Have no doubt about it, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is excited to be back in the race car.
First because it means he’s medically in a much better place than he was two weeks ago when he announced he would be sidelined after being diagnosed with a concussion. Second, though, it’s just nice to be able to get back to life as he knows it.
Since announcing on Oct. 11 that he would step out of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for two events after being diagnosed with a concussion, Earnhardt Jr. has had a lot of time on his hands.
At first, he was prohibited from any activity – something that doesn’t appear to have been as restful as one might imagine.
“The first 48 hours they told me not to do anything so I just kind of didn’t do anything,” he said Friday at Martinsville Speedway just a short time before getting back into his car for practices. “I slept a lot. No TV, just basically sit, standing, walking around the house, doing nothing. It was really weird. So I went back to the doctor and I told him that I couldn’t do that anymore, that I needed to watch TV or play video games or something, that I needed some kind of entertainment.”
He’d just been diagnosed with a concussion following his Oct. 7 crash at Talladega Superspeedway, one that followed symptoms of a concussion after an Aug. 29 crash in a tire test at Kansas Speedway. While the symptoms of each were different – Earnhardt Jr. says the first led to a more typical reaction involving headaches and fogginess – they were enough to send him to Dr. Jerry Petty and led to the missed races.
It also led to some unsettling symptoms.
He says that the Kansas crash was a “typical concussion” injuring the frontal lobe of the brain and leading to the disorienting symptoms. The second, though, involved the base of the brain in the area where the head connects with the spine and impacted him on a more emotional level.
“It sort of mixed up a lot of anxiety and emotional stuff,” he said. “So the symptoms were more like anxiety driven. If I would get into sort of a busy situation, I would get a lot of anxiety.”
So by the time he met with Dr. Micky Collins, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program, he defines himself as being a mess.
“When I went up there to Pittsburgh, I was just really frustrated – when I say I was a mess I was just really frustrated and having a lot of anxiety about, ‘How long is this going to last?’ ‘Is this every going to be right again?’ I had no answers, didn’t know anything,” he said. “These guys up there are professionals and I just asked them everything I wanted to know. Then we went through all these drills and exercises and they ran me ragged. It was a fun day.
“By the end of the day, I felt like I understood what I was dealing with, I understood what the process was and I felt a whole lot better. If I ever got any doubts, I would just call Micky up and we would talk for about an hour and really that was the best therapy for me was just kind of understanding what was going on.”
He did mental and physical exercises every day and says that things have been “pretty normal the last 15 days or so.”
He tested at the half-mile Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga., on Monday, part of the process to being cleared to return to racing. It also gave him a chance to both get back in the car and work with crew chief Steve Letarte once more.
“It’s a nice little short track that we were able to run, I think around 125 laps,” Letarte said. “I thought the laps were great, the times were great, his feedback was as good as it always is. That was really encouraging and (I’m) excited to have him back here at Martinsville.”
It’s also, as teammate Jimmie Johnson says, a great test of a driver.
“That’s a fast, fast little racetrack,” Johnson said. “So if you come out of Gresham feeling good and don’t hit anything over there, I think you’ll come to Martinsville and things will fall in line pretty quick.”
Earnhardt Jr., always one to take an introspective look at things and study lessons that can be learned, finds the positives of the experience.
He talks about the patience it took to let the process unfold naturally, about expanding his knowledge of how concussions work and being more aware of them in the future. And while it wasn’t the ideal way to learn, it was an experience he seems to have embraced.
“It’s something I would rather not have went through, but I’ve learned a lot from it, it’s been good for me,” he said. “I’m excited to be back to work, getting back to the car, getting back to normal and get back to the life that I’m used to.”
As he went through the process, Earnhardt Jr. says that he was willing to do whatever the doctors said. If they had told him to miss the rest of the season, he would have done so despite the fact that he was enjoying a career surge. He’s back in the Chase for the Sprint Cup this season, though missing two races already puts him last in the 12-driver field.
Still, he and his team have momentum – something he asked Regan Smith to continue as he drove the car the last two races and says he feels that Smith did.
Looking back, he admits he felt like he could be racing. Instead, he focused on healing.
“I’ve been really honest and upfront about how I’ve felt every day and when we go through exercises, how those are effecting me and so I’ve been pretty honest and so far they’ve been pleased with what they’ve seen and feel like I can get back in the car so that’s what I want to do,” he said. “I felt like I could have raced at Kansas, for sure, and probably ran at Charlotte no problem and I feel kind of foolish sitting at home and feeling OK and not being in the car. It feels really unnatural.”
Still, it has changed his perspective.
He says that concussions are easy to hide if one desires, but now he knows what to look for after a crash in terms of symptoms.
Clearly, this experience scared him.
He admits it changed how he views concussions and highlighted that the symptoms of some are light, of others not so much.
“I don’t care how tough you think you are, when your mind is not working the way it’s supposed to, it scares the (expletive) out of you,” he said. “You’re not going to think about race cars, you’re not going to think about trophies, you’re not going to think about your job; you’re going to be thinking about, ‘What have I got to do to get my brain working the way it was before?’ That’s going to jump righto the top of the priority list, I promise you.”
So while he is excited to be back in the car at Martinsville, while he plans to use the last four races of the Chase to gain as much ground as possible, he’s also paying more attention to his own body. Earnhardt Jr. had the foresight to seek medical help the first time and showed the impact of that.
Perhaps most importantly, he has no regrets.
He has no doubts that he made the right decision. And that could be the part of this experience that impacts his life the most.
“I’m glad I did what I did,” he said. “I hate the attention it got … but I’m glad I did what I did. I’m glad that I took the time off and made the choices that I made. They were hard to make, but I had to do it. I had to do it, I didn’t have a choice.
“I knew that something wasn’t right and you can’t layer concussions, it’s really dangerous doing that. You read about it in the papers and I was going through it, I was living, so I had to make a choice and I feel like I made the right one.”