NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed the second half of last season due to a concussion. He is excited to start the new season. Davie Hinshaw The Charlotte Observer
NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed the second half of last season due to a concussion. He is excited to start the new season. Davie Hinshaw The Charlotte Observer

Scott Fowler

Is risk of racing again really worth reward for NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.?

January 25, 2017 11:09 AM

UPDATED January 25, 2017 07:45 PM

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 42 years old, newly married and wealthy enough to buy a Caribbean island.

So why the heck is Dale Jr. climbing back into a race car?

Earnhardt wants to start a family soon. He missed the second half of the 2016 NASCAR season with a concussion so serious that it knocked him out for 18 races. For awhile, he could not walk a straight line. Eyes open, eyes closed – didn’t matter. A sober Earnhardt still staggered around like a drunk.

So why the heck is Dale Jr. climbing back into a race car?

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He could retire from racing this minute and never worry about money again. The Earnhardt name is etched in gold. The endorsements and broadcasting opportunities would roll in like the tide.

So why the heck is Dale Jr. climbing back into a race car?

Because he loves it. And his doctors have cleared him. And like Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly – who also had his 2016 season ended early because of a concussion – Earnhardt Jr. is probably not sure what he would do without his sport.

I don’t know when I’m going to stop racing, but I want to be able to make that choice and not have it made for me.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“People have asked me since I turned 40 when I will retire and all that,” Earnhardt said Wednesday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway media tour. “All I’ve ever said is that I wanted to be able to make that decision myself.

“I don’t know when I’m going to stop racing, but I want to be able to make that choice and not have it made for me. All that stuff really showed me how much I’ve got going for me and how fun this really is. ... I can totally see how you can get wound up and burned out a little bit, but I’m certainly not feeling that way right now.”

‘It can’t get here fast enough’

The “Don’t Know What You’ve Got Until It’s Gone” philosophy is familiar to most of us who hit a certain age. You give something up and then you miss it – especially if it wasn’t your idea to give it up in the first place.

For all his kvetching – and Earnhardt has been an expert at that at times – he loves to race.

“As a society, we get better and better at complaining, and drivers aren’t any different,” Earnhardt said. “We moan and complain about everything.”

But when he was out of his No. 88 Chevrolet last year and got a glimpse at his eventual non-driving future, he realized he was in no hurry for that future to get here. As he concentrated on getting better, he also felt a little guilty. And a little bored. So when doctors declared that he was symptom-free and cleared him in December to go back to racing in 2017 – if he wanted to – the decision wasn’t very difficult.

He’s not retiring. He’s racing.

“I’m excited about the season,” Earnhardt said. “It can’t get here fast enough. ... If you’re going to be out there, you can’t do it without being 100 percent. I had to answer a lot of personal questions from myself and just really buy in (to returning). All of that was a process and I’m really happy with what I decided to do.”

Earnhardt’s first big race will be the Daytona 500 – which he has won twice – on Feb. 26. That will also be his first big race as a married man – he and Amy Reimann wed on New Year’s Eve. Earnhardt said his only regret is that he didn’t do it sooner.

Getting married has been incredible. I wish I had figured all this out sooner. I’m frustrated with myself that I took so long to grow up.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“Getting married has been incredible,” Earnhardt said. “I wish I had figured all this out sooner. I’m frustrated with myself that I took so long to grow up.”

Wait until he has a kid – and we probably won’t have to wait very long for that. Earnhardt told me in May about the prospect of he and Amy having children someday: “It’s frightening to imagine. ... But having a child and raising a child would probably the coolest accomplishment and proudest thing you could do.”

Should we tell him what to do?

Earnhardt Jr. is only 7 years younger than his father was when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a last-lap crash at Daytona in 2001.

I got a heartfelt call from a reader on Wednesday. She left two long messages on my voicemail, pleading: “Dale Jr. should never race again! I can’t stand the idea of losing another Earnhardt!”

I understand the sentiment. Dale Jr. is so likable and so open that we all want to tell him what to do.

He wants to join the traveling circus again because he missed the show and he missed his friends. We understand that. Even the circus has to end, though, as we all found out recently. Right?

But in this rare case, I am going to refrain from dispensing advice.

It is Earnhardt’s brain.

He gets to decide what to do with it.