NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beth’s Brief: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is Back, But Should He Be?

The news everyone has waited the last couple of days for has finally come out–Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has been cleared to race beginning at Martinsville Speedway this weekend. Having been forced to sit out two events following a concussion that he originally suffered after crash at a Kansas test in late August and then aggravated in a last-lap pileup at Talladega, Earnhardt, Jr. found himself in need of a neurosurgeon’s clearance before he could return to the car.

While he was on the sidelines, Earnhardt visited the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program at the University of Pittsburgh, where he met the Dr. Michael Collins, executive director of the concussion program that assisted in the development of the ImPACT baseline test currently used in the IndyCar Series, National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and so much more.

On Monday, the 38-year-old Earnhardt participated in a 123-lap test at the half-mile Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Georgia with neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty present. They then followed up that test with a neuropsychological evaluation in Charlotte before Junior was cleared to compete. Dr. Petty also consulted with Dr. Collins throughout Earnhardt, Jr.’s recovery.

“Dale [Earnhardt], Jr. has done everything asked of him,” Dr. Petty said in a team release. “He hasn’t had a headache since October 12th and we have not been able to provoke any symptoms since that time. I have informed NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports that he is medically cleared for all NASCAR-related activity.”

But does Junior really have anything to gain by returning to the car with only four races remaining?

Simply put–not really. After all, while Earnhardt is still mathematically in the championship hunt, it’s all but impossible for him to mount a serious challenge at 122 points behind leader Brad Keselowski. With so few events left, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet would have to gain nearly 31 points per race to find himself within striking distance, something that’s about as likely to happen as NASCAR admitting they’ve made a mistake.

But what about race wins? Those never get old, right? Well that’s true but at what cost? It’s not like Junior hasn’t won in the Cup Series before. Honestly, ESPN analyst Ricky Craven said it best not long after the announcement that Earnhardt, Jr. had been sidelined.

“My gut tells me Dale Jr. is probably done for the rest of the season,” Craven told Sporting News’ Matt Crossman a couple weeks ago (http://aol.sportingnews.com/nascar/story/2012-10-11/dale-earnhardt-jr-concussion-update-wreck-ricky-craven-crash-head-injury). “If he’s having symptoms, there’s no logic in getting back behind the wheel this year, with just a few races until the offseason.”

To understand Craven’s statement, you need a little background, though. Back in 1997, the then-driver had suffered a hard crash in a practice session at Texas Motor Speedway and sat out just two weeks before returning to the car despite headaches that would leave him in tears at home. It was at least eight months after the concussion where Craven first experienced what he felt was an inverted plane flight, despite being assured by the pilot that the plane was right side up.

Three months later, the problems continued. During a race in Atlanta, Craven began feeling like he would fly out of the driver’s seat heading into the corner at the 1.54-mile quad-oval. The next day, Craven headed to the doctor where he was diagnosed with a vestibular weakness, a balance problem that has an unknown cause.

And the result? He ended up sitting out for four months. That’s right … rather than sitting out when the concussion initially happened, Craven was forced to put his career on hold. So when you look at it that way, is another four races really all that much? In a word, no. After all, that decision would have given Earnhardt, Jr. not only the remaining six weeks of the year but also nearly three months of the offseason before putting himself in a position to possibly aggravate that concussion even more.

Now I’m not saying that Craven’s situation is related to Earnhardt, Jr.’s except for the concussion part; however, I’m also not so sure four races are really worth the risk of Earnhardt’s injury being reaggrivated yet again–which could leave him with symptoms much closer to those Craven suffered. Ultimately, it was a decision put in the hands of the driver and team owner following the medical clearance to race, but I question whether four races is worth the possibility of a bigger problem in Earnhardt, Jr.’s future.

Sure, there are plenty of fans that want to see that familiar Earnhardt name running and I can’t blame them. But in the interest of safety and prevention for future problems, the smarter decision would be to sit on the sidelines for the remainder of the year, something that’s difficult–if not impossible–for a driver to do.

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