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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is buzzing about the Charlotte Hornets’ playoff run


during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 16, 2016 in Bristol, Tennessee.

Matt Sullivan

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was contemplating the impact of a Super Bowl win on Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s profile when his mind suddenly turned to another Charlotte franchise.

“If (Newton) wins in the Super Bowl, without a doubt, it’d be one of the biggest things in this city in a long, long time,” Earnhardt said. “So … don’t forget about the Hornets! We’ve got some good Hornets. Don’t forget about the Hornets.”

NASCAR’s 13-time most popular driver never does.

When Game 2 of the Hornets’ first-round playoff series with the Miami Heat begins tonight, it’s a certainty Earnhardt will be paying rapt attention.

His Twitter timeline is filled with updates about Charlotte’s NBA franchise, and he spent much of a media availability last week offering an unprompted and detailed analysis of the team’s prospects of winning its first playoff game in 14 years.

“The Heat lost a lot of good guys,” the Hendrick Motorsports driver said, referring to a team without star Chris Bosh. “I like our team if we can be healthy and stay healthy. If Marvin (Williams) can just keep playing and shooting 3s, it should be a lot of fun to watch them compete.

“They played well enough this year to get into a series they legitimately have a shot at winning, instead of being the eighth seed and getting swept. They haven’t won a playoff game since ’01-02, so it’d be great for them to be in the series and win it. It would give them a lot of excitement about the future, not just the rest of the playoffs but next year.”

Earnhardt, who frequently attends games at Time Warner Cable Arena, has been complimentary of the team’s chemistry under third-year coach Steve Clifford but worries about maintaining its core by keeping players such as impending free agent wingman Nicolas Batum.

“I know all those guys really like playing for Clifford,” Earnhardt said. “I hope they stick around. Batum, he’s real important. You don’t hear much about contract talks. You don’t hear much about his interest in staying with the city.

“But if they can keep the guys they’ve got, I love to watch them play. We don’t have to have a big guy, five-star player. I like the group we’ve got. They have a lot of fun playing together. And they’re fun to watch.”

Earnhardt, isn’t the only NASCAR driver with a strong affinity for the Hornets. Ty Dillon’s wife, Haley, is a member of The Honey Bees, the Hornets’ dance team, making the Richard Childress Racing driver a frequent attendee at games.