Jimmie Johnson wants stronger concussion protocols in NASCAR, IndyCar

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – The misdiagnosis of a concussion that contributed to sidelining Will Power happened in the IndyCar Series, but six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson wants it to effect change in NASCAR.

Power was diagnosed with a concussion and held out of the March 13 season opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., after experiencing severe nausea and failing a Sports Concussion Assessment Tool test on race morning.

But a battery of concussion tests administered at the University of Miami three days later revealed that the Penske driver had been misdiagnosed with a concussion, which series officials thought had occurred in a Friday practice crash.

Johnson said Power’s case illustrates the need for stronger concussion protocols in racing, noting that “at some point, someone has to make the call, it just sucks that it wasn’t the right one.

“Whatever they have in Miami needs to be at every racetrack to make a better decision,” Johnson said Friday morning at Martinsville Speedway in an interview with reporters from NBC Sports.com and USA TODAY Sports. “Whatever that stuff is. That’s the bottom line. You’re dealing with someone’s career, someone’s life, in a couple of ways, good or bad.

“If somebody does get cleared to race, and they did have a concussion, if they did pass that first test, I think it’s important to get whatever they have in Miami at every racetrack following our series (and) the IndyCar Series.”

Brad Keselowski has been the most outspoken among NASCAR drivers on the concussion issue, challenging doctors’ ability to make an accurate diagnosis and the wisdom of professional sports leagues that put stock in the medical community’s advice.

Johnson said he can appreciate Keselowski’s view because “I’m thankful that Brad is so by the letter of the law. It’s not a bad position to be in, and obviously being at Penske, he’s seen it up close and asked direct questions to everybody, I’d imagine. It’s tough when someone else is making decisions for you. So I get it.”

“The bottom line there is concern for the athlete, for the driver,” Johnson added. “I think it all stems from a good place. Unfortunately, mistakes are made. We’re trying with the baseline concussion tests we now take. That’s hopefully a tool to help make a better decision.

“It’s not directly impacted me. I’m sure it’s not easy for the sanctioning body to make the call, and it’s not easy for the driver to be in his situation. It’s just not easy. But it’s coming from a place of concern. We’ve made so many advances in safety and have made racing safer worldwide. I commend the effort. We just have to figure out how to make better decisions. Make the right decision. And I know that’s not easy.”

Johnson recently suffered a hard impact after leaving his steering wheel loose in qualifying at Phoenix International Raceway three weeks ago. He said he was fine after that wreck but admitted that heavy impacts can make drivers worried they might get diagnosed.

“If you’re not feeling right, and people are questioning you, ‘Hey, we need to go take the concussion test,’ then the ‘oh (crap)’ factor hits you,” he said. “It never got to that point (at Phoenix). I guess my signs didn’t show that. If they start asking questions, I’m sure the nervousness is going to go quick.”

Power was replaced at St. Petersburg by Oriol Servia, and his team said the 2014 series champ was feeling poorly enough that it’s possible Power still might have withdrawn from the race even if he hadn’t been misdiagnosed or if he had been given clearance.

But Keselowski believes a driver should be given the option to gut it out regardless, which Johnson supported.

“Yeah, if you’re cleared to race,” Johnson said. “Someone’s got to make a call at some point. If they give you the green light to race, I’m getting in. Yeah.”

Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a differing view.

Speaking Friday afternoon at Martinsville, Earnhardt also was asked about Keselowski’s view on concussions and whether he agreed with Johnson that protocols could be strengthened. Earnhardt admitted to hiding concussions twice before missing two races with a concussion sustained in a last-lap wreck at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2012.

“I see the argument in reverse,” he said. “Whereas most concussions are self-diagnosed, and as a driver, the real purpose of the conversation should be to help people and drivers and football players understand that it’s OK to self-diagnose and go get help.

“I feel very good about the protocols that are in place. They’ve stepped up. I believe in the IMPACT test and what it’s used for and how it’s used. I think it’s a great tool not only for understanding a concussion or diagnosing, but it’s also a great tool to treat the concussion once you’ve been diagnosed and understand that you have the concussion, how to treat it. Because concussions are like snowflakes: There’s no two concussions that are the same. Each one deals with certain parts of the body.”

Earnhardt, who extensively has studied concussions since his injury four years ago, said NASCAR has “really taken this head on and are talking to the right people. They’re involving themselves with the right folks to get the best information to be able to protect the drivers the best way they can.”

He compared the development of concussion education and research with the ongoing development of NASCAR safety, which has accelerated in the 15 years since his father’s death.

“It’ll continue to get better the same way anything in the sport progresses,” he said. “Look at the interior of the car for example and how it’s changed. The more information we get from the doctors, the better equipped we are to protect ourselves.

“I feel good about it. I understand some of the drivers’ concerns, but going through the process myself really helped me understand exactly what everything is there for and how to use it.”