Senior staff writer
All Dale Earnhardt Jr. expects is the same that any employee expects from his hard work: the ability to go out on your own terms.
Driving stock cars has been his occupation for 25 years, but concussion symptoms of poor vision and balance drove him to the sidelines from NASCAR racing for the second half of last season. He voluntarily sought medical attention three weeks after an accident at Michigan International Speedway.
After months of rehabilitation, Earnhardt recently tested at Darlington and was deemed medically fit to race again. Since then he has tested at Phoenix in preparation for the Daytona 500 – NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl.
At 42 he could step away from the driver’s seat. He still would be involved with Hendrick Motorsports and his JR Racing plus his business interests. He married Amy Reimann on New Year’s Eve and wants to have a family.
“I don’t know when I’m going to stop racing,” he said at the annual NASCAR Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “But I want to be able to make that choice and not have it made for me.”
All eyes will be on Junior and his No. 88 Chevrolet as NASCAR teams arrive in Daytona. He had four runners-up finishes in 18 races last year. He raced in three more events, including Kentucky Speedway, before seeking help for his symptoms.
“Being approved to race is one thing, but deciding to race is another thing,” he said. “If you’re going to be out there, you can’t do it without being 100 percent.”
It’s hard to believe that he would be able to push the limit the same way when he stormed from sixth to first in the last two laps to win the 2001 Pepsi 400.
“You hope you can come back and not miss a beat,” he admitted. “Any time you are away, you’re getting behind. I’m anxious to whether we shake things up early in the season or whether there is any learning curve for me.”
He has 26 Cup wins and should make his 600th start March 26 at Auto Club Speedway in California.
Earnhardt revealed many of his observations of not racing: missing the interplay with team members; being jealous of other drivers at the track; avoiding burn-out; and finally, not taking what he does for granted.
“I got to see the sport from a whole different view,” Earnhardt said. “I’m more self-aware of going down the road and not taking it for granted.”
Earnhardt wears his emotions on his sleeve; he is uniquely honest when answering questions from the media. A few years ago he was coming off a disappointing season with Hendrick Motorsports and was even more pessimistic about the coming season.