The Frontstretch: Did You Notice?...Common Sense Behind Junior's Big-Time Concussion by Thomas Bowles -- Thursday October 11, 2012

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Did You Notice?...Common Sense Behind Junior's Big-Time Concussion

Thomas Bowles · Thursday October 11, 2012


Did You Notice?… Today’s concussion diagnosis isn’t the first or even second since Junior’s last bout with this type of injury in 2002? Here’s a quick reminder of what Earnhardt told us in his press conference Thursday morning, a two-week “leave of absence” that might eclipse any piece of news collected this season – even the upcoming champion to be crowned come Homestead. (In case you’ve been living on an outpost, right now Earnhardt confirmed he’ll step out of the No. 88 due to a head injury initially suffered during a Kansas tire test, the end of August and then re-aggravated during Sunday’s last-lap wreck at Talladega.)

“Well, I can’t really recall precisely every [concussion] I’ve had,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Me and [NASCAR] Dr. Petty were trying to count them the other day. But those were really mild and you were fine in 48 hours.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s admission that he raced with a concussion brings the issue of a regular NASCAR medical team back into focus.

If I’m a competitor, I’m a bit unnerved by that statement. How many times has Earnhardt stepped in the car knowing he wasn’t 100 percent? Four times? Five? Ten? He was certainly doing it the last six weeks, worried post-testing that admitting symptoms to the wrong people could result in him getting sent to the sidelines.

“With the Chase coming up, I didn’t know how difficult — if I was to volunteer myself to medical attention and be removed from the car,” he said. “I didn’t know how difficult it would be to get back in.”

“When you have a concussion, the symptoms can be really mild, and then they’ll typically go away after a couple days and you feel perfectly normal. But then when you get in a car and you go around the track at a high rate of speed, you start to understand that some things just aren’t quite where they need to be and some reactions just aren’t as sharp.”

What that tells us is in times where Earnhardt erred on the side of aggression, keeping quiet rather than going to see a doctor he stepped into a car at less than 100 percent. Why is that risk different than other sports? In NASCAR, unlike the NFL a driver is not only risking his health but the health of others when he starts that engine hurt. A blackout at 200 miles an hour, in the midst of pack racing at Talladega could have wiped out the field at any moment, putting more drivers at risk in a sport that’s stressed safety is of paramount concern. It’s hard enough for a man like Earnhardt, hard-wired to compete under any circumstance to take the steps necessary to take care of himself. But when it comes to a 43-car field at risk, you can’t live with the tagline, “It’s his life. It’s his body.”

So what do you do? The sport has said, stressing again Thursday, they’ll send anyone who’s suspected of a concussion to a CT scan. But Earnhardt’s MRI was normal, meaning 90% of his diagnosis came from self-reported symptoms. That leaves the sport stuck between a rock and a hard place, especially because of the additional concerns involved. How can you have someone admit they’re sick if they refuse? At the same time, a small number of concussion diagnoses the last few years (this season, there have only been three – Earnhardt’s two and Eric McClure in the Nationwide Series) combined with virtually every driver interviewed Thursday saying they’ve raced with a head injury tells you NASCAR isn’t doing enough.

Having a weekly medical travel team, including doctors who are experts in this field would work wonders in getting these types of injuries properly diagnosed. That’s the elephant in the room, not talked about for awhile but one this sport refuses to budge on – medical crews are hired by individual tracks, leaving inconsistency in both reporting and diagnosis of injuries from one place to the next. How could you be a major sport, focused on safety and yet ignore an opportunity to create that type of synergy?

Did You Notice?… Earnhardt enters this weekend 11th in points, 51 out of the top spot with six races left in the Chase? That left his chances of winning near-impossible, especially with only one “game-changer” track left on the schedule (Martinsville). If teammate Jeff Gordon can’t gain any ground, running top 3 in three of the first four Chase events how can an injured Earnhardt?

That begs the question which wasn’t asked but what was on everyone’s mind: what if Earnhardt didn’t have such a bad start to the Chase? What if he was still in contention? Keep in mind without the postseason format, Earnhardt sits fourth in points, just 11 behind – easily within striking distance.

What would play out then? Based on Earnhardt’s answers Thursday, you’d have to think the philosophy would change to “What concussion?”

Did You Notice?… The position Steve Letarte was put in? I’m not going to hammer the guy for turning his driver in after hearing about what could have been a major concussion. According to Earnhardt, a promise was made to Letarte he would get out of the car if symptoms, back in his first race post-Kansas test (Atlanta in September) got too severe.

But at the same time, Letarte had knowledge no one else did about what could have been a serious health problem. Most athletes, as previously discussed are not going to take themselves out of a competitive situation with a victory – or in this case, a championship – at stake. Putting yourself in Letarte’s shoes, what would you do? Would you cover for a friend? I’m not sure, even if yes is the answer (and that probably would be mine, to be honest) that makes it right.

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Randy Goldman
10/12/2012 06:07 AM

Jr’s out and nascar’s viewers fall.

RG’s out and front stretch readers and commenters slowly die away.


10/12/2012 07:37 AM

Hhmmmmm…I am not a member of Junior Nation….to me he’s one of 43 guys on the track…not a hater..he’s just not one of “my guys”. But, with Junior out the next couple or so races…I am reading and hearing on tv…NASCAR moaning, the media moaning, and fans moaning…no Junior what will become of NASCAR! I truly hope for his speedy recovery…but I am truly baffled about all the doom and gloom! Has NASCAR really hung all it’s hopes and dreams on one man? Have I been watching a sport for over 30 years that really isn’t a sport…but a gigantic fan club for guys with the last name Earnhardt? I truly wish Junior well…and guess I better start pulling for him on the track. Afterall, from what I’m hearing, without an Earnhardt there is no NASCAR! Very odd, very odd indeed!

10/12/2012 07:38 AM

I don’t believe it for minute. There’s something else going on. And the “…self-reported symptoms” comment seals the deal for me.

Bill B
10/12/2012 09:50 AM

I thought the same thing Tom. Had Jr not been mathematically disadvantaged in the chase as a result of last week’s bad finish, he would have continued to drive hurt. While I can come down on Latarte a little bit for not saying something, it really has to be left up to the driver to raise his hand to NASCAR unless the symptoms are so ovbious that anyone close to the driver can tell something ain’t right.

Randy, are you for real?

Do you actually believe Frontstretch website traffic has been affected by anything you’ve done? Or are you just joking?
If it’s the former you are the most egocentric, deluded, narcisistic person I’ve ever encountered on the internet. If it’s the latter, you got me. I fell for it and the jokes on me.

10/12/2012 10:11 AM

Junior was parked for his comments about Talladega. Concussion is the cover up.

RG- Keep ‘em coming, makes me laugh at you each time.

Mike In NH
10/12/2012 01:42 PM

Bring on the tin hat brigade. Sometimes a concussion is just a concussion.

Chris T.
10/12/2012 05:18 PM

Get a grip on grammar, man.
At least use a dictionary once in a while.

Old farmer
10/12/2012 10:42 PM

Somehow, I seriously doubt that NASCAR will somehow or another greatly suffer from Jr.‘s 2-week demise. He & the sport are not synynomous;he’s just part of it. NASCAR will survive w/o him just fine.

Steve K
10/12/2012 11:45 PM

I have heard failed drug test rumors from multiple people from the Lake Norman area. Rumor or not, it is very odd that they know how long it will take for his concussion to heal. If only Sydney Crosby had that knowledge.


Contact Tom Bowles

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