Dale Earnhardt Jr. just wants to “get right”. Friday NASCAR’s most popular driver met with the media for the first time since he was forced to stop racing prior to the race as New Hampshire. Earnhardt is suffering from concussion-like symptoms that the driver revealed most likely stem from an accident at Michigan International Speedway in June.
Earnhardt has missed three races, and will miss at least two more. Retired Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon took over for Earnhardt at Indianapolis and raced the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy last Monday at Pocono Raceway. Gordon will race the car this weekend at Watkins Glen International and in two weeks at Bristol Motor Speedway. Alex Bowman drove for the No. 88 team July 17 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
After providing updates via a weekly podcast, through social media and official team releases, Earnhardt was back at the track Friday. He met in an open media session and provided updates.
“It is great to be back and seeing everybody,” Earnhardt said. “I’m super nervous coming back. Hadn’t been to the track. I miss my team and my teammates. Amy (Reimann, fiancé) is gone on a trip for the weekend, so I was at the house by myself and was just looking for some things to do. Figured coming to the track wasn’t a bad idea. Get to hang out with my guys a little bit. It just felt so weird not being there, so here we are.”
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.
“I think my doctors have a good understanding of my history and what I have been through and with their own personal knowledge that they have throughout their careers to give me a clear understanding of when I will be ready to go back and get into a race car,” Earnhardt said Friday. “Our intentions are to get cleared and get back to racing. We are just taking it one evaluation at a time. It is frustrating to have to do it that way, but that is the process, and we hope and expect that when we go back for the next evaluation that we are symptom free and can start to see a timeline develop. Until then, we are just taking it one evaluation at a time. Those are typically every two to three to four weeks.”
Earnhardt said sitting out and missing races has been hard on him emotionally.
“I just want to get better,” he said. “You put everything… nothing else is really a priority except for just getting the symptoms to clear up and get back to feeling like yourself. That is all that I am thinking about. The process isn’t as fast as you would like it to be.
“I talk to my doctor every other day, sometimes for an hour or two about the psychological side of it because it can become very frustrating and obviously being a race car driver, we don’t have a lot of patience to begin with. This is a challenge. But we’ve got some great doctors, and I really believe and trust what they are telling me. I am confident and positive that they tell me without question that we are going to get back to normal. I just have to do what they tell me.
“There are a lot of activities every day. There is about two to three hours’ worth of physical and mental therapy that I do each day. Not a lot of fun. Probably some of it, just trying to describe it, it pretty mundane. But they really stress your symptoms, and that is what they want. They want you to do things that really push your mind, and bring out the symptoms. So, in the last evaluation, we really ramped up the therapy to make it a little more strenuous. We will continue to work. I will work every day and listen to my doctors and hopefully continue to see progress.”
The 41-year old Hendrick Motorsports driver said that part of is healing is to reduce stress. That includes even thinking about racing.
“The stress will slow down the process,” he said. “So, going into those kinds of conversations aren’t even necessary at this particular point. The point right now is just to get healthy. Just to get right. I’m not thinking about the what-ifs. I’m just listening to my doctors.
“We went into this with the intentions of getting back in the car when we get cleared. I think that is a possibility and so do my doctors. So I am excited about that. Whenever it happens; it happens.
“It is frustrating that we’ve had to miss this many races. When we first went into the doctor’s office, we never anticipated being out this long. Unfortunately it is a slower process. There are no guidelines or rule book, or consistent history on how long this stuff really takes to clear up. So, we just have to be patient. My doctors feel great about the opportunity that I will not only be healthy again, but they can actually make my brain stronger to be able to withstand these common events. The event that I had at Michigan which they have tied this concussion to I shouldn’t have had a concussion from. I should be able to get through events like that without having any issues. So, they are not only working to get me healed up, but are working to make it to where I can compete and go through events like that without any concern.”
Earnhardt said his doctors can’t exactly tell him how long his symptoms will last. So, there is currently no timeline for his return.
“Yes, because you don’t when they are going to quit,” he said. “You just don’t know when the symptoms will stop. Every day I am doing these exercises to sort of retrain the brain to fix the issues that I have with the balance and to gain stability. It will fix itself when it decides to.
“There is no common history that will tell you that ‘man, this is going to last a month’, or this is going to last…because I’ve had situations that…and I’ve talked to other people with this history that didn’t last this long. That is why it is frustrating. My past history didn’t take this long and cleared up… and you could see the progress, feel the progress every day. It is a little bit different. The symptoms I am having this time are different, but not uncommon.
“So my doctor is very positive and I feed off of that. I talk to him every other day like I said for him to keep reinforcing that positive energy so I can get in there and believe in the rehabilitation and the work I’m doing because it is really tough for me to get in there and do it. I just don’t want to do it, but I know I have to. I just don’t know when this is going to stop; and when things are going to fix themselves. That’s why it has to be from one evaluation to the next. That is the best I can do for everybody.”
As for when he thinks me might be back, Earnhardt said he’s not going to get any direction from his doctors.
“No that is not the conversation your doctor is going to have with you when he is trying to get you right,” Earnhardt said. “You are just worrying about getting normal. You go in there and you see your doctor and all you and him talk about and all he cares about is fixing you. He doesn’t care about my racing or whatever I do as a profession. He is just trying to fix what is wrong with me. That is his job. He is not a counselor or a psychologist. That is not his profession so he is just telling me do this treatment, take these medications, do this every day and I promise you we are going to get you right. And that is not the conversation you are going to have in the middle of treatment with someone who is suffering or someone who is going through that process.
“The conversations I have had with him is that he believes we are going to fix it. He believes that he can make me stronger and that I will be able to pick up where I left off.”
One thing he made clear Friday. Earnhardt said he does not believe his injury is career ending.
“When I went to see Dr. Petty for the first time in 2012 and then he set me up with the guys in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) they told me that our process was to get better and go back to racing,” Earnhardt said. “This one is no different. When I first went to see my doctor in this particular instance it was I need to get right because I need to get back in the car as soon as I can.
“I’m surprised that I’ve missed this many races. I never thought this would take this long. I didn’t have a massive accident and I didn’t have really crazy symptoms. This thing happened so awkward where we had the accident in Michigan and then the symptoms crept in very slowly like two weeks later. I didn’t think this was that serious, but it had gotten to a point to where I definitely didn’t need to be in the racecar. At that point you’ve got to go get checked out and get ahold of it and figure out how to fix it. But, from the very onset of this it was ‘man this will go away in a couple of weeks. I’m going to have to miss a race or two and we will get back in the car and we will get going again.’ I’m thinking about, well it’s going to put more pressure on me to win a race to get in the Chase and all that stuff.
“ I have every intention of honoring my current contract,” Earnhardt said. “I sat with Rick (Hendrick) before this happened a couple of months ago to talk about an extension. That is the direction that we are going. As soon as I can get healthy and get confident in how I feel and feel like I can drive a car and be great driving it then I want to drive. I want to race. I miss the competition. I miss being here. I miss the people and as Rick likes to say ‘we’ve got unfinished business.’ I’m not ready to stop racing. I’m not ready to quit. It’s a slower process, I wish it wasn’t. I don’t know how long it’s going to take. As impatient as I am I worry about everyone else’s patients as well. But, I’m not going to go in the car until the doctors clear me. The doctors won’t let me race. This is not my decision, but it’s the right decision and I trust what my doctors are telling me. When they say I’m good to go I believe them. If they say I’m healthy and I can race I’m going to race.”