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Dale Earnhardt Jr. cleared to return to NASCAR, will race at the 2017 Daytona 500

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has completed his recovery from a concussion that sidelined him for the last half of the 2016 NASCAR season.

Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday morning that Earnhardt had been cleared to race again in NASCAR after a Wednesday test at Darlington Raceway. Earnhardt was cleared by Dr. Micky Collins, director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh. Collins consulted with Dr. Jerry Petty, who attended the test at the 1.366-mile oval.

Earnhardt will return with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26, 2017.

Earnhardt, who is getting married Dec. 31, has said he plans to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet in a tire test at Phoenix International Raceway in January. The recently named 14-time most popular driver hasn’t raced since finishing 13th in the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway.

Here’s the full release Thursday from Hendrick Motorsports:

Following a test session Wednesday afternoon at Darlington Raceway, Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been medically cleared to resume NASCAR competition after making a full recovery from a concussion. He will return for the beginning of the 2017 season at the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt, 42, was cleared Wednesday evening by Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, in consultation with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty. Petty attended the test at the 1.366-mile South Carolina racetrack.

“Dale is one of the hardest-working patients I’ve ever encountered,” Collins said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked, and we believe he is ready to compete at a professional level again and can withstand the normal forces of a race car driver. Dale has been very open with us, and we’ve had plenty of time for his treatment, so we feel very good about his long-term prospects and how this has been managed by everyone involved.”

Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports, completed 185 laps during a nearly five-hour session at Darlington under the guidance of his crew chief, Greg Ives. In addition to the on-track test, which was observed by NASCAR, the driver has logged more than 15 hours in a racing simulator during his recovery.

“I feel great, and I’m excited to officially be back,” Earnhardt said. “I expected things to go really well yesterday, and that’s exactly what happened. Actually getting in a race car was an important final step, and it gives me a ton of confidence going into 2017. Thanks to the staff at Darlington for hosting our team and to NASCAR for giving us the opportunity to put a car on the track. I’ll do more testing in January to help knock the rust off. When it’s time to go to Daytona, I’ll be ready.”

Alex Bowman (10 races) and four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon (eight races) handled substitute driving duties for the No. 88 team during Earnhardt’s recovery. He missed the final 18 races of the 2016 NASCAR season beginning with the July 17 event at New Hampshire.

“Dale deserves so much credit,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “I’m proud of him for listening to his body and standing up to take responsibility for his health. He’s worked extremely hard and set a terrific example for others. It’s great news as we go into the off-season, and we can’t wait to see him back on the racetrack at Daytona.”

Bowman will race the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS in the Feb. 18 season-opening, non-points The Clash at Daytona International Speedway, which will feature pole position winners from the previous year. Bowman won the No. 88 team’s lone 2016 pole at Phoenix in November.

“Alex did such a great job in the car this year, and I felt like he deserved another opportunity,” Earnhardt said. “When I spoke with Rick and the team about him driving The Clash, everyone agreed that he more than earned it, and Nationwide was 100-percent on board. I’m really grateful to him and Jeff for what they did for our team, and I’m glad Alex is getting another run with us.”

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch questions Xfinity rules package at Indy

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Kyle Busch isn’t afraid to speak his mind, and he certainly did so after Saturday’s  Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

NASCAR implemented a number of changes to make the racing closer, tighter and more exciting — including restrictor plates, a larger rear spoiler, aero ducts, and a smaller splitter — and achieved all that on many fronts.

But not for the younger Busch brother, who wasn’t pleased with the rules package. Was it actually designed to specifically slow him down rather than to even out things for the entire field?

Or was he just simply upset because he didn’t win a third Xfinity race in a row at IMS?

Check out how our NASCAR America analysts gauged the Xfinity changes in the above video.

 

TriStar Motorsports team owner Mark Smith passes away

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Mark Smith, owner of TriStar Motorsports, died Saturday at his home, after a long battle with cancer, the team announced Monday. He was 63.

He began his racing career building engines for his brother Jack’s drag car in the 1970s. He moved his family from the West Coast in the early 1990s to pursue a career in NASCAR. He was the owner of TriStar Motorsports and Pro Motor Engines.

TriStar Motorsports fields the No. 14 in the Xfinty Series with JJ Yeley and the No. 72 in the Cup Series with Cole Whitt. The team stated the team will continue operations under the management of Bryan Smith, son of Mark Smith.

“It was dad’s dream to own and operate a NASCAR team,” Bryan Smith said. “He devoted his life to that dream and his family plans to honor his wishes by continuing our efforts in his memory.”

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Victory Junction Gang victoryjunction.org or NOVA (National Organization for Vehicle Access, part of the BraunAbility) novafunding.org.

The family will receive friends from 5-8 p.m. ET, Aug. 1 at Cavin-Cook Funeral Home, Mooresville, North Carolina. They have created a Facebook page where you are encouraged to leave a story for the family to enjoy. (facebook.com/Remembering-Mark-Smith-301261653675224)

NASCAR America: Analysts break down Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. wreck (video)

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Given how wild the Brickyard 400 played out, the big wreck between race leaders Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. wasn’t exactly surprising.

Rather, with the way the race transpired from the opening lap, was the Busch/Truex wreck almost inevitable?

Truex got loose and washed up into the left rear of Busch’s car, sending both drivers and their respective cars into the outside retaining walls, hitting hard and ending their respective days.

Check out what our NASCAR America analysts had to say about the wreck from Monday’s show in the above video.

NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr. recaps wild Brickyard 400 (video)

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On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, Dale Earnhardt Jr. — who will become part of our NBC Sports Group in 2018 — looked back on a wild and intense Brickyard 400.

Earnhardt was one of several drivers whose day came to an early ending — in Junior’s case when he ran into the back of Trevor Bayne‘s car, destroying his radiator in the process.

All the mayhem and mishaps could be linked to over-aggressive driving, Earnhardt said, saying that every driver was in “attack mode,” especially on restarts.

Check out Junior in the video above.