Earnhardt says health top priority as he prepares for return

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Sarah Crabill / NASCAR / MGN)

It took less than four laps for Dale Earnhardt Junior to feel back at home in his race car. His test this week at Darlington Raceway was the final hurdle for NASCAR's most popular driver to earn clearance to compete next season.

The test ended months of speculation -- should Earnhardt retire? Was the risk of suffering yet another concussion too great? -- and a detailed medical plan helped get him back on the track when many thought he should just step away for good.

"When you get something taken away from you, you certainly realize what it's worth," Earnhardt said Friday. "I'm feeling recharged and energized about coming back ready to race. I've got a lot left in the tank."

And he wants to make something perfectly clear: Earnhardt would not be climbing back into the number 88 Chevrolet if his doctors had not assured him that he's healthy and his past concussion history hasn't put him at a heightened risk of permanent injury.

Earnhardt's lengthy history with concussions flared again this year after a crash at Michigan in June. He missed the final 18 races of the season and spent that time in intensive therapy meant to first help him control vision, balance and nausea. That lengthy process completed, his doctors focused on getting him ready to drive a car again, and it happened Wednesday at the South Carolina track considered one of the most demanding in NASCAR.

He admitted to a sleepless night before the test, and an anxiousness to get inside his believed Chevrolet the moment his feet touched the ground at Darlington. With neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty on site, the Hendrick Motorsports team eased into the session.

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