_Did you see all of the race action this weekend? Or, like a lot of busy fans, did you miss a late-night adventure, a Friday controversy, or a juicy piece of news? If you did, you’ve come to the right place! Each week, The Frontstretch will break down the racing, series by series, to bring you the biggest stories that you need to watch moving forward. Let our experts help you get up to speed for the coming week no matter what series you might have missed, all in this edition of Pace Laps!_
*Sprint Cup: As The Concussion Turns* — The biggest story by far this weekend was the news Dale Earnhardt, Jr., NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver, was out of the car for the Bank of America 500 and will remain sidelined at least through Kansas this weekend after suffering a concussion in a last-lap wreck at Talladega. Earnhardt had suffered a similar head injury five weeks ago, after crashing during a tire test at Kansas Speedway, but it initially went undiagnosed. However, the second hit last week left him suffering from headaches, consistent enough in their severity that the driver took action. After seeing Dr. Jerry Petty, a Charlotte neurosurgeon who has worked with numerous NASCAR personnel as well as the Carolina Panthers NFL team, Earnhardt was declared unfit to race. Regan Smith jumped in the No. 88 Saturday night, putting the car well inside the top 10 before suffering engine failure before the 200-mile mark.
The big question here is, of course, when Earnhardt will return to racing. There is no certain timeline, even though getting medically cleared after Kansas is the goal. Dr. Petty explained Thursday that once Earnhardt is experiencing no headaches at all and remains pain-free for three to five days, he’ll be put through some physical tests to raise his heart rate. If that produces a headache, he can’t be cleared. If it doesn’t, Earnhardt will test a race car for a few laps. If he’s still not experiencing any headache or other symptoms after that, he can be cleared to race.
The hard part is putting a timeline on a healing brain. The effects of concussions are cumulative, and with two head injuries in a short period of time, healing can take longer. There is simply no way to predict when the symptoms will subside; it could happen within days or it could take weeks. No doubt fans and teams alike will be keeping an eye on this process in the coming days, awaiting Earnhardt’s return and crossing their fingers for a full, healthy recovery. _Amy Henderson_
*IndyCar: Offseason Odds And Ends* Detroit’s Belle Isle race course is getting a bit of a face lift in the offseason. Deteriorating concrete caused part of the track to come up, bringing out a lengthy red flag for repairs and shortening the distance of the event this past season so event organizers are repaving several sections of the course for 2013. Additionally, a few tweaks are being made to the layout in order to enhance competition. The course will be extended one-quarter mile, entering the right-hand Turn 3 to result in a one-lap distance of 2.346 miles. That’s the track length utilized from 1997-2001 as the road course goes “old school” to bring a fresh new look to their IndyCar event.
“It will be a more suitable racetrack for us with more passing opportunities,” said Sebastien Bourdais, one of several drivers to visit the track and view the work in progress. “It’s all good news. [Event chairman] Bud Denker is planning quite a few more things to improve passing, which is a sign of commitment. It’s a big effort from Bud and everyone. They have gone the extra mile when all they had to do was patch some areas.”
In other news, IZOD IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves will not bring home a second Mirror Ball trophy. Castroneves was eliminated from competition on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars: All-Stars after week three. Castroneves and professional partner Chelsie Hightower earned scores that tied them for fourth from the judges on the show. However, viewer/fan voting makes up the other half of a couple’s weekly total, and the duo came up short on the vote. _Toni Montgomery_
*Nationwide Series: Stenhouse’s Steep Hill To Climb* Time is officially running out for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Friday night marked another race in which the No. 6 team didn’t finish where they could… or should… have. There is no gap in equipment at this point between Stenhouse and Elliott Sadler’s No. 2 team. The difference is self-induced mistakes, and surprisingly it is the defending champions that keep making them.
This weekend, yet another instance of Stenhouse slapping the wall on his own accord and damaging his race car came back to bite the No. 6 team; poor communication between driver and crew following the scrape led to an extended pit stop that fixed nothing. Instead, the incident managed to mire the team so far back in traffic that they never recovered. Their seventh-place finish cost them precious points in the standings as championship leader Sadler wound up third. Though nothing new, tension was audible over the Stenhouse team radio, with the driver proving almost dismissive to the concerns of his crew regarding the damage (“It’s driving fine,” snapped the wheelman at one point as the crew attempted to problem solve).
Clearly, aggression is what’s kept Stenhouse up front both on track and in the championship this year. But there’s no races left to leave points on the table, meaning that type of style threatens to come back and bite him. The mistakes, be they on pit road or on track, have to stop now for the No. 6 team; consistency, not controversy, needs to return with four races left. For if chief rival, Sadler, has shown anything in recent weeks, the No. 2 team isn’t blinking with the prize in sight.
Right now, they’re the ones with the edge. _Bryan Keith_
*ARCA: Mother Nature Makes Mincemeat of Championship Battle* Rain washed out the rescheduled race at DuQuoin Fairgrounds this Sunday, leading ARCA to cancel the Southern Illinois 100. Suddenly, Chris Buescher’s 85-point lead only has to hold for one event, an intermediate oval that most would consider far safer than 100 miles on the dirt track.
For Frank Kimmel, Buescher’s only real challenger for the championship, the cancellation is devastating. Kimmel is arguably ARCA’s most accomplished dirt racer, and the No. 44 team was counting on DuQuoin to make their move. Now, heading to the intermediates that have been an inconsistent challenge for Kimmel ever since leaving Tri-State Motorsports’ No. 46 car in 2007, there’s realistically nothing he and team can do other than to win at Kansas and hope Buescher finds trouble on-track or under the hood.
It looks like that’s going to be more of a miracle than you might think. Buescher’s No. 17 team hasn’t finished outside the top 5 on an intermediate oval at _any point_ in 2012, their strongest track type in what’s become a diverse championship resume. Is it finally time for the odds to catch up with him? Probably not. Unless a part breaks, Mother Nature may well have ended ARCA’s title chase one race early. _Bryan Keith_
*Short Tracks: Turning out the lights for 2013* A sad bit of news for Short Track fans in the Charlotte area came down this past week. The half mile track at Concord Speedway will not be in operation on a weekly basis in 2013. The folks who have taken over the track made an effort this season to try and entice competitors who have stopped competing at the track to return. However, $2,000 to win Late Model races resulted in fields that were barely in double-digit car counts and some that were single digits. The lasting effects of several years of ill feelings among the racing community in the area are going to take some time to overcome and it appears that the new management is going to take some time to let those wounds heal.
In talking with racers in the area who have competed at the track before but haven’t gone back, there is some sentiment that it is not just the history. Concord is a very fast half-mile race track with a dogleg on the back straight that makes it look like a small Pocono Raceway. The speeds at the track are some of the highest anywhere on a local half-mile racetrack and, as a result, when crashes occur they are very big. It is a rare day when a wreck at Concord does not result in needing to replace the front or rear clip, or both, on a car. The specter of an expensive repair like that looming over the head of racers seems to be the reason that many of them are staying away from the track.
Concord is in a great location and should easily be one of the most popular racetracks in the country. It may be time for the owners to bite the bullet and reconfigure the facility, removing the dogleg on the back straight, just to slow the cars down a little so that wrecks aren’t quite as expensive for the competitors. For now, though it does sound like some of the touring series are still going to try and hold events on the big track so it hopefully won’t be totally mothballed for the 2013 racing season. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that the facility can continue to survive, eventually coming up with a way to lure back the talent that resides in the area and restore the great racing to one of the coolest short tracks in the country.
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