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Dale Jr. emerges from concussion rehab stronger, centered and ready to win
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! RELATED: Dale Jr.'s complete Daytona 500 history NEW YORK CITY -- A production assistant pins a lavalier microphone to the lapel of Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s suit jacket in a newsroom studio inside FOX News on Sixth Avenue. "One, two, three, four, five. Hello, hello," the 14-time NMPA Most Popular Driver says instinctively, without instruction from the PA. You can tell this -- the sound test, the back-to-back-to-back-to-back (and then some) interviews, the traipsing around the "Big Apple" to promote the 2017 Daytona 500 , everything -- feels normal to him, like second-nature. Not long ago, there was no such thing as normal for Earnhardt. The Hendrick Motorsports driver will make his return to points-paying competition in Sunday's "Great American Race" (2 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) after missing the second half of last season following concussion-like symptoms from wrecks at Michigan International Speedway in June and at Daytona International Speedway in July. The road back was a lengthy, arduous, winding trail filled with uncertainty and confusion. "You'd be doing something during the day and something would happen and you'd go 'Whoa, what was that? That was weird,' " Earnhardt told NASCAR.com, who tagged along with him for the day. "Just these little moments when you might get dizzy or you might forget about something that you think you shouldn't forget about. That used to happen all the time." Dale Earnhardt Jr . gets mic'd up. Earnhardt was cleared to race in December after months of rehabilitation and doctor appointments. He says he's fully healthy and recovered from his concussion, but don't hold your breath on him throwing out that cliché preseason line about being in the best shape of his life. RELATED: Watch Dale Jr.'s full interview from Daytona Media Day "I think I was probably at my peak physical condition at … 1? But since then it's all been downhill," Earnhardt joked. "I feel healthy. Mentally, I'm always sort of self-analyzing so I'm not having these things that would bring (the concussion) to my attention anymore. "The further you get removed from that stuff, the less you even remember it happening, or the less you think about it. When you go a day or a week never even thinking about the injury or the past, you're free from it. I feel great. Like I said, the doctors have given me a lot of confidence, just talking to them. They're like, 'Man, you're good. We feel good about this. We feel good about you racing. We feel good about you crashing.' You've got to have those." To get a sign-off from his doctors on crashing -- a near-certainty to happen over the course of a 36-race season -- is massive. The risk of another concussion will always be in the back of Earnhardt's mind after this most recent one kept him sidelined for so long. But he can't let that apprehension occupy him behind the wheel. "The wrecks and stuff are inevitable and I do worry. There's been crashes that I haven't had issues with, but there's been a few wrecks that I have had issues," Earnhardt said. "I don’t know … my doctors told me basically that I was healthy and if they thought I shouldn't race, they would let me know. They said, 'Look, we feel good about you racing. We feel like anything that happens … it's a dangerous sport and you're going to be at risk no more than you were before. Anything that happens to you, we can fix.' " Dale Earnhardt Jr . signs autographs for fans on the streets of New York. Talking to Earnhardt, it's clear 2016 was a year that challenged on many levels. It was also a year of tremendous growth and reflection that culminated -- quite literally -- with a marriage to longtime girlfriend Amy Earnhardt (née Reimann) on New Year's Eve, a topic that took center stage throughout his media tour at the "TODAY Show," FOX News, "The Dan Patrick Show," Inc. Magazine and "Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen." RELATED: Dale Jr., Amy Reimann get married on New Year's Eve Even if she did miss a question or two on the unofficially official " Dale Earnhardt Jr ." quiz on The Dan Patrick Show ( watch it here ), Earnhardt touts Amy's support and gives her nearly all the credit for his transformation. "I think I feel like a stronger, more complete person thanks to her. I hope that this isn't just a mood, that it's more permanent. I think we'll find out as we just get into the grit of the season, week-to-week and going from track to track and being tugged in all kinds of different directions by my responsibilities. Hopefully this sticks." With health in hand and a family life starting to come together at 42 years old, nobody would have blamed the 26-time winner in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for walking away before the start of his 18th full-time season. RELATED: Dale Jr. regals listeners with family storytime Dale Earnhardt Jr . with Andy Cohen of 'Watch What Happens Live' But the big news of the past week was Earnhardt's looming contract extension, with his current deal set to expire at year's end and a talented replacement champing at the bit for a full-time opportunity in Alex Bowman . RELATED: Dale Jr. discusses contract status Earnhardt won't