Dale Earnhardt Jr. close to returning after worrying ‘I may never race again’

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CONCORD, N.C. – A few months from believing he “may never race again” in NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Jr. now believes he is only a few weeks from being cleared to return.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver, who missed the last half of the 2016 season after suffering a concussion, said he hopes to turn laps in a December test and again in a January session before racing his No. 88 Chevrolet in the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. Earnhardt declined to specify where the tests would occur but intimated they were the final steps he alluded to last week on his podcast.

“Basically, the test in December would be the final box checked,” he told NBC Sports in a Tuesday interview at Hendrick Motorsports, where he unveiled a new paint scheme he designed with primary sponsor Nationwide for the 2017 season. “Once that’s done, I am jumping into the hamster wheel again. I’m excited.”

In his first extensive comments since a late August news conference to announce he would miss the rest of the 2016 season, Earnhardt revealed the depths of his long recovery from a concussion that he sustained in a June 12 wreck at Michigan International Speedway. It was at least the fifth concussion that Earnhardt has sustained during his NASCAR career, but the severity of the symptoms were enough to worry the 13-time most popular driver that his career was over.

“I mean I went through some really doubtful moments with this whole process when I was not doing well and my symptoms were really, really bad, and they lingered,” he said. “I’d never had the symptoms stay that long.

“I was thinking, ‘I may never race again. I don’t know how this is going to end.’ So I went from not knowing if I could do it to having to build my confidence back one little Lego at a time.”

Earnhardt said the symptoms, which centered on problems with balance and vision (known as “gaze stability”), began to dissipate over the past month. During the photo shoot Tuesday, he wasn’t wearing the thick, black glasses that he often wore in public during his recovery.

“The first five or six weeks, (the symptoms) were super heavy and weren’t getting better,” he said. “So I was really getting nervous. Man, you’re sitting by yourself at home with all this going on and thinking to yourself, ‘What if I’m like this the rest of my life? What if this is just a permanent injury?’ ”

Earnhardt healed much more quickly from his previous concussions. During this recovery, he kept detailed daily notes “so I could see that I improved from a week ago.

“I was used to things changing by the day,” he said. “I was used to improvements in 24 hours and literally being able to feel it and know it.”

Last month, Earnhardt stopped taking medication that numbed his symptoms, and he noticed a marked improvement in his condition.

“The last five weeks have been great,” he said. “It’s not really that I feel like myself more every day, but the medication kind of numbs you and knocks your edge off. Every day, I’m reminding me of my older self before the injury, which is a good feeling.”

“Every time I see (team owner) Rick (Hendrick) — probably once every two weeks — he’s like, ‘I didn’t know you could get better! You’re even better than the last time I saw you, and I thought you were great then.’ ”

Hendrick said Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway that he anticipated Earnhardt back in a car in December.

Earnhardt, who has been practicing on a simulator for a few months, said Tuesday he expects he will need to shake off some rust during the tests the next two months before heading to Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway.

“It’s going to be tough, but hopefully by the time we get to Daytona, we hit the ground running and everything feels like it needs to feel with my confidence,” he said. “But it’s going to take a couple of good runs to say, ‘Oh, still got it.’ Even after all these years, you just don’t know.

“In no professional sport — baseball, football, I think racing is the same – no one can step away and then jump right back in right where they left off. The series is too competitive. The series is evolving all the time. The drivers evolve with it week after week after week. They’re in that hamster wheel, and if you get out for any period of time, I can’t expect to jump right back in there at the top of my game.”

Though he wasn’t behind the wheel, Earnhardt found some semblance in the photo shoots and production work this week with Nationwide.

On Monday, he donned his firesuit for the first time since his most recent start July 9 at Kentucky Speedway, and he felt an unexpected sense of comfort and confidence.

