DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. wanted to smoke some brisket, like a lot of brisket, hopefully a nice 15-pound chunk of it. This was late last summer, the summer that was churning on without him.
He wasn’t racing. He wasn’t traveling every week. He wasn’t in the constant state of movement that had defined his existence for 17 racing seasons, if not before – the 200-mile-per-hour life of a NASCAR megastar.
He was sitting around a lot, sitting in his living room in Mooresville, N.C., recovering from a concussion suffered after hitting the wall in June at Michigan International Speedway. He was in a bad way – serious symptoms, serious doubts, enough to keep him out of the final 18 races of the 2016 season.
The idea that he would get to where he is now, set to start second in Sunday’s Daytona 500, set to begin another full season with championship aspirations, was by no means certain. Six weeks after the wreck he could sit calmly on his couch and “convince myself I was 100 percent,” he said, but he knew that wasn’t reality.
Smoking brisket didn’t seem too stressful, though, so he and his then-fiancée, now-wife Amy, headed to the local Sam’s Club for some oversized cuts of meat.
Besides, the bar they have at their home needed some restocking. Not so much for booze or beer but a giant container of pickled eggs and another of pickled sausage that they like to leave out for guests. It’s a way to pay homage to a Texas dive bar or something. At least the Earnhardts don’t let people dip their hands in and help themselves.
“No, no,” Dale Jr. said. “No one wants hand-collated pickled eggs.”
“I even know what hand-collated means,” Earnhardt laughed. “It means you’re dipping in there with your hand; it can be eggs or a peanut jar, whatever.”
Either way, the eggs and sausage needed to be restocked.
“Those usually go bad before we finish them because nobody really likes it,” he said.
Sam’s Club has tall jugs of that stuff, of course. Sam’s Club has everything, which is why, despite his many millions of dollars, Dale Jr. is somewhat of a regular at the local store. “It’s right behind the Five Guys,” he noted.
The trip started OK. They got a cart and went down an aisle, but soon it all felt chaotic. There were a lot of fellow shoppers, a lot of product, a lot of colors and a lot of noise.
Suddenly, Dale Earnhardt Jr., known for his ability to process space and time at remarkable speeds while possessing the steady hand to maneuver through a pack of cars began to feel weak and confused. Suddenly a guy who can slip a stock car through the eye of a moving needle was off balance.
“Basically you stand up and turn your head and you fall over,” Earnhardt said. “And you grab whatever you can to not hit the ground.”
In this case it was one hand on the cart and one hand on some shelving. He stayed upright. He tried to regain his senses. He has no idea if anyone else saw him.
In that moment, the checker flag they’ll wave Sunday felt a lot farther than 500 miles away.
For many, this might have been a sign that it was over. Any fellow shopper who saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. nearly hit the linoleum had to lose faith.
When six weeks after a wreck you can’t manage to buy brisket and pickled bar props, when you can’t deal with Sam’s Club, how could you ever deal with pack racing and young guns who aren’t afraid to rub you up against the wall?
Daytona International Speedway is a vicious place, with high banks and high speeds and treachery all over the place. None is more famous than the fourth-turn crash site where Earnhardt’s father died. Yet, it’s where the NASCAR season begins, a sport that doesn’t believe in easing into things.
“It’s like the first day of school and final exams at the same time,” Brad Keselowski said.
The 500 stood as a looming obstacle for Earnhardt. To get back, he had to get all the way back. And to get back, he had to at least get through the grocery store.
A return to racing was a personal thing. He didn’t need the money. He didn’t need the fame. He has never won a Cup championship, but with 26 career wins in 17 seasons, including two at the 500, he had nothing to prove. He and Amy were getting married in January.
Maybe this was a sign it was time to start a new life. Move into the business side of the sport, or maybe do something else completely.
Earnhardt said racing again wasn’t his priority last summer. Getting well was. He knew the seriousness of this concussion, at least his fifth major one. He knew how the next one – an even bigger one – could happen at anytime. It still can.
At 42, he isn’t afraid of the end of his career. He said Wednesday that if he wins the championship this year, he’d retire. Soon enough, he will, regardless.
Yet Earnhardt is a racer, and the calendar loomed. Would he race again? There was a team, a car owner, sponsors and so many others wrapped up in the decision, in his health. Everyone was supportive, but still …
And that’s the other reason he was in Sam’s Club that day. He needed to shop, but mostly he needed to try to shop. That was an order from his doctor, Micky Collins. It meant getting better for him. It meant getting better enough to race.
“My doctor is like, ‘You have to go out and go to these busy places,’ ” Earnhardt said. ” ‘Find someplace busy, a lot of [stuff] is going on and that is going to make the symptoms go crazy. That is training you. So go.’ So I am hanging on the cart, I feel like [expletive], I want to throw up. My doctor is like, ‘That’s OK, stay in there.’ ”
Rehab via Sam’s Club.
“They grade you on a scale of a one-to-10,” Earnhardt said. “How are your symptoms? If they are at a two all the time and they go up to like a six, don’t let it get to an eight. Get out of there, let it cool down and then go back in. And keep stretching it. It’s like a muscle.”
Which is why where an onlooker could have seen Dale Earnhardt Jr. clutching a cart as a stumble, he saw it as a strengthening. This was the process. It isn’t supposed to be easy.
“That was me training my brain,” he continued. “I was great at home. Sitting on my couch I could almost convince myself I was 100 percent because that’s my comfort zone. Nothing was happening there. But when you get outside and you get that social anxiety that everyone gets and you get a little overwhelmed, your problems come back. So get in these environments every day.”
He and Amy bought the brisket and the pickled eggs and the jug of sausage. They went back soon for more goods. They went all over. They flew to a concert in Wisconsin and stood amid the crowd and music and flashing lights. Day by day, hour by hour, brain stretch by brain stretch, there was improvement.
By December he was behind the wheel of a car, on a deserted track in Darlington, S.C., with NASCAR officials and doctors and crewmembers watching to see if he’d progressed enough to do this again. He passed. He was back if he wanted to be back.
He wanted to be back.
“Of course I’m human,” he said. “I’m going to be concerned.”
He is honest. He is also confident because he was always honest. This was serious and he took it seriously.
Retirement can wait. The Mooresville Sam’s Club can have a weekend without him. For Dale Earnhardt Jr., there is still another run to be had.
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