Carolina Panthers

Dale Jr. says Luke Kuechly made right decision on retirement from NFL

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CHARLOTTE – As a professional athlete who understands the impact of concussions on career longevity, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had an understandably emotional connection to Luke Kuechly’s stunning retirement from the NFL.

“Relief,” Earnhardt said Wednesday when asked about his reaction to the Carolina Panthers star linebacker walking away from pro football at 28. “I think my feeling for Luke is relief.

“He had an amazing career. Obviously, I’m sure he would have loved to have played longer, but he’s made some amazing, great choices for himself and for his family and his future.”

Though Kuechly didn’t reference concussions during a poignant 5-minute video posted Tuesday night by the Panthers to announce his decision, he cited no longer being able to play the game “fast, physical and strong” as he always had. A history of concussions plagued an eight-year career for Kuechly, who missed the last six games of the 2016 season and another in ’17 with a head injury.

I still want to play, but I don’t think it’s the right decision,” he said in the video.

That’s a similar sentiment to when Earnhardt announced nearly three years ago that he would be ending his career as a NASCAR driver at 43. Though healthy enough to have driven beyond the 2017 season, the 15-time most popular driver said the long-term quality of life with his family and the risk of another head injury weighed heavily in a decision to trade in his helmet for a headset as an NBC Sports analyst.

Earnhardt suffered several concussions during his Cup career. He admitted to hiding one for a few months while racing in 2002. Multiple concussions in the 2012 season sidelined him for two races, and he missed the final 18 races of ’16 while recuperating from another concussion.

“When you get in those types of situations that (Kuechly) was in, you have to make some difficult choices, and I think he made the right one,” Earnhardt said. “I feel like that a lot of people can learn from that. I think he set an amazing example for a lot of young folks to follow.”

Earnhardt has used his injuries as a platform for raising awareness about concussions, particularly in his candid 2018 autobiography, “Racing to the Finish.”

“It’s all improving across the board,” Earnhardt said about how concussions are handled in pro sports. ‘Especially when you see what Luke’s doing and making the choices he’s making, it’s obvious that we’re all a lot better off because of what we’ve learned as a society over the last decade about concussions and the seriousness of those situations, and how we need to take care of our bodies and when to step away and when to know that you need to take a break.

“I feel like we’re all much better off today than we were five or 10 years ago. And I can only see that improving. The understanding about concussions is always improving. The science behind it. Everything is getting better year after year. And that’s exciting. It’s good for our competitors today, no matter what sport you’re playing. It’s great for our veterans and guys who have retired because the science is just improving for everybody to diagnose and treat even years and decades after your playing days or being in a race car. You can still improve your quality of life and that makes me really, really happy.”

Earnhardt’s departure from the No. 88 Chevrolet received virtually universal support in NASCAR, and he was pleased by a similar reaction for Kuechly.

“(Kuechly) gave everything he could to when he was out on the field for the better of his team,” Earnhardt said. “If you listen to comments from his coaches and the players that he’s played with, you understand exactly what kind of person he was and how much of a teammate he was to the guys he played with. That speaks volumes.

“You just have to want to support his decision. (I’m) excited about his future and what he might do next and the next chapter for him. It’s going to be positive and successful, you’d imagine, because of the type of person that he is.”

As a broadcaster, Earnhardt has moved into a more ambassadorial role in his life after driving. That was evident Wednesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which unveiled a new Glory Road exhibit that highlighted 18 championship cars personally selected by Earnhardt (including two driven by his late seven-time champion father).

“I do love to be acknowledged for the passion that I have for (NASCAR) history,” Earnhardt said. “If you’re a bit of a historian of the sport, any involvement in anything the Hall of Fame is going to be doing is awesome and going to be a great experience. I’m just glad that they asked me and hope that people appreciate what we created. I feel great and confident about it and hopefully feel good about it adding a lot to the experience when you come through here.”

Austin Dillon’s connection with Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey

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Austin Dillon had no inside knowledge of the Charlotte Panthers’ plans before the 2017 NFL draft.

