Concussions put retirement on table for Earnhardt
Athletes rarely say goodbye on their own terms. The farewell usually involves mitigating circumstances:
A mangled knee for a football player. An arm that has lost velocity for a pitcher. The slowstep separation between a bad NBA player and a great one.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s kryptonite is his head.
It is fuzzy, and certainly not sharp enough to weave through traffic at speeds that approach 200 miles an hour on NASCAR’s superspeedways.
He’s missed six races already with concussion-related symptoms. He will miss one more this weekend at Darlington. His chances of qualifying for the Chase are toast, needing a win at Richmond on Sept. 10 before the cutoff.
With no championship to chase, practical matters dictate that Earnhardt should shut it down completely this season and get complete clarity on his physical condition before he even considers getting back into a Sprint Cup car.
He can check all the boxes in January before Speedweeks in 2017 and assess the circumstances.
Even if it means never racing again.
His life, his health and his family trump any celebratory snapshots from Victory Lane.
“My biggest concern is you
hear these doctors talking about the severity of this injury, and you start to wonder when the doctors are going to say, ‘Dale, we advise you not to get back in that race car,’ ” said Jeff Hammond, a NASCAR analyst for Fox Sports. “That’s what I’m kind of scared of. It seems like this is taking a lot longer than a lot of us ever imagined it would.
“I’m glad to see him going through the due diligence, but I’m nervous about him getting back in the car, even if they know he’s well.”
Losing Dale Jr. would be a vicious body blow to NASCAR, a sport that bid goodbye to icon Jeff Gordon last year (before he returned, filling in for Earnhardt, ironically).
It will say goodbye to another icon, Tony Stewart, after this
Between them, those guys have seven Cup championships. Junior has zero, but he moves the needle like no other. He’s been voted the most popular driver in the sport 13 consecutive seasons.
And he’s not just eye candy, scoring five consecutive seasons in the top 12 or better before things went haywire in 2016. He doesn’t need to worry abut paying the next bill because his net worth is $300 million.
And at 41, he still has some prime years left. But everything has an asterisk attached to it: His health.
“Symptoms can linger,” said Chris Nowinski, recognized as an expert on head trauma and the author of “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis.”
“Some symptoms have never gone away for some people but the vast majority of people get back to normal. It just takes time because the brain is very complex.”
And that’s the problem. The clock is ticking and nobody knows for sure about Earnhardt’s recovery. Not Dale. Not his doctors. Not his team owner Rick Hendrick. Not you, and not me.
Sometimes, you don’t even know if you’re concussed. Nowinski counts 15 concussions in the last 20 years that he’s “aware of” from his days of playing college football at Harvard and his time on the pro wrestling circuit.
Junior has multiple concussion-related incidents, dating to 2012.
“You know your body and you know your mind, and you know when something is not quite right,” Earnhardt said at the time.
Junior is the ultimate expert on this. It’s his career. His life. We can only look on from the sidelines and respect the decision, no matter how it turns out.
“Drivers are a perishable fruit, just like anyone else that is an athlete,” Brad Keselowski said this past weekend at Michigan. “Your career is easily spoiled. You have to be careful not to drop the fruit and bruise it. Those incidents are tough but it is part of the gig.”
Better a fruit instead of a vegetable. Get completely heathy, Junior, before getting any ideas about driving again.
WILFREDO LEE / ASSOCIATED PRESS Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers, will miss seven races this season while dealing with concussion symptoms.