AVONDALE, Ariz. – The start of the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series season is still more than three weeks away, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. is already in the racing mindset.
"During the offseason, you kind of want to put the blinders on and not think about anything, but being outside of the car for so long, I didn't feel that way at all,” he said. “I feel like I've had my vacation and it was over a long time ago and I'm ready to go back to work."
This week, that work consisted of a two-day test at Phoenix International Raceway.
The driver shared just how excited he was to be there, and that once he got behind the wheel again, “I felt real comfortable out there."
And with the calendar turning to February, the Daytona 500 is right around the corner. Earnhardt will make his return to NASCAR Cup Series action in "The Great American Race," and the veteran driver had to admit that there are some nerves involved.
"I'm just a little nervous about how if there will be any kind of learning curve,” he said, noting that he hopes there won’t be. “Sometimes you see guys in sports, no matter the type of sport, that are away for a while and have to adjust to how much has changed since they've taken time off. Then there are some guys that come back like they've never missed a day. So, I don't know. I hope there's no rust to shake off. I'm really anxious to kind of get out there and have some success, go out and run well and check that box that we're right where we need to be.”
The first step in that process, he said, has already been accomplished because of how well the No. 88 team worked together in the second half of the 2016 season even with Earnhardt out of the car.
Between substitute drivers Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman, the No. 88 team grabbed five top-10 finishes, a pole position and 207 laps led in the final 18 races of last season.
“The fact that the team doesn't have any lack of confidence in what they're doing and where they are is a good thing,” Earnhardt said. “That's out of the way. Now I've just got to build my own confidence up in myself and feel like me and the car are working together as one unit.”
He began to feel that, he noted, midway through his test at Darlington Raceway that helped him gain medical clearance to return to NASCAR competition after fully recovering from a concussion.
He expected nothing less this week at Phoenix. But Daytona, he said, is “a completely different animal.”
Either way, Earnhardt is excited to get there and kick off the 2017 campaign.
“I think we've got a chance to go win races,” he said.