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Photo courtesy Justin Bonnett Racing official Facebook page

Neil Bonnett’s grandson can’t wait to race again, month after fiery wreck

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Less than a month after being seriously injured in a crash, Justin Bonnett can’t wait to get back in a race car.

The grandson of late NASCAR star Neil Bonnett, Justin suffered a broken left leg, three fractures of his left foot and burns on his neck, arm and leg after being caught in a fiery wreck on Dec. 7 during the Snowflake 100 at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.

“I’m pretty good now that I’ve been able to get home and get everything situated,” the 26-year-old Bonnett told NBC Sports in an exclusive interview Thursday. “It’s a long road to recovery but things are looking up.”

Driving the No. 12 car, the same number his grandfather drove for much of his NASCAR career, the younger Bonnett was running 26th on Lap 54 in the prelude to the next day’s Snowball Derby when he was unable to avoid the spinning car of Jarrett Parker.

The impact tore the fuel cell from Parker’s car, igniting a fireball that engulfed Bonnett’s car.

“I remember pretty much everything (about the wreck),” Bonnett told NBC Sports. “It didn’t knock me out. I remember trying to get the fire off me. I know I was on fire heavily and was trying to get it off me, but I couldn’t get it off me.

“I really was in an unsure state, trying to figure out what was going on, because everything happened so quick. Normally, when a car spins out, they don’t come shooting back up the racetrack. I was still wide-open, naturally, when that happened, I hadn’t lifted yet.”

Russell Brooks, brother of Five Flags Speedway technical director Ricky Brooks, hopped off a rescue truck, was the first to reach the burning inferno and helped Bonnett to safety.

“I couldn’t get my belts undone,” Bonnett said. “Russell Brooks reached in there and pulled my belts loose. I fought my steering wheel, trying to get it off, finally got it off, pulled out (of the car) and about halfway up my back when I realized something was wrong, I couldn’t get out. Russell Brooks reached in and pulled me out and then I saw my foot was broke.

“It’s really a blessing Russell (who was uninjured by the fire) was there because it would have taken longer for someone to get me out. He was the first to get to me and get me out and get me away from the fire.”

But he added, “Hey, it happens, it’s part of racing and you move on.”

Bonnett has undergone three surgeries on his left leg and left foot, as well as several treatments for mild-to-harsh second-degree burns on his neck, entire left arm and left knee and thigh.

It’s an ongoing process, but the racing community has also reached out in a big way to show its support. He points to help from Kelley Earnhardt Miller and NASCAR team owner Richard Childress as being key factors, particularly Childress, who put Bonnett in touch with a noted North Carolina burns specialist for treatment.

Bonnett’s friends also started a GoFundMe page that has already raised over $12,000 to help with Bonnett’s medical expenses.

“The racing community has came together and it has truly blown me away,” Bonnett said. “Yes, it’s hard, because Taylor, my girlfriend and we have an 11-month-old, it kind of makes it tough on her because she has to do everything.

“I’m like a baby now because I can’t walk, I’m on a walker, yes, it’s impacted the around the house part and made it more difficult, but it’s something we can get through. It tests at times, but it helps you in the long run.”

One of the biggest keys to Bonnett’s recovery is the attitude he has.

“You have to try and stay positive on the outlook and the way things go,” Bonnett said. “That’s the way I am, that’s me.

“When something like this happens, it’s very easy to get down. But I’m trying to stay as positive as I can and have a positive outlook on everything as much as I can to keep things going and hopefully, sooner than later, get back in the seat and keep going.”

He then adds with a laugh, “It’s getting lonely sitting in this house, though.”

Doctors have told Bonnett it will take at least six months to make a full recovery. He says with another laugh that he has a faster and more optimistic recovery timeline than his doctors: he’s targeting March 7 and the 56th annual Alabama 200 — one of the largest late model races of the year — at Montgomery (Alabama) Speedway as his first race back.

“I don’t know if I’ll make it,” Bonnett said of his ambitious timeline. “It’s before three months (since his crash, but I’m doing everything on my end and if I get cleared I’ll go back, but it’s all going to depend on the doctors.

“I have thought about getting back. I don’t know what it’s going to be like. It’s probably going to be different at first, it’s going to be a learning curve for me because of everything that has gone on. But I feel once I get back in there and put it all behind me, I feel like we’ll be okay.”

