Dale Earnhardt Jr. is returning not just to the NBC Sports booth this weekend but believes he’ll be “OK” competing in the Xfinity Series race Saturday afternoon.
Earnhardt explained Thursday afternoon on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he’s been dealing with bad bruising on his back after the Aug. 15 airplane crash. He has been getting advice and care for the injury to bring the swelling down and “get rid of a lot of the blood.”
Earnhardt, his family and two pilots escaped serious injury when his private plane experienced what was described as a “firm” landing that included bouncing twice when traveling to Tennessee for race weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. The aircraft caught fire after everyone on board had gotten out.
Darlington will be Earnhardt’s first NASCAR race since he competed at Richmond in the Cup Series last year.
“It was just really swollen and bad, but that’s actually gotten better very quickly, so I think I’m going to be OK,” Earnhardt said. “I think once you get in the car you won’t even think about it. Race car drivers get a lot of credit driving with severe flu and bad knees and sore backs, but once you’re in the car and you’re in the middle of the action you don’t even think about those things. You’re concentrating so hard on driving the car that you don’t even remember that stuff until you get done and get out of the car.
“I’m looking forward to it, getting in the race car and driving and going through all that. Experience the practice and qualifying will be great for my mental processes and all that.”
Earnhardt will drive the No. 8 Hellmann’s Chevrolet. The paint scheme honors his late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who drove a similar-looking car in his first Cup Series race in 1975. The fact it is throwback weekend is why Earnhardt chose this race to fulfill his obligation with Hellmann’s and the two-time Xfinity Series champion does expect to have some challenges.
“When you’re not in the car for almost a year you get rusty and you forget things,” he said. “I have high anxiety about pit road speed and understanding my dash, and knowing the protocol and all the things you have to understand and do, not only leading up to the race but during the race. When you’re not in that rotation of doing it week after week you get to forgetting those things, and I’m sure there will be some mental lapse and mistakes that I make during the day on Saturday. And I picked a hard racetrack for some reason. Darlington is hard.”
Among those in the field with Earnhardt will be Cup Series regulars Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney. Earnhardt expects them, along with the top-performing Xfinity Series regulars, to be tough competition.
Earnhardt also revealed that he did get the chance to run some laps at Darlington. Rookie Noah Gragson was testing for JR Motorsports, and Earnhardt wanted to get behind the wheel for about 10 or 20 laps to check off some personal boxes.
“It was hot, miserable, hard — I was slow,” Earnhardt said. “So although I know I can go out there and do it, I’m not sure exactly how well I can do it, and I picked a very, very challenging race to run.
“It’s going to be a hard race to win, must less to run in the top 10 so I don’t know really where to put my expectations or personal goals. But I’m pretty reserved in how I’m approaching the weekend as far as what to expect.”
Earnhardt last competed at Darlington in a Cup Series car in 2017. Saturday will be his first Xfinity Series race at the track since 1999.