CONCORD, N.C. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. is making his return to NASCAR after missing half of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion.  

NASCAR's reigning most popular driver was medically cleared after a test session at Darlington Raceway Wednesday afternoon, Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday. He will make his return in the Daytona 500 on February 26.

"I feel great, and I'm excited to officially be back," Earnhardt said. "I expected things to go really well yesterday, and that's exactly what happened. Actually getting in a race car was an important final step, and it gives me a ton of confidence going into 2017. Thanks to the staff at Darlington for hosting our team and to NASCAR for giving us the opportunity to put a car on the track."

Earnhardt completed 185 successful laps during a nearly five-hour test session. In addition to the on-track test, Earnhardt has logged more than 15 hours in a racing simulator, according to Hendrick Motorsports.

Earnhardt was relieved by Alex Bowman and four-time champion Jeff Gordon starting with the July 17 event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The team announced that Bowman will drive the No. 88 Chevrolet in the season-opening exhibition event at Daytona.

"Dale deserves so much credit," said team owner Rick Hendrick. "I'm proud of him for listening to his body and standing up to take responsibility for his health. He's worked extremely hard and set a terrific example for others. It's great news as we go into the offseason, and we can't wait to see him back on the race track at Daytona."