The Frontstretch: Earnhardt's Absence Comes At the Wrong Time for NASCAR, But It's Still the Right Decision by Amy Henderson -- Thursday October 11, 2012

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Earnhardt's Absence Comes At the Wrong Time for NASCAR, But It's Still the Right Decision

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday October 11, 2012


Dale Earnhardt, Jr. knew he didn’t feel right. Struggling with headaches in the days following a multicar crash at Talladega, Earnhardt finally had to admit that something wasn’t right. It wasn’t the aches and pains a driver can feel for a few days after a hard hit, and deep down, Earnhardt knew it. “I knew that I didn’t feel (right)—you know your body and you know how your mind works, and I knew something was not quite right,” Earnhardt said on Thursday. The lingering headaches prompted Earnhardt to contact Dr. Jerry Petty, a Charlotte neurosurgeon who has worked with numerous athletes, including other drivers.

Dr. Petty did the normal battery of tests, including an MRI…and the results came back normal. But his patient didn’t feel normal. That’s not uncommon; Earnhardt has what is known in medical terms as a diffuse axonal injury, which does not show on scans. In fact the only test for this type of injury is what the patient is feeling. And in the end, what Earnhardt was feeling made the decision of Petty: he couldn’t clear NASCAR’s most popular driver to race for at least two weeks.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s made the right decision for himself, his career, and the safety of his competitors.

Earnhardt didn’t have to go see Dr. Petty. He finished the race, so he wasn’t required to go to the infield care center, a trip that is mandatory if a driver crashes and cannot continue. NASCAR can make a driver get checked out if the situation warrants, but at the time, it didn’t look like it did; Earnhardt remembered the crash and gave a coherent—if unhappy—interview afterward. Nobody made Earnhardt go. They didn’t make him go after a vicious crash during a tire test at Kansas five weeks ago either, and, sitting near the top of the points, poised to make his first title run in years in which he had a chance of winning, Earnhardt, though he knew he had a concussion then, didn’t go.

This time, though, enough was enough. The impact at Talladega was actually less severe than the one at Kansas, which registered at nearly 40 G’s. This one was just half that, and yet Earnhardt didn’t recover within a couple of days. He’d started the Chase at an admitted 80-90% of his usual self, and had just started feeling 100% again.

That was erased on Sunday.

He’ll be reevaluated once the headaches are gone and stay gone for three to five days. Then he’ll undergo tests to see if they come back when his body is stressed. If they don’t, he’ll test in a racecar. If there are still no signs of the injury, he’ll be cleared to race. So while for now, he’ll sit out two weeks, there are no guarantees that he’ll be back in the No. 88 at Martinsville.

For NASCAR, the timing couldn’t be worse.

The sport has struggled to maintain fan interest; television ratings for the championship Chase are at an all-time low for the format’s nine-year existence. At track attendance is suffering, too. At most tracks, large swaths of empty seats are evident. And while it could be debated whether Earnhardt’s title run was already over before Thursday, it ended for certain with the announcement at Charlotte, the sport’s true home track. For a sport already facing a downturn, Earnhardt’s injury is salt in the wounds. The sport’s most popular driver in both the fan vote for the award and in merchandise sales, Earnhardt brings a legion of diehard fans to the track and the TV set every week. Many said Thursday that they will still attend or watch this weekend’s race and cheer for Earnhardt’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team.

But will they keep watching?

That’s the real question. If Earnhardt is able to race at Martinsville, the damage will probably be minimal. But if he has to sit out longer, maybe even through the end of the year, though, will those fans still watch every week? Will they come to the track on an autumn Sunday if they don’t already have tickets or travel plans? Those are questions the sport could find itself facing. And the answers might not be pretty.

But bad timing aside, Earnhardt made the right decision.

And there are positive side effects of it as well. Recently displaced Regan Smith will have the opportunity to showcase his talents to car owners in top equipment. There’s no question that it’s a major opportunity for Smith, who has one career Sprint Cup win. And because Smith was slated to drive the No. 51 this weekend at Charlotte, that suddenly vacant seat opened up for AJ Allmendinger, a second chance after a much-publicized suspension for a failed drug test earlier this year. So far it’s only a one-race deal, but one look at Allmendinger this weekend reveals the extent of the joy and relief he must be feeling after four long months of wondering what the future holds. While that’s still uncertain, he’s making the most of the opportunity, and just knowing that car owners still have confidence in him has to be a weight off his shoulders.

