Darlington test ‘recharged’ Dale Jr. for 2017 return

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. had trouble sleeping Tuesday night.

He was “anxious” and justifiably so. On Wednesday, Earnhardt drove his No. 88 Chevrolet for the first time in five months.

He and his Hendrick Motorsports team tested at Darlington Raceway in a final step before Earnhardt was cleared to compete in 2017 after missing the last 18 races of 2016 due to a concussion.

Earnhardt drove a plain, dark gray car four months after he missed out on the chance to drive his “Gray Ghost” throwback paint scheme in the Southern 500.

“As soon as I got out there for three laps it came right back to me,” Earnhardt said in a Friday teleconference with reporters. “The nerves were gone after about four laps.”

After the successful five-hour test, Earnhardt said he feels “stronger” and is “recharged” about returning to NASCAR competition after being cleared by his doctors and NASCAR.

“We just ran laps,” Earnhardt said. “It felt like an old shoe by the end of the day.”

Earnhardt would do 15- to 30-lap runs before being evaluated by Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty.

“A lot of the things that he was checking, visual and balance and so forth, actually strengthened throughout the process,” Earnhardt said. “You sort of get acclimated and up to speed with what it takes to kind of drive a racecar and those systems strengthen through that process.”

Earnhardt ran right up against the wall of the track, which he said takes a lot of mental strength and focus.

“(The test) really helps build your confidence to know that everything is working like it’s supposed to work, no matter what your injury is before you go get back into a full race weekend,” Earnhardt said. “It’s nice to be able to kind of get some personal reassurance and confidence.”

Earnhardt recorded 185 laps at the track under the watchful eye of crew chief Greg Ives, NASCAR and Petty.

Petty consulted with Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, who then cleared Earnhardt.

Earnhardt, who is planning to get married on New Year’s Eve, said he needed to do the test to get him ready for the upcoming season.

“I needed that personal reassurance for myself,” Earnhardt said. “Now I’ve got that box checked. Personally I can go forward with a clear mind and peace of mind that I am ready to go. But that test did more for me than anyone else.”

Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season after concussion symptoms presented themselves leading up to and after the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway. Earnhardt has previously stated his doctors believe the symptoms were the result of a June 12 accident at Michigan International Speedway when he slapped the backstretch wall after making contact with Chris Buescher.

Earnhardt returning to the car, even for a test, has been a boost for company morale said team owner Rick Hendrick.

“When you’ve got the most popular driver in the sport you lose him and he is a big spark plug to this place. Having him out of the car kind of deflates the place,” said Hendrick said. “You could feel it in the place today, it elevated the whole place.”

Hendrick called Earnhardt’s clearance to race, combined with Jimmie Johnson‘s championship, a “really nice Christmas gift” for his team and fans of the sport.

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.