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Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoys staying ‘visible and relevant’ while planning Daytona 500 return

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – It seems the only place you won’t find Dale Earnhardt Jr. these days is in the cockpit of a Sprint Cup car.

That could change soon – Earnhardt told USA TODAY Sports’ For The Win site this week that he is as confident as ever he will return in the 2017 Daytona 500 – but NASCAR’s most popular driver has been spotted virtually everywhere recently.

From football sidelines to hockey games to racetracks, Earnhardt has stayed quite visible since being sidelined for the final 18 races this season while recovering from the effects of a concussion. He said it’s “not only good therapy, but I need to be doing something.  I love being around the sport and I want to feel like I’m an asset to something.

“Absolutely, it has been a great time,” he said before Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, where he helped unveil a new limited edition trading card. “I wasn’t really sure exactly how that was going to feel being around and coming to the track and stuff.  I was very apprehensive and real nervous.

“I talked to (car owner) Rick (Hendrick), and I tell him all the time I feel like being in the car is what I’m supposed to do and not being in the car brings on a sense of guilt that I’m not doing my responsibilities. So, maybe I’m actively seeking out these opportunities to be visible and be relevant and work with my partners and handle all the responsibilities that we have and have planned before all this happened.”

Earnhardt has one year remaining on his contract to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, and he said he has begun planning next season with sponsors under the presumption he will be racing.

“That is the plan that we have going forward, so we are booking things as normal per usual,” he said. “We are doing all our photo shoots and everything with anticipation of our sponsors marketing me as the driver of the No. 88 car.

“I think that is perfectly on track and a reasonable goal to be in the car and be competing in Daytona.  We can’t sort of sit and wait.  We’ve got to make a decision. Those types of things have to be decided quite early.  So, we are moving forward with the plan to be in the car and I don’t see anything that says that is not going to happen. Things are good.”

NASCAR America: Matt DiBenedetto on Indy success with small team

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Matt DiBenedetto has just three top-10 finishes in his three years of competing in the NASCAR Cup Series. But two of them have come this year in two of the biggest races in the sport.

DiBenedetto, who drives the No. 32 Ford for Go Fas Racing, finished ninth in the Daytona 500 in February and eighth in Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

DiBenedetto, who was also celebrating his 26th birthday, joined NASCAR America to discuss his run at Indy and what is considered a successful race for his team, which has 15 crew members.

“You’ve got to keep it in the perception of your versions of wins are a little bit different than everybody else’s version,” DiBenedetto said. “We look at it as who we’re racing around. I would say on a regular week where there’s not a ton of chaos like Indy was, a top 20 is a really good day. A top 25 is if we just do our job.”

Watch the video for the full segment.

Chase Elliott, AJ Allmendinger unveil Darlington throwback schemes

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Both Chase Elliott and AJ Allmendinger have revealed the paint schemes they’ll drive in the Sept. 3 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Elliott will use his No. 24 Chevrolet to pay tribute to the car his father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, drove in his first Cup start.

The light blue look was on his No. 9 car when he started in the Feb. 29, 1976 race at Rockingham Speedway.

The car was revealed on Facebook in the below video.

AJ Allmendinger will pay tribute to two-time Cup champion Terry Labonte with his No. 47 Chevrolet.

The car will resemble the No. 44 Piedmont Airlines Oldsmobile that Labonte drove in during the 198 Cup season when he competed for owner Billy Hagan.

NASCAR America: Felix Sabates: ‘I’m lucky to be here’ after near-death experience from illness last year

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For nearly a month last year Felix Sabates was at death’s door.

The fears were so great that Sabates might not wake up from a coma he spent 29 days in, Chip Ganassi bought a blue suit for the possibility he might have to attend his co-owner’s funeral.

But the 71-year-old made a full recovery through a rehab process that included learning to walk again.

NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty and Sabates have a special relationship. Petty drove the No. 42 car for Sabates’ SABCO Racing for eight years in the 1980s and 1990s, winning six of his eight Cup races for the millionaire owner from Cuba.

Sabates sat down with Petty to discuss the ordeal, which began in January 2016 when Sabates began feeling ill during the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I came home and woke up the next morning and I (couldn’t) breath,” said Sabates, who drove himself to the hospital. “The minute they saw me I was in intensive care.”

Sabates was in the hospital for two and half weeks before he was released, but Sabates “should’ve know I wasn’t cured.”

The Chip Ganassi Racing co-owner returned to his usual grind until it caught up to him in August.

“My blood pressure was through the roof, my oxygen level was 55, which you should be dead then,” recalled Sabates, who has no memory of a three-month stretch. “They thought was I was brain-dead. They were pretty much going to disconnect me. So 4 o’clock in the morning, they took my tubes out.”

That’s when Sabates began the process of waking up.

“I’m lucky to be here,” said Sabates, who aside from being back at the track is also back to playing golf.

“I used to worry about little things,’ Sabates said. “Now I don’t even worry about big things.”

The full feature will air Sunday on Countdown to Green, which begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN before the Cup race at Pocono.

NASCAR America: Ryan Blaney glad Team Penske news is finally out in the open

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On Wednesday it was finally announced that Ryan Blaney would move from Wood Brothers Racing to Team Penske full-time next year in the Cup Series in the No. 12 Ford while Paul Menard will take over the No. 21 Ford.

NASCAR America’s Dave Burns caught up with Blaney on Thursday. Blaney was happy that his 2018 plans were finally public knowledge.

Blaney also acknowledged how a technical alliance between the two teams helped Wood Brothers Racing return to a competition level that allowed Blaney to get his first Cup win this season earlier this year.

“That was a big deal,” Blaney said. “That was getting us to where we could run a full-time season. That was really helpful not only to me but to (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins, will be coming with me to the 12 car.”

Blaney has been driving for Team Penske part-time in the Xfinity Series since 2012.

“It’s been nice to get the news and tell everybody finally about what we’re doing,” Blaney said. “But mainly we’re trying to finish this year out strong with the Wood Brothers, getting their 100th win, that’s really big. That’s on my bucket list for this year and getting as far as we can in the playoffs.”

The No. 21 team returns to Pocono Raceway this weekend, the site of Blaney’s first Cup win last month.

Watch the video for the full interview.