Dale Earnhardt Jr. “freaking pumped” for test session, which is rare for him

Over the years, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been about as enthusiastic for test sessions as he is for road course racing.

In other words, he wouldn’t mind if neither existed.

But this week, Earnhardt found himself “freaking pumped up” to come to a NASCAR organizational test in Phoenix, where he’s turning laps in the public eye for the first time since last July.

Obviously, there’s a simple explanation: He missed racing. From being in the car to the camaraderie with his No. 88 team, Earnhardt has been craving a return to a competitive environment — and this gets him another step closer.

“When you’re racing every single week for 20 years and you’re testing, it gets kind of boring, no lie,” he said. “But you’ve really got to understand what the objectives are. … You forget and lose sight of that over time. You start getting lazy. So I’m excited and happy we’re here.”

Video: Dale Jr.’s first laps in the Phoenix test

At 42, Earnhardt is returning to the NASCAR circuit after missing half of last season with a concussion. Clearly, the prospect of racing again puts him in a great mood. He was all smiles when walking to his car on a beautiful Arizona morning, stopping to ask reporters what social media platform they were using to document his arrival.

Aside from a small brake fire in the morning session which cost him an hour of track time, Earnhardt felt his speed was competitive with the likes of Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick (who won the Phoenix races last year and are also at the test session).

But he acknowledged there’s some anxiety about racing again thanks to such a long layoff.

“I’m just a little nervous about if there will be any kind of learning curve,” he said. “Sometimes you see guys, no matter the type of the sport, who are away for awhile and have to adjust since they’ve taken time off. And other guys come back like they haven’t missed a day.

“I hope there’s no rust to shake off. I’m really anxious to get out there and have some success, go out and run well.”

Carl Edwards confused by rumors about his departure from racing

Carl Edwards wants to clear something up: The rumors about him having an ulterior motive for stepping away from racing aren’t true.

Edwards appeared puzzled Tuesday when he chatted with a small group of reporters in the Phoenix Raceway garage, where he was on hand to guide Daniel Suarez through the rookie’s first-ever Cup laps.

After a long news conference earlier this month to explain why he was leaving, Edwards thought he detailed all of his reasons fairly well.

But then he started listening to Sirius/XM Radio’s NASCAR channel in his free time and learned some people believe he had other reasons for getting out of the car.

“It’s like all the sudden I didn’t explain myself or something,” he said. “I guess if people don’t understand, that’s just the way it is. I thought I explained it pretty clearly. People gotta have something to talk about.”

At one point, Edwards paused and asked reporters for more information about the speculation (which even his former teammates have seemed to fuel).

“What is it that people think I have planned that I didn’t say?” he asked.

The reporters responded by telling Edwards some of the rumors flying around in the garage.

“Man,” he said, shaking his head. “Well, I want to go on the record saying those things are not true. I know you guys need something to talk about, but that’s pretty wild. Pretty crazy.”

Edwards said he still doesn’t know how he’ll fill his time after leaving racing, but he’s interested in doing some sailing and has been working out frequently.

As for the report Edwards might run for political office, he seemed to indicate that would be something in the more distant future than 2018.

“That whole thing blew up very quickly,” he said. “Holy crap! That went out of control.

“The point is, I don’t ever rule out anything. I really do believe in America and if a person can help maintain the future opportunities for other people, that’s our duty as Americans.

“If that’s something down the line that fits in as something I can do, that would be an endeavor I’d be real proud of. But I’m not like putting together this campaign or something; not right now.”

Carl Edwards chats with reporters during at test session at Phoenix Raceway (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

Videos from testing at Phoenix Raceway

Here are a couple quick videos to start off the two-day NASCAR test session at Phoenix Raceway.

First, check out Dale Earnhardt Jr. making his first public laps since suffering a concussion in July (he tested at Darlington in December, but that was private):

Also, Phoenix Raceway held a news conference Monday to announce some major changes to the track. Here’s a short recap of that:

EDM Watch: Martin Garrix, Scared to be Lonely

Martin Garrix, the world’s No. 1 DJ, has been inching closer to pop crossovers (see: In The Name Of Love). But what I like about his newer stuff is he’s retaining enough of a dance music sound to not totally abandon his brand.

The latest song, Scared To Be Lonely, has a future bass vibe but is very radio-friendly and could be his biggest hit yet. I’m usually wrong in predicting which Garrix songs will take off (I thought “Now That I Found You” and “Together” should be on pop radio), but Scared To Be Lonely feels like it could be played on both KIIS-FM and Sirius/XM’s BPM channel.

Take a listen below to what already feels like a top-five Garrix song among his extensive catalog:

Darren Rovell is Right

Oh God, I have to defend Darren Rovell in today’s Internet Controversy of the Day. I’d normally hate myself for that, but Rovell is right on the money.

