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Dale Earnhardt Jr. cleared to return to NASCAR, will race at the 2017 Daytona 500

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has completed his recovery from a concussion that sidelined him for the last half of the 2016 NASCAR season.

Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday morning that Earnhardt had been cleared to race again in NASCAR after a Wednesday test at Darlington Raceway. Earnhardt was cleared by Dr. Micky Collins, director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh. Collins consulted with Dr. Jerry Petty, who attended the test at the 1.366-mile oval.

Earnhardt will return with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26, 2017.

Earnhardt, who is getting married Dec. 31, has said he plans to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet in a tire test at Phoenix International Raceway in January. The recently named 14-time most popular driver hasn’t raced since finishing 13th in the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway.

Here’s the full release Thursday from Hendrick Motorsports:

Following a test session Wednesday afternoon at Darlington Raceway, Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been medically cleared to resume NASCAR competition after making a full recovery from a concussion. He will return for the beginning of the 2017 season at the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt, 42, was cleared Wednesday evening by Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, in consultation with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty. Petty attended the test at the 1.366-mile South Carolina racetrack.

“Dale is one of the hardest-working patients I’ve ever encountered,” Collins said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked, and we believe he is ready to compete at a professional level again and can withstand the normal forces of a race car driver. Dale has been very open with us, and we’ve had plenty of time for his treatment, so we feel very good about his long-term prospects and how this has been managed by everyone involved.”

Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports, completed 185 laps during a nearly five-hour session at Darlington under the guidance of his crew chief, Greg Ives. In addition to the on-track test, which was observed by NASCAR, the driver has logged more than 15 hours in a racing simulator during his recovery.

“I feel great, and I’m excited to officially be back,” Earnhardt said. “I expected things to go really well yesterday, and that’s exactly what happened. Actually getting in a race car was an important final step, and it gives me a ton of confidence going into 2017. Thanks to the staff at Darlington for hosting our team and to NASCAR for giving us the opportunity to put a car on the track. I’ll do more testing in January to help knock the rust off. When it’s time to go to Daytona, I’ll be ready.”

Alex Bowman (10 races) and four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon (eight races) handled substitute driving duties for the No. 88 team during Earnhardt’s recovery. He missed the final 18 races of the 2016 NASCAR season beginning with the July 17 event at New Hampshire.

“Dale deserves so much credit,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “I’m proud of him for listening to his body and standing up to take responsibility for his health. He’s worked extremely hard and set a terrific example for others. It’s great news as we go into the off-season, and we can’t wait to see him back on the racetrack at Daytona.”

Bowman will race the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS in the Feb. 18 season-opening, non-points The Clash at Daytona International Speedway, which will feature pole position winners from the previous year. Bowman won the No. 88 team’s lone 2016 pole at Phoenix in November.

“Alex did such a great job in the car this year, and I felt like he deserved another opportunity,” Earnhardt said. “When I spoke with Rick and the team about him driving The Clash, everyone agreed that he more than earned it, and Nationwide was 100-percent on board. I’m really grateful to him and Jeff for what they did for our team, and I’m glad Alex is getting another run with us.”

Ward Burton gets ‘nailed’ — and has the blood to show for it

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Former NASCAR Cup driver Ward Burton has always had a kind of tough guy aura about him – in a good way. It takes a lot to slow him down or to make him feel pain.

What happened Thursday to the older brother of NBC NASCAR analyst Jeff Burton is a perfect example of Ward’s toughness.

First, let’s start out with the pre-story: Thursday morning the 2002 Daytona 500 winner took to Twitter to allude to a day of chores to do:

 

But a few hours later, the 57-year-old Burton had a completely different look on his face – and not of his own doing.

He apparently had a mishap with a nail and board and – well, we’ll let the following tweet tell the story. And once again, it shows how tough Burton can be. Apparently before he even got the wound treated, Burton decided to take a photo and post it online.

“Part of getting projects done,” Burton tweeted.

Now that’s tough.

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NASCAR America’s MotorSports Hour 5 p.m. ET; IndyCar championship preview

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This week’s episode of NASCAR America presents the MotorSports Hour airs today from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Krista Voda and AJ Allmendinger. And joining them from our IndyCar on NBC broadcast team will be race announcer Leigh Diffey and analyst Paul Tracy.

