Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, will be resuming driving duties this weekend in Martinsville, Va., and barring any setbacks will be piloting the No. 88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet for the Sunday, Nov. 4, AAA Texas 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt Jr. had missed the past two races – Oct. 13 at Charlotte and this past Sunday at Kansas – as a result of concussions he sustained in crashes Aug. 29 during a test session at Kansas and Oct. 7 during the Sprint Cup race at Talladega. He was replaced by Regan Smith for those two races.
Earnhardt Jr. was cleared Tuesday by neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, a NASCAR consultant, after he tested a Sprint Cup car at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga. “Dale Jr. has done everything asked of him,” Petty said in a statement Tuesday. “He hasn’t had a headache since Oct. 12, and we have not been able to provoke any symptoms since that time. I have informed NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports that he is medically cleared for all NASCAR-related activity.” Earnhardt Jr., 38, had a streak of 461 consecutive Sprint Cup Series race starts snapped when he missed the Charlotte event. The streak dated to the season finale in 1999.
Earnhardt Jr., one of the 12 drivers to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, returns to action in 12th place after missing the last two races, 122 points behind leader Brad Keselowski. He will look to make up some ground in the final four Chase races of the season, which includes next week’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. Following Martinsville and Texas, he will close out the season with stops at Phoenix and Homestead.
The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is in the seventh of the 10-round championship fight and the contenders refuse to fall. Much like last year’s epic Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup where five drivers were separated by a mere 26 points entering the final four races, this year’s edition is setting the table for another classic showdown. Five drivers are separated by 30 points – with Brad Keselowski sitting atop the standings followed by Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne – headed into this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway before the series returns to Texas Motor Speedway for the eighth race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup – the AAA Texas 500 – on Sunday, Nov. 4.
“That’s what the fans want to see,” Johnson said of the tight points battle. “It’s what our sport needs.” Prior to last season, the closest points margin between multiple competitors entering the final four races of the Chase was in 2006 when Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Johnson were separated by 41 points.
“These guys are good,” Martin Truex Jr. said of the Chase contenders. “These teams are very consistent – the guys that are up front are the guys you’re going to have to beat for the championship. You just got to do what you can do every week.” The final four races will prove to be pressure packed with every point highly coveted. While the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has 1,413 laps to run during the remaining races, competitors understand that it may come down to the last laps to decide this year’s champion. “I see it coming all the way down to Homestead,” Keselowski said after last weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway. “It will be decided there. I’m happy with the season that we’ve had so far and the position that we’re in. It’s going to come down to the last race, that’s pretty obvious after today.”
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