NASCAR: Dale Jr. has concussion, will miss next two races
CONCORD, N.C. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew he had suffered a concussion in an August crash so jolting that other drivers tweeted about it immediately after the impact.
Earnhardt was too stubborn to see a doctor about it. He was too worried he would be yanked from his car, derailing his long-suffering Sprint Cup Championship hopes.
So he kept it a secret until a 25-car accident on the last lap Sunday at Talladega left him with a lingering headache.
NASCAR's most popular driver sought medical attention from a neurosurgeon, who found Earnhardt had indeed suffered two concussions in six weeks and could not be medically cleared to race. Earnhardt said Thursday he will sit out the next two weeks, at Charlotte and Kansas, ending his championship chances.
"I would love to race this weekend, and I feel perfectly normal and feel like I could compete if I were allowed to compete," Earnhardt said. "But I think that the basis of this whole deal is that I've had two concussions in the last (six) weeks, and you can't layer concussions. It gets extremely dangerous."
A decade ago, it was Earnhardt who helped spur changes in how NASCAR handled drivers showing signs of a concussion.
He self-diagnosed a concussion from an accident at California, but didn't tell anyone about it until revealing in an interview weeks later that he'd been having difficulty focusing and communicating with his crew chief. Within days of his admission, NASCAR strengthened its commitment to keeping drivers with concussions off the track.
NASCAR ruled that drivers unable to drive their car back to the garage after an accident had to make a mandatory trip to the infield care center. The attending physician could then refer a driver to a neurosurgeon for a CT scan or MRI if they suspected a concussion.
Clearance to race after suffering a concussion is not given until after a driver obtains a medical release.
Earnhardt's first concussion this season came in an Aug. 29 wreck during a tire test at Kansas. His crash into the wall when his right front tire failed was so hard that Brad Keselowski immediately tweeted about. Earnhardt was seen after the accident in the back of an ambulance, but was not treated in the infield care center and did not seek further examination elsewhere.
He attended a Washington Redskins exhibition game later that night, but admitted Thursday he knew he suffered a concussion.
"You know your body, and you know how your mind works, and I knew something was just not quite right," he said. "But I decided to just try to push through and work through it. I'd had concussions before and knew exactly kind of what I was dealing with."
Earnhardt said he regrets not seeing anyone about that concussion, but admitted to crew chief Steve Letarte what had happened and said he would not have raced at Atlanta the next weekend if he'd not felt well.
"With the Chase coming up, I didn't know how difficult - if I was to volunteer myself to get medical attention and be removed from the car, I didn't know how difficult it would be to get back in," he said. "But I was honest with Steve and told Steve, 'When we get to Atlanta and if I don't feel good, I'm going to be honest with you and tell you that we need to have something as a backup plan for me to get out of the car."'
He didn't give himself the same leeway this week, when he suffered a lingering headache following the last lap accident at Talladega. Although Earnhardt said the impact was half as hard as the Kansas hit, "I knew as soon as it happened that I had reinjured myself."
Earnhardt didn't have to make the mandatory trip to the care center on Sunday because he was able to drive his car away from the accident - teammate Jimmie Johnson even caught a lift on the window back to the garage.
He sought out personal physician Dr. Jerry Petty, a neurosurgeon who consults with NASCAR, on Tuesday and underwent an MRI on Wednesday, his 38th birthday. The MRI showed no damage, but Petty said Earnhardt was candid about his symptoms that last six weeks and he diagnosed a pair of concussions.
"His eyes did what they were supposed to do, his balance tests and so forth are perfect," Petty said. "The one test, the one symptom that is more important than all the tests is headache, and as long as there's any headache, the brain is not healed."
Petty said Earnhardt will not be cleared to race again until he's gone at least four days headache-free, and goes through a test in which Petty tries to provoke a headache.
Hendrick Motorsports tabbed Regan Smith to replace Earnhardt in the No. 88 Chevrolet the next two races.