The whispers began almost immediately.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who sustained two concussions in just six weeks, would supposedly miss just two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and then return to the track at Martinsville. But around the garage, there were plenty of people who quietly speculated NASCAR's biggest star might be out for the rest of the season – or longer.
Former drivers told horror stories about how concussions affected their careers. Fans took to social media to declare their preference for Earnhardt getting his health in order before making a comeback. And with his Chase hopes finished, reporters observed there was no competitive reason for him to return before the end of the season.
Those people were not alone in their concerns. More than a week after his concussion at Talladega, Earnhardt still felt an increased level of anxiety about his symptoms – and had few answers.
"I was just really frustrated about, ‘Man, how long is this going to last?'" he said Friday. "Is this ever going to be right again?"
But after a visit to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's sports concussion program, everything changed. His confusion and frustration began to subside, and Earnhardt felt he got the answers he needed.
So did the doctors. Finding nothing to prevent him from returning to the track, Earnhardt was deemed fit to drive after he completed a 123-lap test at a Georgia short track this week.
By Friday afternoon, he was back in his familiar No. 88 car and making laps around the paperclip-shaped Martinsville Speedway, just like nothing had ever happened.
All was right in NASCAR again.
"I'm excited to get back to normal," he said. "I'm excited to get back to the life I'm used to."
The question is this: Should he? Should Earnhardt have made a comeback after suffering what he said were between four to six concussions in his career? Should he risk future mental illness in the name of competition?
Yes. And the primary reason is this: The doctors said he can.
If there were any concerns among the top concussion specialists in the country, Earnhardt would have been held out longer. He was bluntly honest with them about his symptoms – even speaking with the head of UPMC's concussion program twice daily – and promised himself he'd "do it right" instead of rushing his comeback.
The driver became more educated in the process of learning what happened to his head. Each concussion is like a snowflake, he said, and it affects people differently each time. The massive hit sustained in an August testing crash at Kansas was the sort of concussion that left him with headaches and fogginess; the Talladega concussion was in a different location in his brain and left him feeling emotional and anxious.
Earnhardt knows more now, and knows not to mess with head injuries. He would not have come back if he didn't think he was fully recovered.
"I don't care who you are: When your mind is not working the way it's supposed to, it'll scare the s--- out of you," he said. "You're not gonna think about race cars or trophies or your job, you're going to think about, ‘What do I gotta do to get my brain working how it was before?' That's going to jump right to the top of the priority list, I promise you.
"I definitely take it more seriously now after everything I've learned. I'm glad I did what I did."
The driver compared concussion symptoms to a computer that gets bogged down with too many programs running at once – and his processor is back at full speed now.
But what if he takes another shot in a big wreck? What if he blows a tire next week at Texas and slams the wall again? What if he gets caught in the Big One in next season's Daytona 500? What if one more concussion ends his career?
It's a risk the driver is willing to take.
Is it foolish? No more so than what every NASCAR driver does every week. There's always a chance of a crash, of a serious injury – or worse.
That's part of the dangerous game racers play. But just because Earnhardt has had several concussions doesn't mean he can't return to the track and resume his normal life.
So if it happens again?
"The one thing I can tell you is I'm going to be honest with myself and honest with the doctors and I'll do whatever they tell me to do," he said. "I want to be able to live a full life and not have any issues down the road. ... We can just hope I don't have any more big hits for while. I want to race another five, 10 years and have some fun."
Circumstances will dictate if that's possible. But one thing is clear: Sitting at home for a few more weeks was pointless – unless he decided to never come back. If Earnhardt planned to race again, there was no reason to wait until 2013 to do so.
Doctors said Earnhardt is recovered and ready to go, so here he is. Whether another injury lurks around the next turn? It's a danger he and every other driver are willing to accept.