After months of progress from a season-ending concussion, Dale Earnhardt Jr was medically cleared for the 2017 NASCAR campaign on Wednesday after a test at Darlington Raceway.
While NASCAR's 13-time Sprint Most Popular Driver will return after recovering from the concussion that sidelined him for the final 18 races of 2016.
Alex Bowman will fill in for Earnhardt in the number 88 car in the season-opening, non-points 'Clash at Daytona', formerly known as the Sprint Unlimited, before the 42-year-old returns at the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt was passed fit by the medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program doctor Mickey Collins and Charlotte neurosurgeon doctor Jerry Petty after completing 185 laps in a session lasting almost five hours at Darlington.
"Dale is one of the hardest-working patients I've ever encountered," Collins said in a Hendrick Motorsports release. "He's done everything we've asked, and we believe he is ready to compete at a professional level again and can withstand the normal forces of a race car driver.
"Dale has been very open with us, and we've had plenty of time for his treatment, so we feel very good about his long-term prospects and how this has been managed by everyone involved."
In addition to the on-track test, Earnhardt has spent more than 15 hours in a racing simulator during his recovery.
"Thanks to the staff at Darlington for hosting our team and to NASCAR for giving us the opportunity to put a car on the track," Earnhardt said. "I'll do more testing in January to help knock the rust off. When it's time to go to Daytona, I'll be ready.
"I feel great, and I'm excited to officially be back. I expected things to go really well, and that's exactly what happened. Actually getting in a race car was an important final step, and it gives me a ton of confidence going into 2017."
He was initially injured in a wreck at Michigan in June and stopped racing under doctors' orders at New Hampshire nearly four weeks later.