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Dale Earnhardt Jr. was ‘freaking pumped’ for Phoenix test

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s feelings toward this week’s two-day test at Phoenix Raceway were different from past NASCAR tests.

While traveling to the track in Avondale, Arizona, from the NASCAR-themed cruise that stopped in Key West, Florida, Earnhardt couldn’t contain his excitement in texts to friends and team members.

“I don’t know why, but I’m just freaking pumped up for this,” Earnhardt said Tuesday, recalling the general theme of those text messages during a press conference. “When you’re racing every single week for 20 years and you’re testing here and there it gets kind of boring, no lie.”

For the second time since a concussion forced him out of the car last July, Earnhardt climbed back into his No. 88 Chevrolet to prepare for the 2017 season. He last drove a car in December at Darlington Raceway in order to receive clearance to drive again.

“My guys were excited this morning when we walked into the hauler,” Earnhardt said. “You miss the camaraderie and the friendships I have on my road crew. I think they missed me. That makes you feel good. They seem excited that we’re working together and back together.”

MORE: Dale Jr. looks at 2017 and beyond with return to racing

Earnhardt, driving a No. 88 car with sponsor logos but no paint, was the first driver out on the 1-mile track. He would return to the garage for an extended period of time to fix a “little hiccup” when his brakes caught fire.

“We got underway and got to trying some stuff that we had on our list,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve got a really long list. (Crew chief) Greg (Ives) and those guys are motoring right through it. We’ve seen that the car has really good speed.

“I like the way the car feels. It’s been a fun day. Didn’t really take any time to get acclimated or adjusted to anything. There’s a couple of small new things with the cockpit or the dash, little things like that. It’s funny how things continue to change, technology on the car continues to change. As far as driving the car I felt comfortable out there.”

It was the first time Earnhardt has been on a track with other cars since he finished 13th at Kentucky Speedway on July 9. His recovery from a concussion forced him to miss the final 18 races of the year.

Earnhardt has three wins at Phoenix, including his last Cup Series victory in November 2015. The 14-time most popular driver shared his thoughts on the renovation project Phoenix announced Monday. The $178 million project will include moving the start-finish to the dogleg on the backstretch.

“I think it will be really interesting to have the restart while we’re in the turns,” Earnhardt said. “Imagine if you’re 20th and middle of a pack and trying to get a good restart while you’re in a corner. It’s going to be interesting to throttle up out of the turn for a restart. It’s going to be guys all over the place going through the dogleg because on restarts you’re going to have guys that accelerate better than others, guys in the right lane, wrong lane. It’s going to be chaos going through the dogleg. It will be some action.”

Earnhardt and the rest of the drivers testing will be back at the track on Wednesday. Every Cup Series team will return to Phoenix for the March 19 Camping World 500.

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Goodyear tire info for Talladega Superspeedway

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Goodyear will use the same tire setups this weekend in the Cup and Xfinity Series at Talladega Superspeedway.

While the left-side tire is unchanged from what’s been in use at the track since October 2014, the right-side tire will have a minor construction update.

“The amount of tire wear at Talladega has increased a good bit since the track was repaved back in 2010, and we especially see that on the inboard of the right-front (tire) where teams run a significant amount of camber” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing in a press release. “That led us to bring a more wear-resistant right-side tread compound starting in 2014. Having said that, we still see a lot of tire strategy come into play at Talladega, with teams still having the ability to take two tires or even fuel only depending on the situation.”

As on all NASCAR ovals greater than one mile in length, teams are required to run inner liners in all four tire positions at Talladega. Air pressure in those inner liners should be 12-25 psi greater than that of the outer tire.

Here’s the full tire info for the weekend.

Set limits: Cup: Two sets for practice, one set for qualifying and six sets for the race; Xfinity: four sets for the event

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4596; Right-side — D-4752

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,233 mm (87.91 in.); Right-side — 2,247 mm (88.46 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 27 psi; Left Rear – 27 psi; Right Front — 50 psi; Right Rear — 48 psi

Social Roundup: Reaction to Matt Kenseth’s NASCAR return

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He’s back!

