DOVER, Del. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched his ol’ No. 88 Chevy roll onto pit road and felt a tinge of melancholy knowing Jeff Gordon would slide into the seat.
Earnhardt was back at a NASCAR track, yet far removed from a NASCAR comeback.
“It’s hard not to climb in the car before Jeff does,” he said.
Without a ride, Earnhardt instead took a temporary spot as NASCAR’s most popular crew member. He wore a hoodie and a hat instead of a firesuit as he made one of his few public appearances at a track since his season ended in July because of a concussion. Earnhardt posed for selfies with fans and seemed in good spirits watching practice from the pit box on Saturday at Dover International Speedway.
Earnhardt enjoyed being one of the guys again at Hendrick Motorsports. He assisted with his No. 88 team and took an interest in helping crew chief Greg Ives during Gordon’s practice run on a session interrupted by rain.
He was even teased by friend Elliott Sadler as they waited out the rain.
“I didn’t know you had your own entourage following you around,” said Sadler, laughing. “That’s pretty cool, man.”
The 41-year-old Earnhardt said he was feeling better, though he didn’t know when he would be cleared to return to racing. Earnhardt has used a race simulator to aid in his rehabilitation, which helped him work on his motor skills, and he’s added more exercises to his daily routine.
But the symptoms linger.
“Walking through the garage and signing autographs is tough,” he said. “Your balance gets bad. A lot of it is visual, a lot of the things happening with your peripheral (vision) and stuff. That’s something that’s going to challenge it. That’s pretty much it. My eyes got a lot better. I didn’t really notice issues with my eyes quite as much anymore. The balance stuff is still needing some work.”
Earnhardt, long NASCAR’s most popular driver, has said he hoped to be cleared for the 2017 Daytona 500. But when that date might come? He has no idea.
“I’m not ready, I know that. I’ll know when I’m ready,” he said. “It’s not one of them things that has a schedule. You don’t know when you’re going to be like, ‘all right, I’m good. Let’s go do this.'”
It was an odd sight: Earnhardt in street clothes talking with Gordon in a firesuit in the garage. Gordon retired at the end of last season before he was pressed into service by team owner Rick Hendrick to replace Earnhardt in select races.
Gordon will substitute for him in one more race in the 88. Alex Bowman will drive in the other races left this season.
With a boost from a two-time Daytona 500 champion, Gordon topped the speed chart with a lap of 160.514 mph. Kyle Larson was seventh on the speed chart and the fastest of the 16 Chase drivers at 158.898.
Teammates were excited to have Junior back.
“I haven’t seen a lot of Dale away from the race track. I completely understand how difficult it is to come to the track and feel productive,” six-time champion Jimmie Johnson said. “I can only imagine how hard it is to go to the track and watch your car race and then also how boring it would be because we do have the coolest job to sit in that race car.”
It’s not clear when Earnhardt was injured. He was in crashes at Michigan on June 12 and Daytona on July 2, and his symptoms originally led Earnhardt to believe his problem was allergy or sinus related. He raced at Kentucky on July 9 not feeling well, and when his condition didn’t improve, he saw a neurological specialist who diagnosed “concussion-like symptoms.”
“I feel so much better than I did five weeks ago,” Earnhardt said.
“I told (my fiancee) Amy, I said, ‘Man, let’s just go so we can say we went.’ I didn’t even know it was homecoming, so that was pretty neat,” he said.
Earnhardt said going out in crowded, public events helped make him feel normal again. But he won’t feel complete until his symptoms subside.
“If I come to an environment like this and go walk through the garage and get into those busy moments and I don’t have any reaction to it, I would consider that being 100 percent normal,” he said.
Earnhardt once revealed in an interview that he thought he’d driven with concussion symptoms several times in 2001. His admission led to a tightened medical review policy in which Earnhardt had to be seen by a doctor before he could race after he was briefly knocked unconscious in a 2002 crash at Dover. He missed two races during the 2012 Chase because of a pair of concussions suffered in a six-race stretch and sitting out those events immediately ended any title shot.
Earnhardt said there was no deadline for him to get cleared in time to possibly race in February at the Daytona 500.
“If there is,” he said. “I don’t know it.”