2017 could go down in NASCAR history as the Year of “The” Comeback. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has resurfaced this week, reporting that he is nearing his recovery from concussion-related health issues and he’s feeling great, eager for Daytona’s launch into the 2017 campaign.
By then the 42-year old Earnhardt will be a newly married man, and will have by then taken a good six month hiatus from competitive racing. There’s nothing like married life and an extended absence from doing what you love to reinvigorate you.
“Are you sure?” the doubter may ask. “Isn’t there as much chance the Earnhardt comeback will be more like that of Tony Stewart than Kyle Busch?” From here, it’s an apples and oranges comparison. One can’t help but think that if not for his stated commitment to run one more full schedule this season, Smoke may have been tempted to hand the keys over to Clint Bowyer already. Stewart’s recent comments lead one to believe he’s ready to move on with life.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his current situation are an entirely different matter. While it’s possible concerns of a future concussion may have him thinking differently, NASCAR’s favorite son has often said he’d like to race well into his middle ages and he has even suggested a return to racing in the Xfinity Series, where Earnhardt was a two-time champion in his younger days.
While Junior Nation has longed for his return, Earnhardt has proceeded wisely in terms of taking a deliberate approach to his recovery. In a recent media appearance, he said rushing back to the track could put him at risk for an injury that would most certainly end his career. Racing is a rush, but it’s not worth your life. Perhaps a hidden blessing has been the longtime bachelor a chance to enjoy support his fiancee as she makes wedding plans, and an opportunity to step away from the grind of being one of the most recognized figures in motorsports. Yet while stepping away has been good, his excitement at returning is also apparent.
What a story would a Dale Earnhardt Jr. comeback be. NASCAR will further transition away from an older generation of racers as Tony Stewart hangs up his helmet, essentially leaving behind Junior, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle among the remaining survivors of the old guard. In recent years, Earnhardt has served as something of a sage in the garage, and that will be even further magnified in the absences of Stewart and Jeff Gordon.
Regardless of what the 2017 campaign brings for Dale Earnhardt Jr., it will be good just to see him race again. It will be one of the big stories of the season, and NASCAR will be better with him behind the wheel again.