DARLINGTON, S.C. — The anxiety about returning to racing is nothing compared with the stress Dale Earnhardt Jr. feels walking in a store.
Earnhardt, wearing glasses to help his ocular issues, expressed confidence Sunday at Darlington Raceway that he’ll return to racing for car owner Rick Hendrick. Earnhardt will be out the rest of the season because of a concussion he suffered in a June 12 crash at Michigan International Speedway. That was his fifth recorded concussion since 2002.
“My heart wants me to continue,’’ Earnhardt said to those who suggest he should retire. “I’m only 41. I think I have some good years left, and I think I’m as good as I’ve ever been inside the car. I feel like I’m still an asset to the team and to the company.
“Rick likes to say we have unfinished business. I certainly feel the same way. We have races to win.’’
Earnhardt’s confidence stems from his treatment with Dr. Micky Collins, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program. Collins treated Earnhardt when Earnhardt missed two races in 2012 because of a concussion.
“It was very scary and difficult,’’ Earnhardt said of that time. “Micky told me that I would one day be well and I would win races again and he was right. We got well, and I had some of the greatest years and greatest experiences of my career shortly after that. So, he’s telling me this is possible again and I believe it.’’
That has helped fuel Earnhardt’s commitment to his rehabilitation program, which Collins lauded.
“I am positive that we’re going to get Dale to back to being a race car driver, and I”m excited about that prospect,’’ Collins said.
Earnhardt admits that day isn’t today.
“I definitely don’t belong in a race car today by any stretch of the imagination,’’ he said. “You don’t know how long this process is going to take and we want to be healthy and able to compete at some point, but also we don’t want to take any risks and re-injury ourselves or put ourselves in a situation where we can basically erase all the hard work that we have done to get better.’’
Earnhardt said he’s made gains in his recovery.
“I’m starting to see improvements there, which I was thrilled to wake up one day and feel a difference and start to see improvement there,’’ Earnhardt said. “Riding in a car or walking to gain stability that I’ve talked about before is starting to improve, which was a major relief for me because that was probably the most difficult thing to deal with throughout the day because it was there 24 hours a day. My balance is miles better than it was when I first went to see Micky.’’
It’s quite a difference from how he felt when he first saw Collins for this most recent concussion.
“The first four or five weeks were really difficult,’’ Earnhardt said. “I was very ill and it was hard to enjoy even the most simplest activity, but in the past couple of weeks I’ve really gotten to where I feel a lot more comfortable about going out and being out and about and being observed.
“I go to the Target or somewhere and I have symptoms, I might stumble across the aisle or something or need a little more sidewalk than the normal guy, but I’ve got to put myself through those situations for that to sort of correct itself. Like Micky said, the anxiety and nervousness of the whole process drives all that, makes it much more than it really is.
“That’s why I feel awesome at home because there’s no anxieties or issues at home. You sit on your couch and almost convince yourself that you’re 100 percent and then you’ll walk outside and realize that you’re not, or you’ll go somewhere and have a symptom and realize that you have a long way to go.’’
Earnhardt is feeling well enough, though, that he’s comfortable to drive.
“The only ting I can’t do is get in a car and race,’’ Earnhardt said. “I can drive down the highway now that my symptoms have improved.’’
Even with the improvements, doctors felt it was best that Earnhardt miss the remaining 12 races to aid his recovery.
“I feel very strongly the right decision was made to take Dale out of racing, so we can focus on getting him better and reduce the stress that is associated with that,’’ Colins said. “Stress and concussion don’t get along well and we see stress can really exacerbate and worsen things. I don’t think its coincidence that since we made that decision we are starting to see a lot of progress here that I’m excited about.”
Earnhardt admits it hasn’t been easy to sit out.
“I think any race car driver would tell you if they are not in the car it’s really weird to be at the race track,’’ he said. “I feel, even though I love to see my guys and I know they are happy to see me today, I feel like a bit of a distraction and taking them off of their focus to get their car in tech and all that good stuff.
“I think that I have a vested interest in how well the team does the future of the team and its success, and I want to be a part of that.’’
And there’s no doubt to Earnhardt that he’ll be back in the No. 88 Chevrolet.