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Book excerpt: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘Racing To The Finish’

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NASCAR America will air an exclusive first listen of NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s book “Racing To The Finish: My Story” on today’s show, which airs at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

A first-person account, Earnhardt’s gripping book candidly brings fans through his 18 years behind the wheel, his struggle with concussions, and his future aspirations off the race track.

You can get an early listen of Earnhardt narrating a chapter entitled: “A Life, A Secret, And A Promise” and excerpt from that chapter here.

Earnhardt’s book will be released Oct. 16 from the W Publishing Group. You can pre-order the book here.

A Lift, A Secret, And A Promise

Sunday, May, 4, 2014. Talladega Superspeedway. We were having a good day at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest, most intimidating race track. If you know anything about my NASCAR career, then you know that me and that place, we’ve always had a special relationship. Won there six times. My father won there 10 times. The Earnhardts and Talladega, we’ve grown up together. There’s a whole generation of fans down there who were raised to root for me, taught by the generation before them who rooted for my dad.

So whatever I did when I raced at Talladega was always a really big deal. Good or bad. If the grandstands felt like I was making a move to the front, they would lose their minds. Even with 40-plus cars out there roaring around, I could hear them cheering. If they felt like I had been done wrong, I could hear them booing, too. I loved it. On this day, I had them rocking a couple of times. We led a bunch of laps and spent nearly half the day running inside the top 10.

Now, late in the race, they were waiting on me to make my move. So was my team in the pits, especially my crew chief, Steve Letarte. Just a few months earlier, we had won the Daytona 500. But for whatever reason we had never won together at Talladega. Today, we really believed we had a chance to fix that. But now, late in the race, we were stalled.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. on pit road at Talladega in May 2014. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

We made a pit stop for fuel and I got stuck in the pack. I was boxed in my position with nowhere to go. With eight laps to go, I was setting up for my move to the front, but a slower, underfunded car moved in front of me. At Talladega, you have to have a dancing partner to team up, to split the air, slip through it and move up through the pack. But this car in front of me now, this was a bad dancing partner.

There was no way I could push that car to the front. Heck, there was no way I could push any of these cars around me to the front. I was jammed up, running three-wide and basically a 200 mph parking lot with nowhere to go. I started to do the math in my head. How many laps were left? What was my running position? How many cars did I need to slide by to get back into the lead? I added all of that up and realized that the best I was going to do was get up into the top 15 maybe.

So, I Iifted.

I did.

I backed off and I got out of there. I jumped on the radio, and I told my team that I thought there was going to be a big crash and I was staying back so I could stay out of it and steer around it when it happened.

At Talladega, we call it the Big One. When a pack of cars, just like the one I’m running in right now, all wreck at once. Cars start spinning and there’s smoke everywhere and you have no idea where you’re going, what you’re going to hit or what’s going to hit you. Even when you do think you’re about to steer clear of it, a car or a wall can come out of nowhere.

I didn’t want any part of that. Not today. So yea, I lifted my foot out of the throttle and I let my Chevy ease back out of the pack. I watched them all move out ahead of me and made sure to give them their distance but not too far. I stayed close enough that I could still hang on to their draft. Staying on the back edge of that aerodynamic bubble that would keep me close but not too close. There were 27 cars on the lead lap and I settled into 26th. If they started wrecking, I would have enough room and time to get around the mess without getting hurt.

To be clear, this is a strategy that a lot of drivers have used over the years but they always did this at the start of the race, not with a few laps to go like I was doing. I hung back waiting to make a dramatic late move. I wasn’t going to make any moves. My only move was to stay safe. That was my whole goal. Don’t get hurt. Not again.

There’s a famous NASCAR story about Bobby Isaac. The 1970 NASCAR Cup Series champion. A few years later in the middle of a race at Talladega, Bobby came over the radio and told his team to get a relief driver ready because he was getting out of there. He pulled down pit road, climbed from his car and walked straight to a pay phone to call his wife. Bobby told her that a voice had spoken to him, clear as a bell, and told him to get out of the car. Earlier in the same race, an old friend of his, Larry Smith, had gotten killed. Bobby was done. He didn’t race again that season and only ran Talladega one more time. Looking back, that was really the day that his Hall of Fame career ended.

