USA Luge had a breakout season last winter, winning a team-record 18 medals on the World Cup circuit.Of those, only three came in Europe.Winning on familiar tracks in the U.S. and Canada was an important and considerable step forward for the program -- and now the Americans are hoping some of that success can be enjoyed more frequently on the other side of the Atlantic. The first chance at that comes Saturday, when the World Cup season opens in Winterberg, Germany.Our team had a lot of success in North America last year, U.S. mens veteran Chris Mazdzer said. We almost had a lot of success in Europe. We had a lot of fourth-place finishes. We were really close to medaling a lot of times ... and the goal is to take those fourth places and try to climb one or two spots on the ladder.Mazdzer had two of those three World Cup medals from European stops last season, including a silver in Winterberg in the circuits finale. That marked the third straight year of USA Luge leaving Winterberg with a medal, after Tucker West took bronze in the 2014-15 season and the Americans took silver in the team relay in 2013-14.Traditionally, German tracks havent been particularly kind to the Americans. Theyre hoping the trend of success in Winterberg continues this weekend.Were crossing our fingers for nice weather, said Erin Hamlin, the former womens world champion and the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist at the Sochi Games. But other than that, its keeping things rolling in the same direction theyve been going, getting equipment dialed in and staying healthy. And for me, enjoying it and getting the season started.Winterberg is the lone stop on this European trip, before the circuit comes back to the tracks the Americans know best.After this weekend, the next three World Cups are in Lake Placid, New York; Whistler, British Columbia; and Park City, Utah. On the two American tracks last season, the U.S. won 11 medals.So some early success could lead to plenty of momentum, as sliders start really ramping up for the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.Everyone starting right now is thinking Olympics, how to get there and how to be the best for that time, Mazdzer said. So even though, yes, theres World Cups every week, I think a lot of people are on an Olympic mindset. A lot of important decisions are going to be made in the next year and a half, and were going to have to push each other to be the best possible.That being said, the U.S. might not be at its best this weekend health-wise, particularly on the womens side.Emily Sweeney has been dealing with a wrist issue that is impeding the way she starts races -- and the start is critical in luge, though she still won some preseason races despite the injury. Summer Britcher, who was fifth and one spot behind Hamlin in the overall womens World Cup points standings last season, has been slowed by a shoulder problem.I dont know about Summer, but for myself, Im not expecting a huge number, Sweeney said. Id be happy with something less than what I would be expecting if I was healthy. For now, its more about just getting into that race atmosphere and feeling like the season is finally here.---This story has been corrected to show that the World Cup season opens in Winterberg, not Altenberg, Germany. Hydro Flask Black Friday . -- Team after team passed on Andre Ellington in the draft. Swell Black Friday . Miikka Kiprusoff had just announced his retirement after a decade-long run in Calgary and it would be up to Berra and Ramo to fill the void. http://www.waterbottleblackfriday.com/ .Y. -- The Buffalo Sabres have recalled forward Kevin Porter and defenceman Chad Ruhwedel from the minors as part of a five-player roster shuffle made by the NHLs worst team. Swell Cyber Monday . -- Jonathan Drouin gave Halifax the boost it needed to edge host Sherbrooke Phoenix 3-2 in a shootout in Quebec Major Junior Hockey League action. Hydro Flask Cyber Monday . Rinne played two periods in his first game since left hip surgery in early May. Gabriel Bourque scored 3:07 into the second period and Austin Watson tallied 5:15 later for Nashville. Dale Earnhardt Jr., your work is done.Long ago, you escaped the enormous shadow of your father.Lately, youve ensured an important legacy all your own by raising a caution flag on head injuries in NASCAR.Now, its time to seriously consider walking away.For good.Earnhardt is already sitting out the rest of 2016 to deal with the lingering effects of yet another concussion, but he made it clear that he hopes to be back behind the wheel next February for the season-opening Daytona 500.My heart is there to continue, he said Sunday at Darlington Raceway. And if my doctor says that Im physically able to continue, then thats an easier decision for me to make. Its not something that I think about. Were trying to focus on just getting well and getting normal.Theres no doubt that NASCAR will be rooting for his recovery, given the sports dwindling television ratings and ever-increasing number of empty seats at the tracks.Earnhardt remains the sports most popular driver, and to have him walk away would be a huge blow given the reluctance of the fan base to embrace a new generation of stars.But Junior cant worry about any of that.Hes got bigger issues to consider.Earnhardt should give a hard look at all those former giants of the NFL whose brains were addled by one brutal hit after another, who died far too young or lived out their years in the cruel isolation of dementia.No one knows for sure what another hard crash would do to Earnhardts brain.He might be fine. He might not be.There are different levels of concussion. There are individual differences. The age the concussion occurs plays a part, said Dr. Katherine Dec, a professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine who specializes in sports-related concussions.Wed all love to have an easy answer, she added. Thats what everyone wants to know, something that makes the decision kind of black and white. But the brain is a miraculous thing. There are still a lot of things we dont know.We know that Earnhardt, at the very least, had two concussions about six weeks apart in 2012, which was the wakeup call that everyone in NASCAR needed to address an issue that had long been swept under the rug. Junior sat out two races that year and sought out concussion experts to get the lowdown on potential problems down the road.He became the most vocal advocate for brain safety, prompting NASCAR to mandate that all national series drivers undergo preseason neurocognitive baseline testing as part of a comprehensive concussion program. He also joined a growing list of aathletes by saying he would donate his brain to science after his death, so it can be studied for signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.ddddddddddddThat will go down as Earnhardts most lasting impact on the sport, far more important than his two Daytona 500 victories or those other 24 career wins, or even the impressive feat of making a name for himself in a sport still dominated by the towering presence of his late father, a seven-time Cup champion.Junior certainly sent the right message again when he stepped out of the car after another hard crash at Michigan this summer. He actually managed to compete in the next three races before the concussion symptoms cropped up again. He had missed six races before announcing Friday he was done for the year, meaning hell miss the final 18 events of 2016.Dr. Raj K. Narayan, the head of neurosurgery at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, and LIJ Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, said its impossible for those on the outside to know exactly what Earnhardt is going through.But there are some common-sense aspects that should be taken into account when dealing with any head injury.The science has not gotten to the point yet where we can accurately qualify the amount of brain damage that already occurred, except to say that the more times you get injured and the more injuries you have, it makes total sense that it is likely to affect you more, he said. I think its quite clear that repeated, multiple injuries increase your risk of becoming demented with the passage of time.Of course, it was probably a lot easier for Earnhardt to make peace with sitting out the rest of the year than it would be for him to call it a career, given his potential -- if healthy -- to race at a high level for several more seasons. He had three victories in 2015, four the previous year. While Earnhardt has never won a season championship, hes been a perennial Chase contender.Lets just hope when Earnhardt sits down with his doctors, when he talks this over with his family and closest friends, he errs on the side of caution.Hes already done so much for the sport.Hes certainly made his daddy proud.He deserves to live a long, healthy life.---Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry . ' ' '