnhardt would pass his father and car owner — the late seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. — for the lead with 31 laps remaining and never looked back.

    Quotable: “Richmond is a track that I’ve had a lot of success at, though not so much recently,” said Earnhardt. “It’s really hard to get a hold of and hard to figure out exactly what line we’re running and where you need to put your car to get it to work. It’s been a bit of a challenge for us over the last couple of trips, but it should still be a fun race.”

    Hendrick drivers give $200,000 to create Harvey relief fund

    Hendrick Motorsports’ four drivers have committed $200,000 to benefit Hurricane Harvey victims, and the drivers hope to raise a total of $500,000.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott launched a disaster relief fund Monday that is accepting tax-deductible donations until Sept. 20. The fund can be found at HendrickRelief.org , and donations will go to Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, which is housed at the Greater Houston Community Foundation, and other qualified charities.

    Seven-time NASCAR champion Johnson is hosting the disaster relief fund at the Jimmie Johnson Foundation. He called the devastation done by Harvey "incomprehensible" and called on NASCAR fans to help with the recovery.

    "NASCAR fans are some of the most generous and giving people on earth," Johnson said.

    Two lug nuts unsecured on No. 88 Chevrolet at Darlington

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 22nd in his final Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver.

    Earnhardt’s night, and the night for his No. 88 team, got worse post-race after NASCAR officials found two lug nuts unsecured on his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet during post-race inspection.

    Two unsecured lug nuts will result in a $20,000 fine and one-race suspension for crew chief Greg Ives, as suggested in the NASCAR Rule Book. That means Ives likely will miss the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway — Earnhardt’s final chance to win and punch his ticket into the playoffs in his last season.

    “We’ll work through that,” Earnhardt said on his Periscope after the race. “It doesn’t concern me about this team. This team can handle this type of stuff. Greg can handle it. He’s a tough guy. We’ll get through that. It happens.”

    Any official penalties will be announced later in the week.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last Darlington race foretells emotional Miami farewell

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. was feted again Friday at Darlington Raceway, receiving another send-off gift as he embarks on the final 12-race stretch of his career.

    Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM) will inch him another step closer to the last race in his full-time career. Though he’ll remain in the sport with spot duty in the NASCAR XFINITY Series and a new role in the NBC Sports broadcast booth, both he and his family are bracing for that farewell, scheduled Nov. 19 in the Homestead-Miami Speedway season finale.

    “I’ve been thinking about it a little bit as we get closer because this will go by pretty quick, these last few races will go by pretty fast, so it’s going to be here before I know it,” Earnhardt said after Friday’s practices at the historic 1.366-mile track. “I haven’t really had any emotions yet and I know I will be sad as well. It’s hard to put so much into something and then have to stop doing it and change directions. No matter why you are retiring or having to change what you are doing. When you put so much into it, it is hard to make that change.

    “And I don’t really know what I’m going to miss. If I knew what I was going to miss it would be more emotional and harder to deal with, but the fact that I’m not quite sure exactly what is going to be the most difficult part about it it’s really not set in yet.”

    Darlington had a number of lasting tributes for Earnhardt and his family on Friday, the opening day of the sport’s annual NASCAR Throwback weekend. Track president Kerry Tharp presented the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 driver with a commemorative print and a program to donate 88 tickets annually to young fans in the region to future Southern 500s.

    Those proclamations came after Friday morning’s dedication of the Turn 3 suites as Earnhardt Towers, a ceremony attended by Earnhardt Jr.’s sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller. Earnhardt Miller said plans are already in motion to celebrate her brother’s final race, bringing those eventualities into sharper focus.

    “I mean, I’m going to cry a lot. I may as well pack mostly tissues in my suitcase,” Earnhardt Miller said. “I just know I’m going to cry because at most events when there’s anything that’s historical or involves my family or something coming to an end or changing, that’s just what I do. I don’t know how it’s going to be. It’s certainly going to be probably surreal in the moment.

    “It’s going to be very busy because my team on the brand side for Dale are going to have our hands full for the weekend coordinating and entertaining sponsors, and so it’s probably going to be one of those things in the moment that you just work through because you’ve got a lot of things to handle and do. Then you’re going to look back on it and realize maybe that you didn’t take in some moments, so I’m probably going to have to be pretty mindful of that as I go through the weekend. But it’s going to be sad.”

    His special paint scheme is already decided and other plans are in development, but Earnhardt Jr. admitted he won’t know how he’ll react to the emotions of the moment. He drew a corollary Friday to the departure of his former crew chief, Steve Letarte, at the end of the 2014 season.

    “I’m not quite sure how that is going to work out,” said Earnhardt, who will be reunited with Letarte next season on the NBC Sports team. “I know that I never really thought about what that would be like until Steve ran his last race with me at Homestead and he was as cool as a cucumber all weekend, at least in front of everybody, in front of me and the guys in the hauler and everything.

    “He was great all the way up until every race would lean in the car, we would shake hands, we would say a few words about ‘have a good day, I’m here with you, we are going to work together,’ all those things that you like a crew chief to say and as soon as he come in there and started talking he just fell out and started crying and bawling like a baby. And I thought, man, and I started crying, too, to be honest with you. It was a difficult moment. So, I imagine that is going to be part of it for me and it’s going to be hard to not have those emotions at that last race.”

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last race at Darlington

    For his final full-time season as a driver, NASCAR.com will offer an analytical preview on Dale Earnhardt Jr. ahead of every remaining Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.

    Race: Bojangles’ Southern 500

    Date: 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 3 (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Darlington: 8th, 2nd, 9th, 17th, 14th

    Notable: Earnhardt could win at Darlington, even though he hasn’t yet in his career. He’s finished in the top 10 the last three times he competed at the track “Too Tough to Tame,” sitting out the 2016 race with concussion-like symptoms. For the 2017 throwback weekend, he is driving a scheme similar to the AC Delco look that he ran in the XFINITY Series in 1998 and 1999, when Earnhardt won 13 races and back-to-back XFINITY Series championships. That’s a pretty solid good luck charm.

    Memorable: Not your usual highlight, Earnhardt’s test session at Darlington is important, nonetheless. With Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty on hand to monitor and test his responses, Junior first stepped into a race car on Dec. 7, 2016 after sitting out the final 18 races of the 2016 season with concussion-like symptoms. The test went well, and Junior was cleared to return to Monster Energy Series racing for the 2017 season.

    Quotable: “I’m a little nervous for how difficult [this] weekend is going to be for us if we don’t have speed,” Earnhardt said on this week’s Dale Jr. Download podcast. “It’s hard enough as it is when the car’s good and you’re running well. I haven’t been to Darlington in a while where we’ve not just struggled, fought all night and ran mediocre.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr: My Uber Rating's Skyrocketing, 'I've Been Tipping Good'

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. has found the secret to boosting his Uber rating -- MONEY!

    The NASCAR legend got the Uber blues on Saturday when he learned his rating was a crappy 4.0 on the 5.0 scale. He tweeted about it, "That's complete sh*t."

    Uber immediately reached out to Dale and tried to help him with some quick tips ... and Junior says his rating's been way up ever since.

    "I've been tipping really good and been nice to the driver ... and it's working out! My ratings are up!"

    Earnhardt says he's cool with the company now -- and says it's the best way to go out if you plan on boozing.

    Smart man ... Uber fare is WAYYYY cheaper than a DUI.

    Earnhardt: Additional titles will put Busch in ‘greatest driver’ discussion

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes regardless of whether fans like a certain driver or not, a historic or amazing accomplishment deserves a tip of the cap.

    This week that driver is Kyle Busch, who Earnhardt spoke about on his most recent episode of the Dale Jr. Download. Released Tuesday, Earnhardt called Busch “an excellent racer” after his sweep of Bristol Motor Speedway. Such praise from Busch’s fellow competitors has been aplenty since Saturday night’s race with Earnhardt among the crowd.

    But when Earnhardt was asked what he thought about Kyle Larson’s tweet saying Busch is the most all-around talented driver, he took the compliments even further as heard in the clip above.

    Of the drivers mentioned, Dale Earnhardt Sr. won seven championships and 76 races before his death in 2001. David Pearson captured three championships and 105 race wins. Jimmie Johnson is at seven championships, 83 wins and counting.

    Following Bristol, Busch, who turned 32 in May, now has 40 career wins in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The number puts Busch and his one championship — from 2015 — 17th on the all-time wins list. And just to note, of the 16 drivers on the list ahead of Busch, many of whom are named when talking about the sport’s great, only 12 have won two or more championships.

    Busch will get the chance to contend for his second championship when the playoffs begin next month.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends Greg Ives with supportive tweets

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned a 23rd-place finish in his final race at Bristol Motor Speedway as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver. That brings his average finish this season to 21.7.

    But for those who were looking to place blame for this season’s struggles on Greg Ives, crew chief of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Earnhardt had some strong words to say on Twitter following Saturday night’s race.

    @DaleJr : Yep. Not allowing him to take the fall for this. There are many reasons a team performs poorly. Rarely, is it one persons fault...... https://twitter.com/iron_bennyson/status/899113838863421441 ...

    @DaleJr : He is a talent and when he gets things figured out with Alex in 2018 everyone will have forgotten the struggles of 2017. https://twitter.com/dalejr/status/899114501261414400 …

    Dale Jr. says injury recovery ‘really no excuse’ for performance drop

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday that his recovery from the concussion symptoms that cost him half a season of NASCAR competition last year are not an excuse for this season’s sag in performance.

    Earnhardt made his remarks after first practice for the NASCAR XFINITY Series at Bristol Motor Speedway. The 42-year-old driver, in his final full season of NASCAR racing, is in the field for Friday night’s Food City 300 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), scheduled to make his first XFINITY start of the season.

    Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of last season after crashes left him facing a lengthy recovery from neurological trauma. He reiterated Thursday that he nearly walked away from his racing career during his rehabilitation, saying he had reached a stage where “there was a big chunk of time where I wasn’t coming back.”

    Since making his return to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, his results have slumped. The Hendrick Motorsports driver sits 22nd in the series standings, needing a victory in one of the final three regular-season events to clinch a playoff berth. Still, he hasn’t blamed his injury or a lack of determination for his recent downturn.

    “There are a lot of things that play a role in being competitive,” Earnhardt said. “I think that I’m healthy and I’m happy and thrilled that I’m healthy. I still think I can drive a race car, but there is really no excuse for us not performing well or meeting expectations. There is no excuse for missing a lot of races. Kyle (Busch) missed a lot of races with his injuries (in 2015) and came back and was successful right out of the gate.

    “So, I mean I felt like I was ready. I felt like I could come in and compete. I still feel that way. We’ve just got to get our stuff together as a team.”

    Earnhardt said a large part of reviving his racing career was regaining his sense of instinct and reaction times, qualities that were sharpened during his years of experience only to be lost during his absence and recovery from his injuries last season. Earnhardt said he first worked toward feeling normal before ultimately making the decision to return to the No. 88 Chevrolet.

    Now back on the circuit, his challenge is clearer — finding Victory Lane in a last-ditch effort to claim championship eligibility as the curtain closes on his final full season.

    “There is still some time to make that happen, but we’ve got a long way to go to catch some of those guys,” Earnhardt said. “Some of those guys are so fast, I don’t know where that speed is at, but it’s not at the race track. But, yeah, being out of the car was hard. A lot of hard work to get back, but once I was fresh and charged up and ready to go in February when we got to Daytona and I still feel good today. I don’t feel like that I am missing anything or if I’m not mentally or physically aware.”

    Junior touched by Bristol’s gift of an endowment, recalls childhood at the track

    Of all the gifts presented thus far to Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he winds down his career as a full-time competitor in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Thursday’s announcement by Bristol Motor Speedway officials seemed to truly take the Hendrick Motorsports driver by surprise.

    The speedway, which will host the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR), announced the endowment of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Scholarship to be presented annually to the Sullivan County (Tenn.) high school student demonstrating outstanding commitment in the field of automotive technology.

    “That’s what I’m talking about,” an obviously excited Earnhardt said after track general manager Jerry Caldwell made the announcement. “That’s awesome. … That is exactly the kind of thing that gets me excited, and I appreciate you guys doing that.”

    Officials said the scholarship is for $2,088, a nod to Earnhardt’s No. 88 car number.

    As a teen, Earnhardt worked at his father’s car dealership. He lists “Retired automotive service mechanic” on his Twitter bio.

    “You have meant so much to this place … we love you, the fans love you here and the Earnhardt name has such a legacy at this place,” Caldwell said. “We felt like it was appropriate for us to be able to honor (Dale) but also be able to honor a bright young student that has an interest in the automotive industry.”

    Earnhardt Jr. is competing in Friday’s Food City 300 NASCAR XFINITY Series race as well as Saturday’s MENCS event. It’s an unusual double for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

    While he makes a limited number of XFINITY Series starts each year, Earnhardt last ran an XFINITY Series race at Bristol in 2012. He finished fifth.

    The two-time XFINITY Series champ has swept XFINITY and Cup race weekends three times — including here in 2004. He also swept at Talladega in ’03 and Daytona in ’04.

    But it’s the days spent here as a youngster that seem to resonate more than his efforts on the track.

    “Honestly, when I was a little kid, the night race here was my favorite race in the season,” Earnhardt said. “We didn’t get to go to all the races. Typically, we went a lot in the summer. We begged to go to all the races, but Bristol was my favorite for a lot of different reasons, but as a 12- to 15-year-old kid, this place was just the ultimate playground.”

    His father, seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt, earned his first NASCAR victory at Bristol in the spring race of 1979. It was the first of nine wins at BMS for the legendary NASCAR Hall of Fame member.

    “Dad won a handful of races here, had those trophies in the house,” the younger Earnhardt recalled. “I remember when he built his log cabin he had them all up on this ledge … and they were all up there to the right of the fireplace.

    “There are a couple of tracks on the schedule that have unique trophies and they haven’t changed, which I’m glad, and this is one of them. For a while that trophy was taller than I was. I’d been lucky enough to go with Dad to victory lane a couple of times. That was a trophy that I wanted; I felt really, really lucky to have gotten one. I don’t have many trophies in the house but that’s one of them I keep in the living room because when you win here, the driver is a big part of it.