walk away "until the gas tank is on empty," but he can't quite pinpoint when that'll be. He says any extension would be "no less than two, no more than three" years, but has put off negotiations with team owner Rick Hendrick until he knows he can commit, health-wise, long term. "I don't know (how much gas is left in the tank.) If I told you, 'Man, I've got three years,' I don’t know if I'd be telling you the full truth," said Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 winner. "I can't see, I can't feel it. I know I want to finish this year and if I finish … everybody keeps asking me about my goals for a successful season, and that's to finish every race. If I'm in every race, and not injured and not missing races, then that's a successful season. "I think that will propel me into a new extension. The only thing holding me up, really, is knowing that I can do it, health-wise. Knowing that I can be there every week. If I'm going to sign a deal to be there and work for my owner … I love this man like a father. And I don't want to tell him I can be there for three more years if I can't. I'm going to get a few months under my belt and get the confidence that we can start working on the extension and I think if we get there, I'm signing that extension with the intent of doing that contract. "Now, that might be the last one but I don't know. You just don't know these things. I mean, I know drivers -- and I won't say names -- but I know very, very successful drivers in this sport that five years ago were ready to hang it up, just fed up. And they're happier today than they've ever been." Earnhardt mentioned that he nearly walked away from the sport earlier this decade, but credited his support system for pulling him back. And he's thankful it did. "I've been down, down in the dumps," he said. "Hell, if I didn't have the right support system around me, I probably would've quit in 2010, 2011. I'm glad I didn't. We got this ship righted and got to winning some races and I've had the best time behind the wheel that I've ever had in my career for three or four years now. "So who says that if I stick around that it can't get even better? I want to see, I want to wait." RELATED: Dale Jr. on front row for Sunday's Daytona 500 &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;span _rtetemp=&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot;spchk&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot; style=&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot;background-color: #ffffaa;&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot; _rtespchksugg=&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot;Lt"alt"ult"flt"let"lit"lat"lot"ltd"t&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;quot;&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;am&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/span&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;p;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Hendrick humbled by NASCAR Hall of Fame selection
RELATED: Everything to know about Friday's NASCAR Hall of Fame induction Rick Hendrick is going into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and the owner of Hendrick Motorsports might be the one most surprised by his selection. "It is more than just 'Hey, this is cool,'" the 67-year-old said recently. "It's more than that to me. It's humbling; it's just very humbling to me that I could even be looked at." Hendrick will be inducted into the Hall Friday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN), along with fellow team owners Richard Childress and Raymond Parks and drivers Benny Parsons and Mark Martin. There hasn't been much time for reflection, Hendrick said, as he continues to oversee an organization that fields four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams in addition to one of the nation’s most successful automotive sales groups. "I think when you are in the day-to-day and in a day-to-day race and you are going to the track and you are trying to win races … or you are running for a championship, all that other stuff is kind of back there, but it doesn't come to the forefront," Hendrick said. "But then when you get to an event like this and you are going into the Hall of Fame with Raymond Parks and Benny and Richard and Mark and all these guys and you look at who is in there and you look at what the sport has meant to you and your family, it is really special and it's very emotional. "You think about those things. It's humbling. I think the word is humbling because … I never thought I would ever race in NASCAR. I never thought I would ever win a NASCAR race. I never really thought we would win a championship and now to be in the position we are in to win as much and have the success we have had and to be recognized as doing something in the sport to get into the Hall it's a tremendous honor.” Parsons and Martin each drove for Hendrick at one time. Childress and his Richard Childress Racing organization were the benchmark when Hendrick arrived on the scene in 1984. RELATED: Racing lifer Childress ready for induction "Really when I first started I didn't think anybody would ever beat them," Hendrick said of Childress and his driver, Dale Earnhardt. "I thought they were just, basically, unbeatable." That changed with Jeff Gordon 's arrival at HMS in the early '90s, and for nearly a decade, the