The show will cover multiple racing disciplines, including previewing this Sunday’s IndyCar championship-deciding race at Laguna Seca.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online 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.

If history is any indication, Martin Truex Jr. is just getting warmed up

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With his playoff-opening win in Las Vegas, Martin Truex Jr. could easily coast in the next two Cup races, knowing he’s assured of a spot when the Round of 12 begins next month at Dover International Speedway.

But neither Truex nor crew chief Cole Pearn have ever been the cruising type. Even though they’re locked into the next round, there’s still plenty of motivation for the remainder of the opening round of the playoffs this weekend at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and next week on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

There are still valuable stage points for Truex and the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team to earn in the playoffs. 

These next two races are all about scoring more playoff points for us,” Truex said in a media release. “It’s great for us knowing that we’re already locked in, but we want to try to pad our advantage to start out that next round.”

With his win at Las Vegas, the Mayetta, New Jersey native has won three of the last four playoff-opening races (also first at Chicago in 2017 and 2016). And he comes into Richmond with a decent career record there: 27 starts, one win, four top 5s, 10 top 10s, one pole and has led 909 laps.

Richmond has been a great track for us the past few years,” Truex said in a media release. “Obviously getting the win in the spring was huge because it was our first with JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) and kind of got us going for the rest of the season.”

In addition, JGR has 15 Cup wins at Richmond, including the last three there.

Richmond is not only where Truex earned his first of what five wins for JGR this season, but also was the site of his first Cup career short track victory. He’s also led the most laps in the last four races there (and five of the last six). But it isn’t the only track that been good to Truex of late.

Truex has dominated recently at the next three venues on the Cup playoff schedule:

* Won at Richmond in April.

* Won on Charlotte’s oval in May.

* Was one turn away from winning last fall on Charlotte’s Roval before a spinning Jimmie Johnson contacted Truex and ended his chances of winning. Also, in the last six road course races, Truex has three wins and two runner-up finishes.

* Won at Dover in May.

Richmond offers additional incentive for Truex, as well. If he can go back-to-back to victory lane there, he would reach a milestone 25th career Cup series win.

What’s more, he comes into a race for the first time this season atop the NASCAR Cup point standings, with a series-high five wins, as well as 11 top-five and 16 top-10 showings through the first 27 races of the season.

Truex, the 2017 champion, is trying to earn his second Cup title in the last three seasons. And to top things off, Truex’s seven Cup playoff wins since 2016 are the most in the series during that time.  Busch is second with five wins, followed by Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano with four wins each.

Add it all up and there most certainly won’t be any coasting from the No. 19.

We just need to keep it up and do all that we can to give ourselves the best chance possible for the rest of the playoffs and not just take it easy,” Truex said.

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Ryan Sieg, Shane Wilson ready for opportunity races in Xfinity playoffs

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When Shane Wilson answered his phone Tuesday he was in the process of leaving a UPS store, a weekly destination that’s part of his many crew chief duties at Ryan Sieg Racing.

This week the team had to: prepare three cars for Friday’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond – including a car for Hermie Sadler, who is making his first Xfinity start since 2016 and the first ever for RSR, as well as repair a wrecked No. 93 car from Las Vegas and get Ryan Sieg’s No. 39 Chevrolet ready for a playoff run.

“Shoooo, we’re busy,” Wilson tells NBC Sports. “But, you know, good busy.”

That’s all been done with seven crew members at the team’s shop located just outside of Atlanta.

“We can go with seven-and-a-half to make sure I don’t leave anybody out,” jokes Wilson.

At the UPS store he had mailed a shock destined for Vermont. Its recipient would be Steve Hibberd, the team’s shock guy.

Hibberd is a former employee of Orleans Racing, the Truck Series effort for Brendan Gaughan in the early 2000s that Wilson led. He’s one of Wilson’s two “secret weapons.”

The other is another Orleans team member and former Dodge employee, Ryan Isabel, who provides engineering support for the team in identifying trends via a database of car setups.

This small, spread out operation helped Sieg produce the best season in his six years of full-time Xfinity competition and his second playoff berth, following his 2016 campaign.

He enters Richmond with two top fives and nine top 10s (matching his top 10s from the rest of his Xfinity career). His previous best total for top 10s was three in 2016, the first time he went to the playoffs.

