DARLINGTON, S.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Sunday he continues to target 2017 for a return to driving race cars, although as part of the same press conference one of his doctors described what has been and continues to be a very difficult recovery from a concussion.
“I have the passion and desire to drive,” Earnhardt said. “I enjoy it. I have an amazing team, a great owner. I’m in such a great position and enjoying being a part of the sport.
“My heart is there to continue. If my doctor says I’m physically able to continue, that’s an easier decision for me to take.”
Earnhardt, 41, hasn’t raced since July 9 at Kentucky Speedway. His latest problems apparently stem from a crash at Michigan International Speedway June 12 (although he raced after that crash).
Earnhardt has missed six races and will not drive in the season’s remaining 12 races. Jeff Gordon will replace him in Sunday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, and Gordon and Alex Bowman will split driving duties in the No. 88 Chevrolet for the rest of the year.
“I think it’s the right decision considering how I feel,” Earnhardt said. “I definitely don’t belong in a race car today by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t know how long this process is going to take. We want to be healthy and able to compete at some point.”
Dr. Micky Collins of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program is a part of Earnhardt’s treatment team. He participated in a Darlington Raceway press conference Sunday with Earnhardt and Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt’s team owner.
Collins spoke in stark terms about Earnhardt’s condition.
“Our goal is to see him become a human being again,” Collins said. “He’s feeling better. He can tolerate a lot more. Our second goal is Dale becoming a race car driver again. I’m very confident we’re moving in that direction.
“The systems that are injured for Dale are the systems that make Dale Earnhardt Dale Earnhardt — his ability to sustain focus and stabilize his vision when he moves his head and interpret complex visual information. It’s a different set of skills than any of us have.
“When I first saw Dale a month and a half ago, I can tell you he was pretty sick. He was having problems with the vestibular (inner ear and brain) system, with the ocular (vision) system and with some anxiety and mood issues that are very much associated with these problems. He has made progress where we can match treatments that can treat those different problems. Over the last two and a half weeks, the fruits of that labor are paying off.”
Earnhardt, who wore prescription glasses to the press conference, has said he has had problems with vision and balance. He described Sunday “going to Target or somewhere and I have symptoms and might stumble across an aisle or need more sidewalk than a normal guy.”
He described feeling relatively comfortable at home “but losing about 20 percent when I leave the house.”
Earnhardt is working daily on exercises to improve his vision and balance.
Hendrick said he and his team are planning on Earnhardt’s return in February 2017 and the start of next season.
“He (Earnhardt) is like a member of the family,” Hendrick said. “I care about him as a person probably as much or more than as a race car driver. I’ve been concerned. I’ve been surprised how hard he’s worked. I want him to race for me as long as he can. The seat is his.”
A decision on Earnhardt’s availability for the new season probably will need to be made no later than December because of sponsor concerns and the need to choose a replacement if he can’t return.
Earnhardt suffered at least three concussions in his career before this one. In 2002, he suffered a concussion at a race in California that he hid for weeks. In 2012, he had two concussions six weeks apart that forced him to miss two races.
Some of NASCAR's concussion protocols have been driven in part by Earnhardt, who earlier this year pledged to donate his brain for research. Shortly after Earnhardt's 2002 concussion, the sport said doctors at every track's infield care center could mandate that drivers have CT scans or MRIs if there was the possibility of a concussion. And drivers must get a medical release before returning to the car if they are diagnosed.
In preseason 2014, NASCAR mandated all drivers must undergo baseline testing.
Earnhardt is the son of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, who was part of the NASCAR Hall of Fame's inaugural class. But while Earnhardt Jr. has never won a Cup championship, he's made a racing legacy of his own. In addition to two Xfinity Series championships, Earnhardt Jr. has won 26 Cup races — including two Daytona 500s. His résumé includes six victories at Talladega Superspeedway, tied for the second-most all-time behind his father's 10.
Earnhardt also co-owns the JR Motorsports team, which races in the Xfinity Series. Elliott Sadler gave JR Motorsports a victory in Saturday's Xfinity race at Darlington.
Mike Hembree, USA Today