By John Kekis
AP Sports Writer
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Say this about Dale Earnhardt Jr. — he follows doctor’s orders.
After missing three straight Sprint Cup races because of lingering effects of a concussion, NASCAR’s most popular driver did something Friday that’s part of his therapy — he made his first public appearance to speak about his recovery.
“I missed my team, my teammates,” Earnhardt said. “I just wanted to come see everybody. I get to hang out with my guys a little bit. This has been so weird not to be at the track. It’s frustrating, but it’s the process. We’re just taking it one evaluation at a time.
“I just want to get better. Nothing else is a priority. Our intentions are to get cleared and get back to racing. I’m not ready to quit.”
Doctors told Earnhardt his latest injury occurred June 12 at Michigan International Speedway. He was clipped in the rear by Chris Buescher’s No. 34 while racing three wide with A.J. Allmendinger and hit the wall at an angle that softened the impact. He drove three more races before symptoms became too severe.
“The doctors feel they can make my brain stronger to be able to cope with these common events,” he said. “The event that I had at Michigan I shouldn’t have had a concussion from. I should be able to get through events like that without having any issues.”
Earnhardt has been keeping fans updated on his condition via weekly podcasts. Besides reconnecting with his team and his competitors in the garage, his appearance at the road course in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York served a purpose.
“My doctor wants to put me in situations that drive the symptoms,” Earnhardt said. “My doctor calls that exposure, and this is probably the worst situation as far as making my systems go haywire. That’s what he wants. That’s just part of the process.
“The one thing that I worry most about is … people making assumptions of where I’m at, what I’m doing, and what I’m up to. I don’t want people making assumptions. To give me peace of mind and to bring down any type of stress and anxiety through the process is to open up and be honest about what’s going on and how we’re doing.”
Earnhardt won’t drive at Watkins Glen on Sunday and also will miss the race at Bristol on Aug. 20. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who came out of retirement to fill in for Earnhardt the last two races, will remain behind the wheel in the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.
There remains no timetable for Earnhardt’s return. That decision will be left to his doctors. He underwent further evaluation Monday at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program and said afterward that he continues to experience issues with balance and an ability to focus on an object while he moves his head.
Earnhardt expressed frustration at how long he’s been out.
“I never anticipated being out this long,” he said. “I didn’t have this massive accident. The symptoms crept in slowly. I didn’t think this was that serious. It’s a challenge. I really believe and trust what they’re telling me. They’re telling me without question we’re going to get back to normal.”