Ryan: Why are so many NASCAR drivers missing races? Because they can … and they should

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Is it a coincidence more Sprint Cup drivers are missing races under new NASCAR rules more accommodating than ever for skipping events without negative repercussions for a championship?

Ostensibly, the answer seems, “Yes, it must be a coincidence.”

Since NASCAR revamped its Chase for the Sprint Cup in January 2014 with a caveat permitting exemptions, Brian Vickers (blood clots), Tony Stewart (broken leg), Kyle Busch (broken leg) and Kurt Busch (suspension), have been absent because of conditions in which they almost certainly wouldn’t (or couldn’t) have tried to race under any points system.

But there seems a new paradigm in the cases of Denny Hamlin, who missed a start at Auto Club Speedway last year with an eye injury initially misdiagnosed as a sinus infection, and Kyle Larson, who is out of the No. 42 Chevrolet today at Martinsville Speedway while being evaluated for a fainting spell.

This isn’t to make the case that either driver should have been in a car. In both cases, they faced unknown ailments without sound diagnoses that could determine the risks of being behind the wheel.

But it’s reasonable to conclude that Hamlin, who lobbied hard to start the race, and Larson, who voluntarily visited two hospitals after being seen at Martinsville’s infield care center, would have stayed in their cars during a previous era of NASCAR.

It’s a sea change in a sport whose lore is filled with tales of wounded warriors who taped their eyelids open with duct tape, limped to their cockpits with fractured limbs and postponed surgeries for aching backs, necks and knees.

For years, NASCAR met a standard for suffering by its professional athletes that rivaled any of the most physical sports.

“I think when a driver gets hurt, NASCAR forces us not to go to the hospital,” Jimmy Spencer said late in a 2002 season during which Dale Earnhardt Jr. revealed he’d driven for several months despite a concussion. “NASCAR forces us in a lot of ways to drive hurt because you lose your points.”

That philosophy dramatically has shifted over the past decade, though — and not just because of the championship format that now links race wins to title eligibility and deemphasizes points.

NASCAR has added medical liaisons, baseline concussion testing and more rigid standards for being cleared to race during a period in which high-profile safety upgrades are constant (and necessary, given Kyle Busch’s violent impact with an unprotected wall at Daytona International Speedway last month).

Culturally, the ongoing controversies regarding head injuries in the NFL has raised the dialogue about concussions, and that’s relaxed a traditionally testosterone-fueled environment in NASCAR where sitting out sometimes has been regarded as being soft. When Earnhardt suffered another concussion in 2012, he took himself out of the No. 88 Chevy rather than mask the injury.

The prospect of being granted a waiver to compete for a championship despite missing a race – which NASCAR has done three times since last season – makes it an easy decision if any concern exists about personal health.

“Some of it could be attributed to just the idea that once you understand things better, you have more options,” Carl Edwards said before Sunday’s STP 500. “Especially right now with the way that the points structure and the championship Chase is determined, if you understand that, ‘Hey, it might be best to sit a race out,’ then that has to be a more viable option than it has been in the past.

“Each case is different. Let me put it a simpler way: Right now if you had a good reason where missing a race might be better for your overall chances at winning the championship, whether it’s health or something like that, then now you can actually look at that as a real option. I think in the end, that’s probably good. If somebody doesn’t feel like racing for any reason then having the ability to not do that, that’s nice.”

There are some downsides to the scenario, though. Namely, that it could open the door to being exploited and turning the title race into a mockery.

NASCAR was adamant in unveiling its new playoff parameters that drivers wouldn’t be approved to skip races for the births of their children. To maintain title eligibility, drivers are required to attempt to qualify for every race because NASCAR doesn’t want drivers skipping races after being locked into the Chase with a victory.

The Sprint Cup Series has been marketed for years as a weekly all-star event in which perfect attendance is mandatory. That positively differentiates stock-car racing from professional golf or tennis, in which stars can pick and choose which events to play, or the NBA, which currently is weathering the taint of bottom-feeder teams tanking to improve their draft position by resting healthy stars that fans pay to see.

But it also has left NASCAR in some untenable situations in which it forced drivers to trade their health for a chance at the title. When Dale Jarrett broke his ribs in a crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May 2001, he continued to race rather than take the three weeks needed for healing. The injuries lingered for two months.

“I couldn’t afford to sit out,” Jarrett said in 2002. “There’s not sufficient time to rest up from a serious injury. You have to be in the car.”

There wasn’t a choice then for drivers.

Now there is – and it seems an extraordinarily obvious improvement. If Larson had raced at Martinsville and somehow exacerbated a potential injury in a crash, there would be no debate about whether the emerging star should have been allowed to sit.

 “Everybody in this garage, they are very, very smart competitors and everyone’s goal is the win the championship,” Edwards said. “For instance, if I get in a wreck this afternoon and shatter my arm or my hands or something like that, if I believe that taking two or three weeks off is going to help me heal better so that I have a better shot at winning the championship, then you can bet that I will do everything I can to take those two or three weeks off.

“Everybody wants to race every race, but I believe we’re also all competitors and disciplined enough to know that if taking a week off is possible and it will help you, then that’s absolutely what we’ll do. Kyle Larson, if he takes whatever time he needs and then comes back and puts himself in the Chase and wins the championship, there’s not one person that will say that what he’s doing is wrong, whether it’s in the garage or outside of it.

“It’s just an option now.”

As it should be.

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