Drivers Weigh In on the Difficulty of Earnhardt’s Decision

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Seeing any driver miss a race because of an injury is disappointing and upsetting, but Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement that he would be sitting out this weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway because of concussion-like symptoms might be one of the more concerning. While concussions have become a big point of discussion across all sports, not just NASCAR, Earnhardt’s situation has shed some light on how serious of an issue it might be for this sport.

As Alex Bowman strapped into the No. 88 car to serve as Earnhardt’s replacement, several drivers were asked to reflect on the announcement and what it means for NASCAR moving forward.

For Ryan Newman the first reaction was surprise, considering a conversation he had with Earnhardt over the weekend in Kentucky Speedway.

“I mean the news I think kind of came as a shock from my standpoint because it was after a weekend that he really only thought he had sinus troubles,” said Newman. “In fact I was actually texting him back about trying different kinds of honey because that is what my wife uses. It’s kind of like, here I go talking to a guy about trying different honey and he is out of the race car the next week. I think with his past… I don’t have a lot of knowledge to elaborate on, but I think with his past he is the most experienced driver with respect to concussions and concussion symptoms and things like that. I don’t know, I haven’t talked to him first hand personally or via text to see how he is doing. But, I think he had to make a decision for himself and for his family that was probably the right decision. The race track will be here the next time.”

For Newman, though NASCAR established baseline concussion testing at the beginning of the 2014 season, he said he doesn’t know exactly how NASCAR would react to this situation had they been made aware of it first.

“As far as how NASCAR handles it, I’m not sure,” Newman continued. “I don’t know exactly what the protocol is.  From what I have read he took himself out basically, saying that ‘hey I don’t feel well, let’s go see a doctor.’  He didn’t have to go see a doctor.  I mean there is always a balance in there.  I don’t know when NASCAR steps in and say ‘hey you are not’ or if they listen to the doctors.  I haven’t been in that situation first hand to know.  So, I don’t know.”

Kyle Busch echoed similar thoughts, saying that while the baseline testing exists for a purpose, there is no clear cut definition as to when a driver is considered okay to drive and when they may be forced to sit out.

“We go through the impact testing,” said Busch. “We do that as a baseline and then if we do have any injuries in which they suspect or they think that we need to go back through the baseline test again for a second test in order to make sure that we kind of match up they’ll ask us to do that. I’ve never had to go through any of that so I can’t speak to what exactly the threshold is. If you get an A+ on your baseline and you get a D on your next one, does that mean that you’re out of the car? There’s never been that sort of stance or that clarity from NASCAR or the doctors on what they think is allowed to get back in the race car and what isn’t. So, that is something that I’m still unknown of for today. I guess I can’t speak much further to any of that.”

On the other hand, Kyle Larson, who has crashed out of two races this season (Fontana and Kansas), had very positive things to say about NASCAR’s awareness of concussions and how they go about monitoring their drivers.

“I’ve wrecked a lot, for sure,” said Larson. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had an actual concussion. I’m sure we’ve all probably had minor ones. You’ve probably had minor ones yourself. I don’t know, though. I know for a fact I’ve never had a major concussion. But it’s always something you’ve got to keep an eye on. Whenever I’ve wrecked hard with this NASCAR stuff, I’ve gone to take the impact test and make sure everything is right with me. Safety is the number one thing for all of us racers. Concussions have become a big deal here the last few years.”

While the drivers may not be crystal clear on how NASCAR handles a situation where they think a driver might have a concussion, the drivers were all very clear on one thing: how tough it must have been for Earnhardt to make the decision to step up and say something, knowing that he may have to miss a few races in order to get better.

“I don’t know any details about it, but I can say first thing that my thoughts are with Dale,” said 27-time Sprint Cup Series winner Carl Edwards. “For him to step out of the race car, it must be something serious. I hope he recovers quickly and second I have a lot of respect for making the decision, I can’t imagine how tough that decision would be. Right now with the format, you do have the opportunity to take care of yourself, do what you think is right and still have a shot at the championship.”

Busch agreed.

“It is certainly not a good thing that Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) is not able to race and certainly I’ve sent my regards, but it’s a tough subject,” said the driver of the No. 18. “It’s about how you’re feeling and you’re the only one that knows how you’re feeling. You can’t show these types of injuries as well as you can a broken bone or something to that respect. It’s all about Dale and I commend him for taking action and feeling what he was feeling and being able to go to the doctors and explaining that and for them to say he needed to sit out a week or two or however many it may be what’s best for him. And, obviously that is what’s best for him is his health. It’s a tough situation to be in as a race car driver. I’ve never been in that situation where I have felt something within my head. I’ve got a lot of screws loose, but none that were that bad that I felt like I needed to go get looked at. And, so, thankfully I haven’t had that and hopefully I don’t have to deal with that.”

Hendrick Motorsports held a press conference on Friday morning and still didn’t establish a timeline for Earnhardt’s return, but announced four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon would drive the No. 88 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway next week if Earnhardt is not yet ready to return. If that happens, it will be the first race for Gordon in 2016, after completing in his last full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series and retiring from driving the No. 24 car last year.

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