A Mature Earnhardt Jr. Ready To Grab The Wheel

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 25 2017

Dale Earnhardt Jr. spoke at the annual NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte on Wednesday. He returns to the driver’s seat this year but he does not return as the same Dale Earnhardt Jr. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Andrew Coppley)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Statistics show Dale Earnhardt Jr. is entering his 19th season in NASCAR’s Cup Series, but for the third-generation driver it’s as if he’s beginning his career anew.

After missing 18 races last year due to concussion issues, Earnhardt returns a different person. He’s calm, comfortable with himself and his life. He’s now married and looking forward to starting a family. He also understands how a career for which one possesses so much passion can be yanked away in a second.

I wish I would have figured this all out sooner,” the 42-year-old Earnhardt said Wednesday during the NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I’m frustrated with myself that I took so long to grow up because I have an amazing wife and she’s changed my life. She’s really helped me as a person to become better on all fronts – personally, and all my friendships with people and how I react to people and treat people. And, obviously, in my professional life she’s helped me as a driver.”

Earnhardt stepped out of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet last year after the race at Kentucky Speedway in early July. When he first visited the University of Pittsburgh’s concussion program Dr. Micky Collins’ primary objective was to see Earnhardt “become a human being again.” At that time, Earnhardt had problems with his vestibular [sensory] and ocular systems as well as some anxiety and mood issues associated with those problems. Many believed Earnhardt would never race again, but the Kannapolis, N.C., native wanted that decision to be his, not one predicated by circumstances.

“To get approved to race is one thing, but to decide to race is another,” Earnhardt said. “Mentally, you have to make the decision if you want to keep racing. And if you want to keep racing, you have to go into it 100 percent.

“This is the top, elite series of motorsports in North America and if you’re going to be out there you can’t do it without 100 percent. I had to answer a lot of personal questions myself and just really buy in. All that was a big process and I’m really happy with what I’ve decided to do.”

Earnhardt noted it was new for him to be excited about participating in the multiple activities required during the Media Tour.  

“Usually, you tell everybody Daytona will get here when it gets here, but I’m excited about the season and it can’t get here fast enough,” Earnhardt said. “I’m really thankful to be back.”

Like many of the competitors who have retired, Earnhardt said he missed the camaraderie and the friendships inside the track during his recovery. He also noted he discovered how easy it was to take one’s job for granted when doing it on a regular basis.

“As a society, we get better and better at complaining. The drivers aren’t any different; we moan and complain about everything,” Earnhardt said. “I got a chance to be at Dover and watch the drivers come in that morning for practice and it was an eye-opening experience. I got to see the drivers from a different point of view and got to see the sport from a different point of view.

“Being out of the car made me anxious to get back in (it). To be honest, I’m happy to come back here and continue to compete. I got real close to not being able to compete and it being someone else’s decision whether I competed or not.

“I don’t know when I’m going to stop racing, but I want to be able to make that choice and not have it made for me. All that stuff really showed me how much I have going for me and how fun this really is. You can make it really difficult or you can enjoy it.” 

Earnhardt admits the sport is demanding and a tough grind. And one often works harder in the off-season because of appearances and photo shoots. It’s easy to get burned out, but it’s better than the alternative.

“I’ll be much more self-aware down the road to try to remember what this is and what position I’m in and not take it for granted. It’s easy to do,” Earnhardt said.  

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, January 25 2017
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