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

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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.”

Long: 2018 schedule provides big test for one track; other musings on changes

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For all the talk about Indianapolis’ move to the last race before the playoffs or Charlotte’s road course event, the track that will face the most scrutiny from Tuesday’s 2018 schedule announcement is Richmond International Raceway.

Although the racing has been better when the track hosted day races, Richmond will go back to two night races next year and its September event moves into the playoffs after serving as the cutoff race since 2004. 

The change comes at a critical time for Richmond, a favorite among drivers but a track that has seen waning fan interest — thus the flip-flopping from night to day back to night events to please a fanbase that wants good racing but doesn’t want a sunburn. The spring crowd, no doubt affected by unseasonably warm temperatures in the 80s, was disappointing.

What makes the schedule change more critical for the track is what could be next. International Speedway Corp., which owns the facility, has slated Richmond as next for upgrades after Phoenix Raceway’s $178 million makeover is completed late next year.

While crowds have thinned at all tracks in the last decade, Richmond has seen its seating capacity cut from 110,000 in 2009 to its current capacity of 59,000, according to ISC annual reports. The 46.4 percent decline is the largest percentage capacity reduction among ISC’s 12 tracks that host Cup events.

The question becomes if the crowd continues to thin — even though Richmond is a day’s drive for nearly half of the U.S. population — will it be worthwhile for ISC to make the investments to the track? Or would it be better for ISC to invest in another of its facilities?

Something that could help Richmond is what will take place this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track’s upper groove is being treated by the same PJ1 TrackBite compound used at Bristol to improve the racing.

What’s unique is that the compound is applied to an asphalt track instead of a concrete track such as Bristol. If it entices drivers to use the high lane for part of the race, that will be significant. The challenge is that as the race moves into the evening and cooler temperatures, the bottom groove will be the fastest way around.

Richmond seemed to have a good solution when it sealed the track from 1988-2002 but hasn’t done since. The time seems right to do something to the track with two Cup night races. 

Drivers say that the best racing is during the day when conditions are the hottest. That’s not the most enjoyable conditions for fans. So fans who wanted night racing back at Richmond will get it for both events.

Fans should be careful what they wish for because cool, evening temperatures are not conducive to the best type of racing.

DAYTONA CHANGES

Another alteration to the schedule is that Daytona 500 qualifying and the Clash will be held on the same day, Feb. 11, a week before the 500.

It’s a nice move to tighten the schedule, but why can’t more be done?

Does Daytona need to be held over two weekends?

“I would say certainly we talked about a lot of things,’’ said Jim Cassidy, NASCAR vice president of racing operations when asked about shortening Daytona Speedweeks. “But when you kick off the season with your biggest event of the year, and you have a number of races to support that kickoff of the season, Daytona has a portfolio of races that commands a number of weeks. I think our fans look forward to spending a lot of time in Daytona in the month of February.

“Certainly there’s consideration around the race teams, the amount of time they spend. But when you talk about the biggest event of your season, it certainly warrants a couple of weeks based on what we have from a content standpoint.”

I’m not convinced. I think you could compress it into one week and make the week more entertaining.

Here’s one possible way how:

Tuesday: Cup haulers park in garage.

Wednesday: Cup teams practice and qualify. Truck teams park in garage.

Thursday: Cup teams compete in the Duels. Xfinity teams park in garage. Truck teams practice.

Friday: Cup teams practice. Xfinity teams practice. Truck teams qualify and race. Cup teams in the Clash practice.

Saturday: Cup final practice for the Daytona 500. Xfinity teams race. The Clash is held an hour after the Xfinity race ends.

Sunday: Daytona 500.

A doubleheader with the Xfinity Series and the Clash the day before the Daytona 500 creates more reasons for fans to be there for the weekend.

Maybe there’s a better way, but the point is cut a weekend out of Speedweeks and that can give teams a break at some other point in the season (or just start the season a few days later).

As the sport looks to be more efficient with its race weekends — Pocono, Watkins Glen and Martinsville each will have qualifying a few hours before the race in the second half of the season — cutting a weekend out of Daytona only makes sense.

Also, watch for more two-day Cup weekends if the experiment works this year.

INDY THE RIGHT RACE BEFORE THE PLAYOFFS?

Indianapolis taking the spot as the final race before the playoffs raises some questions.

When Richmond was there, at least many more teams had a chance to win. At Indianapolis, those that can win are fewer. Typically, the best teams excel at Indy because they have the best aero and engine packages. That’s not something a smaller team can overcome as much as it can on a short track.

The notion of an upstart winning their way into the playoffs is less likely at Indianapolis. Those who need stage points in a last-gasp effort to make the playoffs will have to gamble. Truthfully, that could make Indy more dramatic in some ways. Paul Menard won the 2011 race on a fuel gamble, but such payoffs are not likely to happen often and then what you are left with?

