Long: Aric Almirola’s greatest pain is not fulfilling his children’s wishes

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CONCORD, N.C. — The pain in Aric Almirola’s back is nothing like the pain in his heart.

When he gingerly exited an airplane Sunday, a day after fracturing his T5 vertebrae at Kansas Speedway, he was greeted by his children. Four-year-old son Alex and 3-year-old daughter Abby wanted to hug their father.

“I couldn’t,’’ Almirola said in a soft voice.

They wanted him to pick them up.

“I couldn’t.’’

Hugs and lifts will be limited for while. Almirola is expected to need eight to 12 weeks to recover from the back injury he suffered last weekend. His car pounded Joey Logano’s Ford, sending the rear of Almirola’s Ford up about 6 feet before crashing back to the track.

Almirola moved haltingly Friday, sitting still as he talked because of the “excruicatingly painful’’ injury.

“There’s no way to relieve it,’’ Almirola said. “There’s no comfort. If I sit for too long, it hurts. If I stand up, it feels better for a few minutes and then it starts to hurt. If I lay down, it feels better for a few minutes and then it starts to hurt.

“I can’t really lay on my back because it puts pressure on my spine. I can’t lay for too long on my side because then my spine sags and it puts pressure on it. There’s just a constant ache.’’

For someone whose focus as a child was to be a racer — “racing was Plan A, Plan B and Plan C,’’ he said — sitting out of the car for so long will be difficult. But it won’t be as hard for the 33-year-old as it is for his two children.

They don’t understand daddy is hurt.

“I don’t have a Band-Aid on it. I don’t have blood or a scab, so visually they don’t understand I’ve got a broken bone in my back,’’ Almirola told NBC Sports.

Almirola said he felt a stabbing pain in his back when his car struck Logano’s and the pain intensified when the rear of Almirola’s car slammed the ground.

He felt such a burning sensation that he thought his back was on fire. That’s why he lowered the window net of his car. He wasn’t trying to signal that he was OK, he was trying to get out.

Almriola removed his steering wheel. When he threw it on top of the dash and extended his hands, the pain “took my breath away.’’

He soon saw that he wasn’t on the fire. The son of firefighter, he knew that with his back pain it was important to keep the spine stable. Safety officials cut him out of the car.

William Heisel, director of OrthoCarolina Motorsports, which is treating Almirola, said the driver’s injuries are worse than the compression fracture Denny Hamlin suffered in 2013 in a last-lap crash at Auto Club Speedway.

Heisel also said that Almirola’s injury has “outstanding healing potential.’’

The key is to be patient, Hamlin said. He missed four races because of his injury.

“After about two weeks I felt relatively normal,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports. “There were certain positions in which I would sit that I would feel it and I knew that it wasn’t right, but I was aching to get in the car as quick as I could. I maybe rushed it a bit, but I feel like we waited until it was safe.

“That’s the frustrating part. Drivers don’t mind not getting in a car when they’re not feeling well, it’s when you feel fine that it hurts.’’

Almirola said he’ll wait as long as doctors want him to before climbing back into the car.

While he recovers, his kids will keep him company. And take care of him.

When daddy needs a water, Abby dutifully runs to the kitchen to retrieve a bottle. When daddy needs fresh ice packs for his back, Alex goes to the freezer to get those.

“We’ve got a pretty good system,’’ Almirola said. “They’re taking pretty good care of me.’’

But they are kids and it’s tough on them that daddy is hurt.

“I’ve been spending a lot of time on the couch,’’ Almirola said. “About our most quality time we’ve had over the last week is sitting on the couch and watching TV. They snuggle up next to me.’’

Those are special moments for Almirola.

“They have a way of making you feeling better for sure when they crawl up on the couch, show you they love you and care about you,’’ he said. “That lasts about five minutes and they’re ready to run around. Alex wants me to get down on the ground and play cars with him. Abby wants me to walk her baby stroller with her, chase them around the house or go out to the front yard and watch them ride their bikes.’’

But each time, his response is the same to them.

“Can’t do that.’’

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NASCAR America 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Dale Earnhardt Jr. live from NASCAR Hall

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN from the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Our special guest for the entire hour is two-time Daytona 500 winner and 14-time Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Marty Snider hosts and will be joined by NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett and Jeff Burton.

