Back in the saddle: Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks to this season and beyond

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. understands that it could take time to return to an elite level after a concussion forced him to miss half of last season.

“You can’t take six months off and come right back and expect to be right there where you were like you hadn’t missed a step,’’ the two-time Daytona 500 winner told NBC Sports in a recent interview.

“The sport has changed, the cars have changed and any week you’re not in the car you’re getting behind. So if there is some learning curve, I won’t be shocked. Hopefully, it doesn’t last very long. I expect to be able to adapt very quickly.’’

Earnhardt will be back in a car Tuesday for only the second time since July when he takes part in a NASCAR organizational test at Phoenix International Raceway. The session continues Wednesday.

The only other time Earnhardt has been on track since the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway was a one-day test at Darlington Raceway that doctors and NASCAR used to determine if he was ready to return to competition.

Now that he’s back, Earnhardt has much work ahead of him. That’s why he is doing the Phoenix test for Hendrick Motorsports. Each organization is allowed to have one team at the test.

Earnhardt admits that the beginning of the season will be important as he seeks to catch up to his competitors. He seeks more than moral victories.

“I feed off statistics,’’ Earnhardt told NBC Sports when asked what he wants to see early in the season. “Top fives, wins. Obviously, we want to win every race. If we can go get some good runs and supplant ourselves in the top 15 in points really well early in the season, that would relieve some stress and concern about what the learning curve is for me having been out of the car.

“Also, every race you put in the bank gives you the confidence in your health. I’ve got to rebuild sort of the confidence in myself and my health as well as my performance, my ability to go out there and do the best job I can.’’

While every driver and situation is different, Kyle Busch won in his fifth race back after missing the first 11 races of the 2015 season because of injuries suffered in a crash in an Xfinity race at Daytona. Busch returned for the All-Star race and then ran four points races before winning at Sonoma — the first of five victories in his championship season.

If things go as well as his Darlington test, Earnhardt figures he’ll be in good shape when he competes in his first event, which will be will be a qualifying race Feb. 23 at Daytona International Speedway (Earnhardt won’t compete in the Feb. 18 Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona even though he is eligible). It didn’t take Earnhardt long to feel comfortable in the car during that Darlington test.

“I was a little bit apprehensive for sure, wondering how I was going to feel and how the car was going to feel and what was going to happen,’’ Earnhardt said. “We ran about three of four laps and it felt pretty comfortable and pretty familiar. After about 15 or 20 laps, it was like me and the car were one piece.’’

Earnhardt, who is 42 years old, said the time out of the car gave last year him a glimpse of what retirement could be like. 

“I never thought that the transition from driving a car to retirement would be a difficult one for me, but it certainly answered some questions and made me lot more comfortable with that prospect,’’ he said. “There’s going to be some opportunities for me beyond driving that will be fun and interesting. I have some businesses that can be successful if I pull the right levers, so I’m not too worried about it. It was interesting to see the sport from the angle I did and to sort of get what being out of the car is like.’’

While he was out of the car, Earnhardt also did some broadcasting. Could that be a part of his future once he’s no longer driving?

“I would certainly entertain the opportunity to be in broadcasting, but … I just know there’s a lot of guys that want to do that,’’ Earnhardt said. “(Kevin) Harvick has talked about that. There’s just going to be more people interested in filling those small, select positions, and I don’t know if that is a competitive field I want to get involved in. It will just have to come naturally. I really did love being in there.

“I could certainly have a lot of fun trying to describe the action to the fans. I could see myself doing that. We’ll just have to see how it works out. I’m not sure what those opportunities will be. … but I’d love to be a part of the sport one way or the other.’’

He’s clear on one thing about his future, though.

“I’m pretty sure that (Cup) ownership is not one of those options,’’ he said of post-driving plans. “It’s not a way that I want to be connected to the sport, going down the road on the Cup level. But I’d love to be at the track and at the races and have a purpose to be there.’’

And once he’s done racing in NASCAR, he still might compete.

“If my health allows me to race Late Models and do all that stuff,’’ he said. “I would do it.’’

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