Dale Earnhardt Jr has passed the first stage of his return to the cockpit, after being examined yesterday [Monday] by Dr Jerry Petty as follow-up to the crash at Dover which left him temporarily unconscious.

The Budweiser Chevrolet driver suffered a minor concussion and a right foot sprain in the crash but, contrary to initial reports and rumour, was unconscious for only a brief time, and was awake and alert while being removed from the car.

Although Dr Petty appeared content with Earnhardt's condition, NASCAR must also approve his return to competition, a process that got underway on Monday afternoon.

Earnhardt finished 37th at Dover due to the accident - his worst finish in the last ten races - and it cost him two positions in the rankings, dropping him to fourth overall after both Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson moved ahead of him in the race to catch Matt Kenseth. The result ended an eight-race run in the number two spot, as well as a stranglehold of 21 consecutive weeks among the top three in the Winston Cup. The last time he was ranked outside the top three was when he was at number five following Bristol in March - a span of nearly six months.

However, with just 17 points separating him from Johnson - Earnhardt could be poised to reclaim a top three spot this weekend, doctor's permission permitting. Junior has been a powerhouse in restrictor-plate races of late, especially at Talladega, the scene of this weekend's NWC event.

He won the Aaron's 499 in the spring, notching up a fourth consecutive win at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, and establishing the sort dominance not seen since Buddy Baker's year-long run between the springs of 1975 and '76, in which he was the only driver to win more than two consecutive races at Talladega. Earnhardt also won the Busch Series race at Talladega in April 2003, giving him five victories in the last five races he has entered there. Indeed, the only Talladega race he has not led was in April 2000 - his first start - when a car ahead of him missed a shift, causing a chain reaction that damaged the Budweiser car before the race began.



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