DARLINGTON, S.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Sunday he continues to target 2017 for a return to driving race cars, although as part of the same press conference one of his doctors described what has been and continues to be a very difficult recovery from a concussion.
“I have the passion and desire to drive,” Earnhardt said. “I enjoy it. I have an amazing team, a great owner. I’m in such a great position and enjoying being a part of the sport.
“My heart is there to continue. If my doctor says I’m physically able to continue, that’s an easier decision for me to take.”
But Earnhardt was completely forthright when assessing his current abilities as he opened his press conference at Darlington Raceway ahead of the evening's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
"I definitely don't belong in a race car today by any stretch of the imagination," he said.
Earnhardt, 41, hasn’t raced this season since July 9 at Kentucky Speedway. His latest problems apparently stem from a crash at Michigan International Speedway June 12 (although he raced after that crash).
Earnhardt has missed six races and will not drive in the season’s remaining 12 races. Jeff Gordon will replace him in Sunday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500, and Gordon and Alex Bowman will split driving duties in the No. 88 Chevrolet for the rest of the year.
Dr. Micky Collins of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program has been a part of Earnhardt’s treatment team. He participated in a Darlington Raceway press conference Sunday with Earnhardt and Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt's team owner.
Collins spoke in stark terms about Earnhardt’s illness.
“Our goal is to see him become a human being again,” Collins said. “He’s feeling better. He can tolerate a lot more. Our second goal is Dale becoming a race car driver again. I’m very confident we’re moving in that direction.”
Earnhardt has said he has had problems with vision and balance. He described Sunday “going to Target or somewhere and I have symptoms and might stumble across an aisle or need more sidewalk than a normal guy.”
Earnhardt is working daily on exercises to improve his vision and balance.
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