But he somehow knew he would be making a future connection with Christian McCaffery.

“I hit him up when he was at Stamford because I was a fan watching him run these crazy 100-yard runs that no one could tackle him,” Dillon said on the most recent NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Getting close to the NFL draft time, I hit him up on DM (direct message) and said, ‘Hey man, I think you’re going to get drafted by the Panthers. I feel it.’ ”

The Panthers took the running back with the eighth pick, and Dillon immediately rolled out the red carpet.

“I told him ‘Dude, you’re coming here, you don’t know anybody. When you get here, hit me up, we’ll hang out,’” Dillon said on the podcast. “I got his number, and we started texting.”

Christian McCaffrey carries the ball for the Carolina Panthers during their Dec. 30 game against New Orleans. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

As McCaffrey adjusted to the rigors of being an NFL rookie, he and Dillon didn’t spend much time together until after the ’17 season. McCaffrey and several other Panthers players came to the All-Star Race last year. “That was the first time we met,” Dillon said. “He had a blast, hung out with us, saw the All-Star Race, and afterward, he was ready to beat Jamie McMurray up. He said the 1 car was in my way. I said, ‘Man, it’s just racing all good.’ ”

Dillon and McCaffrey since have hung out more often and now share the same hair stylist.

McCaffrey is planning to be at Daytona International Speedway this weekend to attend his second Cup race, watching as Dillon attempts to repeat as the Daytona 500 champion.

“That’s going to be cool,” Dillon said. “Yeah, I’m glad he’s going to come enjoy that in his offseason. He’s so strict about what he does during the season and the offseason, he’s just a legend when it comes to training and taking care of his body, diet. He’s really serious. If you can get him to slip out, it’s once in a lifetime because he’s so focused on his craft.”

McCaffrey’s training regimen has inspired Dillon to change his diet and get fit.

“We went to dinner, and they chose this spot in downtown Charlotte, all organic stuff,” Dillon said. “He talked about things he doesn’t eat. I was doing that a couple of years ago and stopped. I was eating right. No bread, no cheese before. But (McCaffrey) takes it to another level with certain things. I’m going to learn more from him this year. Might stop out in Colorado to talk about his diet and the people he uses.”

During the podcast, Dillon also discusses:

–His relationship with crew chief Danny Stockman, who taught him many lessons about racing in winning Xfinity and truck championships. The pair are being reunited in Cup this season;

–Why he thinks the 2019 rules package will benefit him;

–His enthusiasm about NASCAR’s foray into eSports;

–His unique perspective on how young drivers and veterans view racing ethics differently.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking above or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play and wherever you download podcasts.

NFL schedule reveals conflicts in some markets with NASCAR races

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The NFL released its schedule for every team Thursday night, revealing conflicts with a few NASCAR Cup races — but not as many as it could have been.

The first conflict comes Sept. 9 when Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosts the Cup regular-season finale at 2 p.m. ET. The Indianapolis Colts play their home opener against the Cincinnati Bengals at 1 p.m. ET.

“In a perfect world, we’d rather not be head-to-head at home,” Doug Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, told The Indianapolis Star. “But we knew we’d be head-to-head regardless, whether they were here or on the road. … We just had our fingers crossed that it wouldn’t be the first year of the new date for the race.” 

Other places where NASCAR and NFL compete nearby:

# Oct. 7 – NASCAR races at Dover International Speedway. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, who have a strong following in that region, are home to the Minnesota Vikings in a rematch of the NFC championship game that sent the Eagles to the Super Bowl. The race is at 2 p.m. ET. The game is scheduled for 4:25 p.m.

# Oct. 21 – NASCAR races at Kansas Speedway at 2 p.m. ET, and the Kansas City Chiefs are home to the Cincinnati Bengals at 1 p.m. ET.

NASCAR avoided conflicts a few other weekends.

The Charlotte Roval race is Sept. 30 and the Carolina Panthers have a bye that weekend.

The Texas race is Nov. 4 and the Dallas Cowboys play Nov. 5 in a Monday night game.

