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HALLMAN: Dale Earnhardt Jr. excited, and a bit anxious, about driving Friday night at Richmond Raceway

September 22, 2018

He’s back. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in a race car.

Earnhardt has entered Richmond Raceway’s Go Bowling 250, Friday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race.

This will be his first time since he stepped away from full-time driving at the end of the 2017 season. It’s the only NASCAR race he will run this year, and possibly his last race, though he’s leaving open the possibility he’ll run once again to fulfill a longstanding sponsor commitment.

Earnhardt brings with him enormous popularity — he was voted most popular driver the past 15 consecutive years and could probably still win the vote if he were on the ballot.

He also brings an undercurrent of apprehension.

Twice in his career, Earnhardt sat out part of a season because of post-concussion symptoms. He missed half the 2016 season. When he came back in 2017, for many of his fans, every lap he ran was accompanied by a sense of dread. What if he had another hard crash?

When he said last year that after he ended his Cup career he had plans to run a couple of Xfinity races, it seemed likely those plans could be scrapped.

But he’s back. And he’s upbeat about it.

He has tested his Chevrolet, one of the Camaros he owns as part of JR Motorsports, at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina, “and it felt good and was fast,” he said.

“It gets you excited, gets you looking forward to the weekend,” Earnhardt said. “It’s not something I want to do often, but it was a little itch to scratch.”

Probably he’s also upbeat because he has had success at Richmond Raceway — four Xfinity victories, the most recent in 2016, and three Cup Series wins.

He is, however, aware of the risk involved. Nobody knows better than Earnhardt what he might go through again if he suffers a big hit. And big hits are a possibility on the ¾-mile D-shaped track. When the Xfinity Series raced here in May, the pole speed was 121.332 mph.

Earnhardt said he picked the Richmond track in part because of its racing surface.

“It’s pretty smooth,” he said. “It doesn’t have any nasty bumps. … I didn’t want to run a track with my head bouncing against the headrest every lap.”

But what about an episode in April at Martinsville Speedway? Earnhardt was there with NBC’s NASCAR broadcasting team, making early preparations for the launch of his career as a commentator.

He was standing in the speedway’s infield, only a few yards from the track, “something I hadn’t done since I was a kid coming to the races there.” A wave of concussion symptoms hit him again.

“I was dizzy, feeling sick,” he said. “I got cotton-mouth. I thought, ‘I don’t like this. I need to move. The cars going by so quickly, that’s bothering me.’ ”

He and his NBC colleagues pulled back from trackside, Earnhardt said, and went to observe the action from the top of a hauler. He said in about 20 minutes he felt better.

Earnhardt said that night he called the doctor who had treated him for months in 2017, and the doctor reminded him of what they did then to cure him.

“I told him, ‘I got scared today,’ “ Earnhardt recalled. “I said, ‘Tell me what to do. Here I am thinking I’m healed and this happens.’

“He asked me, ‘When’s the last time you were in that environment?’ I said, ‘Not since I was a little boy.’ And the doctor said, ‘You should have gone back.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I chickened out.’ “

Earnhardt said that was the method — repeated exposure to difficult environments — that delivered him from the symptoms that pushed him out of the sport in 2016 and had him doubting if he would race again.

“I would ask my doctor, ‘Why aren’t you encouraging me to retire? I’m sick and I feel bad and I’m stumbling all over the place,’ ” Earnhardt said.

But the doctor told Earnhardt he could overcome his condition if he persisted.

“When I was healing I would go to complex environments — the grocery store or a rock concert — and that would make my symptoms come out,” he said.

“I’d have to get out. But then I would go back in. I’d go back and expose myself to that until my brain could handle it. That’s what I should have done at Martinsville.”

Earnhardt said he is willing to take the risk and race at Richmond, same as he was when he decided to take the risk and return in 2017 for his final full season.

“That’s how I got my mind made up to return,” he said. “If I get hurt, I can fix it. If I get hurt again, I can fix it. If I’m willing to go through all that again, I can fix it.”

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