Smith didn’t even know until this morning that he’d be behind the wheel of one of the most visible cars in the sport. Shortly afterward, Smith was at Hendrick Motorsports, seeing if he could feel comfortable in Earnhardt’s seats. He ended up in one of teammate Jimmie Johnson’s, and climbed into it inside the No. 88 a few hours later at the track. Smith acclimated quickly; he posted a seventh-place time in practice. He qualified 26th. And along the way, Rick Hendrick revealed something else about Smith. When asked why he chose the driver, Hendrick said, “We’ve been talking about running him in the Nationwide car for a championship. He’s a good driver, and again, Dale likes him and we’re familiar with him. We knew he was going to be in James’ car, and that was just—it seemed to fit.”

So it turns out that this could be an audition of sorts for Smith, a chance at a ride that might be a better option than any of the Cup rides that might still be available. But the person benefiting from Earnhardt’s absence is still the one person who wanted it the least: Earnhardt himself.

“It’s going to be pretty odd not being in the car.” Earnhardt admitted Thursday. “I’m anxious, real, real anxious just to get back in the car…I think you learn not to take things for granted.” He will not be at the speedway Saturday night, and will not travel to Kansas. He needs to rest to heal, and he doesn’t want to be any more of a distraction for his team than the situation has already become. But as much as Earnhardt knows he needs to take the time off, knows that no matter how well he feels otherwise, that the headaches mean that his brain has not healed.

Anyone who has ever participated in a competitive sport knows how hard this must really be for Earnhardt. After all, it’s been more than 30 years since there has been a Cup race without an Earnhardt in it, and that kind of thing means something to this driver. He understands the history of the sport because he’s lived it since childhood in many ways. He also feels the pressure of doing right by his fans. But above all, Earnhardt is a competitor, and it’s painfully hard for a competitor to give up completion for a failing of the body. Just how much it weighs on Earnhardt was evident in his voice as he faced the media on Thursday. He sounded defeated, betrayed. And he has been, by the worst of traitors: his own body.

But in the end, something just wasn’t right, and this time, Earnhardt couldn’t ignore it. He did something his own teammate, Jeff Gordon, admits he wouldn’t—he told the truth about his injury, even though the championship was still a possibility. He chose to put not only his health and safety, but the health and safety of his competitors ahead of his selfish desire to race. He hadn’t done that in the past (Earnhardt said he’s suffered concussions before.), and that he did now speaks volumes about the extent of the injury this time, but also about Earnhardt’s character. He wants to race for a long time, live a long life…and he wants the same for his rivals. Concussions are cumulative in nature-each time the brain is injured, it becomes vulnerable to another injury, one that could be much more serious, if it isn’t given time to heal. And at this point in the season, Earnhardt has time. If he misses the end of the year, in the long run, it’s a low point of his career, but not a career-ender…like another injury could be.

And so, Earnhardt will take the time he needs to heal, and his competitors will respect him even more than they already did, because he made a decision they can only hope they never have to. Because deep down, they don’t know if they could make the same decision.

But there was one other thing that was bothering Earnhardt on Thursday, something that, perhaps, says as much about the person he is as anything else amid the buzz. “I just hate that this has caused such a fuss,” Earnhardt said.

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NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
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Carl D.
10/12/2012 07:11 AM

This is a tough one. I’m a long-time fan who knows that Nascar isn’t about one driver. To me, there’s not one driver whose absence would make me not want to watch a race. I’m a big Brad Keselowski fan, but should he miss a race, I’d still watch it. There are plenty of other drivers to pull for.

That’s me. I admittedly don’t understand how the newer race fan feels about watching a race without their favorite driver. Maybe this is a bigger blow to Nascar than I realize. Maybe the ratings will surprise me, though it will be hard to tell if a drop in viewership is due to the absence of Earnhardt or just the continuation of the current trend. Personally, my feeling is that if Nascar is relying on Junior Nation to keep the ratings up, there’s a bigger problem with the sport than Earnhardt missing a few races.

Ol Guy
10/12/2012 07:12 AM

Actually, NASCAR would get a lot more of my attention if Jr. weren’t in it at all.

