Dale Earnhardt Jr. close to returning after worrying ‘I may never race again’

3 Comments

CONCORD, N.C. – A few months from believing he “may never race again” in NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr. now believes he is only a few weeks from being cleared to return.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver, who missed the last half of the 2016 season after suffering a concussion, said he hopes to turn laps in a December test and again in a January session before racing his No. 88 Chevrolet in the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. Earnhardt declined to specify where the tests would occur but intimated they were the final steps he alluded to last week on his podcast.

“Basically, the test in December would be the final box checked,” he told NBC Sports in a Tuesday interview at Hendrick Motorsports, where he unveiled a new paint scheme he designed with primary sponsor Nationwide for the 2017 season. “Once that’s done, I am jumping into the hamster wheel again. I’m excited.”

In his first extensive comments since a late August news conference to announce he would miss the rest of the 2016 season, Earnhardt revealed the depths of his long recovery from a concussion that he sustained in a June 12 wreck at Michigan International Speedway. It was at least the fifth concussion that Earnhardt has sustained during his NASCAR career, but the severity of the symptoms were enough to worry the 13-time most popular driver that his career was over.

“I mean I went through some really doubtful moments with this whole process when I was not doing well and my symptoms were really, really bad, and they lingered,” he said. “I’d never had the symptoms stay that long.

“I was thinking, ‘I may never race again. I don’t know how this is going to end.’ So I went from not knowing if I could do it to having to build my confidence back one little Lego at a time.”

Earnhardt said the symptoms, which centered on problems with balance and vision (known as “gaze stability”), began to dissipate over the past month. During the photo shoot Tuesday, he wasn’t wearing the thick, black glasses that he often wore in public during his recovery.

“The first five or six weeks, (the symptoms) were super heavy and weren’t getting better,” he said. “So I was really getting nervous. Man, you’re sitting by yourself at home with all this going on and thinking to yourself, ‘What if I’m like this the rest of my life? What if this is just a permanent injury?’ ”

Earnhardt healed much more quickly from his previous concussions. During this recovery, he kept detailed daily notes “so I could see that I improved from a week ago.

“I was used to things changing by the day,” he said. “I was used to improvements in 24 hours and literally being able to feel it and know it.”

Last month, Earnhardt stopped taking medication that numbed his symptoms, and he noticed a marked improvement in his condition.

“The last five weeks have been great,” he said. “It’s not really that I feel like myself more every day, but the medication kind of numbs you and knocks your edge off. Every day, I’m reminding me of my older self before the injury, which is a good feeling.”

“Every time I see (team owner) Rick (Hendrick) — probably once every two weeks — he’s like, ‘I didn’t know you could get better! You’re even better than the last time I saw you, and I thought you were great then.’ ”

Hendrick said Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway that he anticipated Earnhardt back in a car in December.

Earnhardt, who has been practicing on a simulator for a few months, said Tuesday he expects he will need to shake off some rust during the tests the next two months before heading to Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway.

“It’s going to be tough, but hopefully by the time we get to Daytona, we hit the ground running and everything feels like it needs to feel with my confidence,” he said. “But it’s going to take a couple of good runs to say, ‘Oh, still got it.’ Even after all these years, you just don’t know.

“In no professional sport — baseball, football, I think racing is the same – no one can step away and then jump right back in right where they left off. The series is too competitive. The series is evolving all the time. The drivers evolve with it week after week after week. They’re in that hamster wheel, and if you get out for any period of time, I can’t expect to jump right back in there at the top of my game.”

Though he wasn’t behind the wheel, Earnhardt found some semblance in the photo shoots and production work this week with Nationwide.

On Monday, he donned his firesuit for the first time since his most recent start July 9 at Kentucky Speedway, and he felt an unexpected sense of comfort and confidence.

“It hadn’t really hit me that I’m going to be racing again or coming back,” he said. “I know mentally I’m doing the things I need and checking the boxes to go race, and I’m pretty 100% sure that I’m going to go race, and everything is going to be fine, but it hasn’t really hit me emotionally, and when I put that suit on yesterday, I got a great feeling.”

Earnhardt was a more frequent attendee at races during the last two months (including some stints in the NBC Sports booth), but missing the past 18 races also caused some disconnect.

