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Earnhardt Jr.: I Am Not Ready To Quit Racing

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 5 2016
Dale Earnhardt Jr. stressed on Friday that he is not ready to call it quits as a driver. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. stressed on Friday that he is not ready to call it quits as a driver. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – While Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s recovery from “ocular imbalance issues” continues at a snail’s pace, a forced early retirement is the furthest thing on the NASCAR superstar’s mind.

sprint-logo-08“I’m not ready to stop racing.  I’m not ready to quit,” Junior said during a news conference Friday at Watkins Glen International, where he will sit out all on-track activity leading into Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at The Glen.

Earnhardt, who said Monday he still is experiencing balance problems and gaze stabilization issues, underwent another round of evaluation Tuesday at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program. Earnhardt, who will miss his fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race this weekend, also will sit-out the Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway on Aug. 20.

But Junior Nation need not slump into manic depression. “I have every intention of honoring my current contract,” said Junior, who again will be replaced in the No. 88 AXALTA Chevrolet SS by four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon around WGI’s 2.45-mile/11-turn natural terrain layout.

“I sat with (team-owner) Rick Hendrick before this happened a couple of months ago to talk about an extension,” said Junior, 41. “That’s the direction that we’re going.  As soon as I can get healthy and get confident in how I feel and feel like I can drive a car and be great driving it then I want to drive.  I want to race.  I miss the competition.  I miss being here.  I miss the people and as Rick likes to say, ‘We’ve got unfinished business.’

“It’s a slower process; I wish it wasn’t.  I don’t know how long it’s going to take.  As impatient as I am I worry about everyone else’s patience as well.  But I’m not going to go in the car until the doctors clear me. The doctors won’t let me race.  This is not my decision, but it’s the right decision

Jeff Gordon is back behind the wheel of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Sprint Cup car at Watkins Glen this weekend. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

Jeff Gordon is back behind the wheel of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Sprint Cup car at Watkins Glen this weekend. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

and I trust what my doctors are telling me.  When they say I’m good-to-go I believe them.  If they say I’m healthy and I can race I’m going to race.” 

Earnhardt, who missed two races in 2012 because of a concussion suffered after crashing during a tire test at Kansas Speedway, was involved in two wrecks during a three-race stretch from June 19 to July 2.

“When I went to see Dr. Petty for the first time in 2012 and then he set me up with the guys in Pittsburgh, they told me that our process was to get better and go back to racing,” Junior said. ”This one is no different.  When I first went to see my doctor in this particular instance it was, ‘I need to get right because I need to get back in the car as soon as I can.’

“I’m surprised that I’ve missed this many races.  I never thought this would take this long. I didn’t have a massive accident and I didn’t have really crazy symptoms.  This thing happened so awkward where we had the accident in Michigan and then the symptoms crept in very slowly like two weeks later.  I didn’t think this was that serious, but it had gotten to a point to where I definitely didn’t need to be in the race car.  At that point you’ve got to go get checked out and get ahold of it and figure out how to fix it. But, from the very onset of this it was, ‘Man this will go away in a couple of weeks. I’m going to have to miss a race or two and we’ll get back in the car and we’ll get going again.’  I’m thinking about, ‘Well it’s going to put more pressure on me to win a race to get in the Chase’ and all that stuff.”

Junior admitted he was “super nervous” coming to WGI but did so because he missed his teammates, led by crew chief Greg Ives. “Amy (Reimann, fiancé) is gone on a trip for the weekend,” Junior said, “so I was at the house by myself and was just looking for some things to do. Figured coming to the track wasn’t a bad idea. Get to hang out with my guys a little bit.  It just felt so weird not being there, so here we are.”

Junior said the “one evaluation at a time” process with his doctors continues to be frustrating.  “We hope and expect that when we go back for the next evaluation that we’re symptom-free and can start to see a timeline develop,” Junior said. “Until then, we’re just taking it one evaluation at a time. Those are typically every two to three to four weeks.

 “I just want to get better. You put everything… nothing else is really a priority except for just getting the symptoms to clear up and get back to feeling like yourself.  That’s all that I’m thinking about. I talk to my doctor every other day, sometimes for an hour or two about the psychological side of it because it can become very frustrating and obviously being a race car driver, we don’t have a lot of patience to begin with. This is a challenge. But we’ve got some great doctors, and I really believe and trust what they’re telling me. I’m confident and positive that they tell me without question that we’re going to get back to normal.  I just have to do what they tell me.”

Junior said the healing process includes a variety of daily activities. “There’s about two to three hours’ worth of physical and mental therapy that I do each day,” Junior said. “Not a lot of fun. Probably some of it, just trying to describe it, is pretty mundane. But they really stress your symptoms and that’s what they want. They want you to do things that really push your mind and bring out the symptoms.  So in the last evaluation, we really ramped-up the therapy to make it a little more strenuous. We’ll continue to work. I’ll work every day and listen to my doctors and hopefully continue to see progress.

