Grateful Earnhardt Jr. ready for normalcy at Darlington

DARLINGTON, S.C. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is grateful to be back at Darlington Raceway preparing to drive two weeks after he and his family escaped a plane in flames following a crash in Tennessee.

Earnhardt, set to drive the Xfinity Series event here Saturday, said he and his wife Amy are still processing the frightening events Aug. 15 at the airstrip in Elizabethton, where he had flown to call the Bristol race as an analyst for NBC Sports.

“I’m just thankful and ready to live our lives,” Earnhardt said Friday.

Earnhardt was with Amy, year-old daughter Isla, two pilots and the family dog. Investigators say the plane bounced multiple times during a crash landing and veered off the runway before ending up on a highway in flames. Everyone aboard was safe, though the 44-year-old Earnhardt received treatment on his sore back to ensure he could race at Darlington.

It will be his first time driving in NASCAR since finishing fourth at Richmond last year.

Earnhardt said the crash was a scary experience, but one he hopes to get past.

“It was a very tough experience to go through,” Earnhardt said. “I try not to get into that. Things happen for a reason. You just try to learn from it and move on.”

Earnhardt was NASCAR’s most popular driver for 15 straight seasons until his retirement from the Cup Series two years ago. Earnhardt went through a lengthy process to return to the track from concussion symptoms in 2016 after an accident in Michigan. He missed the second half of the season as he recovered and was cleared for what became his final year of racing in 2017.

Earnhardt has since been a fixture in NBC’s booth, bringing his wry, insightful perspective to audiences the past two years.

Earnhardt wouldn’t discuss details of the crash, citing a continuing investigation into the accident. He also wouldn’t go into his feelings at seeing video of the accident, a frightful scenewhere the family, pilots and the dog were seen rushing from the plane as the flames burned.

“We’ve just been taking some time for ourselves,” he said.

Amy and Isla will attend Earnhardt’s race, he said. Earnhardt said he’s taken enormous solace is being around the track and the NASCAR community.

“This is familiar to me, the faces, the people around the race track, the people in the media,” he said. “It’s great to be doing something normal.”

Whether that means contending for a win this weekend is another matter.

Earnhardt picked Darlington because of its throwback weekend and wanted to be part of the festivities. He also chose it because it requires an intelligence between handling the rough track surface and avoiding the walls on the 1.366-mile oval that come upon drivers so quickly, he said.

“It’s not about the results anymore; it’s about the experience,” Earnhardt said.

He will drive his JR Motorsports No. 8 in his first Xfinity race at Darlington since 1999. If things work out sponsorship-wise, Earnhardt said he’s got plans to run the Xfinity race at Homestead in Florida next March.

Earnhardt said he’s not afraid to get back on a plane. “I don’t have any problem with flying,” he said.

He acknowledged the healing is not over after thinking about what could’ve been. He’s relying on others to help him through.

“I’ve got a lot of great people around me who are supportive. Got a lot of great contacts of people who’ll be able to help me with any hurdles and obstacles,” he said. “I don’t see any problems.”

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