Healthy and happy, Earnhardt Jr. can’t wait to get back on track

Photo courtesy of Debbie Ross

By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — These are good times for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports is fully recovered and itching to get back to racing after missing the last 18 races of the 2016 season with concussion-like symptoms experienced during on-track incidents at Michigan and Daytona.

Earnhardt was cleared to return on Dec. 8, 2016, a day after testing at Darlington. And he’ll participate in an open test at Phoenix on Jan. 31 before making his comeback in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26.

“Usually you kind of tell everybody Daytona will get here when it gets here, but I’m excited for the season,” he said Wednesday during Day 3 of NASCAR Media Tour at Charlotte Convention Center. “It can’t get here fast enough.”

“Really thankful to be back and be working, and can’t wait for the opportunity to test at Phoenix in a couple of days and then get on to Daytona and get on to work.”

NASCAR’s most popular driver says the time away from competition has taught him to “take things a little less seriously and enjoy every moment.”

“You do take your job for granted when you’re doing it every week,” said Earnhardt, a 26-time race winner. “Being out of the car made me anxious to get back in.

“To be honest, I’m happy to come back here and continue to compete.”

Nationwide, with whom Earnhardt has a 25-year relationship, is happy to have him back. On Tuesday, the sponsor debuted a six-part video series called ‘Unfinished Business’ that chronicles his return. The series, airing through social channels every Tuesday leading up to the Daytona 500, is reportedly the first time Nationwide has done one featuring an athlete.

“I certainly think it’s great for the fans to see some behind the scenes of what we’ve been doing over the last several months in trying to prepare for the season,” Earnhardt said. “I think it gives them the opportunity to fill some gaps till the season begins.

“I know they are ready to see some racing so it’s a good chance to see how we are preparing.”

The fans voted Earnhardt NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver in 2016 for the 14th straight year despite missing half the season.

“I really owe a lot to the fans for being able to win that award again,” he said. “That was very emotional I think. But I didn’t doubt their support. I’ve always had great fan support.”

That’s true.

In 2016, those same fans also had a hand in making Earnhardt’s Whiskey River, located at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, the Best Airport Bar in America in its first year.

What else is going well for the son of the ‘Intimidator?’

Earnhardt tied the knot with longtime girlfriend, Amy, on New Year’s Eve.

“Getting married has been incredible,” said the 42-year-old driver. “I wish I would have figured this all out sooner. I’m frustrated with myself that I took so long to grow up because I have an amazing wife and she’s changed my life.”

The couple had an activity room in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital renamed in its honor on Saturday after two Earnhardt-auctioned cars fetched $400,000 for the hospital.

“It was very emotional, and we love going to visit the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio,” Earnhardt  said. “For them to do that just blew me away. I couldn’t believe that.”

So yes, it’s good to be Dale Jr.

“I think Dale is in a good spot,” Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne said. “It shows when I see him. He’s happy and loving life.”

 

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