By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
DARLINGTON, S.C. – Two conclusions were inescapable after Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s news conference on Sunday at Darlington Raceway.
First, the decision not to clear Earnhardt medically for the remainder of the 2016 season was both prudent and necessary; and second, Earnhardt is committed to racing again at NASCAR’s highest levels with the support of medical professionals who believe he will be able to do so.
“I definitely don’t belong in a race car today by any stretch of the imagination,” Earnhardt said in the wake of Friday’s announcement that he would sit out the rest of the year while recovering from a concussion suffered at Michigan in June.
“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, 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’ve done to get better.”
That’s not to say Earnhardt hasn’t made perceptible progress in his recovery.
“I saw him like two or three weeks ago, and then I saw him last Monday, and I saw him today, (and) the improvements have been phenomenal,” said team owner Rick Hendrick, who appeared with the driver and Dr. Micky Collins, one of Earnhardt’s physicians, at the Darlington press conference.
“And listening to the doctor, we’re excited about Dale Earnhardt Jr. being in the car at Daytona (in February) and we’ve got right much time.”
As Collins put it, the first step in Earnhardt’s rehabilitation involved specific therapies designed to quell his various concussion symptoms.
“When I first saw Dale, my goal was to see Dale become a human being again, and I can tell you with confidence that is occurring in front of our eyes,” Collins said. “He is feeling better. He can tolerate a lot more. He’s having fewer and fewer symptoms and is doing very well.
“To me, that’s 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. Yes, we will be working on that as well. I’m very confident that we’re moving in the right direction in that respect.”
Earnhardt says he has been so focused on his recovery that he hasn’t considered the broader issues of his future in the sport or possible retirement, as has been suggested in some quarters.
“My heart wants me to continue and wants me to continue to be working with the guys I’ve got,” Earnhardt said. “I’m only 41. I think I have some good years left. I’m as good as I have ever been inside the car. My ability to communicate and drive the car and get everything out of it—I feel very confident. I feel like I’m still an asset to the team and to the company.
“Rick likes to say we have unfinished business. I certainly feel the same way. We have races to win. We went through this process in 2012 (when Earnhardt missed two races because of a concussion. It was very scary and difficult. Micky told me that I would one day be well and I would win races again, and he was right. We got well; and I had some of the greatest years and racing experiences of my career shortly after that.
“And so, he’s telling me that this is possible again, and I believe it. And if we work hard enough, and we really rehab these systems, anything is possible from here on out. So, I’m very positive and feeling very good and am confident about the future.”