Dale Earnhardt Jr. had trouble sleeping Tuesday night.
He was “anxious” and justifiably so. On Wednesday, Earnhardt drove his No. 88 Chevrolet for the first time in five months.
He and his Hendrick Motorsports team tested at Darlington Raceway in a final step before Earnhardt was cleared to compete in 2017 after missing the last 18 races of 2016 due to a concussion.
Earnhardt drove a plain, dark gray car four months after he missed out on the chance to drive his “Gray Ghost” throwback paint scheme in the Southern 500.
“As soon as I got out there for three laps it came right back to me,” Earnhardt said in a Friday teleconference with reporters. “The nerves were gone after about four laps.”
After the successful five-hour test, Earnhardt said he feels “stronger” and is “recharged” about returning to NASCAR competition after being cleared by his doctors and NASCAR.
“We just ran laps,” Earnhardt said. “It felt like an old shoe by the end of the day.”
Earnhardt would do 15- to 30-lap runs before being evaluated by Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty.
“A lot of the things that he was checking, visual and balance and so forth, actually strengthened throughout the process,” Earnhardt said. “You sort of get acclimated and up to speed with what it takes to kind of drive a racecar and those systems strengthen through that process.”
Earnhardt ran right up against the wall of the track, which he said takes a lot of mental strength and focus.
“(The test) really helps build your confidence to know that everything is working like it’s supposed to work, no matter what your injury is before you go get back into a full race weekend,” Earnhardt said. “It’s nice to be able to kind of get some personal reassurance and confidence.”
Earnhardt recorded 185 laps at the track under the watchful eye of crew chief Greg Ives, NASCAR and Petty.
Petty consulted with Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, who then cleared Earnhardt.
Earnhardt, who is planning to get married on New Year’s Eve, said he needed to do the test to get him ready for the upcoming season.
“I needed that personal reassurance for myself,” Earnhardt said. “Now I’ve got that box checked. Personally I can go forward with a clear mind and peace of mind that I am ready to go. But that test did more for me than anyone else.”
Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season after concussion symptoms presented themselves leading up to and after the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway. Earnhardt has previously stated his doctors believe the symptoms were the result of a June 12 accident at Michigan International Speedway when he slapped the backstretch wall after making contact with Chris Buescher.
Earnhardt returning to the car, even for a test, has been a boost for company morale said team owner Rick Hendrick.
“When you’ve got the most popular driver in the sport you lose him and he is a big spark plug to this place. Having him out of the car kind of deflates the place,” said Hendrick said. “You could feel it in the place today, it elevated the whole place.”
Hendrick called Earnhardt’s clearance to race, combined with Jimmie Johnson‘s championship, a “really nice Christmas gift” for his team and fans of the sport.