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Injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. making hard choice easier for all drivers

To appreciate the significance of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s decision to not drive while concussed, it helps to climb inside the pressurized, duty-first mind of a racecar driver.

On July 16, in the midst of a desperate playoff push, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made one of the bolder racing moves in recent memory: essentially, he injury-listed himself.

The move was made official in a statement of about 300 words or so and disseminated by his longtime team, Hendrick Motorsports. The statement cited a tell-all exclusive Earnhardt had given moments after finishing 13th in a Sprint Cup race at Kentucky—to his own podcast, The Dale Jr. Download—in which he disclosed ongoing struggles with “balance and nausea.”

After ruling out seasonal allergies as the culprit, he zeroed in on concussion. Earnhardt consulted with a team of doctors, who seemed to validate his suspicions by obliging him to remain idle until his head was right. (And NASCAR, keeping with its standard operating procedure, followed that medical lead.) Since then, Earnhardt has been a ghost for the past three Sprint Cup dates, though his name could still be found atop the windshield of his No. 88 machine and above the door of his garage at some venues. He’s expected to miss at least another two weeks of racing, according to a team statement that was released on Tuesday.

It was an announcement foretold in this Monday’s edition of the Dale Jr. Download. On it Earnhardt elaborated on his condition, which doctors source to a June 12 wreck at Michigan. To hear him tell it, the resulting symptoms have marooned him in uncharted territory. “I’ve never had a concussion that came on weeks after the event,” he told listeners. “Most of them you feel it immediately, and then they get better over time, whether it’s 72 hours or a month. This has been the opposite.

“This is scary for me because of the way it’s been different. (…) I felt I had a good understanding of concussions in the past, but this is certainly a new one.”

Set aside for a moment what it means for Earnhardt—who is not just a NASCAR star, but the son of racing’s Babe Ruth—to call in sick with a doctor’s note. Never mind the three documented concussions he’s suffered prior to this health scare (the last two, in 2012, happened six weeks apart). Or his approaching 42nd birthday in October. Or the other major NASCAR stars (Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, who un-retired to fill in at the controls of the No. 88 car) on borrowed time. Consider instead what it means for the sport’s sitting head of state (where Junior goes, so goes the nation…) to ricochet from suspecting he might have a concussion to seeking deeper medical insight to parking himself until he gets well. To borrow a phrase from Brian France’s preferred presidential candidate, it’s yuge.

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To appreciate the significance of Earnhardt’s self-imposed roster move, it helps to climb inside the mind of a pro racing driver, one of the more peculiar headspaces in sports. There, the primary impulse is to make demands: of their parents’ time, of their patrons’ largesse, of their behind-the-wall teammates’ expertise, of their racecar’s complex engineering. Strangely, the only request a racer ever thinks twice about before making is for health leave. “It’s never an easy situation,” says our guest columnist James Hinchcliffe, who spent most of the 2015 IndyCar season on the shelf with a concussion and a host of other bodily injuries after violently wrecking during an Indy 500 practice session. “The relationships that are built up between the driver and the mechanics and the engineers are so important to making the car run smoothly and competitively.”

In most top-level racing series, where seasons are short and rides are precious, you kinda understand the pressure on a driver to not call in sick. But not in NASCAR, a 10-month crucible that wears down its much larger carousel of drivers like the ocean does the coast—largely because the sport is so dadgum popular from sea to shining sea. The appeal lies not just in the repeated attempts to defy death, but also in the full contact, no-holds-barred style that makes this particular form of racing look so much like football on wheels. So it’s no wonder that when a NASCAR driver looks in the mirror he sees an NFL QB, the team leader whose job (in part) is to absorb the biggest blows, play through the pain, and deliver. For a driver to proceed otherwise would not only put his career in jeopardy, but those of his many important enablers in the pits and on his firesuit decals too.

This is why NASCAR, like the NFL, is chock-a-block with stories of health sacrificed in the name of competition. (Hell, Kyle Busch authored the best version last year when he came back from two busted legs to win the Sprint Cup championship.) For the longest time a concussion was nothing to write home about. If a driver got one, he shook it off, considered himself lucky to be alive and kept right on turning circles. It’s only in the last decade, as head trauma in football and hockey has grown from a mild concern to a full-blown crisis, that we’re finally seeing a shift in attitude at the track.

