DOVER, Del. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. considers his return to the race track this week at Dover International Speedway another step in his planned eventual resumption of work behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet, not a walk-through for a future role.
And although he said he has made more progress in five weeks than he considered possible, he remains nowhere close to resuming his Sprint Cup Series career with Hendrick Motorsports after recurrent concussion symptoms forced him to miss half of the season.
Retired four-time series champion Jeff Gordon continued in the race car this weekend as Earnhardt, also a co-owner of the JR Motorsports Xfinity Series team, chatted with teammates and lingered in the garage bay on Saturday morning.
“It’s hard not to climb in there before Jeff does, I’ll tell you that,” he said.
Gordon will race the No. 88 one more time this season — Oct. 30 at Martinsville Speedway — but Alex Bowman will resume the substitute role for the six other remaining races.
There is, Earnhardt said, no offseason deadline when the team would require him to be deemed fully recovered to resume driving duties in 2017.
“If there is,” he said. “I don’t know it.”
Earnhardt said he enjoyed being back in his workplace, albeit in a different capacity. While he has been assured his presence has been heartening to his team, he is more concerned about taking steps back to the job where he contributes most.
“My crew chiefs and all the management at HMS tell me that it’s good for them, so I like being around them,” he said. “We’re all good friends, so it’s good to see ‘em. But they’re working, too, so I try to stay out of the way. But I want to be here, I guess, just to kind of see what they’re doing, what they’re dealing with, so when I get back in the car it’s not so foreign, I don’t have a lot of catching up to.”
Earnhardt, 41, said walking the grid before Xfinity Series qualifying that while his vision has improved, he continues to struggle with balance, a condition heightened by plying the busy garage and all the stimulus that comes with being NASCAR’s most popular and noticeable driver.
“It’s all right,” he told a small group of reporters. “Walking through the garage and signing autographs is tough but … balance gets bad.
“If you have a lot of things happening in your peripheral and stuff, that’s something that’s going to challenge you. That’s pretty much it. My eyes got a lot better, and I don’t really notice issues with my eyes quite as much anymore.”
Earnhardt Jr. was issued a new exercise regimen to address his balance during a recent evaluation. The process involves inducing symptoms with stimulus.
“Physical exercise isn’t going to bring out the symptoms and you gotta go do things like this,” he said. “This is really some of the final phases I suppose, of therapy. If I come to an environment like this and go walk through the garage and get into those busy moments and I don’t have any reaction to it, I would consider that being 100 percent normal, me being back to a hundred percent.
“There’s still some stuff you’ve got to be able to do as a race car driver that I’ll still have to work on to get where to where I can real have that quick-fast reaction time and all that good stuff.”
Eanrhardt has been racing on a simulator with the encouragement of his physicians and to the delight of team owner Rick Hendrick, he said, and anticipates transitioning to a Late Model so he can “get after it” when ready. That is no time soon, he said, noting there are no timetables in his recovery.