With apologies to The Who, meet the new Dale Jr., same as the old Dale Jr.
That’s what some of Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s fellow drivers said during media sessions Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway.
When asked if Earnhardt has gotten back into the groove after missing the second half of the 2016 season (18 races) and a slow start in 2017, Kurt Busch and seven-time and defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said there’s no question.
“My little brother was out for 11 races in 2015 and you could see a little bit of the rust the first couple weeks, and I think we all saw that with Junior the first couple of weeks,” Kurt Busch said. “But by Vegas and especially with what he did at Texas last week, he’s back.”
Earnhardt finished fifth at Texas, his best result since a runner-up finish at Pocono in June
While Earnhardt had time away due to concussion-like symptoms, he also needed time back behind the wheel to return to his old self.
“There are things that you need to do personally and then there are things the sport has done while you were gone because there are notes that we have from nine months ago that we look at and kind of giggle like, ‘Oh, wow. We ran that setup? We haven’t done something like that in a long time,’ ” Busch said of Earnhardt.
Busch then added, “For him to take off half a season, yes, there’s things he needed to do, but also the team was evolving and he needed to adapt to those setups as well as what he needed to do personally. Yeah, you’re right. We see things on track and he was making moves at Texas and I’m like, ‘Yeah, he’s back.’”
Someone who has an even closer perspective on Earnhardt’s comeback is Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
Earnhardt said during Speedweeks in Daytona that he acknowledged his comeback could take time.
“He is right with that,” Johnson said. “When you miss that much time from the car, the sport changes. Your sensitivity to what you feel in the race car kind of fades and to be as sharp as you need to in order to find five-hundredths of a second to be competitive it’s tough and it takes reps.
“I see where he is coming from and why he made that comment in February. I can’t say that it’s crossed my mind watching him this year. He seems very comfortable in there, but to go to Texas two weeks ago and for him to run as competitive as he did at a treacherous track, I mean your sensitivity to the car and sliding the tires needed to be as sharp as ever.
“I think that is a great indication of him finding that last little bit and he is ready to go to Victory Lane.”
One other way Johnson knows Junior is back is he’s returned to his previous role as a practical joker, including how he ribbed Johnson for having to take intravenous solution after winning at Texas.
“Yeah, the three IV bags did wonders,” Johnson said. “After leaving the media center … I started my off-weekend quickly that night and proceeded to chase out the pain with as many margaritas and beers as I could down in Mexico.
“I recovered well, but unfortunately came back sick from Mexico and I’m just on the tail end of that now.
“If you are going to play, you are going to pay, I guess at the end of the day (laughs). I just started catching wind of (Earnhardt’s) harassment. I’m waiting for my moment to strike back.”