-- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has missed the past 17 NASCAR Sprint Cup races. The one Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway was by far the most difficult one for him to watch.
Earnhardt, the defending winner of the PIR fall race, watched as his substitute driver, Alex Bowman, led a race-high 194 laps only to finish sixth after a wreck battling Matt Kenseth for the lead on a restart with two laps remaining.
Watching Bowman vie for the win reminded Earnhardt of how nervous he would get watching his father, a seven-time Cup champion, battle for victories. Not only was Bowman going for the win but he was in the difficult position of having to race drivers who also were attempting to advance to the championship round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"This whole day has been about damn miserable watching that race," Earnhardt said on "The Dale Jr. Download" podcast released Monday and produced by his JR Motorsports team. "Golly. I don't know how fans do it."
"For the longest time, I haven't felt that way since watching Dad race. I remember it so clear now, all the nerves and sick feeling in your stomach, even halfway into the race."
"I'm so happy because our cars are so good," Earnhardt said. "I'm going to get into that thing next year and it's going to be as good or better than when I got out of it."
"I feel like a very lucky guy in that regard. ... Man, I'm really looking forward to getting back on the track, cutting some laps and just being a driver. I miss it, especially as I am getting more and more healthy and more confident in my health. I miss it more and more."
When he returns, Earnhardt said he hopes he doesn't lose the perspective he has gained from his extended absence.
"It was hard being a fan," Earnhardt said about the race Sunday. "I really got a new appreciation for what that's like. I had forgotten. I got caught up in what I've been doing the last several years and had forgotten what that was like."
"I'm seeing so many new perspectives, a lot of them unintentionally, which change the way I see everything about it. It will be a little bit different when I get back in the car, and I will try not to forget what I learned."