Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Press Conference - December 9, 2016

TEAM CHEVY DRIVER PRESS CONF. TRANSCRIPT
DALE EARNHARDT, JR. AND RICK HENDRICK
DECEMBER 9, 2016

DALE EARNHARDT, JR. DRIVER OF THE NO. 88 CHEVROLET SS AND RICK HENDRICK, OWNER OF HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS, spoke with members of the media via teleconference today to discuss Dale’s return to the seat of the No. 88 Chevrolet SS for on-track competition in 2017. Full Transcript:

WELCOME BACK.  YOU TESTED DARLINGTON ON WEDNESDAY, WHICH WAS THE FINAL STEP BEFORE BEING MEDICALLY CLEARED FOR COMPETITION.  HOW DID IT FEEL TO BE BACK BEHIND THE WHEEL OF A RACECAR AND HOW DID THE TEST GO OVERALL FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE?
DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: “Well, the test, I thought, couldn’t have gone any better.  Darlington was a great host and NASCAR was really great to work with to put it together.  I really appreciate them creating opportunities and rules for drivers in this type of situation to be able to get in a car.  It really helps build your confidence to know that everything is working like it’s supposed to work, no matter what your injury it before you go get back into a full race weekend.  It’s nice to be able to kind of get some personal reassurance and confidence.  I was really happy to have the opportunity.  We got to the racetrack, the weather was great and we just ran laps.  We put tires on, run 15 laps at a time; take about a 20 minute break, Dr. (Jerry) Petty was there.  We did a personal evaluation before we got in the car to set a baseline and Dr. Petty was evaluating me after each run to see if everything was good.  A lot of the things that he was checking, visual and balance and so forth, actually strengthened throughout the process.  You sort of get acclimated and up to speed with what it takes to kind of drive a racecar and those systems strengthen through that process.  Rather than see them sort of flat-line and stay the same, which was what I was hoping for, they actually got stronger.  That was great.  I felt like throughout the day I got more and more comfortable in the car and it felt like an old shoe by the end of the day.  I was happy with the speed we had. That wasn’t really the ultimate goal, but we had great speed. The car drove really good and we just continued to put tires on it and go out and run 30 laps at a time.  And come in, get out, think about it, talk about it, get checked out and by the end of the day we felt really confident that health wise I was 100 percent and ready to get back in the car.”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU AND EVERYONE AT HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS TO HAVE DALE OFFICIALLY BACK IN THE CAR FOR NEXT SEASON?

RICK HENDRICK: “This place we are as big a fan of Dale’s as the rest of the community.  When you’ve got the most popular driver in the sport you lose him and he is a big spark plug to this place.  Having him out of the car kind of deflated the place.  When that test finished and he came through with such flying colors and just the text I got and the conversation I had you could feel it in the place today when we were with the rest of the team it just elevated the whole place.  I think Dale being back in a car and Jimmie’s (Johnson) championship, man; it’s going to be a really nice Christmas here for all of us.”

WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR RACE TEAM GOING THROUGH THE CHALLENGES OF THIS CONCUSSION AND BEING GONE?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: “Well, I learned that we’ve got a great race team.  Greg (Ives, crew chief) did an amazing job in a difficult situation to motivate and keep the morale up in the team.  They actually, their performance, actually improved with the rest of the company throughout the last half of the season.  I think that Greg gained a ton of confidence in himself and the guys. The guys are real happy with how they performed and how the cars performed and the cars they took to the racetrack.  I was thrilled to see that.  We had struggled in the summer and it was great to see the whole company rally together and Jimmie winning the championship.  It was a great feeling to go to (Las) Vegas with the whole company so excited about the future and how things kind of turned around for us throughout the year.

“Personally, just going through that process you learn a lot.  I don’t know if we’ve got time to go over it all, but you certainly realize the things that you might be taking for granted.  And learn to appreciate a lot of different parts and aspects of your life a lot more.  I had that same kind of experience before in 2012.  When you get something kind of taken away from you, you certainly realize what it is worth.  We gripe about our schedule and this and that and the other, but once you are not doing it and you are watching all your friends out there on the track and watching your crew work without you it really puts thing into perspective.  It helps you kind of appreciate really what you’ve got.  Definitely feel recharged and energized about the opportunity to be able to come back and race.  I felt like I had a lot left in the tank.  I’m excited about getting to Daytona.  We are going to test in Phoenix, which I’m really looking forward to oddly.  Testing is kind of boring, but I’m ready to get more and more laps in the car so I feel real confident in myself.  Confidence is really critical for me to perform well. The more I can do to help build my confidence before we got to Daytona the better.  I’m excited.”

