For Dale Earnhardt Jr., returning to competition in NASCAR’s premier division in 2017 was not just a mere hope, but a determined quest after being sidelined for half the the 2016 season.
Earnhardt Jr. was cleared by NASCAR and medical professionals on Wednesday to return to competition beginning in the Daytona 500. In order to be cleared, Earnhardt Jr. travelled to Darlington Raceway to run numerous laps. Despite being out of the car for an extended amount of time, it only took Earnhardt Jr. three laps for it to come back to him
“We got to the racetrack, the weather was great and we just ran laps. We put tires on, run 15 laps at a time; take about a 20 minute break, Dr. (Jerry) Petty was there. We did a personal evaluation before we got in the car to set a baseline and Dr. Petty was evaluating me after each run to see if everything was good,” said Earnhardt Jr.
For Rick Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports, having Earnhardt Jr. back in the car was a relief for him and the organization. “When that test finished and he came through with such flying colors and just the text I got and the conversation I had you could feel it in the place today when we were with the rest of the team it just elevated the whole place.”
This experience put numerous things into perspective for Earnhardt Jr. For him, he realized that he should “not take it for granted” and to be appreciative of the different parts and aspects of life.
Earnhardt Jr. knows the possibility of additional concussions, but will continue to get healthy and stronger than ever before. His confidence has also gained strength throughout this experience. He will continue to do rehab exercises to continue to strengthen himself to help prevent further concussions.
Earnhardt Jr. feels like NASCAR will handle concussions no differently if it was him or another driver, but that he has to make the personal decisions to be “smart, and make great decisions for myself.”
Although returning at Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500, “The Clash” will be driven by Alex Bowman despite Earnhardt Jr’s eligibility. He had the gut reaction to let Bowman race “The Clash” when the pole at Phoenix was won. He felt that Bowman should have that chance with the No. 88 guys since he won that pole with them.
Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports are confident and excited to be returning to competition in 2017.