After missing half of last season recovering from concussion-like symptoms, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is glad to be back racing in 2017.
“I’m excited about the season and can’t wait for it to get started,” he said during Wednesday’s NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte.
Yet for as much as he talked about being happy to return to racing, Earnhardt also talked at length about what retirement will mean for him.
First, about his returning to race next month at Daytona International Speedway and the Daytona 500, Earnhardt 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 you have to go at it 100 percent. This is the top elite motorsports series in America and you can’t do it without 100 percent. … I had to answer a lot of personal questions of myself and to just buy-in.”
But then NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 14 years began talking about eventual retirement.
“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,” Earnhardt said. “(He and new wife Amy are) going to start a family and all that good stuff too, so I’ve got a lot of good things to look forward to. I’m really excited about my future.”
Earnhardt also talked at length about what type of learning curve he’ll have when he returns to competitive racing next month.
“Being out of the car, you hope you can come back and jump right back in and not miss a beat,” he said. “But this is a top series and any time you’re gone, you’re getting behind. I’m really anxious and curious as to where we shake out early in the season, how we can do, how competitive we can be, what if any learning curve there is for me. We’ll figure that all out, though.”
Last season was a paradox for Earnhardt. Half the season he was behind the wheel of his No. 88 Chevrolet SS. The other half, he watched from pit road or the garage or on TV at home, recovering from the concussion-like symptoms.
During that time, Earnhardt said he learned a lot about himself and drew a greater appreciation about what he’s had for the last 20 years of racing in NASCAR – and what he almost lost.
“I missed the camaraderie,” he said. “That’s probably what I’ll miss the most when I’m not racing any more, just the friendships inside the track. I’ve got an awesome road crew, we’re all buddies, we talk every day. It’s a very close-knit sort of family and I’m going to miss all that.
“It’s so fun as a team to go do something and succeed. Even when you don’t succeed, they’re the guys that you lean on. We all kind of lift each other up. I’m going to miss all that. It was difficult to watch someone else do in your place.
“I was certainly jealous and envious of Jeff (Gordon) and Alex (Bowman) working with my guys … you definitely were wishing it were you getting to work.
“You do take your job for granted when you’re doing it every week. This is a society where we get better and better at complaining, and drivers aren’t any different. We moan and complain about everything.
“But when you get a chance to step back and watch it – I got a chance to be in the garage area at Dover (in the fall) and watched the drivers come in that morning for practice and it was an eye-opening experience, almost an out of body experience, to watch all that happen and looking at them and knowing that was me. I got to see drivers and sport from different point of view.”
But for now, retirement – whether it be in a year or two or five or whenever – is in the distance. Now, it’s just a matter of focusing on what’s ahead of him as a race car driver.
“I’m happy to be able to come back here and continue to compete,” Earnhardt said. “I got real close to not being able to compete. It got real close to being someone else’s decision whether I competed or not.
“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. All that stuff (last season) really showed me how much I have going for me, how much fun this really is. You can make it really difficult or you can enjoy it.”