Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets healthy dose of perspective

MARTINSVILLE - He called them snowflakes, these concussions.

They're all different. Some are relatively benign. Some are serious. Some affect one part of the brain; others, another.

He said your head's like a computer, dealing with these concussions. Too many background programs running at one time. The process becomes a little slower, a little fuzzier. Thoughts get hung up in midstream.

The best approach is to shut it all down and start over. So that's what he did.

Forced to sit out two weeks from Sprint Cup racing, Dale Earnhardt Jr. learned more about his brain than he ever wanted to know.

On Friday, as he spoke candidly about this month's struggle and his impending return to the seat on Sunday, we learned something about Earnhardt's brain, too.

There's passion in there. A voracious appetite for competition. The notion that Earnhardt sometimes coasts on his name? That there would be more career wins - and maybe even a Cup title or two - if he had to work a little harder for his money?

Maybe there's something to that, but it sure seemed ridiculous Friday.

"I'm just excited to be back to work," Earnhardt said. "Get back in the car, and get back to normal. Get back to the life that I'm used to."

It's a life that was altered abruptly on Oct. 7, when he hit the wall at Talladega to suffer his second concussion in a six-week span. NASCAR's most popular driver had hidden the first one, which occurred when he crashed during an Aug. 29 tire test at Kansas.

He could hide it no more.

"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," said Earnhardt, who estimated that he has suffered between four and six concussions in his career. "I don't care how tough you think you are. If your mind is not working the way it is supposed to, it scares the [bleep] 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 got 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."

As he rested and healed, though, something else jumped to the top of Earnhardt's priority list: a burning urge to race. He missed hearing his crew chief in his ear. He missed the interaction with other drivers in the garage. He missed the small victories, the practice tweaks that make the car go faster, the jockeying for position in a race.

These guys are wired differently. Jimmie Johnson told the story Friday of blowing out his knee as an 8-year-old with two races left in the dirt bike season. He started both events with a cast on and ran enough laps to clinch the title.

"It's crazy," Johnson said, "and this is what we do."

The difference here is that points were not an issue in Earnhardt's case. He made the Chase but quickly fell from contention for the title. Still, the pressure to race - both internally and outwardly - is high.

"I had to do it," Earnhardt said of sitting out. "I didn't have a choice. I knew something wasn't right. You can't ignore concussions."

The turning point for Earnhardt was a visit to specialists in Pittsburgh, who answered all his questions and led him through some exercises that got him feeling better. The anxiety dissipated. He watched the Charlotte and Kansas races on TV, feeling well enough that, in hindsight, he thinks he probably could have raced.

By doctor's orders, Earnhardt ran some practice laps at Gresham Motorsports Park earlier this week. He was sharp in Friday's first practice at Martinsville, putting up the second-fastest lap time behind Brian Vickers.

"I felt kind of foolish sitting at home feeling OK and not being in the car," Earnhardt said. "It feels really unnatural. I feel good, and the doctors say it's OK. I want to be in the car."

On Sunday, he will be - armed with a fresh perspective on how much it matters to him.

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