Rare week off comes at great time for ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin

It’s perfect timing for two NASCAR drivers who need some time off to try and overcome health issues.

By Joe Menzer

The final week off for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in this 2016 season could not be coming at a better time for two of its top stars, Dale Earnhardt Jr. andDenny Hamlin.

Both drivers could use the extra time away from the grind of a track on a race weekend to try to overcome health issues.

Earnhardt has missed the last four races while trying to recover from concussion-like symptoms. He met with the media last Friday at Watkins Glen and admitted, once again, that he isn’t certain when he will be able to get back behind the wheel of his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet again.

But he did make it clear that he intends to drive again. And an extra week off should only help get him closer to that goal.

“I think my doctors have a good understanding of my history and what I have been through and with their own personal knowledge that they have throughout their careers to give me a clear understanding of when I will be ready to go back and get into a race car,” Earnhardt said. “Our intentions are to get cleared and get back to racing. We are just taking it one evaluation at a time.”

Hamlin’s situation, while far less serious, nonetheless is cause for concern. Despite winning last Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at The Glen, Hamlin told crew chief Mike Wheeler before the race that he wasn’t sure he could drive the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota because of intense pain and spasms in his back.

“I got the text (Sunday) morning when he woke up. He was in trouble. He said it,” Wheeler said. “It was like, you know, not something you really want to hear. You know you got good cars, good teammates, (solid) track position to start.

“But at the end of the day I know he mans up when he needs to. I almost want to say if he knew he didn’t have a winning car, he might do something different. But I know he definitely gets that attitude going in the car when he has a winning car and can run up front, he’s going to tough it out.”

Wheeler added that he knew his driver was not feeling well during Sunday’s pre-race drivers’ meeting.

“I sat next to him. It was so uncomfortable, he couldn’t even sit down. He stood up,” Wheeler said. “You could just tell he was in pain. There was nothing you could do (Sunday) to fix it.

“He’s been running pretty hard lately, been busy with the sport. He’s had this happen before years ago. But he knew the situation he was in and he knew he had to tough it out, and he did.”

Now both Earnhardt and Hamlin will get some well-needed extra rest.

Hamlin said he just woke up with his back in a knot last Sunday, and added that he expects to be fine soon — long before the next Sprint Cup race one week from Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I don’t know what causes it. It just happens every now and then,” Hamlin said. “It’s never happened on a race day, for sure. Usually I’m in the car and things get looser as the weekend goes on.

“Really, I haven’t had back problems in the past four to five years. It’s all subsided pretty well.  I’ve got a pretty good routine that I do during the week that helps with that. But (last Sunday), you know, I slept wrong or something. I woke up and knew I was in pretty big trouble. … Now if it was Friday or Saturday, no question I wouldn’t have turned one lap. It was by far the worst conditions I’ve ever had to drive in, over the knees (that were surgically repaired in past years), anything else. This was by far the worst pain‑wise I’ve had to go through.”

Nov 21, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) gestures on the court against the Washington Wizards in the fourth quarter at Verizon Center. The Wizards won 91-78. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 21, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) gestures on the court against the Washington Wizards in the fourth quarter at Verizon Center. The Wizards won 91-78. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

CLEVELAND – At halftime of Game 7 on Sunday and with the Golden State Warriors leading by seven points, Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had a final halftime message. Part of Lue’s speech was directed at LeBron James.

“He told us, ‘We’ve got 24 minutes. We’ve got to play as hard as we’ve ever played in the next 24 minutes,” James told USA TODAY Sports just before he got into a convertible for the most-anticipated parade in Cleveland history on Wednesday.

James said Lue looked at him and said, “ ‘It starts with you.’ He got on me a little bit. Told me to pick up everything I’ve been doing and give even more effort. We all responded.”

James delivered with The Block, rejecting Andre Iguodala’s layup attempt with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter. Kyrie Irving provided The Dagger, a three-pointer from the right wing giving the Cavs a three-point lead with 53 seconds remaining. Kevin Lovecontributed with The Stop, playing outstanding defense on Steph Curry which helped the Cavs beat the Warriors 93-89 in Game 7 On Sunday. Because of his play, he was named Finals MVP.

CHINA REAL TIME REPORT

Former basketball player Kobe Bryant, middle, talking at the Shanghai Tower in Shanghai, China, Tuesday. PHOTO: JAMES T. AREDDY/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Kobe Bryant recently retired from basketball but he took the game to new heights on Tuesday evening in Shanghai, headlining the first-ever event held atop China’s tallest building.

Appearing on floor 126 of Shanghai Tower for a TedX Salon talk, Mr. Bryant spoke of his upbringing in Italy and two decades and five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, then hinted at what the future holds for a 37 year old who, in his words, “was born to play basketball.”

But first, his momentous exit as a Laker: “It was the final event of a long and beautiful journey,” Mr. Bryant said. “There wasn’t any pressure. It wasn’t sad.” Indeed, he scored 60 points in the April matchup with the Utah Jazz.

Mr. Bryant is in Asia for a tour that includes speaking appearances and running basketball camps. A photo of him in Beijing grinning alongside action movie star Jackie Chan flew around the Internet this week.

Source: kobebryant/instagram

On Tuesday evening, Mr. Bryant spoke to a small group at the highest point of Shanghai Tower, a 632 meter tall building that is China’s highest and No. 2 world-wide. The tallest is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Mr. Bryant’s back was against a soaring green sculpture that is affixed to the tower’s 1,000 metric ton “mass damper,” an engineering device of steel and cable designed to permit the building to sway with the wind but without discomforting residents. Mr. Bryant only shrugged when asked his opinion of the engineering marvel.

Though Shanghai Tower construction finished months ago, the circular building can’t be occupied until it completes fire inspections, which are ongoing this week. The event offered access to the 126th floor lounge where the only window is a glass sphere on the conical ceiling called a dragon candle opening (a public observation deck is on the 119th floor).

Explaining a philosophy he calls Mamba Mentality to his small professional audience, Mr. Bryant rarely veered from the lessons of basketball. “I love the smell of the ball,” he said, along with the swishing sound it makes falling through the net. “I was born to play basketball.”

Though a champion, Mr. Bryant talked at length about his stumbles, from losing in the NBA finals to the rival Boston Celtics in 2008 to fearing his career was over when he tore his Achilles’ heel in 2013, then fracturing his knee and injuring a shoulder. He recalled how at age 11 he returned to live in the U.S. from Italy where his father played ball and he was a child star, only to go an entire summer without scoring a point back in Philadelphia.

His recovery strategy: a bit of anger and self-pity, then acceptance that “I gotta fix this.”

Basketball is full of life lessons about communications, unselfishness, attention to detail and perseverance — “all those things are directly learned from the game of basketball,” he said.

Mr. Bryant describes himself on his Twitter account as “CEO Kobe Inc. Publisher. Investor. Producer.” During the evening appearance he only hinted at his future out of uniform.

“It’s always teaching the game through various ways,” he said. “How can you share stories with the rest of the world? Infuse that into entertainment?”

–James T. Areddy