Riding out those final few laps that day at Talladega, there weren’t any mysterious voices in my head. The only voice I heard was my own. I felt awful about what I was doing. It went against everything that being a racer is about. I knew I was going to have to answer questions about it, not just from my fans but from my team. But none of them knew what I had been going through that month. No one did. Not even my fiancé Amy.

They did know what I had endured nearly two years earlier on Aug. 29, 2012. Everyone did. During a tire test at Kansas Speedway I hit the wall going 185 mph and suffered a concussion that eventually forced me to get out of the car for two races later that season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2014 crash at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

After I returned, everything went pretty much back to normal until one month before this Talladega race. On Monday, April 7, 2014, at the high-speed Texas Motor Speedway I finished dead last after wrecking on Lap 12. It was a bizarre situation. I was running down the frontstretch blinded a little by the car in front of me and my left front tire ran off the asphalt and into the infield grass. It was a mistake on my part but it wasn’t all that unusual.

What was unusual was that it had rained all weekend and that patch of grass was like a mud bog. The way we were running our race cars, they rode super low to the ground, so when I hit that soaked turf with a nearly two-ton machine at 200 mph, the grass grabbed that corner of my car and instantly folded it in. It bent that sheet metal and steel like it was nothing, like it was a cardboard box. It grabbed so hard that my car actually went up in the air for a split second before slamming back down to the blacktop. Now riding on only three tires, my car veered to the right, smacked the outside returning wall. Once. Twice. Three times. And then kind of dot, dot, dotted its way along the wall.

If you were watching that race on TV, you probably remember the fact that the car caught on fire. When I finally got the car stopped and climbed out over the hood, the whole rear end of my Chevy was up in flames, but you probably wouldn’t have thought much of the size of all those impacts. If you’re a race fan or a race car driver then you’ve seen or experienced hits just like that all the time.

For me, though, it was like an old wound had been opened. All of a sudden, my brain went back to showing symptoms that I hadn’t felt since 2012. They weren’t as intense as what had forced me out of the car two years earlier. They were much subtler, but I knew something wasn’t right. I knew instantly. I told no one. Amy knew I didn’t feel well because she’s the one who has to look after me every day, but I didn’t share everything with her either.

The only place where I exposed the true details of what I felt was in the notes app on my iPhone. The morning after the Texas crash, I opened that and started regularly writing out the details of whenever I felt bad. I’ve been doing it ever since. A journal of symptoms. At first, I don’t think I even really understood why I started doing it. This sounds morbid, but when I look back now, I realize that what I was doing was leaving a trail for others to discover in case something happened to me that kept me from being able to tell them myself.

I’ve never shared these notes with anyone. Until now.

Garrett Smithley calls wreck with leaders a career low point

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Garrett Smithley said he felt “probably the lowest of my career” Saturday after causing the leaders to wreck late in the Xfinity Series playoff race at Kansas Speedway while he was five laps down.

Smithley said he wasn’t aware the leaders were behind him when he exited Turn 4 and moved up toward the wall. Chase Briscoe, who was leading, and Christopher Bell, who was second, made contact as Briscoe tried to avoid Smithley.

Briscoe finished third. Bell 12th.

“I just didn’t get the memo that he was coming,” Smithley said of the leaders. “(Spotter) Freddie (Kraft) usually does a good job, he always does a good job. I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. Something didn’t get transmitted or what. I glanced up. David Starr was back there. I was just riding. We were on like 70-lap tires just riding not even pushing hard. I hated it.”

Asked about the line he ran, going from the bottom in the corners to high on exit, Smithley said:

“I was running my line. If I had known he was back there, I wouldn’t have even done that. I was just riding. I was on 70-lap tires, not even pushing it. Just stupid mistake. I hate that it happened. I hate it for everybody that got involved. I do not want to be that guy by any means. I’ve never been that guy. I hate that that happened.”

It’s the second time in about a month that Smithley has been hit by a faster car while running laps down in a race.

