Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back. After missing half of the 2016 season, NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver award winner is chomping at the bit after receiving medical clearance in December to race in 2017.
Speculation swirled about whether the 42-year-old would retire after suffering a concussion in June of last season that sidelined him for nearly five months. Earnhardt answered those questions emphatically, working with his medical team to ensure that he would be healthy enough to compete for a championship in 2017. His efforts paid off: He’ll be in the driver’s seat for the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt’s 2016 season will be forever linked with his injury, memorable more for the races he missed than for what he did in the ones he participated in. The numbers aren’t particularly noteworthy — he was on pace to finish the year with about 10 top 5s and a dozen top 10s. It would probably have been enough for a Chase berth but not a title run, especially factoring in the four DNF’s he had in just 18 races.
Of course, it’s also possible that Earnhardt could have gone on a tear in the second half of the season and contended for the Cup. That, however, might just be wishful thinking by those in the sport who want Junior to win a title.
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Earnhardt has the unwavering support of Hendrick Motorsports and team owner Rick Hendrick. The HMS stable of equipment is vast and formidable, and the on-track performance has been above reproach. Starting with Jeff Gordon’s title in 1995, Hendrick has won more than half of the championships in NASCAR’s top series, with a total of 12 over 22 seasons. The cars are fast and the engines durable; the resources are deep and the personnel is talented.
The Hendrick organization has long employed an open-book policy between teams, and that’s an advantage for everyone. Earnhardt’s No. 88 team can pull information from teammates Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott. Earnhardt and Johnson share a shop and have shown that they work well together. They mesh well in driving style and personality and have learned a lot from each other over the years.
Earnhardt and crew chief Greg Ives enter their third season together. Their relationship has been fruitful and strong if not spectacular, and they’ve had good results as a pair. Earnhardt’s over-the-wall crew has also been solid for the last few seasons as well. All the behind-the-scenes boxes are firmly checked, including backing from Nationwide Insurance and Axalta for the majority of the season, with Mountain Dew and TaxSlayer picking up the remainder. Nationwide will also be on the No. 88 for the Clash at Daytona with driver Alex Bowman, who qualified by winning the pole at Phoenix while filling in for the injured Earnhardt.
But while one important question — whether Earnhardt could even return to the racecar — has been answered, the question of whether he can come back as a title contender remains to be answered. After months on the sidelines as the result of a significant injury, it could take Junior time to return to form. And the reality is that the 2016 season wasn’t a banner year for the team even before Earnhardt was forced to step away. So while he should be able to make the Chase on consistency, he needs to show more than that if he wants to be better than a mid-pack driver. There’s only so much room at the top of the NASCAR food chain.
At the end of the day, Earnhardt isn’t the best of the best that his diehard fans want him to be, and he’s far from riding on his Hall of Fame father’s coattails as his detractors want people to believe. He’s a good, solid, top-level driver who can win races and contend for titles, though, and he’ll be raring to go to prove he can do that in his return.