CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tim Richmond, recovering from a life-threatening bout with pneumonia, announced Wednesday he will return to racing for the Winston Open May 17 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Richmond, who has missed all five NASCAR races this season, got behind the wheel of a race car Tuesday for the first time since November to drive in a closed session at Darlington International Raceway -- and set an unofficial track record of 160.600 mph on the 1.366-mile speedway.
'I'm on Cloud Nine from what happened yesterday,' Richmond said at a news conference, his first public appearance since the illness. 'I was very pleased yesterday and surprised. I didn't think I was going to be able to do it as long as I did yesterday and end as well as we did.'
Crew chief Harry Hyde said he was in awe at Richmond's aggressive performance on the track, which is considered the toughest on the NASCAR circuit.
'He attacked Darlington kind of like you've seen Rambo attack,' Hyde said. 'There was doubt in my mind that he would be back this year and certainly doubt that he would come back to Darlington and do what he done yesterday.
'It's real heartwarming to see him back and see him in that car.'
Richmond, 31, led NASCAR with seven victories last year and finished third in the points race. He said watching from the sidelines this year has been a big disappointment for him and the rest of the Hyde crew.
'We were all looking forward to '87 in a tremendous fashion,' Richmond said. 'We finished third in points last year and had high hopes for this year.'
Richmond was hospitalized at the Cleveland Clinic from Dec. 12 to Jan. 3 and spent the next month at his parents' home in Ashland, Ohio.
'I've been scared in a race car, but not nearly as scared as I was during the time I was in the hospital,' Richmond said. 'I usually avoid treatment as much as possible ... but at that point I was just begging for them to do anything that would make me feel better.
'It was the first time, really, that I didn't have control.'
For the past few weeks, Richmond had been resting at his condominium near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., with his mother. He did not return to his home at Lake Norman until Monday afternoon.
Richmond said his physical condition is 'about 60 percent now at what I was this time last year.' He's been playing golf and tennis recently to get back in shape and said he planned to add weight training to his regimen when he returned to Florida Wednesday afternoon.
'After yesterday, that kind of built up my confidence a lot,' Richmond said.
Richmond and Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick said they have not decided if he will be able to race in the 600-mile race at the speedway May 24. Relief driver Benny Parsons, who replaced Richmond when he temporarily relinquished his spot due to the illness, may fill in for that race.
'The last thing I'd want to do is get in a race car knowing there was a possibility I could not finish the race,' Richmond said. 'I found out yesterday that the Winston is a pretty safe bet that I can run all the way through it and be 100 percent all the way through it.
'As far as the World 600, just the idea of it being the longest race of the year, doesn't make much sense for me to attempt it right off the bat. I hate to miss it, but it's not worth sacrificing the physical ability for later on down the road.'
However, Richmond said if he felt well enough after the Winston, he may attempt the World 600 anyway.
'It's not to say we are not going to run it for sure,' Richmond said. 'There's been a lot of progress on my part here in the last three weeks.'
But team officials said they would keep an eye on their rising star to ensure his fast driving and fast living do not send him into a relapse.
'We need him and we miss him,' Hendrick said. 'We haven't made a lot of money since he's been gone. But we're going to bring Tim back and at a slow pace and make sure we don't overdo it.'
Richmond, while acknowledging his weakened condition, said he was eager to compete again with rival Dale Earnhardt.
'He's doing well, very well -- too well,' Richmond said of Earnhardt. 'And I'd like to stop him from it.
'I'm not getting in the Winston to run second.'