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Back in the saddle: Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks to this season and beyond

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. understands that it could take time to return to an elite level after a concussion forced him to miss half of last season.

“You can’t take six months off and come right back and expect to be right there where you were like you hadn’t missed a step,’’ the two-time Daytona 500 winner told NBC Sports in a recent interview.

“The sport has changed, the cars have changed and any week you’re not in the car you’re getting behind. So if there is some learning curve, I won’t be shocked. Hopefully, it doesn’t last very long. I expect to be able to adapt very quickly.’’

Earnhardt will be back in a car Tuesday for only the second time since July when he takes part in a NASCAR organizational test at Phoenix International Raceway. The session continues Wednesday.

The only other time Earnhardt has been on track since the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway was a one-day test at Darlington Raceway that doctors and NASCAR used to determine if he was ready to return to competition.

Now that he’s back, Earnhardt has much work ahead of him. That’s why he is doing the Phoenix test for Hendrick Motorsports. Each organization is allowed to have one team at the test.

Earnhardt admits that the beginning of the season will be important as he seeks to catch up to his competitors. He seeks more than moral victories.

“I feed off statistics,’’ Earnhardt told NBC Sports when asked what he wants to see early in the season. “Top fives, wins. Obviously, we want to win every race. If we can go get some good runs and supplant ourselves in the top 15 in points really well early in the season, that would relieve some stress and concern about what the learning curve is for me having been out of the car.

“Also, every race you put in the bank gives you the confidence in your health. I’ve got to rebuild sort of the confidence in myself and my health as well as my performance, my ability to go out there and do the best job I can.’’

While every driver and situation is different, Kyle Busch won in his fifth race back after missing the first 11 races of the 2015 season because of injuries suffered in a crash in an Xfinity race at Daytona. Busch returned for the All-Star race and then ran four points races before winning at Sonoma — the first of five victories in his championship season.

If things go as well as his Darlington test, Earnhardt figures he’ll be in good shape when he competes in his first event, which will be will be a qualifying race Feb. 23 at Daytona International Speedway (Earnhardt won’t compete in the Feb. 18 Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona even though he is eligible). It didn’t take Earnhardt long to feel comfortable in the car during that Darlington test.

“I was a little bit apprehensive for sure, wondering how I was going to feel and how the car was going to feel and what was going to happen,’’ Earnhardt said. “We ran about three of four laps and it felt pretty comfortable and pretty familiar. After about 15 or 20 laps, it was like me and the car were one piece.’’

Earnhardt, who is 42 years old, said the time out of the car gave last year him a glimpse of what retirement could be like. 

“I never thought that the transition from driving a car to retirement would be a difficult one for me, but it certainly answered some questions and made me lot more comfortable with that prospect,’’ he said. “There’s going to be some opportunities for me beyond driving that will be fun and interesting. I have some businesses that can be successful if I pull the right levers, so I’m not too worried about it. It was interesting to see the sport from the angle I did and to sort of get what being out of the car is like.’’

While he was out of the car, Earnhardt also did some broadcasting. Could that be a part of his future once he’s no longer driving?

“I would certainly entertain the opportunity to be in broadcasting, but … I just know there’s a lot of guys that want to do that,’’ Earnhardt said. “(Kevin) Harvick has talked about that. There’s just going to be more people interested in filling those small, select positions, and I don’t know if that is a competitive field I want to get involved in. It will just have to come naturally. I really did love being in there.

“I could certainly have a lot of fun trying to describe the action to the fans. I could see myself doing that. We’ll just have to see how it works out. I’m not sure what those opportunities will be. … but I’d love to be a part of the sport one way or the other.’’

He’s clear on one thing about his future, though.

“I’m pretty sure that (Cup) ownership is not one of those options,’’ he said of post-driving plans. “It’s not a way that I want to be connected to the sport, going down the road on the Cup level. But I’d love to be at the track and at the races and have a purpose to be there.’’

And once he’s done racing in NASCAR, he still might compete.

“If my health allows me to race Late Models and do all that stuff,’’ he said. “I would do it.’’

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NASCAR America: Erik Jones’ racing roots in Byron, Michigan

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After a feature looking at his upbringing in Byron, Michigan, Furniture Row Racing driver Erik Jones spoke with NASCAR America’s Steve Letarte, Dale Jarrett and Marty Snider about the early years of his racing career.

The journey to his NASCAR career began with a yard cart that his late father, Dave Jones, brought home one day when he was 3.

“I rode that all day long around the yard,” Jones said. “Winter time would and we had like a gravel circle driveway in front of our house. When it would snow over I would get the kart out and ride it around in the snow because I could slide and I thought that was pretty cool. I would get it stuck about every five minutes out in the snow.”

