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Third Place
Bob Pockrass, The Sporting News

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Concussion: He’s Back, But The Real Headaches May Have Just Begun

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been through an agonizing two weeks.

After two concussions in six weeks, his head hurt. He wanted to race. But doctors wouldn’t let him race because his head hurt. They said two weeks and he could be OK, but he didn’t really know. He had to rest his brain. Little television. Fewer video games.

He had to sit at home knowing someone else was driving his racecar. That had to hurt as bad as his headaches.

He went to see specialists and after 10 days of no headaches and a test session at a Georgia track that went well, he will be back in his Hendrick Motorsports car this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

Now comes the tough part.

Getting back in the racecar will be easy. The hard part will come after every single crash he has for the rest of his career.

Drivers are involved in crashes every year. They’re unavoidable. They're going to happen. And every time Earnhardt crashes, he will have to scrutinize himself and face the scrutiny of others.

Martinsville will be no easy place to return. The beating and banging on the body, the tight turns and the on-and-off hammering on the brake makes Martinsville a violent ride. Cars get crinkled and carbon monoxide permeates the air. It will make any of the following three tracks (Texas, Phoenix and Homestead) feel like a ride in the park. Maybe a faster ride, but a much simpler one.

But Earnhardt is a racer and he wants to get back in the seat. And it’s hard to argue with that, because part of his absence has been characterized as precautionary. He showed no signs of injury except for the headaches.

He has shown he understands the danger in suffering multiple concussions over a short period of time. So if he hits the wall this weekend, he obviously is aware that any abnormal feeling could be a sign of a concussion.

He already has had two this year—one after an Aug. 29 crash in testing at Kansas and another after the Oct. 7 crash at Talladega. So if he feels nauseous or has another crash this weekend, how will he respond?

Having gone through what he went through the last two weeks, would he ask to go see his doctor if he has headaches again?

Some would think of that as, pardon the pun, a no-brainer. Because his head had to have hurt worse than it had ever hurt before for him to seek medical treatment.

Team owner Rick Hendrick, in maybe one of the most enlightening statements of this whole affair, said last Sunday that “his head was hurting him bad enough that I thought maybe we might have a problem.”

So this apparently wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill headache, one that he could easily ignore as he continued to race.

If it hurt badly enough for him to get checked out, then he likely would do so again in the future.

But he likely will have a crash that causes a headache that doesn’t cause as much pain. When he gets another headache, he will wonder if he’s hurt again or if it’s just a regular headache.

And it won’t just be Earnhardt who wonders. It will be every NASCAR fan and every member of the media. After his crash at Talladega, he had many of the same mannerisms he often has when he’s frustrated. But the one somewhat rare mannerism was how long he took before responding to questions.

It’s easy to pass that off as just having been in a hard wreck after a long race and being tired. But maybe it was a sign of something more.

And that is going to be the frustrating part for Earnhardt. After every wreck, media will be looking for signs of a concussion, speculating over observations made from seeing him a couple of hours a week. His friends, family and Hendrick teammates will look at him and wonder if they need to ask him if anything is wrong.

Everyone will be playing doctor. In some ways, that’s good. Wondering aloud if someone is injured might spur that person to see a doctor. Still, Earnhardt will spend less time convincing himself that he’s OK than he will trying to convince everyone around him.

While the last two weeks have been hard, in some ways, this chapter in his life isn’t over. In some ways, pardon the pun, the headaches have only just begun.