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Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoys staying ‘visible and relevant’ while planning Daytona 500 return

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Relief 500

MARTINSVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 30: Greg Ives, crew chief of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, talks with Dale Earnhardt Jr. prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 30, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – It seems the only place you won’t find Dale Earnhardt Jr. these days is in the cockpit of a Sprint Cup car.

That could change soon – Earnhardt told USA TODAY Sports’ For The Win site this week that he is as confident as ever he will return in the 2017 Daytona 500 – but NASCAR’s most popular driver has been spotted virtually everywhere recently.

From football sidelines to hockey games to racetracks, Earnhardt has stayed quite visible since being sidelined for the final 18 races this season while recovering from the effects of a concussion. He said it’s “not only good therapy, but I need to be doing something. I love being around the sport and I want to feel like I’m an asset to something.

“Absolutely, it has been a great time,” he said before Sunday’s Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway, where he helped unveil a new limited edition trading card. “I wasn’t really sure exactly how that was going to feel being around and coming to the track and stuff. I was very apprehensive and real nervous.

“I talked to (car owner) Rick (Hendrick), and I tell him all the time I feel like being in the car is what I’m supposed to do and not being in the car brings on a sense of guilt that I’m not doing my responsibilities. So, maybe I’m actively seeking out these opportunities to be visible and be relevant and work with my partners and handle all the responsibilities that we have and have planned before all this happened.”

Earnhardt has one year remaining on his contract to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, and he said he has begun planning next season with sponsors under the presumption he will be racing.

“That is the plan that we have going forward, so we are booking things as normal per usual,” he said. “We are doing all our photo shoots and everything with anticipation of our sponsors marketing me as the driver of the No. 88 car.

“I think that is perfectly on track and a reasonable goal to be in the car and be competing in Daytona. We can’t sort of sit and wait. We’ve got to make a decision. Those types of things have to be decided quite early. So, we are moving forward with the plan to be in the car and I don’t see anything that says that is not going to happen. Things are good.”