Dale Earnhardt Jr. Is Ready For His Comeback

The prodigal son is about to return.

After six months away from NASCAR battling another concussion, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will return to the No. 88 vehicle this weekend at the Daytona 500. It was perhaps the most difficult stretch of the 42-year-old’s career, one filled with a comprehensive rehabilitation process that left him contemplating if it was time for retirement. But Earnhardt just wasn’t ready to quit.

Last year’s injury redefined Earnhardt’s outlook on the sport, taking nothing for granted, but there’s still an insatiable hunger to compete at the highest level and to win the Monster Energy Cup, something he’s been unable to accomplish during his 18-year career – never finishing better than third.

The North Carolina native has a long history with Daytona International Speedway, one that’s brought a great deal of success, which could be why Earnhardt believes it’s the perfect spot to make his return and start the chase. (It all kicks off this Sunday, Feb. 26 and it will be broadcast live at 2 p.m. EST on FOX.)

Earnhardt recently offered up an extensive look at his rehabilitation, what he thinks of being turned into a character from The Simpsons for Daytona 500 promos and much more.

CraveOnline: After last year’s jostling crash at Michigan, how did your symptoms worsen?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: It came on real slowly, actually. It took about three or four weeks after that incident to start to have some issues or sense that something wasn’t quite right and it was really faint. Over about a period of two weeks, it got quite severe but that was really unique, I guess, to anything I’d experienced before. I never had a situation where it came on so slowly and that was confusing because we thought maybe it was allergies or something at first, because I was having some issues with my eyes, but once the severity of the symptoms started showing up, we went and got checked out to see exactly what was going on.

BROOKLYN, MI – JUNE 12: Dale Earnhardt Jr, driver of the #88 Axalta Chevrolet, drives to pit road after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway on June 12, 2016 in Brooklyn, Michigan. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Getty Images )

Crave: What were those next three races like for you in the car? What kind of effect did those nagging ailments have on your ability to race competitively?

Earnhardt: It really didn’t bother me that much at all. I didn’t notice it inside of the car so much – it was really in very random moments, just doing everyday stuff. I had some pain in my eyes and around my forehead and eyes, I had some, I guess, dizziness that you might experience if you had a terrible head cold or if all of your sinuses are stopped up. I felt a lot of pressure and stuff like that, just some unique stuff that I wasn’t sure exactly how to put my finger on what was going on. Inside the car though, I didn’t realize it. I couldn’t even, you know – inside the car you’re concentrating and working. It takes your mind away from being able to sense those types of little things – those subtle issues.

Crave: You’ve had concussions in the past – three or four. Did last year’s differ from the others?

Earnhardt: Completely, yeah. I never had these symptoms in the past. All of the other ones I experienced were similar in nature, as far as symptoms go.

Crave: You went on to miss the remaining 18 races last year, what was that like on a psychological level, to sit out and just kind of watch everything go on?

Earnhardt: I didn’t really care that I was missing out on anything, because I was sick and I just wanted to get well. All I could think about was just getting well and once I could accomplish that and get over that hurdle, then I could think about my responsibilities, you know, outside of myself.

Crave: Speaking of getting well, can you explain a little bit about the ensuing rehabilitation process and what that was like for you?

Earnhardt: We had a lot of physical exercises – they were kind of repetitive and simple, to be honest with you. Simple to the average person, but very challenging for me with the symptoms of balancing issues and so forth. So, basically, these physical exercises were to retrain my balance and help me understand what I was seeing and what my mind was thinking and what my body was doing. We had a lot of physical stuff that we did every single day and we also had some computer and eye tests, exams and exercises that would help my eyes become more stable. I had a lot of problems with my ability to see a target and keep my eyes on the target while moving, so if I walked or turned my head, to be able to keep my eyes trained on a dot on the wall was very, very hard – and we had a lot of exercises that worked on that as well. I didn’t really have many things, like fogginess or memory issues, it was all more of a physical issue with my eyes being stable and my balance. It was definitely some unique symptoms I had never experienced before and the doctors gave me a ton of homework and these were things that we did daily, for months and months, for about four, five, six months, to rehabilitate these issues and fix these problems.

Crave: How long was it before you got back in the vehicle and did laps at an increased speed?

Earnhardt: December 14 was the first time I drove a race car.

Crave: And can you explain a little bit about what that was like for you, just getting back into the vehicle and getting reacclimated with your surroundings?

