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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has shown drivers it’s OK to admit being hurt

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t looking to become an influential voice when he began opening up about his concussion.

But Earnhardt’s forwardness has resulted in other drivers following his ways. Something both Ryan Ellis and Sarah Cornett-Ching admit they wouldn’t have previously done.

“I don’t think I would have gotten checked out honestly,” Ellis told NBC Sports. “It’s not because I didn’t think I had (a concussion) or anything, it just kind of has that negative connotation when you take a hit. Like, ‘Oh that guy can’t take a hit.’ You don’t want to feel like a wuss out there.”

Ellis blew a right front tire in the Oct. 2 Xfinity Series race at Dover International Speedway and his car slammed the wall. He was checked and released from the infield care center but returned when he started to get a headache, felt dizzy, and become nauseous in the garage. Ellis then headed to a local hospital.

“When one of the leaders of the sport (Earnhardt) goes out there and takes the extra steps to get back and make sure he’s right when he comes back, that really gives you the feeling of comfort that you can go and get that checked out,” Ellis said. “No one is going to look at you differently the next week.”

Cornett-Ching had similar thoughts. She hit the outside and inside walls during the Sept. 23 ARCA race at Kentucky Speedway and suffered a headache. Cornett-Ching said it wasn’t until the next day “when everything started falling apart for me.” She said her brain couldn’t keep up with her surroundings and that night she became nauseous and had ringing in her ears.

Cornett-Ching spent the next few days laying in the dark before NASCAR called to check on her. They recommended she see Dr. Jerry Petty, one of the top neurologists in the Charlotte area.

“The decision to open up about what I was going through was influenced by Dale Jr. because initially, I thought it would make me feel weak,” Cornett-Ching told NBC Sports. “I didn’t really want people to know I had a concussion because if there was an opportunity to run a car or do something and advance my career, I didn’t want it to be hindered by the fact that I have a concussion right now.”

That Earnhardt has been a trendsetter in this area is something he didn’t anticipate nor takes the credit. Although he suspected a few individuals might be affected by watching his injury unfold, Earnhardt is glad to see drivers getting the necessary treatment.

“You’ve only got one brain,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports. “When that’s not working right you get scared into wanting to get fixed. When you get hurt, and you can’t see the way you want to see, or you can’t think straight, or your balance is off, that right there is enough to drive you to make the right decisions. So I can’t take much credit for it.

“I think that these folks when they hear somebody talking about it, and they hear about the symptoms, and then they experience it themselves, they realize this is serious, this is scaring me, this is what he did, and I know this path to take to get right. So, I’m glad they’re making good decisions.”

Earnhardt hopes more drivers continue to follow suit. As he’s learned, there are many educated doctors ready to help, in addition to exercises set to specific injuries. And it’s important, Earnhardt agrees, that drivers know it’s OK to come out and say they are hurt and need the help.

“That’s the smartest thing to do and especially when you’re dealing with your head,” Earnhardt said. “Trying to kind of soldier through it on your own is an easy choice to try to make but a lot of times you can get yourself in trouble if you happen to have another incident shortly after that. When you start to layer concussions and get two or three back-to-back is when you really get into the danger zone.”

Ellis had the chance to speak with Earnhardt last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway during an event for Earnhardt’s foundation. They discussed their symptoms and experiences.

“We had the same feelings of fogginess and stuff like that after the initial hit,” Ellis said. “He did help quite a bit. It’s really cool to have the leader of our sport there to kind of lean on.”

The most important thing Earnhardt told Ellis was to listen to his doctor.

“You can’t have any doubt in your mind about what you’re doing as far as whether it’s going to work or whether it’s not going to work,” Earnhardt said he told Ellis. “You’re going to get people coming from all over the place out of all kinds of corners saying, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do. Hey, this is what you need to do. You know, my buddy had that. I bet you have inner ear infection or your rocks are loose’ or what the hell ever.

“Everybody thinks that they know what is wrong with you and what to do. You just need to listen to one person, and that’s your doctor, and you gotta be completely transparent when you go to your doctor and you’re hurt.”

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Wild Brickyard 400 helped underdogs shine

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Sunday’s Brickyard 400 wasn’t just a win for Kasey Kahne, it was also a win of sorts for several other drivers who enjoyed some of the best finishes of their season or careers.

With so many big names sidelined by mechanical failure or crashes, the 400 was a day for underdogs to shine.

Among the top underdog finishes:

* Matt DiBenedetto finished eighth, his best showing of the season (previous best was ninth in the Daytona 500). It was also his best non-restrictor plate finish since 19th at Bristol, and just two spots shy of his career-best showing of sixth at Bristol in April 2016.

“It’s pretty unreal what we’ve been able to accomplish this year,” said DiBenedetto, driver of the No. 32 Go Fas Racing Ford Fusion. “I’ve worked so dang hard the old-school way to get here, countless late nights for these guys working, many sleepless nights in my career thinking it was over about 30 to 40 times and that’s not even an exaggeration, and to have these kind of races this year is just unbelievable.”

Go Fas Racing is one of the smallest teams in the NASCAR Cup series. But DiBenedetto and his team get a lot of pleasure by doing more with less.

“Obviously, being a smaller team we just try and get a good handle on our cars,” DiBenedetto. “We come here and dial in our car the old-school way, through communication.

