Dale Earnhardt Jr. says sitting out this season has taught him to appreciate more about NASCAR

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. can’t wait to return to racing next year, but when he does, he says he’ll have a different attitude.

Earnhardt says that being sidelined since the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway by a concussion has made him appreciate parts of the sport beyond driving that didn’t enthuse him previously.

“I did all that stuff, reluctantly, just to do the driving part,’’ Earnhardt said Wednesday at Martinsville Speedway. “Now that I’m not in the car, I enjoy all the stuff that I’m doing outside the car that I’ve always done. Getting up in the morning for race day and going to do the hospitality or coming to do (media events) here or at Talladega, I’ve really enjoyed doing those things.

“The pressure of racing made the majority of everything that came with it miserable, and I’m probably responsible for controlling that. So I think  being out of the car has shown me that I’ve got to find a way that if I’m going to race more how to not feel so much pressure that it makes everything else intolerable or hard to do.’’

Pressure will always be there for the sport’s most popular driver who turned 42 on Monday and still seeks his first Sprint Cup championship. The pressure will come from those expecting more from the two-time Daytona 500 winner but more so from himself.

“I think once I get back in the car, I’ve got to have a whole new frame of mind about how I handle the pressure of driving and the pressures of performing and finishing well and all that stuff,’’ Earnhardt said. “I’m so hard on myself. If I don’t get the result I think I should get, it just ruins the whole thing, it ruins the whole experience for me. Not being in the car, not having to worry about performing, not having the stress of living up to my own expectations, I’ve enjoyed being at the track.’’

He noted how he went into the Cup garage early Saturday at Dover and relished the time there, admitting if he was driving, he wouldn’t have arrived in the garage so early.

“I was standing there and it was like an hour and a half before practice starts and I was like there’s nobody in there but the teams and it was good and I was having conversations with people,’’ Earnhardt said. 

“I’m like I don’t know why I don’t do this when I’m driving the car? Why don’t I do this? Why do I wait to the last possible minute to come to the garage? Why is it such a pain in the ass to get up and come to the garage for practice? Once you’re in the car you’re fine. The whole process of getting up and going to the garage seemed like such a hassle.’’

Another change for Earnhardt has been his workout program. He’s had to do various exercises as part of his rehabilitation from his concussion. Earnhardt admits his workout program at times has consisted of just racing. Since he’s done his exercises for his recovery, he’s lost eight pounds.

“It has inadvertently gotten me in better shape,’’ Earnhardt said. “So that’s good. I feel good. I feel like I can get out there and do it. I’m anxious for this season to get wrapped up and over with and get to Daytona. I’m looking forward to getting to Daytona, getting into the garage, getting into my suit, back into the process of being a part of the team.’’