Earnhardt Jr.: Reporting Injury Was Toughest Part
By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
CONCORD, N.C. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted Thursday the concussion he suffered last weekend in the final lap 25-car pileup at Talladega Superspeedway was his second in the last six weeks and he knew for his own “well-being” he needed to follow a neurosurgeon’s orders and step out of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“It’s frustrating,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I really didn’t get to make the decision. I left it in the hands of the Docs and I’m going to do what they tell me to do.”
Earnhardt Jr. will miss Saturday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the event the following week at Kansas Speedway. Regan Smith is substituting for Earnhardt Jr. in those races.
“I’m really going to feel pretty odd not being in the car,” said Earnhardt Jr., who noted he wouldn’t be at the track during the weekend because he felt he would be a distraction. “I’m anxious; real, real anxious just to get back into the car. I think you learn not to take things for granted. I just hate this has caused such a fuss.”
Deciding to see neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty Tuesday was probably one of the toughest decisions Earnhardt Jr. has ever had to make. With a victory in June at Michigan, Earnhardt Jr. is enjoying his best season since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. He led the standings briefly during the summer and was seventh in the standings, 39 points behind leader Brad Keselowski when he was told he needed to step out of the car.
The third-generation driver’s announcement Thursday morning at CMS caught his fellow competitors by surprise, but drew praise for his courage.
“For any race car driver not being in the car is your worst fear,” said Keselowski, who drove for Earnhardt Jr. in the Nationwide Series before joining Penske Racing. “Respectfully to Dale, he chose to not put himself in a bad situation and I think that’s very admirable for sure because everyone knows those are cumulative, concussions and their effect on your body.”
During Thursday’s press conference, Earnhardt Jr. said he suffered a concussion at Kansas Speedway Aug. 29
when he cut a tire and slammed the wall during a Goodyear tire test. Data showed the hit he took at Kansas was around 40 Gs, double the one he suffered last Sunday at Talladega.
“I regret not seeing somebody after that [Kansas] happened,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I was stubborn. I’d had concussions before and thought I knew what I was dealing with and felt like I was capable of doing my job.”
After the Kansas incident, Earnhardt Jr. called crew chief Steve Letarte and told him how he was feeling. He said he wouldn’t know if he would be able to compete at Atlanta until he practiced his car.
“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,” Earnhardt Jr. said, “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.”
Earnhardt Jr. told Letarte if he didn’t feel well after driving the car at Atlanta he would tell him; that they would need a backup plan for him to get out of the car.
“I wasn’t going to drive the car if I felt like I was going to deal my crew chief and my team a short hand that weekend,” Earnhardt Jr. said.
Earnhardt Jr. felt fine and competed in the event, finishing seventh. He has competed in every race since.
After Sunday’s crash at Talladega, Earnhardt Jr. drove to the track’s garage. Then, while rubbing his head and looking ill, the third-generation driver berated restrictor-plate racing. He said someone would get seriously hurt at Daytona or Talladega in the big wrecks pack racing produced if something wasn’t done. He called the restrictor-plate track racing a concession to “bloodthirsty” fan elements and given the choice, he would never race in a plate race again.
Earnhardt Jr. knew he didn’t feel quite right but he still wanted to process everything for a couple of days.
“I knew having two concussions back-to-back was not a good thing,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “So I needed to go see somebody regardless of whether I wanted to get out of the car or not. Just for my own well-being, if I didn’t need to get in a race car and get hit again, I needed somebody to tell me that because I was going to have a hard time making that decision for myself.”
Earnhardt Jr. said he began having headaches immediately after the Talladega wreck and they continued into Tuesday. He was examined by Petty on Tuesday and underwent a MRI on Wednesday. Petty said Earnhardt Jr.’s neurological exam was normal, as was his MRI scan. He also said Earnhardt Jr. experienced no amnesia after either incident. However, he told team owner Rick Hendrick he wouldn’t clear Earnhardt Jr. to drive. Hendrick then called James Finch, who was fielding a car for Smith at Charlotte, to ask if he could use his driver for the next two weeks. Finch agreed and filled his team’s empty seat with A.J. Allmendinger. Letarte contacted Smith at 7 a.m. Thursday and told him he was needed.
In explaining the route Earnhardt Jr. must follow to be cleared to drive, Petty said that four or five days after he has no headache he would be given a test to increase his pulse rate to see if a headache could be provoked. If not, then he would drive a lap or two. If that goes well, Petty said, than he probably would clear Earnhardt Jr. to race.
Petty described Earnhardt Jr.’s injury as one that doesn’t show on scans and for which there’s a test showing other symptoms and signs.
“The one symptom that is more important than all the tests is headache,” Petty said. “As long as there’s any headache, the brain is not healed, and until that’s healed and had some time to rest and then you provoke it again and can’t make it happen again, then you feel like you’re on the road to recovery.”
Earnhardt Jr. also sustained a concussion in April 2002 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. He later he admitted he hid the effects of that crash from his team and from NASCAR officials. He said it was that injury that caused him to struggle early in that season and it was July of that year before he began to stop feeling the injury’s effects.
– Deb Williams can be reached at email@example.comOne Comment