At Martinsville

Earnhardt Jr. back with new perspective

jutter@charlotteobserver.comOctober 27, 2012 

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RIDGEWAY, VA - OCTOBER 26: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M's Halloween Toyota, talks to Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet, in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 26, 2012 in Ridgeway, Virginia. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images for NASCAR)

RAINIER EHRHARDT — Getty Images for NASCAR

— Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to work on Friday just as fast as always and a little more informed about some of the dangers of his profession.

Earnhardt sat out the last two Sprint Cup races suffering lingering affects from a pair of concussions but was cleared to return to race this weekend by Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty following several tests, including one on track.

“I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. I’ve been feeling better every day. I’ve learned a ton, just about what I went through and I feel like I’m a lot smarter, a lot more prepared and understand the situation a lot better now than beforehand,” Earnhardt said Friday at Martinsville Speedway.

“It’s something I would have rather not have gone through but I learned a lot and I’m excited to be back to work, get back in the car and get back to normal – back to the life that I’m used to.”

Sitting out was no easy task, Earnhardt admitted, especially when at times he felt “just fine” while watching Regan Smith drive his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet the past two weeks.

“It was nice to know people were thinking about you. It wasn’t normal for me sitting at home,” Earnhardt said. “I great support from my fans and my family and everybody.”

Earnhardt ran over 120 laps during a test earlier this week at a track in Georgia without a problem.

During Friday’s 90-minute Cup series practice session, Earnhardt posted the second-fastest lap. He ended up qualifying 20th for Sunday’s Tums 500.

Asked if he ever considered not returning to racing, Earnhardt said he approached the issue “with all options open.”

“I just wanted the doctors to make that decision for me,” he said. “If I could race, I wanted to be at the race track. It’s what I love to do.

“I really left it all up to them throughout the whole process. I was really honest and upfront about how I felt every day. So far the doctors have been real pleased with what they’ve seen and felt I could get back in the car.”

Earnhardt first felt symptoms nearly eight weeks ago after a hard wreck at Kansas Speedway during a tire test. He was seen by medical staff at the track but did not go into detail about his symptoms.

When Earnhardt still was suffering from headaches following a last-lap wreck Oct. 7 at Talladega, Ala., he decided to reach out to his sister, Kelley, and ended up meeting with Petty.

Petty elected to sideline Earnhardt for at least two weeks and during that time Earnhardt also traveled to Pittsburgh to visit concussion specialists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Earnhardt said the experience has changed his perspective on dealing with similar medical issues going forward.

“If I feel I’ve suffered another concussion or I have symptoms after another accident, I’m definitely going to be a lot more responsible about it,” he said. “I can understand people’s opinions that they would try to push through it or ignore it to stay in the car – because I did the same thing in the past.

“I don’t care how tough you think you are, when your mind isn’t working the way it’s supposed to, it scares the (crap) out of you.

“You’re not going to think about race cars; you’re not going to think about trophies; you’re not going to think about your job. You’re going to be thinking about what do I have to go to get my brain working the way it was before.

“That’s going to jump right to the top of the priority list, I promise you.”

Utter: 704-358-5113

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