Cain: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s strong stand makes him, sport better – Nascar

RELATED: Timeline of Junior’s injury, recovery


For so many years we have been impressed with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s performance on the race track — the 26 NASCAR premier series wins, the pair of emotional Daytona 500 victories, the absolutely extraordinary 14 Most Popular Driver awards.


However, what is most remarkable — and equally as important — to his legacy is the way he handled a concussion diagnosis and recovery in the last six months. The green light he received Wednesday to begin competing again at NASCAR’s highest level is a result of dedicated effort in recovery and unwavering belief in himself … and the willingness and fortitude to get better the right way.


It is a lesson for us all.


Earnhardt has done the hard work to make sure he was genuinely healthy enough to race again — the early mornings, the monotonous workouts, the tedious daily therapies, the medical tests and the doctor visits.


He had to learn again how to feel comfortable in busy places and to challenge his instincts.


It took great patience, high hopes and an overwhelming motivation to recover. Earnhardt has conceded often through this difficult and long road back that even he, one of his sport’s greatest, had to rely on others at times for that extra push or reinforcement.


PHOTOS: Junior through the years


He spoke just last week in Las Vegas during Champion’s Week about the hard times when progress was slow and difficult to see. But he motored on, so to speak, and the result is a return to his beloved NASCAR competition with the confidence that he has recovered fully.


Doctors evaluated him at a test at Darlington Raceway on Wednesday and gave him the thumbs-up to suit up for the 2017 season.


Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) Sports Medicine Concussion Program, has been overseeing Junior’s rehab and consulted with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty, who attended the test. Both gave their approval.


“I feel great, and I’m excited to officially be back,” Earnhardt said. “I expected things to go really well (at the test), and that’s exactly what happened. Actually getting in a race car was an important final step, and it gives me a ton of confidence going into 2017.”


“I’ll do more testing in January to help knock the rust off. When it’s time to go to Daytona, I’ll be ready.”


He can say that with full assurance.


Earnhardt never took an easy way out. He didn’t go to medical “yes” men to give him early clearance, eager to put a professional athlete back in the spotlight.


And the end result is not only a healthy superstar, but a new standard of recovery for the sport.


MORE: All of Junior’s premier series victories


Having a head injury is frightening because of its inexact science. Doctors know how to repair a broken leg and how long it takes to recover fully. Correcting the brain is an entirely different story.


You can’t look at a person with a brain injury and know if they healed properly and completely. You can’t spend half an hour chatting with them or a night at dinner with them and know for sure, either.


It would have been a foolhardy decision for Earnhardt to ignore the physical symptoms and just get back in the car. Some older racers might admit — at least off the record — that “back in the day” they may have competed when they should not have.


But times are different, and by doing “the right thing,” Earnhardt reinforced the need to take these kind of injuries seriously and that athletes can and should take all the time necessary to recover properly.


Even if that sidelines a shining star.


“Dale deserves so much credit,” said Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick. “I’m proud of him for listening to his body and standing up to take responsibility for his health. He’s worked extremely hard and set a terrific example for others.”


Millions share the sentiment. And perhaps millions more will follow.


This year’s Most Popular Driver only competed in half of the 36-race 2016 schedule. His popularity should actually increase because he made the harder “right” decision to step away and heal properly when faced with serious and unknown circumstances.


On New Year’s Eve, Earnhardt will marry his longtime love Amy Reimann.


Two months later at the 2017 Daytona 500 he will return to NASCAR’s highest level of competition.


So a high and hearty toast to the sport’s most beloved driver, for healing fully and for leading the way. 


For doing the hard work and prevailing.


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