    “A lot of tracks, bigger tracks, you need a lot of race car to do well and here you need a good driver; I felt lucky and fortunate to have a victory here.”

    In addition to the announcement of the scholarship, Earnhardt was presented with the original Sam Bass painting of the souvenir program cover by the artist.

    “I feel like my life has been too good to be true,” Earnhardt said, “and I just have had so much given to me and I feel like this obligation to turn it around and do something for someone else.

    “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve done more and more of that and I feel the joy from that. So I love to see that happen more and more and love to be a part of that more and more.”

    Darlington Raceway to name Turn 3 suite towers ‘Earnhardt Towers’

    In celebrating the legacy of Dale Earnhardt Sr. and honoring Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his final NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500 start, Darlington Raceway is dedicating its Turn 3 suite towers in their names, respectively.

    Earnhardt Towers will feature an assortment of graphics that depict memorable moments of Earnhardt Sr. and Earnhardt Jr., featured on the backside of each tower. The Earnhardt Towers name also will be proudly displayed on the front of the towers facing the track.

    Earnhardt Towers will join a great tradition of historical names that the Lady in Black has given to its facilities, including:

    Brasington Tower Grandstands (Turn 1) – named after Darlington Raceway’s founder and first president Harold Brasington

    Colvin Grandstands (backstretch) – named after Bob Colvin, Darlington Raceway’s president from 1952-67

    Tyler Tower Grandstands – named after W.D. “Red” Tyler, Darlington Raceway’s president from 1982-89

    Jim H. Hunter Media Center – named after Jim Hunter, Darlington Raceway’s president from 1993-01

    Pearson Tower Grandstands – named after David Pearson, NASCAR Hall of Famer and Darlington Raceway’s all-time wins leader (10) in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

    Cale Yarborough Garage – Darlington’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage is named after the Timmonsville, S.C., native, who holds five victories in the famed Bojangles’ Southern 500

    “Darlington Raceway is fortunate to have many of the sport’s legends honored throughout our property,” said track president Kerry Tharp. “We felt that it was fitting to honor Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for their positive impact on the sport and on the track Too Tough To Tame. Earnhardt Towers will forever celebrate and recognize their achievements and be a lasting landmark at our tradition-rich facility.”

    As part of the dedication, Darlington Raceway will hold a special ceremony on Friday morning of race weekend (Sept. 1), featuring track president Kerry Tharp and Kelley Earnhardt Miller, co-owner of JR Motorsports and daughter of Earnhardt Sr.

    The towers will be dedicated just before cars hit the track for NASCAR XFINITY Series Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 and Bojangles’ Southern 500 practice sessions, which are free to the public if fans bring an empty Monster Energy can to the track as part of its Free Can Friday initiative (http://www.darlingtonraceway.com/Articles/2017/08/Monster.aspx).

    Earnhardt Sr. held Darlington Raceway in high regard and always cherished a victory at the track Too Tough To Tame. His nine Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins at Darlington rank second all-time (David Pearson had 10 wins). He won races at the Lady in Black in 1982, 1986, 1987 (2), 1989, 1990 (2), 1993 and 1994. He also won three NASCAR XFINITY Series races at the track (1986, 1987 and 1991).

    Earnhardt Jr. will be racing in his final Bojangles’ Southern 500 on Sunday, Sept. 3 (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM). He has four top-five and 10 top-10 finishes at the track in 21 career starts. He has been a loyal supporter of the track’s throwback campaign, which honors the history and heritage of the sport.

    Darlington Raceway’s award-winning throwback campaign is now The Official Throwback Weekend of NASCAR featuring the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500® on Sunday, Sept. 3. The NASCAR XFINITY Series Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 will race on Saturday, Sept. 2. Tickets are on sale now by calling 866-459-7223 or visiting DarlingtonRaceway.com. Children 12 and under can get in free to Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race.

    Rick Hendrick: Earnhardt Jr. has ‘been an ambassador’

    If Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final full NASCAR season ends without a playoff-clinching win, team owner Rick Hendrick says it won’t sour what has been an impressive body of work in stock-car racing.

    Hendrick’s remarks came Thursday at Chevrolet’s unveiling of the Camaro ZL1,which the automaker will field in the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Earnhardt, 42, has driven for Hendrick Motorsports since 2008 and has 26 career wins, the most recent coming in November 2015; he announced in April that this season will be his last.

    Earnhardt sits 23rd in the series standings and in need of a victory in the remaining four regular-season races to secure a playoff berth. Hendrick said he would cherish a storybook send-off with one final trip to Victory Lane, but that Earnhardt’s legacy in the sport is secure regardless.

    “It won’t matter a bit,” Hendrick said. “To me, you’ll look at the championships that he won in XFINITY, you’ll look at his contribution, what he’s done to mentor young drivers, what he’s done to give people an opportunity, the way he’s conducted himself with the fans and the kids. I mean, his contribution … being a genuine, real person. If you’re a champion and you win a lot of races, that’s great, but I think you’ve got to look at what contribution did you make to the sport that wasn’t just for you, it was for a lot of other people.”

    The backdrop for Hendrick’s statements was Earnhardt taking selfies and chatting with General Motor employees attending Thursday afternoon’s Camaro reveal. It’s part of what has made Earnhardt the series’ most popular driver for 14 years running.

    “Of course, we’d love to see him win and get in the (playoffs) and how great it would be if he won the championship,” Hendrick said. “I think that would be great, but I think all the good things that he’s done, all the people he’s helped, and he has been a champion and he has won. When you see people like today just gravitating toward him, he’s been an ambassador.

    “He’s done a lot for a lot of people, me included. He told me he was going to make me popular,” Hendrick said through laughs, “so I appreciate that.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Kevin Harvick's comments 'hurtful'

    (sports.yahoo.com) Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday that he found Kevin Harvick’s theory about Junior’s popularity and NASCAR’s success “hurtful.”

    Harvick wondered on his SiriusXM show Tuesday if NASCAR had been “stunted” by Junior’s lack of success. Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver who is retiring at the end of the season, has won 26 races in his Cup Series career but hasn’t won a championship.

    Harvick mentioned football and basketball, where the sports’ most recognizable and popular athletes are those who have won championships. When asked about Harvick’s comments Thursday, Junior reflected back on the previous business relationship he had with Harvick. After Harvick shut his Xfinity Series team down and before Stewart-Haas Racing moved to Ford, Harvick drove Xfinity Series races for Earnhardt Jr.’s team.

    After mentioning the positives of the relationship he had with Harvick, Junior said he hated that Harvick felt the way he did.

    “I have an incredible amount of respect for him and I found some of his comments hurtful,” Junior told reporters at the unveiling of Chevrolet’s 2018 Cup Series car (via ESPN). “But I still respect him as a champion and ambassador for the sport and that’s just the way it is I guess. I hate that’s how he feels.”

    While Harvick is wondering if NASCAR’s current state of popularity is intertwined with Junior’s, we’re wondering just what brought his comments on. Harvick is one of the most calculating drivers in the Cup Series; it’s hard to think that he hadn’t given his idea about the sport and Junior much thought.

    Junior’s sister and co-owner in Junior Motorsports, Kelley Earnhardt, tweeted her support for her brother Thursday afternoon.

    @EarnhardtKelley : Extremely proud of this guy. He was hurt by those comments & rightfully so. Yet still...he is complimentary & respectful. Not many like him https://twitter.com/bobpockrass/status/895707980699586561 …

    Kelley Earnhardt is right. Junior could have taken a swipe at Harvick if he wanted to, but he took the high road. That’s the right move. Had Junior muddied it up with Harvick it would have created an odd and unnecessary storyline to the final season of his Cup Series career.

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Michigan

    Race: Pure Michigan 400

    Date: Sunday, Aug. 13, 3 p.m. ET (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Michigan: ninth, 39th, 10th, second, fifth

    Notable: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had a fair amount of success at Michigan International Speedway, where he has an average finish of 15.6. Overall, he has two wins, two poles, eight top fives and 15 top 10s in 35 starts at the track.

    Memorable: One of the most memorable wins of Earnhardt Jr.’s career came at Michigan in 2012 when he broke a 143-race winless streak by crossing the start/finish line a hefty 5.393 seconds ahead of Tony Stewart. Earnhardt Jr.’s last win before the drought also came at Michigan International Speedway — on June 15, 2008. The drought between races won was the sixth-longest streak in Cup series history.

    Quotable: “It’s been a struggle, but we have faced worse seasons,” Earnhardt Jr. said in a release. “We can’t wait to be back to work at Michigan. It’s typically a really good track for us.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. has early exit in final road-course race

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. endured an early setback in the final road-course race of his full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, retiring after the end of the first stage at Watkins Glen International.

    Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet fell off the pace near the end of the first 20-lap stage. The 42-year-old driver took his car — hampered by valvetrain issues — behind the pit wall and to the garage after 22 laps.

    Just 10 laps later, Earnhardt was officially declared out, scored last in the 37-car field.

    “We can’t fix it, but it’s just been a really difficult week,” Earnhardt told NBCSN. “We’ve been way down on speed and we had a pretty good car for Sonoma, so I was kind of looking forward to coming here. The guys worked really hard. We changed this car inside and out twice this weekend, and we had made it better. We were kind of hanging in there and think we had a shot at maybe a top 20 at best. When we showed up, we were about four seconds off.”

    Earnhardt started a disappointing 28th in the I LOVE NEW YORK 355, and was outside the top 25 in both pre-race practices.

    “I don’t know. Kind of a little frustrated this weekend, and this doesn’t make it much better,” Earnhardt said after the 17th start of his career at the 2.45-mile road course, “but sure have enjoyed racing here. Really appreciate the fans here, the track, the staff. They’ve treated us so good every time we’ve been here.”

    Earnhardt Jr., No. 88 crew ‘going to work hard all the way to the very end’

    In 2014, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won four races and recorded 12 top fives. The following season, he made three trips to Victory Lane, posting a career-best 16 top-five finishes.

    This season’s statistical spreadsheet looks very different for the No. 88 Chevrolet driver in his final full-time season; one top-five finish, four top 10s and six DNFs 21 races into the season is certainly not the way Earnhardt Jr. would have liked his record to look heading into August’s race weekend at Watkins Glen International.

    “We have just not run good this year at the majority of the races,” Earnhardt acknowledged on Saturday at Watkins Glen. “… You have good years and you have bad years. We just didn’t draw the right cards. Just a lot of circumstances have led to the performance of our car this year that you can’t really put on one thing.

    “… The No. 42 (Kyle Larson) has been really strong all year,” he pointed out. “The No. 78 (Martin Truex, Jr.), they are really strong, they are in a different world, man. We want to go out and win races … it is easy to say that, but damn; we have a lot of speed to find. It isn’t like we are going to show up and drive around those (cars). We have some work to do before the end of the year if we want to feel like we can legitimately contend for a win.”

    Junior Nation has seen glimmers of hope; the No. 88 driver nabbed a strong top-five finish at Texas and seemed energized for the rest of the season. At Daytona, he started on the pole and battled back after an early wreck — only to be involved in a final accident that saddled him with a 32nd-place result.

    For Earnhardt, these moments are glimmers of “potential.” Glimmers that he saw turn into success in 2014 and 2015. So, he takes slight solace in the fact that they’ve seen speed at times this year — because it means there’s something there.

    “I’ve had seasons where we’ve had no speed,” Earnhardt said. “We ran bad and I finished bad. But at least at times this year there’s been some glimpse of potential.”

    It’s for this reason that Earnhardt doesn’t look at the team’s expectations being too high at the start of the year; he knows what they’re capable of accomplishing.

    “You look at 2013, 14, 15 … that is our potential,” he said. “We have been progressing as a team for years all through that period. I expect us to be able to maintain that type of performance, and we haven’t been able to do it. I think that is what we are capable of, but for a lot of reasons we haven’t been able to put it together and have the speed we need in the cars.”

    Despite the struggles on track, Earnhardt remains focused, determined to finish out his final season on a high note.

    “I still see a very competitive and hungry guy,” Earnhardt’s teammate Jimmie Johnson said of Earnhardt on Saturday. “He’s always done a very nice job in articulating his feelings and he’s certainly been open about his experiences this year. But inside the walls of Hendrick Motorsports, it’s business as usual. We’re not happy with where we are. We want to be dominating every race as a group.

    “…He wants to win and (crew chief) Greg (Ives) wants to win,” Earnhardt added. “That team is preparing each and every week regardless of who was in it last year, to win. … Inside of Hendrick Motorsports it’s just been let’s go win races. Nothing has changed there.”

    A long-awaited trip to Victory Lane could turn the No. 88 season around — even if it comes too-little-too-late, after the playoffs begin.

    For instance, remember Earnhardt Jr.’s win at Martinsville in 2014? That win, which was Earnhardt’s first at a track that holds importance to both him and Hendrick Motorsports, came right after the No. 88 team was eliminated from the playoffs at Talladega Superspeedway. It didn’t help his championship chances, nor did it change what happened the week prior. But the team celebrated in Victory Lane like it was a last-chance win that locked him to the next round — because it meant something to them.

    And a win, even if it doesn’t come in the playoffs this year, does wonders to affirm a team — especially one that has spent countless hours working to make Earnhardt Jr.’s scrutinized final season a memorable one.

    “We have to go into every race like this is going to be the week that we get it done,” Earnhardt said. “I think that’s the only attitude you can have if you expect to take advantage of an opportunity because one might fall in your lap and we just might find what we’re looking for before the season is over. Certainly if we miss the playoffs, we’re still going to try to win a race. We’re still going to show up and try to give it everything we’ve got.

    “There’s nothing worse than leaving the race track feeling like you didn’t try your best or didn’t give everything you had,” Earnhardt added. “And I certainly ain’t going to finish my last season like that and carry that with me the rest of my life. So, we’re going to work hard all the way to the very end and hopefully we have something to smile about at some point before it’s over with.”

    After all the twists and turns, Junior turns corner on road courses

    As Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career winds down and he looks back on the highlights, there are two tracks likely to be left off the reel.

    Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

    The pair of road courses on NASCAR’s premier series circuit have yielded a goose egg for Junior in his 34 combined starts on them throughout the years, with an unimpressive average finish of 18.2 at Sonoma ranking as the better of the two (he’s averaged a finish of 21.7 at WGI.)

