Dale Earnhardt Jr. was optimistic about his concussion recovery Sunday but conceded that he had no business being in a race car in the near future.
I think as we continued to go get evaluated we realized that it is going to be a bit more of a process … but I think it’s the right decision considering how I feel personally and physically,” Junior said. “I definitely don’t belong in a race car today by any stretch of the imagination. 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-injury ourselves or put ourselves in a situation where we can basically erase all the hard work that we have done to get better.”
Hendrick Motorsports announced Friday that Junior would miss the rest of the 2016 season as he recovers from a concussion suffered in a crash earlier this year. The concussion is at least the fourth Junior has suffered during his racing career and he’s working with doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in the hopes of preventing future concussions.
“To me that is the number one goal is to get Dale feeling as normal as a human being,” Dr. Micky Collins said Sunday at Darlington. “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 are moving in the right direction in that respect.”
As he’s been throughout the entire process, Junior was forthright about what he’s been facing since he thought he had a sinus infection at Kentucky in July. He hasn’t raced since, and given the symptoms he’s described, it’s easy to see why.
“I struggled with my eyes for a while and I’m starting to see improvements there which I was thrilled to wake up one day and feel a difference and start to see improvement there. Riding in a car or walking to gain stability that I’ve talked about before is starting to improve, which was a major relief for me because that was probably the most difficult thing to deal with throughout the day because it was there 24 hours a day. My balance is miles better than it was when I first went to see Micky.”
Junior said that he will sometimes feel like he’s 100 percent while sitting at home, but estimated that he drops 20 percent when he leaves to go expose himself to a different environment. Facing those changing environments has been a big part of his recovery protocol to get his brain to adapt quickly.
“But, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve really gotten to where I feel a lot more comfortable about going out and doing and being out an about and being observed,” Junior said. “I go to Target or somewhere and I have symptoms and I might stumble across the aisle or something, or need a little more sidewalk than a normal guy. But, I’ve got to put myself through those situations for that to sort of correct itself.”
Jeff Gordon is filling in for Junior during Sunday night’s Southern 500 and will also drive at Richmond and Martinsville. The other races left in 2016 will be filled by Alex Bowman, who has also subbed for Junior already this year. Junior’s contract with Hendrick Motorsports runs through 2017 and once again reiterated that he’s not thinking about retirement despite the symptoms he’s faced this year.
“I’m only 41,” Junior said. “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”
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