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Dale Earnhardt Jr. excited about return to racing, but also eyes retirement

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After missing half of last season recovering from concussion-like symptoms, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is glad to be back racing in 2017.

“I’m excited about the season and can’t wait for it to get started,” he said during Wednesday’s NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte.

Yet for as much as he talked about being happy to return to racing, Earnhardt also talked at length about what retirement will mean for him.

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be on Drivers Council this year

First, about his returning to race next month at Daytona International Speedway and the Daytona 500, Earnhardt said:

“To get approved to race is one thing, but to decide to race is another. Mentally, you have to make the decision if you want to keep racing, and if you want to you have to go at it 100 percent. This is the top elite motorsports series in America and you can’t do it without 100 percent. … I had to answer a lot of personal questions of myself and to just buy-in.”

But then NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 14 years began talking about eventual retirement.

“I’m just hoping to enjoy what’s left of my career and hopefully I get to make the decisions on that myself as far as how much further I race,” Earnhardt said. “(He and new wife Amy are) going to start a family and all that good stuff too, so I’ve got a lot of good things to look forward to. I’m really excited about my future.”

Earnhardt also talked at length about what type of learning curve he’ll have when he returns to competitive racing next month.

“Being out of the car, you hope you can come back and jump right back in and not miss a beat,” he said. “But this is a top series and any time you’re gone, you’re getting behind. I’m really anxious and curious as to where we shake out early in the season, how we can do, how competitive we can be, what if any learning curve there is for me. We’ll figure that all out, though.”

Last season was a paradox for Earnhardt. Half the season he was behind the wheel of his No. 88 Chevrolet SS. The other half, he watched from pit road or the garage or on TV at home, recovering from the concussion-like symptoms.

During that time, Earnhardt said he learned a lot about himself and drew a greater appreciation about what he’s had for the last 20 years of racing in NASCAR – and what he almost lost.

“I missed the camaraderie,” he said. “That’s probably what I’ll miss the most when I’m not racing any more, just the friendships inside the track. I’ve got an awesome road crew, we’re all buddies, we talk every day. It’s a very close-knit sort of family and I’m going to miss all that.

“It’s so fun as a team to go do something and succeed. Even when you don’t succeed, they’re the guys that you lean on. We all kind of lift each other up. I’m going to miss all that. It was difficult to watch someone else do in your place.

“I was certainly jealous and envious of Jeff (Gordon) and Alex (Bowman) working with my guys … you definitely were wishing it were you getting to work.

“You do take your job for granted when you’re doing it every week. This is a society where we get better and better at complaining, and drivers aren’t any different. We moan and complain about everything.

“But when you get a chance to step back and watch it – I got a chance to be in the garage area at Dover (in the fall) and watched the drivers come in that morning for practice and it was an eye-opening experience, almost an out of body experience, to watch all that happen and looking at them and knowing that was me. I got to see drivers and sport from different point of view.”

But for now, retirement – whether it be in a year or two or five or whenever – is in the distance. Now, it’s just a matter of focusing on what’s ahead of him as a race car driver.

“I’m happy to be able to come back here and continue to compete,” Earnhardt said. “I got real close to not being able to compete. It got real close to being someone else’s decision whether I competed or not.

“I don’t know when I’m going to stop racing, but I want to make that choice and not have it made for me. All that stuff (last season) really showed me how much I have going for me, how much fun this really is. You can make it really difficult or you can enjoy it.”

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NASCAR America: Chase Elliott ‘biggest surprise’ of Cup playoffs

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Only two drivers are safely in the third round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs. Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski secured spots through their wins at Charlotte and Talladega.

That leaves six spots to be decided Sunday at Kansas Speedway.

NASCAR America analysts Parker Kligerman and Kyle Petty broke down the drivers competing for spots. Both of them agreed that Chase Elliott, who has finished in second in three of the five playoff races, has a great chance to make it all the way to the championship race in Miami.

“If Talladega had played out, he was either going to be in victory lane or in the top two or three,” Petty said. “When you look at that, he has had the most solid playoffs of any driver out there. We keep talking about the big three: Larson, Busch and Truex. This guy is a sleeper. But he’s my No. 4.”

Said Kligerman: “He’s been the biggest surprise. That 24 team has been incredible through the playoffs. One thing I’ve noticed about that team, just speaking to (crew chief) Alan Gustafson, speaking to Chase, it’s almost as if they want that first win more than they care about the playoffs.”

Watch the above video for more on the playoff drivers.

Friday’s NASCAR Cup, Xfinity schedule at Kansas Speedway

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Things get started today for the pivotal weekend at Kansas Speedway.

The NASCAR Cup Series will have its elimination race in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400, where four of the 12 remaining playoff drivers will not advance to the Round of 8.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series begins its Round of 8 with Saturday’s Kansas 300.

But it all begins today, as Cup has its first practice (the other two are Saturday) and qualifying, while the Xfinity Series will have its two practice sessions.

Here’s how today’s schedule shapes up:

(All times are Eastern)

10:30 a.m. – 8 p.m. — Cup garage open

12 – 8:30 p.m. — Xfinity garage open

1 – 2:25 p.m. — First Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

2:30 – 3:25 p.m. First Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)

5 – 5:55 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

6:15 p.m. – Cup qualifying (multi-vehicle, 3 rounds) (NBCSN, MRN)

NASCAR: Will Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch advance in playoffs?

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The last two drivers to win NASCAR Cup titles are in precarious positions ahead of the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Kyle Busch, the 2015 champion, is outside the top eight in ninth. He sits seven points behind defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

NASCAR America analysts Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman debated who they think had the best chance to advance to the Third round after Sunday.

Petty put his money behind Busch, who has finished in the top five in each of his last five starts at the 1.5-mile track.

“He’s one of the big three: Truex, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson,” Petty said. “I don’t see where these (last) two races (Charlotte, Talladega) have changed anything. The one thing Kyle Busch brings into Kansas City … he brings speed. These guys have had speed all year-long.”

Johnson on the other hand has produced only four top fives all season and just one since he won at Dover in June.

But Kligerman explained why he thinks the seven-time champion will prevail on Sunday.

“Jimmie Johnson knows how to pass and that is what has become evident throughout this season,” Kligerman said. “No, they have not had the fastest cars at Hendrick Motorsports. No, they have not qualified well. They’ve actually been sort of abysmal at qualifying of late.

“… He has three wins this year. Two of those he started at the back.”

Watch the video for more.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Daniel Hemric, Daniel Suarez’ racing roots

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America begins at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to preview the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman from Stamford, Connecticut.

On the show:

  • We’ll debate which past Cup Series champion will advance to the Round of 8. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson currently leads 2015 champ Kyle Busch by only seven points for the final transfer spot. Who has the edge going into Kansas this Sunday? This elimination race will be a heated competition just to finish above the cut line. Log on to NBCSports.com/NASCARVote and weigh in!
  • Xfinity Series playoff driver Daniel Hemric calls into the show to talk about his chances of advancing to the championship four in Miami. He’ll also describe his experience being one of the four drivers to participate in the recent tire test at the Charlotte Motor Speedway “Roval.”
  • We take a look at the Daniel Suarez’s Racing Roots and discuss his transition from Xfinity Series champion to Monster Energy Cup Series rookie.
  • Parker Kligerman hops into the iRacing simulator to preview Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas, as well as the Formula 1 race in Austin, Texas.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.