Dale Earnhardt Jr. says sitting out this season has taught him to appreciate more about NASCAR

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. can’t wait to return to racing next year, but when he does, he says he’ll have a different attitude.

Earnhardt says that being sidelined since the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway by a concussion has made him appreciate parts of the sport beyond driving that didn’t enthuse him previously.

“I did all that stuff, reluctantly, just to do the driving part,’’ Earnhardt said Wednesday at Martinsville Speedway. “Now that I’m not in the car, I enjoy all the stuff that I’m doing outside the car that I’ve always done. Getting up in the morning for race day and going to do the hospitality or coming to do (media events) here or at Talladega, I’ve really enjoyed doing those things.

“The pressure of racing made the majority of everything that came with it miserable, and I’m probably responsible for controlling that. So I think  being out of the car has shown me that I’ve got to find a way that if I’m going to race more how to not feel so much pressure that it makes everything else intolerable or hard to do.’’

Pressure will always be there for the sport’s most popular driver who turned 42 on Monday and still seeks his first Sprint Cup championship. The pressure will come from those expecting more from the two-time Daytona 500 winner but more so from himself.

“I think once I get back in the car, I’ve got to have a whole new frame of mind about how I handle the pressure of driving and the pressures of performing and finishing well and all that stuff,’’ Earnhardt said. “I’m so hard on myself. If I don’t get the result I think I should get, it just ruins the whole thing, it ruins the whole experience for me. Not being in the car, not having to worry about performing, not having the stress of living up to my own expectations, I’ve enjoyed being at the track.’’

He noted how he went into the Cup garage early Saturday at Dover and relished the time there, admitting if he was driving, he wouldn’t have arrived in the garage so early.

“I was standing there and it was like an hour and a half before practice starts and I was like there’s nobody in there but the teams and it was good and I was having conversations with people,’’ Earnhardt said. 

“I’m like I don’t know why I don’t do this when I’m driving the car? Why don’t I do this? Why do I wait to the last possible minute to come to the garage? Why is it such a pain in the ass to get up and come to the garage for practice? Once you’re in the car you’re fine. The whole process of getting up and going to the garage seemed like such a hassle.’’

Another change for Earnhardt has been his workout program. He’s had to do various exercises as part of his rehabilitation from his concussion. Earnhardt admits his workout program at times has consisted of just racing. Since he’s done his exercises for his recovery, he’s lost eight pounds.

“It has inadvertently gotten me in better shape,’’ Earnhardt said. “So that’s good. I feel good. I feel like I can get out there and do it. I’m anxious for this season to get wrapped up and over with and get to Daytona. I’m looking forward to getting to Daytona, getting into the garage, getting into my suit, back into the process of being a part of the team.’’

NASCAR America: Scan All from the Alabama 500 at Talladega

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“Ol’ Dega is giving me one last thrill.”

That’s the remark Dale Earnhardt Jr. made after he narrowly avoided being collected in the second of three wrecks in the final 16 laps of Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, his last start at the track.

It’s one of many highlights in the latest edition of “Scan All,” which documents the Alabama 500 at the restrictor-plate track.

In the above video, Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe relive the race, which ended with Keselowski’s sixth win at the track.

Here are more highlights from “Scan All.”

  • Listen to the communication of the No. 48 team as confusion breaks out over whether they can work on Jimmie Johnson‘s car during a red flag.
  • “It is a restrictor-plate race, so I’m not going to promise you anything.” – Brendan Gaughan after remarking he hoped his team wouldn’t have to make too many body repairs. He would be eliminated in a crash with 10 laps to go.
  • “Those stands are packed. They should get a free Dale Jr. autograph.” – Clint Bowyer on the large crowd that took in Earnhardt’s final Cup start at Talladega.
  • “Holy (expletive). What an idiot. That was the absolute stupidest (expletive) thing he’s ever done.” Kyle Busch after a crash involving Jame McMurray, Erik Jones and Jeffrey Earnhardt. The crash began when McMurray slowed down enter pit road and Jones ran into him.
  • Listen as Keselowski and his team struggle to communicate with each other do to a faulty radio system.
  • “How in the (expletive) did we wind up in the (expletive) back? (Expletive) stupid.” – Part of a tirade by Bowyer following a Lap 157 crash that collected him. Bowyer pulled his car into his pit box, exited it, had a brief exchange with his crew chief and walked back to the garage.

Watch the above video for more.

Race distance for Charlotte Motor Speedway road course still TBD

Harold Hinson HHP/Charlotte Motor Speedway
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CONCORD, N.C. — It still might be known as the Bank of America 500, but 500 kilometers might not be the distance of the first road-course race in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Charlotte Motor Speedway announced Wednesday in the media center during a break in tire testing that next year’s Round of 16 cutoff race would be 500 kilometers or about 130 laps on the 2.42-mile layout. Track officials said it would be the longest road course race on the circuit (roughly 90 miles longer than the events at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International).

That prompted a raft of buzz on social media about a 500-kilometer race that likely would be pushing at least four hours with two stage breaks and a few cautions (lap times were in the 90-second range during the test).

But in a statement early Wednesday evening, NASCAR wouldn’t confirm 500 kilometers as the distance of the Sept. 30 race.

Here’s the statement:

This week’s test provided valuable data that will be part of the equation in determining the distance for next fall’s race. We will continue working closely with our partners to develop the best event for fans and competitors alike.

