Dale Earnhardt Jr. confident ahead of upcoming private test

LAS VEGAS -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. extended his record of Sprint Most Popular Driver Awards to a 14th consecutive year, and he knows the best way to thank the fans for voting for him -- by returning to race.

"I feel 100 percent," Earnhardt said Friday after accepting the award during the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards at the Wynn Las Vegas. "I don't feel we're going to have any issues."

Earnhardt, 42, missed the final 18 races of the 2016 Sprint Cup season because of a concussion in June that impacted his vision and balance. He plans to return for the 2017 Daytona 500 as long as NASCAR-approved on-track tests don't trigger any symptoms.

Earnhardt, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports, will do a private half-day test this month in which he won't be able to have data-acquisition sensors on the car to limit any advantage the organization gets from the test. The test had not been allowed until NASCAR made a rule earlier this year that permits a private test following injury.

"I had balance and vision issues and some nausea when I was going through the illness, so we'll just make sure that I don't have any vision issues and no nausea," Earnhardt said.

"I don't expect anything, because I've been through the simulator several times. I was getting sick in the simulator before I was injured. I have been able to do the simulator without any nausea or any vision issues at all."

If things go well, Earnhardt will do the NASCAR open test Jan. 31 to Feb. 1 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Earnhardt said he probably will have a doctor at the first test but that he shouldn't need a follow-up examination if he feels fine during the test.

"I don't necessarily have to check that box [for testing] to compete next year [under the rules]," Earnhardt said. "It's really for my own peace of mind. To get through the process, the two best things you can do is just bring down the anxiety level and the stress, and that's really going to help me check a box I want to get checked personally."

Earnhardt has other things to be anxious about: He has a New Year's Eve wedding planned to Amy Reimann, and he wanted to have that initial test done before getting married.

"I'm really excited and have enjoyed going through the process," Earnhardt said about the wedding plans. "I've never been married before and excited to be marrying Amy. ... I wanted to be involved in all the planning."

The Most Popular Driver Award, administered by the National Motorsports Press Association and done through online and mobile voting, was no surprise to anyone who follows the sport. No driver has owned it for more consecutive seasons, and only 16-time winner Bill Elliott has received the award more throughout a career.

"I try not to think about winning or losing the Most Popular Driver Award," Earnhardt said. "It's a bit of a gift.

"Whether we win the award or not, we get a lot of great support from our fans all season long, and I certainly got some extra support this year through the injury and all that stuff. ... The fans were great, and that was an incredible motivator for me during my recovery to get healthy."

Voting spanned the final 10 weeks of the season, and Earnhardt was eligible as a driver who competed in the Daytona 500. After eight weeks, the top 10 drivers were Kyle Busch, Earnhardt, Carl Edwards, Chase Elliott (Bill's son), Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart and Martin Truex Jr.

The award was presented early in the night as NASCAR celebrated Jimmie Johnson's seventh title.

The night also included a tribute to Tony Stewart, who has retired from Sprint Cup racing. Surprising Stewart on stage was his friend, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder.

Johnson owner Rick Hendrick announced a $1.8 million contribution to Vedder's EB Research Partnership, the largest global non-profit dedicating to curing epidermolysis bullosa, a devastating skin disorder. The industry had initially attempted to raise $1.4 million -- Stewart drove the No. 14 late in his career in honor of A.J. Foyt -- and surpassed that goal.

"I'm totally blown away and caught off-guard," Stewart said. "I really don't know what to say, to be honest."

But Stewart wasn't the most famous recent retiree who made it to the stage -- swimmer Michael Phelps, the 23-time Olympic gold medalist, lauded Johnson. They are friends through their Gatorade endorsements, and Johnson spoke at USA Swimming's Golden Goggle Awards last week, a day after winning his record-tying seventh title to put his name alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.

"This isn't just another night for our seven-time champion," Phelps said. "He set records and now stands alongside two legends. But for him, it's more than that. It's a personal glory and the reward for a lifetime of hard work. And for the rest of us, it's the knowledge that we just watched the greatest driver that ever lived."

Johnson closed his speech with a tribute to Petty and Earnhardt Sr., quoting Earnhardt Sr., who said after winning his seventh that Petty was still "The King."

"I completely agree and must say I might have won as many championships as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but I will never be The King or The Intimidator," Johnson said. "I'm just a guy from California who always wanted to race."