two organizations were the best in the NASCAR garage, winning seven championships between themselves from '93 through '01. The Hendrick organization continues to set the pace today, with Jimmie Johnson winning the 2016 championship to become just the third driver to win seven titles. Officially, HMS teams have won 12 championships in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and 245 races. Previous programs in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series produced nearly 50 more victories and three additional championships. It's almost overwhelming for Hendrick , who built his first car (for drag racing) when he was a teenager with help from his father. "When you get something like this in life, when someone recognizes you, you think about going to Hillsborough (North Carolina) to watch a race on dirt," he said. "You think about all the sacrifices your Dad made to get you in the cars and your son's love for the cars, your brother, (engine builder) Randy Dorton, all those guys that aren’t here now that gave it all. "It's super emotional for me because I know how much they loved it, how much they sacrificed for it and this is almost like the culmination." Sixteen drivers have won at least one race while competing for HMS at the NASCAR Cup level. Johnson, Gordon and Terry Labonte won championships as well. RELATED: Johnson's seventh title leaves him speechless, but peers say plenty In spite of all his accomplishments and those of his organization, Hendrick said he still feels a bit awed by his selection. "I think it feels a lot like the first time I went to New York after I won a championship, the first championship," he said. "You feel … it's an unbelievable accomplishment when you dreamed about being involved in a sport or just watching the sport and to think that now you are being recognized in the Hall of Fame, it's a really emotional and a very special feeling." &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Hendrick : Hall of Fame induction is 'humbling'
12-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion team owner Rick Hendrick reflects on being selected as a NASCAR Hall of Fame member in 2017.
Hendrick thanks his NASCAR family in Hall of Fame speech
Rick Hendrick thanks his NASCAR family for the love and support throughout his Hall of Fame career during his induction speech.
Rick Hendrick honored to win 12th NSCS Championship
Rick Hendrick looks back on Hendrick Motor Sports' spectacular 2016 season which includes Jimmie Johnson's record-tying seventh NSCS title.
Rick Hendrick : Dale Jr. 'on track' for Daytona 500
MORE: Buy tickets for Homestead-Miami Championship Weekend HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Team owner Rick Hendrick shed light Friday on Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s timetable to return to NASCAR competition, saying he anticipated his driver to be on pace to compete in time for the 2017 Daytona 500 . Earnhardt Jr., 42, has been sidelined from the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet since July after two severe crashes left him with concussion-like symptoms. He was ruled out for the remainder of the Sprint Cup season in September. "I think sometime in December the doctor's going to give him the final clearance and then we'll get him in a car," Hendrick said Friday after a news conference with the Sprint Cup Championship 4 car owners at Homestead-Miami Speedway . "He feels great. Everything's on track. I mean, every step that we supposedly need to go through, we've gone through, and I don't see anything holding us back." Earnhardt, who has been working on rehabilitation of his neurological conditions since this summer, reiterated that intention last month at Martinsville Speedway , saying in a pre-race interview that "we're booking things as normal" ahead of the 2017 season. That included sponsorship plans, photo shoots and other logistical agreements in preparation for next year. But Earnhardt Jr. also indicated he was eager to return to NASCAR's premier series, something Hendrick reaffirmed Friday. "He sent me a text the other day that he was excited and waiting for Daytona," Hendrick said. "I think we've just got a couple more hurdles to clear." Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman have split time in Earnhardt's No. 88 this season, with Gordon filling in for eight races and Bowman set to make his 10th start of the year in Sunday's season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM) at Homestead-Miami Speedway . Gordon has indicated that he's likely to resume his retirement from racing next season unless called upon by Hendrick . As for Bowman, the 23-year-old racer who competes part-time in the XFINITY Series has said he's still uncertain what his driving responsibilities -- beyond simulator work for Hendrick's team -- will be in 2017. Friday, Hendrick was uncertain as well. "Alex is a good guy. He's helped us in a lot of ways," Hendrick said. "We're just kind of taking that one a day at a time. He's done testing for us, he's done simulation for us and he's really done a good job. We're just kind of taking it a day at a time. We don't really have any certain plan." &amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Hendrick : 'We are like a big family'
Rick Hendrick spent the week leading up to his NASCAR Hall of Fame induction reminiscing with family and friends.
