Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in his happy place.
On New Year’s Eve, NASCAR’s most popular driver married long-time girlfriend Amy Reimann. The couple honeymooned on Maui and Kaua’i.
But neither of those Hawaiian Islands tugs on Earnhardt’s psyche the way Daytona Beach does, and at long last, in mid-February, he’ll be back on track at the Birthplace of Speed, racing a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car for the first time since July 9 at Kentucky Speedway.
Earnhardt is fully recovered from the concussion that caused him to miss the last half of the 2016 season. In December, he received medical clearance to race. Just as important, he is fully committed to the competition on the track.
“To get approved to race is one thing, but to decide to race is another,” Earnhardt said on Wednesday morning during the NASCAR Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Mentally, you have to make the decision if you want to keep racing. And if you want to keep racing, you have to go into it 100 percent.
“This is the top, elite series of motorsports in North America and if you’re going to be out there you can’t do it without 100 percent. I had to answer a lot of personal questions myself and just really buy in. All that was a big process and I’m really happy with what I’ve decided to do.”
Earnhardt’s rehabilitation was a lengthy process with a prescribed regimen that led to success. His courtship with Reimann likewise was protracted, and in retrospect, Earnhardt wishes he hadn’t waited until age 41 to get married.
“Getting married has been incredible,” Earnhardt said. “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. She’s really helped me as a person to become better on all fronts – personally, and all my friendships with people and how I react to people and treat people.
“And, obviously, in my professional life she’s helped me as a driver. It’s been great. Just hoping to enjoy what’s left of my career, and hopefully I get to make the decisions on that myself as far as how much further I’ll race. Going to start a family, too, so have a lot of good things to look forward to. Really excited about my future.”
The immediate future is of some concern, at least where racing is concerned. Earnhardt is optimistic, but he won’t know how he stacks up against the competition until he climbs into his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the first time.
“Being out of the car, you hope you can jump back in the car and not miss a beat, but like I said, this is the top series, and any time you’re away, you’re getting behind,” Earnhardt said. “I’m really anxious and curious where we shake out early in the season, how competitive we can be, what – if any – learning curve there is for me.
“We’ll figure all that out. I missed the camaraderie. I have an awesome road crew. We’re all buddies. We all communicate every day. We use an app to be able to communicate and text each other as a group, so it’s a close-knit sort of family… It’s fun to be able to go as a team and succeed. Even when you don’t succeed, those are the guys you lean on. You sort of lift each other up.”
One of the hardest things Earnhardt had to do when he was out of the car was watch Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman drive in his stead – and work with his crew.
“Certainly jealous of Jeff and Alex working with my guys,” Earnhardt said. “At the same time, I was happy for Alex and glad Jeff was available. You definitely were wishing it was you in there getting the work.”
Come February, Earnhardt can stop wishing and start racing, as he seeks his third Daytona 500 victory.