Ryan: A good decision but tough choices remain for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a dose of good medicine Friday.

A dose of harsh reality, though, still might await Hendrick Motorsports, Junior Nation and a NASCAR industry largely predicated on his starpower for 15 years.

For those constituencies intertwined in Earnhardt’s uncertain future, Friday brought some clarity – and surely a huge relief for an injured driver whose team firmly decreed that getting healthy is all that matters.

There will be no more looming and portentous updates this year about Earnhardt’s potential return to the No. 88 Chevrolet. No more anxiety-ridden doctor visits fraught with “what if” questions, hazy timelines and exasperating hypotheticals. No more worries about rushing back to mollify a fervent and massive fan base that has fretted over its hero’s status for several weeks.

Earnhardt has said stress impedes his healing process from a head injury.

What is more stressful than biweekly checkups conducted under the pressing pretense of whether you suddenly have regained the mental and physical faculties to wheel a race car again at 200 mph?

Declaring Earnhardt out for the season will strip away a layer of angst while adding an open-ended coating of comfort to his rehabilitation for at least a few months.

Earnhardt bravely and candidly has chronicled his comeback by telling fans on his podcast and showing them through his Instagram account that he is dedicated to getting well. But what he shares should be motivated only by catharsis or personal preference. He shouldn’t feel obligated or pressured in any way to provide evidence of his rehab.

Hendrick Motorsports deserves immense credit for helping remove that weight from NASCAR’s 13-time most popular driver, whose name recognition and marketability have brought in a sponsorship haul that probably approaches a quarter-billion dollars over his nine seasons with the team.

It’s easy to pay lip service to putting an athlete’s health first. It takes gumption to shelve your most bankable star for an indeterminate length of time because it’s the best decision for his long-term well-being.

Without the distraction of whether he will return in 2016, the focus solely shifts to getting Earnhardt healthy, and it only helps improve the odds – however slightly — that he might be cleared for the 2017 Daytona 500.

It was a smart move, but a difficult question lingers.

What will happen when Earnhardt is deemed healthy?

He admirably has said he intends to honor his contract with Hendrick through next season and reiterated his desire to race at Daytona in a Friday release.

But it won’t be as simple as hopping into a car again once his symptoms dissipate. There are many ramifications to weigh about whether it still remains worth it.

Research shows that those who sustain a concussion are four to six times more likely to sustain another, and Earnhardt has suffered at least five since 2002.

Just as troubling, concussion experts also believe that subconcussive impacts – hits that don’t cause major trauma – are cumulative. The next four mild knocks might not sideline Earnhardt from a race, but they could ensure that a fifth impact of greater severity is twice as devastating.

And there will be more impacts. This is NASCAR, which Chairman Brian France famously has proclaimed a contact sport.

If you race, you will wreck.

That’s a sobering fact for a two-time Daytona 500 winner who has reached a new station in life after 26 victories in NASCAR’s premier series.

At 41 years old, Earnhardt is expected to marry by next year. He seems eager to start a family. He eloquently has spoken about the quality of life he desires decades from now.

An intellectually curious soul, his experience with concussions has led him to become educated about the dozens of NFL players who suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that can plunge its victims into dementia, depression and suicide.

If he chose to hang up his helmet, nothing should be held against him.

At least one national publication already called on Earnhardt to retire Friday, and those rumblings likely will linger until Speedweeks 2017, or an announcement that Earnhardt is fit to return.

The speculation will bring high-risk stakes that make Hendrick’s unwavering support of its star impressive.

As with any elite pro sports franchise faced with an integral attraction in doubt, the team indisputably is considering contingency plans to account for worst-case scenarios in which Earnhardt couldn’t return.

If a replacement were needed, there don’t seem many good options available.

There aren’t any obvious impending free-agent veterans (a la Clint Bowyer sliding in for a retiring Tony Stewart next season), and the glut of promising youth doesn’t offer any guarantees. The signing of William Byron was a coup for Hendrick, but fast-tracking a teenager to Sprint Cup is a gamble at best even for a powerhouse organization.

Harsh realities? Yes — and possibly for down the road.

But Friday’s news showed only one reality truly counts.

Earnhardt’s health.

Xfinity race results, point standings after Bristol

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Chase Briscoe led the final six laps and won Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol for his seventh win of the season.

Briscoe beat Ross Chastain for the win. The top five was completed by Austin Cindric, Harrison Burton and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the race results.

Playoff standings

The 12-driver field for the playoffs has been set with Briscoe’s win in the regular-season finale.

Brandon Brown placed 12th and clinched the 12th and final spot.

