DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s return to active duty was much the same as his recovery from concussions that cost him half of the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season: patient and procedural.
As most of the rest of the drivers set to race in the Feb. 26 Daytona 500 undertook a four-hour practice session as soon as possible Saturday morning, NASCAR’s most popular driver waited in his garage bay, watching his Hendrick Motorsports crew make final preparations for his No. 88 Chevrolet.
The practice session at Daytona International Speedway was the first race activity Earnhardt was to participate in since ceding his car after the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway. Medically cleared after experiencing vision and balance problems that threatened his career, Earnhardt tested at Darlington and Phoenix in the offseason.
Earnhardt finally donned his helmet 27 minutes into the session – certain to be a mundane affair marked by single-car runs by the entire field – and was on his way to the track 23 minutes later because a caution was issued as he headed to pit road.
Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, ran just one lap around the 2.5-mile track in his first foray, posting what was then the 18th-best time.
"It feels good," he told Fox TV during a break in practice. "… Hopefully, we’re gonna get out there tomorrow and have a shot at the pole. It would take a little pressure off us.
"There’s been no problems with the car. It's been smooth."
Earnhardt, a master at restrictor-plate racing like his father, won the pole here in 2011.
NASCAR's 14-time most popular driver had posted a speed in the top 12 just over two hours into the four-hour session. He ran nine laps and finished with a fastest of 192.670 mph, good enough for 11th of the 42 cars that went out. Joey Logano, who won the Daytona 500 in 2015, logged the fastest lap at 193.116.