By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
SONOMA, Calif. -- As he retires from full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has two Daytona 500 victories to credit.
But that doesn't necessarily mean he won't ever have a third.
During a question-and-answer session with reporters after opening practice at Sonoma Raceway, Earnhardt allowed he might consider an encore appearance in NASCAR's most prestigious race -- under the right circumstances.
True, next week Earnhardt will compete for the last time at Daytona as the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. But that doesn't mean it's the last time he'll compete at Daytona.
"Well, you never say never," Earnhardt said. "I'm just retiring from full-time racing. I'm going to run some Xfinity races next year. I don't know that I won't ever run the Daytona 500 again, if the right deal comes along. All these tracks you have memories at, all of them, Daytona included.
"I'm going to be coming back to these tracks, and I want to continue to be part of the sport. I don't know how it's going to affect me really. It's hard for me to put that into words, because I don't know what that is going to feel like. It will be pretty weird I think to come back to the 500. I'm going to go to the 500 whether I've got any work to do or not. It will be pretty weird to be there and not race."
To some degree, Earnhardt can draw on the experience of his former crew chief, Steve Letarte, who left the pit box for a perch in the NBC Sports television booth.
"When he wasn't working a race he had a hard time being there," Earnhardt said. "He had a hard time watching it and not wanting to be a part of it. ... It will be interesting I guess when we get to the 500 next year and see how that all feels emotionally."
Earnhardt also addressed reports that he, too, might be under consideration for a broadcasting role.
"We are certainly open to discussing the possibility of seeing what options I have," Earnhardt said. "Who wanted us, what kind of job they want me for, and we are sort of in the middle of understanding that, and that just goes along the lines of doing due diligence on everything. I'm not retiring from work. I want to keep seeking out opportunities to make a living and make money and be relevant and be a value to my partners.
"I want to continue to be a part of the sport, and not just as an owner in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. I want to be a valuable asset to the growth of the sport and continue to help raise the bar and raise the awareness of the sport and promote the sport as much as I can. So we were just kind of looking at what opportunities there are out there for me."
IS LIGHTNING MCQUEEN A GOOD-LUCK CHARM FOR BOWYER?
Kyle Larson won last Sunday's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway sporting Lightning McQueen, the lead character from the hit film "Cars 3," on his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
This week, Lightning McQueen adorns the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford driven by Clint Bowyer, who hopes some of the good karma from Larson's win will carry over into Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway (3 p.m. ET on FS1).
In his first year at Stewart-Haas, Bowyer is looking for his first victory this season -- and his first since winning the fall race at Charlotte in 2012.
"Hopefully, lightning strikes again," Bowyer quipped. "The kid (Larson) won in the Lightning McQueen scheme last week, and it would be cool to take Lightning McQueen to Victory Lane again this week. We got an early showing of the movie as an industry.
"Lorra (Bowyer's wife) took Cash (Bowyer's 2-year-old son) to it. I was out of town, and he had a ton of fun at that. They've done a good job promoting that, and it's a big deal for our sport. I'm proud to have that paint scheme on the side of my car this weekend."
The paint job isn't the only good talisman for Bowyer, who is driving the same chassis team co-owner Tony Stewart used to win his 49th and final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Sonoma last year.
Bowyer's own past performance at the 1.99-mile road course is another strong omen. With six top fives (including a victory in 2012) and eight top-10s in 11 starts, Bowyer has to be considered one of the favorites on Sunday.
ERIK JONES' TOYOTA SUFFERS TKO IN DISASTROUS PRACTICE SESSION
Erik Jones had a tire deflated during Friday's opening practice at Sonoma Raceway. That turned out to be the least of his worries.
In the first two minutes of the second session, Jones missed a downshift and wheel-hopped into Turn 11, the hairpin. His No. 77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota slid across the corner and slammed into the tire barrier near the apex.
"I just got some wheel hop and then got loose and hit the fence," Jones said of the accident. "I've been frustrated all day, and this just compounds that. We have to get the backup out and try to learn more and try to get some speed out of the 5-hour Energy Camry."
As a Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender who is racing at Sonoma for the first time, Jones said he would have liked an opportunity to test at the track, other than on a simulator.
"I don't have a lot of road course experience anyways, and then to get thrown into the fire, I wish we could do any kind of testing anywhere," he said. "It's hard to show up and get out there to do it. Just one of those things trying to learn, and you make a mistake."
After his team prepared the backup car, Jones got back on track with roughly 25 minutes left in final practice.
Jones, however, wasn't the only driver who had issues in practice. In the first session, road course ace Billy Johnson spun early in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford. Ty Dillon spun heading up the hill into Turn 2. The engine in Matt Kenseth's No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota expired, and the car came to rest in Turn 10.
Practice was winding down when Chase Elliott spun near the entrance to Turn 10, all the way through the corner before nosing into the barrier beyond the exit.
The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team rolled out a backup car after the incident, and Elliott will have to qualify on Saturday with no laps on the car.
Kyle Larson topped the speed chart in final practice at 94.389 mph, followed by Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and AJ Allmendinger.