My Brain on NASCAR: Earnhardt shows proper head restraint

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he know “something was just not quite right” after he experienced a hard crash during a tire test at Kansas Speeding in September.

However, a decision most likely fueled by a combination of testosterone and competitive fire, with the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup looming just around the corner, made him to decide to, as we say in sports, rub some dirt on it.

“I decided to just try to push through and work through it.  I’d had concussions before and knew kind of what I was dealing with,” he said. “I felt pretty good after a week or two and definitely 80, 90 percent by the time the Chase started, and by the time we got to Talladega I felt 100 percent, felt really good.”

Unfortunately, by the time Junior left Talladega, he felt really, really bad. He was involved in the infamous pileup on the last lap that took 20-plus cars out of the race, and although he managed to maneuver his way through, we have since been treated to some harrowing “Blair Witch Project” jerky-looking in-car video that shows his head being bounced around pretty vigorously.

Even a head and neck restraint system must allow some mobility, but given what we know now, it is nevertheless harrowing to watch.

One story published after the race described Junior as sitting behind his team hauler, with his head in his hands. At the time the writer understandably attributed this posture to the disappointment of realizing that for all intents and purposes, his championship hope had been dashed. But we now know that more than likely, he literally had a headache.

“The one in Kansas was really bad, and then to get shaken up so quickly over something kind of trivial … I’ve been through tons of last-lap wrecks at Daytona and Talladega, and that one shook me up, and I just thought maybe I should take this seriously,” he said.

Concussions are sneaky villains of the show because they’re not obvious. While George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are like the broken bones and torn ligaments of professional sports – the ones that get the most attention – concussions are more like the ubiquitous David Straitharn. You know you’ve seen that guy a bunch of times, but you can’t quite place him.

Earnhardt, however, could. When his headache remained several days after the race at Talladega, he made the decision to see Jerry Petty, NASCAR doctor (which sounds like a great title for a reality series, but that’s another story for another day). Dr. Petty administered a complete neurological exam and an MRI, and definitively determined that Junior had suffered two concussions in six weeks’ time.

“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. Until that’s healed and had some time to rest and then you provoke it again and can’t make it happen again, then that’s when you feel like you’re on the road to recovery,” Dr. Petty said.

“We want him to have four or five days after he has no headache, and then we’ll give him some sort of test to get his pulse rate up, see if we can provoke a headache. If we can’t, we’ll let him go out and drive a lap or two and see how that goes, and if that goes well, we’ll probably clear him to race.”

If all goes well, Junior is expected to return to competition on Oct. 29 at Martinsville Speedway.

In the aftermath of all this, one particularly alarming comment made several times by a number of people stated that NASCAR drivers often compete while suffering the effects of undiagnosed – and undisclosed – concussions.

“When you have a concussion, the symptoms can be really mild, and then they’ll typically go away after a couple days and you feel perfectly normal,” said NASCAR vice president Steve O’Donnell. “But then when you get in a car and you go around the track at a high rate of speed, you start to understand that some things just aren’t quite where they need to be and some reactions just aren’t as sharp.

“You really can’t get a measurement of that until you’re in the car. There’s just no way of knowing until you can drive.”

Yikes.

Earnhardt’s own teammate kind of threw him under the bus.

“Honestly, I hate to say this, but if I have a shot at the championship, there’s two races to go, my head is hurting, and I just came through a wreck, and I am feeling signs of it but I’m still leading the points, or second in the points, I’m not going to say anything. I’m sorry,” said four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon.

“That’s the competitor in me, and probably many other guys. And that’s not the way it should be. It’s something that most of us, I think, would do. I think that’s what gets a lot of us in trouble.”

I kind of love the fact that the driver touted as NASCAR’s “Last Redneck Standing” has turned out to be the one with the most common sense. He will not be the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, but to my way of thinking, he is its undisputed hero.

By using his head, Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have actually saved his brain.

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