Says Mike Hamlin, a NASCAR fixture who’s currently president of a truck series team called Athenian Motorsports: “I can go back and name multiple people throughout the years”—he didn’t, but start with these four: Bobby Allison, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Dick Trickle, Jerry Nadeau—“who are not the same person they used to be because they had multiple concussions. Now we tell drivers,If you’re feeling even a hint of a concussion, get out of the racecar and take the time to get yourself checked out. Do all the due diligence.’ With more education, you just take more responsibility to try and protect your guy.”

IndyCar safety advances to thank as Josef Newgarden survives crash

Those protection efforts were boosted in 2014, when NASCAR began measuring drivers against their neurocognitive baselines as part of its concussion protocol. If said driver is diagnosed with a concussion (or found to have like symptoms) and needs to miss time, a medical waiver and top-30 status in the standings is all that’s required to remain in the hunt for the Chase—NASCAR’s spin on the playoffs.

Earnhardt, while noticeably bereft this season of victories (which fast-track a driver’s playoff eligibility), was on course to make the Chase based on his points. He was 13th in the standings, three spots above the cutoff line, following the Kentucky race. It’s a fix akin to the one Earnhardt found himself in 2012, when he suffered a pair of concussions late in the season and missed two Chase races.

After this coming Sunday’s Sprint Cup feature at Watkins Glen, just four races will remain on the regular season schedule. That’s doesn’t leave much time for Earnhardt, who’s down to 20th in the points now, to make up lost ground. So it’s no wonder that when the AP asked Ryan Newman, a savvy points racer, how he’d proceed were he in Earnhardt’s racing booties, he said, “It would be very tough for me.”

It might be even tougher for Cole Whitt. Where Newman is an established star who’s banked well in excess of $87 million for his teams, the 25-year-old Whitt is trying to come up. Since making the full-time jump to the Sprint Cup level in 2014, he’s raced for five different team owners—none of whom possessed front-running equipment. His season to date behind the wheel of the No. 98 Premium Motorsports machine has been a blur of starts in the mid-30s, finishes in the bottom-20s—his promising restrictor plate results at Talladega (18th) and the second Daytona race (11th) notwithstanding. 

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For him, a concussion seems like more than a health disaster. It seems like it could nip his Cup career in the bud. And yet he has no doubt about what he’d do were he feeling even the slightest bit unsteady. “I would definitely do what I needed to do to step aside and take care of myself,” says Whitt, pointing to the personal health time he recently took from NASCAR’s July 15-17 weekend at New Hampshire as proof of the latitude that all drivers have to look out for their wellbeing. “My health and wellness mean more to me than just my job title or my sport.”

There’s a reason why NASCAR has narrowed the gap on concussion health so much sooner than pro football—where stars, if you believe freshly retired All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson, play despite, well, seeing stars. Where the NFL talks a good game about being a family while operating no more warmly than any other multi-billion dollar conglomerate, NASCAR is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that’s largely comprised of actual father and son businesses. Businesses like the shop that Hamlin, the truck series team exec, works for—Athenian Motorsports.

• Life, Death and the Heart of American Racing

A single-car squad, Athenian derives its thrust from a family called the Townleys. The owner, Tony, is the co-founder of the Zaxby’s fast-food chicken chain. The driver, a 26-year-old named John Wes, you might remember for starting a fight (or something resembling one, anyway) after a truck race outside of St. Louis a little more than a month ago. He was inspired to do so after being twice crumpled by Spencer Gallagher. Though Townley would emerge from the second shunt, four laps from the finish, feeling punch drunk, he maintains that the decision to go after Gallagher came from a clear-headed place. “I think what transpired would’ve still transpired,” he says. “But it definitely didn’t help much.”

Townley didn’t disclose his condition with on-track medics—who, in keeping with NASCAR protocol, examined him post-impact—because “I was thinking in a day or two I wouldn’t have any symptoms.” But his symptoms, like Earnhardt’s, lingered for a week—and then stretched into the week after. They most notably included dizziness, something Townley has been hypersensitive to since suffering a concussion in 2013. “One of the things my doctor told me to do [to self-diagnose] is to stand up casually and close my eyes,” says Townley, who ascribes his hyper-vigilance to being clinically diagnosed with OCD. “If there’s a tendency to lean or wobble, then that’s not a good sign.”

