Earnhardt makes NASCAR return, practices for Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) 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. Logano's fast lap was 193.116 mph, just ahead of Aric Almirola and teammate Brad Keselowski.

''So far, it's been a couple good practices for Penske and Ford, and now we'll see how the races go,'' Logano said, referring to the exhibition Clash scheduled for Saturday night.

The Daytona 500 is scheduled for Feb. 26, with pole qualifying set for Sunday.

''In all honesty, I've never been that fast in qualifying here in Daytona in my whole career,'' Logano said. ''I feel like I've never had a shot at it, but now I feel like I'm closer than ever. I feel like I'm kind of in new territory, plus I think some of these other guys sandbag a lot , so tomorrow will be the telltale sign.''

Kyle Larson in a Chevrolet was third fastest in practice, followed by Ford driver Ryan Blaney, rookie Daniel Suarez in a Toyota, Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Trevor Bayne and Clint Bowyer, who is making his debut as the replacement for retired champion Tony Stewart.

Defending series champion Jimmie Johnson was 15th. Defending Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin was 17th. And Danica Patrick was 25th.

But most eyes were on the 42-year-old Earnhardt, who got married in the offseason and is hoping to return to form at Daytona.

''I've been learning so much, trying to be observant and learn and be open-minded to improving,'' he said. ''Getting better as a person, as a driver, as a professional, never assuming you've got it all figured out and understanding your mistakes and correcting them. Just getting smarter and older and ready to grow-up.

''I always thought I was kind of mature, but there is always some room to improve. Certainly, made a lot of changes in my life in the last year that has made some big differences on me personally and I've enjoyed it and look forward to the future.''

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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