The news that the NASCAR community has been waiting for since the offseason began finally came down on Thursday as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was medically cleared to resume his racing career after successfully completing an on-track test to finalize his recovery from a concussion.
Earnhardt and his No. 88 team performed the test at Darlington Raceway on Wednesday, where he completed 185 laps during a test session that lasted nearly five hours. Earnhardt was joined at the test by his crew chief Greg Ives as well as neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty. Following a consultation after the test, Earnhardt was formally cleared by Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, who had been guiding the driver through the recovery process.
“I feel great, and I’m excited to officially be back. 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,” said Earnhardt.
“Dale is one of the hardest-working patients I’ve ever encountered. 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,” said Collins.
The 42 year old driver had been out of the cockpit since the July 17th event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after he had suffered a concussion at Michigan in the weeks prior. In order for Earnhardt to be able to fully recover, he vacated the seat of his No. 88 Chevrolet for the remainder of the season, which was filled by Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman taking over the final 18 races of 2016.
With Bowman impressing everyone at Hendrick Motorsports during his 10 races behind the wheel, which included a pole in the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix, the Arizona native gained entry into The Clash at Daytona to kick-off the 2017 season. Even though Earnhardt will be back in the car for the Daytona 500, it will be Bowman that will drive the No. 88 in the non-points race in February.
“Alex did such a great job in the car this year, and I felt like he deserved another opportunity. 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,” said Earnhardt.