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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Ford chooses Sebastien Bourdais replacement for Le Mans (and it isn’t Tony Stewart . . . yet)

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CONCORD, N.C. —  Ford has chosen a replacement for injured Sebastien Bourdais at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is expected to announce the driver soon – but don’t hold your breath NASCAR fans.

It isn’t Tony Stewart, who has indicated his desire to run the renowned event.

While taping an upcoming episode Thursday of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, Ford Performance director Dave Pericak said the three time champion who returned from NASCAR’s premier series last year still is lobbying “every time he sees us” to race a Ford GT car.

“We love Tony, and he wants to get behind the wheel of that GT but not at LeMans” in 2017, Pericak told NBC Sports at the Ford Performance Technical Center.

However, the new co-driver will be relatively inexperienced on the famous Circuit de la Sarthe road course in France. Pericak said Ford’s high-tech simulator (which mainly is used for NASCAR but also is used for sports cars and street models) at its North Carolina facility would help prepare the replacement.

“We will be using the simulator heavily between now and then for that driver to become fully up to speed not only in the GT but at Le Mans,” Pericak said. “There’s a great example of where we’re going to get tons of hours behind the wheel before that driver gets on an airplanes and heads over the France.

“The realism is unbelieveable. It’s a fantastic tool to have with this situation. Otherwise, you pick a driver, send him to Le Mans and take your chances. We’re going to be much more prepared. We already have the simulator ready to run that track because we ran it all last year.”

Returning to France last year, Ford won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Chip Ganassi Racing GT driven by Bourdais, Joey Hand and Dirk Muller.

Bourdais, who suffered pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in an Indianapolis 500 qualifying crash last Saturday, was released from an Indianapolis hospital Thursday.

“Thank God, he’s going to be OK,” Pericak said. “We’ve talked to him, he’s in good spirits, but we’re really pleased he’s going to make a full recovery.”

Pericak said an announcement of Bourdais’ replacement was likely Thursday or Friday.

NASCAR suspends Camping World Truck crew chief one race

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NASCAR has suspended Camping World Truck Series crew chief Kevin Bellicourt one Truck event and fined him $5,000 because Justin Haley‘s truck failed minimum height requirements after last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The L1 penalty also docked Haley 10 points and the team 10 owner points. He finished 17th in an encumbered finish.

NASCAR also announced Thursday that Joseph P. Light has been reinstated after successfully completing NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program. He was indefinitely suspended March 16.

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Stewart-Haas Racing, Nature’s Bakery reach tentative settlement

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Counsel for Stewart-Haas Racing reported to North Carolina Superior Court on Wednesday that it has executed settlement documents with Nature’s Bakery.

A status report was pushed back 21 days to June 23 in the event the that the parties have not filed a stipulation of dismissal by that date.

No details of the settlement documents were detailed to the court.

Stewart-Haas Racing filed a $31 million breach of contract lawsuit against Nature’s Bakery on Feb. 3. Nature’s Bakery had two years remaining on a three-year contract to sponsor Danica Patrick’s team when the company sent the team a notice of termination on Jan. 19 . Nature’s Bakery was to have paid $15,212,000 each season to sponsor the team.

Nature’s Bakery filed a counterclaim Feb. 25 stating it did not see the return it was led to believe in sponsoring Patrick’s team.

Click here to read court document

Thursday’s schedule for NASCAR Cup, Xfinity at Charlotte

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Charlotte Motor Speedway kicks off its weekend leading up to Sunday’s main event, the Coca-Cola 600, with today’s action.

The Xfinity Series will hold two practices, while the NASCAR Cup Series has one practice and qualifies in the evening.

Here is today’s schedule:

(All Times Eastern)

11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

1:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

2 p.m. – 3:25 p.m. – First Cup practice (Fox Sports 1)

4 p.m. – 4:55 p.m. – First Xfinity practice (FS1)

6 p.m. – 6:55 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (FS1)

7:15 p.m. – Cup qualifying (multi-vehicle, three rounds) (FS1, Performance Racing Network)