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Shawna Robinson reflects on her and son being cancer free, post-racing career

Photo by Daniel McFadin
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CONCORD, N.C. — Fourteen years after her racing career ended, Shawna Robinson got to experience a first at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

On a hot September day, the former NASCAR driver arrived on the track’s pit road as one drop in a sea of pink.

Robinson, 54, wore a pink shirt identical to those worn by numerous other women who covered pit road, signifying their status as survivors of breast cancer. They were all there to help paint the track’s pit wall pink ahead of NASCAR’s Roval race weekend.

For Robinson, the first woman to win a NASCAR sanctioned race (Charlotte/Daytona Dash Series’ AC Delco 100 at New Asheville Speedway on June 10, 1988), it was the first time she’d attended the “Paint Pit Wall Pink” event to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Robinson, who once suffered from Stage 3 breast cancer, has been in remission since 2015.

“It’s just an honor to be a part of this,” Robinson told NBC Sports. “You just see the courage of all these survivors and you know the process you go through once you’re diagnosed, it’s a journey.”

October is significant for Robinson not just because of her experience with cancer. In January 2014, two months before her diagnosis, her father-in-law Dale Clark passed way after a short battle with prostate cancer.

“We had just lost (Dale) and the next thing you know, I have the same oncologist and I’m doing chemo in the room that he did, and my mother-in-law’s there with me,” Robinson recalled. “Things just come full circle. It’s been really, really tough on everybody losing Dale and then for me to get through the process and then for (son) Tanner.”

Six months after her last radiation treatment in September 2015, Tanner was diagnosed with testicular cancer just before his 20th birthday. He’s now cancer free and pursuing a career as a professional gamer.

“We were able to catch it early,” Robinson said. “Him going to chemo was probably harder. I went through chemo for three years, he went through it for six months because it was such a different type of treatment.

“Just to see him go through that and the frailness was really, really tough. But he’s cancer free. When I lost my hair, he shaved his head (to give moral support). Little did he know a few years down the road he’d be losing his hair due to chemo.”

Robinson shared a lesson that came to mind seeing her fellow survivors gather at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“Life never will be the same again, but you’re fortunate,” she said. “It changes the person who you are and I feel that it makes you a better person. It makes the life that you’ve lived even that more grateful to have another day to live it.”

After not having raced since she failed to qualify for the April 2005 Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, Robinson is still finding ways to live within the racing community. And that’s not including being a member of the National Motorsports Appeals panel.

Robinson is the founder of the interior and event design company Happy Chair, which has been responsible for design projects for Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman and other NASCAR drivers.

“I kind of went from the driver’s seat to the inside of the driver’s home,” Robinson said.

Robinson’s interest in both racing and design originated while growing up in a racing family in Iowa, where she got her competitive start by racing diesel trucks.

“I think I got part of it from my mother, who was very much into decor, and I grew up as a little girl going to flea markets and antique stores and my dad was the racer,” Robinson said. “Every weekend was at a race track.”

Robinson “dabbled” in design when she took a two-year hiatus from racing in the 90s to have her two children, Tanner and Samantha.

Shawna Robinson in 2002 before qualifying for the Daytona 500. She was the second woman to compete in the race. (Craig Jones/Getty Images)

“Really just word of mouth, it just really picked up with, ‘Would you help me do this, would you help me do that?'” Robinson said. “Then I went back into racing in ’99 and then basically got out of it in 2005. (Going back to design work) seemed like the next step to go to.”

Robinson describes her style as “very eclectic,” as she likes to “take old patterns and mix them up. I’m a little mixed up, so I guess that works well for me.”

Anyone with familiar with JR Motorsports’ headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina, might have seen her work.

“Still to this day if you see any kind of interviews with the crew or the team it’s on the blocked wall in the back with all those colors,” Robinson said. “I was literally on a scaffolding painting those squares. It’s pretty cool to still see that. I worked very closely with Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. and Kelley (Earnhardt Miller). Everybody kind of did their race shops in red, black, silver. He wanted to go a totally different route and we used a lot of earth tones and odd colors. It’s a very homey feel to that shop and it’s a very family feel with JR Motorsports. …

“I created that atmosphere and to see it 10, 15 years later and it’s still standing. A lot of times when you go to a job you did in the beginning or early on and you go back to it and you think ‘Oooh, I could have done this different.’ I don’t feel that way, I feel like it’s really held its beautiful look that it has.”

