For the first time in 16 years, Talladega Superspeedway will not have Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the field Sunday afternoon.
Earnhardt has been sidelined for the remainder of the season after suffering a concussion early this summer. With the final restrictor-plate race of the season looming, there is always the prospect of more heavy hits, and while Earnhardt, who has competed in the last 33 Talladega races, will be notably absent, he knows the dangers of superspeedway racing all too well.
Involved in a 25-car crash on the last lap in the October 2012 race, Earnhardt suffered a concussion that sidelined him for the next two weeks. In a recent interview with NBC Sports, Earnhardt recalled another restrictor-plate crash from early in his career that left him soldiering through the effects instead of seeking out a doctor.
“In ’98 I flipped at Daytona (in the Xfinity Series) and I came out of the infield care center stumbling around, just trying to do an interview falling over and just about passing out and never thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got a concussion, I need to get help; or maybe I should hide it,’” Earnhardt said. “I never thought anything, you’re just like, ‘All right, I’m hurt, this will go away.’
“I remember being in the shop the next week and I was working on my back inside the interior of the car and I felt like they had – the car was on caster wheels – and I thought that they had slung the car across the floor of the shop. I sat up saying, where are we going, when we hadn’t moved at all. It was like, ‘Oh, I’ll be fine, I’m tough.’ It’s just you didn’t know what the right thing to do was, you didn’t know, ‘Hey, I need to go see neurologist.’ I didn’t even know what the hell a neurologist was then.”
Earnhardt brought up the Daytona crash during an interview about drivers being more proactive about their health after taking a hard hit. Drivers Ryan Ellis and Sarah Cornett-Ching credit Earnhardt’s recent openness as being the reason they sought medical treatment instead of waiting for the symptoms to pass.
While Earnhardt understands a driver’s instinct of wanting to soldier through on their own, he doesn’t suggest it. Certainly not after receiving a better understanding of how advanced concussion treatment and doctor education has become the last few years. Although Sunday will be the second elimination race of the Chase, the major storyline centers around the expectation of carnage.
The May race at Talladega featured 10 cautions. Six of the 10 cautions were accidents that involved four or more cars. Chris Buescher and Matt Kenseth, in separate accidents, both flipped. At Daytona in July, there were five cautions. Three of them were multicar accidents.
“But I think the fact that maybe these people are saying, OK, I see now what I need to do when this happens, whereas before you didn’t even know what to do or who to see or how to treat it or how to handle that kind of deal,” Earnhardt said. “So anytime you got your head banged you kind of waited for it to get better. But now you can go see people; you can get specific exercises that treat exactly the type of injury your brain has. The doctors have learned so much in the last 10 years that it’s great for folks like us who know when we get hurt can go, ‘I know what to do.’ I know what to do, who to see, and this is going to be good.”