Earnhardt backs wife, blames himself for 'Clash' debate
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his own statement Saturday.
He defended his wife's Twitter post - and blamed himself for putting her in a position where she felt she had to speak out.
Five days after Amy Earnhardt wrote it wouldn't be ''worth the risk'' to see her husband compete in next year's Clash at Daytona, the 42-year-old driver explained outsiders don't understand what the family endured as he recovered from concussion-related symptoms last year.
''She's been there for everything,'' Earnhardt Jr. said. ''A lot of folks that may have a different opinion about it weren't there through the whole process. If anyone knows how difficult it was beside me, it would be her. It wasn't a lot of fun for her.''
Earnhardt spoke about six hours before making his final Brickyard 400 qualifying run at Indianapolis.
The series' most popular driver announced in April he would retire after this season, in part because of his injury history. Two big crashes last summer forced him out of the final 18 races, and he missed two races during the 2012 playoffs also because of concussion-related symptoms.
But Earnhardt appeared to reopen the possibility of returning to Daytona after winning the pole there three weeks ago, his first since September 2013. To be eligible, drivers must win at least one pole during the previous season, be a previous Clash winner or be a former Daytona 500 pole-winner who still competes full-time on the Cup series.
On a recent podcast, Earnhardt said he told team owner Rick Hendrick that competing in the Clash would be something his wife ''needed to warm up to.''
She hasn't so far.
''I've received many comments on Dale Jr running the 2018 Clash based on whether or not I give my blessing,'' she wrote Tuesday night. ''Considering his struggles last fall with his injury, we are very blessed that he is now healthy, happy and able to enjoy his final season...and hopefully many years beyond racing. So my answer is simple. It's not worth the risk to his health.''
While some Earnhardt fans were upset with the response, Junior said his wife felt she needed to take her opinion to the public.
He also suggested his immediate reaction following the pole-winning run left his wife in a tough spot.
''It sounds like a great idea right off the bat, but maybe it's not worth it,'' Earnhardt said, explaining the Clash has a higher crash rate than other NASCAR races. ''I feel much more in control of my own fate in the remainder of this season and anything I do beyond that, than I do being out there in the Clash, to be honest with you. But if it's something she feels strongly about, we have to sit down and I have to hear her out.''
Even if he doesn't compete in the 2018 season-opening race, Earnhardt intends to compete in two Xfinity Series races next season and plans to be involved in the sport in other ways.
And his visibility may not be limited only to NASCAR tracks.
One thing on Earnhardt's Bucket List: Attending his first Indianapolis 500.
''What happened here is a little bit bigger as far as what's happened here in the last 100 years. It's a little bit bigger than all of us. It never gets old coming here because of that,'' he said after receiving a parting gift from speedway President Doug Boles - a framed No. 8 from Indy's old scoring pylon. ''I'd like to be able to come here after I retire, especially for the Indy (500).''
Boles has found creative ways to keep popular drivers in the mix at the track he runs.
Two years ago, for instance, Jeff Gordon drove the pace car for the Indianapolis 500 as part of his farewell tour. The only five-time Brickyard winner also is driving the pace car for Sunday's race.
That may be a safer way to get Earnhardt back into racing.
But first, Earnhardt wants to give his family another way to celebrate his farewell tour - joining Al Unser and Al Unser Jr. as the only father-son tandems to ever win at Indy.
''It would be awesome to win one of the big, key races,'' he said. ''It's a race I think all of the drivers think is important to the series, and it's right up there with the Daytona 500 in terms of importance.''
More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org