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.”

Cup playoff clinching scenarios to make Round of 12

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The first elimination race of the Cup playoffs has arrived in the form of Bristol Motor Speedway.

Tonight’s 500-lap race on the short track will determine which drivers make up the Round of 12.

Three drivers have locked themselves into the second round. Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski earned their spots via race wins at Darlington and Richmond. Denny Hamlin clinched a spot via points.

More: Brad Keselowski on pole for Bristol

That leaves nine spots for 13 drivers to compete for.

If there is a new winner, the following drivers could clinch by being ahead of the 10th winless driver in the standings.

Joey Logano – would clinch with 7 points: 51 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Logano has finished third in the last two playoff races (at Darlington and Richmond). Has made 23 starts at Bristol posting one pole, two wins, six top fives and 10 top 10s. Logano’s average finish is 15.3.

Martin Truex Jr. – would clinch with 20 points: 38 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Earned 22nd-place finish at Darlington and second-place finish at Richmond. Has made 29 series starts at Bristol posting two top fives and three top 10s. His average finish is 20.6.

Austin Dillon – would clinch with 21 points: 36 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Dillion has a runner-up finish at Darlington and a fourth-place result last weekend at Richmond. Has 13 starts at Bristol posting one top five and three top 10s. His average finish is 17.3.

Chase Elliott – Would clinch with 30 points: 28 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Elliott finished 20th at Darlington and fifth at Richmond. Has made nine starts at Bristol and has one pole, three top fives and four top 10s. Average finish is 12.6.

Alex Bowman – would clinch with 31 points: 27 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Bowman placed sixth at Darlington and ninth at Richmond. Has made nine series starts at Bristol with one top five and two top 10s. His average finish is 22.6.

Kyle Busch – would clinch with 40 points: Just 18 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Has seventh-place finish at Darlington and a sixth-place finish at Richmond. Has made 30 Cup starts at Bristol posting two poles and a series-leading eight wins among active drivers.

Aric Almirola – would clinch with 51 points: Seven points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Finished ninth at Darlington and eighth at Richmond. Has made 22 starts at Bristol with one top five and two top 10s. His average finish is 25.0.

Kurt Busch – would clinch with 51 points: Seven points ahead of the cutoff sport. Almirola holds the tiebreaker of best finish in the current playoff round. Busch has finished eighth at Darlington and 13th at Richmond. Has 39 Cup starts at Bristol with one pole, six wins, 12 top fives and 21 top 10s. Average finish is 14th.

Clint Bowyer – would clinch with 55 points: Three points over cutoff. Finished 10th at Darlington and Richmond. Bowyer has made 29 Cup starts at Bristol with eight top fives and 16 top 10s. Average finish is 13.6.

William Byron (-3 points from cutoff; would need help to clinch): Finished fifth at Darlington and 21st at Richmond. Five Cup starts at Bristol with one top 10. Average finish of 17.2.

Cole Custer (-8 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 12th at Darlington and 14th at Richmond. Finished 25th in lone Bristol Cup start.

Matt DiBenedetto (-25 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 21st at Darlington and 17th at Richmond. Eleven Cup starts at Bristol with one top five and one top 10. Average finish of 19.1.

Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney is last on the 16 driver playoff grid heading into Bristol. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney (-27 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 24th at Darlington and 19th at Richmond. Ten Cup starts at Bristol with one top five and three other top 10s. Average finish of 20.7.

More: Blaney and DiBenedetto seek history to advance to second round

Should there be a repeat winner Saturday – Harvick or Keselowski – the following drivers would advance to the next round by being ahead of the 11th winless driver in the standings.

Joey Logano: Would clinch with 4 points

Martin Truex Jr.: Would clinch with 17 points

Austin Dillon: Would clinch with 18 points

Chase Elliott: Would clinch with 27 points

Alex Bowman: Would clinch with 28 points

Kyle Busch: Would clinch with 37 points

Aric Almirola: Would clinch with 48 points

Kurt Busch: Would clinch with 48 points

Clint Bowyer: Would clinch with 52 points

William Byron: Would clinch with 55 points

Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney: Could only clinch with help

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.