Dale Earnhardt Jr. medically cleared to return to NASCAR competition following Darlington test

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his 14th consecutive Most Popular Driver Award at the end of 2016 (Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his 14th consecutive Most Popular Driver Award at the end of 2016 (Getty Images)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his 14th consecutive Most Popular Driver Award at the end of 2016 (Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was given medical clearance to return to fulltime NASCAR competition this week. The Hendrick Motorsports team announced Thursday that Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, cleared Earnhardt Wednesday evening in consultation with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty.

The team said the clearance came after a test Wednesday afternoon at Darlington Raceway. Earnhardt will return for the beginning of the 2017 season at the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.

“Dale is one of the hardest-working patients I’ve ever encountered,” Collins said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked, and we believe he is ready to compete at a professional level again and can withstand the normal forces of a race car driver. Dale has been very open with us, and we’ve had plenty of time for his treatment, so we feel very good about his long-term prospects and how this has been managed by everyone involved.”

Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports, completed 185 laps during a nearly five-hour session at Darlington under the guidance of his crew chief, Greg Ives. In addition to the on-track test, which was observed by NASCAR, the driver has logged more than 15 hours in a racing simulator during his recovery.

“I feel great, and I’m excited to officially be back,” Earnhardt said. “I expected things to go really well yesterday, and that’s exactly what happened. Actually getting in a race car was an important final step, and it gives me a ton of confidence going into 2017. Thanks to the staff at Darlington for hosting our team and to NASCAR for giving us the opportunity to put a car on the track. I’ll do more testing in January to help knock the rust off. When it’s time to go to Daytona, I’ll be ready.”

Earnhardt missed most of the second half of the 2016 NASCAR season suffering from concussion like symptoms.  In total he missed the final 18 races beginning with the July 17 event at New Hampshire. Alex Bowman drove 10 races in relief and four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon competed in eight races during Earnhardt’s recovery.

“Dale deserves so much credit,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “I’m proud of him for listening to his body and standing up to take responsibility for his health. He’s worked extremely hard and set a terrific example for others. It’s great news as we go into the off-season, and we can’t wait to see him back on the racetrack at Daytona.”

The team said Bowman will race the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS in the Feb. 18 season-opening, non-points The Clash at Daytona International Speedway, which will feature pole position winners from the previous year. Bowman won his career first, and the No. 88 team’s lone 2016 pole at Phoenix in November.

“Alex did such a great job in the car this year, and I felt like he deserved another opportunity,” Earnhardt said. “When I spoke with Rick and the team about him driving The Clash, everyone agreed that he more than earned it, and Nationwide was 100-percent on board. I’m really grateful to him and Jeff for what they did for our team, and I’m glad Alex is getting another run with us.”

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