10/12/2012 09:22 AM

I’m with Carl…I can take or leave Junior…no disrespect..he’s just not on my list of drivers. I too am baffled that there is worry without Junior NASCAR is in trouble. What that tells me is alot of fans don’t care that much about the racing..they are more interested in obsessing over drivers with the last name Earnhardt…and I find that very odd. Maybe, as Carl says, NASCAR is in bigger trouble then I thought … They obviously have stacked all their cards on the Earnhardt deck…and it has come out bust. Hopefully it will all work out…fans will realize there are 42 other drivers on the track…or Junior will heal quickly and be back on track. All and all…NASCAR needs to take a serious look at the sport!

Bill B
10/12/2012 09:37 AM

Earnhardt’s absence will definitely hurt attendance and ratings. If Johnson starts to pull away from the other drivers in the chase that will be a double whammy.

The higher level issues in this situation are;

1) How many drivers have had concussions before and not said anything? I am sure it has happened many, many times. I am pretty sure Earnhardt Sr was driving with a concussion in 1999 or 2000 (remember him feeling “woozy”).

2)Knowing that you will be forced to sit out if you speak up, how will this affect other drivers from saying something if they have a similar issue? Afterall, Jr is pretty much secure in his position, most drivers aren’t and they never want to give up their seat for fear that they won’t get it back.

3) How is NASCAR going to react? You’ve seen that many other sports have gotten serious about sitting players out if they have indications of head injuries. Will drivers now be more thoroughly checked out after an accident and forcing drivers to sit out more often?

And one last thought. If NASCAR does get more apt to sit guys out if there is any doubt of head trauma, will they change the rule on relief drivers being allowed. One of the main reasons guys drive hurt is because a missed week puts you out of contention. No race, no points. People have often talked about mulligans during the chase or even the regular season, if there were drivers might be more honest about being less than 100%.

just talking
10/12/2012 10:00 AM

I think this is the start of Junior’s departure from racing. (Who will get all the hatred then – yikes.)

It is the racing that has diminished my interest in Nascar – although I still catch most races.

I pay attention to Junior, but will still watch the race with or without him.

10/12/2012 10:18 AM

To the above who commented. I guess you just don’t get it. To a loyal Dale Jr fan, NASCAR is Dale Jr. Without him on the track NASCAR just becomes a loud bunch of cars going around in circles. I’ve been a Dale Jr fan since he was about 6 yrs old going to the track with his dad. I followed him when he began racing at Myrtle Beach and continued when he started the Busch series. The loyalty I feel toward him is maternal. There are many like me who have loved this child for many years, and our hearts are wounded at the present time. Not for NASCAR though. We have lived with him through many tragedies and many triumps. He is family. Younger fans may have a different view, but he is the only reason I either sit in the stands or in front of the TV keenly watching this sport.

Now for those who don’t understand this loyalty, I can’t explain it. But I assure you it is as real as the sun coming up each morning. Amy knows us very well or she couldn’t have written this story. Yes, NASCAR will suffer a monetary setback if our driver cannot drive for two weeks, even more if that time is extended to the end of the year. But that is a small price to pay for his long-term welfare.

I’ve been thinking back to when his dad died at Tona. No other driver’s death could have caused NASCAR to push full-speed ahead on the list of safety equipment and walls at the track. It’s just possible that this incident with Dale Jr may be the starting point of better procedures for examining drivers after a wreck. It may require drivers to visit a neurologist within the next week for clearance to race. This would be a new frontier for this sport to explore. After all, a driver exhibiting signs of a concussion shouldn’t be racing not only for their sake but the sake of the other drivers as well.

There are many JrNation fans who are praying for a speedy and full recovery for Dale Jr. If and when that happens, NASCAR will be fine.

Andy D
10/12/2012 10:51 AM

If Junior wasn’t in 11th place I doubt he would have reported the concussion. Just as he ignored the eefects from Kansas at the start of the chase (possibly ensuring that he would sink in the points). The story isn’t that Talladega aggravated the previous injury, it’s that he ignored it earlier.

And I see today that NASCAR doesn’t check for concussions in the infield car center and doesn’t plan too. That attitude is what gor the NFL in hot water. These are competitors with their paycheck on the line. Very few will willfully sit out an injury.

I think that the love of the driver over the sport is partially why NASCAR has declined in the last decade. But that’s an article for another day.

just talking
10/12/2012 10:51 AM

You go Pepper – maternal is the exact right word – in my case paternal – but in many ways he is like our own – and just like our own sometimes we want more from him, but he is still our own.