Here’s an example of Robinson’s design work.

For Robinson to focus on her new endeavors, she believed she had to “pull the door down on that world” of racing, which saw her make 72 starts in national NASCAR races, become the first woman to win a pole in the Xfinity Series (Atlanta 1994) and be the second woman to compete in the Daytona 500.

And Robinson is clear “You can’t do racing halfway.”

“Any career you want to succeed at, you can’t do it halfway,” she said. “So I really had to dive into (interior design) and just think I had the support and the clientele because of being in the racing world and people have a trust with you. Giving you the key to their house or giving you the opportunity to go in and work with their things.”

Shawna Robinson during the 2001 Brickyard 400 race weekend. (Jonathan Ferrey /Allsport

The club of woman who have competed in NASCAR is small, but Robinson has high hopes for the latest woman to grab the sport’s spotlight, Hailie Deegan.

Thirty years after Robinson, Deegan became the second woman to win a NASCAR sanctioned race last year when she won at Meridian (Idaho) Speedway in the K&N Pro Series West. She’s added two more wins this season.

“She seems like such a confident girl,” Robinson said. “There’s no question she’s a hard driver that’s not afraid to put her nose (in a tight spot) to get to the next spot. I think she’s got a ton of potential. The fact that she’s running with Toyota support and she’s running different K&N races, she can pretty much get into anything and drive it. I think that’s going to be her saving grace.”

Robinson has never met Deegan. If she does, what would she like to talk to her about?

“I hope she knows who I am would be one thing,” Robinson said with a slight laugh, “or who I was.”

Even if Deegan doesn’t know who she is, plenty of people still remember her career.

Robinson said she gets autograph cards in the mail “every day and get people that want things signed or just want to know how I’m doing. I’m happy about all that. They’re still very, very supportive.”

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.

Mother of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller dies

JR Motorsports
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Brenda Jackson, mother of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller, has died following a battle with cancer, JR Motorsports announced Monday. She was 65.

Formerly Brenda Gee, she married Dale Earnhardt in 1972. Together they had Kelley (1972) and Dale Jr. (1974) before separating.

Jackson was one of two daughters and four children to NASCAR fabricator Robert Gee, a Virginia native who built winning cars for racers, including Earnhardt.

After her separation from Earnhardt, the children stayed with her as Earnhardt tried to establish his racing career. After a fire claimed their home, Jackson moved back to Virginia while the children went to live with Earnhardt.

She remarried in 1985 to William M. Jackson Jr., a firefighter in Norfolk, Virginia. When he retired they moved back to North Carolina with step-daughter Meredith. Jackson joined JR Motorsports as an accounting specialist in 2004 and remained there through 2019.

Jackson is survived by her husband; her children Dale Earnhardt Jr. (wife Amy), Kelley Earnhardt Miller (husband L.W.), step-daughter Meredith Davis (husband Jonathan); her grandchildren Karsyn Elledge (18), Kennedy Elledge (13), Wyatt Miller (7), Callahan Davis (16), Claudia Davis (13), and Isla Rose Earnhardt (11 months); her brothers Robert Gee (wife Beverly) and Jimmy Gee; and her beloved Pekingese dog, Scully.

Memorial contributions may be sent to Piedmont Animal Rescue or Hospice and Palliative Care of Iredell.

Christopher Bell wins Chili Bowl preliminary race

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Justin Allgaier placed 13th in the 24-car field.

Even though he is in position to win a third consecutive Chili Bowl title, Bell says he has work to do.

“I kind of felt rusty tonight,” Bell said in the press conference afterward. “I don’t know why that was. … The longer you’re on top, the harder it is to stay there and the easier it is to lose. I’m going to do my best to try to figure out why I didn’t feel as good as I normally do and why I didn’t run as good of a race as I normally do.”

Golobic noted the challenges of racing against Bell.

“It’s kind of frustrating to race with Christopher sometimes, he’s just so darn good,” Golobic said in the press conference. “I think he’s the best there is hands down right now in a midget.”

Karsyn Elledge, daughter of JR Motorsports co-owner Kelley Earnhardt Miller, was collected in an incident in her B main and finished 11th. She won her heat earlier in the evening, finishing ahead of Golobic.

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