MARTINSVILLE, VA. Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to NASCAR competition Friday with a clear mind and a resolute outlook about keeping it that way.
After hiding concussions twice during his Sprint Cup career, the sport’s most popular driver says he won’t be trifling with a head injury again.
“It changed the way I feel about it to where if I know I’ve suffered another concussion or if I have symptoms after an accident, I’m definitely going to be a lot more responsible about it,” Earnhardt said before practicing his No. 88 Chevrolet at Martinsville Speedway. “I can understand peoples’ opinions that they would try to push through it or they would ignore it to stay in the car because I did the same thing.
“Some concussions are really bad, and I don’t care how tough you think you are. When your mind’s not working the way it’s supposed to, it scares the (crap) out of you. You’re not going to think about race cars, about trophies, about your job. You’re going to think about what do I have to do to get my brain working the way it was before. That’s going to jump right to the top of the priority list. I definitely take it more seriously now after everything I’ve learned.
“I’m glad I did what I did. I hate the attention it got, and but I’m glad I took time off and made the choices I made. They were hard to make, but I had to do it. I didn’t have a choice. I knew something wasn’t right.
“You can’t layer concussions. It’s really dangerous. I had to make a choice, and I feel like I made the right one.”
Earnhardt missed the past two races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway after sustaining a concussion in a 25-car crash on the last lap of the Oct. 7 race at Talladega Superspeedway.
After being diagnosed and sidelined by Dr. Jerry Petty until completing a rehabilitation program, Earnhardt revealed he also had suffered a concussion Aug. 29 in a test crash at Kansas.
He stayed in the car for the next six races despite being “80-90 percent” entering the Chase for the Sprint Cup in mid-September.
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Though he pronounced himself fully healed by Talladega, Earnhardt said the concussion in the Kansas crash was of the frontal lobe and caused headaches. He described the Talladega accident as causing a concussion that was “vestibular, more in the back or base of the brain.”
“The two concussions were completely different as far as where my brain was injured,” he said. “The one at Talladega mixed up a lot of anxiety and emotional stuff. The symptoms were more anxiety-driven. If I got into a busy situation, I’d get a lot of anxiety.”
Earnhardt struggled initially with his recovery. In the first 48 hours after the diagnosis, he “slept a lot and walked around the house doing nothing” but quickly grew restless and asked for more stimulation.
He said he was “mentally a mess” when he traveled Oct. 16 to see Dr. Micky Collins of the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine in Pittsburgh, where he was put on a physical and mental exercise program during a 12-hour visit that finally put his mind at ease.
“I was just really frustrated and having a lot of anxiety of, ‘Man, how long is this going to last? Is this ever going to be right again?’ I had no answers,” he said. “These guys are professionals, and I asked everything I wanted to know, and we went through all these drills and exercises, and they ran me ragged, and it was a fun day.
“I felt I understood what I was dealing with and the process was and felt a lot better. If I ever got any doubts, I’d call Micky up and we’d talk about it for an hour, and that was the best therapy was understanding what was going on. The regular symptoms of being foggy and having headaches, those were prevalent in first concussion, not so much in (the second) one.”
Earnhardt was cleared Tuesday by Dr. Petty after making 123 laps in a Monday test at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga.
“I feel I’ve been out of the car for a year, but I feel we can go right to it,” he said. “I felt good at the test. I like (Martinsville). I feel we can run good here. I want to run hard. I want us to go into every weekend trying to do what we did all year long.”
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Earnhardt has top-three finishes in two of his last three finishes at Martinsville, and Jimmie Johnson expected his Hendrick Motorsports teammate would get up to speed quickly at the 0.526-mile oval.
“I think it’s about as good as you get for a track to return after an injury,” Johnson said. “Gresham is a fast, fast little racetrack. If you come out of there and don’t hit anything, you’ll come to Martinsville in good shape.”
Earnhardt seemed in good spirits Friday. While complimentary of replacemes lead to nt Regan Smith (who finished seventh at Kansas in the No. 88) maintaining the team’s momentum, Eon is will thiarnhardt said, “it was hard to see your car out there turning laps without you in it.”
But that won’t make him think twice if he suffers further symptoms.
“I’m going to be honest with myself and honest with the doctors and do whatever they tell me to do,” he said. “I want to be able to live a full life and not have any issues down the road. I feel pretty fortunate to recover from this concussion rather quickly.
“I just hope I don’t have any big hits for a while and race another five to 10 years and have some fun.”
Concusions happion in many sport today. They are common as your hair cuts. So my question is will all this trama to the head lead to dementia or alzheimer's when there is not a family history of the disease?