The Phoenix race is Nov. 11 and the Arizona Cardinals are on the road.

The season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway is Nov. 18. The Miami Dolphins have a bye that weekend.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has ‘some interest’ in being part of group that buys Carolina Panthers

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not one of two race car drivers who are part of Felix Sabates’ group seeking to buy the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, according to the Associated Press.

NASCAR’s 15-time most popular driver told the AP he hadn’t been asked by Sabates to join the group. But Earnhardt said he reached out to Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc., about the possibility of being part of an effort to pursue the team.

SMI own Charlotte Motor Speedway and seven other NASCAR tracks.

“I said, ‘Hey, Marcus, if you guys are in the middle of it and you think it’s a good business deal, I definitely have some interest,'” Earnhardt told the AP. “But I am not one of the guys that Felix is talking about.”

Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing, told the Charlotte Observer last week he was part of a local group in the Charlotte area seeking to buy the Panthers. Sabates said he is not in position to be the majority owner by a “long shot.”

Sabates’ group includes five businessmen, two of the team’s existing minority owners and two race car drivers, who Sabates declined to name.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is selling the team after it was revealed in December by Sports Illustrated that four former Panther employees received “significant settlements” for workplace misconduct that included “sexual harassment against female employees and for directing a racial slur at an African-American employee.”

NASCAR recently denied a report that CEO and Chairman Brian France was part of a group interested in buying the team.

Earnhardt, a noted fan of the Washington Redskins, recently retired from Cup racing after 18 full-time seasons on the circuit.

“I wouldn’t have the kind of money where I would move the needle too much, but it would be something to have a lot of pride in, and a good Charlotte NFL team is good for the city of Charlotte,” Earnhardt said. “I wish them success because of what it does for our community, not only from a pride standpoint, but an economical standpoint. I wouldn’t be a big player, and it wouldn’t be an investment that would really create a big change in my life.

“But I certainly would love to be supportive to the team and the success of the team to the community. That means a lot to me.”

Earnhardt will make his debut as a member of the NBC Sports broadcasting family next month during coverage of the Super Bowl and winter Olympics.

NASCAR denies report Brian France involved to buy Carolina Panthers

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NASCAR issued a statement Wednesday night denying a report by a Charlotte TV station that NASCAR Chairman Brian France was involved with a group to purchase the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.

In the statement to NBC Sports, NASCAR stated: “NASCAR denies the accuracy of the WCNC report. Brian France is not involved.”

WCNC, citing three unnamed, sources reported Wednesday that France is part of a group that wants to buy the Carolina Panthers with France becoming the new major holder.

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson will sell the team at the end of the season. This came after it was revealed in December by Sports Illustrated that four former Panther employees received “significant settlements” for workplace misconduct that included “sexual harassment against female employees and for directing a racial slur at an African-American employee.”

France has served as NASCAR’s Chairman since September 2003. He’s admitted to asking the NFL about its ownership structure in 2005.

The grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and son of Bill France Jr., NASCAR’s second president, Brian France raised eyebrows in Dec. 2008 at a motorsports marketing forum in New York when he said he didn’t anticipate leading NASCAR as long as his father did. Brian France explained his comments a month later, saying:

“This gets misunderstood whether whenever I say something like that, and it simply means that my father was 32 years the CEO and the president of NASCAR and ran the company. And all I said is that that’s not in the cards for me, and I don’t think it’s a smart thing for the sport. That doesn’t mean I won’t have a long run; I hope I do. I hope I’m doing what I’m doing — I really like what I’m doing, and I like working with the industry and the great group of people and Mike (Helton) and I side by side. So that should not be misconstrued. As long as we’re having fun and we’re making progress as an industry, then I would love doing what I’m doing.

“But I am 46 (in 2009), so I don’t think I’ll be 76 and still talking to you. That’s probably a — that doesn’t mean a short window, but it doesn’t mean 30 years, and that’s really where we are.”

France told USA Today in 2013 that when a group bidding on a Major League Baseball team called in 2010, he passed and hadn’t explored any opportunities to that point. 

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