    But things have taken a turn for the better — both left and right — for Earnhardt at road courses over the past few seasons.

    Why the sudden uptick in performance?

    “Well, we just quit testing,” Earnhardt laughed Saturday at Pocono Raceway. “That was really why we started running better because we stopped trying so hard. We’d go to Road Atlanta and just run ourselves into the ground for two days trying to figure out how to become great at road course races.

    “And finally, I told (former crew chief Steve) Letarte and I said ‘Let’s just quit testing’ because it ain’t getting us anywhere but wore out. And it’s two days of the week when it’s making the guys tired because we’re cramming it in between races and we’re not really getting anywhere. So, we just quit trying and we’d just show up. And we started running great.”

    Less is more. Interesting strategy.

    Hard to argue with the results, however. Since 2012, the Hendrick Motorsports driver has averaged a finish of 7.8 at Sonoma with a best finish of third, and for each of his past two races at Watkins Glen, he’s started seventh and finished 11th at The Glen.

    Junior also credits cars that “have been really quick,” as well, but a fast car can only be taken so far by a middling driver.

    Earnhardt needs to be ready to admit that maybe, somehow, miraculously — he’s finally developed into a competent road racer.

    It’d make sense, since he got a boatload of advice from the best out there.

    “I went to school with Ron (Fellows, road course ace) a bunch. We went to Bondurant and we ran Corvettes and tested Corvettes together,” he continued. “He drove for (Dale Earnhardt Incorporated) and we would go over set-ups and notes and we just did a lot.

    “We spent a lot of time talking to Boris (Said) as well and tested with him and shared information. Boris was an open book. I would be struggling at Sonoma and I’d go over to Boris and say ‘What do I need to do? I just can’t figure it out.’ And he would give me the set-up. He’d say here’s my set-up. And we’d put it in. I’d put it in there and pick-up four-tenths. I’m like, ‘All right!’ That’s how good and nice those guys are. Andy Pilgrim was another guy I spent a lot of time with. So, I leaned on a lot of guys that I thought gave me great information and wanted to help me.”

    With the end of his final full-time season quickly approaching, does The Glen — as strange as it feels to say this — offer one of the better chance we have of seeing NASCAR’s reigning Most Popular driver land in Victory Lane one last time?

    The answer is “maybe,” but we can at least expect him to be competitive.

    “When the cars are there and the cars are superb, I can do a good job with it,” he said. “So, I think we can go into the Glen and be top 10. We should be top 10 without a problem.

    “If we’re not, I think that’s falling short of my expectations for us.”

    Earnhardt Jr. goes back in time with final paint scheme for Miami

    The final paint scheme of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career will look very similar to his first paint scheme, which debuted in 1999 when he made his debut in the sport’s top series.

    Sponsor Axalta will adorn the rear quarter panels of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and be featured across the hood. But the color scheme, which features a red body, black roof and posts and black stripes down both sides of the car, is clearly modeled after his former No. 8 Budweiser-sponsored entry fielded by his father’s Dale Earnhardt Inc.-owned organization.

    The paint scheme will be run in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead Miami Speedway on Sunday, Nov. 19. Earnhardt unveiled the car Wednesday night during a one-hour Dale Earnhardt Jr. Appreci88ion Tour special on QVC. (Photo)

    After missing the last half of the 2016 season due to injury, Earnhardt, 42, announced earlier this year that he will retire from full-time competition in the Monster Energy Series at season’s end. He currently is scheduled to compete in at least two NASCAR XFINITY Series races in 2018.

    The son of seven-time NASCAR champion and inaugural Hall of Fame member Dale Earnhardt, the younger Earnhardt has won 26 times in 616 starts at NASCAR’s highest level. He has 149 top-five and 256 top-10 finishes as well as 14 Coors Light Pole Awards.

    Earnhardt also is a two-time champion in the XFINITY Series (1998-99), where he has 24 career victories.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. on new beginnings, kind of broadcaster he’ll be

    For the past decade-and-a-half-plus, the majority of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s weekends have been rote.

    He’d fly into a race track, hop in a race car, sign some autographs and head home a few days later. There’d be a brief stop in Victory Lane on occasion – 26 times, to be exact – but for the most part, the final dish didn’t stray too far from the tried-and-true recipe.

    That’s all about to change.

    The Hendrick Motorsports driver is set to hang up the fire suit at the end of the season – from full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition, at least – and strap into, well, a suit. He’s signed a broadcasting deal to call races for NBC Sports in 2018 and beyond, a venture mostly unfamiliar to him and certainly out of his realm of comfort.

    “It’s been real easy to drive a race car and hang out in the garage,” Earnhardt Jr. said Saturday at Pocono Raceway, site of Sunday’s Overton’s 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). “I know all these people and I’m comfortable there. I’m going to get out of that area and go places I’ve never been before, do things with folks I’ve never met before and try to broaden my horizons a little bit. I’m a little nervous to try something new. Hopefully it all goes pretty smooth and I don’t stumble out of the gate a little bit.”

    It’s not completely uncharted territory for the 14-time Most Popular Driver, however. He has a few races under his belt from the booth already, calling an XFINITY Series event for FOX last year and sitting in for portions of a pair of Monster Energy Series races while sitting out with concussion-related symptoms at the tail-end of 2016.

    The brief stints offered a taste of Analyst Dale, and the limited sample size points to that version being refreshingly similar to the genuine quality Driver Dale provides (along with Bossman Dale and Water Cooler Dale, thankfully.)

    It’s something that Earnhardt aims to continue once that gig becomes full-time.

    “I hope that I’m able to be comfortable being honest. You can cross the line and I’ve done it before, you just have to know when you’ve crossed it and admit it,” he said. “I think that people, my peers included, are OK (with criticism) as long as you own it. I hope that I’m being brought into the booth because of who I am and how I am and how I act and my honesty and candid conversation.

    “I want to be that same person I am in the booth. I don’t want to change or be molded into something different or polished up. I mean, I definitely want to get better and I want to be great at it. I want to work at it and do what I need to do, but I also want that freedom to be honest and be candid. But if you’re going to do that, you’re obviously going to step on a toe or two, and you’re also going to be wrong sometimes. And when you’re wrong, it’s best — and I’ve always felt like I did a good job of this — is owning it and moving on.”

    NBC snagged Earnhardt for that authenticity, for sure, and it’s largely why fans flock to the genial driver – even more so than his famous last name.

    There’s little chance the unfiltered — but fair — Earnhardt suddenly becomes a buttoned-up, corporate mouthpiece once he picks up the microphone. It’s not why he was hired.

    “I think that Sam (Flood, NBC Sports Executive Producer) has told me that he hired me to be me. I’m hoping that the ‘me’ he is talking about is the guy that you guys (the media) know and the person I am on social media and Twitter, because that’s what I enjoy and that’s what I want when I get into the booth; to be that candid and be that honest,” Earnhardt said. “I’m not going to attack anybody. I didn’t like getting attacked when I was a race car driver and I certainly wouldn’t want to do that to any of my peers. I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys.”

    Following Sunday’s race — likely one of his best remaining shots at win No. 27 and the playoff berth that would come along with it — a mere 15 races will remain in one of the sport’s prolific, even if not the most decorated, careers of all time. But it could be the dawn of another great one. It’s too soon to tell.

    There’s a little uneasiness that comes along with that, naturally, not just for the throngs of Junior Nation, but for Junior, himself.

    But it’s dissipating as the weeks tick by.

    “As I get closer to the end of the season and what comes next, it starts to get clearer, what I’m going to be doing. And I’m more comfortable and I’m starting to learn that I’m not going to be put in any compromising situations. I don’t have to do anything that I don’t feel comfortable with,” he said. “As we accept and decline opportunities, we’re going to have ultimate control over what we get ourselves into. The anxiety is coming down a little bit and the excitement level is rising a little bit as it gets a little more clear as to what I’m going to be doing.

    “When you make such a big change in your life, there’s a lot of unknowns and you’re a little nervous and scared at first.

    “But all that stuff is starting to kind of clear up.”

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. set to unveil final paint scheme for Homestead on QVC

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., set to step away from full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition at the end of the 2017 season, will reveal his final paint scheme for Homestead-Miami Speedway on QVC next week.

    The Hendrick Motorsports driver will appear on the home shopping network on Wednesday, August 2 as part of his #Appreci88ion tour.

    The scheme, which will have Axalta as the primary sponsor, will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET and will also be live-streamed on Earnhardt’s Facebook page.

    The show will also provide an exclusive opportunity to purchase die-casts of the ride in addition to special apparel.

    Earnhardt has an average finish of 21.5 at the Florida track, but finished third in 2013.

    Earnhardt Jr. headlines Fan Fest schedule for Pocono Raceway

    See your favorite drivers at this weekend’s Pocono Fan Fest. From 5:30-8:30 p.m. ET on Friday at Pocono Raceway, these drivers will participate in activities on the Infield Block Party Stage with the Infield Block Party to follow.

    It’s all part of NASCAR’s enhanced race weekend schedule at Pocono Raceway.

    –Landon Cassill, Martin Truex Jr.: 5:30 – 6 p.m. “Never Have I Ever”
    –Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Blaney: 6 – 6:45 p.m. “Hungry Fan Throwdown”
    –Kurt Busch: 7-7:30 p.m. “NASCAR Champion Story Time”
    –Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: 7:30 – 8 p.m. “Name That Tune”
    –Michael McDowell and Daniel Suarez: 8 – 8:30 p.m. “Lip Sync Battle”

    Preview: Dale Jr. back at Pocono

    Race: Overton’s 400 at Pocono Raceway

    Date: Sunday, July 30, 3 p.m. ET (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

    Previous five results at Pocono: 38th, 2nd, 4th, 11th, 1st

    Notable: It’s been just over a month since Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last visit to the Tricky Triangle. Before that race (Axalta Presents the Pocono 400), Earnhardt had an average finish of 14.4 at Pocono. But after his 38th-place finish due to engine failure, his average finish now sits at 15.1. However, in seven of his last 10 races at Pocono, Earnhardt has managed to finish in the top 10 — all but one of those in the top five.

    Memorable: Some of Earnhardt’s memorable highlights came during the 2014 season when he swept Pocono. In the first race (Pocono 400), he started from the eighth-place position, only led for 11 laps compared to Brad Keselowski’s 95, but still snagged the checkered flag. Then, at the GoBowling.com 400, Earnhardt made it to Victory Lane again at the ‘Tricky Triangle,’ and by a margin of less than half a second ahead of Kevin Harvick.

    Quotable: “I feel bad for all the fans because they’ve been really supporting us and this has been a difficult season for them to see us not compete like we should or like we have in the past,” Earnhardt said in a team release. “I’m hoping that I can turn that around for all our sakes really soon. We’ll go to the next race – Pocono – and keep digging. This is not the worst season by any stretch of the imagination – at least the cars have speed in them, we’ve just had some really bad luck. We’ve got a busy week coming up, but I’m so ready for Pocono. We’ve got Fan Fest Friday, then it’s back behind the wheel Saturday.”

    Earnhardt defends crew chief Ives in shaky final season

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. has long reigned as NASCAR’s most popular driver. But he thinks too many of his fans have started airing in 140-character bursts a most unpopular opinion — that crew chief Greg Ives should take the blame for the No. 88’s struggles this season.

    Not so fast.

    "We’ve had a difficult year and there’s just been a little rumbling in the background from fans," Earnhardt said Tuesday. "They just love to target the crew chief. Our struggles are no one individual’s responsibility. I think me and my crew chief, we have such a very passionate fan base, very large fan base, it’s a challenging position for anybody. I’ve seen that, with all the guys that I’ve worked with. They’ve all had to deal with criticism."

    Ives, in his third season with Earnhardt, was criticized during the Brickyard 400 for his decision to send the No. 88 to the pits even though it was good on fuel before the end of the second stage. Had Earnhardt stayed out, he would have come off a restart inside the top five. Instead, he was 24th and soon wrecked out of the race when he connected with Trevor Bayne. Earnhardt’s crew also struggled with lug nuts on one pit stop that cost him several spots in the field.

    Earnhardt, who is retiring after the season, shut down criticism of the team on Twitter, where he has 2.1 million followers, writing, "He never gave up on me. We’re a tight group and will finish together."

    "Maybe Twitter ain’t the place to be drawing attention to things like that," Earnhardt said. "You just hear enough chatter over the course of a long period of time. It wasn’t something that just happened that particular weekend. Sometimes you feel like you’ve got to stand up for your guys. At least let Greg know, it’s not OK I guess, to be a fan, then dog the crew."

    Earnhardt’s final season at Hendrick Motorsports has been more dud than dominant, and Indy was the fifth time this season he has crashed out of a race. Earnhardt has just four top-10 finishes and is 22nd in the standings — his worst full-season performance since 2009. He’ll need to win one of the next six races to end his Cup career with any shot at racing in NASCAR’s post-season and winning his first championship.

    Earnhardt says he’s healthy and isn’t focused on his shift into the NBC Sports broadcast booth next season. Earnhardt said negotiations began after he decided to leave racing and continued for several months before the two sides agreed to the deal in the past few days.

    "I think that’s what they hired me for, was to be myself and give my point of view," he said.

    And his point of view this week? Fans — and the media — need to pump the breaks on pointing fingers in Earnhardt’s woeful season.

    "We’ve had some pretty difficult results and had a lot of opportunity to be frustrated and miserable," he said. "But I don’t want this season to be remembered by my crew chief, myself and my guys as a miserable, miserable time. The fans have an influence on that. They can definitely ease up a bit on Greg and realize that he’s extremely talented. He’s in that position for a reason."

    Earnhardt, who spoke at a Goodyear tire test at Dover International Speedway, is off this weekend to Pocono Raceway, where he swept two races in 2014. There’s little time to worry about the Brickyard.

    "I’ve had a lot of bad finishes in my career," he said. "But I can’t remember anything about those and I probably won’t remember much about this season, a couple years down the road. What happened in Indy will be long forgotten. I try not to dwell on it too much like I used to. I used to let it eat me alive until we got back to the track."

