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Dale Earnhardt Jr. hails IMSA growth; all but rules out Rolex 24 return

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Once his full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career comes to an end in three weeks before he joins the NBC Sports team as a broadcaster in 2018, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have the luxury of picking and choosing where else he’ll race on a case-by-case basis.

But a return to driving in the Rolex 24 at Daytona is an unlikely one, Earnhardt said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt’s famous first run in the race with father Dale, then Corvette Racing regulars Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins in 2001 saw them end second in the GTO class and fourth overall. Teammates Johnny O’Connell, Ron Fellows, Franck Freon and Chris Kneifel scored a famous overall win for Corvette that year.

He also returned in 2004 co-driving a Howard-Boss Motorsports Chevrolet Crawford with Tony Stewart and Andy Wallace. Late-race suspension failure cost that car an overall win and dropped them to fifth overall, and third in the Daytona Prototype (DP) class.

Because of how the now merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship series has increased in overall competitiveness and depth of field, Earnhardt said Friday that jumping in for a one-off is much harder now.

02 FEB 2001: The #3 Corvette GTS will be driven by Dale Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins during the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona, Florida. DIGITAL IMAGE Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/ALLSPORT

“I don’t think I’ll be (driving) at the 24 Hours of Daytona,” Earnhardt told reporters Friday at Texas. “Back when we did those things, it felt easier to do those one-offs.

“That series is so competitive… you can’t come in as a hobby, and it’s ‘I’m gonna come in and have fun.’ It’s so competitive. That series has grown to be so good. It’d be like one of them flirting with NASCAR!”

Earnhardt said he wouldn’t want to be a drain on a lineup either. Rolex 24 lineups feature either three, four or five-driver rotations between the three classes.

“I don’t think I’d have the success I want to have or be in the equipment I want to be in. Working with the 24-hour race, to run that, you want to do it with people you know.

“I drove for Corvette and Crawford (DP). That was really nerve-wracking… and with teammates I don’t know that well and man, I don’t want to be the guy that screws that up. So it’s a completely different experience.

“If I were to do it again, it’d have to be with drivers I’m friends with. So it’s fairly unlikely.”

Earnhardt didn’t rule out attending the race as a spectator, as well as potentially visit other events.

“It’s a very fun race though. Staying up all night long, that’s right up my alley,” he laughed. “It’s such a cool atmosphere with the cars running around. It’s a race I might go have fun as a spectator at. Watch it on person, or watch on TV.”

As far as other events, Earnhardt said he’s limiting his future driving beyond this year to a handful of NASCAR Xfinity Series races with his JR Motorsports team, and perhaps Late Model races.

He’s never attended a Formula 1 race either and hopes to do that soon. Jeff Gordon, who co-drove the winning No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R at this year’s Rolex 24, has been at both the Singapore and Mexican Grands Prix this season. Daniel Ricciardo, meanwhile, said at Circuit of The Americas last month he planned to see Earnhardt this weekend at Texas.

“I’ve never been to a Formula 1 race. It’s something, you have to check that box,” Earnhardt said.

“There’s other series and forms of motorsport that I have equal interest in observing. So that would be awesome. I’m sure there’s opportunities that will present themselves.”

Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Fast Facts

Image courtesy Barber Motorsport Park
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Here’s what you need to know about this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama:

Race weekend: Friday, April 20 – Sunday, April 22

Track: Barber Motorsports Park, a 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course (clockwise) in Birmingham, Alabama

Race distance: 90 laps / 207 miles

Entry List:  Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (PDF)

Push-to-pass parameters: 200 seconds of total time with a maximum time of 20 seconds per activation.

Firestone tire allotment: Seven sets primary, four sets alternate

Twitter: @BarberMotorPark @IndyCar, #HIGPA, #IndyCar

Event website: www.barberracingevents.com

INDYCAR website: www.IndyCar.com

2017 race winner: Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet)

2017 Verizon P1 Award winner: Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet),1:06.9614, 123.653 mph

Qualifying lap record: Sebastien Bourdais, 1:06.6001, 124.324 mph, April 23, 2016 (Round 2 of knockout qualifying)

NBCSN qualifying telecast: Saturday, April 21 (4 p.m. ET, live)

NBCSN race telecast: Sunday, April 22 (3 p.m. ET, live)

Leigh Diffey will be the play-by-play announcer for NBCSN’s telecast of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First alongside analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller are the pit reporters.