WHAT HAVE THE DOCTORS TOLD YOU ABOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF ADDITIONAL CONCUSSIONS IF YOU ARE IN ANOTHER ACCIDENT? WILL THE EXERCISES YOU HAVE BEEN DOING AND ARE DOING HELP PREVENT THOSE?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: “Yeah, absolutely.  I worked with Micky Collins and we worked not only to get healthy and back to being a normal human being again, but we worked to get stronger than we were before.  I wouldn’t be coming back to the seat and wanting to drive and excited about driving cars if there was any risk, other than the typical risk that every driver faces on Sunday.  I feel very confident in what I’ve seen in myself and my improvement and I feel confident in what my doctors are telling me about my future and the risks that I’m taking and my ability to be able to withstand the normal wear and tear of not only driving a race, but getting in that unfortunate accident from time to time.  We all feel pretty confident that not only am I as healthy as I was before the symptoms came last year, but I’m actually stronger.  Having gone through this before also gives me additional confidence.  This isn’t uncharted territory for me, so I know what I need to feel personally to know that I’m as strong as I need to be and healthy.  I’m certainly feeling that way, but I’m also hearing the affirmation from my doctors that I can go back and drive racecars.”

WILL YOU MAKE ANY CHANGES TO ANY OF YOUR SAFETY EQUIPMENT LIKE YOUR HEADREST OR YOUR HELMET?  WILL YOU HAVE TO DO ANYTHING DIFFERENT AFTER A CRASH TO MAKE SURE THAT YOU ARE OKAY TO RACE THAT IS DIFFERENT THAN ANY OTHER DRIVER?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: “I don’t know that NASCAR will do anything different for me than they would anyone else.  I think that they take that stuff very seriously and will handle me about the same way they would handle anyone else.  I have a personal responsibility to myself to be smart, make great decisions for myself.  My health is number one.  Everybody in this room, Rick (Hendrick), and everybody in the shop all put my health first and will always be responsible whatever situations we come across.  I’m not going to take any unnecessary risks with my own health.  I think that as far as my own safety equipment, I feel real good about what we have.  I did get my head scanned for new helmets, but that is just supposed to make them fit better, be more comfortable.  I think Joey Logano got his head scanned for his Stilo’s last year and he said it is the best fitting helmet he has ever had, at least that is what I heard.  They fit pretty good to begin with, but this might be a new level. Otherwise, I am just glad to have had the opportunity to get so much time between me and the events that I’ve had last year and the symptoms.  That is something that I think is really important for everyone going forward is that they take the amount of time that they need not just to get symptom free, but to allow themselves to heal and get stronger beyond the symptoms.  We still have a couple more months of my brain being able to sturdy itself up.  I’m glad that we have had partners that were very supportive. Rick (Hendrick) and everyone was super supportive, everyone was very patient.   We had Jeff (Gordon) and Alex (Bowman) jump in and carry the load and the company worked really hard and it has allowed me to have a lot of time to put this in the past.  In 2012, we took off four weeks, came back and won seven races the next two years.  I’m confident that I can have the same type of success going forward.”

HOW LONG WILL YOU NEED TO RACE AND FEEL COMFORTABLE BEFORE STARTING TO RENEW CONTRACT TALKS WITH RICK FOR BEYOND 2017?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: “We are probably going to revisit that before the season starts.  I’ve told you guys that before we got sick me and Rick had been sitting down and talking about our future and the extension and what we wanted to do and all that stuff was starting to come together.  We are going to revisit that here shortly.  That is definitely something on our list to get done.”

WERE THERE ANY NERVES OR BUTTERFLIES BEFORE YOU GOT INTO THE CAR AT THE TEST?  WHAT DID THE FIRST LAPS FEEL LIKE?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: “I have nerves and butterflies every time I get in a racecar, but I was certainly very anxious to get in the car.  As soon as I got my feet on the ground in Darlington, I was in my suit and over there by the door wondering if the car was ready to go.  I couldn’t wait to get in there and just go ahead and get out there and see what it felt like and see what I felt like.  I was having a hard time sleeping the night before, but it had been a long, long time since I had drove a car.  It is so rare to have that long of a break.  The off season doesn’t seem like it’s that long, plus you do a little bit of testing in the off season, but it was really odd.  As soon as I got out there after about three laps it came right back to me.  I wasn’t like I sort of had to relearn to do it all over again.  It felt very comfortable.  The speed was there.  Obviously, the track was green and had a ton of grip and that made things a little bit simpler.  At Darlington you run right on the fence and you don’t have a lot of room for error.  That was a good challenge. Of all the tracks we could have gone to Darlington was a good choice to really put me through the test physically and mentally to understand where we are at.  I was a little bit nervous about that.  Darlington is a tough track, but the nerves were gone after about four laps and then it was let’s just run, let’s run some more, put some tires on and go some more.”