“We have no simulation or nothing. We just have 15 guys and we work our tails off. … Because we had a good handling car, we were able to take advantage of everybody else’s mistakes by being competitive and being in front of a lot the guys that were racing, and being in the right place at the right time there a lot of times at the end.  Don’t get me wrong, though, we had our share of close calls.”

But the key was avoiding all those close calls that helped DiBenedetto get such a good finish.

“Over-aggression is an understatement,” DiBenedetto said. “ I don’t know if it just got dark and nobody could see out their windshields or what, but the thing is restarts are so important.

“That’s where you make up all your spots, and once it gets single filed out, it’s really hard to pass. So unfortunately you’ve got to really go on the restarts, which makes it fun and makes it exciting for the fans, but you’re also just hanging on for dear life and hoping you’re in the right place at the right time.”

* JTG Daugherty’s two drivers, Chris Buescher (ninth) and AJ Allmendinger (10th), finished next to each other. It was the second time in the last four races and this season overall that both cars ended with top-10 finishes in the same race (Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Allmendinger was eighth, Buescher was 10th).

Buescher earned his best finish of the season in the Brickyard 400. But it wasn’t easy: his car looked more like it had just finished a beating and banging fest at Martinsville.

“It felt like a battle more than a race today,” Buescher said. “Just an excellent job by our team to stick with it today. We had damage throughout a lot of this race and this Clorox team, they worked really hard to make sure we got it back to where it needed to be to be able to get some drivability out of it.

“We were able to miss some of that craziness there at the end and got ourselves a good finish out of it.”

For Allmendinger, it was his second-best finish of the season after his third-place finish in the Daytona 500.

“(It was) just one of those days you’ve just got to keep fighting and get a little lucky, fortunately missing all the wrecks,” Allmendinger said. “We’ve got to keep working on trying to get better and trying new things for sure.”

The recent performance lifts Allmendinger’s confidence of making the playoffs, with his best chance next month at Watkins Glen. It was there in 2014 that Allmendinger won and qualified for the playoffs.

* Cole Whitt finished 12th, one spot shy of tying his career-best outing in July 2016 at Daytona. Coming into Sunday’s race, Whitt’s best finish was 16th at Talladega this spring and his best non-plate finish was 20th earlier this year at Atlanta.

* Rounding out the top underdog finishes was Timmy Hill, who earned a career-best finish of 14th. Hill’s previous career-best showing was 22nd at Kansas in October 2012. His best finish this season before the Brickyard was 28th.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. to join NBC Sports Group’s NASCAR coverage in 2018

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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 Monday. 

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.

Matt Kenseth: Brickyard 400 restarts ‘kind of ridiculous’

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Matt Kenseth came close to winning Sunday’s Brickyard 400, but ultimately finished fifth.

Kenseth called the race “kind of ridiculous” down the stretch because of the several restarts that brought about further havoc and wrecks.

Kenseth competed in his final Brickyard 400 for Joe Gibbs Racing. With his future uncertain and whether he’ll be able to continue racing in 2018, could Sunday have been the final Brickyard 400 of his career, much like good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is retiring after this season?

Check out the video above for Kenseth’s comments on the race.

Rick Hendrick on Kasey Kahne’s future: ‘Our plans are not set for the No. 5 car’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Brickyard 400 winner Kasey Kahne has a contract for 2018 at Hendrick Motorsports but possibly doesn’t have a job next season.

Team owner Rick Hendrick confirmed Sunday night that “our plans are not set for the No. 5 car” after Kahne ended a 102-race winless streak in the Cup Series.

“There’s nothing concrete or done, and that hasn’t changed,” Hendrick said. “We’ll see how things shake out the rest of the year.  There’s a lot of things involved, sponsors and a lot of things we look at.  We’re going to try hard.  But there’s no decisions made at this time.”

Kahne felt the 18th victory of his career helped him make a case for staying in the No. 5 Chevrolet.

“I think this shows I still want to win races,” he said. “It shows I gave it all that I can to get a win and shows that I’m passionate about driving stock cars, and that I can still win races, too.

“I have a deal through 2018 with Hendrick Motorsports. I hear a lot of things, but it’s tough to say exactly what’s going to happen. I don’t know at this point and time. I know me and Mr. H will figure it out. I think this shows that I want to be and still have the drive and passion to do it, so I’m going to keep trying hard I know that.”

During a Sunday morning pre-race news conference to formally introduce Alex Bowman as the replacement next season for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick said he planned to run four cars next season but deflected a question about Kahne’s status (“that’s for another day”).

Xfinity Series rookie William Byron, who is under contract to Hendrick, would be an option for the No. 5 Chevrolet, but Hendrick said “we’re not ready to cross that bridge yet” when asked about Byron’s Cup future.

Kahne is ranked 22nd in the points standings with only four top 10s in 20 races this season.

“When you’ve had a rough road, your confidence gets down,” Hendrick said. “He said, ‘I know I can do it. The harder I try, the more it seems like I have this rough bad luck.’

“Something like this (win) can be really good for any guy to have, the whole team, to have confidence.  … All I can say about Kasey is he shows up, he shows up on time, and he shows up on time with his game face on, and he puts in the effort. Sometimes it just takes a break.  But he’s done everything.  I know in his heart he wants to do it.  He’s trying, so … ”