Among the topics on today’s show:

  • We’ll talk with Dale Jr. about his last Cup race at Talladega, the emotions he went through, starting from the pole for the first time there and ultimately finishing seventh.
  • How is Earnhardt approaching the final five races of his Cup career before retiring at season’s end, the JR Nation Appreci88ion campaign, his role with NBC Sports Group next season, as well as his Hall of Fame father, Dale Earnhardt and the Earnhardt legacy. Also, what does the future hold for him?
  • Speaking of the future, we’ll also congratulate the 26-time Cup race winner on soon becoming a father for the first time with wife Amy. What kind of father does Junior expect to be?
  • You can also send in your own questions for Dale Jr, who will answer them during the show! Just send them on social media with the hashtag #AskDaleJr

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.

William Byron tops Xfinity playoff grid to start second round

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The second round of the Xfinity Series playoffs begins this weekend when the series heads to Kansas Speedway for the Kansas Lottery 300.

Following an elimination race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the series and the eight remaining playoff drivers are coming off an off week for the first time in months.

Those eight drivers are led by JR Motorsports’ William Byron, Justin Allgaier and Elliott Sadler. The three drivers have been at the top of the standings since the second race of the first round.

There was a minor adjustment after the Charlotte race. Matt Tifft was penalized 10 driver points for his car failing post-race inspection. But due to the reset in points, it had no bearing on his placement in the playoffs.

Tifft is eighth in the standings and trails Ryan Reed by one point. The bottom four drivers – Cole Custer, Brennan Poole, Reed and Tifft – are each separated by one point.

Here’s the full playoff grid.

Carl Edwards to receive Stan Musial Award for sportsmanship

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Former NASCAR Cup driver Carl Edwards is among one of more than a dozen individuals that will receive the prestigious 2017 Musial Award.

The annual ceremony will be held Nov. 18 at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis.

The Musial Awards – named after late St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Stan Musial – “honor this year’s greatest moments of sportsmanship and the biggest names in sports for their class and character,” according to a media release.

Edwards will be honored for his actions in last year’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Here’s how the awards committee described what Edwards did that day:

Last November at Homestead—Miami Speedway, Edwards was among four drivers in contention for NASCAR’s Cup Series championship. He led the season finale race with 10 laps to go. But as he tried to block competitor Joey Logano from passing him on a restart, the two drivers crashed, ending Edwards’ shot for his first Cup Series title.

“Instead of losing his cool, as other athletes might have done, Edwards took the high road and showed pure class. He walked over to Logano’s pit crew, shook hands with crew chief Todd Gordon, and wished the team good luck. It was a gesture of extraordinary sportsmanship that was lauded throughout NASCAR.

“Based on the character he has shown throughout his career, it was not a surprise Edwards would take such a gracious approach. Winner of NASCAR’s Busch Series in 2011 and holder of 28 Cup Series wins, the Columbia, Mo., native’s success on the track is equaled by the class, respect and humility he has personified over time.”

Also, renowned track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee – considered by some as the greatest female athlete ever – will receive the Musial Lifetime Achievement Award, joining previous lifetime award winners Joe Torre (2014), Arnold Palmer (2015) and Cal Ripken Jr. (2016).

Other honorees include Arizona Cardinals (NFL) president Michael Bidwell, female boxer Aliyah Charbonier and LSU head baseball coach Paul Mainieri.

Preliminary entry lists for Kansas Speedway

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NASCAR’s top two series will be in action this weekend at Kansas Speedway as they hold two different stages of their playoff races.

The Cup Series has its second round elimination race with the Hollywood Casino 400. The Xfinity Series begins its second round with the Kansas Lottery 300 after an off week.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for both races:

Cup – Hollywood Casino 400

There are 41 cars entered into the race.

StarCom Racing is set to make its debut with Derrike Cope driving the No. 00 Chevrolet. Tony Furr will serve as Cope’s crew chief.

There are four cars without drivers attached to them yet: BK Racing’s No. 23 and No. 83 Toyotas, Premium Motorsports’ No. 15 Chevrolet and Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet.

Gray Gaulding will driving Premium Motorsports’ No. 55 Chevrolet.

Martin Truex Jr. won the last visit to Kansas Speedway in May. He beat Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick after passing Ryan Blaney with 19 laps to go.

Harvick is the defending winner of the playoff race.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Kansas Lottery 300

There are 41 cars entered into the race.

Cup drivers entered into the race include Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Erik Jones and Ryan Blaney.

Christopher Bell will driver the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Kyle Busch is the defending winner of this race. He has won the last three Xfinity races at the track.

Click here for the entry list.