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Dale Jr., recovering from plane crash, set for NASCAR return at Darlington

Dale Earnhardt Jr. races again Saturday night with the Xfinity Series at Darlington Raceway. Here, he gets introduced prior to last year’s Xfinity Series fall race at Richmond. Austin McFadden/TRE.

DARLINGTON, S.C. — Twenty minutes before his anticipated 12:10 p.m. media availability Friday, a pack of reporters and cameras crammed outside Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s toter.

At noon, shoulder space became nonexistent and fans waited patiently outside the black roping. And once the sport’s most famous driver finally stepped through the black sliding doors, those fans clamored, but the microphones, cameras, and questions engulfed the driver who now returns to NASCAR’s center of attention.

For the first time since his one-off appearance in the Xfinity Series at Richmond last September and for the second time in two years, Earnhardt Jr. is back behind the wheel at Darlington Raceway for Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Sports Clips Haircuts Help A Hero 200. Apart of NASCAR’s official throwback weekend, Earnhardt Jr. is racing in his father’s Cup Series debut scheme from 1975 — a pleasing baby-blue look with white rims and Hellmann’s Mayonnaise as the sponsor.

Friday also happened to be Earnhardt Jr.’s first public address since his frightening plane crash at Elizabethton, Tenn., airport two weeks ago, when his Cessna 680 bounced twice before skidding off the runway and catching fire. Earnhardt Jr., his wife Amy, and 16-month-old daughter Isla escaped the accident without any major injuries. Earnhardt Jr. declined to talk about the specifics of the crash, the escape, and the emotions, as the National Transportation Safety Board Investigation continues to uncover what happened.

“It was a very scary experience. We’re just happy to be healthy and have a great weekend like this to look forward to. … There’s nothing better for me than being at a race track. Everybody is OK. We just get to carry on. There’s no point in wasting any time being upset about it or being sad about it. We’re all processing it differently and I feel better every day about what I need to be doing tomorrow and the next day. I feel more confident about moving forward in my life and putting that in the distant past.”

This weekend will certainly help Earnhardt and his family move along with the healing process. It is still apparent, that while concussions and the grind of the sport forced a premature retirement, that Earnhardt Jr. still thoroughly enjoys driving and whatever attached to it.

He’s also racing in the No. 8 for the first time in 12 years, since 2007, the year he last ran the number full-time at the Cup level and for four races in the then-Busch Series. The last time he ran an Xfinity Series race at Darlington? 1999. In four career Xfinity Series starts at the track, he has finishes of 10th, second, 11th, and 12th. In 22 Cup starts at Darlington, he has four top fives and 10 top 10s.

“What surprised me is I haven’t raced here in the Xfinity car since 1999,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think it’s going to be halfway through the race where I have any real understanding of what I need to be doing or where I need to be running. It’s going to be an interesting process.”

“I’m feeling great,” Earnhardt Jr. added. “I’m feeling nervous about getting the car. … I picked a real hard track to go to. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking with this place. It’s throwback weekend. It’s hard not to want to be apart of it. This was probably the worst track, in terms of difficulty and challenge and heat and being uncomfortable I could’ve chosen.”

In his most recent race last September at Richmond, Earnhardt Jr. led 96 of the 250 laps and picked up the Stage 2 win in the process. But after losing the battle off pit road to lead the field to green for the final stage, he had to lineup on the outside of the front row, and spun his tires, where he then settled for fourth.

Since then the only on-track repetitions is a 15-lap test session with his JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson a few months ago.

“That didn’t do anything to help my anxiety,” Earnhardt said with a laugh. “Noah was faster than me. It reminded me of how difficult it is to drive these cars and how good these guys who drive them are. And how hot and miserable it is inside there, some things you forget about when you’re in the booth as a broadcaster. It’s a real blessing for me to be able to run at least one race per year and sort of relive my past.”

“I thought, man, I get to run a race a year, why don’t I just go to Darlington and do something fun with a throwback car and draw some awareness to not only dad’s story but Ed Negre and Norman Negre when dad drove that race car in 1975. It’s fun to be down in the garage, in and around the other cars and understand their stories and what they’re all about.”

Earnhardt Sr.’s first career start with Negre in 1975 at Charlotte turned out to be the only one for the man who started the career of an eventual seven-time champ. Dale Sr. started 33rd and finished 22nd in a 40-car field, 45 laps down.

As for the 2020 one-off Xfinity Series race, Earnhardt Jr. said he has Homestead-Miami circled on his calendar, the sixth-race of the season March 21. But he’ll have to get through Saturday’s 147-lap event first. On Friday he ran fifth in first practice and 10th in the second practice.

“Hopefully,” Earnhardt started, “at some point during the race, it will all make sense.”

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