MARTINSVILLE, Va. – When Dale Earnhardt Jr. came into the packed media center at Martinsville, we all expected him to comment on his injury-forced absence from NASCAR.
Just a few days earlier it was announced that Earnhardt Jr. would resume competition after a couple of concussions forced him to sit out races at Charlotte and Kansas.
Doctors said Earnhardt Jr. had completed every therapy required, no longer had headaches and therefore was fit to drive.
The physicians’ report was suitable for NASCAR and it willingly allowed its most popular Sprint Cup driver to resume racing.
So everyone figured the Hendrick Motorsports driver was going to reveal the thoughts and feelings he had experienced during his two-week sabbatical.
But I knew better.
Earnhardt Jr. was going to make a shocking announcement, one that would shake the very core of stock car racing.
He was going to tell us his injuries were so severe he would never be able to drive again. As unbelievable as it might be, his career was over.
I just knew this is what we were going to hear.
And how, you may ask, how did I know this?
I read it. The report was already out there.
I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket when I was struck by a magazine’s headline:
NASCAR BOMBSHELL: DALE JR. WILL NEVER RACE AGAIN! TRAGIC BRAIN INJURY FROM TERRIFYING CRASH.
I mean, my jaw dropped. This was beyond belief. Wasn’t he just cleared to race this weekend at Martinsville?
I snatched up the rather thin publication and paid $4.50 for it. An outrageous price but I had to get the news.
On the inside, there was another blaring headline:
DALE JR.’S NASCAR CAREER IS OVER! HORRIFYNG INJURIES SIDELINE RACING SUPERSTAR!
I quickly read the article and came upon such quotes as:
“This could very well be career ending for Dale Jr.”
“This is the cruelest blow. Dale Jr. had a shot at his first championship. But that dream is over.”
“You have to feel for Dale Jr. He thought this was his year.”
“A lot of old friends are counseling Dale Jr. to quit while he’s ahead.”
Man, this was heavy-duty stuff. And the writer got all his quotes from a single individual, named “Source.”
This “Source” person must really be an Earnhardt Jr. insider. How else could he or she get all of this information?
So at Martinsville, I knew, just knew, that Earnhardt Jr. was going to announce his forced retirement.
Of course, he didn’t.
Earnhardt Jr. did what everyone anticipated. He spoke of his rehab, the emotions and feelings he experienced while away from the track, how he now views his life and career and much more.
I really never thought he would do otherwise. I just felt having a bit of fun after reading a supermarket tabloid.
Those publications are, sometimes, outrageous. I’ve seen headlines about something called “The Bat Boy” to aliens in Congress (maybe there’s something to that one).
This particular magazine wasn’t any different. To wit:
HILLARY CLINTON: ‘PLEASE TAKE ME BACK,’ DYING BILL TELLS HER!
Like the other rags on the racks at the checkout line, this tabloid had a sneaky way of covering its tracks.
After each one of the blaring, stunning headlines about Earnhardt Jr., there was, in small print, this amendment: “Pals Fear.”
Sorta changes the meaning, doesn’t it?
Now, it is true that if he sustains another concussion, Earnhardt Jr.’s career could conceivably be over. He knows that.
“This changes the way I feel about it to where if I know I’ve suffered another concussion, or if I have symptoms after an 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 they would ignore it to stay in the car because I did the same thing in the past.
“Some concussions are kind of light, and the symptoms are real light. Some concussions are really bad, and I don’t care how tough you think you are, and your mind is not working the way it is supposed to, it scares the s— out of you.
“You are not going to think about race cars. You aren’t going to think about trophies. You are not going to think about your job. You’re going to be thinking about what do I have to do 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.”
Earnhardt Jr. admitted being away from the track was difficult, especially during the time when doctors insisted he do nothing but rest – no TV, no video games.
But he got through that and concentrated on doing everything that doctors told him to do.
“You just kind of have to be patient and stay in regular contact with the doctors,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Once I got to know the guys at Pittsburgh (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center-Center for Sports Medicine Concussion Program -UPMC), I was on the phone with Mickey (Dr. Michael Collins) twice a day, just talking about everything that I was doing and everything I was feeling, because I just wanted to do it right.
“I didn’t want to take any chances, and I wanted to get back in the car as soon as I could. But I wanted to make sure it was not too quick.”
Earnhardt Jr. also admitted it was hard not to be racing and having to watch someone else (Regan Smith) drive his No. 88 Chevrolet.
But Earnhardt Jr. knows he did the right thing – for the present and the future.
“I definitely take it more seriously now after everything I’ve learned,” he said. “I’m glad I did what I did. I hate the attention that it got. But I’m glad I did what I did. I’m glad I took the time off and made the choices that I made. They were hard to make, but I had to do it. I had to do it. I didn’t have a choice.
“I knew something wasn’t right. You can’t ignore concussions. It’s really dangerous doing that. You read about it in the papers, and I was going through it. I was living it. So, I had to make a choice, and I feel like I made the right one.”
Incidentally, Earnhardt Jr. was second fastest in Friday’s practice session for the TUMS 500.
And guess what? Seems he might be a married man shortly.
I read in the magazine, “He’s settled down with gorgeous girlfriend Amy Reimann, a romance friends say is headed for the altar.”
Wow. It’s amazing how much that “Source” person knows.