Dale Earnhardt Jr. told reporters before the Daytona 500 in February that it would take him a while to get really comfortable and race like he used to after missing half of last season with concussion-like symptoms. Junior noted the other drivers would notice certain idiosyncrasies during races before the fans and media would.
So seven races into the season, is NASCAR's most-popular driver healed and ready to end a winless drought? Some of his peers weighed in during press conferences Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway including Kyle Busch, who missed the first 11 events to open of the 2015 season after breaking his leg at Daytona.
Jimmie Johnson: “No, he is right with that. When you miss that much time from the car the sport changes. Your sensitivity to what you feel in the race car kind of fades and to be as sharp as you need to in order to find five hundredths of a second to be competitive it’s tough and it takes reps. I see where he is coming from and why he made that comment in February. I can’t say that it’s crossed my mind watching him this year. He seems very comfortable in there, but to go to Texas two weeks ago and for him to run as competitive as he did at a treacherous track, I mean your sensitivity to the car and sliding the tires needed to be as sharp as ever. I think that is a great indication of him finding that last little bit and he is ready to go to victory lane.”
Kurt Busch: “My little brother was out for 11 races, I think, in 2015 and you could see a little bit of the rust the first couple weeks, and I think we all saw that with Junior the first couple of weeks. But by Vegas and especially with what he did at Texas last week, he’s back. But, yes, there are things that you need to do personally and then there are things the sport has done while you were gone because there are notes that we have from nine months ago that we look at and kind of giggle like, ‘Oh, wow. We ran that setup? We haven’t done something like that in a long time.’ And for him to take off half a season, yes, there’s things he needed to do, but also the team was evolving and he needed to adapt to those setups as well as what he needed to do personally. Yeah, you’re right. We see things on track and he was making moves at Texas and I’m like, ‘Yeah, he’s back.’”
Kyle Busch: "I was comfortable Race 1. My first race was the All-Star Race but then my first points race was the [Coca-Cola] 600, the longest one of the year. I was OK with that, I got out of the car and it hurt to stand up right afterwards. As far as feeling like you are capable of winning again [it took me] six, seven, eight weeks whatever it was. I won Race 5 but no one expected us to go to Sonoma and score a win there, I didn’t either. As far as Junior goes, I have no idea what he is feeling. He got his first top-five [of the season at Texas] last week but I think they’ve just had trouble finishing as an organization. You look at the 48 car (Jimmie Johnson), that was their second top-five of the year and they won so obviously they’ve been lacking a little speed here or there and they were able to get it two weeks ago at Texas and show us they all have it when they need it. Does [Earnhardt] look alright to me? He looks just fine. When he’s in front of me, I just want to pass him.”
Earnhardt, 42, is in the final year of his current five-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports. He is expected to sign another contract with the No. 88 team, but the future beyond that for Earnhardt is unclear, but one thing is for certain: Junior needs to return to victory lane; he hasn't celebrated a win since November 2015 in Phoenix.