CHARLOTTE, North Carolina: “When are you going to retire?” is a question Dale Earnhardt Jr. has heard a lot since his 40th birthday two years ago.
He came close to having that decision made for him last summer, when a concussion sidelined him for the back half of the NASCAR Cup season.
But after months of mental and physical rehab, Earnhardt Jr. has been given the OK by doctors to resume his career, and he’ll go testing in Phoenix later this week to knock off the rust.
“I’m happy to be able to come back here and continue to compete,” he said on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) morning on the NASCAR Media Tour sponsored by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Got real close to not being able to compete. Got real close to being someone else’s decision whether I competed or not. … All I wanted was to be able to make that choice myself.”
“I don’t know when I’m going to stop racing, but I want to make that choice and not have it made for me,” he added.
Earnhardt had dealt with concussions prior to the Firekeepers Casino 400 last June 12, and his passenger-side first collision into the backstretch wall that day looked minor. But Earnhardt was hurt more than he initially realized, and he competed in the next three races before acknowledging the crash’s lingering, debilitating effects.
He sought help at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a leading facility for concussion assessment and treatment. When a bespectacled Earnhardt appeared at Darlington Raceway in September to address the media, he appeared to struggle to answer questions, often pausing to find the correct word he had in mind but couldn’t speak.
That wasn’t the case on Wednesday, when he addressed questions with ease and insight.
“The approve-to-race thing was a slow evolution and something you could see coming and get physically and mentally prepared for,” he said. “To get approved to race is one thing, but to decide to race is another. mentally, You have to make the decision if you want to keep racing, and if you want to keep racing, you’ve got to go in 100 percent. This is the top, elite series of motor sports 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 of myself and buy in. All that was a process, and I’m really happy with what I’ve decided to do — but it wasn’t that emotional,” he added.
Major changes in personal life
That lack of emotion was more than offset by a major change in his personal life. On New Year’s Eve, Earnhardt became a husband to longtime girlfriend Amy Reimann, and he was effusive about the positive effects she’s had on his life.
“I wish I had figured all this out sooner. I’m frustrated with myself that I took so long to grow up ‘cause I’ve got an amazing wife and she’s changed my life,” he said. “She’s really helped me as a person become better on all fronts, personally and all my friendships and relationships. How I react with people and treat people, and in my professional life, she’s helped me as a driver.”
“I’m just hoping to enjoy what’s left of my career, and hopefully I get to make the decisions on that myself as far as how much further I race and going to start a family and all that good stuff, too. Got a lot of good things to look forward to. I’m really excited about my future,” he added.