DAYTONA BEACH, Florida: Daytona International Speedway was abuzz with the news that two-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been medically cleared from his concussion injury for stock-car driving duty starting with 2017 Speedweeks.
The 42-year-old driver had five hours of test laps on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) afternoon at Darlington Raceway, then was medically cleared to resume NASCAR competition beginning with the Daytona 500.
“I feel great, and I’m excited to officially be back,” Earnhardt said. “I expected things to go really well [Wednesday], 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. 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,” he added.
Earnhardt will practice and qualify for, then race in the February 26 Daytona 500, the annual kickoff to the NASCAR Cup Series.
The news sent a wave of excitement through the Speedway office.
“First and foremost, he is a great friend and I’m excited he has completed his recovery,” Speedway president Chip Wile said on Thursday (Friday in Manila). “He’s getting back to what he loves to do, which is driving his race car.”
There are no plans right now to hold any special welcome back ceremony once Speedweeks begins.
“His welcome back will be racing in the 59th ‘Great American Race,’ “ Wile said with a chuckle. “That is exactly what Dale wants to be doing, and this is great for our fans.”
Earnhardt will sit out the February 18 Clash At Daytona. Alex Bowman, who subbed in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for Earnhardt in 10 races this season, will compete in that non-points event.
Bowman earned the starting position for taking pole-position honors 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.
NASCAR’s 14-time Most Popular Driver was cleared on Wednesday evening by Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, in consultation with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty.
“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.