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;
Hendrick : 'It's going to be a really nice Christmas'
Hendrick Motorsports' owner, Rick Hendrick talks during a teleconference about recent news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be returning for the start of the 2017 season.
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;
Johnson on Ricky Hendrick : 'In those closing laps, he took me for a ride'
RELATED: Miami results " Final standings " Chase Grid SHOP: Johnson championship gear Jimmie Johnson could feel that something special was about to happen in those waning laps Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway . His No. 48 Chevrolet had struggled throughout the day, considerably slower than the rest of the Championship 4 contenders. But on that final green-white-checkered attempt, Johnson took off like a rocket and didn't look back until taking the checkered flag -- and his seventh, record-tying championship. It was a phenomenon that left many stunned, including crew chief Chad Knaus, who just sat back in his chair atop the pit box with a smile. It was a surprise, a miracle, a legendary moment. It was Ricky Hendrick , Johnson said. "I swear, there was some intervention going on, there was a higher power involved," Johnson told NASCAR.com Tuesday morning. "... I was screaming at (Ricky) I needed his help on that last restart and the way we shot out and got going. "I took him along for the ride, but I think in those closing laps, he took me for a ride." The late son of team owner Rick Hendrick , Ricky Hendrick has been "along for the ride" for a seventh title with the team since Johnson first came up with the hashtag #Se7en at the Hendrick Motorsports ' annual Christmas party in December 2013, just after Johnson earned his sixth Sprint Cup Series title. "I was at the Hendrick Christmas party and it just so happened that year that Rick and Linda invited Ricky's favorite band to come in and play, which is O.A.R.," Johnson recalled. "... O.A.R. is playing, I'm watching Rick and Linda sing every word to every song ... I was in that space and reliving Ricky and my heart was full. And it dawned on me that he had a tattoo on his back that was 'Se7en' and spelled out how I've been using the hashtag. So, it hit me hard, right then and there." It took the team three years to be in the title mix again, but Johnson began to have an overwhelming, foretelling feeling this season was going to be special beginning at one special place. Martinsville Speedway . The track where he punched his ticket to the Championship 4 with a win on Oct. 30 -- and the track where Ricky Hendrick was headed when he lost his life in a tragic team plane accident on Oct. 24, 2004. "It was more than just the race itself -- when we won in Martinsville and you think back to when the plane crash happened," Johnson said. "When we won in Martinsville there was just this feeling that 'seven' was alive -- there was this great chance. "I stayed extremely calm in the weeks preparing (for Miami), through the course of the race and I just, I don't know -- I felt like something was going to happen and I was going to be OK with it, I didn't know what it was." The battle for #Se7en was uphill at first: Johnson started the race from the back of the field for unapproved adjustments. He made his way up to the top 10 quickly, but still struggled with the handling of the No. 48 machine, prompting Knaus to "try a bunch of (expletive)" with less than 100 laps to go. RELATED: Knaus closing in on big NASCAR record "I thought, 'All right, this is my moment to be a gracious loser,' " Johnson recalled. "I need to handle this the right way -- I'm going to shake someone else's hand today and handle this the right way. I'm going to have a chance to honor Ricky but it's different then.' "Then the final couple cautions happened, we put tires on, the 19 ( Carl Edwards ) and 22 ( Joey Logano ) wrecked and I'm like, 'Oh no, there's more. This might be what I think it is.' The next restart I get to second, I'm like, 'Oh, this is going to happen, this is really going to happen.' " RELATED: Late wreck ruins Edwards' title hopes Johnson restarted behind leader Kyle Larson , who led a race-high 132 laps, in the bottom lane. "Outside, it's your quarter," No. 48 spotter Earl Barban told Johnson on the radio in the final laps just before he passed Larson for the lead. "Clear, clear, clear, clear, clear, clear! "Come on baby, come home." That was the moment. "When I heard 'clear' off Turn 2, I just knew," Johnson said. "I literally had the goosebumps when I heard 'clear' and there was this register with 'This is why. This was going to happen.' It was insane." For Johnson, having Ricky -- a friend, fellow racer and member of the Hendrick Motorsports family -- along for the #Se7en ride made the accomplishment even more special. "It took us a couple years to get there but I've had the 'Se7en' and it's always taken me back to that place and just filled my heart up, trying to get seven, thinking of it on the Ricky level," Johnson said. "I miss him so much and it was fun way to pay my respects to him and also the others that were on the plane. I know it's meant a lot to Rick and Linda to have it be such a focal point, and so talked about and (to) bring the spirit back. "It's been the perfect thing for our Hendrick family."
