Dale Earnhardt Jr. started racing with the NASCAR Cup Series in 1999 on a part-time basis. In his fifth and final race that year at Atlanta, Earnhardt began a journey that would take him on an impressive streak of 461 consecutive races.
In October 2012, the streak ended when a concussion sidelined him for two races. It was a precursor of things to come. Four years later, concussions cut Earnhardt’s season short by half. In the latest Dale Jr. Download episode, the two-time Daytona 500 winner details the moment he realized something was seriously wrong with his health and who he first called to ask for guidance on what to do.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. first sidelined by concussions in 2012
Dale Earnhardt Jr. debuted on the NASCAR Cup Series in 1999, the same year he won his second of back-to-back Xfinity Series championships. After initially racing five races that first season, Earnhardt ran a full schedule in 2000 and was quite impressive, winning a couple of times at Texas and Richmond.
In April 2002, Earnhardt crashed hard into the outside wall at California and suffered a concussion. He didn’t miss any action and didn’t admit to the injury until mid-September.
A decade later, in October 2012, Earnhardt could no longer deny the effect concussions had taken on him. Hendrick Motorsports made a surprise announcement that Earnhardt would not compete at Charlotte and Kansas due to a concussion he suffered at Talladega during a 25-car crash a few days earlier.
Earnhardt’s new role as a spectator ended his streak of 461 consecutive races, and more significantly, snapped a family streak of an Earnhardt competing in a Cup Series race, dating back to 1979.
Earnhardt discovers something seriously wrong with health
After missing the pair of races, Earnhardt returned to action and back to his old self. Over the next three seasons, he raced to one of the most successful periods of his career, earning seven trips to Victory Lane, including his second win at the Daytona 500 in 2014.
In July 2016, Earnhardt didn’t realize it at the time, but the end of his career was fast approaching. The first signs of trouble appeared at Kentucky.
“I’m standing in the garage area with a few folks and I’m like, ‘Is the scoreboard blurry to you guys?’ It’s like way over in turn one,” Earnhardt said to his former crew chief Greg Ives in a conversation on the Dale Jr. Download. “I usually see pretty clearly. Is it the heat? What’s going on? They’re like, ‘No, it’s not blurry.'”
Ives said he knew something was wrong after an incident in that race.
“I think we were passing Denny for seventh and you went down on the apron at the start-finish line and you hit that bump,” Ives said. “Passing for seventh and a couple of laps, we’re back to 17th. I was like there’s something going on. I know you got out of the car concerned, but we didn’t really talk about it.”
Seeks treatment and cuts short 2016 season
Before the next race in New Hampshire, Earnhardt called Ives and shared the concerns about his health with his crew chief.
“I said I’ve got this stuff going on, and I told him all the symptoms, and I don’t know what that means,” Earnhardt said, reliving the conversation with Ives. “I don’t know why it’s happening. The last wreck was a month ago. It doesn’t seem like concussions but it’s getting worse. I don’t really know if I can race this weekend. I’m worried, it’s Monday, by Sunday I might have to say in that final hour, I can’t race. What are we going to do now? Right here in front of the whole world. I think we need to get a driver on standby. We’ll get Alex (Bowman).”
Ives listened to Earnhardt and then asked if he had contacted team owner Rick Hendrick. He hadn’t. Earnhardt said after that conversation with Ives, he spoke with Hendrick, who told him to “get your ass to the hospital.”
Earnhardt didn’t race again the rest of the 2016 season and returned for 2017, his farewell tour before retiring from full-time racing. Each year since retiring, he has run in one Xfinity Series race.