Ailing Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains uncertain of return to Cup racing

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks about his concussion

The NASCAR driver talks about his concussion at Watkins Glen.
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The NASCAR driver talks about his concussion at Watkins Glen.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t know when he will return to racing - only that he feels confident he will.

Earnhardt, making a day trip to Watkins Glen International on Friday, continues to undergo treatment for concussion symptoms that have kept him out of the past two races and will again for Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 At The Glen. Whenever doctors give him clearance to return to racing, he said he hopes he’ll be ready.

“Our intentions are to get cleared and get back to racing,” Earnhardt said. “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.”

Earnhardt, who described most of his symptoms as being related to ocular imbalance and stability, said there is no timetable for his return. That, he said, will come after doctors declare him symptom-free.

“The point right now is just to get healthy,” he said. “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.”

Earnhardt said he firmly believes he will race again.

“I have every intention of honoring my current contract (with Hendrick Motorsports),” he said. “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. 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.”

Earnhardt said he is evaluated every couple of weeks. The only focus of his sessions with his doctor is getting better, not what might happen afterward.

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.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“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. All he cares about is fixing you. That is his job. He doesn’t care about my racing or whatever I do as a profession.

“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 everyday and I promise you we are going to get you right. He believes that he can make me stronger and that I will be able to pick up where I left off.”

Earnhardt said his concussion symptoms came from the June race at Michigan, where he crashed on the 61st lap.

Hendrick Motorsports announced this week that Earnhardt would also miss Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 At The Glen at Watkins Glen International and the race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway on Aug. 20 (the Cup circuit is off next week). Jeff Gordon will continue to substitute for Earnhardt at Watkins Glen and Bristol.

“We have a break in the schedule after Watkins Glen, so the extra week of recovery time will certainly be a benefit,” Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said in a statement. “Dale will be back when he’s ready, and we’re looking forward to that happening, but the priority continues to be his health and well-being. We’ll keep our focus on that and let the doctors guide us.”

Jeff Gordon has replaced Earnhardt the past two races and will do so again this weekend at Watkins Glen and at Bristol on Aug. 20.

In addition to treatment, Earnhardt said his doctor has encouraged him to go into social situations that will put him under a certain degree of stress.

“You don’t want to go anywhere where you’re going to feel worse,” said Earnhardt, who also missed two races in 2012 with two other concussions. “And this situation, my doctor tells me, is good therapy to go somewhere that makes you feel worse. Go in there and get exposure and then get out and go somewhere where you can kind of get calmed back down and then repeat the process.”

That includes activities such as going out to lunch or even horsing around with his niece and nephew at sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller’s house.

“Boy, that drives up the symptoms pretty good,” Earnhardt said, laughing.

Coming to Watkins Glen has perhaps been his biggest dip into a stressful environment. With fiancée Amy Reimann away for the weekend, Earnhardt decided to make the trip to the road course in central New York.

26 Career victories for Earnhardt

“So I was at the house by myself and was just looking for some things to do,” Earnhardt said. “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.”

He arrived Friday morning, met with the media, then walked to the garage area, where he visited members of his No. 88 Chevy team.

“This is probably the worst situation as far as making my symptoms go haywire, but that’s what (the doctor) wants,” Earnhardt said. “He wants me to do anything whether it’s going places and pushing myself to get into areas that give me anxiety and drive the symptoms. All the rehab drives the symptoms. They want me to push the symptoms so my body gets used to them and they become suppressed and then it’s no longer an issue.”

Earnhardt remained around the garage area until the day’s second practice ended, then planned to return to his Iredell County home later Friday afternoon.

“I just wanted to come and see everybody,” Earnhardt said. “I got to go see my guys and they would (have been) really upset if I didn’t. It’s been so weird not to be at the track. You don’t really realize how many relationships and friendships you have and how much you appreciate them until you are not able to have access to it.

“Just to be able to come to the track was something I was excited about. I’m going to go into the garage to the hauler and I will stick around until after practice is over and things kind of calm down, so I can see my guys when they are not working.”