HOW FAR DOWN THE ROAD DID THE COMPANY GO WITH MAKING PLANS IN CASE DALE WAS NOT ABLE TO RETURN FOR 2017? WAS THAT EVER A CONSIDERATION?

RICK HENDRICK: “You kind of might worry about that, but I think after talking to Dr. Collins he didn’t see any reason he couldn’t come back if we did it the right way.  And a lot of credit to Dale for just working hard outside of the car to get himself better and stronger, you could just see him getting stronger every week and participating here with the teams, with the other drivers and I just kind of refused to accept that he wasn’t going to be in the car.”

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE DECISION FOR DALE NOT TO RACE IN ‘THE CLASH’ AND TO PUT ALEX BOWMAN IN THE CAR FOR THAT WEEKEND?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: “I had heard, I guess around Phoenix, we didn’t really know what the rules were going to be as far as getting into ‘The Clash’, but I had heard some rumors that it was going to go back to pole winners, which is something I was super excited about because it brings back an identity to the race and makes it a bit of an exclusive club and it turns it into something you want to be in and strive to be in, which has been missing from the event for a long time.  As soon as Alex, I was at Phoenix standing on pit road on Friday when Alex got the pole and my first reaction and the first words out of my mouth were that Alex gets to run in ‘The Clash’.  If the rumors are true that it’s pole winners Alex is going to be available to run in ‘The Clash’ and I turned to Doug Duchardt (General Manager, Hendrick Motorsports) and said he should drive the No. 88, he earned it with the No. 88 guys.  He has done a great job as a substitute driver.  I really have a great friendship with Alex and I felt like if he was going to be in the race he deserved to be in that car.  My eligibility comes from winning the race in 2008 and I can’t remember the last time I won a pole.  For whatever reason that was just my initial gut reaction and it feel important to me that is owed to Alex.  He deserves it.  It is a bit of a tip of the cap to not only his pole win and how well he did at Phoenix, but how he stepped in and did a great job every week for our guys.  That is not an easy job to do.  He helped maintain and improve the health and performance of the team in a critical time, so we can go into Daytona this year confident that we are going to be competitive and we are not behind the eight-ball or have any catching up to do.  I’m excited for Alex to get that opportunity and I’m happy that it’s with Greg (Ives, crew chief) and the guys that he has worked with over the last several races.”

ARE YOU STILL DOING ANY REHAB EXERCISES? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: "I'm cleared and I am healthy. My doctor told me that you can strengthen vestibular system even if you are healthy 100%.  Not patting myself on my own back, this is from my doctor's mouth. His comments are that I had to work really hard to get to be a human being again...to be normal. Then I had to work even harder to get to the level to being able to drive race cars; to be a professional race car driver.  The distance between just being myself and being a race car driver...that was going to be another handful of responsibilities and exercises and so forth. His advice was that if I wanted to continue to exercise and do these types of things, it would only continue to strengthen the system. I'm all for that. I want to be as sharp and....hell, maybe this is something I could have been doing all along.  There is a lot of visual, and stuff on computers that athletes do that don't even have concussions that I have at my fingertips today that I've been able to learn about through this process.  There is a lot of stuff that I can continue to do that will keep me sharp and keep me ready to go."

IN YOUR OPINION, DO YOU THINK OTHERS SHOULD PROACTIVELY BE DOING THESE EXERCISES? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: "I guess if they knew about these exercises and knew about these programs that are available, they may.  They may do it, and maybe some drivers already are.  But when I went to the eye doctor, he showed me some programs that are built specifically that sharpen hand-eye coordination and stuff like that.  It isn't just for concussion patients.  It is something that was part of my rehab.  But it is something I can continue to use beyond the rehab and beyond the recovery."

