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Auto racing: Earnhardt talks of anxiety caused by concussions

Published: Friday, Oct. 26, 2012 11:10 p.m. CDT
Dale Earnhardt Jr., talks to crew chief Steve Letarte on Friday at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., during his first practice since recovering from concussions

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. disliked the attention caused by his concussions and nearly 3-week departure from NASCAR, but said Friday he returns to racing glad he took steps to make sure he is OK.

NASCAR’s most popular driver, who had a hard crash at Talladega on Oct. 7 that left him with headaches and his second concussion in 6 weeks, is returning at Martinsville Speedway this weekend.

He was examined and cleared to return by neurosurgeon and NASCAR consultant Dr. Jerry Petty on Tuesday, 1 day after Earnhardt ran 123 laps during a test at half-mile Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga.

“I’m glad I did what I did. I’m glad I took the time off and made the choices that I made,” Earnhardt said. “I had to do it. I didn’t have a choice. I knew something wasn’t right.”

Earnhardt missed races at Charlotte and Kansas, and said it was initially frightening to know something was amiss in his head.

“Some concussions are really bad, and I don’t care how tough you think you are, when your mind is not working the way it is supposed to, it scares the [expletive] out of you,” he said. “You are not going to think about race cars. You aren’t going to think about trophies. You’re not going to think about your job. You’re going to be thinking about what do I got 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 promise you.”

Earnhardt said the time away provided an education he now appreciates, including learning the difference between a concussion he suffered during a tire test in Kansas on Aug. 29 that left him feeling foggy and fuzzy, and the one at Talladega on Oct. 7 that left him emotional, filled with anxiety and “a mess.”

A trip to see concussion specialist Dr. Michael Collins at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center helped alleviate the anxiety. It put Earnhardt on track to getting better and understanding his injuries.

Earnhardt guessed that he’s probably suffered between four and six concussions in his career. He said in the past, when the symptoms didn’t seem severe, he might have been inclined to race anyway.

“I’m definitely going to be honest with myself and honest with the doctors,” he said. “I’m going to do whatever they tell me to do. I want to be able to live a full life and not have any issues down the road.”

He said he left his return up to doctors, never giving much thought to the possibility that with his championship hopes gone it might make sense for him to sit out the final four races, too.

“I’m just excited to be back to work,” he said. “Get back in the car and get back to normal.”

Johnson wins pole

Jimmie Johnson won the pole position for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway with a lap of 97.598 miles per hour.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 20th. See the whole lineup on B9.

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