“It hadn’t really hit me that I’m going to be racing again or coming back,” he said. “I know mentally I’m doing the things I need and checking the boxes to go race, and I’m pretty 100% sure that I’m going to go race, and everything is going to be fine, but it hasn’t really hit me emotionally, and when I put that suit on yesterday, I got a great feeling.”

Earnhardt was a more frequent attendee at races during the last two months (including some stints in the NBC Sports booth), but missing the past 18 races also caused some disconnect.

“Being out of the routine is so foreign,” he said. “After several weeks, you don’t get used to that, but you feel like you get so distanced from all this. To jump back into it with both feet with the (Nationwide paint scheme unveil) has really been overwhelming, sort of breathtaking.”

Because he hasn’t driven in several months, Earnhardt said “my confidence is like really low, and doing these little things like this photo shoot are kind of bringing it back up. Like I’m an old phone being put on the charger. I feel like I’m an old smartphone that’s just been laying around with a dead battery, and this is sort of like bringing back that feeling that I know I can do this, and I know this is where I belong.

“My confidence is critical to my ability to do it. If I don’t believe in myself or have a doubt in the car or anything, I’m dead in the water. That’s the way I’ve always been. So that confidence is what I’m working on now. Just doing this little stuff here is building it, not even driving. I’m getting back in that routine that I’ve been doing for 20 years that I’ve been out of for five months.”

Earnhardt has been candid about sharing the steps of his rehabilitation with fans through social media and his podcast. Part of his treatment involved going to public places to see if anxiety would provoke his symptoms.

“Everywhere you go, you sort of have to relearn how to interact with people,” he said. “You’re apprehensive about everything. All you want to do is not go anywhere. And home is great. Home is comfortable. That’s your comfort zone.

“So when you go out into the world and seeing people you haven’t seen in five weeks or two months or four months that you used to see every week, it’s like ‘What do they think of me? What are they looking for, are they analyzing me?’ It’s not a lot of fun, that part of it.

“I’m nervous to go back to Daytona and see everyone that’s going to be there and everybody comes up and goes ‘How you feeling?’ Everybody asks you that. ‘I feel good! How do you feel?’ It’s just going through that process of sort of reintroducing yourself to everything is a bit frustrating sometimes. I do feel more and more confident every day. Getting back into doing my work and what I’ve been doing all my life is giving me a super good feeling.”

His recovery has been overseen by Dr. Micky Collins of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Earnhardt said he expected NASCAR would sign off on his return if “Dr. Collins says everything is good” after the December test.

“He gives me the confidence that I’m going to be good, and he’s done it before,” Earnhardt said. “We came back from (missing two races with a concussion in 2012) and had a lot of success. I didn’t believe all that would be possible. I thought my winning days were over. I was trying to figure out how I was going to get through the rest of whatever, I was so miserable. We ended up coming back and had a lot of fun days.”

Austin Theriault not medically cleared by NASCAR to race at Kansas

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Austin Theriault announced Thursday morning he has not been medically cleared by NASCAR to compete in this weekend’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway after his involvement in a wreck in Monday’s race at Talladega.

Theriault, 25, competes for Rick Ware Racing and was set to drive its No. 52 Chevrolet this weekend. Theriault said Garrett Smithley will take his place.

A NASCAR spokesperson said its policy is to not discuss a competitor’s medical information.

A spokesperson for Rick Ware Racing told NBC Sports all info on Theriault would be released by the driver on social media or by NASCAR. The team said “we expect to have Austin back in the car very soon.”

The native of Fort Kent, Maine, has missed races due to medical issues before.

In 2015, while racing part-time for Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series, he suffered a 10% compression fracture in his back in a wreck at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after his HANS device broke.

Theriault missed several races before returning in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Since 2015 he has made five Cup starts, three Xfinity starts and four Truck Series starts.

Updated entry lists for Kansas Speedway’s playoff weekend

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The NASCAR playoffs continue this weekend with the second visit of the year to Kansas Speedway.

