MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. disliked the attention caused by his two concussions and nearly three-week departure from NASCAR, but he said Friday he returns to racing glad he took steps to make sure he is okay.
NASCAR's most popular driver, who had a hard crash Oct. 7 at Talladega that left him with headaches and his second concussion in six weeks, returns at Martinsville Speedway this weekend. He missed the past two races.
He was examined and cleared to return by neurosurgeon and NASCAR consultant Jerry Petty on Tuesday, one day after running 123 laps at a test.
"I'm glad I did what I did. I'm glad I took the time off and made the choices that I made," said Earnhardt, who qualified 20th for Sunday's Sprint Cup Tums Fast Relief 500. "I didn't have a choice. I knew something wasn't right."
Earnhardt said the time away provided an education he appreciates. He learned the difference between a concussion he sustained during a tire test Aug. 29 in Kansas that left him foggy and fuzzy, and the one at Talladega that left him emotional, filled with anxiety and "a mess." A trip to see concussion specialist Dr. Michael Collins at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center helped alleviate the anxiety.
"They put me on a physical and mental exercise program that I did every day. That really made the biggest difference. It was really crazy because I went to Pittsburgh a mess. I was just mentally a mess," he said. "The doctors up there, we talked for the whole day and went through these exercises and did a lot of stuff, and in 12 hours, I felt really good. I felt completely different."
Earnhardt guessed he has had between four and six concussions in his career. This time he learned to respect their potential harm. "I'm definitely going to be honest with myself and honest with the doctors," he said. "I'm going to do whatever they tell me to do."
JOHNSON ON POLE: Jimmie Johnson earned the pole position for the Tums Fast Relief 500, and points leader Brad Keselowski qualified 32nd. Johnson, a five-time series champion who is seven points out of first, gained the top starting spot at 97.598 mph as well as the stall at the front of pit road, giving him unimpeded access to the tight, 0.526-mile track. "Track position is important, and then that pit stall is so important," said Johnson, the only Chase for the Championship driver to make the top two rows for the race.
NHRA: Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Mike Neff (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) led the first day of qualifying at the Big O Tires Nationals in Las Vegas.