    Earnhardt, 42, is excited about his future at NBC. The agreement with NBCUniversal announced Monday will allow Earnhardt to pursue "a wide range of opportunities in the company’s media businesses, including movies, television, podcasts, and other areas" including football and perhaps even the Olympics.

    Earnhardt said he might pattern part of his new job after broadcasters he admired, including greats Barney Hall, Ken Squier and Benny Parsons.

    "I’m green as heck ," Earnhardt said.

    He will watch next season with a headset as Ives tries to steer replacement Alex Bowman to better days in the 88. Asked if he had any second thoughts about retirement, Earnhardt was quick to say no.

    "It’s easy to focus on the race. It’s hard to focus on the distractions," he said. "There are responsibilities outside the car. There’s a lot more this year. It seems like they’ve always kind of escalated each year. It’s harder to focus on that stuff. That stuff does deserve some time and energy. It’s a little harder to do that and do it right because you want to make sure the racing is getting everything it needs."

    DALE EARNHARDT JR. TO JOIN NBC SPORTS GROUP’S NASCAR TEAM IN 2018

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., the motorsports icon voted by fans as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for an unprecedented 14 consecutive years (2003-16), will join NBC Sports Group’s NASCAR coverage beginning in 2018, it was announced today. Chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports Mark Lazarus, and NBC Sports Executive Producer and President of Production Sam Flood, will introduce Earnhardt, in a media conference call today, Monday, July 24 at 3 p.m. ET. An advisory with specific information regarding the conference call will be distributed later this morning.

    Earnhardt will be utilized in a number of capacities on NBC’s NASCAR coverage, with specifics to be announced in the coming months. In addition, the agreement with NBCUniversal allows Earnhardt a wide range of opportunities in the company’s media businesses, including movies, television, podcasts, and other areas.

    “We are excited to welcome Dale Jr. to our team – both on and off the track,” said Mark Lazarus, Chairman, NBC Broadcasting and Sports. “As a company, NBCUniversal allows for talent to stretch themselves across not just their field of expertise, but across other areas of their interests in the media world.”

    “Dale Jr. brings credibility, personality, and popularity to our already winning NASCAR team,” said Sam Flood, Executive Producer and President of Production, NBC Sports. “Giving him a chance to spread further within other NBC Sports Group properties and throughout the company is an added bonus.”

    “It is a tremendous honor not only to join NBC Sports next year but to begin a new career alongside people who love NASCAR as much as I do,” said Earnhardt. “To be reunited with Steve Letarte, to be able to call legends like Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty teammates rather than just friends, to be able to continue going to the track and connecting with race fans, it’s a privilege I don’t take lightly. I will devote my heart and soul to this broadcast team and pledge my very best to the millions who watch it.”

    NBC is also partnering with Earnhardt on some of his other businesses, including Dirty Mo Media and Hammerhead Entertainment.

    Earnhardt is a third-generation driver in a family forever connected to the sport of stock-car racing. The native of Kannapolis, North Carolina, has amassed 26 career victories, including the 2004 and 2014 Daytona 500. His 26 victories tie him for 29th on NASCAR’s all-time race winners list. His father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., won seven Cup titles and 76 Cup races in his storied career.

    Earnhardt Jr. among those to test at Dover in free event for fans

    Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth and Landon Cassill will participate in a Goodyear Tire test Tuesday at Dover International Speedway in advance of NASCAR’s upcoming fall playoff race there.

    This will be an important test for teams before the triple-header race weekend on Sept. 29-Oct. 1 — the third race and first elimination stage of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

    Admission is free and Dover’s Allison Grandstand will be open to fans from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET for the session.

    “We’re looking forward to opening our grandstands so fans can see Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars on the track prior to the fall race weekend,” said Mike Tatoian, Dover International Speedway’s president and CEO. “I’m excited to be able to meet some of our loyal guests and hope to see lots of families at the testing session.”

    Only one more Goodyear Tire test is currently scheduled for the season — Sept. 26 at Bristol Motor Speedway — and it’s set for 2018 tire development.

    Earnhardt backs wife, blames himself for ‘Clash’ debate

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his own statement Saturday.

    He defended his wife’s Twitter post — and blamed himself for putting her in a position where she felt she had to speak out.

    Five days after Amy Earnhardt wrote it wouldn’t be "worth the risk" to see her husband compete in next year’s Clash at Daytona, the 42-year-old driver explained outsiders don’t understand what the family endured as he recovered from concussion-related symptoms last year.

    "She’s been there for everything," Earnhardt Jr. said. "A lot of folks that may have a different opinion about it weren’t there through the whole process. If anyone knows how difficult it was beside me, it would be her. It wasn’t a lot of fun for her."

    Earnhardt spoke about six hours before making his final Brickyard 400 qualifying run at Indianapolis.

    The series’ most popular driver announced in April he would retire after this season, in part because of his injury history. Two big crashes last summer forced him out of the final 18 races, and he missed two races during the 2012 playoffs also because of concussion-related symptoms.

    But Earnhardt appeared to reopen the possibility of returning to Daytona after winning the pole there three weeks ago, his first since September 2013. To be eligible, drivers must win at least one pole during the previous season, be a previous Clash winner or be a former Daytona 500 pole-winner who still competes full-time on the Cup series.

    On a recent podcast, Earnhardt said he told team owner Rick Hendrick that competing in the Clash would be something his wife "needed to warm up to."

    She hasn’t so far.

    "I’ve received many comments on Dale Jr running the 2018 Clash based on whether or not I give my blessing," she wrote Tuesday night. "Considering his struggles last fall with his injury, we are very blessed that he is now healthy, happy and able to enjoy his final season…and hopefully many years beyond racing. So my answer is simple. It’s not worth the risk to his health."

    While some Earnhardt fans were upset with the response, Junior said his wife felt she needed to take her opinion to the public.

    He also suggested his immediate reaction following the pole-winning run left his wife in a tough spot.

    "It sounds like a great idea right off the bat, but maybe it’s not worth it," Earnhardt said, explaining the Clash has a higher crash rate than other NASCAR races. "I feel much more in control of my own fate in the remainder of this season and anything I do beyond that, than I do being out there in the Clash, to be honest with you. But if it’s something she feels strongly about, we have to sit down and I have to hear her out."

    Even if he doesn’t compete in the 2018 season-opening race, Earnhardt intends to compete in two Xfinity Series races next season and plans to be involved in the sport in other ways.

    And his visibility may not be limited only to NASCAR tracks.

    One thing on Earnhardt’s Bucket List: Attending his first Indianapolis 500.

    "What happened here is a little bit bigger as far as what’s happened here in the last 100 years. It’s a little bit bigger than all of us. It never gets old coming here because of that," he said after receiving a parting gift from speedway President Doug Boles — a framed No. 8 from Indy’s old scoring pylon. "I’d like to be able to come here after I retire, especially for the Indy (500)."

    Boles has found creative ways to keep popular drivers in the mix at the track he runs.

    Two years ago, for instance, Jeff Gordon drove the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 as part of his farewell tour. The only five-time Brickyard winner also is driving the pace car for Sunday’s race.

    That may be a safer way to get Earnhardt back into racing.

    But first, Earnhardt wants to give his family another way to celebrate his farewell tour — joining Al Unser and Al Unser Jr. as the only father-son tandems to ever win at Indy.

    "It would be awesome to win one of the big, key races," he said. "It’s a race I think all of the drivers think is important to the series, and it’s right up there with the Daytona 500 in terms of importance."

    Hendrick tabs Bowman as Earnhardt replacement in No. 88 car

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    He joins a series that is clearly in transition.

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

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

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

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

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

    @AmyEarnhardt: (Read Statement Here)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at New Hampshire

    Race: Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway

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

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

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

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

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

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Kentucky

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Earnhardt hits wall in potential final Cup start at Daytona

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

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

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

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

    Several other top contenders found trouble, too.

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

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

    Earnhardt's troubles earlier seemingly silenced the stadium.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    So, how about the “Clash,” Junior?

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

    In other words, stay tuned.

    Earnhardt lands pole for what could be Cup finale at Daytona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dale Jr. rises atop Daytona speed chart in final practice

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

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

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

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

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

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    There’s a sense of appreciation, he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Other than, maybe, another trip to Victory Lane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Like a fine wine, Junior improves in final Sonoma race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Sonoma

    Race: Toyota / Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Michigan

    Race: FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Preview: Dale Jr. at the Tricky Triangle

    Race: Axalta presents the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Or, in this case, No. 88.

    Chef Gordon Ramsay roasts banana-mayo sandwich

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

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

    He, uh, didn’t hold back.

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

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

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

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

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

    Junior beginning to see simulator work pay dividends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Earnhardt forced to scrap Philadelphia Eagles car at Pocono

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Race: AAA 400 Drive for Autism at Dover International Speedway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Race: Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Earnhardt offers insight into Almirola’s mindset, safety protocols

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Loose wheel saddles Dale Jr. with 22nd at Talladega

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Earnhardt just misses pole in final Talladega qualifying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Junior looks for more Talladega magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Sunday, he hopes to see it once again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dale Jr. opens up at Richmond after retirement announcement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.: By the numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Junior endears himself to fans by being the real deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And Junior never disappointed. Whether he won or not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And what more could you ask. He deserves that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Brian France statement on Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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

    NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retire after 2017 season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Junior beats fitness guru Johnson in weekly workout

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

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

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

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

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

    He certainly was.

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

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

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

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

    Dale Jr., Ryan Blaney patch things up at Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Monster Energy All-Star Race format 101

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

    Programming info for the Monster Energy All-Star Race

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

    Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway

    TV: FS1

    Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

    What is the format?

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

    How does one advance to the 10-lap segment?

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

    How is the starting lineup for the last segment determined?

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

    Are there any strategy plays in this race?

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

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

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

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

    How else can one make the field?

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

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

    How is the starting lineup for the race determined?

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

    What is the prize?

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

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

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

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

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

    The race format is as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Nine teams miss Monster Energy Series qualifying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Earnhardt says he has felt great all season after concussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “So, it’s good, I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dale Jr prepares for 600th race after creating own legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And he's impressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The NASCAR community is one that intrigued him.

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

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

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

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

    • • •

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • • •

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

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

    "Where's that?" Zuckerberg asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And he's worked up an appetite.

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

    • • •

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

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

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

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

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

    EARNHART'S HIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The race was ultimately red-flagged for clean up.

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

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

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

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is officially back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The vibration was of particular concern.

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

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

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

    Goodyear hands Earnhardt Jr. keys to Goodyear Blimp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Earnhardt's confidence sky high amid return for Daytona 500

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

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

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

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

    Everyone has, really.

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

    All those cheers have been joined by fears.

    NASCAR's most popular driver missed 18 races, half the season, in 2016 because of lingering concussion symptoms that included nausea as well as vision and balance issues.

    He struggled to keep his eyes focused while simply riding in a car last July. During a ride from his home to Raleigh, North Carolina, to taste wedding food with his then-fiancee Amy, he couldn't look out the windshield. He had to stare at the floor for two hours each way.

    He would pick something on a wall to focus on, but couldn't keep it in sight once he started taking a few steps.

    ''I could go sit on my couch and convince myself I was 100 percent,'' he said. ''That was my comfort zone. Nothing was happening there. No anxiety. Anytime I went out in the world, any little bit of anxiety would make everything crazy. ... I couldn't put one foot in front of the other without falling over like a drunk-driving test.''

    Forget racing. Sudden movement, loud noises and busy places all made Earnhardt cringe.

    Even in November, after months of treatment and recovery, Earnhardt went hunting with friend and fellow driver Martin Truex Jr. and would stumble to one side or the other after five or six steps.

    But that was progress, albeit minor, and it continued every day for the next month.

    His vision cleared. His ability to focus returned. He slowly started feeling better, and by early December, he was back in a race car and had gained medical clearance to return this season.

    Now, he's back at Daytona, back in the No. 88 Chevrolet and back at the front of the field. Earnhardt was second in pole qualifying last Sunday, meaning he will start on the front row for the Daytona 500 for the fourth time in his career. He also was scheduled to start one of the twin qualifying races Thursday from the pole.

    The real test will be after that first head-jarring crash.

    ''I don't want to wreck to sort of quantify my recovery,'' he said. ''I think, though, should that happen and I come out the other side feeling great, that will add a ton of confidence. I can't sit here and say I know exactly how I'm going to react in those situations with confidence. So yeah, when I go through that process, there's a box or two to check that aren't yet (checked).''

    Earnhardt sat down with NASCAR officials recently to go over details about the inside of his car, specifically about how and where his headrest is mounted. He estimates having at least five diagnosed concussions during his 18-year Cup career.

    ''Am I nervous at all about it? I'm nervous about it until I get in the car,'' he said. ''When I get into the car, I can't have any concern. I can't have any worry or fret, or I'll drive completely different. ... I know what a result I can get by driving without fear, and I know what kind of result I can get if I have even a sliver of apprehension. I won't be able to win the race. Once you second-guess yourself one time, it snowballs and it just continues throughout the rest of the race.''

    At least publicly, there has been no second-guessing of Earnhardt's decision to get back in a race car.

    ''Well, I hope he's competitive and he goes out there and has fun because he sure is fun to talk to these days,'' retiring driver and former teammate Michael Waltrip said. ''He's just really energetic and really open and honest and is really cool to be around. He's always been cool to be around if you know him, but it seems like he's opened up to the world more, and so to see him go out there and win a race, I'd like to see that happen.''

    Earnhardt has 26 victories in NASCAR's top series, but he's still chasing that first championship. He created a stir this week when he told ''The Dan Patrick Show'' he would consider retirement if he won the title. After a day to reflect on something he initially said was a tongue-in-cheek statement, it started to sound like the perfect exit strategy for a 42-year-old driver who just got married and wants to start a family.

    ''I didn't expect people to be like, 'Seriously? You really mean that?''' he said. ''Yeah, if you want to really think about it, God almighty, yeah. If I retire and won this championship, it's be hard not to spike the football on stage at Vegas and call it a career. Why not?

    ''There's still a lot about it that I haven't done just the way I want to do it. I want to learn how to enjoy it all the way, fully. I've got a couple more years that I'd like to keep going. But, dang, yeah, if I won a championship, shoot, that's the motivation for me in competing. Once that's checked off the list, that'd be everything.''

