NASCAR Sprint Cup Series

            === Earnhardt Jr. back on track following concussion ===
 Martinsville, VA (Sports Network) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to competition
 on  Friday at  Martinsville Speedway for the first time since missing the last
 two Sprint Cup Series races.
 Earnhardt Jr. was forced to sit out Charlotte and Kansas after being diagnosed
 with a concussion days after he was involved in a multi-car wreck on the final
 lap  of the  Oct. 7  race at  Talladega.  The driver  of the  No. 88  Hendrick
 Motorsports  Chevrolet  also  sustained  a concussion  during  a  crash  while
 participating  in the Aug. 29 Goodyear tire test at Kansas, which had recently
 been repaved.
 During  Friday's lone Sprint Cup practice session at Martinsville, the site of
 the  seventh race  in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Earnhardt Jr.
 posted  the  second quickest lap  at 97.488  mph. He drove  a total of 31 laps
 around  the  0.526-mile racetrack.  Brian Vickers,  who is  driving the No. 55
 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota, topped the practice charts with a lap at 97.679
 Prior  to practice, Earnhardt Jr. met with the media to discuss his concussion
 as  well  as taking the last  two weeks off.  His last public comments came on
 Oct.  11,  which was two days  after Dr. Jerry Petty, a neurosurgeon, examined
 him in Charlotte.
 "It's  just been  a lot of time off  and a lot of time on my hands," Earnhardt
 Jr.  said. "I've been  exercising and doing what the doctors told me to do and
 feeling better every day. I've been going through the process. You just got to
 be patient and let things happen.
 "I've  learned a ton  about what I went through. I feel like I'm a lot smarter
 and  a  lot more prepared  and understand the situation  a lot better now than
 beforehand.  It's  been a good experience.  It's something I would have rather
 not  gone through, but I learned a lot from it, and it's been good for me. I'm
 just excited to be back to work and get back in the car."
 Earnhardt  Jr.  is NASCAR's most  popular driver and one  of the 12 drivers in
 this  year's Chase  field. After  finishing 20th  at Talladega,  Earnhardt Jr.
 trailed  leader Brad  Keselowski by  51 points.  He is  now 122  points behind
 "I  felt like I  could race at Kansas, for sure, and probably ran at Charlotte
 with no problem," he said. "I felt kind of foolish sitting at home and feeling
 okay and not being in the car. It feels really unnatural."
 There  had been  speculation that  Earnhardt Jr.  might miss  the rest  of the
 season  after the  disclosure of  his concussion.  But Earnhardt  Jr. said  he
 wanted to return to racing as soon as he was medically cleared.
 "In  the decision to  get out of the car in the first place, I just wanted the
 doctors to make that decision instead of me," he admitted. "If I could race, I
 wanted  to be at  the racetrack. It's what I love to do. If the doctors felt I
 was healthy enough to do that, I wanted to be doing it."
 Earlier  this  week, Earnhardt Jr. ran  123 laps in  a Sprint Cup car during a
 test  session monitored  by Petty at the half-mile Gresham Motorsports Park in
 Jefferson,  Ga.  Petty then  cleared him  the following  morning after a final
 neuropsychological evaluation.
 Earnhardt  Jr. was  also  evaluated  by Dr.  Micky  Collins,  director of  the
 University  of  Pittsburgh Medical  Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program,
 last week.
 Regan  Smith substituted for  Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 car at Charlotte and
 "It  was really hard to see your car out there running around and turning laps
 without you in it, so that was difficult," Earnhardt Jr. said.
 Smith  finished  38th at Charlotte  due to engine  failure and then seventh at
 On  Wednesday,  Earnhardt Jr's Nationwide  Series team, JR Motorsports, signed
 Smith  to  drive the No. 5  Chevrolet full-time during 2013 Nationwide season.
 His  signing  with JRM  came one  month after  he was  relieved of his driving
 duties  in  the No.  78 Chevrolet for  Furniture Row Racing  in Sprint Cup. To
 prepare  for  the upcoming season with  Furniture Row, Kurt Busch took over as
 driver of the No. 78, starting at Charlotte.
 Smith  was  originally scheduled to replace  Busch in the No. 51 Chevrolet for
 Phoenix  Racing but  was called upon by  team owner Rick Hendrick to drive the
 88 car.
 "Regan  did a  really good job for  the team," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I told him
 that  I was worried  about the momentum that we had built up as a team, and he
 maintained  that. I feel like we didn't miss a beat, and I can get back in the
 car as if nothing has really changed. All of that couldn't have gone better."
 10/26 14:36:29 ET

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