- Associated Press - Thursday, December 8, 2016

CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr., who missed the final 18 races of last season because of a concussion, has been medically cleared to return next year.

Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday that Earnhardt will take part in the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 26.

Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, in consultation with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, cleared the 42-year-old driver Wednesday following a test session at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. Petty attended the session.

Dale is one of the hardest-working patients I’ve ever encountered,” Collins said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked, and we believe he is ready to compete at a professional level again and can withstand the normal forces of a race car driver. Dale has been very open with us, and we’ve had plenty of time for his treatment, so we feel very good about his long-term prospects and how this has been managed by everyone involved.”

Earnhardt completed 185 laps during a nearly five-hour session at Darlington under the guidance of his Hendrick Motorsports crew chief, Greg Ives. In addition to the on-track test, which was observed by NASCAR, the driver has logged more than 15 hours in a racing simulator during his recovery.

“I feel great, and I’m excited to officially be back,” Earnhardt said. “I expected things to go really well (Wednesday), and that’s exactly what happened. Actually getting in a race car was an important final step, and it gives me a ton of confidence going into 2017.

Earnhardt said he would do more testing in January “to help knock the rust off” ahead of the season-opening race he has won twice.

“When it’s time to go to Daytona, I’ll be ready,” he said.

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