Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s competitive return to NASCAR racing is nearing and he’s confident he can overcome one final major psychological obstacle.
“I have to go out there and race with no fear,” Earnhardt said Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, where he will race in next week’s season-opening Daytona 500. “You can’t be concerned, worried or have some caution about being able to win (Thursday’s) qualifying race or the Daytona 500 – you’ve got to race with no fear.”
Earnhardt, 42, is back at Daytona after missing the second half of last season with a concussion. He drove in two tests over the offseason and practiced Saturday at Daytona. Next up is Sunday’s front-row qualifying for the 500, before Thursday’s twin qualifying races and next Sunday’s season opener.
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Daytona is perhaps Earnhardt’s favorite track and speed weeks will be a major reintroduction to racing for Earnhardt, a 14-time winner of NASCAR’s most-popular-driver award. Long gone, he said, are the concussion symptoms that held him out of the 2016 season’s final 18 races.
I know what kind of result I’ll get with even a sliver of apprehension. And that’s not what I want.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Now it’s time to race and see what happens. And he said he isn’t concerned – has no fear – about what might occur when and if he has his first accident.
“I don’t want to wreck to quantify my recovery,” Earnhardt said. “Should that happen and I come out the other side feeling great, that will add a ton of confidence. But I can’t sit here and say I know exactly how I’ll react to those situations.
“But going through that would be a box or two to check. And they haven’t been checked yet.”
Earnhardt, who has 26 career victories, is one of the sport’s top superspeedway drivers (he has four career Cup victories at Daytona and six at Talladega Superspeedway). He’s comfortable making his return to Daytona, despite all the hype and hoopla that come with the most significant race on NASCAR’s schedule.
Earnhardt missed 18 races last season after suffering a concussion at Michigan International Speedway.
“I’m so comfortable here, coming back for the first time is really the best place for me,” Earnhardt said. “It’s a really challenging and technical track. My nerves will probably be a little higher, but this is probably the best pool to wade into.”
Which brought Earnhardt back to the fear factor. He said he might think about crashing again or getting hurt – but that happens when he’s not strapped into his No. 88 Chevy.
“I’m nervous about it until I get in the car,” Earnhardt said. “I can think about it out of the car all day long. But the only way to be successful … is you can’t be apprehensive about a move or a decision of where to put the car or not. You’ve got to use your instincts.”
Earnhardt said he has watched video of him winning races. He said he can tell what kind of frame of mind he’s in when he wins.
“I know what kind of result I’ll get with even a sliver of apprehension,” he said. “And that’s not what I want.”
26 Career Cup victories by Earnhardt
Earnhardt spoke on a variety of other subjects:
About Richard Petty saying he didn’t want Earnhardt to race any more:
“Every time I see him since I got hurt, he puts his arm around me and says, ‘Are you taking care of yourself? Don’t do anything that doesn’t need to be done.’ It’s fatherly advice. I think he just cares about me as a person. He knows better than me what kind of situation I’m in because he’s gone through so much in his career. He looks at my career and tells me to be satisfied.”
About waiting to renew his contract with Hendrick Motorsports, which is in its final year:
“There’s no underlying crap about it. When I got hurt last year, I saw the strain it put on (sponsor and team) relationships and I don’t want to do that again. I want to get some races under my belt and wait a few months and get more confident before I can commit to (owner Rich Hendrick). I don’t want to make promises I can’t deliver.”
About why Alex Bowman, one of his replacement drivers in 2016, drove in Saturday’s Advance Auto Parts Clash instead of Earnhardt (Bowman qualified the car for the Clash by winning a pole last season):
“The main reason is I’ve always felt strongly that the Clash should be (only) for pole winners.”