Pepper – thank you.

10/12/2012 11:38 AM

Hmmmm…I guess understand the comments about maternal and paternal…but I will admit I still find it slightly strange! Ok I admit..I find it really strange. I’ll just have to leave it at that because I have no intention of starting a war with Junior Nation…I just have to shake my head and keep watching NASCAR the sport not NASCAR the Earnhardt show.

Bill B
10/12/2012 12:28 PM

While I wouldn’t go as far as to use the word parternal or maternal, I can understand where the Jr fans are coming from.

I became a fan in the mid-90’s and Jeff Gordon was the driver that got me interested. Until Brian France came along and changed so much so quickly (for the worse in my opinion) I considered myself a NASCAR fan first and a Gordon fan second. I fell in love with the sport the way it was in the pre-BF era. Now I feel like the sport has changed and it isn’t the same girl I fell in love with. I still watch every lap of every race but my motivation is my loyalty to Jeff Gordon and I feel sold out by NASCAR. When Gordon retires I am not saying that I will stop watching or caring about NASCAR but my involvement, the time I spend, etc. will be re-evaluated. I may still watch the races but not watch practices, qualifying, etc. Or maybe I will become a DVR fan, watching the whole event in a couple of hours. The point is, I can understand where they are coming from even though my motivation is more rebellion or payback toward someone screwing up something that I loved than maternal/parternal instincts.

10/12/2012 12:52 PM

Not being a Jr. fan, all I can say is I wish him a speedy recovery.

10/12/2012 01:01 PM

Did Jimmie Johnson go to the care center after getting a ride from JR. ?

10/12/2012 01:58 PM

Bill I get being a fan, having a driver, and being kind of protective towards that driver..what i don’t understand is being so obsessed or involved in a strangers life to the point his life is not his own… To the point that stranger is a big focus in one’s life! A great portion of Junior nation know more things about his family then they do their own..and maybe more then Junior does! I find that odd.
Just my opinion. To each their own. Live and let live as they say!

Bill B
10/12/2012 02:40 PM

Ahh, I see and I agree. While I would feel a personal sense of loss if something tragic happened to Jeff, I know very little about his personal life beyond the obvious stuff that we all hear on the tv (birthday, wife and kids names, etc), and you know what, I really have no interest in knowing anything else about him not related to NASCAR. So yes, there is a fine line between being a fan and being obsessed.

Sherri T
10/12/2012 05:10 PM

I had never really thought about how I felt about NASCAR as opposed to how I felt about the drivers that I like, but now that it’s mentioned, I have noticed a shift in the Brian F era.

I remember 10 years ago, going to a race and buying a ticket holder that just had “NASCAR” on it because I really didn’t want to choose a particular driver, I just liked the sport. I was already a Jeff Gordon fan, but I liked many others, Jr, Bobby Labonte, etc, but with all the changes to the sport, I too find that I’m more concerned with my drivers than with the sport in general.

Sadly, enough that when the drivers I like retire, I may not spend the hours to watch all the racing content that I watch now. Practice, qualifying, pre-race and post-race. When I think about that, I suspect that NASCAR may be in for much worse times ahead, because other than Keselowski, I haven’t really connected with many of the younger drivers and if that is the same with many of the current fans, the decline might just be going much farther than BF suspects.

I am glad that Jr is taking the time to care for himself. I hope the “fuss” doesn’t bother him too much because I think he’s made the right decision and I wish him well! His main focus SHOULD be health, not worry about the sport. He is, after all, only human and his health is important.

10/12/2012 05:57 PM

So we have a new car coming in 2013…..

How long before the Chase is NO MORE?

Nascar only listens when they lose money. And I hope they lose BIG TIME.

We want our Nascar back.

10/12/2012 10:38 PM

This story has barely moved the needle on sports talk radio.

The Chase is not doing what it was supposed to do.

Sponsors and fans are slowly moving away.


Contact Amy Henderson

Recent articles from Amy Henderson:

Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Announces Partnership with Cessna, Textron
Fans To Decide Format of Sprint Unlimited at Daytona
UNOH and Kentucky Speedway Extend Sponsorship Agreement
Earnhardt Out For Charlotte and Kansas After Talldega Concussion
Piquet, Jr. Wins K&N East Opener

Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.