Dale Earnhardt Jr. reiterated Sunday he has no plans to retire from a concussion that's had him sidelined since early July and will cause him to miss the remainder of the 2016 NASCAR season.
"I have the passion and the desire to drive," Earnhardt said at Darlington Raceway, the site of Sunday night's Southern 500. "I enjoy it. I have an amazing team and a great owner. I'm in such a great position and am enjoying being a part of the sport."
Hendrick Motorsports announced Friday Earnhardt would not compete the rest of the season, as he continues to recover from a concussion sustained in a crash during a June 12 race at Michigan International Speedway.
The concussion is Earnhardt's third in four years and fourth since 2002, and that history of head injuries has prompted speculation whether NASCAR's most popular driver should consider retiring. When asked if he has given such consideration, Earnhardt said he intends to resume racing if he is medically cleared and his doctors approve him doing so.
"My heart is there to continue," Earnhardt said. "And if my doctor says that I'm physically able to continue, then that's an easier decision for me to make. It's not something that I think about. We're trying to focus on just getting well and getting normal. So, I intentionally really put all those thoughts and concerns and consideration on the back burner until I can really just say that I feel normal.
"I'm only 41. I think I have some good years left. I'm as good as I have ever been inside the car. My ability to communicated and drive the car and get everything out of it, I feel very confident. I feel like I'm still an asset to the team and to the company."
Earnhardt has already missed six races and will not drive in the season's final 12 events. Alex Bowman and Jeff Gordon have filled in during Earnhardt's absence and will continue to do so for the duration of the season.
Earnhardt said he is targeting a return for the start of the 2017 season, which begins with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. But he acknowledges the decision to return may not ultimately be his. He fully admits that right now he doesn't possess the ability to race, as he continues to struggle with issues related to balance and vision even though he feels better every day.
"I definitely don't belong in a race car today by any stretch of the imagination," Earnhardt said.
Also taking part in Sunday's press conference with Earnhardt were team owner Rick Hendrick and Dr. Micky Collins of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program, where Earnhardt's been undergoing regular evaluations.
Collins said the decision to have Earnhardt sit out the remaining 12 races was made to alleviate any stress Earnhardt may have been feeling to return and focus solely on his recovery. Collins made the decision in conjunction with Dr. Jerry Petty, a Charlotte-based neurosurgeon who frequently treats NASCAR drivers.
"We sat down and I feel very strongly the right decision was made to take Dale out of racing, so we can focus on getting him better and reduce the stress that is associated with that," Collins said. "Stress and concussion don't get along well and we see stress can really exacerbate and worsen things. I don't think its coincidence that since we made that decision we are starting to see a lot of progress here that I'm excited about.
"Though he is improving it is very clear that his test result and our findings, the things we look at are not back to normal. Dale is a competitor. He wants to be back in a race car like no other. The stress that he puts on himself for that is very apparent when I sit down and talk to Dale, he wants to race."