“Whenever it happens, it happens. It‘s frustrating that we’ve had to miss this many races.  When we first went into the doctor’s office, we never anticipated being out this long. There are no guidelines or rulebook, or consistent history on how long this stuff really takes to clear up. So, we just have to be patient. My doctors feel great about the opportunity that I’ll not only be healthy again, but they can actually make my brain stronger to be able to withstand these common events.

“The event that I had at Michigan which they have tied this concussion to I shouldn’t have had a concussion from. I should be able to get through events like that without having any issues.  So, they’re not only working to get me healed up, but are working to make it to where I can compete and go through events like that without any concern.”

Junior stressed his doctors can’t give him a timeline to return until he is declared symptom-free.

“Yes, because you just don’t know when the symptoms will stop,” Junior said. “Every day I’m doing these exercises to sort of retrain the brain to fix the issues that I have with the balance and to gain stability.  It’ll fix itself when it decides to. There’s no common history that’ll tell you that, ‘Man, this is going to last a month or this is going to last’…because I’ve had situations that…and I’ve talked to other people with this history that didn’t last this long. That’s why it’s frustrating. My past history didn’t take this long and cleared up…and you could see the progress, feel the progress every day. It’s a little bit different. The symptoms I’m having this time are different, but not uncommon.

“So my doctor is very positive and I feed off of that. I talk to him every other day like I said for him to keep reinforcing that positive energy so I can get in there and believe in the rehabilitation and the work I’m doing because it’s really tough for me to get in there and do it. I just don’t want to do it, but I know I have to. I just don’t know when this is going to stop and when things are going to fix themselves.  That’s why it has to be from one evaluation to the next. That’s the best I can do for everybody.”

The perennial choice by fans as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, “Junebug” said the support he’s received from fans and his garage area peers has been great motivation.

“I think it helps me keep going and keep working hard and take my therapy seriously,” Junior said.”As far as anxiety, with 2012 it was just about resting and not doing anything that would drive the symptoms and really letting your mind and your head rest to heal.

“For whatever reason, my doctor wants to push me into situations that drive the symptoms and that’s basically going somewhere that I’m not familiar with, or being in busy places. Going out to eat or going to lunch or coming here _ my doctor calls that ‘exposure.’ This is probably the worst situation (laughs) as far as making my symptoms go haywire, but that’s what he wants. He wants me to do anything whether it’s going places and pushing myself to get into areas that give me anxiety and drive the symptoms. All the rehab drives the symptoms. They want me to push the symptoms so my body gets used to them and they become suppressed and then it’s no longer an issue.

“There are six types of concussions as far as what part of the body they really affect. Mainly I’ve got ocular imbalance issues. They’re all connected. And so, you can have an injury to the ocular or the balance and it will affect the emotion. And it’s all sort of tied together. So, if you injure one part of your brain, all of them get deficient in some way, shape, or form. So, you have all these other symptoms. And you’ve just really got to corral and fix that one area and it stops affecting the rest of it. So, we’re working on it.”

Cup regular Carl Edwards reiterated his respect for Earnhardt for removing himself from his car for reasons of health and safety. “I can’t remember having one (crash) that really scared me,” said Edwards, driver of the No. 19 Stanley Toyota Camry fielded by Joe Gibbs Racing. “I’ll say the same thing that I said when Dale made his decision to begin with _ I think that it takes a lot of guts to be able to do that, to say, ‘Hey, I need to do this.’

“I think it speaks to him as a human being and I think it sets a good example to young drivers, like he said today. Guys that might feel like they‘re at a point in their career where they can actually speak up and say they have a problem. I think it’s a great example of doing the right thing.”

Gordon will make his 800th career Cup start here and also will be behind the wheel at Bristol. Gordon, who came out of a half-season’s retirement to sub for Hendrick Motorsports teammate Earnhardt, is NASCAR’s all-time leader with nine road course victories, including four at WGI. Sir Jeff also has five wins around Bristol’s high-banked, half-mile oval bull ring.

Gordon, who celebrated his 45th birthday on Thursday, also filled in for Earnhardt on July 24 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Aug. 1 at Pocono Raceway. Alex Bowman drove the No. 88 Chevy on July 17 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Junior said he was so happy to be at the track…he joked he even enjoyed chatting with the media. With anyone, actually!

It’s been so weird not to be at the track,” Junior said. ”You don’t really realize how many relationships and friendships you have and how much you appreciate them until you are not able to have access to it,” Junior said. “Just to be able to come to the track was something I was excited about.  I’m going to go into the garage to the hauler and I’ll stick around until after practice is over and things kind of calm down, so I can see my guys when they’re not working.  Then I’m probably going to go back home.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 5 2016
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