CONCORD, N.C. -- As Dale Earnhardt Jr. continued to recover from a concussion, there's one thing he never lacked -- support.
The 14-time Most Popular Driver Award-winner knew that Hendrick Motorsports -- from owner Rick Hendrick throughout the entire organization -- and all of its partners had his back.
"Rick and everybody in the shop all put my health first," Earnhardt said. "I’m glad that we’ve had partners that were very supportive. Rick and everyone was super supportive and patient. We had Jeff (Gordon) and Alex (Bowman) jump in and carry the load and the company worked really hard and it allowed me to have a lot of time to put this in the past."
Throughout the latter half of the 2016 season, Earnhardt worked with his doctors -- Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh and Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty -- to not only heal but to come back even stronger than before.
“First of all, we care about him as a friend and a person. That’s first," Hendrick added. "Just seeing him healthy and himself rather than wanting to try to rush him back in the car."
And the progress was evident as Earnhardt's rehab continued.
"You could just see him getting stronger every week," Hendrick said.
Following a test Wednesday at Darlington Raceway, Earnhardt's doctors cleared him to return to NASCAR competition in 2017.
"He’s a big spark plug (for Hendrick Motorsports)," Hendrick said. "When that test finished and he came through with such flying colors, the texts I got and the conversations I had, you could feel it (around the shop) today with the rest of the teams – it just elevated the whole place.”
Earnhardt will return to the track for the Daytona 500 in February.
Both the driver and Hendrick expressed gratitude toward the partners of the No. 88 team for their continued support and flexibility throughout the 2016 season.
"I really want to thank all our sponsors," Hendrick said. "Every single sponsor we had said, ‘His health is priority one. We don’t want him in the car until he’s ready and we’re OK.’ Everybody was good with him sitting out."
And with Earnhardt healthy once again as the holidays approach, Hendrick said the announcement serves as a gift to the entire organization.
"I think Dale being back in the car and Jimmie (Johnson)’s championship," he smiled, "it’s going to be a really nice Christmas here for all of us."