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Dale Earnhardt Jr. excited about return to racing, but also eyes retirement

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After missing half of last season recovering from concussion-like symptoms, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is glad to be back racing in 2017.

“I’m excited about the season and can’t wait for it to get started,” he said during Wednesday’s NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte.

Yet for as much as he talked about being happy to return to racing, Earnhardt also talked at length about what retirement will mean for him.

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be on Drivers Council this year

First, about his returning to race next month at Daytona International Speedway and the Daytona 500, Earnhardt said:

“To get approved to race is one thing, but to decide to race is another. Mentally, you have to make the decision if you want to keep racing, and if you want to you have to go at it 100 percent. This is the top elite motorsports series in America and you can’t do it without 100 percent. … I had to answer a lot of personal questions of myself and to just buy-in.”

But then NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 14 years began talking about eventual retirement.

“I’m just hoping to enjoy what’s left of my career and hopefully I get to make the decisions on that myself as far as how much further I race,” Earnhardt said. “(He and new wife Amy are) going to start a family and all that good stuff too, so I’ve got a lot of good things to look forward to. I’m really excited about my future.”

Earnhardt also talked at length about what type of learning curve he’ll have when he returns to competitive racing next month.

“Being out of the car, you hope you can come back and jump right back in and not miss a beat,” he said. “But this is a top series and any time you’re gone, you’re getting behind. I’m really anxious and curious as to where we shake out early in the season, how we can do, how competitive we can be, what if any learning curve there is for me. We’ll figure that all out, though.”

Last season was a paradox for Earnhardt. Half the season he was behind the wheel of his No. 88 Chevrolet SS. The other half, he watched from pit road or the garage or on TV at home, recovering from the concussion-like symptoms.

During that time, Earnhardt said he learned a lot about himself and drew a greater appreciation about what he’s had for the last 20 years of racing in NASCAR – and what he almost lost.

“I missed the camaraderie,” he said. “That’s probably what I’ll miss the most when I’m not racing any more, just the friendships inside the track. I’ve got an awesome road crew, we’re all buddies, we talk every day. It’s a very close-knit sort of family and I’m going to miss all that.

“It’s so fun as a team to go do something and succeed. Even when you don’t succeed, they’re the guys that you lean on. We all kind of lift each other up. I’m going to miss all that. It was difficult to watch someone else do in your place.

“I was certainly jealous and envious of Jeff (Gordon) and Alex (Bowman) working with my guys … you definitely were wishing it were you getting to work.

“You do take your job for granted when you’re doing it every week. This is a society where we get better and better at complaining, and drivers aren’t any different. We moan and complain about everything.

“But when you get a chance to step back and watch it – I got a chance to be in the garage area at Dover (in the fall) and watched the drivers come in that morning for practice and it was an eye-opening experience, almost an out of body experience, to watch all that happen and looking at them and knowing that was me. I got to see drivers and sport from different point of view.”

But for now, retirement – whether it be in a year or two or five or whenever – is in the distance. Now, it’s just a matter of focusing on what’s ahead of him as a race car driver.

“I’m happy to be able to come back here and continue to compete,” Earnhardt said. “I got real close to not being able to compete. It got real close to being someone else’s decision whether I competed or not.

“I don’t know when I’m going to stop racing, but I want to make that choice and not have it made for me. All that stuff (last season) really showed me how much I have going for me, how much fun this really is. You can make it really difficult or you can enjoy it.”

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Coca-Cola 600 resumes after rain delay

Coca-Cola 600
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The Coca-Cola 600 is back under way following a rain delay.

The caution was issued on Lap 49 for rain and the field was brought to pit road. The red flag was issued at 7:07 p.m. ET and lifted at 8:16 p.m. ET.

The top five at the time of the stoppage was Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick and Joey Logano.

Check back for updates.

 

Denny Hamlin team faces potential penalty after ballast falls off car

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Denny Hamlin was involved in an incident even before Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 got underway that could result in a hefty penalty.

A chunk of tungsten ballast — which teams use to bring Cup cars up to minimum weight standards — fell off Hamlin’s car on a parade lap.

The incident puts Hamlin’s crew chief Chris Gabehart and several others on the team in violation of the NASCAR rule book, which means a hefty penalty could be in the offing.

According to the NASCAR rule book, the penalty is 12.5.2.7.4.d: Minimum safety penalty options — “Loss or separation of added ballast from the vehicle will result in a four Race suspension of the crew chief, car chief, and head engineer. If NASCAR cannot identify which series or vehicle the lost ballast originated from, all vehicles entered for that Event from and associated with the team organization identified on the lost ballast may receive the suspensions.”

If NASCAR implements the potential penalty, Gabehart and others could miss the following four races: May 27 at Charlotte, May 31 at Bristol, June 7 at Atlanta and June 10 at Martinsville.

Several of those tracks are good for Hamlin, including winning the Bristol summer night race last year, as well as was fourth at the Martinsville playoff race last fall and 11th at Atlanta.

NASCAR ordered Hamlin back to pit road where the No. 11 crew added a new chunk of ballast to Hamlin’s car. He returned to the race eight laps down.

Here’s what a fabricator from rival team Stewart-Haas Racing tweeted about the incident:

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Coca-Cola 600 starting lineup

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Chevrolet drivers swept the top three rows for tonight’s Coca-Cola 600, led by Kurt Busch‘s pole-winning lap of 181.269 mph.

Jimmie Johnson was next with a lap of 181.214 mph. He was followed by Chase Elliott (181.002 mph), Matt Kenseth (180.923), rookie Tyler Reddick (180.905) and Austin Dillon (180.741).

Ford driver Joey Logano, who starts seventh after a lap of 180.451 mph, was the top qualifier not driving a Chevrolet.

TO THE REAR: Matt DiBenedetto (backup car), Brad Keselowski (unapproved adjustment), Aric Almirola (unapproved adjustment), JJ Yeley (unapproved adjustment) and Timmy Hill (unapproved adjustment)

Click here for Coca-Cola 600 starting lineup

Kurt Busch on pole for Coca-Cola 600

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Kurt Busch will lead the field to the green flag for tonight’s Coca-Cola 600 after claiming the pole Sunday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It is Busch’s 28th career pole and first at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Busch is joined on the front row by Jimmie Johnson. Chase Elliott qualified third and is followed by Matt Kenseth and rookie Tyler Reddick. Austin Dillon was sixth, as Chevrolet drivers took the top six spots.

Click here for qualifying results

Aric Almirola spun coming to take the green flag to begin his qualifying lap. He grazed the wall with his rear bumper.

Matt DiBenedetto slapped the wall off Turn 4 during his qualifying lap and will go to a backup car and start at the rear of the field.