Time for a breakup? After mulling, Hendrick says no
MORE: Why Johnson will win the title HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team's summer swoon has come and gone once again and the Hendrick Motorsports driver will attempt to win a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship here this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway . There were no calls to break up Johnson and Chad Knaus, one of the most successful driver/crew chief combinations in NASCAR, as a winless streak began in April and wasn't broken until Johnson showed back up in Victory Lane in October. But there was concern. "I think it's the toughest question when you have a relationship," team owner Rick Hendrick said Friday at Homestead. "It can be in a (car) dealership; it can be in a race team when you have two guys that have been so good and you try to decide 'Is it time?' "This year we started off really well and then we hit a lull in the summer and it was -- we asked ourselves then, is this time, do we need to make a change?" The months of July and August aren't among the team's most productive, with only eight of Johnson's 79 career victories coming during those two months. On the other hand, the last three months of the season have seen the No. 48 team roll up 33 victories.
Hendrick : 'I'm just happy to be here'
While in the media center at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Rick Hendrick , team owner of the No. 48 Chevrolet, discussed just how much it means for him to be at the speedway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. cleared to resume NASCAR competition
RELATED: Dale through the years " Recovery timeline CAIN: Dale Jr.'s strong stand makes him, sport better NASCAR premier series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr . has received medical clearance to resume his racing career, Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday. Earnhardt, 42, was sidelined for the final 18 races of the 2016 season after suffering a concussion. On Wednesday, he participated in an on-track testing session at Darlington Raceway under the supervision of Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty. Earnhardt was cleared by Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh. Collins, who consulted with Dr. Petty following Wednesday's on-track activity, has overseen Earnhardt's rehabilitation program and also treated him for a similar injury in 2012. "I expected things to go really well yesterday, and that’s exactly what happened," Earnhardt said of an afternoon spent behind the wheel at the 1.366-mile South Carolina track. "Actually getting in a race car was an important final step, and it gives me a ton of confidence going into 2017." Earnhardt completed 185 laps in his No. 88 Chevrolet during the course of the nearly five-hour session. Crew chief Greg Ives was on hand to oversee his driver’s efforts as well. Earnhardt, recently voted the series most popular driver for the 14th consecutive season, said he expects to do more testing in January "to help knock the rust off." RELATED: Junior wins NMPA Sprint Most Popular Driver Award "When it's time to go to Daytona, I' ll be ready," the winner of 26 premier series races said. The 2017 racing season officially gets underway with the 59th running of the Daytona 500 , scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 26 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Earnhardt will not compete in the annual non-points, season-opening race, The Clash at Daytona International Speedway (Feb. 18, 8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Instead, HMS officials said Alex Bowman , who filled in for Earnhardt in 10 of the final 18 races of 2016, will drive the team's No. 88 entry. Bowman won the pole at Phoenix in November, his first in the series. "Everyone agreed that he more than earned (the opportunity)," Earnhardt said, "and (sponsor) Nationwide was 100 percent on board." RELATED: NASCAR community reacts to Junior's return It's possible Earnhardt could participate in up to two additional tests – Hendrick Motorsports is one of four teams expected to take part in a Goodyear tire test scheduled for Jan. 10-11 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway , and the season's first organizational test is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 31/Feb. 1 at Phoenix International Raceway . Collins called Earnhardt "one of the hardest-working patients I've ever encountered." "He's done everything we've asked, and we believe he is ready to compete at a professional level again and can withstand the normal forces of a race car driver," Collins said. "Dale has been very open with us, and we've had plenty of time for his treatment, so we feel very good about his long-term prospects and how this has been managed by everyone involved." Team owner Rick Hendrick said he's proud of Earnhardt "for listening to his body and standing up to take responsibility for his health. "He's worked extremely hard and set a terrific example for others," Hendrick said. "It's great news as we go into the offseason, and we can't wait to see him back on the race track at Daytona." In addition to Bowman, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon also drove for the team in eight starts during Earnhardt's absence. Earnhardt was 13th in points with six top-five finishes before being sidelined prior to the July race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and wound up 32nd in the final standings. The 2012 injury forced him to miss two races; he finished 12th in points that season. &amp;amp;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;amp;amp;gt;
Earnhardt Jr.: I feel stronger than before
