DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In a wide-ranging conversation with reporters Saturday night, Dale Earnhardt Jr. expounded on how long he intends to race in NASCAR, confirming he will wait “a couple of months” to decide.
Earnhardt, who is in a contract year with Hendrick Motorsports, told writer Tommy Tomlinson about the timeline in an ESPN The Magazine story published this week.
After missing the last half of the 2016 season with concussion symptoms, Earnhardt said Saturday he wants to affirm his well-being but likely will re-sign if things check out.
“I told (team owner) Rick (Hendrick) I’d like to get a couple of months under my belt to get confidence in my health,” he said. “When I got hurt last year and what I saw it put the company through, how I saw it frustrate certain aspects of the company, it put a strain on our relationships. Our (sponsors) were worried about my future.
“Rick and everybody was worried. I don’t want to do that again. So I want to get some races under my belt and get confidence in my health before I can commit to him. I don’t want to make any promises I can’t deliver on, and so once I feel like I think I’m good.”
Earnhardt, who turned 42 last October, has suffered at least five concussions during his career. Richard Petty recently said he was disappointed the 13-time most popular driver decided to return instead of retiring.
Earnhardt respects Petty’s point of view (“it just shows he cares about me as a person”) but wants to drive beyond 2017.
“I think I can withstand the wear and tear of driving these cars to do a couple of more years,” he said. “I’m ready to do it because I want to race. I want to be here.
“I used to try over the last year or two to put a number on it and say this is when I’m going to retire. This will be the year, the day, the age. I’ve decided that maybe it’s best that I don’t considering my health. I can’t really try to put a date on it because I don’t know what’s going to happen to me going forward.”
At a Phoenix International Raceway test session two weeks ago, Earnhardt talked with Carl Edwards, who is stepping away from NASCAR this season. He advised Earnhardt to consider only himself in thinking about the future.
“He said, ‘Man it was a real easy decision to make when I didn’t worry about anyone else or worry about how it affected anyone else,’” Earnhardt said. “That’s the hard part for me. There are so many moving parts to what we have going on. There’s a lot of elements, and it’s not an easy decision to say when is the time to hang it up.
“There was a lot of time in there during the recovery where there were days I was 90% sure I wasn’t going to drive again. … I had to decide for myself if I wanted to drive anymore. I’m not going to race because any other reason than I want to be out there. I don’t think it’s smart for any other reasons.”
Earnhardt said he talked most about furthering his career with Dr. Micky Collins, who kept reminding him that having passion was the key.
“There are motivations to racing,” Earnhardt said. “The fans, the camaraderie and all the great things you get to experience. But if I’m going to come back, I’ve got to be racing because I want to be out there.
“I couldn’t put myself through the chance that I could put myself back in rehab for months and months going through that crap again if I really didn’t want to be out there. I couldn’t do it because of contracts or responsibilities or we just ain’t ready to retire, or we don’t have our ducks in a row from a financial standpoint. We can’t keep racing because of those things. It’s too much of a risk I think.”
On the bad days during his recovery, Earnhardt said he thought every day about life outside the car.
“Me and (his wife) Amy and whomever would have conversations,” he said. “We’d get into scenarios or situations and go, ‘Wow, this is what it would be like.’
“I don’t know if we ever got 100% to feeling like retirement would be like. I certainly got a glimpse into what that side of life would be like. Let me tell you: It’s a lot less stress. I really never knew how much pressure all the drivers are under until I got out from under that. Man, it is a mess.
“So, I don’t know whether I’m right about this or not, but I think for the longest time, I let racing be who I was instead of what I did. So maybe (I’ll) enjoy it more and not let it become so stressful that it’s unenjoyable. Maybe I’ll just try to focus on letting it be what I do instead of who I am. Like Richard Petty said, I’ve got a whole other life beyond driving, and I really believe that.
“I have a lot of things I’d love to do. Outside of having a family, there’s a lot of business that I’d love to see if I can succeed at. I think we got a glimpse of what that would be like. It looks pretty awesome.”