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Fennelly: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back just in time for struggling NASCAR

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) speaks to media during practice at the garage at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. on Saturday, February 25, 2017.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) speaks to media during practice at the garage at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla. on Saturday, February 25, 2017.
Published Feb. 26, 2017

DAYTONA BEACH — His sport needs him. It needed him, instantly, after his father died in the 2001 Daytona 500. It needs him more than ever — more than it should, really. Attendance and TV ratings are down. Name drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are retired. Even as a new wave of drivers takes wing, kids such as Chase Elliott, Awesome Bill's boy, NASCAR turns its lonely eyes toward … Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He will ride the front row to start today's 500. Earnhardt qualified just behind pole-sitter Elliott, and if that isn't a NASCAR dreamscape for all of 2017, then nothing is — the sons of two racing greats, the past and the present, and Junior back in the mix after missing the second half of last season with another concussion.

Earnhardt was medically cleared to race in December, not long before he married his longtime girlfriend, Amy Reimann. People around Earnhardt see a new Junior, calmer, confident, content, grown up, priorities realigned. A happy dude.

"I hope it means that he's competitive, because he sure is fun to talk to these days," driver and Fox NASCAR analyst Michael Waltrip said. "It seems like he has opened up to the world more. I think Dale Jr. is back, and I don't think he'll be the next one to retire."

I bet people are still holding their breath. One more knock on Junior's 42-year-old noggin and his career might be done. Or worse. Fans have voted him the most popular driver 14 years running. Don't tell me it doesn't help that he's at the wheel again.

"You look at golf. They call it the 'Tiger effect,' " driver Kevin Harvick said. "(Dale) being back? It doesn't hurt, that's for sure."

Earnhardt has made it back from last June, when his car hit a wall in Michigan to knock his brain for another loop. Some people wondered if he would ever return. Earnhardt's joy was real when he was cleared to race again after a session at Darlington Raceway in December.

"I feel great," Earnhardt said. "This is what I was looking forward to through the process, to feel well and feel like myself again. I'm really thrilled about that. The best feeling, I think, was just showing up, just seeing the guys, walking to the car with my suit on, my guys standing around the car, ready for me to get in. We all just wanted to high-five at that moment. It was pretty awesome that day in Darlington."

Earnhardt's injury and recovery has educated some athletes in his sport to concussions and concussion recovery. He went through months of rehabilitation, led by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Concussion Program.

"Now I don't think anyone else has as much luxury, sponsorship-wise, as Dale Jr. probably does, to be able to just get out of the car like that, but it is also coming from a big-name driver who is setting the standard for well-being, and it's admirable," driver Danica Patrick said.

"I was very sick and had no business being in a car," Earnhardt said. "I just did everything my doctors told me to do. I don't want to take any credit for how this all appears to someone else. If it taught someone a lesson or helped someone, that's awesome.

"I'm not an expert. My doctor is. … He doesn't care about racing. He just cares about me being healthy. He knows I just got married, knows that I want to have a family and have a good quality of life. I let him push those buttons. I don't want to put myself in further danger. I know it's a dangerous sport. I'm taking and accepting a risk when I go out there. I believe what he's telling me."

The other recent event in Earnhardt's life, marriage, has apparently done wonders. He has opened up about the pressure of being a legend's son, and his past immaturity, doubts and selfishness, and how his wife changed him, as did sessions with a couples therapist. Earnhardt let it all hang out in a revealing story in ESPN the Magazine.

"I don't see any reason not to be transparent and honest, and so far it hasn't bitten me in the (butt)," Earnhardt said. "If I was younger, I might be a little more guarded. But I'm on the backside of this. What's there to hide?"

There's no hiding that NASCAR needs Junior, even a Junior on the backside. For all his fame, money and two Daytona 500 wins, Earnhardt has never won a Cup championship.

"I would definitely not want to come back and race anymore if I won the championship," he said. "I would be out of here. I've always wanted to win a championship so badly, and coming back from this injury we worked so hard, to come back this year and win the championship, it would be hard not to hang it up."

Uh-oh.