The Cup Series holds its second elimination race as the playoff field will be cut to eight drivers.

After a week off, the Xfinity Series will open its second playoff round.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for both races.

Cup – Hollywood Casino 400 (2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)

There are 40 cars entered.

Parker Kligerman is entered in Gaunt Brothers Racing’s No. 96 Toyota.

Reed Sorenson is listed for Premium Motorsports’ No. 27 Chevrolet.

Austin Theriault  was originally entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 52 car. Theriault announced Thursday morning he had not been cleared by NASCAR to compete Saturday following his wreck in Monday’s Cup race at Talladega and that Garrett Smithley would take his place.

Chase Elliott won this race last year over Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson. Brad Keselowski won the May race over Alex Bowman and Erik Jones.

Click here for the updated entry list.

Xfinity – Kansas Lottery 300 (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC)

There are 39 entries.

Ryan Truex is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Ross Chastain is entered in Kaulig Racing’s No. 10 Chevrolet. It’ll be his fifth start with the team this season.

Harrison Burton is entered in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota for the seventh time this season.

Bobby Earnhardt, the oldest son of Kerry Earnhardt, is entered in MBM Motorsports’ No. 66 Toyota. It will be his fifth career start and first since the Texas playoff race last year.

Joe Nemechek is now entered in Mike Harmon Racing’s No. 74 Chevrolet

Dillon Bassett is now entered in DGM Racing’s No. 92 Chevrolet

John Hunter Nemechek won this race last year over Daniel Hemric and Elliott Sadler.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Harrison Burton to drive Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Xfinity car full-time next year

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Harrison Burton will drive Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 Xfinity car full-time in 2020, the team announced Thursday morning.

Burton, the son of NBC Sports analysts Jeff Burton, will succeed Christopher Bell in the No. 20.

Burton competes full-time in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He is set to make his seventh start in JGR’s No. 18 Xfinity car this Saturday at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Next year is going to be a really cool opportunity for me because I grew up watching my dad race in the Xfinity Series, Burton said in a press release. “Making my first start at Bristol this year was really surreal. I remember being a little kid and watching (Jeff Burton) race there and now, I will have the opportunity to compete for the Xfinity Series championship next year.

“On top of that I’ve got Dex Imaging continuing their support of me for a majority of races next season. That’s really cool because I’ve had them as a sponsor since I was 13 and to bring them from pro-late models all the way to the Xfinity Series is pretty wild. I want to finish this season strong, but I’m excited to get 2020 started. My time with JGR this season will really help me because I’ve already gotten to know so many people there and it’s such a great team and organization. They have a long history of helping to develop drivers and this is big for the next step in my career.”

In his six Xfinity starts, Burton has three top 10s and a best finish of fourth at Iowa Speedway.

In 35 Truck Series starts since 2016, Burton has 11 top fives and 17 top-10 finishes. This year he has seven top fives and 10 top 10s. He and teammate Todd Gilliland both failed to make the playoffs.

“As Harrison (Burton) moves up to the next level of his career, we’re happy to have him join JGR fulltime and go behind the wheel of the No. 20 Supra,” said Steve DeSouza, Executive Vice President of Xfinity Series and Development for Joe Gibbs Racing in a press release. “Harrison has continued to show progress this season in his limited starts and I know that will only continue to develop with more seat time while contending for the Xfinity Series championship.”

The crew chief for the No. 20 will be announced at a later time.

JTG Daugherty Racing’s No. 47 hauler experiences fire on way to Kansas

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JTG Daugherty Racing announced on social media Thursday morning that the hauler for Ryan Preece‘s No. 47 Chevrolet experienced a fire on its way to Kansas Speedway for this weekend’s Cup race.

In a statement, team owner Tad Geschickter said both its hauler drivers were “okay.”

He said the team is “assessing the damage to our trailer and race cars and will have more information as it becomes available.”

More: Kaulig Racing hauler involved in accident on way to Kansas