Something to consider is that the Xfinity cars will race there in July with restrictor plates and other modifications. If those changes enhance the racing, then it would make sense for the Cup cars to go with something similar. If NASCAR can get its cars to make passes like the IndyCars (there were 54 lead changes in last year’s Indianapolis 500), then you’d have something worth talking about.

If that doesn’t work, maybe you’re left with the tradeoff that Richmond gives the playoffs two short tracks.

A NOVEL IDEA BUT WILL IT WORK?

Charlotte’s roval for the playoffs will smack of desperation to some, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Still, one has to applaud the sport and the track looking for a different way to entertain fans. Sometimes, the greatest rewards come after the greatest risks.

While drivers will race on the infield road course, they still nearly will race all the way around the 1.5-mile track. If the action on the road course section mimics what fans see at Sonoma or Watkins Glen, then this will be a good move. If not, what then?

Charlotte’s format will present challenges for crew chiefs in setting up the car, but the key is going to be action. Few people go to races to watch the crew chiefs. It’s about the drivers. And it will be about contact on the road course.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD

Even with all the changes to the front half of the playoff schedule, three of the final five races are on 1.5-mile speedways.

Cassidy said NASCAR isn’t as concerned about that.

“I wouldn’t get too hung up on the number of intermediate tracks because I think what you’ve seen, if you want to focus on the back end of the playoffs, focus on the racing that we’ve seen at intermediate tracks, each of the intermediate tracks as kind of taking shape from having its own distinct personality from a racing standpoint,’’ he said.

“I think you saw that at Texas this year with the changes they made, again, a vision to change things up on that side, and to create a different racing dynamic at a mile‑and‑a‑half track.

“What you saw at Kansas a couple weeks ago kind of speaks for itself.

  “And then I don’t think you could argue that Homestead has provided some of the most compelling racing you could ever imagine to bring home a championship.’’

Miami is the best 1.5-mile track and has produced some good racing in the season finale. Nothing wrong with it where it is. Kansas has had its ups and downs but did have 21 lead changes earlier this month in what was viewed as an entertaining race. With its new track surface, we’ll see where Texas goes from its race in April.

If all three can provide entertaining racing and allow drivers to move through the field instead of being stuck in a line, then they should stay in their spots. But if they can’t do so, then NASCAR should not be afraid of making further changes to the playoff schedule.

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NASCAR America: Slugger Labbe says why he left Richard Childress Racing (video)

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Slugger Labbe announced Monday that after six seasons, he would be leaving the No. 3 team of Austin Dillon and Richard Childress Racing.

While he does not rule out a potential return to RCR at some point in the future, for now he’s just taking a break and fielding potential opportunities from other organizations.

Justin Alexander will take over as Dillon’s crew chief immediately, just in time for arguably the most difficult race on the schedule, Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

My Home Tracks: New Mexico’s the Land of Enchantment and home of Cardinal Speedway

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The state of New Mexico is known more for IndyCar racing, with the Unser family being the state’s favorite sons.

Al Unser won four Indianapolis 500s, brother Bobby three and Al’s son Al Jr. a two-time winner (this weekend’s 500 marks the 25th anniversary of Little Al’s second 500 triumph).

But there’s a strong grassroots racing scene in the Land of Enchantment, particularly in the far southeast corner of the state at Cardinal Speedway, a half-mile dirt track in the little town of Eunice.

NASCAR America continues its My Home Track series of 50 states in 50 shows.

Wednesday, we visit New York state.

2018 NASCAR schedule changes: EVP Steve O’Donnell breaks it down (video)

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On Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell joined us to discuss the NASCAR Cup schedule changes in 2018, including running a road race at Charlotte and having Indianapolis be the final race before the playoffs.

“I’m real excited about these changes,” said O’Donnell, who cited unprecedented cooperation between NASCAR, its teams, drivers and sponsors to reach agreement on the schedule changes.

Among the key changes: Las Vegas will kick off the 10-race playoffs in 2018 (Chicagoland Speedway, which will have hosted the last seven playoff openers, will return to its more traditional race date in early July/late June and serve as a run-up to the Coke Zero 400 in Daytona.

Several other changes include:

  • The fall playoff race at Charlotte will move up a couple weeks in the schedule and also incorporate competition on both the infield road course and part of the speedway itself.
  • After 14 years as the deciding race to qualify for the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Richmond International Raceway will now become the second race of the playoffs.
  • Indianapolis Motor Speedway will see it’s Brickyard 400 go from late July to become the final qualifying race for the playoffs in early September.

Catch up on all the changes in the above video.