After 18 races out of the car, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been medically cleared to resume NASCAR competition, and will return to the wheel of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports at the 2017 edition of the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt’s road back to the cockpit ended at Darlington Raceway on Wednesday afternoon where he completed a nearly five-hour test session observed by NASCAR while working with crew chief Greg Ives. He turned 185 laps during the session which followed more than 15 hours in a racing simulator as part of his recovery plan.
Earnhardt was cleared Wednesday evening by Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, in consultation with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty. Petty was also in attendance at the Darlington test.
“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.”
In Earnhardt’s absence during the 2016 season, Alex Bowman (10 races) and four-time NASCAR premier series champion Jeff Gordon (eight races) piloted the No. 88 Chevrolet. Bowman earned the lone Coors Light Pole Award in 2016 (Phoenix, November) for the team. Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports have elected to allow Bowman to drive the car in The Clash at Daytona International Speedway, the season-opening, non-points race on Feb. 18.
“Alex did such a great job in the car this year, and I felt like he deserved another opportunity,” Earnhardt explained. “When I spoke with Rick (Hendrick) 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 (Gordon) for what they did for our team, and I’m glad Alex is getting another run with us.”
The 2017 Daytona 500 will air on FOX at 2 p.m. EST on Sunday, Feb. 26.