Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns to the track

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, stands in the garage during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to the track Saturday. NASCAR’s most popular driver missed the second half of the 2016 season as he recovered from concussion symptoms. He took part in a private test at Darlington Raceway in December to get medical clearance to race. Saturday however Earnhardt was back at the track and turned his first laps in preparation for a race, the 2017 Daytona 500.

Needless to say there was a large crowd gathered when Earnhardt got into the car and took part in the four hours of practice. A practice teams used to prepare for Sunday qualifying. Single car runs were the order of the day, but for Earnhardt it was just what he needed.

“It felt good to just get out there and get to work a little bit and be with the guys and see all the familiar faces in the garage, other drivers and team members and so forth,” Earnhardt said after the session. “Just trying to put as many laps as I can behind me and get further and further into this deal to where the events from last year become more of a distant memory and don’t define me as who I am so much anymore.  It will be good to get in the car and get some good wins and good finishes under our belt this season. That is our plan.”

Not only did Earnhardt get clearance to race again in the off season, he also had another life changing event, he got married. Now 42, Earnhardt says he doesn’t feel as though he’s changed, at least in the racecar.

“To be successful, particularly at Daytona you have to drive with zero fear and put your car in places on instinct without wondering and guessing about the repercussions,” he said.  “I have watched a lot of races, replays and stuff where we have had success and I remember that feeling of being invincible.  Not even thinking about the dangers or the risks that you are taking, you are just doing.  That is when you are at your best.  You have to get into that frame of mind for the race and I hope to kind of still be that driver that I need to be.”

“Outside the car though, might not take things quite as, I don’t know if serious is the right word, but don’t sweat the small stuff,” he added. “Try not to let those little things get under your skin, things that really don’t matter.  You get swept up in doing this week after week and it becomes who you are instead of what you do.  Trying to keep that under control.”

He got somewhat reflective. Saying he’s now getting older and wiser.

“I’ve been learning so much, trying to be observant and learn and be open-minded to improving,” he said.  “Getting better as a person, as a driver, as a professional, never assuming you’ve got it all figured out and understanding your mistakes and correcting them.  Just getting smarter and older and ready to grow-up.  I always thought I was kind of mature, but there is always some room to improve.  Certainly, made a lot of changes in my life in the last year that has made some big differences on me personally and I’ve enjoyed it and look forward to the future.”

Earnhardt was 11th on the practice chart Saturday.

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