“Being out of the routine is so foreign,” he said. “After several weeks, you don’t get used to that, but you feel like you get so distanced from all this. To jump back into it with both feet with the (Nationwide paint scheme unveil) has really been overwhelming, sort of breathtaking.”

Because he hasn’t driven in several months, Earnhardt said “my confidence is like really low, and doing these little things like this photo shoot are kind of bringing it back up. Like I’m an old phone being put on the charger. I feel like I’m an old smartphone that’s just been laying around with a dead battery, and this is sort of like bringing back that feeling that I know I can do this, and I know this is where I belong.

“My confidence is critical to my ability to do it. If I don’t believe in myself or have a doubt in the car or anything, I’m dead in the water. That’s the way I’ve always been. So that confidence is what I’m working on now. Just doing this little stuff here is building it, not even driving. I’m getting back in that routine that I’ve been doing for 20 years that I’ve been out of for five months.”

Earnhardt has been candid about sharing the steps of his rehabilitation with fans through social media and his podcast. Part of his treatment involved going to public places to see if anxiety would provoke his symptoms.

“Everywhere you go, you sort of have to relearn how to interact with people,” he said. “You’re apprehensive about everything. All you want to do is not go anywhere. And home is great. Home is comfortable. That’s your comfort zone.

“So when you go out into the world and seeing people you haven’t seen in five weeks or two months or four months that you used to see every week, it’s like ‘What do they think of me? What are they looking for, are they analyzing me?’ It’s not a lot of fun, that part of it.

“I’m nervous to go back to Daytona and see everyone that’s going to be there and everybody comes up and goes ‘How you feeling?’ Everybody asks you that. ‘I feel good! How do you feel?’ It’s just going through that process of sort of reintroducing yourself to everything is a bit frustrating sometimes. I do feel more and more confident every day. Getting back into doing my work and what I’ve been doing all my life is giving me a super good feeling.”

His recovery has been overseen by Dr. Micky Collins of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Earnhardt said he expected NASCAR would sign off on his return if “Dr. Collins says everything is good” after the December test.

“He gives me the confidence that I’m going to be good, and he’s done it before,” Earnhardt said. “We came back from (missing two races with a concussion in 2012) and had a lot of success. I didn’t believe all that would be possible. I thought my winning days were over. I was trying to figure out how I was going to get through the rest of whatever, I was so miserable. We ended up coming back and had a lot of fun days.”

Ryan Blaney returns to Kansas where win slipped away in May

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ryan Blaney got into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs thanks to his first career win at Pocono Raceway in June.

But Blaney nearly got to victory lane three races earlier at Kansas Speedway in May.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver earned his first pole, won Stage 2 and led 83 laps in the Go Bowling! 400. But the No. 21 Ford was passed by Martin Truex Jr. with 19 laps to go and Blaney slipped back to fourth before the checkered flag.

Now the Wood Brothers crew returns to Kansas for this weekend’s Hollywood Casino 400, the elimination race for the Round of 12.

Blaney is currently inside the top eight that would advance to the next round, but he’s not safe. He is seventh in the standings, nine points above Kyle Busch in ninth place. Jimmie Johnson sits in the final transfer spot, seven points up from Busch.

Blaney comes into Sunday’s race after he earned 18 stage points at Talladega and one playoff point for winning Stage 2. But Blaney’s Sunday ended when he was involved in a five-car wreck with 10 laps to go.

“We saw how important stage points are last week at Talladega, and it’ll be the same this week at Kansas,” team co-owner Eddie Wood said in a press release. “The 18 points Ryan earned in the first two stages at Talladega allowed us to move up four spots in the standings even after wrecking out of the race.”

Blaney will be battling with the bubble drivers of Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth to advance at Kansas.

To advance, Blaney needs to either win the race or earn 54 points in the race according to Racing Insights. That competition for those points begins on Friday when teams qualify.

“The weekend starts for sure on Friday, of trying to qualify up front and staying up front for the first stage or second stage and trying to get those points,” Blaney said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.” “They’re so valuable to your weekend and your playoff run. I don’t want to say it’s all about it. But they’re a really, really big part of the race on Sunday.”

