Dale Earnhardt Jr. has already made a valiant return to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after missing the last half of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion.
Earnhardt landed his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on the outside pole alongside teammate Chase Elliott for the 59th annual Daytona 500 (Feb. 26, 2 p.m. ET, FOX).
The two-time Daytona 500 champion also had a lot to say after speaking with a small group of reporters in a roundtable discussion recently at Daytona International Speedway.
Check out what Earnhardt had to say:
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First laps in car at Daytona felt good
After taking laps in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet during the first practice session Saturday afternoon, no real concerns stood out for Earnhardt.
“I felt good physically,” Earnhardt said. “The day went really smooth as far as the guys working and the car working. The car is comfortable.”
“We’ve had some balance issues that I’m concerned about, but that’s nothing new,” he added. “As far as my health goes, I have to go out there and race with full confidence and no fear to be able to win.”
Contract negotiations on the back burner
Earnhardt will eventually need to tackle contract negotiations with Hendrick Motorsports, as 2017 is the last year of his current deal.
But he wants to take a wait-and-see approach before committing to more seasons behind the wheel.
“I told Rick (Hendrick) I would like to get a couple of months under my belt to get confidence in my health,” Earnhardt said.
Of course, the thought of retirement is the last thing a driver wants to discuss. Earnhardt admitted it was something he was trying to plan out before his injury.
“I was trying over the last year to put a number on it, say, ‘This is when I’m going to retire,’ ” Earnhardt said. “But I’ve decided that maybe it’s best that I don’t. Considering my health, I can’t even think about putting a date on it because I don’t know what’s going to happen to me going forward."
Earnhardt wants to see how his body reacts upon his return to full-time competitive racing before embarking on such an important decision.
“I don’t want to make promises that I can’t deliver,” Earnhardt added. “Once I feel like I think I’m good and I can withstand a couple more years of driving these cars, I’m ready to do it. I want to race.”
Earnhardt was adamant about saying there is only one reason why he has come to that conclusion.
“When I got hurt last year, it put a strain on our relationships, our partners were worried about my future,” Earnhardt said. “Rick and everybody were worried. I don’t want to do that again.”
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Earnhardt needs ‘no fear’ to win Daytona 500
Earnhardt knows one thing’s for sure if he wants to win a third Daytona 500.
He needs to race with no fear.
“I know when I get in the car, I can’t have any concern or worry, or I’ll drive completely different,” Earnhardt said. “I know what result I can get by driving without fear and I know what kind of result I’ll get if I drive with even a sliver of apprehension. I just won’t be able to go out there and win the race.”
Earnhardt noted he’s raced with that ounce of fear before, so he knows what can happen if he lets that play a factor in his first race back.
“Once you second-guess yourself one time, it snowballs and it just continues throughout the rest of the race,” Earnhardt added. “To be able to win the qualifying race and win the Daytona 500, you’ve got to race with no fear.”
Some days were tougher than others during recovery
Earnhardt shared some of the most difficult moments during the initial stages of his recovery process.
“My eyes were jumping around in my head real bad just walking down the street,” Earnhardt said. “I was riding in a car, like a road sign was jumping around and I couldn’t even read it. It was so annoying. I was scared to death that I was going to be stuck with that all my life.”
“The balance stuff was annoying, but I could probably live with that if I had to,” he added. “But I would have not been able to live with the eye thing.”
Earnhardt noted there were times where he didn’t know if he would ever be able to race again.
“There was a lot of time during the recovery where there were days that I was 90 percent sure I wasn’t going to drive again,” Earnhardt admitted. “There were days when it was 50 percent. It was moving all over the place depending what I felt that day.
“Really went it came down to it, I had to decide for myself if I wanted to drive anymore.”
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Earnhardt’s wife gave him strength
Earnhardt married longtime girlfriend, Amy Reimann, this past New Year’s Eve.
During his recovery process, Earnhardt dished on one of the toughest moments for him while trying to help with the wedding planning.
“When Amy and I drove to Raleigh (North Carolina) to taste our food for our wedding, I couldn’t even look out the windshield,” Earnhardt said. “I had to stare at the floor for a two-hour ride to Raleigh because I just couldn’t stand it things were bouncing so bad. I felt awful.”
