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Dale Earnhardt Jr. excited to race at Darlington and honor his father

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday that his back is improving and he’s looking forward to competing in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Darlington Raceway (4 p.m. ET on NBC) in a car that pays tribute to his father.

Earnhardt made the comments Thursday on the SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Beyond Racing” that is co-hosted by his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Danielle Trotta.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a bruised back when the airplane he was in crashed upon landing Aug. 15 at Elizabethton (Tennessee) Municipal Airport. Earnhardt, wife Amy and daughter Isla, along with the two pilots, escaped the plane, which caught fire in the crash.

“I had some bad bruising on my back, but I went and got some excellent advice and care and treatment for that and I’ve been doing some things at home to bring the swelling down,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“All of that has actually gotten better very quickly, so I think I’m going to be OK. I think once you get in the car you won’t even think about it.”

Earnhardt is looking forward to racing at Darlington Raceway for the first time since the 2017 Southern 500. This will be his first Xfinity race at that track since 1999 and his first race of any type since competing in last summer’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway. The car pays tribute to the first car his father raced in the Cup Series in 1975. (Photo: JR Motorsports)

“I picked this weekend solely for the throwback experience,” Earnhardt said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “When we were there last year as broadcasters, I was like this is so much fun, this would be a great race to run on my schedule if I get a race and here we are.

“Then I went to run some laps at Darlington. (JR Motorsports driver) Noah Gragson was there testing our cars, and I went there just to run about 10 or 20 laps just to check some boxes for me personally. I didn’t want to take away from Noah’s opportunity to understand the track and learn. I just wanted a few laps. I ran about 20 laps. It was hot, miserable, hard. I was slow.

“Although I know I can go out there and do it, I’m not quite sure exactly how well I can do it. I picked a very, very challenging race to run.”

The field includes Cup drivers Denny Hamlin, who has won the Darlington Xfinity race five times, and Ryan Blaney.

“It’s going to be a hard race to win, much less to run in the top 10,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know where to really put my expectations or my personal goals.”

But even having to compete against such a field, including Xfinity title contenders Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer, the weekend is a good opportunity for Earnhardt to celebrate his father.

The younger Earnhardt will drive a car that looks similar to the one his father drove for his Cup debut.

“I think the one thing that is fun about this whole experience is to be able to draw attention to the paint scheme, the story behind the paint scheme,” he said. “Not only is it dad’s first race in the Cup series in 1975 at Charlotte but the family behind the car and the story about how dad got into the car.

“(The 1975) car was owned by Ed Negre. Dad and Norman Negre, Ed’s son, were friends. Dad and Norman got the nerve up and go to Ed and say, ‘Ed, this car is sitting in the back of your shop and we’d love to take it to Charlotte and try to run that race.’ He at first was real reluctant and finally goes, ‘Whatever, you guys take it.’ They go and qualify and make the race.”

Earnhardt said on “Beyond Racing” that sponsor Hellmann’s has an option to sponsor him in a car for a race next year.

Earnhardt said he will focus on his car Friday and Saturday and will not be a part of the NBC Sports broadcast crew those days. He said he will return to the booth for Sunday’s Southern 500, which airs at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Earnhardt said he will be in the booth with Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett during the race’s second stage to call the action and share stories.

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin remains No. 1 after Kansas

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For the second consecutive week, Denny Hamlin is atop this week’s NBC Sports’ NASCAR Power Rankings.Hamlin was selected unanimously.

Making the biggest jump in the rankings was Kyle Busch (from tied for seventh last week to No. 2 this week).

Falling the most was Ryan Blaney, who dropped from second last week to a tie for ninth this week.

Here are the power rankings ahead of the Round of 8 playoff race at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC):

1. Denny Hamlin (40 points): Kansas win is his fifth of the season, tying for his most victories in a season since 2012. The question grows louder: Is this the year he finally wins a Cup title? Last week: First.

2. Kyle Busch (34 points): While he remains mired in one of the longest winless streaks of his career, it’s hard to imagine him not rising to the occasion in the next three races to assure his spot at Miami. Last week: Tied for seventh.

3. Chase Elliott (33 points): He just barely avoided elimination at Kansas. He needs to win one of the next three races if he’s to be assured of racing for the championship. The question is, can he? Last week: Third.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (29 points): Slow pit stop late hurt him but still finished sixth. Has five finishes of seventh or better in the last six races. Last week: Tied for seventh.

5. Kevin Harvick (23 points): It’s time for “the Closer” to reemerge in the next three races to lock himself into a championship berth at Miami. Don’t be surprised if he wins at Texas or Phoenix – or both. Last week: Sixth.

