Earn­hardt makes re­turn, feels fine af­ter crash

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - COLLEGE BASKETBALL -

DAY­TONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earn­hardt Jr. climbed out of his wrecked race car, sur­veyed the dam­age, chat­ted with his team and hopped on a golf cart for a trip to the in­field care cen­ter.

Eight min­utes af­ter check­ing in with doc­tors, Earn­hardt walked out.

And he felt fine. Earn­hardt crashed out near the mid­way point of the Day­tona 500 on Sun­day, hit­ting the wall af­ter Kyle Busch lost con­trol and turned side­ways in front of him. Earn­hardt’s team was un­able to re­pair all the dam­age to his No. 88 Chevro­let, forc­ing him to make an early exit in NAS­CAR’s sig­na­ture race. He fin­ished 37th in the 40car field.

“I feel good,” Earn­hardt said. “I don’t have any symp­toms or any­thing I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced in the past. It wasn’t that hard of a hit, but it still doesn’t mean you can’t get in­jured.”

NAS­CAR’s most pop­u­lar driver missed 18 races, half the sea­son, in 2016 be­cause of lin­ger­ing con­cus­sion symp­toms that in­cluded nau­sea as well as vi­sion and bal­ance is­sues. He got back in the car in early De­cem­ber and then gained med­i­cal clear­ance to re­turn this sea­son.

He was look­ing to make a tri­umphant re­turn at Day­tona , the track where his fa­mous fa­ther died, but ended up driv­ing to the garage and park­ing it for the day. Con­sid­er­ing it was his first race in months, he ac­knowl­edged ear­lier in the week that walk­ing away from a hard hit un­scathed would “add a ton of con­fi­dence” and check a box in his re­cov­ery. “I knew I was at risk, just like I was be­fore the last in­jury,” Earn­hardt said. “You’re al­ways at risk. It’s dan­ger­ous. You can’t race with fear. You can’t go out there and worry about get­ting hurt. You have to kind of say, ‘All right, man, if I’m go­ing to get in there, I’ve got to be will­ing to ac­cept any­thing — good or bad — re­sult-wise.’ I am will­ing to put my­self out there, and I want to com­pete.”

Earn­hardt’s ac­ci­dent was part of a less-than-stel­lar day for Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports.

Jim­mie John­son was in­volved in an­other melee. Pole-sit­ter Chase El­liott was lead­ing in the fi­nal laps when he ran out of gas. Kasey Kahne also came up short on fuel, but man­aged to post the best fin­ish for the four-car team. Kahne crossed the line in sev­enth.

“Just a lot of ag­gres­sion, way too early in my opin­ion,” John­son said.

Added Kahne: “Dis­ap­point­ing we ran out like that.”

Still, Earn­hardt left Day­tona feel­ing op­ti­mistic about his fu­ture.

One of the last things he did be­fore Speed­weeks was to tweak the head­rests around his hel­met. He and crew chief Greg Ives asked NAS­CAR for help af­ter what was his fifth doc­u­mented con­cus­sion.

NAS­CAR safety ex­perts sug­gested less room for his head to move left and right in­side the car.

“We closed it up to where there’s re­ally no gap be­tween each side,” Earn­hardt said. “I had a big gap. … It was like get­ting hit with a base­ball bat when you (move that much in a crash), so you’ve got to close that dis­tance up.

“For so many years, you want all the room in the world. … The car’s much more safe now.”

And the 42-year-old Earn­hardt hopes it pays long-term div­i­dends, al­low­ing him to race all of this sea­son and maybe for years to come.

“I just think all the ef­fort NAS­CAR has put into the safety,” he said. “I know we say that so much and it sounds kind of cliche, but if they hadn’t put that money into it to do the stud­ies that they’ve done, I prob­a­bly would have got­ten hurt again right there. I’m happy that I feel good and I’ll be able to go to At­lanta and keep com­pet­ing.

“I’m a lit­tle dis­ap­pointed ‘cause we’re not go­ing to get a good re­sult to­day, but I’ve been try­ing to work on that, try­ing to re­ally not get so dis­ap­pointed about things.”

AP/JOHN CHILTON

An ac­ci­dent knocked Dale Earn­hardt Jr. (88) out of the Day­tona 500, but af­ter miss­ing 18 races last year be­cause of con­cus­sion symp­toms, Earn­hardt felt OK af­ter the ac­ci­dent.

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