Earnhardt: Ah, it was nice. I mean, I think it came very quickly and just within a few laps, I felt pretty comfortable inside the car and by the end of the day, I was right in my environment. I was pretty happy and excited about being able to get back in the car and being cleared to race.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – FEBRUARY 19: Pole winner, Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Chevrolet, and Front Row winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, celebrate in Victory Lane after qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Crave: With these concussions throughout your career, what made you decide, even at the age of 42, to return to the sport as opposed to considering retirement?

Earnhardt: Well, I had considered all of the options but my doctors gave me the confidence to return. They told me that I was healthy enough and could return, if that’s what I wanted to do. They gave me the confidence that if they didn’t think I should return, or want me to return, they would be honest and upfront about that – but they felt good about what was going on with me and gave me the confidence so I could get back in the car, if that’s what I wanted to do.

Crave: Racing, obviously, is at the forefront of your life. What did you do during your time away to kind of get your mind away from the sport – how did you keep busy?

Earnhardt: My doctors wanted me to go to complex environments – places that were unfamiliar, very busy and active. So, outside of the local avenues like the grocery store and so forth, we went to a concert – I’m a big fan of Lord Huron and they were playing in Milwaukee, so we went to a concert and stood in the crowd and watched all of that. We took trips here and there, to different places, to visit friends and to spend time with family that we never have the opportunity to do. Those types of environments would really bring the worst out in the symptoms and make my symptoms very difficult but it was basically like a good training tool, because you kind of retrain your brain to handle those environments and to react to them well. So, it’s part of the process go out there and do that.

Crave: As a newlywed, did marriage play any sort of role in the rehab process, because sometimes that can definitely take your mind off of things?

Earnhardt: Well, I was just really worried about being clear and healthy when I was going through my wedding, so I was nervous about that – going through the recovery and whether I would get well enough to my satisfaction to go through my wedding without any issues. I just wanted to be healthy. My fiancée at the time, Amy, she was with me, pushing me through the recovery and she was in all the meetings with every doctor and family member and all of the discussions about what we were doing. She was a big, big – she was probably the most supportive part of the whole deal for me and helped me get through all of that pretty good.

Crave: Between marriage and your concussion, has it changed your outlook on the sport?

Earnhardt: I hope so. I feel like I’m a little better at dealing with the stress and trying to enjoy what I’m doing, instead of having the stress sort of control how much I enjoy it. So that just depends, you know, that’s not something – you have to kind of to earn that, so you have to work to keep yourself happy and keep your priorities in order and understand and keep perspective right. I’ll have to keep practicing good practice to not let myself sort of get wound up and frustrated.

Earnhardt Jr. with his wife Amy Reimann during the national anthem ahead of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Crave: Yeah. When it comes to the Daytona 500, FOX has been running promos for it, including one with you as a character from The Simpsons. Have you seen that and what are your thoughts?

Earnhardt: I was blown away that I got drug into that. I had no idea that they were going to do that. My camp approved that on my end while we were on our honeymoon, so I never even knew anything about it. So when it sprang up, we were freakin’ floored. I was, you know, humbled by it. [The Simpsons] is an incredible series, it’s been around for a long time. Of course, we’ve watched it many times in our lives at some point – and to be depicted on that show was humbling.

Earnhardt Jr. as a Simpsons character.

Crave: Is it easier to get back in the car for Daytona – the biggest race of the season – or would it be a little more beneficial for you right now if it was mid-season, to get a few races under your belt?

Earnhardt: I think Daytona is a track that I’m probably more comfortable with than any other place, so it’s a good track for me to return, because I have confidence there – that I run well, do well and have a great history there. That would probably be one of the tracks, for sure, that’s easiest to return to.

Crave: With all of the rehab, all of the work, all the media interviews like this one, what will it feel like for you to get back in the No. 88 as you attempt to win your third Daytona 500?

Earnhardt: It’s just taking it one day at a time. We’ve got a lot of practice in between now and the race and there’s still some work to be done before we ever get to the beginning of the event on Sunday. But, I hope it goes smooth, I hope we don’t have any problems. If we do, we got everything we need resource-wise to overcome it and fix it – and hopefully we have a good day on Sunday. You know, you can’t really plan for it, you just have to go up there with everything prepared and see how it works out.

Crave: Now this is looking ahead, but if you were to win the Monster Energy Cup Series this season, would there be any chance you would contemplate retirement or would you want to continue to pursue the sport for as long as you possibly can?

Earnhardt: That would probably be good enough for me. I would probably call it a day.

Ed Miller is a contributor for CraveOnline Sports, a movie quote extraordinaire and a proud Sun Devil. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillyEdMiller or “like” CraveOnline Sports on Facebook.