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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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Points leader Elliott Sadler clinches Xfinity playoff spot after finishing third at Bristol

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Even though he hasn’t won this year, Elliott Sadler earned himself a spot in the Xfinity Series playoffs Friday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Sadler is the fourth driver to qualify for the playoffs. He joins Ryan Reed, William Byron and Justin Allgaier, who clinched spots through race wins.

The JR Motorsports driver and the series points leader finished third in the Food City 300 for his ninth top five of the year.

“Man, we had a great car,” Sadler told NBCSN. “I hit the wall with like 50 to go. Then I threw my water bottle out and it got in the jack man’s way, messed us up. We’re peaking at the right time.”

Sadler has led the Xfinity Series point standings for the last 10 races and following 20 of the 22 races this year.

Following Sadler in the top five is William Byron (-110), Allgaier (-136), Brennan Poole (-186) and Daniel Hemric (-206).

Brendan Gaughan is on the playoff bubble. He is 43 points above the cutoff line. Ross Chastain is 13th on the playoff grid.

Click here for the point standings.

Results, stats for the Xfinity Series race at Bristol

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Kyle Busch won the Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway for his fifth Xfinity Series win of the year.

He led 186 laps and swept all three stages.

Completing the top five were Daniel Suarez, Elliott Sadler, Ty Dillon and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for full results.

Kyle Busch wins Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway

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Kyle Busch once again dominated a NASCAR race at Bristol Motor Speedway, winning Friday night’s Food City 300.

Busch led 186 laps on the way to the win, his fifth Xfinity Series victory of the season.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver fended off the field in a nine-lap shootout following a late caution.

The top five was completed by Daniel Suarez, Elliott Sadler, Ty Dillon and Justin Allgaier.

Busch moved one step closer to a sweep of the race week. He won Wednesday’s Camping World Truck Series race. If he wins Saturday’s Cup race, it will be the second time he’s swept all three Bristol races after doing it in 2010.

Just like Wednesday, Busch fought through the field after a mid-race speeding penalty to earn the win.

“At least I didn’t have to come through (the field) in the last stage because everybody was pretty fast there tonight in the last stage,” Busch said. “I don’t know if I would have been able to make it all the way back up through there. Suárez gave us a heck of a run there. I was trying to push hard and he was closing in on us a little bit there before that last caution came out. Once that caution came out everything cooled down and my car wasn’t even close to what it was before, so I don’t know how I held on to it. The car was just so sideways.”

The win is Busch’s 91st in the Xfinity Series.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Busch

MORE: Race Results

MORE: Points standings

WHO HAD A GOOD NIGHT: Allgaier led twice for 75 laps and earned his sixth top five of the season … Sadler led once for 15 laps and clinched a spot in the playoffs … Ty Dillon earned his second top five of the season and beset finish in 19 starts … Joey Logano bounced back from a flat tire and going to two laps down to finish ninth.

WHO HAD A BAD NIGHT: Ryan Reed and Aric Almirola wrecked on Lap 25 after they pinched Spencer Gallagher on the backstretch. Almirola finished 38th. … Reed caused the following caution after damage from the previous wreck cut a tire, sending him into the wall. Reed finished 37th … Brendan Gaughan had one unscheduled pit stop for a tire rub. He was then involved in a crash with 15 to go after being tagged by Jeb Burton, who had lost a tire. He finished 30th … William Byron lost a tire with less than 10 to go and had to pit. He finished 22nd.

NOTABLE: With his win, Busch is nine wins away from reaching 100 Xfinity wins. Busch has said he’ll retire from Xfinity competition once he reaches 100 … Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 13th in his first Xfinity start of the year.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “Two weeks in a row. I know he doesn’t have a lot of race and I like him a lot normally, but right now I’m going to knock the hell out of him. The first time he gave me a flat and the second time he says he blew a tire. If you know you’ve got a tire going then don’t drive underneath somebody. The last couple of weeks I’ve been driven with no respect. We put ourselves back in a decent spot and we’re going to go to Road America and win that sucker.” – Brendan Gaughan after his late wreck with Jeb Burton.

NEXT: Johnsonville 180 at Road America at 3 p.m. ET on Aug. 27 on NBC.

Starting lineup for Cup night race at Bristol

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Erik Jones and Kyle Larson will start on the front row of the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway (coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC).

Jones starts from his first Cup pole.

Completing the top five are Kasey Kahne, Chase Elliott and Matt Kenseth.

Click here for the starting lineup.