Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?…Common Sense Behind Junior’s Big-Time Concussion

*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.

*Connect with Tom!*

“Contact Tom Bowles”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14345/

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