by Nate Ryan, USA TODAY Sports
NASCAR's most popular driver will return behind the wheel of his No. 88 Chevrolet this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was cleared Tuesday after missing the past two Sprint Cup races while recovering from his second concussion in six weeks.
In a release, Hendrick Motorsports said Earnhardt had completed a rehabilitation program directed by Dr. Jerry Petty, who consulted throughout with Dr. Micky Collins, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program.
Earnhardt ran 123 laps in a test Monday at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga., that was monitored by Petty and then met Tuesday morning with the Charlotte neurosurgeon, who had sat Earnhardt two weeks ago because the driver was suffering persistent headaches.
"Dale Jr. has done everything asked of him," Petty said in a release. "He hadn't had a headache since Oct. 12, and we have not been able to provoke any symptoms since that time. I have informed NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports that he is medically cleared for all NASCAR-related activity."
Earnhardt had visited Dr. Collins in Pittsburgh a week earlier, and team owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday that his driver had been progressing well with no setbacks.
"I will be shocked if he's not in the car," Hendrick said. "Everything looks good. His attitude and the way he feels; he's had no headaches since Thursday or Friday of Charlotte; and the tests have gone real well."
Steve Letarte, crew chief for Earnhardt Jr., had posted Monday night on Twitter that Earnhardt "looked great and ran some awesome laps."
Earnhardt was diagnosed with a concussion after being caught in a 25-car wreck on the last lap of the Oct. 7 race at Talladega Superspeedway. He said he had sustained a concussion six weeks earlier in an Aug. 29 testing crash at Kansas Speedway but hid the symptoms so he could stay in the car while healing. He estimated he was "80-90%" entering his second consecutive Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The injury ended one of the championship hopes in a 13-season Cup career for Earnhardt, who briefly led the standings for the first time since 2004 but now ranks 122 points out of the lead in 12th. It also snapped a streak of 461 consecutive starts that was fifth-longest among active drivers.
Regan Smith has substituted for Earnhardt the past two races, finishing 38th at Charlotte Motor Speedway and seventh at Kansas Speedway.
Smith currently isn't slated to race at Martinsville. After losing his ride at Furniture Row Racing to Kurt Busch, he originally had been tabbed to drive the No. 51 Chevrolet for Phoenix Racing at Charlotte before shifting over to Earnhardt's seat at Hendrick Motorsports.
A.J. Allmendinger took Smith's place at Phoenix, posting a 24th at Charlotte and 35th at Kansas (because of a blown tire after running in the top 10). He is scheduled to be back in the No. 51 this weekend at Martinsville.
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