In October 2012, after a multi-car wreck at Talladega Super Speedway, NASCAR’s perennial fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. was examined and pulled out his #88 car for two races for concussion like symptoms. This was in the middle of the new Chase format, where the last 10 races of the season are essentially a three round playoff for the NASCAR Championship. At the time, he was ranked 11th with five races to go and still had a very good chance of winning the title. By putting his health first, he dashed any hopes of competing for a championship.
Flash forward four years and Earnhardt finds himself in a similar situation. A few days prior to last week’s race in Louden, NH, and Dale Jr. once again went to the powers that be and said that he had concussion like symptoms. He was having problems with balance and nausea. At the time, he was 32 points ahead of 16th place Trevor Bayne, the cutoff driver for entering the Chase. After missing Sunday’s race, Earnhardt remains in contention but is much closer to that 16th place cutoff and is now just 14 points away. Once more missed race will drop him below the cutoff point and the longer he is out, the further back he will fall. There are only seven races remaining before the 16 Chase drivers are locked in. 11 drivers have won races already. If 16 drivers don’t win races, the remaining drivers to reach 16 will be determined by points.
With all of that said, Earnhardt should be applauded for putting his health first. At 41, he is not young by most sports standards and he needs to start thinking about his life outside of the racecar. His respect for his sport is renowned, and that is why when someone of his caliber steps away and puts his own safety and that of his fellow drivers ahead of a shot at the championship, people take notice. We are now living in a climate where concussions and head injuries are a primary discussion point in every sport at every level from 1st graders up to the professional level. It seems that every day, we see that another player in the NFL has decided to retire. 24 and 25 year old’s that have only been in the league a year or two. And they should be applauded as well, for deciding to put their health above a few years of a crushing career. That is not to say that the players who aren’t should be jeered. That is their decision as well, and for them, it’s not the wrong one. At the same time, we are seeing more and more players and sports figures, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., donating their brains to science after they die. Good for them for doing that. Much of the CTE brain research can’t be done until the player dies.
Last Sunday, Alex Bowman took the wheel for Earnhardt. He did well for most of the race. He raced strong and found himself in the top ten until late in the race when he lost a tire and crashed into the wall. He ended up finishing the race 25th. This week at Indianapolis Speedway, at the Brickyard 400, we will have the privilege of seeing racing legend Jeff Gordon step out of the broadcast booth where he has been the first half of the season to take the #88. Gordon, a four time NASCAR Champion, did a great job the first half of the season providing commentary and insight for FOX Racing. It will be fun seeing him on the track again, even just for a few weeks. As of this writing we know that Gordon will be in the seat for Indy and again July 31st at Pocono Speedway. The Hendricks Motorsports team could not have asked for a better backup in these two tracks. Gordon has won at the Brickyard five times with 12 Top 5 finishes and he has 6 wins at Pocono with 20 Top 5 finishes. There is still some discussion as to who will sit in the #88 if Earnhardt still cannot drive beyond Pocono.