For only the second time since stepping out of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy due to concussion like symptoms prior to the New Hampshire race in July, Dale Earnhardt Jr. met with the media Sunday.
Earnhardt appeared at a press conference a few hours prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Joining NASCAR’s most popular driver was car owner Rick Hendrick and Dr. Micky Collins of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program. Earnhardt met with the media last prior to Watkins Glen in August, and Sunday he gave another update on his progress.
“I feel like the recovery is going really good,” Earnhardt said. “I’m starting to see improvements as we are going. It seems like this has lasted a really long time, but when you look at it on paper it has been a very short period and the gains that I’ve felt in that short period give me a lot of confidence that this is going in the right direction. And all the stuff and hard work we are doing is paying off.”
“It certainly fun to be here at the race track and to be able to see the team and be in this atmosphere that you get so used to being in week-in and week-out,” he added. “I’m happy to be here today and it certainly is a place where you get pretty good exposure and it drives your symptoms a little bit so I’m getting some good exercise as we speak. It has been a real interesting experience and I’ve learned a ton.
“I have a lot of respect for Micky (Collins) and his group and the direction that they are giving me is really working. I struggled with my eyes for a while and I’m starting to see improvements there which I was thrilled to wake up one day and feel a difference and start to see improvement there. Riding in a car or walking to gain stability that I’ve talked about before is starting to improve, which was a major relief for me because that was probably the most difficult thing to deal with throughout the day because it was there 24 hours a day. My balance is miles better than it was when I first went to see Micky. We do a lot of exercises every single day. Amy (Reimann, Fiancé) has been there every step of the way pushing me to stay focused and to realize the progress we have made and to keep working hard. It’s been a good experience and I’m looking forward to getting well and definitely on the right track.”
Dr. Micky Collins of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program is part of the team treating Earnhardt. He provided his own update on Earnhardt’s condition.
“We have learned a tremendous amount about concussions over the last five or ten years and we understand this injury could happen to anyone,” Dr. Collins said. “What happens with a concussion is the brain moves inside the skull and when the brain moves inside the skull we have learned a number of chemical changes that happen to the neurons or the cells in the brain and at the end of the day what occurs is there is an energy problem with the cells. We have actually learned now that there are six different clinical profiles or different types of concussions that we see. They can be cognitive issues or thinking problems. They can be problems with something called the vestibular system in the brain, which allows Dale to interpret movement and motion and stabilizes his vision when he moves his head and interpret complex visual information. The third type of concussion is ocular or your eye movements, actually moving your eyes in tandem, bringing your eyes together diverging your vision. The fourth type of concussion is migraine. The fifth type is neck and the sixth subtype can be anxiety and mood related problems. “
“When I first saw Dale a month and a half ago I can tell you he was pretty sick,” he added. “He was having problems with the vestibular system, with the ocular system and with some anxiety and mood issues that is very much associated with these problems. We have made progress with this injury to the point where we actually matched treatments to the different types of concussions that can occur and we have very specific treatments that can treat these different problems that Dale’s experiencing. In fact, over the last two or three weeks I’m pleased to tell you that the fruits of that labor are now paying off. Dale has been a model patient. I know this is cliché sitting up here, but Dale has worked as hard as any patient that I treat currently or in the past. He has been very diligent about doing his therapies and we actually have very specific treatments that are targeting these problems that Dale has and we are seeing the benefits of that. When I first saw Dale, my goal was to see Dale become a human being again and I can tell you with confidence that is occurring in front of our eyes. He is feeling better. He can tolerate a lot more. He is having fewer and fewer symptoms and is doing very well. To me that is the number one goal is to get Dale feeling as normal as a human being. The second goal is Dale becoming a race car driver again. Yes, we will be working on that as well. I’m very confident that we are moving in the right direction in that respect.”
Friday the team announced that Earnhardt, who has missed the last six Sprint Cup races has not been cleared to race through the 2016 NASCAR season. The remaining 12 races in the season will be split among drivers Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman. Four-time Cup Series champion Gordon, 45, filled in at Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen and Bristol. Bowman, 23, drove at New Hampshire and Michigan. Gordon will race the car Sunday at Darlington.
Earnhardt has been diagnosed with at least three concussions during his racing career. He suffered a concussion at the Fontana race in April of 2002. He continued to race and didn’t reveal the injury until September. He suffered two more concussions in 2012 in a period of six-weeks: a hard crash during a tire test at Kansas Speedway, another big crash at Talladega Superspeedway. After the Talladega crash, Earnhardt went to a doctor for an evaluation. The doctor forced him to miss two races in October because of the injury. He was involved in two crashes this season, one at Michigan and the other at Daytona. Doctors believe the crash at Michigan in June caused his latest issue.
Earnhardt said Sunday that didn’t believe he would miss the entire season.
“When we first went to see Micky I anticipated the experience to be similar to what I had in the past,” Earnhardt said. “That we would work on getting better and it would happen in a relatively short period of time and I would drive a car before the end of the season. I think as we continued to go get evaluated we realized that it is going to be a bit more of a process and Micky can speak on the reason why we decided to make this decision to not race anymore, but I think it’s the right decision considering how I feel personally and physically. “
“I definitely don’t belong in a race car today by any stretch of the imagination,” he added. “You don’t know how long this process is going to take and we want to be healthy and able to compete at some point, but also we don’t want to take any risks and re-injury ourselves or put ourselves in a situation where we can basically erase all the hard work that we have done to get better. Mickey can talk more about the decision that we made since the last evaluation.”
