Earn­hardt returns to Xfin­ity

Fin­ishes sixth af­ter fam­ily in plane crash

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - Sports - By PETE IACOBELLI

DAR­LING­TON, S.C. — A joy­ful Dale Earn­hardt Jr. re­turned to the race­track Satur­day, fin­ish­ing sixth in the Xfin­ity event at Dar­ling­ton Race­way a lit­tle more than two weeks af­ter he and his fam­ily es­caped a plane that crash-landed in Ten­nessee and went up in flames.

The race was a wel­come re­lief from think­ing about the crash for Earn­hardt and his fam­ily. He hopped in his car af­ter kiss­ing wife Amy and 16-month old daugh­ter Isla, and his driv­ing skills kicked in as he moved up from 14th place.

While Earn­hardt was grate­ful for his show­ing, Denny Ham­lin saw his win stripped away when his first-place car failed in­spec­tion. Sec­ond-place finisher Cole Custer was awarded the vic­tory shortly af­ter Ham­lin, crew chief Ben Bashore and Joe Gibbs Rac­ing ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of Xfin­ity & De­vel­op­ment Steve DeS­ouza left the podium.

But it was Earn­hardt who stole the show, no mat­ter who left with the tro­phy. He was cheered loudly by the crowd as he emerged from his car, partly be­cause he was NASCAR’s most pop­u­lar driver 15 straight times un­til his re­tire­ment two years ago and partly to shower him with af­fec­tion fol­low­ing the hor­ri­fy­ing events at the airstrip in El­iz­a­beth­ton, where he had flown to call the Bris­tol race as an an­a­lyst for NBC Sports.

“It’s just good to be at the track,” Earn­hardt said. “I can’t count how many peo­ple give me a warm feel­ing when I see them at the track.

“This,” he con­tin­ued, “is good ther­apy.”

Earn­hardt’s glee was ap­par­ent when he told fel­low re­tired driver-turned-broad­caster Jeff Bur­ton, “I didn’t think I’d be this good.”

It was Earn­hardt’s only race

this sea­son and his first since fin­ish­ing fourth in Rich­mond al­most a year ago. He hopes to drive at Home­stead-Mi­ami Speed­way next March if car spon­sor Hell­man’s re-signs and “if they want to sell a lot of may­on­naise in Florida.”

Earn­hardt stayed mostly off the grid since the Aug. 15 crash, a scary in­ci­dent where Earn­hardt, his wife and daugh­ter, and two pi­lots ran from the flames af­ter the crash land­ing. Even the Earn­hardts’ dog was seen run­ning from the wreck­age. No one was se­ri­ously in­jured.

Earn­hardt did not broad­cast the race from Bris­tol as sched­uled but kept his pledge to com­pete at Dar­ling­ton.

He had sore­ness in his back and wor­ried if it might feel worse af­ter 200 miles at the track dubbed “Too Tough to Tame.”

About half­way through, Earn­hardt re­mem­bered why he gave up full-time rac­ing — es­pe­cially at this mis­shapen oval.

He joked that the right side of his car seemed a bit closer to the wall than he re­mem­bered.

Associated Press

RE­TURN Dale Earn­hardt Jr gets in his car be­fore qual­i­fy­ing for the NASCAR Xfin­ity Series auto race at Dar­ling­ton Race­way on Satur­day in Dar­ling­ton, S.C.

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