Dale Earnhardt Jr. left Wednesday’s test session at Darlington Raceway feeling strong and more confident than ever.
Just as important, he left Darlington with a clean bill of health and clearance to return to competition at NASCAR’s highest level.
“I definitely feel recharged and energized about getting back in the car,” Earnhardt said on Friday during a conference call with reporters. “I felt like, throughout the day, I got more and more comfortable in the car. It felt like an old shoe by the end of the day.”
The “old shoe” in question is the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports, which Earnhardt will race next in the 2017 season-opening Daytona 500. The sport’s most popular driver, named as such for the 14th straight year during the recent Champion’s Week in Las Vegas, missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion.
For team owner Rick Hendrick, the holiday season couldn’t be any better—bringing a record-tying seventh series championship for Jimmie Johnson and medical clearance for Earnhardt.
“We’re as big a fan of Dale’s as the rest of the community,” said Hendrick, who also participated in the conference call. “He’s a big spark plug for this place, and having him out of the car kind of deflates this place.”
Dr. Micky Collins of Pittsburgh, Pa., who designed the regimen for Earnhardt’s recovery, cleared the driver to race on Wednesday after the Darlington test, in consultation with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, who attended the test and observed Earnhardt’s performance.
“Dr. Petty was evaluating me after each run to see if everything was good,” Earnhardt said. “A lot of the things he was checking—visual and balance and so forth—strengthened throughout the process.”
NASCAR also observed the test, which totaled 185 laps over a five-hour period, with Earnhardt initially running stints of roughly 15 laps before changing tires.
“As soon as I got out there, after about three laps, it came right back,” said Earnhardt, who also was pleased with the speed in the car provided by his crew chief, Greg Ives.
Earnhardt’s choice to return to action in the Daytona 500 is in essence a reward for driver Alex Bowman, who performed brilliantly in Earnhardt’s absence, winning a pole at Phoenix. Earnhardt feels strongly that Bowman should drive the No. 88 Chevy in The Clash, the exhibition race that opens the season at Daytona.
“I was at Phoenix, standing on pit road on Friday when Alex got the pole, and my first reaction—and the first words out of my mouth—were that Alex gets to run in The Clash,” Earnhardt said. “I turned to (HMS general manager) Doug Duchardt and said, ‘He should drive the 88.’ He earned it with the 88 guys, and he’s done a great job as a substitute.
“I really have a great friendship with Alex, and I felt like, if he was going to be in that race, he deserved to be in that car.”
But the real treat for NASCAR fans will come when Earnhardt himself gets behind the wheel for the Great American Race.
“Dale being back in the car and Jimmie’s championship—it’s going to be a really nice Christmas here for all of us,” Hendrick said.