    With so much attention focused on Earnhardt, he's been the busiest driver in the garage this week.

    He did a media tour in New York City on Tuesday, was bombarded with questions at Daytona 500 media day and then traveled to nearby New Smyrna Beach Airport for the Goodyear Blimp surprise.

    Earnhardt spent close to two hours in and around the blimp and getting to know Siverson and his 47-year history of service. Siverson retired after 30 years in the Marine Corps in 2000 and now helps other veterans at NCServes in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Earnhardt presented Siverson with a $10,000 check from Goodyear for the charity.

    Earnhardt, who had never been in a blimp, even joked about bringing home a keepsake from the experience.

    ''I'm going to keep this outfit for Halloween,'' he said.

    Hamlin spoils Earnhardt return with last-lap pass for win

    Denny Hamlin didn't need a Toyota teammate to grab another win at Daytona International Speedway.
  • Hamlin charged past Dale Earnhardt Jr. with one lap remaining Thursday night to deny Earnhardt a victory a 150-mile qualifying race that Earnhardt dominated. Earnhardt led 53 of the 60 laps in the second qualifying Duel, but couldn't hold off a Hamlin charge at the end.
  • Hamlin got a push from Chevrolet driver Austin Dillon to gather the momentum needed to get past Earnhardt. Typically, the Toyota drivers have teamed together to navigate through traffic in restrictor plate races.
  • In the qualifying race, Hamlin didn't need his fellow Toyota drivers and even overcame a pit road penalty to get the win.
  • ''I don't know what I could have done differently to defend that,'' Earnhardt said. ''Denny is so smart, he knows what he's doing out there. Any which way I went, I knew he was going to go the other way and probably get by me. If it's the Daytona 500, it's the same thing, ain't nothing you can do about that.''
  • It was Earnhardt's first race in his return from a concussion that caused him to miss the second half of last season. He faded to sixth.
  • Hamlin is the defending Daytona 500 winner and has won a Duel qualifying race three times in his career. The twin 150-mile races are used to set the field for Sunday's season-opener, and Hamlin got this win on the same day he announced a contract extension with Joe Gibbs Racing and sponsor FedEx.
  • Chase Elliott won the first qualifier, but he had already earned the top starting spot for Sunday's race based on speed. He and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Earnhardt will start on the front row in ''The Great American Race.''
  • There were two open slots for the Daytona 500 and they were claimed by Corey LaJoie and Canadian driver D.J. Kennington.
  • LaJoie had the harder road to race into the Daytona 500.
  • He ran into the back of Reed Sorenson, one of the drivers he was racing for the slot in the 500. It caused Sorenson to wreck.
  • ''I know it looked like I meant to do it but I didn't,'' LaJoie said on his radio. ''I was running the middle and he came down on me.''
  • He said he would have preferred not to have wrecked Sorenson, but insisted it was unintentional and noted the race was his first time in a Cup car at a plate track. LaJoie had to politic through December to get this ride, but still asked Jimmie Johnson to put in a good word for him to help him get a chance to race in the Daytona 500.
  • So, he wasn't going to let anything stand in his way of making Sunday's race.
  • ''I didn't want to be sipping margaritas on the beach on Sunday. I wanted to be out there racing,'' LaJoie said. ''If that was my mom, I would probably spin her out to make the Daytona 500, too. That's just frank. I'm sure I'm not going to be on Reed's Christmas card list this year, but that's all right.''
  • Sorenson was not pleased.
  • ''I guess he felt like he did what he had to do to make the race,'' Sorenson said. ''I hope he's proud of that part of it. There's a lot of pressure going in to making this race. It's a very big deal for a small team like ours.''
  • Elliott, meanwhile, was thrilled with his first Cup victory.
  • ''I know this was just a Duel win, and doesn't mean a lot for the playoffs, but it still means something to me,'' said Elliott.
  • Indeed, this was technically just an exhibition race. But new rules for this season earned Elliott 10 points with the win. NASCAR's new format this year including a provision that awards points on a 10-to-1 declining scale to the top-10 finishers in Thursday night's races.
  • Points were not the goal for Elliott, though. His Hendrick Motorsports team instead wanted to test his Chevrolet to see how strong it will be in Sunday's big event.
  • ''We didn't say one word about points before the race,'' Elliott said. ''We just kind of set out and wanted to race, not ride around. I think sometimes you ride around and you don't know what your car is like and if it's going to be the way you want it for Sunday.
  • ''We took chances and it worked out, so excited for Sunday.''

    Duel win slips away, but no rust on Junior's return performance

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. was two laps away from potentially winning for the first time since November of 2015, leading the second of two Can-Am Duel qualifying races here Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.

    Then Austin Dillon cleared the No. 41 of Kurt Busch, slid up in line behind second-place Denny Hamlin and Earnhardt's goose was cooked.

    With no drafting help from behind, Earnhardt could do little but watch as car after car zoomed by on the high side. By the time the freight train had passed, Earnhardt was battling just to get back inside the top five with one more trip around the 2.5-mile layout remaining.

    "I was hoping he would go with me but I would have probably done the same thing he did," Earnhardt said of Dillon's move. "He finished fifth. He pushed that 11 in the lead, he was in second; it didn't really work out that awesome for him."

    Dillon's No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing finished just one spot ahead of Earnhardt's No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, which led 53 of 60 laps. It was Earnhardt's first competitive appearance since mid-season of last year. He sat out the final 18 races of the season after suffering concussion-like symptoms.

    If there was any rust, it wasn't evident. Earnhardt, who will still start on the front row of Sunday's Daytona 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR) battled briefly with Hamlin in the early portion of the qualifying race before settling down to lead 23 laps. Ryan Blaney (Wood Brothers Racing) won the race off pit road and led three laps before Earnhardt moved back on point at Lap 31.

    And for most of the remaining laps, it was vintage Earnhardt, one of the series' best at restrictor-plate racing and a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 as he was able to move high and low to keep the lines of traffic in his rear-view mirror.

    Until the very end.

    "I felt great," he said. "I felt like I'm a really good plate racer, there are some guys out there that are sure picking it up. Denny is one of them, (Joey) Logano ... there are a few other guys that sure make it harder to win these things each time we come here. But I felt great out there."

    Hamlin is the defending Daytona 500 winner. Dillon is a four-year veteran but still searching for that first trip to Victory Lane in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Both had capable rides Thursday evening.

    "I think that we just worked together the entire race," Hamlin said of Dillon's move that got him to the front. "It's no different than if it was the other way around ... I'd have a hard time not pushing him to a win."

    As long as the drivers ran side-by-side behind Earnhardt and Hamlin, the two lines of cars kept each other in check and unable to make a run on the front two. That changed when Dillon was able to slide in behind Hamlin and leave a big gap with no help behind the race leader.

    "Maybe if he would have gone with me we might have run first and second," Earnhardt said. "You never know. He did what he had to do and I might have done the same thing.

    "Denny had such an awesome run. The 3 (of Dillon) is feeding off that energy and had that same momentum. He's got to take his opportunities to try to get to the front. Hell, he might have won the race, you never know, if a couple of things had worked out for him."

    Earnhardt Jr. would consider walking away as a champion

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat on stage for his Daytona 500 Media Day interview session Wednesday morning and at the end of his 20-plus minutes taking questions, he conceded that if he were to win the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series title, he would at least consider stepping away from full-time competition after this season.

    Earnhardt, who will start on the front row for the Daytona 500, is returning to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup competition for the first time since last July -- sitting out the second half of the 2016 season while recovering from concussion-like symptoms.

    The two-time Daytona 500 winner and restrictor-plate racing expert refused to call himself a shoo-in for Sunday's trophy even though he likes his chances. But he did allow that hoisting NASCAR's season-ending trophy may just present the ultimate racing exit for the newly married 42-year-old.

    "Hell yeah. I would definitely not want to come back and race anymore if I won the championship, I'd be outta of here," he said smiling. "I've always wanted to win a championship so badly. And coming back from this injury, we've worked so hard. So to come back this year and win the championship, it would be hard not to hang it up.

    "This is the last year of my deal. I would like to race more, but if I won the championship I'd have to consider going out on top."

    Earnhardt smiled as he spoke but did pause often to reflect and think. The sport's 14-time -- and reigning -- Most Popular Driver has four top-five finishes in the championship standings, the last a fifth place in 2013.

    His father, the late Dale Earnhardt, won seven championship trophies, and his Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson just won his seventh in November.

    "It just really depends on a lot of different things," Earnhardt said, reflecting on the idea of the 2017 championship. "I said that a little tongue in cheek yesterday (that he would retire), but I'd definitely consider it because that's the last box I don't have checked really.

    "There's a few races I'd like to win. But the championship would definitely be the icing on the cake for my career."

    Earnhardt Jr., Keselowski deadlocked atop Daytona 500 odds

    (Video) Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be aiming to bounce back from a 2016 season marred by inconsistency and injury on Sunday when he pursues a third career victory at the Daytona 500 as a +600 betting favourite at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

    It has been 15 months since Earnhardt took home the checkered flag at a NASCAR Cup Series event. The 42-year-old veteran claimed victory at the rain-shortened Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 in November 2015, but his sole victory of 2016 came in the Xfinity Series Toyota Care 250 last February.

    Sunday afternoon’s 59th running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway also marks Earnhardt’s first Cup Series race appearance since last July, when he was sidelined for the season with a concussion.

    The 14-time defending Cup Series Most Popular Driver previously won the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014, but finished a career-worst 36th last year despite starting the race in the No. 3 position.

    Earnhardt is joined as the Daytona 500 betting favourite by Brad Keselowski, who also sports +600 odds. Keselowski sits atop the odds despite finishing better than 20th just twice in seven career Daytona 500 appearances.

    The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion tallied four victories last year. However, he finished no better than 35th in three of his final six races.

    2015 Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano maintains strong +800 odds, ahead of three drivers at +1000, including Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch. Logano closed out last season on a strong note with top 5 finishes in five of his past six races, and has finished in the top 10 at Daytona on three occasions.

    Johnson earned a record-tying seventh career Cup Series crown a year ago, and also has two Daytona 500 victories to his credit, but finished a disappointing 16th last year. Busch finished third last year, both at Daytona and in the standings, while Harvick finished fourth in last year’s race, and earned four victories on the season.

    Defending Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin joins pole sitter Chase Elliott at +1200 odds, followed by Matt Kenseth at +1400, Martin Truex Jr. at +1600, and Clint Bowyer at +1800.

    Other notables on the Daytona 500 odds include Kurt Busch at +2200, Danica Patrick and Ryan Newman deadlocked at +5000, and 53-year-old Michael Waltrip, who is a +10000 bet to claim his third career win at the race.

    Get ready for the Daytona 500 with driver interviews

    Drivers take center stage starting at 8:30 a.m. ET Wednesday for the Media Day live stream presented by NAPA as excitement builds toward Sunday's Daytona 500. Don't miss any of the stories, banter and laughs as NASCAR.com live streams the event til 3:30 p.m. ET. Watch here.

    Hosts Jonathan Merryman and Kim Coon will talk with drivers about the Daytona 500 and the 2017 season.

    Here's the event lineup (all times Eastern):

    8:30 a.m.: Aric Almirola

    8:40 a.m.: Austin Dillon, Matt DiBenedetto

    8:45 a.m.: Chris Buescher

    8:50 a.m.: Joey Gase

    BREAK (35 min)

    9:35 a.m.: Michael McDowell, AJ Allmendinger

    9:40 a.m.: David Gilliland

    9:45 a.m.: Joey Logano

    BREAK (25 min)

    10:20 a.m.: Chip Wile

    10:30 a.m.: Brendan Gaughan, Darrell Wallace Jr.

    10:35 a.m.: Cole Custer

    10:40 a.m.: Blake Koch

    10:50 a.m.: Brennan Poole

    11:05 a.m.: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    11:10 a.m.: Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones

    11:20 a.m.: Spencer Gallagher, Ben Kennedy

    BREAK (1 hr. 40 min)

    1:10 p.m.: Ryan Blaney

    1:20 p.m.: Chase Elliott

    1:50 p.m.: Kevin Harvick

    1:55 p.m.: Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett

    2 p.m.: John Hunter Nemechek, Denny Hamlin

    2:10 p.m.: Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch

    2:20 p.m.: Landon Cassill, Kasey Kahne

    BREAK (15 min)

    2:45 p.m.: Erik Jones

    BREAK (10 min)

    3:05 p.m.: Ryan Reed

    BREAK (5 min)

    3:15 p.m.: Brad Keselowski

    Dale Jr. regales podcast listeners with family storytime

    (Listen) Dale Earnhardt Jr. turned his weekly Dale Jr. Download podcast into family storytime where he spoke for more than 50 minutes regaling listeners with tales of his famous father and the Earnhardt family history at the Daytona 500.

    Among the gems Earnhardt Jr. shared was the story of how his father, Dale Earnhardt, taught him how to be fast in qualifying.

    As Earnhardt Jr. tells it, when he was 16 years old, working in a dealership changing oil, his dad called and told him to come to Talladega, where he was testing.

    Earnhardt was testing new V8 engines for the XFINITY Series, and told his son to take the wheel for a few turns around Talladega Superspeedway. Junior was astonished to be keeping time with his father during his first lap.

    "So then I get out there and open the wheel up and get out to the fence on the straightaway, drive it down into the corner," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'm letting the wheel kind of do what it wants to do on bumps -- and I ran a second slower."

    As soon as he came in, his father stopped him.

    "What the hell are you doing?" he asked.

    "Well, I'm letting the car feed out off the corner against the wall," Junior responded.

    "Don't do that, you're adding feet to the lap," his father scolded.

    "I let the wheel be loose in my hands, kind of let it do its thing through the bumps," Junior continued.

    "Don't do that; hold it solid and steady," his father reminded.

    That experience changed how Earnhardt Jr. approaches qualifying -- and what helped him to qualify second for Sunday's Daytona 500.

    "What I do now when I go to qualify is I hold the wheel as hard as I can and I do not let it move when the car goes through a bump," Earnhardt Jr. said. "And I run pretty tight, which everybody does now; everybody's figured that out."