Five months after making what was thought to likely be his last Cup start, Matt Kenseth was announced Wednesday as returning in a part-time capacity with Roush Fenway Racing.

Here’s how social media reacted to the news that the 2003 Cup champion will share the No. 6 Ford with Trevor Bayne for the rest of the season.

Check back for more.

Matt Kenseth to drive No. 6 for Roush Fenway Racing

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Matt Kenseth is returning to NASCAR and coming back to his racing home.

Roush Fenway Racing announced Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame that the 46-year-old Kenseth will drive the No. 6 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing in select races. His first race with the team will be Kansas on May 12.

“It feels like the right deal at the right time,’’ Kenseth said. “I think it’s an interesting challenge for me not just being a driver. I hope I can be much more to the organization. I hope there is a lot of different ways I can help in.’’

Said car owner Jack Roush: “We feel he has come home to us.’’

Kenseth will share the No. 6 ride with Trevor Bayne, who is running this weekend at Talladega.

“Our goal is to have Trevor continue to grow and mature on the track,’’ said Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing. “He will continue to be in the car.’’

Newmark said details are being worked out on what races Bayne and Kenseth will drive. Bayne has close ties to sponsor AdvoCare, which is on the car at Talladega. Kenseth will drive in the All-Star Race, Newmark confirmed.

Newmark said that when he told Bayne of the decision, Bayne said he wanted to remain in the car every week.

He’s a fierce competitor,“ Newmark said of Bayne’s reaction to being taken out of the car for some races. 

Roush said he hopes Kenseth can help the organization improve its performance.

“It’s a chance to look at our cars and see if there is something glaring that Matt sees with his experience,’’ Roush said.

Bayne is 26th in the points. The 2011 Daytona 500 winner has not finished better than 12th (Texas) this season. Every driver ahead of him in the points has had at least one top-10 finish this season. He has not finished in the top 10 in his last 12 starts, dating back to last season.

Kenseth said he had not talked to Bayne but hopes to do so in a few days and work together. Kenseth said he spoke to Stenhouse before the announcement.

Kenseth, the 2003 Cup champion, has 39 career Cup wins, putting him 20th on the all-time wins list.

Car owner Jack Roush said that Kenseth will be a good mentor for the team’s young drivers, along with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne.

He won the 2000 Cup Rookie of the Year award driving for Roush Fenway Racing and remained with the organization through the 2012 season. Kenseth won 24 races — including the 2009 and 2012 Daytona 500 — with the team before leaving to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing from 2013-17.

Roush Fenway Racing also announced that Wyndham Rewards/Wyndham Hotels will sponsor the No. 6 car in select races.

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NASCAR America: Matt DiBenedetto holds head high after 16th at Richmond

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Matt DiBenedetto joined Kyle Petty and Marty Snider at the Big Oak Table in NASCAR America’s Charlotte studio and relived his 16th-place finish in the Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway.

“When we run 16th – with no attrition; we just flat out-raced Hendrick cars … RCR cars and Penske cars, the list goes on and on – we do that, we can hold our head high,” DiBenedetto said.

DiBenedetto was one of 23 drivers who finished on the lead lap last week, which meant he had to beat some big budget teams.

“If we’re going by budget and pure numbers, we stack up 32nd, -3rd, -4th,” DiBenedetto. “But we have really good people. We may not have a lot of people, but we have some really good people.

“We had a nice, smooth weekend and outraced a lot of people that in theory, if you’re going by budget, we definitely shouldn’t. It makes us proud because it makes other people, probably a little mad, as they see the 32 car going by, knowing that we run on a sixth of the budget of the guys we were driving by.”

DiBenedetto’s last three races have ended in finishes of 16th at Texas Motor Speedway, 21st at Bristol Motor Speedway and 16th at Richmond.

For more on DiBenedetto’s strong Richmond finish, watch the above video.