Dale Earnhardt Jr. has officially been cleared to return to normal racing activities after fully recovering from a concussion that forced him to miss the final 18 races of the 2016 season following an on-track test session at Darlington Raceway on Wednesday afternoon.
Earnhardt Jr. announced the news via a tweet on his official Twitter account.
Yesterday was a great day to go to the track and cut some laps! Happy to be back to work. The final box is checked! pic.twitter.com/YETdToYc1Z
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) December 8, 2016
The sport’s most popular driver for 14 years and counting was cleared by Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, as well as Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, who attended the test session in South Carolina.
“I feel great, and I’m excited to officially be back,” Earnhardt Jr. said in a press release from Hendrick Motorsports on Thursday. “I expected things to go really well yesterday, and that’s exactly what happened. 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.”
The driver of the No. 88 car completed 185 documented laps around the 1.333-mile egg-shaped oval for almost five hours, per the press release. He also spent more than 15 hours in a racing simulator during his time outside of the race car.
Dr. Collins, who’s been with Earnhardt Jr. every step of the way after announcing his concussion, had high praise for the 42-year-old, who is getting married later this month.
“Dale is one of the hardest-working patients I’ve ever encountered,” Dr. Collins said in the 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.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s debut will come in the granddaddy of them all – the 2017 Daytona 500 on February 26 from Daytona International Speedway, a track where he has had much success. But before that, Alex Bowman (substituted for Earnhardt Jr. for 10 of the 18 races in 2016) will pilot the No. 88 Chevrolet one more time in “The Clash”, a season-opening non-points preseason race on February 18 in Daytona.
“Alex did such a great job in the car this year, and I felt like he deserved another opportunity,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “When I spoke with Rick (Hendrick) 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.”
Bowman, who won the pole and led the most laps at Phoenix, is “excited and thankful” for the opportunity and it “means alot” to drive the No. 88 one more time.
It is worth pointing out that Earnhardt Jr. has a history of concussions and only one more year remaining on his contract with HMS. With Bowman showing what he can do behind the wheel and William Byron waiting in the wings in the XFINITY Series after a dazzling rookie season in the Trucks Series, Hendrick has options if Earnhardt Jr. were to retire when his contract expires–or soon thereafter.
With that being said, everyone in the NASCAR community reacted positively to this news, and it’s safe to say that when he’s introduced at the Daytona 500, the cheering and rowdiness of NASCAR fans everywhere will be able to be heard back home in Charlotte.