NASCAR is set to get its favorite son back when the Sprint Cup series cruises around Martinsville next week, as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is on track to hop back in the race car.
UPDATE: Tuesday, Oct. 23 at 1:15 p.m. ET by Tim Daniels
It's official: NASCAR has announced Earnhardt has been medically cleared to return to action, according to Jenna Fryer of the AP.
#NASCAR also confirms that Earnhardt has been cleared.— Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) October 23, 2012
Dale Jr. missed the previous two races due to concussion issues. His return should provide a boost to a sport that relies heavily on his popularity to attract attention. It comes at an ideal time as the NASCAR season is winding toward its conclusion.
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The Associated Press' Jenna Fryer relayed the news via Twitter:
Hendrick: Dale Jr. Has been cleared will race at Martinsville.— Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) October 21, 2012
Earnhardt missed last week's race at Charlotte and is sitting out this week's race at Kansas while suffering lingering effects after receiving two concussions in six weeks.
His return for Martinsville is not a surprise, as this was originally proposed as a two-week hiatus. It is good to see everything is on track for Earnhardt in his recovery.
When he does return behind the wheel of the No. 88 car, it will be in a far different position than when he left. After missing two of the 10 Chase races, Earnhardt is in 12th (last) place and 86 points behind series leader Brad Keselowski.
That fact must have made this two-week break especially painful for Dale Jr. Not only do drivers never want to see someone else behind the wheel of their car, but Earnhardt and his team busted their tails all year to get a chance to compete in the Chase. Unfortunately, they were forced to watch dreams of a championship fade away while Dale was on the sideline.
We are talking about a driver who, prior to this, had the fifth-longest active streak with 461 consecutive starts.
Of course, this only highlights the enormity of his decision to take the break. In a world of increasing awareness for concussions and the long-term effects, NASCAR needed someone to call attention to the dangers of these head injuries in racing, and what better person than the sport's most popular driver?
Earnhardt has now helped raise public awareness while also making it that much easier for future drivers to sit out races when they are battling lingering head trauma.
This was a precedent-setting move for which Dale should be commended, but along with undoubtedly countless others, I am happy his hiatus is over and he will soon be behind the wheel.