DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to Sprint Cup success after a concussion in 2012. He’s betting he’ll do it once more in 2017 and beyond.
Earnhardt spoke Sunday at Darlington Raceway, two days after he and Hendrick Motorsports announced the sport’s most popular driver would end his season as he continues recovery from concussion-like symptoms after a crash at Michigan in June.
Earnhardt, who’ll turn 42 next month, has heard people say he should walk away as his recovery continued.
“I have the passion and desire to drive,” Earnhardt said. “My heart is there to continue and if my doctor says I can continue, that’s an easier decision for me to make.”
Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Concussion Program, also treated Earnhardt four years ago.
“Seeing his response to treatments has been very positive. So I am positive that we are going to get Dale back to being a race car driver,” Collins said. “I’m very excited about that prospect.”
So are many in the Sprint Cup garage and the stands.
Earnhardt stopped by to see his team preparing the No. 88 Chevrolet as fans in the pit area snapped pictures and wished him well. For Earnhardt, such interactions fuel his recovery — one he expects to be complete in time for next February’s Daytona 500.
“I haven’t put a lot of thought into the future until I get well,” Earnhardt said. “My heart wants me to continue and be working with the guys I got.
“I’m only 41,” Earnhardt continued. “I’ve got some good years left. I think I’m as good as I’ve been inside the car. I feel like I’m still an asset to the team and to the company.”
Earnhardt has not raced since Kentucky, missing the past five races. Jeff Gordon will drive for Earnhardt at the Southern 500 later Sunday.
Earnhardt acknowledged the difficulty seeing others in his seat or going to debriefing meetings at the race shop. “I feel like a distraction,” he said.
His balance, vision and anxiety and mood have all improved since the diagnosis earlier this summer, both Earnhardt and Dr. Collins said.
Earnhardt has attended sponsor functions and performed routine activities of daily life without too many bobbles, although he did say that he feels best when seated on the couch and can see a dropoff when he leaves to drive to the store or walk around a race track.
“It gives me the confidence this is going in the right direction,” he said.
Earnhardt’s confidence also comes from the treatment after a crash at a test session in Kansas four years ago left him concussed. He missed two races, but won later that season in Michigan. Since his previous concussion, Earnhardt has won eight of his 28 career Sprint Cup races in seasons he’s called “some of the very best of my career.”
Earnhardt reached NASCAR’s championship Chase all four seasons and Dr. Collins has told him similar success is possible going forward. “I believe it,” Earnhardt said.
Car owner Rick Hendrick said the sponsors have unanimously backed Earnhardt’s cautious, get entirely well approach without squawking. “We’re excited about the progress. We’re excited about him getting back in the car,” Hendrick said. “I can see how taking the pressure off the team, the pressure off him, the pressure off the sponsors and let’s just have a plan.”
Earnhardt said part of the plan is once he’s cleared to drive race cars, he’ll get to a race track and test his skills. He’s spoken with NASCAR, who gave their backing to an individual test to reacquaint himself with racing.
Earnhardt remains confident that he’s got great years ahead.
“Rick likes to say we’ve got unfinished business and I certainly feel the same way,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve got races to win.”