6. Jimmie Johnson (11 points): While his strong performance in the last five races – four top-10s and one 11th-place finish – has come a little too late, Johnson could really shake up the playoffs with a win in the third round. He’s capable and has been building towards it. Will it happen? Last week: Unranked.

7. Kyle Larson (10 points): Not a clean day at Kansas. He and his team need to step up in the Round of 8. Last week: Tied for fourth.

8. William Byron (9 points): After a strong Kansas showing, could be a dark horse in the final four races. While eliminated from the playoffs, he still has the potential to win a race, particularly at a short track like Martinsville or Phoenix. Last week: Unranked.

(tie) 9. Joey Logano (8 points): Yes, Joey is right, every point matters. That attitude is why he’s still alive in these playoffs. Last week: Tied for fourth.

(tie) 9. Ryan Blaney (8 points): See Kyle Larson. It’s pretty much the same story for Blaney. Last week: Second.

Others receiving votes: Clint Bowyer (6 points), Kurt Busch (3 points), Ryan Preece (3 points), Brandon Jones (2 points), Matt DiBenedetto (1 point).

Goodyear tire info for Martinsville Speedway

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NASCAR Cup and Truck teams continue their respective playoffs this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

The Cup Series begins its Round of 8, while the Gander Outdoors Truck Series will contest its middle race of the Round of 6.

Cup and Truck teams will run the same tire setup at Martinsville, the same tires both series have run at the .526-mile bullring since 2017.

It’s getting later in the fall and we are likely to have cloudy conditions and temperatures in the 60-degree range at Martinsville this week, so track temps will be low, making it more difficult for the track to take rubber,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “Because of the time of year we run at Martinsville, we’ve worked hard over the past several years to come up with a tread compound that will lay rubber in the concrete corners, even in cool temperatures.

Generally, Martinsville has produced some of the best racing on the circuit and that only seems to have been enhanced by the track consistently taking rubber and having multiple racing lines. We continue to work on keeping up with Martinsville and making adjustments where needed, holding a test there this past summer and looking ahead to 2020 when we will have a full fledged night race at the track.”

According to wunderground.com, the forecast calls for a temperature of 58 degrees with a 40 percent chance of rain at the scheduled 1:30 p.m. ET start time for Saturday’s Truck race, and a temperature of 66 degrees with a 19 percent chance of green flag at the 3 p.m. ET scheduled start time for Sunday’s Cup race.

Here is the tire information for this weekend’s races at Martinsville:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Short Track Radials

Set limits: Cup: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying/start of race and 9 sets for race (8 race sets plus 1 set transferred from qualifying or practice); Truck: 5 sets for the event.

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4588; Right-side – D-4722

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,221 mm (87.44 in.); Right-side — 2,251 mm (88.62 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 10 psi; Left Rear — 10 psi; Right Front — 23 psi; Right Rear — 22 psi

As on most NASCAR ovals 1 mile or less in length, teams will not run inner liners in their tires at Martinsville.

NASCAR penalty report after Kansas

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NASCAR issued one penalty from this past weekend’s racing action at Kansas Speedway.

Chris Gayle, crew chief for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing NASCAR Cup Toyota driven by Erik Jones, has been fined $10,000 for lug nut(s) not properly installed following Sunday’s race.

There were no penalties assessed to the teams of Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick stemming from the altercation following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

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Ron Hornaday Jr., Bobby Labonte to take part in Martinsville Truck race activities

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Martinsville Speedway will honor one NASCAR Hall of Famer and one inductee before Saturday’s NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 Truck Series race.

Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. will serve as grand marshal for the race, while Bobby Labonte, who will be inducted into the Hall in January, will serve as the honorary starter.

Bobby Labonte. Photo: Getty Images.

We are honored to have 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ron Hornaday Jr. as Grand Marshal and 2020 inductee Bobby Labonte as Honorary Starter at the first NASCAR Hall of Fame 200,” NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelly said in a statement. “Ron is the series’ only four-time champion. As the 2000 premier series champion and 1992 Xfinity champion, Bobby is one of only 31 drivers who has won races in all three NASCAR national series with his lone truck series win coming at Martinsville.”

Said Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway: “We appreciate the NASCAR Hall of Fame making it possible to have two great NASCAR champions available to meet our fans Saturday morning before the NASCAR Hall of Fame 200. Having Ron and Bobby be a part of our race weekend is special for everyone at Martinsville Speedway.”

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