Earnhardt Jr. returns with a message

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the microphone and stared straight at his audience of reporters and cameramen.

"I don't care how tough you think you are, [when] your mind's not working the way it's supposed to, it scares the s--- out of you," Earnhardt said bluntly on Friday at Martinsville Speedway. "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 I got to do to get my brain working the way it was before. That's going to jump right to the top of your priority list."

Those words were embedded into my mind as NASCAR's most popular driver spoke for the first time since concussions sidelined him for the past two races.

Those words should be embedded into the minds of all drivers -- all athletes -- who think they can handle the headaches and other symptoms that come from brain trauma without seeking medical help for fear of being parked.

Earnhardt thought he could handle the symptoms after an Aug. 29 crash during a test at Kansas Speedway. He drove the next six races before a second concussion at Talladega fogged his vision.

And then opened his eyes.

As happy as Earnhardt is to be back in his familiar No. 88 Chevrolet this weekend at Martinsville, as glad as everyone is to see him back, the lesson he learned the past few weeks is a lesson for everybody.

Concussions aren't to be fooled with.

"I'm glad I did what I did," Earnhardt said. "I hate the attention that it got. I hate being in front of you guys talking about it. But I'm glad I did what I did. I'm glad I took the time off, made the choices I made.

"They were hard to make, but I had to do it. I didn't have a choice. I knew something wasn't right. You can't ignore concussions. It's really dangerous doing that."

Unless he wins one of the final four races, this might be the last time you hear much about NASCAR's most popular driver in 2012. He is 12th in the standings, 122 points behind Chase leader Brad Keselowski.

He won't earn an invitation to the season-ending banquet in Las Vegas by being in the top 10, although -- barring a major upset -- he'll be there to receive the sport's most popular driver award for the 10th straight year.

The focus will return to the Chase after this.

But what Earnhardt went through the past two weeks can't be swept under the rug. Concussions in NASCAR have been ignored for too long.

Whether that means a mandate for preseason baseline testing, as is done in IndyCar and other contact sports, or allowing substitute drivers to accumulate points for an injured driver for two or three races so as not to end a championship run, that is for the governing body to decide.

But the sport can't wait until a driver files a federal lawsuit -- like the one in the NFL claiming the league conspired to hide the danger of concussions and brain trauma associated with concussions -- to do something.

And drivers can't continue to be so macho as to believe they can handle the dizziness and fogginess that accompany some concussions while potentially putting others at risk.

It should have the same impact on others it has had on Earnhardt.

"It changes the way I feel about it to where, if I know I've suffered another concussion, or if I have symptoms after an accident, I'm definitely going to be a lot more responsible about it," Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt came to this conclusion after several frustrating days of being shut out from his normal world of television, video games and racing. He came to this conclusion after more than a week of feeling mixed up, of feeling anxious every time he got into a busy situation.

He came to this conclusion after realizing what was happening in his head wasn't normal.

Others should listen. It could be them next.

"The symptoms alone are frustrating, just trying to go through your everyday life," Earnhardt said.

He compared it to a computer overloaded with so many programs that it slows down, hangs up in the middle of an operation. He talked of how no concussion was alike, comparing them to snowflakes. He used terms such as vestibular and frontal lobe.

You sensed the fear he had to feel before doctors assured him he was good to go. You felt the anxiety he had to feel wondering whether he would ever race again, whether the next blow could cause permanent danger.

"The one thing I can tell you is I definitely am going to be honest with myself and honest with the doctors and I'm going to do whatever they tell me to do," Earnhardt said of moving forward. "I want to be able to live a full life and not have any issues down the road.

"I feel fortunate to have recovered from this concussion quickly, and feel lucky I made the choices I did."

The sport is lucky.

That's not to make Earnhardt out as a hero. He admittedly had concussions early in his career and hid the one he had at Kansas for six weeks.

But having the guts to finally admit that something was wrong, that he had to be honest with himself and others about what he was feeling, is not something that should be forgotten by anybody.

"I feel like, in our sport, like others, especially relative to concussions, we need to be sure we're not putting a driver back in harm's way," said Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammate. "We know that a series of concussions within a short period of time is very dangerous, and we need to keep our sport safe.

"Change is coming."

Let's hope so.

And this is not the end of the world for Earnhardt even though it ended his 2012 championship hopes. There will be other seasons to compete for a title, more opportunities to win races.

It wouldn't be surprising if Earnhardt won Sunday. He was third on this half-mile track in the spring and had a second here last year.

Whatever anxiety he felt a few weeks ago obviously was gone Friday as Earnhardt posted the second-best speed in the first practice.

Just like the other Chase drivers, his mindset is to win.

That Earnhardt missed the sport so badly and didn't want to sit out more than two races -- he said he could have driven the past two if doctors had let him -- should silence critics who have claimed his heart isn't into this.

Earnhardt's heart is completely in this.

And because he stepped forward, he'll be better able to keep his head in it.

"I feel like I've been out of the car for a year," Earnhardt said. "It doesn't feel like a couple of weeks. But I think we can go right to it. I like this racetrack, and I feel like we can run good here, and I want to do a good job over the next four weeks."

Earnhardt continued to stare at his audience. He wasn't rubbing the back of his neck or his forehead as he was after climbing from the car at Talladega or at his Charlotte news conference.

It was a good sign.

It was a strong message.

A much-needed message.