After a recovery process extending six months, Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced last week he had been medically cleared to return behind the wheel, beginning wit the 2017 Daytona 500.
The 42-year-old has been under the care of Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, through his recovery.
Collins, along with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, cleared Earnhardt following the 185-lap test over the course of five hours. Before the test at Darlington Raceway, Earnhardt admits there were some nerves and butterflies.
“As soon as I got my feet on the ground in Darlington, I was in my suit and over there by the door wondering if the car was ready to go,” h said. “I couldn’t wait to get in there and just go ahead and get out there and see what it felt like and see what I felt like. I was having a hard time sleeping the night before, but it had been a long, long time since I had drove a car. It is so rare to have that long of a break. The off-season doesn’t seem like it’s that long, plus you do a little bit of testing in the off-season, but it was really odd.
“As soon as I got out there after about three laps it came right back to me. I wasn’t like I sort of had to relearn to do it all over again. It felt very comfortable. The speed was there.”
The test came about after NASCAR adjusted the rules earlier this year to allow drivers that are coming back from injury an opportunity to test for the day – as long as the team used nothing to gather data from the test.
“I really appreciate them creating opportunities and rules for drivers in this type of situation to be able to get in a car,” Earnhardt said. “It really helps build your confidence to know that everything is working like it’s supposed to work, no matter what your injury it before you go get back into a full race weekend. It’s nice to be able to kind of get some personal reassurance and confidence. I was really happy to have the opportunity.”
Through the test, Earnhardt ran 15 laps at a time, followed by a 20-minute break which included an evaluation, checking both visual and balance reference points. Choosing Darlington as the place to use for the test worked correctly, as it’s a rough track on any driver mentally with having to run right next to the fence and keep the car off the wall in the process. While the hope was the numbers would look well throughout the test, the numbers created a greater satisfaction than expected.
“You sort of get acclimated and up to speed with what it takes to kind of drive a racecar and those systems strengthen through that process. Rather than see them sort of flat-line and stay the same, which was what I was hoping for, they actually got stronger,” Earnhardt said. “That was great. I felt like throughout the day I got more and more comfortable in the car and 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. The car drove really good, and we just continued to put tires on it and go out and run 30 laps at a time. And come in, get out, think about it, talk about it, get checked out and by the end of the day we felt really confident that health wise I was 100 percent and ready to get back in the car.”
The test was a culmination of five months of hard work through the process Collins put together in a series of therapies – some physical, some mental – to help Earnhardt heal from his injuries, from working towards being able to feel “normal” again, to being able to drive a racecar again. With everything put together, confidence radiates in being ready to come back now.
“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,” he said. “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 racecars.”
Now with clearance in hand, Earnhardt will make his return, hoping to build upon his race team’s success from last season. While he was out of the car, Alex Bowman and Jeff Gordon, split the remaining 18 races on the schedule, scoring five top-10 finishes including Bowman leading 194 laps at Phoenix International Raceway after starting pole.
“Greg (Ives, crew chief) did an amazing job in a difficult situation to motivate and keep the morale up in the team,” Earnhardt said. “They actually, their performance, actually improved with the rest of the company throughout the last half of the season. I think that Greg gained a ton of confidence in himself and the guys. The guys are real happy with how they performed and how the cars performed and the cars they took to the racetrack. I was thrilled to see that. We had struggled in the summer, and it was great to see the whole company rally together and Jimmie (Johnson) winning the championship.”
He also has plans to continue the rehab exercises in which Collins says will further strengthen the vestibular system, so therefore Earnhardt can be as sharp as he can be.
While it wasn’t certainly the ideal situation to go through, it’s something in which Earnhardt hasn’t taken for granted. He admitted he has learned more about himself, learning to appreciate aspects of his life more while not taking things for granted.
“When you get something kind of taken away from you, you certainly realize what it is worth,” he said. “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. Definitely feel recharged and energized about the opportunity to be able to come back and race. I felt like I had a lot left in the tank. I’m excited about getting to Daytona.”
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