DAYTONA BEACH — Dale Earnhardt Jr. took another step toward making last year a "distant memory."
NASCAR's most popular driver made his official return to racing Saturday by taking part in the first Daytona 500 practice of Speedweeks.
Earnhardt turned nine laps at Daytona International Speedway during a four-hour session and ranked 11th on the speed chart. He averaged 192.670 mph during his fastest lap in the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.
"Just trying to put as many laps as I can behind me and get further and further into this deal to where the events from last year become more of a distant memory and don't define me as who I am so much anymore," Earnhardt said. "It will be good to get in the car and get some good wins and good finishes under our belt this season. That is our plan."
The practice was Earnhardt's first stint in the car since a test in Phoenix last month. Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of last season because of a concussion, fueling speculation about his future. But he's back and eager to move past his medical history.
"To be successful, particularly at Daytona, you have to drive with zero fear and put your car in places on instinct without wondering and guessing about the repercussions," he said. "I have watched a lot of races, replays and stuff, where we have had success and I remember that feeling of being invincible. Not even thinking about the dangers or the risks that you are taking, you are just doing. That is when you are at your best.
"You have to get into that frame of mind for the race, and I hope to kind of still be that driver that I need to be."
Team Penske's Joey Logano was fastest in practice, helping Ford land seven of the top 10 spots in the practice session.
CLASH POSTPONED: The first official NASCAR event of Speedweeks was postponed by rain. The rain began during driver introductions for the exhibition race. The Clash, the first event leading into the Daytona 500, will be staged at 11:30 a.m. today, just a few hours before qualifying for the Daytona 500.