After consulting with Jerry Petty, NASCAR’s go-to neurophysician and an expert with whom Earnhardt has huddled recently, Townley sat out with concussion-like symptoms. Pocono was his first race weekend back in a month. He might’ve had a harder time justifying the time off if Earnhardt, through his many trials with concussions, hadn’t driven a change in perception. “I applaud Junior for doing what he did,” Townley says. “But even if it hadn’t been for him stepping down, I still would’ve made that call. At the end of the day, you’ve only got one head. You’ve gotta take care of it.”

Naturally, some teams give drivers more leeway to make this tough call than others. The fact that Hendrick (a Cup series superpower) can call on Gordon (a company lifer seven months removed from contending for a fifth championship) eases the stress on Earnhardt. Athenian, though small, is a flush operation. (That’s what chicken money’ll do for you.) If they can’t find a replacement driver for Townley, “We have the option of racing or not racing,” says Hamlin. “We can leave the stuff sitting at the shop and pick back up where we left off whenever that time comes.”

Tommy Joe Martins, though, doesn’t have that luxury. While, like Townley, he runs trucks for his family team, the budget at Martins Motorsports is much smaller by comparison. They can only afford to race part time, in leased equipment that’s a year older than their well-heeled competitors—which explains Martins’s 25.4 average finish through 10 of 12 races this season.

To make ends meet, Martins works at Ron Fellows Performance Driving School, near Las Vegas, as an instructor. In other words, he would seem like a driver who has the most to lose by parking himself with a concussion. And yet, even he is unequivocal. “I’m not one of those people who’s planning on being in this sport until I’m 50 or 60,” says Townley, whose racing blog might be the best and most honest around. “I’m gonna move on. I’d love to be an owner. I care about the sport so much and I wanna give somebody else an opportunity, maybe even a better one than even I got. And I just want the sport to be moving forward.

“So I know that I would sit out. If I didn’t think that I was 100%, if I didn’t think I was the best person to be driving that truck or that car that weekend, my family and I wouldn’t be out here. We wouldn’t put this much effort and money into it if we didn’t think that I was capable. I wouldn’t want to short the guys on the team, in the crew especially, who spend all these long hours and time and effort and our family’s money. To go out there and feel like we weren’t gonna be able to get 100% out of the driver? What’s the point, really?”

NASCAR drivers want more safety improvements

Of course it’s never worth the risk. No racer delivers this message more effectively than Earnhardt—as much a reflection of NASCAR’s evolution on concussions as, well, the driver of it. By acting as this issue’s poster boy, a position Earnhardt claimed while offering up his brain for future CTE research four months ago, he continues a legacy of health and safety that began, tragically, with the death of his father 15 years ago.

Through his podcast, Earnhardt casts light on aspects of the concussion issue that would otherwise remain foggy. Like his rehab, which includes a slew of physical and mental exercises that occupy him for “about two, two-and-a-half hours each day,” he explained. Like his main problem now—something called “gaze stability,” which is at its most acute “anywhere you go where there is a lobby and a lot of movement, a lot of chatter and things happening.”

He preaches patience, to himself as much as to his legion fans. “I’m constantly texting my doctor, telling him everything I experience every day, going, ‘What can I do to get better tomorrow?’ (…) I want to race more.”

In the meantime he hasn’t lacked for solid cover. Alex Bowman, a 23-year-old pilot who Sprint Cup series owners seem to have bailed on too early, took Earnhardt’s first shift at New Hampshire and acquitted himself well. Gordon, while admittedly rusty in his two starts at Indianapolis and Pocono, will surely get up to speed soon. (After Pocono, his second substitution appearance in the No. 88, Gordon vowed to stay on “as long as they need me.”) As for the rest of NASCAR cast, new stars—like Pocono winner Chris Buescher—are getting brighter every week.

For the moment NASCAR doesn’t appear to be suffering without its most popular driver. That’s the great thing about Junior: Even when he’s most woozy, the sport isn’t left in a daze.