Dale Earnhardt Jr. has chronicled his accidents and the injuries that forced him out of the car in a new book, "Racing to the Finish: My Story", co-authored by ESPN senior writer Ryan McGee.
Here's an excerpt below, and check out ESPN's exclusive Q&A between Earnhardt and McGee.
Sunday, May 4, 2014
We were having a good day at Talladega, NASCAR's biggest, most intimidating racetrack. If you know anything about my NASCAR career, then you know that me and that place, we've always had a special relationship. I won there six times. My father won there ten times. The Earnhardts and Talladega, we've grown up together. There's a whole generation of fans down there who were raised to root for me, taught by the generation before them, who rooted for my dad.
So whatever I did when I raced at Talladega was always a really big deal, good or bad. If the grandstand felt like I was making a move to the front, they would lose their minds. Even with forty-plus cars out there roaring around, I could hear them cheering. If they felt like I had been done wrong, I could hear them booing, too. I loved it.
On this day, I had them rocking a couple of times. We led a bunch of laps and spent nearly half the day running up inside the top ten. Now, late in the race, they were waiting on me to make my move. So was my team in the pits, especially my crew chief, Steve Letarte. Just a few months earlier we'd won the Daytona 500. But for whatever reason, we had never won together at Talladega. Today we really believed we had a chance to fix that.
But now, late in the race, I was stalled. We made a pit stop for fuel and I got stuck in the pack. I was boxed into my position with nowhere to go. With eight laps to go, I was setting up for my move to the front, but a slower, underfunded car moved in front of me.
At Talladega, you have to have a dance partner to team up with, to split the air, slip through it, and move up through the pack. But this car in front of me now, this was a bad dance partner. There was no way I could push that car to the front. Heck, there was no way I could push any of these cars around me to the front. I was jammed up, running three-wide in basically a 200-mph parking lot with nowhere to go.
I started doing the math in my head. How many laps were left? What was my running position? How many cars did I need to slide by to get back into the lead? I added all of that up and realized that the best I was going to do was get up into the top fifteen. Maybe.
So ... I lifted.
I did. I backed off and got out of there. I jumped on the radio and I told my team that I thought there was going to be a big crash and I was staying back so I could stay out of it and steer around it when it happened. At Talladega we call it the Big One, when a pack of cars, just like the one I was running in right now, all wreck at once. Cars start spinning and there's smoke everywhere and you have no idea where you are going, what you are going to hit, or what's going to hit you. Even when you do think you're about to steer clear of it all, a car -- or a wall -- can come out of nowhere.
I didn't want any part of that. Not today. So, yeah, I lifted my right foot out of the throttle and I let my Chevy ease back out of that pack. I watched them all move out ahead of me and then made sure to give them their distance, but not too far. I stayed close enough that I could still hang on to their draft, staying on the back edge of that aerodynamic bubble that would keep me close, but not too close. There were twenty-seven cars on the lead lap, and I settled into twenty-sixth. If they started wrecking, I would have enough room and time to get around that mess without getting hurt.
To be clear, this is a strategy that a lot of drivers have used over the years, but they always did that at the start of the race, not with a few laps to go like I was doing. They hung back waiting to make a dramatic late move. I wasn't going to make any moves. My only move was to stay safe.
That was my whole goal. Don't get hurt. Not again.
There's a famous NASCAR story about Bobby Isaac, the 1970 NASCAR Cup Series champion. A few years later, in the middle of a race at Talladega, Bobby came over the radio and told his team to get a relief driver ready because he was getting out of there. He pulled down pit road, climbed from his car, and walked straight to a pay phone and called his wife. Bobby told her that a voice had spoken to him, clear as a bell, and told him to get out of the car. Earlier in that same race, an old friend of his, Larry Smith, had gotten killed. Bobby was done. He didn't race again that season and only ran Talladega one more time. Looking back, that was really the day that his Hall of Fame career ended.
Riding out those final few laps that day at Talladega, there weren't any mysterious voices in my head. The only voice I heard was my own. I felt awful about what I was doing. It went against everything that being a racer is about. I knew I was going to have to answer questions about it, not just from my fans but from my team. But none of them knew what I had been going through that month. No one did. Not even my fiancée, Amy.
They did know what I had endured nearly two years earlier, on August 29, 2012. Everyone did. During a tire test at Kansas Speedway I hit the wall going 185 mph and suffered a concussion that eventually forced me to get out of the car for two races later that season.
--Taken from "Racing to the Finish: My Story" by Dale Earnhardt Jr Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.thomasnelson.com.