There was no immediate response from Charlotte Motor Speedway to the NASCAR statement. A release from the track near the conclusion of the two-day tire test late Wednesday afternoon referred to next season’s race as the Bank of America 500 but didn’t specify the race’s distance.

Charlotte road course could be Talladega, Part II as Round of 16 cutoff race

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CONCORD, N.C. – There are many unknowns about the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course – passing zones, tire compound, even race distance – but Martin Truex Jr. said Wednesday there is one certainty.

When the new layout makes its debut as the Round of 16 cutoff race next season, playoff drivers will want to be assured of advancing ahead of time.

“I’m going to be hoping I’m going to win one of the first two in that round,” Truex said. “I’m going to put this right in there with Talladega.”

The Furniture Row Racing driver tested tires Tuesday and Wednesday on the 18-turn, 2.42-mile track (which incorporates most of Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval) with Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray and Daniel Hemric.

Busch said the layout was similar to the Daytona International Speedway road course but with a much smaller footprint that ratcheted up the intensity.

“There’s no room for taking a break or having a quick, deep breath down the straightaway,” Busch said. “As soon as you’re in high gear off turn 2, you’re in a chicane. Back through the gears, you’re downshifting on the brakes to go to the frontstretch chicane. It’s a very busy track.”

There is a 35-foot change in elevation on the course, which features two chicanes that track officials say are designed to encourage passing and provide an option for rain tires.

The transitions between the high-banked surface and the flatter road course make it tricky to navigate.

“There’s all kinds of craziness going on,” Truex said. “Turns 1 and 2 are pretty wild, narrow with concrete walls on both sides. Intimidating.

“It’s a unique track. I don’t know if I’ve run a road course anything like it because of the elevation changes, the bumps and the humps. Charlotte isn’t smooth to begin with and add in infield that has been around a long time, there’s a lot of swells in it. It definitely is interesting. It’s a unique challenge. I don’t know I’ve raced anything like it.”

The track announced the race distance as 500 kilometers, which would make it the longest road course race on the circuit, but NASCAR didn’t confirm the length of the first playoff race with right turns (saying “it provided valuable data that will be part of the equation in determining the distance for next fall’s race”).

Also in flux is the layout. Truex talked to Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Marcus Smith about adding some safety features such as curbing, runoff areas, tire barriers and walls.

Busch also has recommended eliminating Turn 8 to connect the seventh and ninth turn, reducing the number of slow corners on the track. “There are a lot of slow sections with turns 5, 6 and 7,” Busch said. “Those are good rhythmic corners. … (But) a 3,500-pound car going 35 mph too many times isn’t too exciting. We need to speed up the track a bit.”

Truex, who shaved 10 seconds off his lap time on the first day, estimated the top-end speed is about 175 mph and said the ninth turn (before entering the oval in Turn 1) is the slowest.

Where are the best passing zones?

“That’s a great question,” he said. “I can’t tell you that. Single-car runs so far, it’s hard to say. There’s a lot of places you can crash. I’m not sure about the passing yet.”

After starting on the Watkins Glen tire, it’s expected Goodyear could bring a softer tire next year for faster speeds and better grip. Lap times were in the 90-second range, which Busch said was slower than anticipated but illustrated the difficulty of balancing a tire between a high-speed oval and a road course that drove more like the technical Sonoma than the high-speed Watkins Glen.

“The corners are sharp, low grip and we have 800 horsepower, so we’re trying to put the power down and sliding the tires quite a bit,” Busch said. “The process is to work with Goodyear and Charlotte Motor Speedway to find things we can change safety-wise and recommend the shapes of chicane around the back straightaway and even the front straightaway section.”

Busch, who drove the No. 14 Ford in place of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer, said he volunteered for the race because of its playoff implications in 2018.

“It’s a cutoff race,” he said. “Teams better get their arms wrapped around it and their heads focused on it because it’s one of the most important races of the year. When it’s a new situation like this, there’s a lot of oddities and variables. Fans will see it.”

Aric Almirola returns to Kansas for first time since May’s crash there

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The last time Aric Almirola left Kansas Speedway, it was in an ambulance after being involved in the hardest wreck of his racing career.

That three-car wreck on May 13th – which also involved Joey Logano and Danica Patrick – fractured the Tampa native’s back and sidelined him for two months. Almirola missed seven NASCAR Cup races in the process.

He climbed back behind the wheel for the first time after the wreck on July 16 at New Hampshire, where he qualified 21st and finished 24th.

Almirola returns this weekend to Kansas Speedway with confidence and some unfinished business in the race.

“I have no hesitation heading back after the accident there in the spring,” Almirola said in a team media release. “It had nothing to do with the track and was just a product of hard racing.

“I’m fully healed and ready to head back out there. We had a good week last week (fifth at Talladega) and really fought for a top-five finish. We’ll try to use that momentum this week to get a good finish as we near the end of the season.”

Where Almirola goes after this season remains a question mark. Almirola has already announced he will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports next season. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. – who filled in for four of the seven Cup races Almirola missed while recovering from the wreck – has already been announced to  drive the No. 43 Ford for RPM next season.

So for the remaining five races of the season, Almirola will continue to give a best effort and keep talking with other teams for a potential ride next season.

“I always like going to Kansas,” he said. “It’s a track where we’ve been able to compete up front in the past, so we are always excited to see if we can improve on that.”