Earn­hardt Jr. isn’t just back from his con­cus­sion. He’s one of the fa­vorites.

The Washington Post Sunday - - HOCKEY - DAY­TONA 500 BY JENNA FRYER

day­tona beach, fla. — The good news for NASCAR is that all signs in­di­cate Dale Earn­hardt Jr. has a le­git­i­mate shot to win the Day­tona 500.

A vic­tory for NASCAR’s most pop­u­lar driver, in his re­turn to rac­ing af­ter a con­cus­sion side­lined him the sec­ond half of last sea­son, would be a mas­sive boost for the sag­ging se­ries. Earn­hardt’s star power has been one of the bright spots of Speed­weeks, and his strength on the track has been ob­vi­ous ev­ery time he has been be­hind the wheel of his Chevro­let.

Earn­hardt was part of a Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports qual­i­fy­ing sweep for Sun­day’s sea­son-open­ing race. Chase El­liott won the pole, and Earn­hardt will line up next to him on the start­ing grid. El­liott added a win in a qual­i­fy­ing race, and Earn­hardt led 53 of 60 laps in a sec­ond qual­i­fy­ing race be­fore he was passed at the end.

So the Hen­drick cars have speed, the driv­ers aren’t cow­er­ing from the Toy­ota teamwork that dom­i­nated last year’s race, and they are ready to go bumper-to­bumper with the Team Penske fleet.

It means Sun­day could be a strong open­ing day for NASCAR, par­tic­u­larly if Earn­hardt can pull off his third vic­tory in “The Great Amer­i­can Race.” He’s not ready to call him­self a fa­vorite, and thinks he’ll have his hands full with the Joe Gibbs Rac­ing group and Penske driv­ers Joey Logano and Brad Ke­selowski.

“Watch­ing the last sev­eral [re­stric­tor] plate races, I think the Gibbs guys have the mar­ket cor­nered on the fa­vorite,” he said. “The Penske guys are really strong. So I think it’s their race to lose. The Hen­drick cars are go­ing to be up there try­ing to mix it up.”

NASCAR needs Sun­day to go off without a hitch.

The se­ries is un­der heavy scru­tiny be­cause of slid­ing at­ten­dance and tele­vi­sion rat­ings, plus the ti­tle spon­sor deal with Mon­ster En­ergy came in at a frac­tion of what NASCAR was look­ing for when it be­gan shop­ping the nam­ing rights al­most two years ago.

NASCAR cel­e­brated its deal with Mon­ster in a Las Ve­gas an­nounce­ment and has hitched its wagon to the hope that Mon­ster can at­tract a younger de­mo­graphic and raise the ex­cite­ment level at all the events. But there was lit­tle sig­nage around the track dur­ing Speed­weeks, and one of the few in­di­ca­tions Mon­ster is the new spon­sor was the scant­ily-clad women around for some of the pomp and cir­cum­stance. NASCAR was even the sub­ject of a crit­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion in the Wall Street Jour­nal.

NASCAR has coun­tered with a JGR an­nounce­ment that defending race win­ner Denny Ham­lin and FedEx have signed long-term ex­ten­sions, while Team Penske locked in Logano and Shell-Pennzoil through 2023.

“Peo­ple are talk­ing about the health of the sport, and this is a wa­ter­shed mo­ment,” Roger Penske said of an ex­ten­sion that took nearly a year to com­plete with Shell.

Both FedEx and Shell-Pennzoil are ma­jor spon­sors who spend some­thing close to $20 mil­lion a year to brand the race cars and mar­ket to the NASCAR au­di­ence.

“This is a very pos­i­tive story in our sport, to see the com­mit­ment of a very large com­pany like Shell and Pennzoil are and for them to be able to sign up with this team really makes a state­ment for not only where Team Penske is, but for where NASCAR is as a sport,” Logano said.

Prob­lem is, NASCAR doesn’t yet know ex­actly where it is.

NASCAR will launch an ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign Sun­day called “Ready. Set. Race.” and a crash­filled 30-sec­ond TV ad was re­vealed Saturday to pro­mote the 500.

In an ef­fort to add ex­cite­ment to the rac­ing, all events will be run in seg­ments this year. It means the Day­tona 500 won’t ex­actly be a 500-mile race of at­tri­tion, but will in­stead be cut into three parts. There are points on the line for each seg­ment, giv­ing driv­ers in­cen­tive to race hard for the en­tire race, and one fi­nal long push to the check­ered flag.

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