Before the season began, Dale Earnhardt Jr. acknowledged it would take some time to re-acclimate after missing the entire second half of the 2016 season with concussion-like symptoms.
So now seven races into his return and coming off his best finish of the season (fifth) two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, how do Earnhardt’s peers evaluate his performance thus far?
“To go to Texas and for him to run as competitive as he did at a treacherous track, I mean your sensitivity to the car and sliding the tires needed to be as sharp as ever,” Jimmie Johnson said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “I think that is a great indication of him finding that last little bit and he is ready to go to victory lane.”
Johnson has witnessed Earnhardt’s comeback firsthand. The two are Hendrick Motorsports teammates and frequently cycle together, an activity Johnson recently introduced Earnhardt to and something Earnhardt has fully embraced.
Earnhardt missed 18 races last season after experiencing symptoms doctors determined was a concussion stemming from an accident June 12 at Michigan International Speedway. It was his third concussion in four years. Following a rigorous rehabilitation program, he was medically cleared to return in December.
“When you miss that much time from the car the sport changes,” Johnson said. “Your sensitivity to what you feel in the racecar kind of fades and to be as sharp as you need to in order to find five-hundredths of a second to be competitive it’s tough and it takes reps.”
Johnson wasn’t alone in believing Earnhardt has shook off whatever rust may have accumulated while sidelined. Kurt Busch said he saw at Texas that Earnhardt returned to being the same driver he was before his injury, comparing it to the comeback his younger brother, Kyle Busch, made after leg injuries caused him to miss 11 races in 2015.
“My little brother was out for 11 races I think in 2015 and you could see a little bit of the rust the first couple weeks, and I think we all saw that with Junior the first couple of weeks,” Kurt Busch said. “But by Vegas and especially with what he did at Texas last week, he’s back.”
Similar to Johnson, Busch thinks it takes time for a driver to regain their feel for the little things it takes to put down a fast lap; from the chassis setup to knowing just how far one can push it going into a corner.
“There are things that you need to do personally,” Busch said. “And then, there are things the sport has done while you were gone because there are notes that we have from nine months ago that we look at and kind of giggle like, ‘Oh, wow. We ran that setup? We haven’t done something like that in a long time.’”