Commentary

Danger lurks at Kansas Speedway

Updated: October 19, 2012, 3:59 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- For this weekend only, the new Kansas Speedway may replace Talladega as the most dangerous race in the Chase. And it couldn't come at a worse time.

Hopefully, it doesn't become known as Concussion Speedway.

NASCAR dodged a major headache (no pun intended) Thursday when Denny Hamlin got his bell rung (his words) after a hard crash in a practice session.

Hamlin is OK. This time. He said Friday he's "100 percent." One of the top contenders for the Sprint Cup championship will race Sunday. It could have turned out differently.

[+] EnlargeDenny Hamlin
Jamie Squire/Getty Images for NASCARDenny Hamlin surveys the damage to his No. 11 Toyota after crashing during a full-field test Thursday at Kansas Speedway.

Hamlin's crash came on the same track where all the brain-injury concerns started when Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion in a testing accident, although he didn't tell anyone about it at the time.

The newly repaved surface at Kansas is lightning fast, but it also is unpredictable for all the teams. They are learning as they go. And that means it's dangerous.

"This is going to be the wild-card race," Clint Bowyer said Friday. "I saw a hell of wreck yesterday [Hamlin's crash]. When someone gets behind you here and takes the air off your car, you can't catch it. It jumps out from underneath you and you're literally still wide open. You know you're in a world of hurt.''

The new progressive banking at Kansas probably won't produce a 25-car crash, as often happens in a restrictor-plate race at Talladega. But it can cause a jarring high-speed crash into a wall.

It happened to Earnhardt in August, and it happened to Hamlin on Thursday. Earnhardt is sitting out his second consecutive race (on the advice of doctors) after being involved in the last-lap crash at Talladega on Oct. 7, aggravating his previous head injury from Kansas.

Hamlin, who admitted he was dizzy after the crash Thursday, says he's fine. So do the doctors who examined him after the crash.

NASCAR escaped a difficult situation. What if Hamlin had shown signs of a possible concussion? Isn't NASCAR forced to take him out of the race and end his chances of winning the title?

What if Hamlin opted to say nothing about his post-crash dizziness? Does it go unnoticed?

"The medical staff can't do their job if I don't tell them what's going on," Hamlin said Thursday after the crash. "They might as well not be here if I'm going to tell them stories. But I knew I was fine. I just had my bell rung."

Would Hamlin have said anything if he wasn't fine, knowing it could cost him a shot at the title?

A week ago, Jeff Gordon was honest enough to admit he wouldn't. Truthfully, most drivers wouldn't, not with a championship on the line.

I'm not blaming them. I wouldn't either. Professional athletes work their entire lives with a championship as their top goal. They are willing to risk a lot, including their health, to earn it.

Earnhardt has received plenty of praise for seeking help, knowing it could cause him to sit out. However, his championship chances were over. Would he have done the same thing if he was leading the standings midway through the Chase?

Bowyer, who moved to fourth in the standings last weekend with his victory at Charlotte, was asked Friday what it would take to get him out of the car.

"Maybe a bullet,'' he said. "You don't get this opportunity very often. This is a year's worth of work. Now in the last five races, it would be hard to pull yourself out.''

But Bowyer didn't rule it out.

"It just depends," he said. "At the end of the day, it comes down to safety. Dale Jr. has been in every Cup race I've been in. There was something going on that he felt wasn't right. If you have symptoms you're not comfortable with, you're going 200 miles per hour out there.

[+] EnlargeKansas Speedway
AP Photo/Autostock, Russell LaBountyNew pavement and progressive banking make Kansas Speedway the great unknown in Sunday's Sprint Cup race.

"A lot of people are depending on you, not just for these five or six races but for their careers. Sponsors, team members, lots of people need you to be healthy for years to come."

Points leader Brad Keselowski wouldn't say what he would do in a similar situation, but he was happy to see what Earnhardt did.

"There's a role of self-responsibility, which I think is a good thing," Keselowski said. "We seem to live in an era where self-responsibility is not really applauded or thought very highly of. But I think what happened last week [with Earnhardt] was an example of how that system can work."

Hamlin said Friday he understands the desire to keep racing for the title regardless of how a driver feels.

"No doubt about it," Hamlin said. "You would do whatever it took to stay in the car in a championship battle. But the one thing you can't hide is the signs you're not right. You can say you're good, but if you don't pass the tests [doctors] aren't going to let you in the car. The competitor in you fires on all cylinders, but if you're not right, you're not right."

I beg to differ. Drivers have fooled doctors and hidden concussions for years. An impairment isn't always obvious, which is why baseline testing is important.

Concussions are nothing new in racing, but they weren't discussed much in the past. Ricky Rudd raced once by taping his eyelids open after a crash left him looking like Rocky Balboa in Round 15 of Bout 1 against Apollo Creed.

Those days are long gone. My distinguished colleague, Ed Hinton, wrote this week about the idea of substitute drivers earning points for an injured competitor. It's worth considering, but what are the limits?

For example, could Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch sub for Hamlin if needed? Could Carl Edwards sub for Greg Biffle at Roush Fenway Racing? Would an organization sacrifice a team not in the Chase for the one in the title hunt?

There are no easy answers, but welcome to the new normal in NASCAR -- closed-head injuries, concussions, neurological baseline testing. It's a new world.

Not exactly the topics of conversation NASCAR was hoping for halfway through the Chase with three drivers (Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson and Hamlin) still serious contenders for the championship.

NASCAR now finds itself dealing with many of the same questions the NFL and college football have faced for several years.

When the most popular driver in the sport is forced to sit out because of a brain injury, things change in a hurry. And when a title contender admits to dizziness after a hard crash, it can't be ignored.

Kansas Speedway is where this issue came to the forefront, although it could have been almost any track. But considering the unknowns and the danger of the new racing surface, it could come up again Sunday.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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