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Race Race Coverage Writing
Fourth Place
Jim Utter, Motorsport.com

Will Dale Jr. pass the final test?

The biggest hurdle in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s recovery is one only he will know if he’s cleared.

It will come sometime in his Daytona 500 qualifying race on Thursday at Daytona International Speedway.

At some point in the race, he will make a split-second decision on whether to make a move on the track – a move that could propel him to victory or just as easily trigger a multi-car wreck.

Only he will know if there was any hesitation, any second thoughts. If there were not – if he made the decisions that were needed in order to put him in position to win without thinking twice about them, he may well have removed the last vestiges of the concussion symptoms that sidelined him for most of the second half of last season.

Earnhardt can’t hide from the truth because he knows it all too well. His Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career has been filled with daring moves and numerous victories at Daytona.

He knows what’s required to win.

“I have to go out there and race with no fear,” Earnhardt said. “You can’t be concerned, worried or have some caution about being able to win (Thursday’s) qualifying race or the Daytona 500 – you’ve got to race with no fear.”

Clearly, not many athletes would perform at their best if they were always concerned about the negative outcomes of the decisions necessary to succeed.

That’s especially true in racing, where danger lurks at every corner, and especially on tracks like Daytona and Talladega, where cars race in packs only inches apart.

“I know when I get in the car, I can’t have any concern or worry, or I’ll drive completely different,” Earnhardt said. “I know what result I can get by driving without fear and I know what kind of result I’ll get if I drive with even a sliver of apprehension. I just won’t be able to go out there and win the race.”

Earnhardt knows the difference all too well.

“Once you second-guess yourself one time, it snowballs and it just continues throughout the rest of the race,” he said. “You’ve got to race with no fear.”

Racing with no fear or apprehension doesn’t mean Earnhardt never thinks about the possibilities of becoming involved in an accident.

In fact, it’s just the opposite.

There is a time and place to consider the ‘what ifs’ – it’s just not in the race car.

“I'm nervous about (wrecking) until I get in the car, and I can think about it while I'm out of the car all day long,” he said. “"Of course, I’m human – I’m going to be concerned and worry or have precaution and so forth.

“I know that when I get in the car, I can’t have any concern. I can’t have any worry or fret or I’ll drive completely different.”

Earnhardt’s symptoms have now disappeared. He’s taken part in on-track testing and participated in a four-hour practice session on Saturday at Daytona. He’s done everything his doctor has asked him to do and more during his recovery process.

He feels as good as ever – and looks as relaxed as ever. He doesn’t lack for confidence, of that there is no doubt.

There remains on last remaining question: Does he also lack the fear?

On Thursday, he will find out for sure and he’ll be the first to know.