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Bob Pockrass, The Sporting News

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Concussion: NASCAR Should Have Known Junior Was Injured

CONCORD, N.C. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t know how many races he might have to miss when he chose to see a doctor earlier this week. What he knew is that he couldn’t afford to hit his head again in another wreck.

For that, NASCAR should be thankful. It should be thankful that its most popular driver, who will miss at least the next two weeks while recovering from a concussion, is not taking a chance on suffering another concussion or a more severe injury.

But this isn’t a time to celebrate the fact that one driver was brave enough to step forward and do the right thing when it comes to concussions.

This is a time to worry and to wonder. How many other drivers have raced with a concussion? How many times has NASCAR been unaware of the danger lurking around the corner for a driver such as Earnhardt, who continued to race after suffering a concussion?

It would be real easy to pass this off as one of those things that you just can’t see and is difficult to detect. While everyone could tell that an accident – a big one – was about to happen on the final lap at Talladega, concussions are not always noticeable. As Earnhardt said, in many ways, he feels fine. He looks fine. And, according to his doctor, his medical examinations didn’t show signs of a concussion on various neurological tests and an MRI.

Still, something stinks about this whole episode. It’s tough to stomach. It’s hard to get over the fact that NASCAR had a top driver who continued to race with concussion-like symptoms and nobody had a clue.

NASCAR would like us to believe that all drivers will follow Earnhardt’s lead and seek medical treatment when needed.

That’s risky business, riskier than using restrictor plates to bunch up cars in big packs just to keep them from getting airborne and flying into the grandstands.

NASCAR, which should be applauded for the safety advances made by its one-of-a-kind research and development center, needs to take the same aggressive approach to this situation as it does in creating aerodynamic packages for restrictor-plate tracks. There are just too many signs that NASCAR should have at least known that Earnhardt might be suffering from a concussion.

Earnhardt revealed Thursday that his first wreck during a tire test at Kansas Speedway six weeks ago registered 40 Gs of g-force and that he was cleared to return to the track after a quick check by a doctor in an ambulance. There were no follow-up examinations even though it seemed as if the entire garage knew Earnhardt had suffered an extremely hard hit.

“We were sitting in the garage and I looked up and could see the marks and knew that he had hit really, really hard and that he was probably not going to be okay,” said Brad Keselowski, who was at the tire test with Earnhardt.

Apparently the 40-G impact, which was measured by NASCAR’s data-gathering devices, was not enough to set off any medical protocol, and according to experts, that is not enough to throw up a red flag.

To be fair, in 2006, when Jeff Gordon had a hard crash at Pocono Raceway, his crash registered 64 Gs. When he was ready to walk out of the infield care center, NASCAR officials told him to stay and had him transported to a local hospital for further evaluation.

No one did the same thing for Earnhardt. No one from NASCAR, as far as we know, went and checked on Earnhardt the week following the accident at Kansas. No one asked if he was having headaches. No one asked if he was experiencing any symptoms of a concussion.

Earnhardt could have very well lied to them. But at least someone would have been watching him and he might have spoken up sooner—before suffering another concussion in the wreck at Talladega. If more doctors traveled the NASCAR circuit, they might have noticed a change in his behavior or mannerisms that could have pointed to signs of a concussion.

Instead, six weeks later, Earnhardt was involved in another accident at Talladega, and again no one from NASCAR had the foresight to think that he might have been hurt. Someone from NASCAR had to have seen his rambling postrace interview. But no one had the expertise to know which drivers had been in hard crashes in recent weeks and who might need to get checked for precautionary measures.

Instead, Earnhardt drove his car back to the garage and went home without seeing a doctor.

Three days later, his concussions were diagnosed and now he will miss at least the next two races, ending his hopes of winning the Sprint Cup championship or improving his final standing in the Chase.

Some will say there’s no way NASCAR could have prevented this. They’re right. But the fact that NASCAR didn’t even try and wasn’t even aware of Earnhardt’s condition is what matters.

It should be disturbing and frustrating to fans that no one in NASCAR seems embarrassed about its negligence in this incident or seems to feel that they let Earnhardt down.

This is not the time for NASCAR officials to declare that they stand by their safety record. This is a time for NASCAR to tell us they need to do a better job educating their drivers about concussions.

Over dramatic? Consider this from driver Regan Smith, who is filling in for Earnhardt at Hendrick Motorsports:

“To be perfectly honest, I don’t know all the symptoms,” he said Thursday.

Earnhardt probably doesn’t know all the symptoms, either, even though he professed he knew what he was dealing with during the six weeks following his first crash.

NASCAR officials must assume that most drivers would not see a doctor if they thought they might have a concussion and might have to miss a race. They should believe that most drivers don’t even know the symptoms of a concussion.

If left up to the drivers, they wouldn’t even be wearing head-and-neck restraints. As Mark Martin said, he wouldn’t want a doctor determining whether or not he can race. Jeff Gordon admitted that he would hide a concussion if he was on pace to win a championship.

NASCAR officials pledged Thursday that they will evaluate their medical procedures. Let’s hope that evaluation will lead to a better reaction if similar circumstances occur in the future. Let’s hope that NASCAR uses this opportunity to continue making safety advancements.

NASCAR took a step backward in terms of safety with this incident. It apparently is not as far along in some areas as we thought.

Every time NASCAR says it is doing everything it can, keep in the mind that it had a driver who suffered two concussions that the sanctioning body didn’t even know about.