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Earnhardt Jr. back on track at Martinsville

October 26, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM,

Earnhardt Jr. determined to finish remainder of season on a strong note

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- There were times during the last three weeks when Dale Earnhardt Jr, admitted to feeling "kind of foolish."

"Foolish" for pacing around his home when he felt well enough to drive in Chase races at Charlotte and Kansas.

"I don't care how tough you are. When your mind's not working the way it's supposed to, it scares the crap out of you."


But Friday at Martinsville Speedway, Earnhardt was feeling rather smart, knowing that he did the right thing in taking time off to fully recover from his recent concussions.

"I don't care how tough you are," Earnhardt said, wearing a black, hooded Mountain Dew sweatshirt to his late-morning news conference. "When your mind's not working the way it's supposed to, it scares the crap out of you."

"You're not going to be thinking about trophies. You're not going to think about your job. You're going to be thinking: What do I have to do to get my brain working the way it was before?"

About an hour later, Earnhardt was circling the .526-mile track at Martinsville turning in the second-fastest lap of the day in the opening practice.

* Sound Off: Junior speaks at Martinsville | Practice 1 | Lineup

He was back, behind the wheel of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet at a Cup track for the first time since being involved in a 25-car, final lap pileup at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 7. It was revealed after that crash that Earnhardt had suffered a previously undiagnosed concussion during a tire test at Kansas on Aug. 29.

"I felt like I could have raced at Kansas for sure [Oct. 21] and probably have run at Charlotte [Oct. 13], no problem," Earnhardt said. "I [felt] kind of foolish sitting at home, feeling OK, not being in the car. It [felt] really unnatural."

At the same time, Earnhardt knew it was the right thing to do. He now considers it a learning experience.

"One thing I can tell you is I'm going to be honest with myself, honest with doctors and do whatever they tell me to do," Earnhardt said.

"I feel pretty fortunate to recover from this concussion rather quickly. I feel lucky I made the choices I did to give myself that opportunity. I think, had I tried to push through that second one, I would have really put myself in a lot of danger."

Earnhardt admitted to being a bit stir crazy at first. No TV. No video games. He said his recovery took a positive turn when he visited the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"Those first 48 hours, I didn't do anything," he said. "I slept a lot. No TV. I was walking around the house -- really weird. I told the doctors I couldn't do that anymore.

"[In Pittsburgh] they put me on a physical and mental exercise program that I did every day. That really made the biggest difference. I went to Pittsburgh a mess. The doctors up there talked with me the whole day and went through the exercises and stuff. They ran me ragged, but at the end of the day I understood what I was dealing with and felt a whole lot better ... In 12 hours, I felt really good -- completely different. I couldn't believe it.

"Once I got to know the guys in Pittsburgh, I was on the phone with Micky [Dr. Micky Collins] twice a day, talking about everything I was doing, everything I was feeling. That was the best therapy for me. I wanted to do it right, not take any chances."

In preparation for Martinsville, Earnhardt received medical clearance and ran 123 laps at Gresham Motorsports Park, a half-mile track in Jefferson, Ga.

Crew chief Steve Letarte said he was impressed with his lap times and impressed with his feedback about the car.

But Friday, Earnhardt was in his element for his first real test.

"I'm glad to be back behind the wheel," he said. "I feel like I've been out of the car for a year ... but I feel we can go right to it. I like this race track and I feel like we can do good here."

Earnhardt, who has 14 top-fives in 25 career starts at Martinsville, didn't talk about taking his second checkered flag of the season and expressed no regret about leaving his Chase hopes behind.

"I just want to do a good job over the next four weeks," he said. "I want to run hard and I want us to go in every weekend, trying to do what we've been doing all year long."

He did offer high praise for the work of his replacement driver, Regan Smith, who finished seventh last week at Kansas.

"Regan did a really good job for the team," Earnhardt said. "I told him that I was worried about the momentum we had as a team. I felt like we didn't miss a beat and I can get back in the car as if nothing's even changed.

"[But] it was really hard to see your car out there running around, turning laps without you in it. It's frustrating, sitting at home, knowing how good a car we had and not enjoying that with the team."