Earnhardt returns to Dover to support Hendrick teammates

Dale Earnhardt Jr., right, listens to Jeff Gordon as they stand in the garage area before practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Del. Gordon came out of retirement to fill in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Dale Earnhardt Jr., right, listens to Jeff Gordon as they stand in the garage area before practice for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup series auto race, Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Del. Gordon came out of retirement to fill in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he’s recovering from his concussion and feeling better, but is “not ready” to return to racing.

Earnhardt has used a race simulator to aid in his rehabilitation, which helped him work on his motor skills. Earnhardt has been sidelined since July. He isn’t sure when he’ll be cleared to race, but hopes to be ready for the 2017 Daytona 500.

Without a ride, Earnhardt instead took a temporary spot as NASCAR’s most popular crew member.

He was in a hoodie and a hat instead of a firesuit as he made one of his few public appearances at a track since his season ended in July because of a concussion. Earnhardt posed for selfies with fans and seemed in good spirits watching practice from the pit box on Saturday at Dover International Speedway.

“Walking through the garage and signing autographs is tough,” he said. “Your balance gets bad. A lot of it is visual, a lot of the things happening with your peripheral (vision) and stuff. That’s something that’s going to challenge it. That’s pretty much it. My eyes got a lot better. I didn’t really notice issues with my eyes quite as much anymore. The balance stuff is still needing some work.”

Earnhardt assisted with his No. 88 team and took an interest in helping crew chief Greg Ives during Jeff Gordon’s practice run on a session interrupted by rain. Gordon will substitute for him in one more race in the 88. Alex Bowman will drive in the other races left this season.

Earnhardt, long NASCAR’s most popular driver, has said he hoped to be cleared for the 2017 Daytona 500.

It was an odd sight: Earnhardt in street clothes talking with Gordon in a fire suit in the garage. Gordon retired at the end of last season before he was pressed into service by team owner Rick Hendrick to replace Earnhardt in select races.

“It’s hard not to climb in the car before Jeff does,” Earnhardt said.

Gordon topped the speed chart with a lap of 160.514 mph. Kyle Larson was seventh on the speed chart and the fastest of the 16 Chase drivers of 158.898.

Teammates were excited to have Junior back.

“I haven’t seen a lot of Dale away from the race track. I completely understand how difficult it is to come to the track and feel productive,” six-time champion Jimmie Johnson said. “I can only imagine how hard it is to go to the track and watch your car race and then also how boring it would be because we do have the coolest job to sit in that race car.”

Earnhardt has made other public appearances and tweeted that he spent Friday night cheering on local Mooresville High in his first high school football game in 20 years.

Earnhardt said going out in crowded, public events helped make him feel normal again. But he won’t feel complete until his symptoms subside.

“If I come to an environment like this and go walk through the garage and get into those busy moments and I don’t have any reaction to it, I would consider that being 100 percent normal,” he said.

Earnhardt, who has battled concussions throughout his career, said he wasn’t worried about when he might be cleared.

“I’m not ready, I know that. I’ll know when I’m ready,” he said. “It’s not one of them things that has a schedule. You don’t know when you’re going to be like, ‘all right, I’m good. Let’s go do this.'”

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