Jones would then get out of the kart and find his dad in their barn to come out get him out.

Now 21, Jones also discussed how much his dad was involved in his career until his death in June 2016 after a battle with cancer.

He also explains how he’s never stayed in any series for more than one year in his career.

Watch the video above for the full discussion.

NASCAR America: Scan All from Cup playoff opener at Chicagoland

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“I sure as (expletive) hope that’s all out of our system.”

That’s what Kyle Busch had to say over his radio after he finished 15th, a lap down in the Cup playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

Busch’s day went south after the first stage thanks to two pit miscues the sent him two laps down.

Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. dominate the field to win his fifth race of the year and advance to the second round of the playoffs.

In the latest “Scan All,” True and crew chief Cole Pearn recap their day, which saw them bounce back from their own pit road mistakes.

Here are other highlights from this week’s “Scan All.”

  • “Can’t drive in a straight line. Something’s not right with the front end.” – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. just before he made contact with the outside wall. A commitment line violation resulted in Stenhouse finish multiple laps off the lead.
  • “Tell the 1 (Jamie McMurray) I don’t know what happened there but we both got the short end of the stick.” – Ryan Newman after contact between him and McMurray sent McMurray spinning on a restart.
  • (Expletive), that 24 (Chase Elliott) can be so much (expletive) faster than us.” – Kasey Kahne after being told he was two laps down.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Erik Jones recounts rookie Cup season, being taught by Kyle Busch

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Erik Jones, the rookie driver for Furniture Row Racing in the No. 77 Toyota, joined NASCAR America Wednesday for a special show from the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The 21-year-old driver won the 2015 Camping World Truck Series title and is teammates with Martin Truex Jr.

With Marty Snider, Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte, Jones discussed the challenges and lessons he’s faced in his first full-time season in the Cup Series.

“The biggest (milestones) for me were trying to win a race and making the playoffs,” Jones said. “Obviously, making the playoffs didn’t happen. … I look back at the last few seasons and rookies that have been in the sport and it’s so hard to win races now. You just don’t see rookies do it a lot.”

Jones also discussed finishing second to Kyle Busch in the Bristol night race and his relationship with the driver who brought him into NASCAR beginning with the Truck Series.

“A lot of times when I was racing in Trucks and Xfinity and Kyle would come to race I’d always run second to him,” Jones said. “I’m like, ‘you know what the problem is? This is the guy who taught me how to race these cars. So I’m good at all the same tracks he’s good at. Except he’s been doing about 10 more years than I have.”

Watch the video for more.

 

PJ1 adhesive to be applied again to track for this weekend’s races at Loudon

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With the successful use of the PJ1 compound in July’s NASCAR Cup race there, New Hampshire Motor Speedway officials announced Wednesday they will apply the compound again to the track for this weekend’s racing.

The 1.058-mile flat track will play host to the Cup and Camping World Truck Series playoff races, as well as the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and the American Canadian Tour race series.

“There’s no question that the track bite compound we laid down in July allowed for some awesome racing around the entire racetrack,” NHMS executive VP and GM David McGrath said in a statement. “We received some very positive feedback from the drivers, teams and, most importantly, the fans. The support to do it again in September was overwhelming.”

McGrath said the PJ1 adhesive compound will be added to the first and third grooves in all four turns on Thursday evening. It will be reapplied again on Saturday night to be fresh for Sunday afternoon’s Cup race.

Several drivers gave their endorsement for the move:

Kyle Larson: “I think it’s awesome. I was surprised at how well it worked. I liked the element of it changing quickly and wearing out and then wearing out in different spots and stuff. It just adds an element to us that we have to adapt to. In the past … you kind of just run the same line all race long, but (in July) everybody I got around was running somewhat of a different line, and I thought that was a really cool thing.”

Joey Logano: “The question got put out to a lot of different drivers … from the (NASCAR Cup Drivers Council). We kind of got on our group chat and were talking back and forth about what we thought was best. (In the past) after 10 or 15 laps, everyone is kind of where they are at and passes don’t happen often. The wider we can make the racetrack, the more passes that can be made.”

Kyle Busch: “We always run that one lane here, which I call the middle lane. They were just trying to widen the racetrack a little bit and give a little bit more opportunity for us to be able to run side by side and not feel like we’re crashing here all the time or running into each other on restarts.”

Kevin Harvick: “I like the prospects of us trying different things. As the (summer Cup) race wore on, things changed. You had to move around. The PJ1 is one of those things that can definitely make the race better if you can add more lanes of racing.”

Austin Dillon: “I thought (the PJ1) held on good throughout the race in July; I’m a fan of it. July’s race was a blast and everyone is excited about it this time around. We’re going to be aggressive and just go after it this weekend.”