Dr. Collins said this concussion was different from the one Earnhardt suffered in 2012.
“I can tell you some of the exam findings and findings that we found with this injury were different, they were more extensive,” Dr. Collins said. “Different types of injuries that we see and now you understand better perhaps why that is there are different types of concussions. We see different symptom profiles. The injury at Michigan kind of broke the seal on this injury and when we saw him he was having a lot of problems, but clearly we are seeing Dale improve at this point in time and we are excited about his progress.”
As for the months ahead, Earnhardt said he isn’t sure he will be at the track every week until the end of the season.
“Well, I think any race car driver would tell you if they are not in the car it’s really weird to be at the race track,” Earnhardt said. “I feel, even though I love to see my guys and I know they are happy to see me today, I feel like a bit of a distraction and taking them off of their focus to get their car in tech and all that good stuff. I won’t be able to not stay away from the race track.”
“I think that I have a vested interest in how well the team does the future of the team and its success and I want to be a part of that,” he added. “I want to be a witness to what they are doing and what we are trying to learn as a company we are trying to always get better so I want to be a witness to that. It is just very strange. Doug Duchardt (General Manager of Hendrick Motorsports) prodded me to come to the Tuesday debriefs and it just feels really weird because I’m the only guy in there that really didn’t go to the race track or drive a car, but it does help me to at least stay on the same page and up to speed with what the company is doing and what we are trying to learn. I understand the importance of that.
“Micky has said that I can basically do everything that I want to do and go everywhere that I want to go. The more I do the more I stress those systems. I’m trying, the worst thing I can do really is sit on the couch. I tell Micky I feel awesome when I’m at home, but any time I leave the house, I lose about 20 percent if I’m rating myself on a scale from 1 to 100. He says do that more, push yourself and you will see those symptoms start to fade in those environments that are upsetting you. So, I think coming to the race track would be a great thing for me and it’s just an odd feeling wondering what to do with yourself when you are there. I love watching racing so I was a fan before I was a driver, so I will figure out a way to enjoy it until I can get back in that seat.”
As for Earnhardt’s future, team owner Rick Hendrick said there will always be a place for him.
“We were talking before he had to get out of the car about extensions,” Hendrick said. “I want him to race with me as long as he can and he wants to be there. The seat is his and I expect, we’ve got a lot of time between now and Daytona. I saw him like two or three weeks ago and then I saw him last Monday and I saw him today, the improvements have been phenomenal and listening to the doctor we are excited about Dale Earnhardt, Jr. being in the car at Daytona and we’ve got right much time. Excited about him racing beyond 2017.”
Dr. Collins said that he and his team’s goal is to get Earnhardt back to racing again. That’s the reason the medical team wanted Earnhardt out of a racecar for a few months. It will allow them to get Earnhardt back to where he needs to be.
“The point I want to make is that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing right now; is to make sure we get Dale’s systems rehabbed to the point where not only does he feel normal, but hopefully to the point where we don’t see less force causes to come back,” Dr. Collins said. “We’ve advanced things to the point where we really do know how to rehab these systems well. And there are a lot of treatments that Dale is going through. He’s going through vision therapy, he’s going through exercise therapy; there’s a lot of different therapies we’re doing to build those systems. And, hopefully we can get to a point where we see that he can withstand the normal forces of a race car driver. If he had a significant force, that can cause an injury as it would anyone. But that’s what we’re trying to get to is that level.”
Earnhardt said he would be open to getting back into a car prior to year’s end, but only for testing.
“Yeah, once we’re cleared,” Earnhardt said. “I definitely don’t want to go into Daytona cold turkey. I would certainly want to get to a race track. What we did in 2012 was we took a short track car to Gresham and ran for a day with no data system on the car or anything like that. And I’ve talked with NASCAR, and they are completely comfortable with allowing us to go somewhere for a day. Like Micky says, we’ve got to get in that environment and test those systems before we get the final sign-off. So, that would certainly be something that I would insist on happening before we went to Daytona for SpeedWeeks.”
The bigger question is what will happen once Earnhardt does go racing again. And he will race again. Sunday he once more put any thoughts of him retiring to rest.
“I think that I have the passion and the desire to drive,” Earnhardt said. “I enjoy it. I have an amazing team and a great owner. I’m in such a great position and am enjoying being a part of the sport. My heart is there to continue. And if my doctor says that I’m physically able to continue, then that’s an easier decision for me to make. It’s not something that I think about. We’re trying to focus on just getting well and getting normal. So, I intentionally really put all those thoughts and concerns and consideration on the back burner until I can really just say that I feel normal. Getting normal and just having a good quality of life going forward for the next many, many years is the first goal. And so, I haven’t really put a lot of thought into the future until I get well.
“But my heart wants me to continue and wants me to continue to be working with the guys I’ve got. I’m only 41. I think I have some good years left. I’m as good as I have ever been inside the car. My ability to communicate and drive the car and get everything out of it, I feel very confident. I feel like I’m still an asset to the team and to the company. Rick likes to say we have unfinished business. I certainly feel the same way. We have races to win. We went through this process in 2012. It was very scary and difficult. Micky told me that I would one day be well and I would win races again, and he was right. We got well; and I had some of the greatest years and racing experiences of my career shortly after that. And so, he’s telling me that this is possible again, and I believe it. And if we work hard enough and we really rehab these systems, anything is possible from here on out. So, I’m very positive and feeling very good and am confident about the future.”