Junior Returns: From Plane Crash and Retirement

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 30 2019
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is climbing back into a race car this weekend at Darlington. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. believes the more than two decades he spent driving race cars has played a key role in the way he has processed the plane crash he and his family survived two weeks ago in Tennessee. 

“Being in a race car we go out on the race track, crash into the wall and flip upside down and the first thing you think of is how good is the backup car?” Earnhardt said Friday at Darlington Raceway. “Why did that happen? How can we stop the next car from doing that? I think the repetition of doing that all of my life has insulated me from some typical emotional reactions that you might have in a situation like that. I don’t have any problem flying again.”

The fiery plane crash in Elizabethton, Tenn., left Earnhardt with a lower back injury and he initially thought it might prevent him from driving in Saturday’s Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200 NASCAR Xfinity race. However, he focused on treating the injury while spending time with wife Amy and daughter Isla. Earlier this week he decided he was healthy enough to race at the 1.366-mile Darlington track. It’s the first time Earnhardt has competed in the Xfinity Series at Darlington since 1999. 

“I picked a real hard track to go to. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking picking this place,” said Earnhardt, whose paint scheme is reminiscent of the one his father ran in 1975 when he made his NASCAR Cup debut at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “But it’s throwback weekend. It’s hard not to want to be a part of it. But this was probably the worst track in terms of difficulty and challenge and heat and being uncomfortable that I could have chosen.

“I’m real nervous about getting into the car because I haven’t been in a car in a really long time. I’ve only driven at Richmond last year in 24 months. I did come over here a couple of months ago and run about 15 laps when Noah (Gragson) was testing. That didn’t do anything to help my anxiety. Noah was faster than me, so it just reminded me of how hard it is to drive these cars … and how hot and miserable it is inside there. Some of the things you kinda forget about while you’re in the booth and being a broadcaster.”

Still, Earnhardt was excited to be back at a race track and in familiar surroundings. 

“It’s great to be doing something normal,” Earnhardt said. “It’s a blessing for me to be able to run one race a year and sorta relive my past. That’s why I kinda picked this Darlington race, because of the throwback weekend, such a great celebration of the history of the sport. I wanted to be more of a part of that. It’s fun to be down in the garage, around the other cars and understand their stories.”  

Earnhardt’s plane crash, which occurred Aug. 16, is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board and he declined comment when questioned about details. 

“It was a very scary experience,” Earnhardt said. “Feel very lucky. Things happen for a reason. You just try to learn from it and move on. We’re just happy to be healthy and have a weekend like this to look forward to. I’m just thankful and ready to live our lives.”

A preliminary report released by the NTSB about a week after the crash said the pilots attempted a go-around with the Cessna Citation Latitude after it bounced twice on the runway, but the plane didn’t respond as expected. When it touched down for a third time the right main landing gear collapsed and the outboard section of the right wing hit the runway. Then with flames and smoke billowing from it, the plane traveled off the runway, down an embankment, plowed through a chain-link fence and then up an embankment before stopping on the edge of Tennessee Highway 91. 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 30 2019
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