Next up for Hendrick , Junior: Contract discussion
RELATED: Junior: 'Stronger than before' " Earnhardt medically cleared Rick Hendrick considers it a wonderful early Christmas present. Having Dale Earnhardt Jr . medically cleared to resume driving Hendrick's No. 88 Chevrolet has been six months in the making. And the whole storied, championship organization couldn't be happier with Thursday's official word that NASCAR's reigning Most Popular Driver will be behind the wheel for the 2017 season after missing the final 18 races of the 2016 season recovering from a concussion. "We're as big a fan of Dale's as the rest of the community and when you have the most popular driver in the sport and then lose him. ... He's a big spark plug to this place," Hendrick said. "Having him out of the car kinda deflates the place and you know, when that test finished and he came through with such flying colors, the text I got and conversation I had, you could feel it in the place even today with the rest of the teams. "It elevated the whole place." So much so that Hendrick and Earnhardt are already prepared to resume contract extension talks, Earnhardt revealed Friday in his first teleconference with the national media since getting the go-ahead to return to competition. "We're probably going to revisit that before the season starts," said Earnhardt, 42, whose current contract runs through 2017. "Before I got sick, Rick and I sat down and talked about my future and the extensions. That stuff was starting to come together and we'll revisit that shortly." It should only be a matter of ironing out details because these two NASCAR A-listers shared that they both feel re-energized by Earnhardt's recovery and return to competition. Hendrick said he was very optimistic about Earnhardt re-joining the team and resuming racing, but conceded that he realized early on in the process, that might take an extended amount of time. And he was OK with that. "You might worry about that but I think after talking to [Earnhardt's doctor] Dr. Collins, he didn't see any reason he couldn't come back if we did it the right way," Hendrick said. "A lot of credit goes to Dale for just working hard outside of the car to get himself better, stronger. "You could just see him getting stronger every week and participating here with the team and other drivers. "I just kind of refused to accept he wasn't going to be in the car." It was a good method of coping. "First of all, we care about him as a friend and a person," Hendrick said. "That's first -- and just seeing him healthy and himself, rather than trying to rush him back into the car ... "His health is priority one. We don't want him back in the car until he's OK. And we're OK. Everyone was OK with him sitting out. Once we realized he wasn't going to be in the Chase we were OK, we wanted him for the long term. "It's a tough decision to pull the plug on the year. You didn't know that maybe he would be healed up enough to come back with a few races left. But we were very fortunate with our sponsors. They put his health first. That was never a question." Now Earnhardt is OK. Listening to him speak Friday morning, he is more than OK. The two-time Daytona 500 winner is excited about his New Year's Eve wedding, the honeymoon and the promise of more competition that awaits him in February. Junior's back. "I think with Dale back in the car and Jimmie's championship, it's going to be a nice Christmas for all of us," Hendrick said. &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Dale Jr. waiting on 'confidence in my health' before signing new contract
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr . said he intends to race "for more years," but NASCAR's most popular driver also said he won't sit down to discuss his contract with team owner Rick Hendrick until he's confident his health isn't an issue. Earnhardt, 42, missed the final 18 races of the 2016 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season while recovering from a concussion suffered at mid-season. He is in the final year of his contract as driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports . "I told Rick ( Hendrick ) that I would like to get a couple of races, a couple of months under my belt to get confidence in my health," Earnhardt said Saturday at Daytona International Speedway , site of next week's season-opening Daytona 500 . "This is the only reason I feel that way. There's no underlying crap about it. When I got hurt last year, what I saw it put the company through, how I saw it frustrate certain aspects of the company -- maybe not frustrate but it put a strain on our relationships. Our partners were worried about my future, Rick and everybody was worried. I don't want to do that again. "I want to get some races under my belt and get confidence in my health before I can commit to him. I don't want to make him a promise that I can't deliver on. "Once I feel like, 'You know what? I think I'm good. I think I can withstand the wear and tear of driving these cars to do a couple more years,' I’m ready to do it. Because I want to race; I want to be here and I want to race." Earnhardt joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 after eight seasons with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the