Earnhardt driving through injuries
by Pete McCole

August 7, 2004

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Earnhardt Jr.
CIA Stock Photo

Still suffering from burns he sustained in a crash last month at Infinion Raceway, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. told the assembled media at Indianapolis Motor Speedway he plans to go the full 400 miles in Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

Earnhardt, Jr. was the first of fifty drivers to make a qualifying attempt during Saturday’s session, breaking the track qualifying record on his first and only lap with a speed of 184.968 mph.

“Sitting in the car and driving the car is....even last week I wasn't bothered by the heat. I don't normally even feel the burns,” said Earnhardt, Jr., who will start fifth. “Sitting in the seat is not a problem. I just told Tony Jr. to put an extra large spring on the brake pedal so I wouldn't be dragging the brake.”

Earnhardt was injured when he crashed his Corvette in practice for an American Le Mans race on July 18. The force of the impact damaged the fuel filler neck that attaches to the gas tank, causing a fuel spill that ignited and engulfed the car.

Earnhardt, wearing a full drivers suit and a closed-face helmet, was surrounded by flames but managed to escape the car on his own, suffering second-degree burns on his neck and thighs.

Getting the burns to heal has been a painful process, but Earnhardt credits his fast recovery to some new burn treatments he’s been receiving.

“The doctors initially stated it would be a two-week recovery,” said Earnhardt. “My neck is just about all healed up. The right leg had two blisters on it that have scabbed over that are 80 - 90 percent healed up. They don't bother you anymore. But the ones on my left leg are still soft. They haven't developed scabs. They haven't turned the corner yet. I expected by this point that they would have.

“I had two nurses come from Raleigh this week (burn center in Raleigh, NC) and we're trying some new dressings and stuff like that to try and accelerate the healing. All that has helped a lot. As you can see this week I'm able to put my heel down and walk around half normal. But it still hurts a little bit. When you stand up with an open wound on your leg and you stand up you can feel the pressure when all the blood rushes down there to it and you feel the pressure. So it just hurts in those areas real bad. Walking around to and from the car and the bus and the crew is the worst part.”

Earnhardt had tried to drive despite his injuries, but was forced to turn over his #8 Budweiser Chevrolet to relief drivers in the past two races, with disappointing.

Now Earnhardt admits it was a poor handling racecar, not his injuries, that convinced him to give up the drivers seat last week at Pocono.

“I really wasn't in a lot of pain. I really wasn't bothered that bad by the injuries,” Earnhardt said. “The car was terrible. I really seriously thought I could have run that (entire) race. But I didn't have to. And we had John (Andretti) sitting there. Personally, I wanted to see what John thought about the racecar. I wasn't too happy about it. We kind of mixed the drivers around there and had about the same results."

Thanks in part to the new treatments he’s been undergoing, Earnhardt says he will try to run the full distance on Sunday. Plus, the team has brought a brand new chassis to the track which Earnhardt feels needs his full attention.
“I want to stick it out this weekend,” Earnhardt said. “We have a brand new car that I want to be in and I want to know what's going on (with the car). So it's not that I'm disappointed or expecting anything more, but to continue to use relief drivers isn't a progression.

“I'm ready to get going. I'm ready to be driving the car all the time. I want to get back on the path again.”
Getting back on the path will be much easier this season thanks to the “Chase For The Championship”. Beginning with the Sept. 19 race at New Hampshire Int’l Raceway, only the drivers in the top ten in points will be eligible to race for the championship.

Earnhardt, 353 points ahead of current 10-place driver Kevin Harvick, is safely in the chase for now, but getting healthy and focusing his full attention on the championship chase is his number one priority.

“I want to get aggressive. But it's really hard for me to get aggressive now being a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest,” laughs Earnhardt. “It's kind of tough to win those fights. I want to be able to get out of here and not do anything that's going to put myself in jeopardy or get it (burns) infected or have long-lasting issues with it later. So, whatever the cost, I want to get my leg right. That was the number one thing.

“Until (the burn’s) gone or until it's right, I don't feel like I'm 100 percent focused. I can get in the car and I can drive it just as fast every lap as I did six months ago. But focus is important. The level I need to be focusing is not quite there yet. I'm sitting out there before qualifying trying to get off my leg and sit down somewhere and keep comfortable instead of thinking about where I'm at in the car and the changes we made. I'm trying to do all those things and worry about it at the same time is kind of difficult."

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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