DO YOU SENSE A CHANGE IN THE CULTURE IN ALL SPORTS, NOT JUST RACING AND A CHANGE IN THE AWARENESS? 

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: "It is not something that I intentionally wanted to spearhead, but if have seen a culture change tremendously. I think that everyone in general, not just the athletes, but the public, the doctors...everyone, we are all learning something new every day.  Mickey (Collins) sees two dozen patients a day with various types of injuries, various stages of injuries and so forth. And every day he learns something new; obviously he has seen a million people with the same thing that I had, but every day they learn something new. Every day as a patient I think you learn something new.  It's incredible the progress that is being made, but it is happening right now.  It is happening right in front of us. It is being taken more seriously, and I think that is great. I obviously don't want anyone to go through the injury much less the rehabilitation. But, it is great for folks that do get injured, whether they are athletes or they are working a job somewhere or they are a kid in school that they know there is something that can be done. They know there is a place to go to get the help.  One of the worst things is not knowing where to go to get the help.  Not knowing how to get the right help and get the proper treatment because every concussion needs a different style of treatment to approach it.  I think that is something that people are becoming aware of that there are ways to get help so you can not only get healthy, but return to the activity that  you love to do, whatever it is that you want to get back to doing.

“It's been great to have the opportunity to go to Pittsburgh; to meet Mickey and his whole staff and have exposure to everything that they are doing and get to understand how much they have learned and what they are capable of doing.  It's given me so much confidence to be able to come back and race again knowing that those guys are there, and they are able to patch you up and get you stronger.  What they have been able to do is incredible for people like me. They are doing that every day with dozens and dozens of folks."

WHEN DID YOU KNOW THAT YOU WERE GOING TO BE OKAY AND THIS WAS GOING TO WORK?

DALE EARNHARDT, JR.: "The last few evaluations that I went to Mickey about; Mickey and his team put you through a lot of physical stuff that is harder than most workouts that I have ever been a part of.   They put you through a lot of mental practice and mental programs; visual stuff. It is an all-day process to just get evaluated. Just to get checked, to check the systems, to be able to get evaluated. I went to get evaluated probably a dozen times or more through this whole process. To be able to see tangible numbers each time we went and improve was giving me a lot of confidence. Hearing my doctor tell me that I am actually getting better than I was before we had the injury, and to hear his confidence in my ability to come back and race; those last few evaluations really got me fired up that I was healthy, and back to my old self. I felt like my old self. When you are injured and you are sick, you feel like a completely different person and all your systems are all screwed up and nothing seems to be working right.  You notice it. When your mind gets off just a little tiny bit, you will notice that so clearly. And when it sets itself right again, it is crystal clear. I wanted to do the test for me personally. It is great to be able to do it and have the doctor see you in the car and have the doctor see you in the car.  Having Dr. Petty there was great to be able to evaluate me while I was driving.  He has seen this situation and seen so many people in this situation so he was a great person to have there to help reassure me that things were good.  But I wanted to do the test.  I needed that personally for personal reassurance for myself.  I'm going to get married on New Year's Eve and then going on my honeymoon, and I have a lot of other stuff to do - photo shoots to prepare for the season. Taking pictures for all of our sponsors and getting everything ready. But in the back of my mind, I haven't been in a race car yet. And what's that going to be like. Now I've got that box checked.  Personally I can go forward with a clear mind and peace of mind that I am ready to go.  But that test did more for me than anyone else."

HOW IMPORTANT WAS IT TO YOU TO BE ABLE TO GIVE DALE AS MUCH TIME AS HE NEEDED?

RICK HENDRICK: "First of all we care about him as a friend and a person. That's first.  Just seeing him healthy and himself rather than trying to rush him to get back in the car. I think talking to the doctor...I didn't know if you just sat out and did nothing you would be okay.  By Dale going to the right person and working his butt off, it has made him stronger.  I really want to thank all of our sponsors...every single sponsor said his health is priority one.  We don't want him in the car until he is ready, and we are okay.  Everybody was good with him sitting out.  Once we weren't going to be in the Chase, it just didn't make any sense because we wanted him for the long term.  It's a tough decision to pull the plug on a year because we didn't really know if he would be healed up enough to come back with a few races left.  We were very fortunate with our sponsors that they put his health first.  That was never a question, just to watch him, and watch him at the test.  I wasn't there, but to just talking to the crew being excited. Everybody is excited. Everybody if fired up. It is a great Christmas present for our company and our fans."