In the Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch ran into the back of Smithley’s car and criticized Smithley’s credentials.

Asked if he feared people would start associating him with those incidents, Smithley said:

“No. What happened at Vegas happened. People spoke and most people were on my side. It was a mistake. People forget how hard this stuff is. Things happen in a split-second decision. Like I said, I didn’t know he was up there. I glanced up and didn’t see him and ran my line and that was it.”

Briscoe demurred on being overly critical of Smithley, saying “I still haven’t seen a replay” when he talked to reporters.

“It is frustrating even without that lap car, just in general,” Briscoe said. “I totally understand lap cars are obviously off the pace and that makes it tough for them. At this place, the fast guys are running the top and there were a lot of guys that would run the top in front of you.

“We are literally racing for our lives trying to lock into a championship. I haven’t seen the replay so it is hard to say. I know I got tagged in the left rear by Bell but at the same time it felt like (Smithley) was going to put me in the fence regardless.”

Told that Smithley said he wasn’t aware Briscoe was behind, Briscoe said: “I feel like he should have general awareness of what is going on. I totally get where he is coming from. It is tough in those situations. I don’t know. I don’t want to comment on it because I have not been in his position, so I am sure it is tough but it is frustrating to say the least on my end. We go from 15 to go thinking we are going to win the race and lock into Homestead and then you are two points back. It is frustrating. I am sure he will reach out and I appreciate that, but it doesn’t much help the fact.”

Said Bell: “I haven’t seen (a replay) so it’s hard for me to say. Obviously I didn’t mean to wreck the 98. It sucks that we tore up two race cars.”

While Bell and Briscoe were judicious in their words, some Cup drivers expressed their feelings on Twitter:

Smithley took responsibility on Twitter:

 

 

Xfinity results, points after Round of 8 begins at Kansas

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Brandon Jones may have been eliminated from advancement in the Xfinity Series playoffs after the cutoff race at Dover two weeks ago, but on Saturday he lived up to his promise that he’d still win a race in the remainder of the playoffs as the Round of 8 kicked off.

It was Jones’ first win in 134 career Xfinity Series starts. It also was his 14th top-10 finish of 2019.

MORE: Brandon Jones rallies late to earn first career Xfinity win at Kansas

Tyler Reddick finished second, followed by Chase Briscoe, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the race results.

POINTS:

Even though he finished 12th after being involved in a late race wreck with Briscoe and Garrett Smithley, Christopher Bell still maintains his lead at the top of the heap of the Xfinity Series point standings.

Bell holds an 11-point lead over Cole Custer and is 12 points ahead of Tyler Reddick and 47 points ahead of Justin Allgaier.

Fifth through eighth are Chase Briscoe (-49 points), Michael Annett (-59 points), Noah Gragson (-64 points) and Austin Cindric (-77 points).

Click here for the updated point standings.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick have physical confrontation after Kansas race

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Xfinity Series championship contenders Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick got involved in a heated confrontation that quickly turned physical after Saturday’s race at Kansas Speedway.

Custer, who was angry about Reddick making contact with him, approached his rival after they parked in the pits. Custer put a hand on the shoulder of Reddick, who responded by grabbing Custer with both hands (watch the video above).

The drivers both fell to the ground as they were swarmed by members of both teams. Neither driver seemed to be hurt, though Reddick had a red mark above his right eye.

“I was just frustrated that he can’t keep his car on the bottom and then runs us up into the wall,” Custer told NBC Sports. “If he wants to wreck cars and put them in the wall, that’s fine, but when it affects me, I’m not going to be very happy with him.

“I don’t know. I just went over to talk to him and say that and put my hand on him, and he just went berserk. I thought we had a good car and a shot to win.”

As he approached Reddick, Custer addressed him with “You can be a dumb (expletive).”

“I understand Cole’s frustration 100 percent,” Reddick told NBC Sports. “We’re trying to lock ourselves into Homestead, and he came up to talk after the race. He put a hand on me, I put a hand on him back, and that’s just how it’s going to be if we’re going to have a conversation that way.

“I’m out of breath. Had a fight there with some people, and it was a little bit of fun. I think a lot of Cole and his driving ability.”

