LOUDON, N.H. — The most revelatory nugget from Hendrick Motorsports’ first news conference since the bombshell that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with concussion symptoms didnt’t involve Earnhardt.
Hendrick general manager Doug Duchardt said if Earnhardt couldn’t return for the July 24 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, four-time champion Jeff Gordon would interrupt his retirement to return to Hendrick and drive Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet.
With medical issues and doctor-patient confidentiality in play, other information that could be provided about Earnhardt’s health was limited. Though Duchardt, No. 88 crew chief Greg Ives and substitute driver Alex Bowman shed some light on what’s ahead for the team this weekend at the 1.058-mile oval, there still are lingering questions.
Namely, when will NASCAR’s 13-time most popular driver return? Duchardt said Hendrick could wait as late as Wednesday to decide whether Earnhardt can return for the Brickyard 400.
Here are five questions that bear watching related to Earnhardt’s absence:
— How will imPACT play a role in NASCAR’s concussion protocol? NASCAR implemented mandatory baseline concussion testing (imPACT) before the 2014 season, requiring drivers to take tests measuring their cognitive and reactive ability that could be compared with results from the same test after a heavy impact. The comparative data can help in diagnosing and treating concussions.
Earnhardt will represent the most high-profile case of a possible concussion since the change in policy. While a board-certified neurologist or neurosurgeon with at least five years of experience has been necessary to clear a driver’s return from a head injury for several seasons, the imPACT data should provide another layer of insight for NASCAR.
Used to pinpoint areas of the brain that might be most affected, baseline testing also can be useful in ruling out concussions. After he was held out of the IndyCar opener March 13 at St. Petersburg, Florida, with a concussion, Will Power underwent a battery of tests for several hours at the University of Miami that revealed he was misdiagnosed. That prompted Jimmie Johnson to challenge racing series to improve their at-track testing capabilities.
— Where will Earnhardt be treated? One would expect it probably will be the same as four years ago when his recovery from a concussion was overseen by Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty.
Earnhardt also spent time in treatment at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program. Dr. Micky Collins, the director of the program, consulted with Petty on Earnhardt’s progress.
Duchardt said Friday that Earnhardt already had seen a “team of neurologists,” and Earnhardt tweeted late Thursday night that he was “working with some great doctors to get well.”
— How will history impact the approval process? Earnhardt raced with a concussion for about three months after a heavy impact April 28, 2002 at Fontana, California. He kept driving for six weeks after sustaining a concussion in an Aug. 29, 2012 wreck during a tire test at Kansas Speedway. He also was airlifted out of Dover International Speedway in September 2003 after briefly losing consciousness in a wreck (there was no concussion diagnosis).
Earnhardt is fond of noting that concussions “are like snowflakes. There’s no two concussions that are the same,” so it might be irrelevant in weighing the impact of crashes that happened years ago. But the record is certain to be considered as a factor in determining fitness for racing.
— Is a Chase for the Sprint Cup waiver a foregone conclusion? It should be based on precedent. NASCAR has granted the wish of virtually every driver who has requested an exemption from the stipulation that a driver must start every regular-season race to be playoff-eligible. Earnhardt apparently could have been injured on track, and he was proactive in addressing his health. There’d be no reason to withhold a waiver.
The real unknown is whether a waiver still could get him in the playoffs despite missing at least one race. With his 33-point cushion over the cut line in serious jeopardy, it might be win or bust for Earnhardt to make the playoffs in 2016.
Hendrick Motorsports has confirmed it will seek a waiver, but NASCAR said it can’t be submitted for consideration until Earnhardt returns to the car.
— Does NASCAR need to re-examine its method of evaluating drivers after crashes? Earnhardt didn’t go the care center after crashes at Michigan International Speedway and Daytona International Speedway that he cited in a team release as possible sources for his symptoms. Recently, John Wes Townley didn’t visit the Gateway International Raceway care center after the first of two wrecks in the Camping World Truck series race on June 25. He missed last week’s race at Kentucky Speedway because of possible concussion symptoms.
Neither driver was required to visit the care center, because both drove away from the crash scene, negating the need for an immediate evaluation. There certainly is no guarantee a concussion diagnosis would have been made in either instance, but it’s worth raising the possibility and whether it’s worthy of a policy change.