“But, I wanted to be a part of the food,” he added jokingly. “I’m glad I did it. I didn’t want to miss anything.”
Overall, Earnhardt’s new bride played a huge part in his road back to the track.
“Amy was there every single day. She would never miss anything,” said Earnhardt. “We would get up in the morning and she would be like, ‘Alright, let’s do it.'
“Anytime I was lazy, she was there to push me. When we would fly to the evaluations, she was there. She was in the room for every conversation. So that was great.”
The fire will still burn if his health allows
Only time will tell whether or not Earnhardt’s body can withstand the grueling demands of a Cup car.
But one thing is for sure, he has the passion to race for many seasons to come.
“This is the last year on this deal, but I have intentions of racing for more years,” Earnhardt said. “If everything is going great and we haven’t had any issues, I’m confident to continue to race.”
, LAT Images www.latphoto.co.ukNigel Kinrade
Earnhardt felt he didn’t deserve to race in the Clash
Earnhardt’s first race back could have been Sunday’s Clash at Daytona, but he felt Alex Bowman was way more deserving of it.
Bowman wound up finishing third in his final race in the No. 88.
“As soon as Alex won the pole at Phoenix, I was standing on pit road, and you’re initial emotion is he deserves it,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve been on this mission to get Alex going and get his career where he wants it to be. We had some real momentum last year with getting him to drive that car.”
An alternative plan was to put Bowman in Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 car for the exhibition race, but Earnhardt wanted Alex to run the No. 88 because he didn’t have experience working with the No. 5 team.
“I also have such strong feelings for the Clash being strictly for pole winners, and I didn’t feel good for how I was eligible,” he added. “I didn’t feel deserving of the opportunity to be in the race because I think it should be strictly pole winners. When Alex got it (the pole at Phoenix), he trumped me for how to get in the race to begin with.”
Earnhardt was also asked if he pondered running the No. 5 car.
“I never thought about doing it that way,” Earnhardt added. “I wouldn’t want to run with anyone but Greg.”
, LAT Images www.latimages.co.ukNigel Kinrade
Daytona is the best place to make comeback
Overall, Earnhardt feels Daytona is the best track for him to make his comeback.
“If it was a real challenging technical track, my nerves would be a little bit higher,” Earnhardt said. “Having so much success here brings the confidence level up a little bit.”
, LAT Images www.latphoto.co.ukRusty Jarrett
The unknown of potential hard crash
One of the biggest unknowns for Earnhardt is how a hard crash will affect him.
“I’m nervous about it until I get in the car,” Earnhardt said. “I can think about it when I’m out of the car all day long. Of course, I’m human and I’m going to be concerned.”
But he’s not crossing the bridge until he comes to it.
“Should that happen and I come out of the other side of it feeling great, that will add a ton of confidence,” said Earnhardt. “I can’t sit here and say I know exactly how I’m going to act in those situations.”
“When I go through that process, there’s a box or two to check that aren’t checked yet,” he added. “I feel healthy and I feel comfortable in the car.”
, LAT Images www.latphoto.co.ukJohn K Harrelson
Team Penske strongest threat to Hendrick
Hendrick Motorsports is always a force to be reckoned with at Daytona, and restrictor-plate races in general.
But Team Penske has been dominant at Daytona and Talladega lately, as Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano won three of four plate races in 2016.
Logano also picked up where he left off last season with his first career win in last Sunday’s Clash.
Earnhardt said Keselowski and Logano have the natural talent needed to succeed on plate tracks.
“For whatever reason, plate-racing suits a certain type of person,” Earnhardt said. “You see over the last six or seven races, Brad has really come into his own as a plate racer. Joey has always done really well. He’s always up front. It’s not because they are getting the best car every time, it’s because they have the confidence in themselves that they know they can get up there and do it.”
Earnhardt has 10 career victories on restrictor plate tracks, including four at Daytona and six at Talladega.
“Plate racing takes a certain mentality, so some drivers do it better than others because of their attitude and personality,” he added. “It’s not everybody’s cup of tea.”