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Earnhardt Jr. on his break: 'I had to do it'

| Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

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 Oct. 7 at Talladega that left him with headaches and his second concussion in six weeks, is returning this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. He was examined and cleared to return by neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty on Tuesday, a day after he 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,” he said. “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 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.”

Earnhardt said the time away provided an education he now appreciates, including learning the difference between a concussion he suffered during a tire test Aug. 29 in Kansas that left him feeling foggy and fuzzy and the one at Talladega that left him emotional, filled with anxiety and “a mess.”

A trip to see concussion specialist Dr. Michael Collins at UPMC 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.”

Earnhardt qualified 20th for Sunday's race. Jimmie Johnson (97.598 mph) is on the pole; points leader Brad Keselowski will start 32nd.

Johnson has won six times on the 0.526-mile, paper clip-shaped oval. Denny Hamlin, who is third in the points and qualified fifth, has won four times here.

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