company founded by his father, the seven-time series champion and inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee. Nine of his 26 career victories have come since the move to HMS. In addition to competing for HMS, Earnhardt also co-owns JR Motorsports, a race organization that fields four teams in NASCAR's XFINITY Series. He will make his first start since his injury next week here at DIS. He's a two-time winner of the Daytona 500 and considered one of the sport's best on the big superspeedways, where NASCAR mandates the use of restrictor plates to limit speeds. Retirement has been on his mind, Earnhardt admitted, even before last season's setback. But he said the injury made him realize that it might now be best to put off such thoughts until he knows his health isn't a concern. Earnhardt said in December that he hoped to sit down and discuss a contract extension before the '17 season got underway. "I've been trying over the last year or two to put a number on it, say, 'This is when I'm going to retire,'" he said. "'This will be the year or the day or the age.' 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. "I want to get a couple of races under my belt, a couple of months, and then we'll sit down and say, 'You know, if everything is going great and we haven't had any issues, I'm confident to continue to race.'" Earnhardt has twice signed five-year contracts with HMS – the first from 2008 through '12 and the most recent, an extension which ran from 2013-17. Hendrick Motorsports also fields Monster Energy Series teams for seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott . &lt;/p&gt;
Dale Jr. jumps back into familiar surroundings with plenty of speed
BUY TICKETS: See the Daytona 500 live! " RELATED: Junior through the years DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr . didn't take any credit for his qualifying effort Sunday, a 192.864 mph lap that put his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on the front row for next week's season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway . "Ain't much to it," Earnhardt quipped. "The car does all the work." Earnhardt, twice a winner of the "Great American Race," won't be on the pole, but he'll start alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott , giving the team a front-row sweep for the second time in the last three years. His previous wins in the 500 came from third (in 2004) and ninth ('14). Earnhardt is regarded as one of the best at restrictor-plate racing but qualifying is a solo effort. There are no other cars off which to pick up a push or gain an advantage. It's all about horsepower. But there's a bit of technique required as well. "The transitions are kind of important as far as feeding the car into the corner and also running as tight as you can on the apron without bouncing the skirt off the apron or giving up any speed, or just time adding feet to your lap by running high, at least a little bit, can make a big difference," he said. "But other than that, the driver, I don't think he's feeling like he's in control of too much. The car is doing most of the work." Sidelined for the last half of the 2016 season after suffering concussion-like symptoms, Earnhardt is eager to be back behind the wheel. He chose not to compete in Sunday's Advance Auto Parts Clash, instead allowing Alex Bowman to field his entry. Bowman had won the pole at Phoenix driving in relief of Earnhardt last fall, a distinction that Earnhardt said earned the driver the opportunity. But after spending "The Clash" working as an analyst in the booth for Fox Sports, Earnhardt traded in his suit and tie for a firesuit, and eased his way back into more familiar surroundings. He was second-fastest in the opening round of qualifying; Elliott ended the session atop the board. In the final round, the No. 88 went to the top of the board with only one driver, Elliott, remaining. "I certainly would have loved to have gotten a pole, but my boss man is happy," Earnhardt said of team owner Rick Hendrick . "I just talked to him on the phone and he's got to be thrilled with having his cars up front." Elliott's final-round run, a lap of 192.872 mph, gave the Dawsonville, Georgia, youngster his second consecutive Daytona 500 pole. It was the third straight No. 1 qualifying effort for his No. 24 team, which also started out front here in '15 with four-time series champion Jeff Gordon behind the wheel. "Obviously Dale is good down here, and we all knew he was going to be fast today," Elliott, 21, said. "That's no surprise. But I don't really care who it is. I'm not going to feel bad about beating somebody. "It's cool to share a front row with a teammate is really the biggest thing I look at with that. But Dale is a good guy. I'm happy to share the front row with him, but happier to beat him, obviously, but regardless of who it is, that's what you're trying to do, you know." Elliott and Earnhardt were the only two drivers to officially lock in their starting positions for next weekend's Daytona 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). The remainder of the field will be determined through the Can-Am Duels, a pair of 150-lap qualifying races scheduled for Thursday evening (7 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;