Dale Jr.: Concussions need attention

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. is glad he made the decision to tell doctors about the headaches and other symptoms that forced him to miss the past two Chase races with concussions.

NASCAR's most popular driver assures everyone that he -- and hopefully others -- will be more proactive in sharing those symptoms in the future.

"I hate the attention it got," Earnhardt said Friday at Martinsville Speedway, where he will make his comeback in Sunday's race. "I hate being in front of you guys here talking about it. But I' m glad I did what I did, took the time off, made the choices I made. I had to do it. I knew something wasn't right. You can't (ignore) concussions. It's really dangerous doing that."

Earnhardt hasn't experienced the headaches he had when he first saw neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty on Oct. 12, the day after Petty announced Earnhardt would not be cleared to drive for two weeks.

"I felt like I could race at Kansas for sure, probably ran at Charlotte with no problem," Earnhardt said. "I felt kind of foolish sitting at home and feeling OK and not being in the car. If the doctors said it's OK, I wanted to be in the car."

Speaking publicly for the first time since Petty parked him, Earnhardt said he can't wait to race. He'll do so with a new Stilo Motorsports Helmet instead of the Impact Racing helmet he's been using, but made it clear he was considering this before his head injuries.

"It was really hard to see your car running around without you in it, so that was difficult," Earnhardt said, adding he understands now more than ever that he made the right decision. He hopes other drivers treat concussions more seriously because of his situation.

"The one thing I can tell you is I'm definitely going to be honest with myself and honest with the doctors and I'm going to do whatever they tell me to," Earnhardt said. "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 I feel lucky I made the choices I did. Had I tried to push through it like I did the other ones I was putting myself in a lot of danger."

Earnhardt received clearance by Petty after a Tuesday evaluation at Petty's Charlotte, N.C., office, which followed a 123-lap test on Monday at Gresham Motorsports Park in Georgia with Petty present.

"Dale Jr. has done everything asked of him," Petty said earlier in the week. "He hasn't had a headache since Oct. 12 and we have not been able to provoke any symptoms since that time. I have informed NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports that he is medically cleared for all NASCAR-related activity."

Earnhardt was sidelined five days after headaches persisted following a last-lap crash at Talladega Superspeedway. It was the second time in six weeks he had suffered symptoms of a concussion. The first was after an Aug. 29 test at Kansas.

Earnhardt said the Kansas concussion had more to do with frontal lobe headaches, and the Talladega concussion was vestibular, with soreness near the base of the brain where it connects to the spine. He said the second concussion caused a lot of "anxiety and emotional stuff."

Earnhardt said a trip last week to the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program at the University of Pittsburgh eased many of his fears.

He met with Dr. Michael Collins, the executive director of the concussion program that helped developed the ImPACT baseline test used in the IndyCar Series and other contact sports, and stayed in constant contact with Collins afterward.

"I just wanted to do it right," Earnhardt said. "I didn't want to take any chances."

Regan Smith replaced Earnhardt, finishing 38th at Charlotte with a blown engine and seventh on Sunday at Kansas.

Earnhardt's championship hopes were all but done after the Talladega wreck saw him drop to 11th in points, 51 behind leader Brad Keselowski. He now trails by 122.

Earnhardt returns to a Martinsville track where he finished third in the spring and has four straight finishes of seventh or better. His Hendrick Motorsports teammates are glad to have him back.

"Just continue to applaud him in the decision that he made," Jeff Gordon said, "and I think he can come back now feeling very positive about how he handled the situation as well as be a positive impact on the rest of us, and how we'd hopefully handle that same situation."

Said Jimmie Johnson: "Junior and I have worked very hard, now that we're in the same shop, the way we describe things, how, why, all that stuff," he said. "With two weeks working with Regan, it was tough to know what his sensations were in the car.

"It is helpful to have Junior back in the car."