But Wilson, a former long-time employee at Richard Childress Racing who crew chiefed for Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, doesn’t seem too stressed about the playoffs before him or his limited resources. In fact, he’s having his most fun in NASCAR in “a long time.”

For a former electrician apprentice from Vermont, he could be doing worse.

“Whenever I have a bad day in racing I think about running pipe in December in Vermont along the Connecticut River,” Wilson says with a chuckle.

Ryan Sieg has made the Xfinity playoffs for the second time in his career. (Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sieg and Wilson don’t want to hype up a potential Cinderella story for the Xfinity Series playoffs, even if it does have a few ingredients for that.

Sieg and his small team will start their playoff run at the track he had his best non-superspeedway performance earlier this year.

The April 12th race at Richmond saw Sieg start 13th, finish Stage 2 in fifth and then finish the race in fifth for his second top five of the year.

That leads into the Sept. 28 race on the Charlotte Roval. The opening round then closes out at Dover International Speedway.

Wilson sees the first round as three “opportunity races.”

“They’re not cookie cutter mile-and-a-halves, like Vegas,” Wilson says. “I really feel like we can go there and do well.

“I like road racing, Ryan doesn’t necessarily like road racing. I’m trying to get him in the state of mind and that’s a good opportunity race.”

But….

There are a few of those.

They make Wilson a “realist” about their situation, especially when it comes to facing the juggernauts of Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and the other Cup-affiliated teams.

First, there’s the cars.

Those Cup-affiliated teams will likely be bringing new or updated cars to the track as the playoffs open.

Meanwhile, Sieg’s team will be using the same three cars they’ve been rotating through all year. Luckily for Wilson, they’re relatively new chassis the team purchased from Richard Childress Racing before this season, so he’s familiar with them.

“Here we will be running the same cars as we have been because that’s what we have,” Wilson says. “But I don’t think I’d ever switch that anyway, you gotta kind of ride the horse that got you there and try not to out trick yourself or race something that’s a little bit better cause you really need to bring something you know and that you’ve raced all year then see where you land.”

Then there’s the playoff points.

Sieg enters Richmond 11th in the standings with 2,001 points after the standings were reset. That one playoff point is a result of Sieg winning Stage 2 at Texas Motor Speedway in March.

“Looking at it, those top three cars (Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick) have such a big advantage, you almost have to pencil them into Homestead,” Sieg says. “To make it through the first (round), that’s what we want to do and need to do. But if we don’t, be consistent over the seven races and get top 10 in points, I think we got eliminated in the first round in 2016, but we still finished ninth in the standings. So it’s always nice to be top 10 in points. … Anything can happen.”

However, with all that, there’s one additional tool in the No. 39 team’s utility belt they didn’t have in April.

They return to Richmond with a Cup pit crew, which they began using in May at Charlotte.

Why is that notable?

Shane Wilson, right, has been a NASCAR crew chief since the early 2000s in Truck Series. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

“We lost I think 30 spots on pit road that first race and still finished top five,” Sieg says.

Well, maybe it felt like 30.

“It wasn’t quite 30, but it was like 17 though,” Wilson says with a hearty laugh. “Which is still a lot.”

Even with a more experienced pit crew, Sieg’s philosophy on what happens on pit road has been drilled into him.

“We don’t want to gain spots on pit road, we don’t want to lose any either,” Sieg says. “We just want to maintain. I bet you in my career if you counted the number of times I’ve come off pit road I’ve probably lost more positions than I want to count. That’s part of being a small team. If we come in eighth and Brandon Jones is ninth, he’s got a Joe Gibbs pit crew. If they beat us by two seconds, you’re going to lose that spot. I’ve kind of dealt with that a lot in my career. I’m not complaining, cause it’s part of what it is. So I just want to come in 10th and go out 10th. Yeah, it would be great to come out fourth, but that’s less realistic.”

And what if that Cup pit crew had been in place at Richmond six months ago?

“We might of won,” Wilson says. “Or we would have finished second. Because we passed two guys who finished in front of us about three different times. The only one we never passed was (winner Cole Custer).”

While advancing to the next round would be huge for Sieg’s team, Wilson’s goal for the next three races is straightforward: “finish ahead of four of those guys every week” and “accumulate enough points to make them have to race us at Dover.”