By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
*Editor’s note: Motorsports Tribune will be previewing the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Season for 24 drivers. We will release one driver preview per day over a 24-day stretch.
Years in Cup: 18
Career Wins: 26
Biggest Accomplishment: two-time Daytona 500 champion
Last season started off with such promise for Dale Earnhardt Jr. For the last few years, the sport’s most popular driver had been among the sport’s most consistent drivers.
But the 2016 campaign started off inauspiciously for Earnhardt with a crash in the Daytona 500. By mid 2016, Earnhardt had yet to win a race. Then came a damaging crash at Michigan which led to a concussion.
Earnhardt heads into 2017 having missed the final 18 races of last season, but there is reason to feel optimistic if you’re a member of Jr. Nation.
The driver really focused on getting his health checked in the offseason, and he was officially cleared to race again after impressing at a test session at Darlington Raceway.
“I feel great, and I’m excited to officially be back,” Earnhardt said in a team release after being medically cleared. “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.”
Earnhardt has been logging lots of laps in the simulator at Hendrick Motorsports as well.
Earnhardt will return to a No. 88 team that is virtually the same as he left it. Greg Ives is still turning the wrenches, the pit crew is still among one of the best in the sport. And now they have a happy, healthy and hungry Earnhardt behind the wheel. Hendrick Motorsports also gained a lot on the field in terms of performance over the second half of the racing season a year ago, which resulted in another championship for Earnhardt’s teammate Jimmie Johnson.
Earnhardt is one of the best ever behind the wheel at restrictor plate races, but he is also a serviceable driver on short tracks and intermediate ovals. He admittedly isn’t much of a road racer, but in the last few seasons he has shown more speed on tracks that require him to turn left and right.
The driver of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS may stumble slightly out of the gate as he attempts to shake off some of the cobwebs from his long exit from the sport last season, but he should be able to get things going relatively easy and he should be a mainstay in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Chase again this year.
Other 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Driver Previews