Reddick finished runner-up Saturday to Brandon Jones, who won but already had been eliminated from the playoffs and wasn’t eligible to advance to the championship round. Custer finished 10th.

With two races remaining in the Xfinity playoffs at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway, Reddick and Custer both are comfortably in position to reach the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Custer is 38 points ahead of the cut line, and Reddick is plus-37. Christopher Bell, who crashed with leader Chase Briscoe when he ran into the rear of the lapped car of Garrett Smithley, remained the championship leader at 49 points ahead of Briscoe, who is two points behind fourth-ranked Justin Allgaier

“It was just heat of the moment,” Reddick said of the scuffle. “We’re pissed off. I’m sure we’ll talk about it here soon, maybe today, tomorrow.

“I hate that it happened to him, but we’ll try and move forward. Both of us have a lot left to lose in this deal, and if we take each other out, neither one of us get to Homestead, and I feel we both deserve to be there.”

Reddick and Custer did talk later in the garage as their cars were going through inspection.

Custer also was involved in a notable altercation after a truck race three years ago at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, where he tackled John Hunter Nemechek in anger after they collided on the last lap while racing for the lead.

Nemechek made light of that situation while Custer did postrace interviews Saturday (see the :50 mark of Dustin Long’s Twitter video below).

Brandon Jones rallies to earn first career Xfinity win at Kansas

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After starting from the front row next to pole sitter Christopher Bell, Brandon Jones fell backwards only to roar back late to win his first career Xfinity Series race Saturday at Kansas Speedway.

With the win, the 22-year-old Jones, who was knocked out of the playoffs earlier, still had an impact on how the Round of 8 began.

Jones was in the right place at the right time, taking advantage of late-race misfortune to Chase Briscoe and Bell, who were involved in a wreck with Garrett Smithley with 16 laps to go in the 200-lap event.

Equally as important was the great restart Jones got with four laps to go.

“This is incredible,” Jones told NBCSN. “I knew this would happen, we were going to come here and have an amazing run at the end of the day. … I’m not going to lie, my foot was literally shaking on the accelerator on the last lap, I’m not even sure I was wide open when I was doing it.

“There was a lot of nerve flow and emotion going through my mind but I saw it coming and I got pretty pumped.”

MORE: Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick have physical confrontation after race

MORE: Xfinity results, points after Round of 8 begins at Kansas

Tyler Reddick finished second, followed by Briscoe, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier.

While Bell led 70 laps and Briscoe 33, their significant efforts were quickly derailed with 16 laps to go.

Briscoe was in the lead, with Bell right behind, when Briscoe tried to pass Garrett Smithley, who was five laps down at the time. But instead of yielding the high line on the track to Briscoe and Bell, Smithley washed up the track and Briscoe could not avoid contact, nor could Bell avoid contract with Briscoe.

Briscoe finished third, while Bell finished 12th.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Christopher Bell (18th stage win of season)

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer (eighth stage win of season)

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Briscoe overcame the late contact with Smithley and Bell to finish third. Also having a strong outing was Michael Annett, who potentially might have had a chance at a win if the race had gone a few more laps.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Making just his sixth start of the season, Ryan Truex had his car blow up on him after just four laps. “It sucks, that was my last race in this car (this season) and probably the best car we’ve had since Phoenix at the start of the year,” Truex told NBC. “We had a top five car for sure. That really sucks that we don’t even have a chance to show what we’ve got. … To not even have a chance is really hard to swallow.” … Harrison Burton, who on Thursday was announced that he would race full-time for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2020, made contact with Austin Cindric on Lap 70. “To me, it just felt like I flat out got wrecked,” Burton said of Cindric to NBC Sports. “It’s unfortunate and frustrating. … I guess he didn’t want to race, he just wanted to wreck.” Burton finished 34th, while Cindric was 25th.

NOTABLE: Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick were involved in a pushing and shoving match for about 20 seconds after the race, but were separated.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Xfinity Series has next weekend off. It returns to action for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway on Nov. 2 (8:30 p.m. ET start, on NBCSN).

Follow @JerryBonkowski