    Earnhardt Jr. also recounted some of his favorite moments from past Daytona 500s. Among those he talked about:

    * The 2000 Daytona 500, which was the first he saw in person -- and the first he raced in. "I felt like I had joined a fraternity," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I was on the starting grid looking around at guys like Terry Labonte and Dale Jarrett and going, 'Wow, I can't believe I'm here.' "

    That was also a race where his father wasn't happy that his son didn't work with him. Earnhardt finished 21st while Earnhardt Jr. finished 13th.

    "After the race he was very upset with me that I did not work with him," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I said, 'I don't want to work with nobody, I'm trying to get to the front.' ... He said, 'No wonder neither one of us did any good, you wouldn't work with anybody.' I said, 'You're not my responsibility, Dad.' He always took it out on me. When we raced together, if he had a bad day, in some way, it was my fault."

    * The 1998 Daytona 500, which was his father's only victory in the race, despite 34 triumphs at the track. Earnhardt Jr. missed the race because he was recovering from a concussion.

    * The 1990 Daytona 500, when Earnhardt blew a tire on Turn 3 of the final lap, and ended up finishing fifth. "What a badass," Junior said of his father. "Drove a damn car into Turn 3 with no right rear tire at 190 mph and didn't even hit the wall."

    * The 1979 Daytona 500, which was his father's rookie season. Earnhardt finished eighth. "It's so funny how they talked about him then (compared to) how we know him and remember him now," Earnhardt Jr. said. "He wasn't the Intimidator. He was a young guy racing with the veterans."

    Earnhardt Jr. also had one more comment about his family's history at the Daytona 500: "We got a lot of great history in Daytona. Hoping we can go down here and have some success and add to those wins. I'd love to go down there and pass Tony Stewart and be second (for most all-time wins at Daytona International Speedway)."

    Dale Jr. jumps back into familiar surroundings with plenty of speed

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't take any credit for his qualifying effort Sunday, a 192.864 mph lap that put his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on the front row for next week's season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

    "Ain't much to it," Earnhardt quipped. "The car does all the work."

    Earnhardt, twice a winner of the "Great American Race," won't be on the pole, but he'll start alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott, giving the team a front-row sweep for the second time in the last three years.

    His previous wins in the 500 came from third (in 2004) and ninth ('14).

    Earnhardt is regarded as one of the best at restrictor-plate racing but qualifying is a solo effort. There are no other cars off which to pick up a push or gain an advantage. It's all about horsepower. But there's a bit of technique required as well.

    "The transitions are kind of important as far as feeding the car into the corner and also running as tight as you can on the apron without bouncing the skirt off the apron or giving up any speed, or just time adding feet to your lap by running high, at least a little bit, can make a big difference," he said.

    "But other than that, the driver, I don't think he's feeling like he's in control of too much. The car is doing most of the work."

    Sidelined for the last half of the 2016 season after suffering concussion-like symptoms, Earnhardt is eager to be back behind the wheel. He chose not to compete in Sunday's Advance Auto Parts Clash, instead allowing Alex Bowman to field his entry. Bowman had won the pole at Phoenix driving in relief of Earnhardt last fall, a distinction that Earnhardt said earned the driver the opportunity.

    But after spending "The Clash" working as an analyst in the booth for Fox Sports, Earnhardt traded in his suit and tie for a firesuit, and eased his way back into more familiar surroundings.

    He was second-fastest in the opening round of qualifying; Elliott ended the session atop the board. In the final round, the No. 88 went to the top of the board with only one driver, Elliott, remaining.

    "I certainly would have loved to have gotten a pole, but my boss man is happy," Earnhardt said of team owner Rick Hendrick. "I just talked to him on the phone and he's got to be thrilled with having his cars up front."

    Elliott's final-round run, a lap of 192.872 mph, gave the Dawsonville, Georgia, youngster his second consecutive Daytona 500 pole. It was the third straight No. 1 qualifying effort for his No. 24 team, which also started out front here in '15 with four-time series champion Jeff Gordon behind the wheel.

    "Obviously Dale is good down here, and we all knew he was going to be fast today," Elliott, 21, said. "That's no surprise. But I don't really care who it is. I'm not going to feel bad about beating somebody.

    "It's cool to share a front row with a teammate is really the biggest thing I look at with that. But Dale is a good guy. I'm happy to share the front row with him, but happier to beat him, obviously, but regardless of who it is, that's what you're trying to do, you know."

    Elliott and Earnhardt were the only two drivers to officially lock in their starting positions for next weekend's Daytona 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The remainder of the field will be determined through the Can-Am Duels, a pair of 150-lap qualifying races scheduled for Thursday evening (7 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    Dale Jr. waiting on 'confidence in my health' before signing new contract

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he intends to race "for more years," but NASCAR's most popular driver also said he won't sit down to discuss his contract with team owner Rick Hendrick until he's confident his health isn't an issue.

    Earnhardt, 42, missed the final 18 races of the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season while recovering from a concussion suffered at mid-season.

    He is in the final year of his contract as driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

    "I told Rick (Hendrick) that I would like to get a couple of races, a couple of months under my belt to get confidence in my health," Earnhardt said Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, site of next week's season-opening Daytona 500.

    "This is the only reason I feel that way. There's no underlying crap about it. When I got hurt last year, what I saw it put the company through, how I saw it frustrate certain aspects of the company -- maybe not frustrate but it put a strain on our relationships. Our partners were worried about my future, Rick and everybody was worried. I don't want to do that again.

    "I want to get some races under my belt and get confidence in my health before I can commit to him. I don't want to make him a promise that I can't deliver on.

    "Once I feel like, 'You know what? I think I'm good. I think I can withstand the wear and tear of driving these cars to do a couple more years,' I’m ready to do it. Because I want to race; I want to be here and I want to race."

    Earnhardt joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 after eight seasons with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company founded by his father, the seven-time series champion and inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee. Nine of his 26 career victories have come since the move to HMS.

    In addition to competing for HMS, Earnhardt also co-owns JR Motorsports, a race organization that fields four teams in NASCAR's XFINITY Series.

    He will make his first start since his injury next week here at DIS. He's a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 and considered one of the sport's best on the big superspeedways, where NASCAR mandates the use of restrictor plates to limit speeds.

    Retirement has been on his mind, Earnhardt admitted, even before last season's setback. But he said the injury made him realize that it might now be best to put off such thoughts until he knows his health isn't a concern. Earnhardt said in December that he hoped to sit down and discuss a contract extension before the '17 season got underway.

    "I've been trying over the last year or two to put a number on it, say, 'This is when I'm going to retire,'" he said. "'This will be the year or the day or the age.' But I've decided that maybe it's best that I don't. Considering my health, I can't even think about putting a date on it because I don't know what's going to happen to me going forward.

    "I want to get a couple of races under my belt, a couple of months, and then we'll sit down and say, 'You know, if everything is going great and we haven't had any issues, I'm confident to continue to race.'"

    Earnhardt has twice signed five-year contracts with HMS – the first from 2008 through '12 and the most recent, an extension which ran from 2013-17.

    Hendrick Motorsports also fields Monster Energy Series teams for seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott.

    Earnhardt Jr. returns to action in Daytona practice

    Great patience surpassed high anticipation surrounding Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s return to the race track Saturday morning at Daytona International Speedway.

    Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports crew was still working feverishly on his No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet in the garage area as his competitors rolled out for Daytona 500 opening practice. Earnhardt, meanwhile, stood back still wearing a ball cap, his arms crossed as he alternated between glancing at the scoring screen and watching his team prep the car -- computers on the roof, hood up.

    About 30-40 fans lined up four- and five-deep in the fan area behind the garage while a dozen photographers waited just outside his stall. The two-time Daytona 500 winner put his helmet on 30 minutes into the session and climbed into the car for his first official practice laps since July of 2016. (He missed the final 18 premier series races of 2016 because of a concussion.)

    And then just as it looked like he would join competition for the first time in seven months, a caution flag came out for debris.

    Earnhardt was the 36th car to roll onto the track, nearly 50 minutes into the almost four-hour session. His first lap was 17th-fastest at 190.504 mph.

    NASCAR expands concussion protocol

    NASCAR today announced updates to its concussion protocol for competitors, adding a consistent screening tool for all venues and increasing available neurological support for race event weekends through its new partnership with AMR.

    "NASCAR has worked very closely with the industry to ensure our concussion protocol reflects emerging best practices in this rapidly developing area of sports medicine," said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations. "We will continue to utilize relationships we’ve had for years with leaders in the neurological research field who helped to shape these updates."

    NASCAR's protocol now includes:

    • As part of the new rule regarding damaged vehicles, a driver whose car sustains damage from an accident or contact of any kind and goes behind the pit wall or to the garage is required to visit the Infield Care Center to be evaluated.

    • The medical portion of NASCAR's Event Standards now require that Infield Care Center physicians incorporate the SCAT-3 diagnostic tool in screening for head injuries.

    • AMR will provide on-site neurological consultative support at select NASCAR events during the 2017 season and will work directly with NASCAR in the continued development of concussion protocol.

    The new protocol goes into effect immediately for all NASCAR national series.

    Updated deterrence system aims to 'police within the event'

    NASCAR competition officials issued an updated deterrence system Thursday for its three national series, shifting toward an officiating process that penalizes pre-race infractions within a given race weekend. The updated system is months in the making, with the sanctioning body and teams working concurrently on the new procedures.

    The move was one of several fundamental changes made to the penalty structure ahead of on-track activity this week at Daytona International Speedway.

    The new system replaces the P1-through-P6 penalty classification which had been in effect since the start of the 2014 season. The new structure grades significant penalties into Levels 1 and 2, both of which involve points deductions and crew chief or team member suspensions that increase with a given violation's severity.

    Elton Sawyer, NASCAR Vice President of Officiating and Technical Inspection, said that in the event that less severe infractions are found before a race, teams or crew members would be disciplined from a menu of penalty options available to NASCAR's three series directors. Those range from the loss of practice time to loss of lap(s) at the start of a race.

    "Our goal was to be able to, more like football or basketball or any sporting event to where we could officiate and police within the event," Sawyer told NASCAR.com. "I think the real message is that we want to get these infractions, the smaller infractions, we want to get them corrected at the race track.

    "It's very similar to a 15-yard penalty. If you can get three 15-yard penalties and you can still win the game or drive down and score a touchdown, then good for you. If we can issue these penalties and you lose pit selection or you start at the back or a drive-through (penalty), and you can still come back and win the race, well then we feel like what that infraction was, the penalty fits the crime."

    A chief reasoning behind the updated policy is to mete out potential penalties more closely to the time – and at the event – in which they occur.

    "The Tuesday penalties, they wouldn't necessarily go away," Sawyer told NASCAR.com. "We're hoping that we don't have to write those penalties. That's not what we look forward to. We want all the positive storylines to be around the excitement of the race, and as the stewards of the sport -- or the umpires, if you will -- we want to kind of be in the background. But we have a role and responsibility in this as well to make sure it's a level playing field for all."

    The updates also detail the schematics of a new pre-race inspection protocol, which requires that vehicles must proceed through all four inspection stations, regardless of whether issues are found in any stage in the process. Fixes must now be made in each team's garage stall, rather than off to the side of any given station, and then vehicles must proceed through all four inspection sites again.

    Sawyer said that the additional time it takes to make a full inspection pass serves as a deterrent for teams, which could miss portions of practice or qualifying in the event of an issue. Eliminating repairs made off to the side of inspection stations also tightens up any gray areas on the fringes of the garage.

    "I think it's fair to say that if we make them go back to the garage, then that's a central location for all cars to be fixed," Sawyer told NASCAR.com. "They know they have to come back through every station again, so it does put the deterrent back on the teams and puts the responsibility back on the teams to present their vehicles in compliance with the rule book."

    Among the other highlights from Thursday's updates to the rule book:

    • The penalty structure for violations that rise to the L1 or L2 level were unveiled, subject to enforcement at the following event(s):

    L1 penalties concern areas of minimum heights and weights, the Laser Inspection Station (LIS), gear ratios, and flagrant lug nut violations where 17 or fewer are properly secured. L2 penalties involve more egregious infractions concerning tampering with the three "no man's land" technical areas of tires, engine and fuel. Major safety violations, the use of telemetry or traction control, plus breaches of the testing policy also fall under the L2 designation.

    Penalty options for all three NASCAR national series call for the deduction of 10 to 40 points for L1 violations and 75 points for L2 infractions. In the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, L1 penalties call for crew chief or team member suspensions for 1 to 3 races, plus a $25,000 to $75,000 fine. L2 penalties in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series come with a six-race suspension and fines ranging from $100,000 to $200,000.

    The disciplinary action is scaled back in the other two national series. In the NASCAR XFINITY Series, L1 penalties will result in the same one- to three-race suspension range, but with fines from $10,000-$40,000. L2 violations in XFINITY events also come with a six-race suspension guideline, but a $50,000-$100,000 range for fines.

    In the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, L1 penalties carry a one- or two-race suspension with fines from $5,000 to $20,000. L2 infractions will result in a four-race suspension with monetary penalties of $25,000 to $50,000.

    • Specific penalties were outlined for lug-nut and LIS violations in the Monster Energy Series.

    LIS infractions discovered after Coors Light Pole Qualifying will result in a team's time being disallowed. Post-race, the violation falls under an L1 heading with a three-race crew chief suspension, a $65,000 fine and the loss of 35 championship points.

    Teams with one improperly attached or missing lug nut post-race are subject to a $10,000 fine. That fine doubles and includes a one-race suspension for the crew chief if two lug nuts are improperly attached or missing. If three or more lug nuts are in violation of the rules, the penalty rises to the L1 level with three-race suspension for the crew chief, a $65,000 fine and the deduction of 35 championship points.

    • "Encumbered" finishes -- a rules concept introduced before the Monster Energy Series' playoffs last year -- will remain in effect this season for post-race L1 and L2 violations. The rules allow a victory to stand in the event of an infraction, but a winning team will be stripped of the benefits associated with the win.

