Dale Earnhardt Jr. felt "wobbly" and didn't know why. In his motor coach last July at Kentucky Speedway, Earnhardt felt the first hint of the concussion symptoms that would keep him out of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the last half of the 2016 season.
He voiced his concerns to fiancée Amy Reimann. "I told Amy, 'I feel wobbly,'" Earnhardt recalled on Saturday at Daytona International Speedway. "I'm just in the bus, and it was like, 'Something ain't quite right.'
"I couldn't see anything physically wrong with me, and I didn't have any problems like walking across the garage. Driving the car, I felt fine."
But crew-chief-turned-broadcaster Steve Letarte noticed during an appearance with Earnhardt before the Saturday night race at Kentucky that something was amiss. Earnhardt wasn't his usual conversational self.
Behind the wheel, though, Earnhardt didn't notice any symptoms, and he raced that night in the Quaker State 400, completing all 267 laps and finishing 13th-not knowing at the time he wouldn't race again until 2017.
What Earnhardt first thought might be allergies turned out to be far worse. Still feeling unsteady after the Kentucky race, Earnhardt told crew chief Greg Ives to put Alex Bowman on standby as a relief driver for the upcoming race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Then Earnhardt called team owner Rick Hendrick, who told his driver succinctly, "Go to Dr. Petty, dummy."
After his visit to Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry M. Petty, Earnhardt's concussion symptoms, traceable to a collision at Michigan International Speedway in mid-June quickly grew to nightmarish proportions.
"My eyes were jumping around in my head real bad, just walking down the street or riding in a car," Earnhardt said. "A road sign-jumping around like this (Earnhardt demonstrated with erratic hand movements). I couldn't even read it. It was so annoying, and I was scared to death that I was going to be stuck with that all my life...
"When me and Amy went to taste food for our wedding, I couldn't look out the windshield. I had to stare at the floor for a two-hour ride to Raleigh, 'cause I just couldn't stand it, things were bouncing so bad."
Balance also became a major concern.
"We took videos of me and Amy working out, and I couldn't put one foot in front of the other without falling over-like the drunk driving test. I couldn't do that. I couldn't take one step without having to step to the right or step to the left and catch myself."
On the bad days during his extended rehabilitation, Earnhardt felt the Kentucky race might have been not only the last race of his season, but the last of his career.
"There were days during the recovery when I was 90-percent sure I wasn't going to drive again," he said. "There were days when it was 50 percent, just moving all over the place depending on what I felt that day."
The field-of-vision problems plagued Earnhardt for more than five weeks, but after a strict regimen of exercises, both the vision and balance began to improve gradually.
"I woke up one morning, and my eyes were better," Earnhardt said. "I looked out across the field in the back yard and could see clearer. When I was taking steps across the living room floor, it wasn't jarring my eyes off the target that I might be looking at far-off."
Small victories like that-not to mention the constant encouragement from his fiancée-kept Earnhardt focused on his recovery. By December, he was ready to test a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car at Darlington Raceway.
By February, with the Daytona 500 looming, he was ready to compete again. And Daytona was the perfect place to make his much-anticipated return.
"Coming back to the race track for the first time, this is probably the best place to be coming back to, because I feel so comfortable here," Earnhardt explained. "If this was a real, real challenging technical track, my nerves would be a little bit higher, but being that I understand what I need to be doing out there and feel so comfortable, I guess it's made it a much easier pool to wade into."
Earnhardt knows what may be waiting for him. Crashes at Daytona are commonplace, and to expect to go through an entire season incident-free is unrealistic.
"I don't want to wreck to quantify my recovery, but I think, should that happen, if I come out the other side of it feeling great, that will add a ton of confidence," he said. "I can't sit here and say that I know exactly how I'm going to react in those situations with confidence. So, yeah, when I go through that process, there's a box or two to check that aren't checked yet."
Likewise, Earnhardt understands the risk he's taking, but he's accepted the possible consequences because his passion to race still burns.
"Of course I'm human, and I'm going to be concerned and worry and (take) precautions, and so forth," he said. "But to be able to win the qualifying race, and to be able to win the Daytona 500, you've got to race with no fear ... I know that when I get in the car, I can't have any concerns. I can't have any worry or fret, or I'll drive completely different.
"I know what result I can get driving with no fear, and I know what kind of result I'll get if I go out there with even a sliver of apprehension. I won't be able to go out there and win the race. Once you second-guess yourself one time, it snowballs, and it just continues throughout the rest of the race...
"If I'm going to come back, I've got to be racing because I want to be out there. I couldn't do that and put myself through the chance that I might be back in rehab for months and months going through that crap again if I didn't want to be out there."
Throughout the recovery process, Earnhardt and Reimann, who were married during the offseason, had a chance to confront the reality of life without racing. Even today, in the final year of his contract with Hendrick, Earnhardt wants to wait until he's confident in his health before he commits to an extension.
"We certainly got a glimpse into what that side of life would be like, and I'm going to tell you, it's a lot less stress," Earnhardt said. "I really never knew just how much pressure all the drivers were under until I got out from under that. ... I don't know whether I'm right about this or not, but I think, for the longest time, I let racing be who I was instead of what I did.
"So to maybe enjoy it more and not let it become so stressful that it's unenjoyable, maybe I'll just try to focus on letting it be what I do instead of who I am. Like Richard Petty said, I've got a whole 'nother life beyond driving, and I really believe that. I've got a lot of things that I'd love to do, outside of having a family ... a lot of things in business that I'd love to see if I can succeed at.
"I think we got a glimpse of what that would be like, and it looks pretty awesome. But I crave to drive the car. I love the position I'm in with the team I'm with, with Greg and the guys. And until that feeling is gone and the wanting to be there is gone, I want to keep going."
NASCAR Wire Service / Reid Spencer