Here are the re-seeded point standings entering the playoffs.

Chase Briscoe – 2,050 points

Austin Cindric – 2,050

Justin Allgaier – 2,033

Noah Gragson – 2,025

Brandon Jones – 2,020

Justin Haley – 2,018

Harrison Burton – 2,014

Ross Chastain – 2,010

Ryan Sieg – 2,002

Michael Annett – 2,002

Riley Herbst – 2,001

Brandon Brown – 2,000

Click here for the re-seeded standings.

Click here for the normal point standings.

Chase Briscoe wins Xfinity race at Bristol Motor Speedway

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Chase Briscoe took the lead with six laps to go and won Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, which marked the end of the regular season.

Briscoe passed Austin Cindric to assume the lead and went unchallenged to the checkered flag. The victory is his series-leading seventh of the season.

“I was so mad after last week (at Richmond),” Briscoe told NBCSN. “I told all the guys there ain’t no way we’re getting beat today. I was so mad after how we ran last week and I get on the internet all the time and see guys count us out after one bad race and I know what this team is capable. … I finished second here the last two races and I wanted to win here so bad and it’s awesome that I can actually celebrate it with all these race fans.”

The top five was completed by Ross Chastain, Cindric, Harrison Burton and Justin Allgaier.

More: Race results, playoff standings

Allgaier dominated the early portion of the race, leading 126 laps and winning the first two stages. But he lost the lead for good in the pits during the Stage 2 break.

Brandon Brown finished 12th and clinched the 12th and final playoff spot.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

STAGE 2 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ross Chastain led three times for 117 laps, but had to settle for his fifth runner-up finish of the season without a win … Austin Cindric earned his 13th top-10 finish in the last 14 races … Harrison Burton earned his 13th top five of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Brett Moffitt finished 27th after he had to pit three times in the opening laps and was penalized for taking fuel before the competition caution … BJ McLeod finished 34th after he was eliminated in a multi-car wreck that began when he made contact with teammate Jeffrey EarnhardtMichael Annett finished 31st and Joe Graf Jr. placed 27th after they were involved in an incident on Lap 120.

QUOTE OF THE RACE: “I hit pit road and I wanted to cry.” – Ross Chastain after he finished second for the fifth time this year. He is winless entering the playoffs.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Xfinity playoffs open at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 7:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 26 on NBCSN.

 

Fans not allowed at Las Vegas races

Fans not allowed
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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Spectators will be not be allowed for any of the NASCAR playoff races next weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the track announced Friday night.

A press release said only essential personnel will be allowed to attend the Cup, Xfinity and Truck playoff races there.

“To say we’re disappointed that we will conduct the South Point 400 playoff weekend without fans would be a gross understatement,” said Las Vegas Motor Speedway President Chris Powell. “Our staff has been working – many of them remotely – since the February Pennzoil 400 to prepare the speedway for our playoff tripleheader.

“But we must adhere to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s directive that limits gatherings due to COVID-19.  While we disagree with this policy, we have no choice but to oblige.  We certainly regret this situation for the thousands of race fans who won’t be able to attend our NASCAR-weekend events.”

Nevada’s re-opening plan does not permit fans at sporting events, concerts. Groups are limited to 50 or fewer people.

The Las Vegas Raiders announced last month that they would not have fans at any of the team’s home games in its inaugural season there.

The Truck playoff race will be at 9 p.m. ET Sept. 25 on FS1. The Xfinity playoff opener will be at  7:30 p.m. ET Sept. 26 on NBCSN. The Cup playoff race will be 7 p.m. ET Sept. 27 on NBCSN.

Fans holding tickets for those events will be contacted by the speedway ticket services department to discuss credits for future races or refunds.

Pit crew change for Alex Bowman, Jimmie Johnson teams

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Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson each will have a pit crew change for Saturday night’s playoff race at Bristol.

The change is the result of an injury to one pit crew member.

Dustin Lineback, jackman for Bowman’s team is out with an injury, the team stated. Kyle Tudor, who has been Johnson’s jackman, moves over to that role for Bowman’s team. Eric Ludwig, a backup for Hendrick Motorsports, moves up to be the jackman for Johnson.

MORE: Saturday Cup race at Bristol: Start time, forecast, lineup

Bowman enters the elimination race 27 points ahead of teammate William Byron, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the second round. Bowman opened the playoffs by finishing sixth in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. He followed that by placing ninth at Richmond. Bowman was collected in a crash and finished 37th in the May Bristol race.

Johnson, who is in his final full-time Cup season, seeks his first victory of the season. He finished third at Bristol in May.