Radio broadcasts: The Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network is led by chief announcer Mark Jaynes, with analyst Anders Krohn. Turn reporters are Jake Query and Nick Yeoman, with Rob Howden and Michael Young reporting from the pits.

All Verizon IndyCar Series races are broadcast live on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app. Verizon IndyCar Series qualifying is broadcast on Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app and Verizon IndyCar Series practices are broadcast on  IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app.

Video Streaming: All practice sessions will be available on RaceControl.IndyCar.com and on the INDYCAR YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/indycar)

At-track schedule (all times EASTERN):

Friday, April 20

12:15 p.m.-1 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

3:50-4:50 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

4:55-5:10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

Saturday, April 21

11:50 a.m.-12:35 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, streaming on RaceControl.IndyCar.com (live)

4 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of Verizon IndyCar Series knockout qualifications), NBCSN (live)

Sunday, April 22

3 p.m. – Driver introductions

3 p.m. – NBCSN on air

3:35 p.m. – “Drivers, start your engines” command

3:42 p.m. – Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (90 laps/207 miles), NBCSN (live)

Race Notes:

* Alexander Rossi firmly established himself as a championship contender, claiming his first win of the season at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 15. The 26-year-old Californian leads reigning series champion and defending Barber race winner Josef Newgarden by 22 points heading into this weekend’s race.

* The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama will be the ninth Verizon IndyCar Series event conducted at Barber Motorsports Park. Helio Castroneves won the inaugural race in 2010.

* Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud are the entered drivers to have won at Barber Motorsports Park. Power won the race in 2011 and 2012, Hunter-Reay in 2013 and 2014, Newgarden in 2015 and 2017 and Pagenaud in 2016.

* Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud are the entered drivers to have won the pole position at Barber Motorsports Park. Pagenaud won the pole in 2016. Power claimed the pole position in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2017 and Hunter-Reay won the pole in 2013.

* Three drivers have won the race from the pole – Will Power in 2011, Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2013 and Simon Pagenaud in 2016.

* Scott Dixon has finished on the podium in seven of his eight previous starts at Barber Motorsports Park – including five runner-up finishes – but he has yet to finish on the top step of the podium at the picturesque road circuit.

* Eight drivers have competed in every Indy car race at Barber Motorsports Park – Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato. Castroneves is not entered this year.

* Team Penske has five wins at Barber Motorsports Park (2010, 2011, 2012, 2016 and 2017). Andretti Autosport and Ed Carpenter Racing are the only other teams to win at the track. Andretti Autosport won in 2013 and 2014 with Ryan Hunter-Reay. Ed Carpenter Racing won with Josef Newgarden in 2015.

* Six Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders – Rene Binder, Zachary Claman De Melo, Jordan King, Matheus “Matt” Leist, Zach Veach and Robert Wickens – are entered this weekend. It is the most rookies entered for a Barber race since six rookies started in 2011.

*  Eighteen of the 24 drivers entered in the event have competed in Indy car races at Barber Motorsports Park. Ten entered drivers have led laps: Will Power 208, Ryan Hunter-Reay 93, Simon Pagenaud 87, Josef Newgarden 60, Scott Dixon 44, Graham Rahal 24, Charlie Kimball 14, Sebastien Bourdais 2, James Hinchcliffe 2 and Marco Andretti 1.

* Tony Kanaan seeks to start his 286th consecutive race this weekend, which would extend his Indy car record streak that began in June 2001 at Portland. Kanaan will attempt to make his 347th Indy car start, which ranks third on the all-time list.

* Scott Dixon has made 227 consecutive starts heading into the weekend, which is the second-longest streak in Indy car racing. Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti has made 203 consecutive starts, which is the fourth-longest streak in Indy car racing.

* Scott Dixon, the longest-tenured driver for Chip Ganassi Racing, is fourth on the all-time Indy car victory list with 41 wins. 2018 St. Petersburg race winner Sebastien Bourdais is sixth on the all-time list with 37 wins and Will Power ranks ninth on the all-time list with 32 wins.