Though Blaney trails the other four bubble drivers in regards to stage points earned through all five playoff races so far, he has the advantage when it comes to stage points earned in the Round of 12.

Blaney has earned 20 to Johnson’s 14, Kenseth’s 12 and Busch’s eight.

Blaney has an average of 7.1 stage points per race at 1.5-mile track this season. That trails Kenseth’s 7.3 and Busch’s 10.

A glaring disadvantage for Blaney is in playoff points. When he won Stage 2 at Talladega, Blaney garnered his ninth playoff point of the season.

That gives him the fourth fewest among the 12 remaining playoff drivers. The only drivers with fewer are Chase Elliott (six), Kenseth (five) and Jamie McMurray (three).

Blaney has made five starts at Kansas, including his first Cup start in 2014. With three top-10 finishes among them, his average finish is 11.4.

Blaney’s average finish on 1.5-mile tracks this season is 11.8. Of the four main bubble drivers, that is only bested by Kenseth’s average (10.1).

When it comes to points earned per race at 1.5-mile tracks, Blaney (32.4) is topped by Busch (33.4) and Kenseth (34.1).

Here’s your primer heading into second half of NASCAR Cup playoffs

Getty Images
Leave a comment

If you thought the first five races of the NASCAR Cup playoffs were intense, you haven’t seen nothing yet.

As the 10-race playoffs move into their second half, the final five races will likely be more competitive than the first five.

That’s particularly true in Sunday’s cut-off race at Kansas, where the current field of 12 remaining playoff contenders will be cut to eight after the checkered flag falls.

And then there will be the Round of 8 cut-off race at Phoenix in four weeks that will set the four-driver field for the championship race in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Thanks to our friends at RacingInsights.com, here’s some of the top playoff insights that will help fans better understand where we are in the playoffs heading into Kansas:

  • Playoff drivers have won all five races in the 2017 playoffs.
  • The last time a driver who didn’t make it into the playoffs won a playoff race was Denny Hamlin at Homestead in 2013.
  • The last playoff race won by a playoff driver who was previously eliminated from the playoffs was Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Phoenix in 2015.
  • Tony Stewart in 2005 is the only driver to go on to win the championship without winning a race during the playoffs.
  • Four of five playoff races so far this season have been won from a qualifying position of sixth or better.
  • Brad Keselowski won at Talladega driving a Ford, ending a four-race playoff winning streak by Toyotas. Also, prior to Talladega, Toyota drivers had won all four poles and all four races in the 2017 playoffs. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the pole at Talladega, but finished seventh.
  • Brad Keselowski won at Talladega with a last lap pass for the win, it was the eighth playoff race won with a last lap pass and the only one in the last 29 races.
  • There were 11 cautions at Talladega, the most cautions in the last 18 playoff races.
  • There were a combined 21 cautions in the last two playoff races, the same number as the previous four playoff races combined.
  • Talladega last week: 14 cars running at the finish, 26 total DNFs (including 24 DNFs due to wrecks), three red flags and only two playoff drivers finished in the top 10 – all records for a playoff race.
  • A Chevrolet driver has finished runner-up in each of this season’s first five playoff races.
  • Chase Elliott has finished runner-up three times so far in the playoffs. The record for most runner-up finishes in the playoffs in a season was four by Jeff Gordon in 2014 and Jimmie Johnson in 2006. Elliott has also finished runner-up at both 1.5-mile tracks so far, with three more 1.5-mile tracks still left in the final five races (Kansas, Texas and Homestead-Miami).
  • Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are the only drivers still playoff-eligible that have scored stage points in every playoff race.
  • The best average finish by a driver in all 10 races of the playoffs is 4.9 by Carl Edwards in 2011. Edwards tied Tony Stewart for the championship, but Stewart won on the first tiebreaker – more wins (five to Edwards’ one).
  • Martin Truex Jr. has led the playoff standings through the first five races of the playoffs, tying Matt Kenseth in 2013 for the most races led by a driver to start the playoffs. Truex also won at Kansas in May.
  • Three drivers have won races during the playoffs in all three years of the elimination format entering 2017: Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson all three drivers have yet to win in 2017.
  • Only two of the 135 playoff races were won by drivers getting their first NASCAR Cup win: Clint Bowyer in 2007 at New Hampshire and Brian Vickers in 2006 at Talladega.
  • Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to win a race in every season of the playoffs entering 2017. Entering Kansas, Johnson remains winless in the 2017 playoffs.

