Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Medically Cleared to Compete in 2017

Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

After five months of waiting, JR Nation can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

Dale’s officially back.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., has been medically cleared to resume competition in NASCAR beginning in 2017 after making a complete recovery from a concussion, Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) confirmed in a Thursday release.

Earnhardt, 42, will return to action in time to compete in the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt was medically cleared on Wednesday by Dr. Mickey Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, in consultation with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, following a test session for Earnhardt at Darlington Raceway that totalled nearly five hours.

Earnhardt completed 185 laps around the 1.366-mile oval in his No. 88 Chevrolet SS during the session, all while under the watchful eye of Petty, NASCAR and his HMS team.

“I feel great, and I’m excited to officially be back,” Earnhardt said. “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.”

The announcement comes after nearly five months of recovery and rehabilitation for Earnhardt. The 19-year NASCAR veteran missed the final 18 races of the Sprint Cup Series season, beginning with the July 17 race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Retired legend Jeff Gordon (8 races) and young shoe Alex Bowman (10 races) filled in for Hendrick Motorsports in Earnhardt’s absence, combining to tally five top 10s.

Earnhardt’s recovery process was lengthy, but the 14-time NMPA Most Popular Driver award winner soldiered on, while also taking the time to describe his recovery process at length in the media and on his popular Dirty Mo Radio network.

“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. 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.”

Now recovered, Earnhardt is expected to compete in the entire 2017 NASCAR Premier Series tour. However, first Bowman will get one final chance to compete in the No. 88.

Bowman will compete in the season-opening exhibition race at Daytona International Speedway known as The Clash. The non-points race features the previous year’s pole position winners. Bowman guided the No. 88 Chevrolet to the Coors Light Pole in the penultimate race of the year at Phoenic International Raceway.

“Alex did such a great job in the car this year, and I felt like he deserved another opportunity,” Earnhardt said. “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.”

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