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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. disliked the attention caused by his concussions and nearly three-week departure from NASCAR, but said Friday he returns to racing glad he took steps to make sure he is OK.
NASCAR's most popular driver, who had a hard crash at Talladega on Oct. 7 that left him with headaches and his second concussion in six weeks, is returning at Martinsville Speedway this weekend.
He was examined and cleared to return by neurosurgeon and NASCAR consultant Dr. Jerry Petty on Tuesday, one day after Earnhardt ran 123 laps during a test at half-mile Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga.
"I'm glad I did what I did. I'm glad I took the time off and made the choices that I made," Earnhardt said of the decision to seek medical help that sidelined him and squashed his already slender championship hopes. "I had to do it. I didn't have a choice. I knew something wasn't right."
Earnhardt missed races at Charlotte and Kansas, and said it was initially frightening to know something was amiss in his head.
"Some concussions are really bad, and I don't care how tough you think you are, when your mind is not working the way it is supposed to, it scares the (expletive) out of you," he said.
"You are not going to think about race cars. You aren't going to think about trophies. You're not going to think about your job. You're going to be thinking about what do I got to do to get my brain working the way it was before.
"That's going to jump right to the top of the priority list, I promise you."
Earnhardt said the time away provided an education he now appreciates, including learning the difference between a concussion he suffered during a tire test in Kansas on Aug. 29 that left him feeling foggy and fuzzy, and the one at Talladega on Oct. 7 that left him emotional, filled with anxiety and "a mess."
A trip to see concussion specialist Dr. Michael Collins at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center helped alleviate the anxiety. It put Earnhardt on track to getting better and understanding his injuries.
"They put me on a physical and mental exercise program that I did every day. That really made the biggest difference. It was really crazy because I went to Pittsburgh a mess. I was just mentally a mess," he said. "The doctors up there, we talked for the whole day and went through these exercises and did a lot of stuff and, in 12 hours, I felt really good. I felt completely different. I couldn't believe it."
For the past 15 days, he said, he's felt normal, and he got high marks from crew chief Steve Letarte during the test.
"I thought the laps were great, the times were great," Letarte said. "His feedback was as good as it always is."
Earnhardt guessed that he's probably suffered between four and six concussions in his career. He said in the past, when the symptoms didn't seem severe, he might have been inclined to race anyway.
He's learned to respect the potential harm that can be done by keeping quiet.
"I'm definitely going to be honest with myself and honest with the doctors," he said. "I'm going to do whatever they tell me to do. I want to be able to live a full life and not have any issues down the road."
He said he left his return up to doctors, never giving much thought to the possibility that with his championship hopes gone it might make sense for him to sit out the final four races, too.
"I'm just excited to be back to work," he said. "Get back in the car and get back to normal."