Commentary

Earnhardt's injury speaks volumes

Updated: October 11, 2012, 6:44 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a deep breath on Thursday, then began telling where the series of concussions that led to his being parked for the next two races began.

The next 30 or so minutes were compelling.

On the one hand, Earnhardt came off as heroic for having the guts to step forward with symptoms that forced Dr. Jerry Petty of NASCAR to not give the driver medical clearance to compete in Saturday night's Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and next weekend's race at Kansas.

On the other hand, he admitted to hiding the symptoms for six weeks after suffering a hard crash during an Aug. 29 test at Kansas. He admitted that for the sake of competing for a title, he pushed forward even though he knew something wasn't right, even though side effects from the impact potentially put him and others at risk.

The decision to park NASCAR's most popular driver for two races is bigger than the Chase that Earnhardt no longer can win, bigger than anything that will happen on Saturday night.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. hopes to return to the No. 88 Chevrolet for the Oct. 28 Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway.

It is big because it focused the spotlight on something that recently has been hotly debated in the NFL and other contact sports as a growing number of players have come forward with longtime health issues. It is big because it focused the spotlight on something in NASCAR that could be bigger than any of us thought possible because athletes aren't so anxious to step forward and risk giving up their seat.

NASCAR can build the safest car on the planet, which it almost has done, but officials can't make drivers come forward with symptoms that might cost them everything they've worked a lifetime for.

Earnhardt finally did, which is commendable. But how many others have put themselves and others at risk in the past? NASCAR says there have been only nine concussions in the past five years, but that's only what has been reported.

The number seems far too low.

Dr. Vinay Deshmukh, a neurological consultant for NASCAR who works with Petty, says what happened on Thursday "will probably go a long way" toward awareness of the importance of brain health.

He hopes it will encourage athletes from pee wee football to the NFL to NASCAR to not hide the symptoms that range from headaches to seeing stars.

But NASCAR is different than most sports. When a player is sidelined in the NFL, a backup steps in and the team continues with its goal to win a title. The injured player still can win the championship with his team when he comes back.

When a driver is sidelined, he loses any chance to win a championship, or to even have a high finish in points.

"I don't feel comfortable answering that angle of the question," Deshmukh said when asked if Earnhardt's being parked could deter others from stepping forward. "I can tell you as the neurosurgeon consultant to NASCAR, NASCAR has made it very clear to me and the team I'm a part of that safety is the priority, above and beyond everything else."

But the priority of a driver is to compete. It's why Earnhardt admittedly continued with a concussion in 2002, and why he drove at Atlanta this year only a few days after suffering the concussion at Kansas.

"I wasn't willing to -- 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, I didn't know how difficult it would be to get back in," he said.

You could hear the struggles in his voice.

If it had been up to Earnhardt, he probably would have driven on Saturday. Tests taken on Tuesday and an MRI taken on Wednesday revealed nothing that would alert Petty there were issues.

"I feel perfectly normal and feel like I could compete if I were allowed to compete this weekend," said Earnhardt, who was 11th in points, 51 out of first. "But I think that the basis of this whole deal is that I've had two concussions in the last four to five weeks, and you can't layer concussions.

"It gets extremely dangerous."

Listen, folks: This is dangerous, maybe more in motorsports than any other sport because so many others are impacted.

Earnhardt should know that. As a big NFL fan, he watched the quarterback of his beloved Washington Redskins, Robert Griffin III, be forced out of a game with a concussion in Sunday's loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Earnhardt surely has read about the lifetime issues other NFL players have faced from concussions.

Even so, it took him two days to seek medical help after Sunday's last-lap crash at Talladega forced symptoms of a concussion to resurface.

"I wanted to process how I felt over a couple days," Earnhardt said. "I just wanted to process what was happening, and I knew having them two concussions back to back was not a good thing.

"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, I couldn't -- if I didn't need to go 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."

You can't blame Earnhardt for being hesitant. It's human nature to push through medical issues to achieve goals no matter how serious they are.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon said Thursday he wouldn't go to a doctor if he suspected a concussion and had a chance to win the title.

"Honestly, I hate to say this, but no -- I wouldn't," Gordon said. "We all play a part in this. If I have a shot at the championship and there's two races to go, and my head is hurting and I just came through a wreck and I'm feeling signs of it but I'm still leading the points or am second in points, I'm not going to say anything.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. gave Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson a lift following the last-lap pileup at Talladega.

"I'm sorry. That's the competitor in me and probably many other guys, and that's to a fault. It's not the way it should be, but it is something most of us would do. That's what gets a lot of us in trouble."

After Brad Keselowski broke his left ankle during a crash at Road Atlanta last season, he basically said that nobody was going to get in his seat . He heroically went out and won the following race at Pocono.

But the consequences of racing with a broken foot versus a concussion are much different. A driver with a concussion could pass out or become disoriented going 200 mph. A driver with a concussion would face life-threatening brain issues if involved in another crash.

"There is some education that needs to go on," Deshmukh said.

A lot of education is needed. Drivers from five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to Danica Patrick said they aren't worried about being on the track with drivers who have concussions. And Johnson admittedly and unknowingly drove north instead of south on Interstate 77 after returning from a hard crash in a Nationwide Series race at Watkins Glen in 2001.

"In today's world, the process after a crash and what you go through is far greater than what it's been in the past," Johnson said. "If your symptoms are great enough where you can't drive, it's noticeable."

Obviously, not enough. Earnhardt admitted he was only 80 to 90 percent before Talladega.

That's what makes what happened Thursday so big. It opened eyes. NASCAR likely will take an even better look at its policy of evaluating drivers after hard hits, particularly after one as hard as the 40-Gs Earnhardt experienced at Kansas.

Perhaps the sport will be forced to go in the direction of the NFL, which has beefed up its at-game support to monitor players who suffer potential concussions.

But ultimately, NASCAR needs the cooperation of the drivers to communicate what they're feeling.

The drivers can't handle it themselves, as Earnhardt tried to do after Kansas, saying, "I'd had concussions before and knew exactly kind of what I was dealing with."

If I have a shot at the championship and there's two races to go, and my head is hurting and I just came through a wreck and I'm feeling signs of it but I'm still leading the points or am second in points, I'm not going to say anything.

-- Jeff Gordon

"No, I didn't see anybody at Kansas," Earnhardt said. "I regret not seeing somebody after that happened. I was stubborn, and I'd had concussions before and thought I knew what I was dealing with and felt like that I was capable of doing my job."

That's why this is big. It has everybody in the sport talking about it. The spotlight is bright. The awareness is there more than it has ever been because of the person involved.

It's similar to the awareness overall safety got after Earnhardt's father was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Does that mean if Keselowski suffers symptoms of a concussion this weekend he will risk being parked and losing his points lead -- the title? My guess is not.

"For any race car driver, not being in the car is our worst fear, the nightmare you have," Keselowski said. "It's a competitive desire that you have, so missing the show is terrible."

Keselowski went on to say each driver has his own code, that a "large portion of this sport is based on trust."

But as Earnhardt admitted, if it had been left up to him, he wouldn't be out of the car. He wanted a doctor to tell him he couldn't race because he didn't trust his own judgment.

Hopefully, that hit home. Hopefully, that advances where the sport is headed on a complex issue.

It was a compelling 30 minutes. It led to a story that is bigger than anything else happening at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend.

There will be other seasons for Earnhardt, perhaps other runs at the title, but he has only one life.

"I want to live a healthy life so I'm going to make sure that I'm doing the right thing, and that's all I felt like I was doing here," Earnhardt said. "If I give myself time to get healed up, I can race for as long as I want to race, and that's my objective."

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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