Dale Earnhardt Jr. Medically Cleared To Compete In 2017 Following Test Session At Darlington Racewayby Camille Jones December 8, 2016
CONCORD, N.C.– Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is medically cleared to return to NASCAR competition in 2017, following a nearly five-hour private test at Darlington Raceway on Wednesday.
In September, Darlington Raceway was the same track where 42-year old Earnhardt Jr. announced that he would be sitting out the rest of the 2016 season following concussion-like symptoms that left him unable to race. Earnhardt Jr. refused to give up and continued a plan to recovery, with evaluations every few weeks on whether or not he could return to racing. To relieve the stress of the situation and to focus on getting healthy, he made the decision in early September to wait until the 2017 Daytona 500 to return to his car, as long as doctors cleared him for competition.
Earnhardt Jr. missed 18 races of the 2016 NASCAR season. The concussion-like symptoms appeared following a series of crashes, most notably his crash on June 12 at Michigan International Speedway. The driver suffered from dizziness, vision issues, headaches and more, leaving him unable to consider a return to NASCAR racing in the immediate future.
After months of uncertainty, Earnhardt Jr., driver of the No. 88 Nationwide Insurance Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports, had overcome his symptoms and on Wednesday, December 7, he was able to climb back behind the wheel of his car. He completed 185 laps around the 1.366-mile track in Darlington, S.C. during the test. Throughout his recovery, Earnhardt Jr. also spent time completing more than 15 hours in a racing simulator before being able to take to the race track on Wednesday. Earnhardt Jr.’s successful test was a reminder of his hard work through his recovery over second half of the year.
“I feel great, and I’m excited to officially be back,” said Earnhardt Jr. in a press release, following the news that he would be returning for the Daytona 500 in 2017. “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.”
Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp, was happy to host the private test for Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 88 team, and he presented Earnhardt Jr. with several printed photos as keepsakes from his time racing at the track.
“We are honored that Dale Earnhardt Jr. chose to run his first laps in a race car in five months at Darlington Raceway,” said Tharp. “He is an icon in the sport and a big supporter of our Throwback Weekend. We celebrate his return to NASCAR competition and look forward to seeing him back behind the wheel for the 59th running of the Daytona 500.”
Following the test at Darlington Raceway on Wednesday afternoon, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion program in Pittsburgh, Dr. Micky Collins and Charlotte neurosurgeon, Dr. Jerry Petty, who was in attendance for the test in South Carolina, consulted and officially cleared Earnhardt to return to full-time racing in NASCAR.
“Dale is one of the hardest-working patients I’ve ever encountered,” said Dr. Micky Collins in a team press release. “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.”
Over the months that Earnhardt Jr. was out of the car, his seat was filled by retired four-time NASCAR premier series champion, Jeff Gordon, and 23-year-old, Alex Bowman. Bowman will take over the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet one last time for the The Clash at Daytona International Speedway, a non-points event to open the racing series on Feb. 18.
“Alex did such a great job in the car this year, and I felt like he deserved another opportunity,” Earnhardt said regarding his substitute driver. “When I spoke with Rick (Hendrick, owner) 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.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s return to the race track is not only a positive for him and the Hendrick Motorsports organization, but it’s positive for the entire NASCAR fan-base. The 14-time NASCAR premier series Most Popular Driver award winner’s sudden halt from racing for the second time in four years due to concussion-like symptoms was a hit to his thousands of fans around the world. Fans will be on their feet as the two-time Daytona 500 champion returns to racing at the biggest race of the season on Sunday, February 26 at Daytona International Raceway.
Photo Credit: Jeff Curry/NASCAR via Getty Images