RELATED: See Junior's 2017 car " Wedding plans " Contract talks coming soon Wednesday's test at Darlington Raceway confirmed what Dale Earnhardt Jr . already suspected -- that he has recovered from a concussion suffered at midseason of 2016, and that he is fit and healthy enough to resume competing in NASCAR's premier series. While this year's incident, which caused Earnhardt to miss the final 18 races, was the second time he had been sidelined due to a concussion, Earnhardt made no bones about his eagerness to climb back in the No. 88 Chevrolet when the 2017 season gets underway. Saying he feels he has "a lot left in the tank," Earnhardt spoke about his recovery, his return and what lies ahead during a national teleconference Friday. "I wouldn't be coming back to the seat and wanting to drive and be excited about driving cars if there was any risk other than the typical risk that every driver faces on Sunday," the 42-year-old Earnhardt said. "I feel very confident in what I've seen in myself in my improvement and what my doctors are telling me about my future and the risk that I'm taking, and my ability to be able to withstand the normal wear and tear of not only driving a race, but getting in that unfortunate accident from time to time. "We all feel pretty confident that not only am I as healthy as I was before the symptoms came last year but I'm actually stronger. Having gone through this before also gives me additional confidence. This isn't uncharted territory for me. I know what I need to feel personally to know that I'm as strong as I need to be and healthy. I'm certainly feeling that way. But I'm also hearing the affirmation from my doctors that I can go back and drive race cars." Earnhardt worked with Dr. Micky Collins of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh throughout his recovery. Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty was on hand at Darlington to monitor Earnhardt's progress. After a brief pre-test evaluation by Dr. Petty to determine a baseline, Earnhardt said he spent the afternoon running multiple laps around the rugged 1.366-mile track. During frequent breaks he was re-evaluated by Dr. Petty. While Earnhardt said he hoped to see the results of his responses to the stimuli of being back in a race car remain constant, they actually improved throughout the course of the day. "You sort of get acclimated and up to speed with what it takes to drive a race car," Earnhardt said. "Those systems strengthen through that process. Rather than see them sort of flat line and stay the same, which was what I was hoping for, they actually got stronger. "I felt like throughout the day I got more and more comfortable in the car ... it felt like an old shoe by the end of the day." Once the session ended, he said, "We felt really, really confident that healthwise I was 100 percent and ready to get back in the car." Although the 2017 season won't officially get underway until Feb. 26 with the running of the Daytona 500 (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Earnhardt said he will also participate in an organizational test scheduled for Jan. 31/Feb. 1 at Phoenix International Raceway . The focus of that test won't be to monitor his health, but to simply give him more time behind the wheel and help the team prepare as the new season approaches. "Testing is kind of boring but I'm ready to get more and more laps in the car," he said. "I feel real, real confident and my self-confidence is real (crucial) for me to perform well. The more I can do to help build my confidence before we go to Daytona the better so I'm excited." Team owner Rick Hendrick said having NASCAR's most popular driver cleared to return to competition was "a great Christmas present for our company and our fans." "By Dale going to the right person and working his butt off, it has made him stronger," Hendrick said. While he has been cleared to return to competition, Earnhardt said he will continue with some of the exercises and programs used during the recovery process. According to Dr. Collins, continued participation would only further strengthen those systems affected. "I'm all for that," Earnhardt said. "I want to be as sharp ... hell, maybe this is something I should have been doing all along. There is a lot of ... stuff on computers that athletes do that don't even have concussions that I have at my fingertips today. ... There is a lot of stuff that I can continue to do that will keep me sharp and keep me ready to go." He doesn't expect to be monitored by NASCAR officials any differently than any other driver going forward, and there are no safety changes being made by the team as a result of his latest incident. As confident as he was before Wednesday's test, Earnhardt admitted he was "anxious" to get behind the wheel. He said he even had trouble sleeping the night before. Any lingering concerns were erased as soon as he hit the track. "Darlington is a tough track, but the nerves were gone after about four laps and then it was ‘Let's just run, let's run some more, put some tires on and go some more,'" he said. &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;gt;
Dale Earnhardt Jr. injury timeline
Dale Earnhardt Jr . was cleared to compete in 2017 after sitting out much of the 2016 season, Hendrick Motorsports officials announced Dec. 8. A crash at Michigan International Speedway in June is believed to be the cause of Junior's injury, and the ever-popular driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet said in July that he was going to focus on being healthy and ready to compete at the 2017 season opening Daytona 500 . Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman split fill-in duty for Hendrick Motorsports in the No. 88 car for the second half of the 2016 season. Read through the progression of Dale Jr.'s injury and recovery through the timeline of events below.