    • The list of pre-race penalties within a race weekend at the series directors' disposal, in order of increasing severity: Loss of annual "hard card" credential, loss of practice time, loss of pit selection position, tail of the field penalty, a green-flag pass-through on pit road after the initial start, a green-flag stop-and-go in the pits after the start, and lap(s) penalty.

    • Sawyer said that NASCAR competition officials will continue the practice of taking select cars back to the R&D center for further inspection after a race weekend.

    Full stage lengths for every race revealed

    NASCAR today announced the 2017 stage lengths for each race in all three of its national series. A number of factors went into determining the lap count for Stage 1, Stage 2 and the Final Stage of each race, with a singular goal in mind -- the best racing for NASCAR fans.

    "Every track is unique for its characteristics in length, surface and overall racing conditions," said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition. "We worked closely with race teams on expected fuel and tire runs over the entirety of an event when considering stage lengths. And in the end, stage lengths were decided based upon what would provide the best race for fans."

    Last week, NASCAR announced the stage lengths for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season-opening DAYTONA 500 (Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). For "The Great American Race," the stages are scheduled to end on Lap 60, Lap 120 and Lap 200.

    For the full list of stages for the remainder of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, as well as the NASCAR XFINITY Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series seasons, see below.

    * Note: Laps listed below are what lap each segment will end

    Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race Stage 1 Stage 2 Final Stage
    Daytona 60 120 200
    Atlanta 85 170 325
    Las Vegas 80 160 267
    Phoenix 75 150 312
    Auto Club 60 120 200
    Martinsville 130 260 500
    Texas 85 170 334
    Bristol 125 250 500
    Richmond 100 200 400
    Talladega 55 110 188
    Kansas 80 160 267
    Charlotte 115 230 400
    Dover 120 240 400
    Pocono 50 100 160
    Michigan 60 120 200
    Sonoma 25 50 110
    Daytona-2 40 80 160
    Kentucky 80 160 267
    New Hampshire 75 150 301
    Indianapolis 50 100 160
    Pocono-2 50 100 160
    Watkins Glen 20 40 90
    Michigan-2 60 120 200
    Bristol-2 125 250 500
    Darlington 100 200 367
    Richmond-2 100 200 400
    Chicagoland 80 160 267
    New Hampshire-2 75 150 300
    Dover-2 120 240 400
    Charlotte-2 90 180 334
    Talladega-2 55 110 188
    Kansas-2 80 160 267
    Martinsville-2 130 260 500
    Texas-2 85 170 334
    Phoenix-2 75 150 312
    Miami 80 160 267.

    What's in a Number? Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Daytona 500 dominance

    The 59th annual Daytona 500 is just around the corner, so we sifted through the numbers on Racing Reference to find some interesting tidbits for you to chew on while you wait for the Feb. 26 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) running of The Great American Race.

    10: Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads active drivers with 10 victories on restrictor-plate tracks. That's double the amount for the next-closest competitors, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, who have five apiece. Two of Junior's 10 restrictor-plate wins have come in the Daytona 500, his last being in 2014.

    9: Dale Earnhardt Jr. also leads active drivers with nine second-place finishes in restrictor-plate races. Tony Stewart had eight, followed by Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett and Jimmie Johnson all tied at six apiece. So in 19 of Junior's 67 restrictor-plate races, he has finished either in first or second place.

    1967: The last time the Daytona 500 was run on Feb. 26 was 1967, and the winner was Mario Andretti. It was Andretti's only win in 14 NASCAR premier series starts. He drove for Holman-Moody and beat Fred Lorenzen in a race that ended under caution. Andretti, of course, was better known for his open-wheel career.

    No. 11: When Andretti won the Daytona 500 he was driving the No. 11 car. That number has been on the Daytona 500-winning car just two other times: In 1977, eventual NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough drove it to Victory Lane. Last year, Denny Hamlin won in the race's closest finish ever (.010 seconds over Martin Truex Jr.).

    22: The number of DNFs for Michael Waltrip in his restrictor-plate racing career, tying him with Bobby Labonte for third-most all-time. However, Waltrip has the most starts in restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega with 108 and has won four times, including twice in the Daytona 500 (2001 and '03). Waltrip will be making the final start of his career in this year's Daytona 500.

    NASCAR will not permit damaged race cars to return to track

    NASCAR will not permit damaged race cars to return to the track this season unless the repairs can be made on pit road within a tight window.

    The ban on wrecked race cars continuing to compete was announced Wednesday in a series of a rule updates for the 2017 season.

    Beginning later this month at Daytona, if a car receives enough damage during an on-track incident that it must go to the garage for repairs, the team will not be allowed to repair it in an effort to get back on track. Damaged vehicles can be repaired on pit road during a five-minute cumulative time limit.

    Under the new process:

    - Body repairs are limited to the removal or reattachment of original parts with fasteners and tape.

    - Rods and supports may be used to reinforce original panels.

    - New or previously unused body panels are prohibited.

    NASCAR said the new rule prevents severely damaged race cars from returning to the track and creating a safety hazard for other teams. Under NASCAR's new format of running races in stages, it also means a car that wrecks in an early stage won't be eligible to return for the final race-winning stage.

    Not allowing teams to repair cars in the garage should be a significant saving on costs for teams.

    It also could have cost Jimmie Johnson the 2009 title. He was involved in an early accident at Texas Motor Speedway, and his crew worked feverishly in the garage to make enough repairs to get Johnson back on the track. That effort by the Hendrick Motorsports crew is widely considered to have saved his title chances.

    NASCAR also announced that it will have a traveling safety crew starting this season, creating a consistent medical staff that drivers have been pushing for the last several years.

    The safety crew will come from American Medical Response and ensure that a physician and paramedics are in the safety vehicle at all Monster Energy Cup events. AMR will also provide a small group that will travel to each race, and a physician who will serve as NASCAR's primary doctor.

    NASCAR had long relied on local emergency crews to treat drivers while rival series have dedicated teams. IndyCar's team is lauded as the best in the business, and is credited with saving James Hinchcliffe's life when he crashed during a 2015 practice for the Indianapolis 500. That accident raised another round of calls from NASCAR drivers for a consistent and regular crew.

    ''This partnership further strengthens NASCAR's medical response capability, making our well-established, medical response system even better,'' said Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer. ''AMR is a leader in the emergency services sector, and its doctors and paramedics add another layer of expertise to the immediate response team.''

    AMR will position doctors and paramedics in a chase vehicle along with two NASCAR Track Services team members for on-track incidents.

    Length of stages announced for Daytona

    This year's Daytona 500 will consist of two 60-lap stages, followed by a final 80-lap stage to make up the 200 scheduled laps in the annual season-opening race for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

    The Daytona 500 is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 26 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    NASCAR officials announced last month that all points-paying races in its three national series -- Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series -- would consist of three stages and that the format change would include the awarding of points to the top 10 drivers after the first two stages.

    Points will be awarded in much the same fashion as previous years upon the completion of the third and final stage.

    Upon the completion of each of the first two stages, drivers finishing first through 10th will be awarded additional points (10th for first, nine for second, etc.) that will be included in their final total for that race only.

    Additionally, one point per stage win will be awarded to those drivers qualifying for the 10-race playoff at the end of the season. Race-winning drivers also will earn five bonus points per win to be applied following the completion of the regular season.

    Stage lengths for the season-opening NextEra Energy Resources 250 Truck Series race and Powershares QQQ 300 XFINITY Series race have also been announced.

    The first and second stages of the Camping World Truck Series race will be 20 laps each, with a 60-lap final stage to round out the 100-lap event (not including any additional laps should the race go into overtime).

    Stages 1 and 2 of the XFINITY Series race have been set at 30 laps, while the final stage will be 60 laps (also not including any additional laps should the race go into overtime).

    Stage lengths for most races beyond the Daytona 500 have yet to be announced.

    NASCAR announces updated damaged vehicle policy

    Repairing damaged vehicles during a NASCAR race sometimes is as common a sight as pit stops, restarts and checkered flags.

    But the extent to which teams can make repairs will be more tightly policed beginning with the 2017 season.

    NASCAR officials unveiled a new Damaged Vehicle Policy on Wednesday at the sanctioning body's Research & Development Center, a policy that will be enforced in all three national series -- Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series.

    Under the guidelines, teams no longer will be allowed to replace damaged body parts that are the result of accidents or contact. Repairs, such as fixing damaged sheet metal, will be allowed; however, teams will be given five minutes to fix damage once they enter pit road. If the damage requires the car to go behind pit wall or to the garage for repairs, the car will not be allowed to return to the race. Also, if the repairs take longer than the five minutes allowed, the car will not be permitted to return to the race.

    Once repairs have been made, a car is still required to maintain the minimum speed determined for that event. Once that has been accomplished, the five-minute clock is reset in case the car needs to come back down pit road.

    Previously, teams were allowed to replace any damaged panels or parts with no time limit and no penalty. Quarter panels, splitters, hoods and deck lids damaged in accidents were often removed and replaced. Some repairs were completed on pit road; more extensive damage often meant a trip to the garage. Each time, the driver was sent back out onto the track as quickly as possible.

    That will no longer be the case.

    "We have a lot of cars that are going back on the track that end up in 38th position, for instance, that probably don't need to be out there from a safety and competition aspect," Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told NASCAR.com, "because they always tend to bring out more yellows with stuff falling off."

    Heavily damaged cars that need extensive repairs that can't be done on pit road, Miller said, "are essentially going to be out of the race.

    "There will be many circumstances and many things happen and you will continue to see it where cars are in wrecks and never go to the garage area. They come down pit road, they work on things … and they go back out and make minimum speed. They continue to work on the car as the race goes on. That will still completely be in play."

    Miller said the move is to help officials, who didn't often see what goes on in the garage but can better observe repairs on pit road.

    Miller has worked "on the other side of the fence" as a crew chief and is aware of the hurried atmosphere surrounding a car undergoing significant repairs in the garage.

    "I've been involved in crash repairs and that's not a great situation down there in the garage with 20 people running around, oil leaking on the floor, things catching on fire and sharp sheet metal being cut off," he said. "It's a fairly unsafe situation. And at times it would be unsafe really for the driver to get back in a car that was damaged that heavily. There's nothing that doesn't come with some downside, but I think there is a lot of upside to where we are going with this."

    Safety is a crucial component of the policy, and for any vehicle undergoing repairs, the integrity of the safety systems "must be maintained."

    Teams will be allowed to correct mechanical or electrical failures that aren't the result of an accident or contact without penalty. Such repairs may be done on pit road or in the garage area, and the five-minute clock will not be in play in those instances.

    "We're not going to tell a guy who breaks his transmission at Watkins Glen or Pocono, for instance, and coasts into the garage area that he's out," Miller said. "Because that doesn't create an unsafe situation; that is a mechanical failure.

    "It's more about crashed vehicles and all that is involved with that, from the crew guys to the drivers to dropping more debris on the track, which always happens. … So there are exceptions for mechanical failures, those things can be rectified in the garage. That's going to be up to the series director's discretion to make those calls, but it's not going to be that difficult."

    There will be modifications to at least two pit-road penalties under the policy for those making repairs. Any driver receiving a pit-road speeding penalty (entry or exit) will lose 15 seconds from the five-minute clock. Any team sending too many men over the wall will result in that car being removed from the race.

    "Speeding comes with an additional penalty because speeding in or out is a way to circumvent the clock," Miller said.

    When a car is damaged and repairs are made on pit road, teams know they will be at the tail end of the longest line, so extra men often go over the wall. (Each team is allowed six to work on the car and one to service the driver and/or windshield.)

    "That's another thing we discussed with the teams and internally," he said. "Too many men over the wall is also defeating the purpose of the policy; it would encourage teams to bring extra people well-versed in going over the wall to repair cars. So too many men over the wall just has to signal the end of that car's day."

    What will race fans see with the new policy? It's what they won't see, Miller said, that is behind the change.

    "What they won't see is stuff we don't like to see, cars running around out there with stuff flying off," he said. "We don't like that because it creates yellows, it creates debris for other cars to run over, it creates a dangerous situation. That's what they won't see. What they will see are quality cars on the race track racing one another."

    The 2017 NASCAR season gets underway Feb. 24-26 with all three national series competing at Daytona International Speedway. The Daytona 500, the season's first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points race of the year, is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 26 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets 'Simpsons' treatment

    (Pic) Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans watching Super Bowl LI on Sunday may have been surprised to see their favorite driver as a "Simpsons" cartoon character. Turns out the driver was surprised as well.

    A short clip on FOX used animated series "The Simpsons" to promote the upcoming Daytona 500 on Feb. 26 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), and Earnhardt Jr. was in the driver's seat.

    @AmyEarnhardt : Holy smokes Dale Jr Simpson wth

    @AmyEarnhardt : Neither one of us were expecting that! ??

    Apparently, Junior's camp gave the OK while Dale and wife Amy were attending to more important matters.

    @MikeDavis88 : Y'all were honeymooning. Sorry. ?? https://twitter.com/amyearnhardt/status/828426440454598656 …

    Earnhardt Jr. to join broadcast booth for The Clash at Daytona

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. will serve as a guest analyst during the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona on Feb. 18, FS1 announced on Race Hub Thursday. The Hendrick Motorsports driver will join full-time FOX analysts Darrell Waltrip, Mike Joy and former teammate Jeff Gordon in the broadcast booth.

    This isn’t Earnhardt’s first time in the booth; he called the premier series events at Talladega Superspeedway and Martinsville Speedway in the NBC booth in October. He also offered commentary during the XFINITY event at Michigan International Speedway on June 11, 2015, marking his television debut.

    Several other Monster Energy NASCAR Cup drivers have joined the broadcast group for XFINITY races, including Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer.

    Alex Bowman, who qualified for The Clash (Feb. 18, 8 p.m. ET, FS1) with a Phoenix pole last season while filling in for Earnhardt, was previously announced as the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for the 187.5-mile event under the lights. After missing the final 18 races of 2016 due to concussion-like symptoms, Earnhardt will make his return to racing in the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26 (2 p.m. ET, FOX).

    Teams leave Phoenix test ready to dissect data

    Everyone had their checklists, some longer than others, and all left with more information than when they arrived.

    Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams wrapped up a two-day organizational test here at Phoenix Raceway on Wednesday, and now all that data is in the hands of laptop-wielding engineers. Let the deciphering begin. It will be six weeks before teams return to put to use the majority of what was learned here.

    "We … kind of put a test plan together based on all the different departments within Team Penske," said Todd Gordon, crew chief of the No. 22 Ford driven by Joey Logano. "Some of the stuff the aero group wants to test; there's stuff the motor group wants to test, there's stuff that we as the competition side in mechanical want to test. It's how you take all those pieces and put them into a test plan so that we can actually gather data."

    Logano won here last November; this week's test, with a different rules package, produced somewhat similar results. You don't "win" a test, but Logano did his best. His Ford was among the fastest both days.

    Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates), Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were also quick. Consistently so.

    Such testing opportunities are limited – the organizational test was the first of only five provided to teams for the 2017 season. Another won't arrive until midpoint of the regular season, at New Hampshire at the end of May. Twelve races, nearly half a season's worth, will have been run by then.

    "On a race weekend we can gather driver feedback but at a place like this we can gather all sorts of measurements on the car," Gordon said. "We're working through all the pieces that are hard to quantify when you don't have a data system on it.

    "That's the biggest part here. I've gone through brake cooling pieces because it's a braking race track. Tire usage and what's going on there. Just gather data that we can bring forward to the next race weekend and look at in our development of the package that we'll come back with."

    Thirteen teams couldn't pass up the chance to get a fender up on the competition. There were rookies and veterans and those who fall in between.

    Harvick was among those on hand, getting acquainted with his tea'ms No. 4 entry that now carries the blue oval of Ford. An eight-time winner at Phoenix, Harvick knows what winning requires at the 1-mile track.

    A new manufacturer and new aero package raises questions that require answers.

    "The main thing is we have a starting point now," Harvick said. "There's not a lot of guessing anymore. You know what's going on and where you're at; going around the race track is what we needed to be doing so that we knew where to work from here."

    There's little difference in driving a Ford versus driving a Chevrolet, he said. "But the balance of the car is definitely different than what we've had in the past.

    "I think there's just not one reason for that though and I think that's a little bit of where we’re at right now. Just trying to say 'alright, is it the balance on the car? Is it the balance with the new aero package?' But that doesn't matter. Now you know the problems you're going to fight."

    Whatever it is, he said, "is irrelevant at this point. It's just fixing those problems and start moving forward."

    Some drivers want to be privy to the changes made on their cars as teams work through their checklists. Others do not. Dale Earnhardt Jr. falls into the latter category. Not because he does'nt care, but it's a carryover, he said, from his Late Model racing days. If you know the changes ahead of time, it might impact your feedback to your crew chief.

    "A lot of times when we go through a certain section of changes I ask Greg (Ives, crew chief) not to give me what we're doing so I'm giving him direct, unfiltered feedback," Earnhardt said. "Then, when we get done, at the end of the day we'll go through the changes and comments. Then I can start to understand why those comments are the way they are, why I said what I said, start to understand how that particular change is working with the car."

    Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of the ’16 season, the result of concussion-like symptoms following a pair of crashes. Getting back in the car this week wasn't a chore.

    "I feel like I've had my vacation and it was over a long time ago," he said, "and I'm ready to go back to work."

    Watch: Part 2 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. docuseries

    (Video) The second episode of "Unfinished Business," a six-part series that documents Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s return to competition in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, was released Tuesday on the Nationwide 88 Facebook page.

    Nationwide is the primary sponsor of Earnhardt's No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and came up with the idea for the series.

    In Chapter 2: The Art of the Helmet, Earnhardt goes deep on the reasoning behind his colorful race helmets, and the man who designs the skull.

    The episodes will air on Tuesdays between now and the Feb. 26 Daytona 500 (two episodes will air the final week).

    Dale Jr. back behind the wheel at Phoenix test

    Dale Earnhardt Jr., sidelined for the second half of the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, climbed back behind the wheel of a race car here at Phoenix Raceway shortly before 11 a.m. ET.

    It was his first time in a race car since a private test at Darlington Raceway in December, a necessity to receive medical clearance to return to competition.

    The Hendrick Motorsports driver and fan favorite is one of more than one dozen drivers taking part in a two-day organizational test for teams at the 1-mile track. His No. 88 Chevrolet was the first to put in a lap Tuesday morning, but others weren't far behind in rolling out onto the track.

    "What are you guys doing?" Earnhardt asked reporters waiting outside his team's garage stall. Conversations with those waiting for his return were brief, and before long Earnhardt, 42, was easing his way into his vehicle.

    Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of the '16 season after suffering concussion-like symptoms that came on the heels of on-track incidents at Michigan and Daytona. Alex Bowman and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon replaced Earnhardt for the remainder of the season.

    Bowman was also on hand for Hendrick Motorsports as a test driver.

    Harvick, Junior, Suarez highlight crucial preseason Phoenix test

    Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick has won six of the last nine races at Phoenix International Raceway in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

    Which is why, teammate Clint Bowyer said, it makes sense for the 2014 champion to represent SHR during next week’s organizational test at the 1-mile track located in Avondale, Arizona.

    The two-day test is scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 31-Feb. 1.

    Only one team per organization is allowed to participate in NASCAR organizational tests and Bowyer, being the new kid on the SHR block, no doubt could use the seat time as he begins the next chapter in his racing career.

    "I probably could have really pushed and pouted and tried to get that test, but ultimately here’s a guy that’s won out there eight times," said Bowyer, one of four drivers for SHR. "I would be a fool not to let him go out there and establish that baseline for all of us across the board, and then go out and try to beat him and everybody else with it.

    "That’s the kind of teamwork that you have to have and that you can have when you’re at an organization like this -- as big as it is and the depth that it has with the drivers."

    Bowyer joined SHR after a one-year stint with the now-defunct HScott Motorsports. He replaces team co-owner/driver Tony Stewart in the organization’s No. 14 entry. Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick round out the SHR driver lineup for 2017.

    Thirteen Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams are scheduled to participate in the two-day test. Among them are Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, and Daniel Suarez, driver of the No. 19 Toyota, for Joe Gibbs Racing.

    Earnhardt Jr., the series' most popular driver and for many the face of the sport, missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season due to concussion-like symptoms. His last official start came July 9 at Kentucky Speedway.

    "Being out of the car, you hope you can jump back in … and not miss a beat," Earnhardt said. "But … this is the top series and any time you’re away you’re getting behind.

    "I’m really anxious and curious where we shake up early in the season, how competitive we can be (and) what, if any, learning curve there is for me."

    Suarez, the 2016 NASCAR XFINITY Series champion, was scheduled to defend his title this year. The surprising departure of Carl Edwards, however, expedited Suarez's advancement into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

    The test will be the first for many teams with NASCAR’s newest rules package. Four teams took part in a two-day Goodyear tire test earlier this month at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the ’17 setup.

    This year’s race package features reductions in the size of the splitter and spoiler height, a tapered rear deck fin and zero net rear steer.

    On the safety front, enhancements include anti-intrusion plating and toe board foam in the footbox area of the car, the addition of a roof hatch and changes in steering column mounting. The structural changes resulted in NASCAR increasing the minimum vehicle weight by 20 pounds for all events.

    The safety moves are mandatory for competition on superspeedways (Daytona and Talladega) and optional for all other venues. They will become mandatory for all tracks in 2018.

    Other drivers scheduled to attend the test are Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing), Ty Dillon (Germain Racing), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing), Ryan Blaney (Wood Brothers Racing), Joey Logano (Team Penske), Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates), Aric Almirola (Richard Petty Motorsports), AJ Allmendinger (JTG Daugherty Racing), Erik Jones (Furniture Row Racing) and Michael McDowell (Leavine Family Racing).

    Additional organizational tests for 2017 are slated for New Hampshire Motor Speedway (May 30-31), Chicagoland Speedway (Aug. 15-16), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 10-11) and Homestead Miami Speedway (Oct. 24-25).

    A single-day open test for NASCAR XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series teams is set for May 2 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

    Nationwide reveals primary races with Dale Jr., 88 team

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back behind the wheel of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports for the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, much to the delight of Junior Nation.

    As activity for the upcoming season ramps up with media tour appearances, sponsor shoots and much more, Nationwide has unveiled the slate of races for which the insurance company will serve as the primary sponsor for the No. 88 team.

    Below is the list of the 21 races that Nationwide will be the primary sponsor on the No. 88 -- including the exhibition event of the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona in which Alex Bowman will pilot the car (which is noted with an asterisk*).

    2017 Nationwide primary races on the No. 88 car Date Track
    February 18 The Clash at Daytona*
    February 26 Daytona International Speedway
    March 5 Atlanta Motor Speedway
    March 12 Las Vegas Motor Speedway
    April 23 Bristol Motor Speedway
    April 30 Richmond International Raceway
    May 7 Talladega Superspeedway
    May 28 Charlotte Motor Speedway
    June 4 Dover International Speedway
    July 1 Daytona International Speedway
    July 8 Kentucky Speedway
    July 16 New Hampshire Motor Speedway
    July 23 Indianapolis Motor Speedway
    July 30 Pocono Raceway
    September 3 Darlington Raceway
    September 24 New Hampshire Motor Speedway
    October 1 Dover International Speedway
    October 22 Kansas Speedway
    October 29 Martinsville Speedway
    November 5 Texas Motor Speedway
    November 12 Phoenix International Raceway.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. thrilled to be cleared for NASCAR return

    There is nothing more tedious to a NASCAR driver than preseason promotional work, which can often be full-day photo shoots and interview sessions. It can be the most dreaded part of the job.

    Consider Dale Earnhardt Jr. the rare exception. His turn Wednesday at the Charlotte Convention Center was like the first day of summer vacation for NASCAR’s most popular driver.

    He was thrilled to be back at work after missing the second half of last season with a concussion.

    “I’m excited to be here for media day, which is new for me this year,” he said. “I’m excited for the season. It can’t get here fast enough.”

    Earnhardt was cleared to get back in a race car in December, shortly before he married his longtime girlfriend, Amy Reimann, on New Year's Eve and then embarked on a lengthy Hawaiian honeymoon. All this has him in a fantastic mood, eager not only to test drive next week at Phoenix but get to Florida next month for the season-opening Daytona 500.

    All the time out of the race car gave Earnhardt time to reflect, and he recognizes how much life has changed.

    "Getting married has been incredible. I wish I had figured all this out sooner," Earnhardt said. "I'm frustrated with myself that I took so long to grow up because I've got an amazing wife and she has changed my life. She has really helped me as a person become better on all fronts.

    "Personally, in all my friendships and relationships, how I interact with people and meet people and obviously in my professional life she has helped me as a driver."

    Earnhardt has suffered numerous concussions in his career, and his Hall of Fame father, the late Dale Earnhardt, was killed in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. As he was sidelined for 18 races last year, many wondered if he would ever get back in a race car.

    But Earnhardt worked through an intense recovery process in which he challenged his brain -- and his desire to race.

    "Mentally, you have to make the decision if you want to keep racing, and if you want to keep racing you've got to go in 100 per cent," Earnhardt said. "This is the top elite series for motorsports in North America. If you want to be out there you can't do it without 100 per cent. I had to answer a lot of personal questions of myself and buy in. All that was a big process and I'm really happy with what I've decided to do."

    Retirement, he insists, is a decision he wants to make on his own and not because a doctor tells him he can't medically compete any longer.

    "I don't know when I'm going to stop driving," he said. "I want to be able to make that choice and not have it made for me."

    Earnhardt learned quickly how the sport can just go on without someone, even the 14-time most popular driver. He has grown up in NASCAR, and being relegated to spectator was difficult. He initially stayed at home and tweeted a bit during the races. Then he began showing up at the track and watching events from his Hendrick Motorsports pit box.

    By the end of the year, he was in the broadcast booth as a guest analyst.

    All the different roles made him appreciate his job much more.

    "As a society we get better and better at complaining and drivers aren't any different," Earnhardt said. "We moan and complain about everything, but when you get the chance to step back and watch it -- it was a really eye-opening experience to see, almost an out-of-body experience. I got to see the drivers from a different point and got to see the whole sport from a different point of view.

    "All that stuff really showed me how much I have going for me and how fun this really is. Driving the cars is fun. Doing the photo shoots, making the commercials, talking to the media, all those things are fun. You can make it not be fun if you want to and sometimes we've got a tendency to do that."

    Junior: 'Season can't get here fast enough'

    The Daytona 500 may be 32 days away, but that's not soon enough for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    "I'm excited to be here for media day, which is new for me," Earnhardt said Wednesday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Usually you tell everybody Daytona will get here when it gets here. But I'm excited about the season. It can't get here fast enough."

    The Hendrick Motorsports driver will be making his return to the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet this season after missing 18 races last year with concussion-related symptoms.

    The annual Charlotte Media Tour generally is the first opportunity for members of the media to interview drivers in more than a month. For Junior, it had extra significance given that he missed so many races.

    Earnhardt also said it was an "out-of-body experience" having to watch the garage function without him there.

    Beard wars: Jimmie Johnson vs. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    (Pic) Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won't compete against each other on track until next month at Daytona International Speedway, but that doesn't mean the Hendrick Motorsports teammates aren't already trying to best one another.

    Johnson, the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, may have another trophy to add to his collection after stomping on the field in the beard category when he showed up at the annual Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour on Tuesday, sporting a hefty mountain man look.

    Junior, who typically sports a thick man mane of his own, would like to compete with Johnson in the face game, but conceded the W to Johnson on Wednesday during his media session.

    "Jimmie, I told him. He sent me a picture of him skiing and he said 'Man, I'm getting ready to know this beard off.' I said, 'You better have that in Daytona, because you'll get more drafting help. That's a bad ass beard and I'd keep it if I were you,' " said Earnhardt. "He's hung onto it. I don't know if he's taking my advice or what. I'm certainly pro-beard. If I'd have known he was going to come so strong, I would've worked on mine a little more.

    "Amy's got me keeping it pretty short these days. I certainly envy what Jimmie's got going on, it's awesome."

    With 32 days left before the Daytona 500, there's still plenty of time for Earnhardt to up the ante.

    What do you think -- does Johnson have the silver (gray?) standard for facial hair right now, or is Junior just being nice?

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