Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns to the site of his final race in 2016

It’s been almost a full turn of the Cup Series calendar since Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sidelined with concussion issues during the 2016 season.

Earnhardt Jr.’s final race of last season came at the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway. At the time, he thought he was suffering from sinus issues. But those sinus issues were actually the effects of a concussion Junior sustained in a crash at Michigan in June. And Junior ended up missing the second half of the 2016 season.

“Oh, I was not feeling too good physically and yeah, I’ve thought about that quite a bit just how big a difference it is from today compared to last year,” Junior said Friday at Kentucky. “It reminds you about how much we had to overcome and how much rehab went into trying to get healthy and yeah this is where it all kind of started to come to the surface where the symptoms and all that stuff started to be a concern.”

Junior underwent an intensive rehab program to return for his final season in the Cup Series after suffering from balance and vision issues. Throughout his rehab, Junior was very open with just how miserable the symptoms had become and what he had to do to get back to 100 percent.

While Junior’s feeling great in 2017, his performance — as many of his fans know — has been anything but. He’s been plagued with misfortune, whether it’s from accidents or mechanical issues, and has failed to finish five of the first 17 races of the season.

Those early season struggles are a big reason why last week’s race at Daytona was seen as such a big deal for Junior. Not only was it the final (scheduled) start for him at the track, but it was also considered by many to be his best opportunity for a win and a playoff berth because of NASCAR’s win-and-in playoff format.

[Related: Matt Kenseth says he’s likely not driving for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018]

The night did not go according to plan at all. Junior hit the wall after suffering a cut tire. After making up two laps thanks to cautions, he got caught up in another accident and was done for the night.

There are just nine races left until the playoff field is set. And Junior recognizes the urgency that he and his team felt at Daytona. Without a win before the playoffs, Junior is very likely going to miss out on a chance for a title in his last full-time season.

“I think at Daytona there was an urgency, you know, because I think it’s an easier race to win for me than it is here.,” Junior said. “Or, I think that I go in there knowing what I need to do to win. I felt like I was very aggressive in the race and having a lot of fun and my car was amazing and all I needed to do was to be right there at the end and we didn’t get to do that. Do I think that we don’t have any more chances? I think we can show up somewhere and get the job done. But, it’s just not going to come as easy as it might have come at Daytona. And it’s going to be some work.”

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of Dr. Saturday and From the Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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