There are few people in today’s sports landscape who can be distinguished by one name. In basketball, there’s LeBron. In the NFL you have Cam or OBJ. In NASCAR, you have Junior.
Last June, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a simple wreck. Sixty-two laps into the FireKeepers Casino 400, he got bumped. The back end of his No. 88 Chevy SS hit the wall first, his front end quickly following. Though frustrated with the abrupt end, Junior went on to race three more times before realizing that that last crash would throw his brain into a cement mixer, resulting in a concussion that would force him to miss the final 18 races of the year.
Earnhardt was medically cleared in early December, meaning that after nearly nine months of being away, the 14-time winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award will return to the track for the racing series’ Super Bowl: The Daytona 500. WFNY was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to discuss what went down last June, Dale’s recovery, life away from the track, and what he plans on leaving behind when he eventually runs his final race—whenever that may be.
WFNY: Your road back from the concussions is the big story, but what was different about this one compared to ones from previous races?
Dale Jr.: I’ve had a handful of them in the past. All the symptoms were similar. You would be foggy, almost as if you were hungover. Maybe some memory issues. The general symptoms were all similar. This was all over a period of 15-to-20 years of racing. This last one was quite a bit different. The way it came on was much, much slower. I raced, had a few accidents throughout the year, and the doctors believed that the accumulation of those hits caused the latest concussion. I had maybe half a dozen wrecks in the first half of the season which is a high percentage compared to most years. I ran about three or four races since the last crash before I started feeling any symptoms. That had never happened before. This one was like the flu or something—a period of seven or eight days of not quite sure what was going on to not being able to drive. I had no balance and was having problems with my eyes and it just ramped way up. That was all different than any of the others.
How difficult was the road back given the severity of this situation compared to the others?
It was long. Usually, I experienced about two-to-four weeks of recovery and you’d feel 100 percent. This one, I went five-and-a-half, six weeks before we saw the first bit of progress, all the way to four-and-a-half months before we felt close to 100 percent. It was just really long for me. I’ve talked to patients who have had much longer recoveries, needing months or even years. It was difficult it lasted so long as I had never been through that before.
Did you watch the races you missed or did you try to avoid them to try to clear your head?
I don’t like watching them on TV. I like to be there in person. I enjoyed the booth when I was able to do that. You felt like you were a part of it, a part of the show. Being there in person to experience it with my team and my guys was great, but sitting at home was not fun.
Was Daytona always the goal, and was there ever a doubt in that it may not happen?
I don’t think that I sat there and doubted it. It’s not like you can sit there and say “Man, I doubt I’ll make it” or “I doubt I’ll come back.” You put that in the hands of your doctors and say “Look, tell me to quit if I need to quit; tell me to keep going if I can keep going.” I have a contract to race this season and I intended to honor my agreement, and if I got the green light from my doctors I was racing, no question, but if they wanted me to quit I was fine with that as well.
It’s interesting go hear you say that. I feel a lot of athletes, all too often, stretch their careers further than they should have. What was it that gave you the peace of mind that would have allowed you to step away like that?
I’m 42. A lot of these guys in these other sports are much younger, ad maybe haven’t prepared themselves financially for a sudden end to their career. You never know what anyone’s situation is, but I’ve got things well sorted on the financial side. I don’t race to gain a better position financially, so—I’m 42, and the end of my career is in sight. I wasn’t going to have a hard time if it was cut shorter than I anticipated. It’s a little easier for me than I think it is for guys in other sports. The average running back in the NFL, when they turn 30 years old, everyone is focusing on them losing a step and starts looking for the next young guy to come in and take the position, even if they’re healthy.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t congratulate you on the recent wedding.
How big of a roll did Amy play in your recovery and the whole process of getting you back in the car?
She was basically my crew chief the whole time. She was there, pushing me to do every exercise. She was in every conversation with my doctors. She was in every conversation with my family. She didn’t miss a moment. She was pushing and pushing to get the work in to be healthy. And she was supportive of me making the decision to get back in the car—she was supportive of that.
There was a recent ESPN profile with you as the subject, and I was intrigued by the mention of your 20s and 30s and the lifestyle you led there. You mentioned that you’re 42 and the end is closer than the beginning. What do you envision your legacy being once you do run your final race?
When I first started racing, I knew ending my career as the greatest race car driver ever was going to be impossible due to my dad’s accomplishments. I never really aimed for that target. I think I just want people to consider me a great driver. I think I’ve done things on the track to get that kind of credit. But mainly I want people to appreciate who I am as a person—honest and fun, a good friend… those things are important to me. How my peers and coworkers and everyone—the kind of person I am is really important to me.
Before I let you go, I have to know: How are you going to measure success this weekend?
Well, if we can run this race and get away with a good result, I’d be thrilled. I’d love to win the race, no doubt that that’s our goal. But if we come out of there with a top-five [finish], wow—we’ve hit the ground running in my mind. We’ve talked in other interviews what our goals are for the season, and typically, those answers are either wins or championships or top fives or X amount of good finishes, but my goal is just to be able to compete in every race and stay healthy for the whole season. If I can finish the year in good health, I’ll be very satisfied. I know that if we’re around all season, we’ll have plenty of things to celebrate and successes to be happy about. I’m not worried about running good, I just want to get through the season without any issues.
Best of luck this weekend. It’s good to have you back.
Thanks, buddy. I appreciate you saying that. Hope to talk to you soon.
Check out Dale’s return to the track in the Daytona 500 on Sunday, February 26 at 2 p.m. EST. The race can be found on FOX, SiriusXM NASCAR, and MRN.