Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday that his recovery from the concussion symptoms that cost him half a season of NASCAR competition last year are not an excuse for this season’s sag in performance.
Earnhardt made his remarks after first practice for the NASCAR XFINITY Series at Bristol Motor Speedway. The 42-year-old driver, in his final full season of NASCAR racing, is in the field for Friday night’s Food City 300 (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), scheduled to make his first XFINITY start of the season.
Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of last season after crashes left him facing a lengthy recovery from neurological trauma. He reiterated Thursday that he nearly walked away from his racing career during his rehabilitation, saying he had reached a stage where “there was a big chunk of time where I wasn’t coming back.”
Since making his return to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, his results have slumped. The Hendrick Motorsports driver sits 22nd in the series standings, needing a victory in one of the final three regular-season events to clinch a playoff berth. Still, he hasn’t blamed his injury or a lack of determination for his recent downturn.
“There are a lot of things that play a role in being competitive,” Earnhardt said. “I think that I’m healthy and I’m happy and thrilled that I’m healthy. I still think I can drive a race car, but there is really no excuse for us not performing well or meeting expectations. There is no excuse for missing a lot of races. Kyle (Busch) missed a lot of races with his injuries (in 2015) and came back and was successful right out of the gate.
“So, I mean I felt like I was ready. I felt like I could come in and compete. I still feel that way. We’ve just got to get our stuff together as a team.”
Earnhardt said a large part of reviving his racing career was regaining his sense of instinct and reaction times, qualities that were sharpened during his years of experience only to be lost during his absence and recovery from his injuries last season. Earnhardt said he first worked toward feeling normal before ultimately making the decision to return to the No. 88 Chevrolet.
Now back on the circuit, his challenge is clearer — finding Victory Lane in a last-ditch effort to claim championship eligibility as the curtain closes on his final full season.
“There is still some time to make that happen, but we’ve got a long way to go to catch some of those guys,” Earnhardt said. “Some of those guys are so fast, I don’t know where that speed is at, but it’s not at the race track. But, yeah, being out of the car was hard. A lot of hard work to get back, but once I was fresh and charged up and ready to go in February when we got to Daytona and I still feel good today. I don’t feel like that I am missing anything or if I’m not mentally or physically aware.”