Con­cus­sions put re­tire­ment on ta­ble for Earn­hardt

The Daily Herald - - SPORTS - By Ge­orge Diaz Or­lando Sen­tinel

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

sea­son.

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.

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