Long: Lack of stage points could end Jimmie Johnson’s bid for 8th title

Getty Images
1 Comment

Jimmie Johnson’s spotter says he’ll be “crossing my fingers” this weekend at Kansas that the mistake he made at Talladega doesn’t keep Johnson from advancing in the playoffs.

Should the seven-time series champion fail to move on to the Round of 8 — he holds the final transfer spot entering Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway — it won’t be because spotter Earl Barban told the team it could work on Johnson’s car before NASCAR had withdrawn the red flag at Talladega, incurring a penalty that ended the team’s race.

No, Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the team can look at their failure to collect as many Stage 1 points as their competitors. Even if Johnson advances, his lack of stage points could keep him from racing for a championship if he doesn’t win a race in the Round of 8.

Johnson goes to Kansas with a seven-point lead on Kyle Busch for the final transfer spot. Matt Kenseth trails Johnson by eight points.

Before the playoffs began, Johnson was asked if there would be more of a penalty for his summer slump that cost him stage points.

“I really think so,’’ he said. “We know our qualifying average doesn’t lead to a Stage 1 opportunity.’’ 

Johnson’s struggles in qualifying have put him in a mid-pack spot and made it difficult to score many points in the opening stage. His average starting spot of 17.0 this season is worst among the remaining playoff contenders

The result is that Johnson has scored 59 Stage 1 points in 31 races this season — fewest among all but one of the remaining playoff contenders. Johnson has scored only 35.8 percent of his 165 total stage points in the opening stage. To compare, Kyle Busch, who has an average starting spot of 7.1, scored 58.7 percent of his 315 total stage points in the opening stage. 

Johnson’s difficulties in the playoffs have been as pronounced.

Johnson’s average starting spot of 15.2 in the postseason is only better than Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16.2 average starting spot in playoffs) and Jamie McMurray (18.2).

Johnson’s 27 stage points are more than only Stenhouse (14) and McMurray (13) in the playoffs.

Johnson also has scored 37 percent of his total stage points in the opening stage — the lowest percentage among the remaining title contenders in the playoffs. 

To compare with Busch, he has an average starting spot of 4.8 in the playoffs. That’s allowed Busch to score 63.5 percent of his 52 total stage points in the opening stage.

Add it together and Johnson could face quite a challenge to stay in title contention.

Having to hold off Busch won’t be easy, provided Busch doesn’t run into problems.

In four of the first five playoff races, Busch has scored five or more stage points than Johnson in the opening stage. If Busch does that Sunday, he will be in position to pass Johnson for a spot in the next round over the final 187 laps of the 267-lap event.

That’s a likely scenario. Busch has outscored Johnson 80-41 in stage points in the season’s eight races on 1.5-mile tracks.

If Busch moves into a transfer spot, Johnson likely will have to beat Ryan Blaney to have a chance to break his tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in championships. Blaney has a two-point lead on Johnson.

Blaney has scored 108 Stage 1 points compared to Johnson’s 59 for the entire season. Blaney has outscored Johnson 196-165 in total stage points this season. In the playoffs, Blaney has a 10.2 average starting spot (compared to Johnson’s 15.2). Blaney has outscored Johnson 28-27 in total stage points in the postseason.

The challenges could be difficult for Johnson this weekend.

 and on Facebook

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR video: A.J. Allmendinger could be spoiler at Kansas

Leave a comment

It’s admittedly been a rough season for A.J. Allmendinger.

In the first 31 races, Allmendinger has one top-five finish and five top 10s.

He’s 26th in the NASCAR Cup point standings, which is on pace to be the worst full-time season of Allmendinger’s Cup career.

But there’s a bright spot for Allmendinger in this weekend’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Allmendinger has recorded two top-10 finishes in the last three races at the 1.5-mile track.

And he’s ready to go for another top-10 Sunday.

“In the last few races, the track has widened out for three-wide racing,” Allmendinger said. “It’s a fun race track, run the bottom, middle or top. It’s a place we’ve had success at, we’re ready to go do it again.”