After weeks of conjecture and uncertainty, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. confirmed last week that he will return to NASCAR premier series competition in 2017, after missing 18 races this season with a concussion.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver completed a clandestine test at Darlington (SC) Raceway last Wednesday, under the watchful eye of NASCAR officials and neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, before being declared symptom-free and ready to race.
“The test… couldn’t have gone any better,” said Earnhardt afterward. “NASCAR was really great to put it together. I appreciate them creating rules for drivers in this type of situation to be able to get in a car. It really helps build your confidence to know that everything is working like it’s supposed to work… before you get back into a full race weekend.
“We just ran laps,” he said. “We put tires on, ran 15 laps at a time (and) took about a 20-minute break. Dr. Petty was there. We did a personal evaluation before I got in the car to set a baseline and Dr. Petty evaluated me after each run to see if everything was good. A lot of the things that he was checking -- visual and balance and so forth -- actually strengthened throughout the process. You sort of get acclimated and up to speed with what it takes to drive a race car, and those systems strengthened through the process.
“Throughout the day, I got more and more comfortable in the car. It felt like an old shoe by the end of the day. I was happy with the speed we had. That wasn’t really the ultimate goal, but we had great speed. By the end of the day, we felt really confident that health-wise, I was 100-percent ready to get back in the car.”
Earnhardt admitted nervousness prior to the Darlington test, saying, “I have nerves and butterflies every time I get in a race car. But I was certainly very anxious to get in the car (last week). As soon as I got my feet on the ground in Darlington, I was in my suit and over by the door, wondering if the car was ready to go. I couldn’t wait to get in there and see what I felt like.
“I had a hard time sleeping the night before. It had been a long, long time since I had drove a car. As soon as I got out there… it came right back to me. It wasn’t like I had to re-learn to do it all over again. It felt very comfortable. Of all the tracks we could have gone to, Darlington was a good choice to put me through the test, physically and mentally. I was a little bit nervous about that. Darlington is a tough track, but the nerves were gone after about four laps.
“Then it was, `Let’s just run. Let’s run some more, put some tires on and go some more.”
Earnhardt said it has been a long road back to where he was pre-injury, saying, “I worked with Dr. Micky Collins, and we worked -- not only to get healthy and back to being a normal human being again -- but to get stronger than we were before. I wouldn’t be coming back to the seat if there was any risk, other than the typical risk that every driver faces on Sunday. I feel very confident in what I’ve seen in myself, what my doctors are telling me about my future, the risks I am taking and my ability to be able to withstand the normal wear and tear of driving a race and getting in that unfortunate accident from time to time.
“Not only am I as healthy as I was before the symptoms came last year, but I’m actually stronger. This isn’t uncharted territory for me, so I know I’m as strong as I need to be. I’m feeling that way, and I’m also hearing the affirmation from my doctors that I can go back and drive racecars.”
The 14-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver said he returns to the cockpit with a new appreciation for his life and career.
“You certainly realize things that you might be taking for granted,” he admitted. “(You) learn to appreciate a lot of different parts and aspects of your life a lot more. When you get something taken away from you, you realize what it is worth. We gripe about our schedule… but when you are watching your friends out there on the track and watching your crew work without you, it really puts things into perspective. It helps you appreciate what you’ve got.
“I definitely feel recharged and energized about the opportunity to be able to come back and race,” he said. “I felt like I have a lot left in the tank (and) I’m excited about getting to Daytona. We are going to test in Phoenix, which I’m really looking forward to. Testing is kind of boring, but I’m ready to get more and more laps in the car, so I feel confident in myself. Confidence is really critical for me to perform well. The more I can do to help build my confidence before we got to Daytona, the better.
"I'm cleared and I am healthy,” assured Earnhardt. “That’s not patting myself on the back, that’s from my doctor's mouth. I had to work really hard to get to be a human being again...to be normal. Then I had to work even harder to be able to drive race cars; to be a professional race car driver. The distance between just being myself and being a race car driver… was another handful of responsibilities.”
The third-generation NASCAR driver also commented on the role he has played in spotlighting the impact of concussions on professional athletes, saying "It is not something that I intentionally wanted to spearhead, but I have seen a culture change tremendously.
“I think everyone in general -- not just athletes, but the public, the doctors...everyone -- we are all learning something new every day,” he added. “Mickey sees two dozen patients a day with various types of injuries, and every day he learns something new. He has seen a million people with the same thing that I had, but every day he learns something new. It's incredible the progress that is being made. It is happening right in front of us. It is being taken more seriously, and I think that is great.
“I don't want anyone to go through the injury (I did), much less the rehabilitation. But it is great for folks that do get injured to know there is something that can be done. There is a place to go to get help. That’s something people are becoming aware of; that there are ways to get help so you can get healthy and return to the activity that you love.”