Dale Earnhardt Jr.: ‘I don’t belong in a race car today’

Dale Earnhardt Jr. news conference

NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.talks about hoping to return to racing after concussion.
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NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.talks about hoping to return to racing after concussion.

Dale Earnhardt said Sunday his health continues to improve and he still expects to return to NASCAR racing in 2017.

He also conceded this:

“I definitely don’t belong in a race car today, by any stretch of the imagination,” Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt, visiting Darlington Raceway before Sunday’s Southern 500, will miss the rest of the season because of a concussion he sustained in June at Michigan International Speedway.

“I’m going to be back to normal in the near future,” said Earnhardt, 41. “I’m feeling better every day.”

He also stressed that his recovery is not complete.

I want him to race with me as long as he can and he wants to be there. The seat is his.

Rick Hendrick

“You don’t know how long this process is going to take and we want to be healthy and able to compete at some point,” he said. “But also we don’t want to take any risks and re-injure ourselves or put ourselves in a situation where we can basically erase all the hard work that we have done to get better.

“The first four or five weeks were very difficult. I was very ill and it was hard to enjoy the most simplest activity. But the past couple of weeks, I’ve gotten to feel a lot more comfortable.”

Earnhardt, who wore glasses to help with vision and balance issues he is facing with the concussion, was accompanied by Dr. Micky Collins, who has treated him at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program.

Earnhardt sustained a concussion during June’s race at Michigan International Speedway and has missed six races.

“Dale wants to race, but we felt very strongly it was the right decision to not return,” said Collins. “When I first saw Dale, he was pretty sick. The number one goal is to get Dale feeling normal as a human being. The second goal is Dale becoming a race car driver again. I’m very confident that we are moving in the right direction in that respect.”

Earnhardt has already missed six races. Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman have filled in and will continue to do so over the final 12 races of the season. Gordon was to fill in for Earnhardt during Sunday’s Southern 500.

Collins said as long as Earnhardt heals completely, it will be safe for him to race again. Earnhardt, who had two concussions in 2012, is undergoing vision and exercise therapy.

18 Races Earnhardt will miss, half the NASCAR season

“(We want to) make sure we get Dale’s systems rehabbed to the point where not only does he feel normal, but hopefully to the point where we don’t see (lesser) forces causing it to come back,” Collins said. “We’ve advanced things to the point where we really do know how to rehab these systems well. And there are a lot of treatments that Dale is going through. Hopefully we can get to a point where we see that he can withstand the normal forces of a race car driver. If he had a significant force, that can cause an injury as it would anyone.”

Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said Earnhardt’s future with the organization is secure.

“I want him to race with me as long as he can and he wants to be there,” said Hendrick. “The seat is his. We’ve got a lot of time between now and Daytona.”

Earnhardt said he has talked with NASCAR about testing at a track before he returns, not wanting to go “cold turkey” to Daytona. He’s also not thinking beyond what he hopes will be a return in February.

“I have the passion and the desire to drive,” he said. “I enjoy it. My heart is there to continue. And if my doctor says that I’m physically able to continue, then that’s an easier decision for me to make. It’s not something that I think about. We’re trying to focus on just getting well and getting normal.

“I intentionally really put all those thoughts and concerns and consideration on the back burner until I can really just say that I feel normal. Getting normal and just having a good quality of life going forward for the next many, many years is the first goal. And so, I haven’t really put a lot of thought into the future until I get well.”