NASCAR beefs up concussion testing before season begins

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Dale Earnhardt Jr. was confident NASCAR took the right step Friday when it beefed up its concussion protocol by adding a consistent screening rule at all venues.

''Good to see progress being made and implemented. Health and safety is top priority,'' Earnhardt tweeted .

Earnhardt, long NASCAR's most popular driver, was sidelined for the second half of last season with a concussion. Earnhardt missed the final 18 races with nausea, vision and balance issues after at least the fifth concussion of his career following a June wreck.

In the 16 years since his father's death at Daytona, NASCAR has introduced a series of measures designed to keep drivers safe, from helmet and restraint systems to impact-absorbing SAFER barriers along concrete walls, all designed to cushion the blows of high-impact wrecks.

NASCAR made baseline concussion tests mandatory for all drivers in 2014, but expanded the protocol this year just nine days before the Daytona 500 with a consistent screening tool and additional neurological support in the hope of keeping drivers healthier.

Drivers who are involved in a wreck that sends their car to the garage will now be required to report to the infield care center for an evaluation. Under the old rule, a driver went to the care center only if their car had to be towed from the track.

NASCAR's standards will also require infield care center physicians to use the SCAT-3 diagnostic tool in screening for head injuries. NASCAR has already announced plans to use a traveling safety crew and a rotating roster of physicians. The new program will provide on-site support for neurological evaluations.

The safety crew will come from American Medical Response and ensure that a physician and paramedics are in the safety vehicle at all Monster Energy Cup events. AMR will also provide a small group that will travel to each race, and a physician who will serve as NASCAR's primary doctor.

NASCAR has identified 50 total concussions in the three national series since 2004.

Daytona 500 champion Denny Hamlin nodded in approval as he read the concussion news release on a mobile phone on the concourse of Daytona International Speedway.

Hamlin said drivers had raised the issue of clarifying the protocol during their council meetings.

''I think there was some confusion last year,'' Hamlin said.

Matt DiBenedetto was cleared to race at Phoenix International Raceway in November after NASCAR held him out of one event because of a possible concussion. He missed one Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, where he was involved in a crash during the Xfinity Series race one day earlier.

DiBenedetto said at Texas he felt fine and that NASCAR's doctors ''wanted to err on the side of caution.''

Cup drivers advocated for more defined concussion testing akin to other sports such as the NFL.

''They sometimes have to protect us from ourselves,'' Hamlin said. ''But we also want to make sure we're racing on the track with people that are 100 percent. I'm all for that. I think it's important we keep safety first.''

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More AP auto racing: www.racing.ap.org

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