Dale Earnhardt Jr. normally doesn’t like testing his race car. But taking his No. 88 Chevy out for several laps at Phoenix International Raceway on Tuesday was another matter entirely.
“I’m freaking pumped up about this,” Earnhardt said at a news conference (via audio provided by NASCAR). “It’s been a fun day and it really didn’t take long to get acclimated or adjusted to anything.”
Tuesday’s test was the second Earnhardt’s had since being medically cleared to race this season after he missed half of the 2016 season because of a concussion. He was as enthusiastic in the Arizona desert as he was at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in December when took a car out on the track for the first time since last summer.
I look at my trophies and I can’t believe they’re mine. I’m pretty happy with what I did.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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“It’s been a while,” said Earnhardt, whose first race back will be in the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. “You miss the camaraderie, the friendships with the guys on the crew. I think they missed me. That makes you feel good. They seemed excited that we’re back working together and were able to put a few laps down. We had great communication between me and (crew chief) Greg (Ives), so that was really good.”
Earnhardt, 42, has 26 career victories, the most recent coming in Phoenix’s fall race in 2015. He said he’s not putting any pressure on himself to win again soon.
“My fans want me to win and to go out and have a great year and win the championship” said Earnhardt, who has won NASCAR’s most-popular-driver award 14 consecutive years. “I don’t know if I feel like I have something to prove, but there is that expectation to compete and go do well.
Earnhardt will race again in the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26.
“But I’ve said 100 times: I’ve done more than what I set out to do. I’ve accomplished more than what I thought I would accomplish. I never thought this would happen. I look at my trophies and I can’t believe they’re mine. I’m pretty happy with what I did. I’m blown away how fortunate I’ve been.”
Earnhardt then mentioned, unprompted, any comparisons there might be made between him and his father Dale Earnhardt Sr., who died in a 2001 at Daytona. Earnhardt Sr., a NASCAR Hall of Famer, won seven championships and is one of the sport’s icons.
18 Races Earnhardt missed in 2016 due to a concussion.
“My dad was so great,” Earnhardt said. “You see sons or second-generation (drivers) try to fill their fathers’ shoes and it can be hard for whatever reason. I’m glad to have had a little success”
Earnhardt also said he didn’t mean to make a political statement Monday when on Twitter he expressed empathy for refugees facing hardships after President Donald Trump’s executive order barred citizens of seven Muslim nations from entering the United States.
“I wasn’t trying to inject politics into the conversation or attempt to get a bunch of attention,” said Earnhardt, who was replying to a tweet from one of his followers who was worried about Trump’s order. “It’s very interesting what’s going on in the world. I read a lot of news and try to stay on top of current events. It’s not that I’m an expert on what’s going on.”