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.
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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