Six-Month Journey to Recovery Leaves Earnhardt Jr. with Strength, Confidence

Ron Lemasters | 12/12/2016

Dale Jr. NASCAR Nationwide News

With the news that Dale Jr. is recovered from a concussion, the 42-year-old icon is ready to resume his post as driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports at the top of NASCAR’s star ladder.

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (Dec. 12, 2016) – Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last six months have taken him from pursuit of a spot in the NASCAR Chase to a feeling that something was wrong to an abrupt shortening of his season.

With the news that he is recovered from a concussion sustained in June at Michigan, the 42-year-old icon is ready to resume his post as driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports and at the top of NASCAR’s star ladder…with a few changes to the way he goes about it.

He’s not appreciably older, though he turned 42 earlier this fall, but he is immeasurably wiser, at least as far as taking care of his health and livelihood.

“Personally, just going through that process you learn a lot,” he reflected during a teleconference at Hendrick Motorsports. “You certainly realize the things that you might be taking for granted.  And learn to appreciate a lot of different parts and aspects of your life a lot more.  I had that same kind of experience before in 2012.  When you get something kind of taken away from you, you certainly realize what it is worth. 

“We gripe about our schedule and this and that and the other, but once you are not doing it and you are watching all your friends out there on the track and watching your crew work without you it really puts thing into perspective.  It helps you kind of appreciate really what you’ve got.”

As he spent the majority of the time out of the car and away from the track thinking about what might happen and if he could even get back in the car, he learned some new things and remembered some that he might have let slip away over time. One thing he realized is, he’ll be doing his exercises for the foreseeable future.

"I'm cleared and I am healthy,” he stated. “My doctor told me that you can strengthen vestibular system even if you are healthy 100 percent.  Not patting myself on my own back, this is from my doctor's mouth. His comments are that I had to work really hard to get to be a human being be normal. Then I had to work even harder to get to the level to being able to drive race cars; to be a professional race car driver.  The distance between just being myself and being a race car driver...that was going to be another handful of responsibilities and exercises and so forth. His advice was that if I wanted to continue to exercise and do these types of things, it would only continue to strengthen the system.

“I'm all for that. I want to be as sharp and....hell, maybe this is something I could have been doing all along.  There is a lot of visual, and stuff on computers that athletes do that don't even have concussions that I have at my fingertips today that I've been able to learn about through this process.  There is a lot of stuff that I can continue to do that will keep me sharp and keep me ready to go." 

Competition issues aside, he learned a lot about the concussion that put him out of the car for the second time in four years, and what he intends to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The program he used to make it back to work, built by Dr. Mickey Collins, is now a part of his life. So is wondering how another concussion will affect him going forward.

“I worked with Mickey Collins and we worked not only to get healthy and back to being a normal human being again, but we worked to get stronger than we were before,” he said. “I wouldn’t be coming back to the seat and wanting to drive and excited about driving cars 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 and my improvement and I feel confident in what my doctors are telling me about my future and the risks that I’m taking and my ability to be able to withstand the normal wear and tear of not only driving a race, but getting in that unfortunate accident from time to time. 

“We all feel pretty confident that not only am I as healthy as I was before the symptoms came last year, but I’m actually stronger.  Having gone through this before also gives me additional confidence.  This isn’t uncharted territory for me, so I know what I need to feel personally to know that I’m as strong as I need to be and healthy.  I’m certainly feeling that way, but I’m also hearing the affirmation from my doctors that I can go back and drive race cars.”

As for his advocacy of proactive measures to prevent injuries like the one he suffered, Earnhardt Jr. said the technology and methodology are available to all. It is especially good for drivers, he said.

"I guess if they knew about these exercises and knew about these programs that are available…they may do it, and maybe some drivers already are,” he said. “But when I went to the eye doctor, he showed me some programs that are built specifically that sharpen hand-eye coordination and stuff like that.  It isn't just for concussion patients.  It is something that was part of my rehab.  But it is something I can continue to use beyond the rehab and beyond the recovery.”

As high-profile as he is, Earnhardt Jr.’s struggles to come back from concussion generated a lot of attention, on top of what has been revealed from the NFL’s issues with traumatic brain injuries. He is aware of that, and of the attention the condition is receiving inside and outside the sport.

“It is not something that I intentionally wanted to spearhead, but I have seen a culture change tremendously,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think that everyone in general, not just the athletes, but the public, the doctors...everyone, we are all learning something new every day.  Mickey (Collins) sees two dozen patients a day with various types of injuries, various stages of injuries and so forth. And every day he learns something new; obviously he has seen a million people with the same thing that I had, but every day they learn something new. Every day as a patient I think you learn something new. 

“It's incredible the progress that is being made, but it is happening right now.  It is happening right in front of us. It is being taken more seriously, and I think that is great. I obviously don't want anyone to go through the injury much less the rehabilitation. But, it is great for folks that do get injured, whether they are athletes or they are working a job somewhere or they are a kid in school that they know there is something that can be done. They know there is a place to go to get the help.  One of the worst things is not knowing where to go to get the help.  Not knowing how to get the right help and get the proper treatment because every concussion needs a different style of treatment to approach it.  I think that is something that people are becoming aware of that there are ways to get help so you can not only get healthy, but return to the activity that  you love to do, whatever it is that you want to get back to doing.

“It's been great to have the opportunity to go to Pittsburgh; to meet Mickey and his whole staff and have exposure to everything that they are doing and get to understand how much they have learned and what they are capable of doing.  It's given me so much confidence to be able to come back and race again knowing that those guys are there, and they are able to patch you up and get you stronger.  What they have been able to do is incredible for people like me. They are doing that every day with dozens and dozens of folks."

One of the aspects of his profession is safety, and Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t think anything will change in terms of the equipment he uses or is installed in the cockpit of the No. 88 Chevrolet.

“I have a personal responsibility to myself to be smart, make great decisions for myself,” he said. “My health is No. 1. Everybody in this room, Rick (Hendrick), and everybody in the shop all put my health first and will always be responsible whatever situations we come across.  I’m not going to take any unnecessary risks with my own health.  I think that as far as my own safety equipment, I feel real good about what we have.  I did get my head scanned for new helmets, but that is just supposed to make them fit better, be more comfortable. They fit pretty good to begin with, but this might be a new level.”

One thing he’s grateful for is the amount of time he’s had and will have before he puts on that Stilo helmet for competition.

“I am just glad to have had the opportunity to get so much time between me and the events that I’ve had last year and the symptoms,” he said. “That is something that I think is really important for everyone going forward is that they take the amount of time that they need not just to get symptom-free, but to allow themselves to heal and get stronger beyond the symptoms.  We still have a couple more months of my brain being able to sturdy itself up.

“In 2012, we took off four weeks, came back and won seven races the next two years.  I’m confident that I can have the same type of success going forward.”