If you missed it, Rovell pissed off a bunch of people because he tweeted this:

Then he doubled down on it after some Twitter blowback.

Look, this is honestly good advice. I know people have their moments of Rovell hatred, but doing free work when trying to get started can sometimes be necessary to generate a big break.

I did this for the first few years of my career, acting on my dad’s advice that it’s the equivalent of “investing in yourself.” While employed as a high schools writer at local newspapers, I did things like cover the Super Bowl, ACC basketball games and NASCAR races on my own time and money in order to get clips.

I would tell the editors, “Don’t worry, I’ll do this on my time off and you don’t have to pay for my travel. As long as you use my stories in the paper, I’m good.” Some resisted, but ultimately let me go; they were getting free content from notable events, after all.

That actually paid off for me in a major way. In 2006, I took vacation time from the Inland Valley Daily Bullletin and flew from Southern California to Indianapolis to cover the Brickyard 400. I was chasing a dream of being a NASCAR writer, and this was my first opportunity to really hang out with some people I really looked up to (Jenna Fryer, Bob Pockrass, Nate Ryan, Marty Smith, etc.).

That weekend in Indy helped me build relationships that proved to be invaluable. Six months later, when there was an opening at NASCAR Scene, Jenna sent me an email about it and encouraged me to apply.

I did apply and ultimately got the job. I’ve been on the NASCAR beat ever since and credit spending my own money to make connections in Indy that weekend as a big part of it.

I’m not saying professionals should work for free. But if you’re someone trying to break into an industry and you can swing it, then consider investing in yourself.

Ryan Ellis becomes Matt DiBenedetto’s PR rep for 2017

Ryan Ellis made 24 starts across NASCAR’s three national series last year, another young driver trying to stay alive in the sport by jumping into whatever ride he could.

But Ellis, tired of waiting for his big break and facing another exhausting season of trying to chase sponsorship, realized it might be best to take a year off from driving, then reset and try again in 2018.

His job for this season, though, is perhaps unprecedented for a driver who raced in the NASCAR Cup Series as recently as November.

Ellis is now the public relations representative for Matt DiBenedetto, who joins GoFas Racing’s No. 32 car this season.

“I’ve always said, ‘Hey, PR person Ryan,’ because he would always just do everything for me and he’s so good at working with people and just kind of winging everything,” said DiBenedetto, who is close friends with Ellis. “That joke actually turned into a reality for this year.”

It was actually such a running gag between the two that when DiBenedetto sat down and sincerely offered the position, he kept trying not to laugh. All joking aside, he said, there was a lot Ellis could do to help the team.

And Ellis, 27, didn’t have to think very hard about it before accepting. Despite having what he called “the best racing year of my life” in 2016, every potential opportunity closed up.

“It’s just so hard to claw and scratch and still be able to pay the bills halfway through a season,” Ellis said this week in between shuttling DiBenedetto to various stops on the NASCAR Media Tour. “I’ve been able to do it the last couple years, but it just takes such a burden on you.”

That’s no exaggeration; Ellis has taken side jobs like working at the Richard Petty Driving Experience and even mopping floors at a BMW dealership to make ends meet.

So the opportunity to try his hand at PR — which comes with a steady salary — was too good to pass up, especially while working with a good friend.

“(Finding a ride) is only getting harder,” Ellis said. “With the self-funded drivers or the drivers who know the right people, you’re just not going to get one of these opportunities without money. I need to pay the bills, so I’ve just got to accept it and do all I can.

“Outside of it being weird, it’s not going to be hard.”

But it is definitely going to be weird. Ellis joked he already wanted to quit while hearing DiBenedetto, a feel-good story last season for BK Racing, tell reporters over and over again how the key to surviving in NASCAR is sticking around long enough to get one great opportunity.

Ellis said the biggest challenge will come when he’s at the track every week but can’t get in a car despite still wanting to race.

“Being emotionally stable (will be the hard part),” he said with a smile. “It’s great to be working with a friend and hopefully bettering his career, but it’ll be hard not making those comparisons to the drivers you think you’re better than who are on the track every week. That will never go away.”

DiBenedetto said Ellis will be “one of the best in the industry” despite a lack of experience because “he’s pretty much done his own PR and self-promoted himself for so many years.”

Of course, if Ellis gets really desperate to get back into a car before 2018, there’s always one sinister option.

“The good news is I control Matt’s food for the most part, so I can poison him at certain tracks,” he said.

Matt DiBenedetto (left) and Ryan Ellis take a break from playing iPhone billiards during the NASCAR Media Tour on Wednesday. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)

Hat-tip to Chris Knight for first tweeting about this development.