After months of progress from a season-ending concussion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was medically cleared for the 2017 NASCAR season on Wednesday after a test at Darlington Raceway.
While NASCAR's most popular driver will be fully recovered from concussion-like symptoms that sidelined him for the final 18 races of the 2016 season, the No. 88 driver won't be racing in the season-opening, non-points Clash at Daytona, formerly known as the Sprint Unlimited. Alex Bowman will fill in for Earnhardt.
Earnhardt has undergone evaluations at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program under Dr. Mickey Collins with help from Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty since his symptoms worsened. He initially was injured in a wreck at Michigan in June that forced Earnhardt to seek medical attention and quit racing under doctors’ orders at New Hampshire nearly four weeks later. Collins and Petty were on hand for Wednesday's test.
"Dale is one of the hardest-working patients I've ever encountered," Collins said in a Hendrick Motorsports release. "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."
Earnhardt logged 185 laps during a nearly five-hour session at Darlington with crew chief Greg Ives. In addition to the on-track test, Earnhardt has spent more than 15 hours in a racing simulator during his recovery.
"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," Earnhardt said. "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 Daytona 500 will be a huge test for Earnhardt, who even weeks after his June concussion was having issues with his balance and vision. For a driver with a history of concussions, it would seem like a daunting task, but he appears ready for the challenge.
"I feel great, and I'm excited to officially be back," he 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."
Earnhardt endured a concussion in the Fontana race in April 2002, but did not disclose the injury until September while continuing to race. Ten years later, Earnhardt sustained two concussions in six weeks, one he self-diagnosed at a tire test in Kansas and another after a big crash at Talladega. Afterward, he voluntarily went to a doctor for an evaluation and had to sit out two Chase races in October because of the injury.
Earnhardt will be 42 when he's back in a race car for the 2017 season, the final year of his five-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports. He is expected to sign another contract with the No. 88 team, but the future beyond that for Earnhardt is unclear.