Darrell Waltrip on racing hurt: ‘NASCAR has to save us from ourselves’

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CHARLOTTE — With Dale Earnhardt Jr. set to miss his fifth Sprint Cup Series race this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, the concussion discussion continues around NASCAR.

Three-time champion Darrell Waltrip said he doesn’t know all the particulars around Earnhardt’s injury but noted how far the sport has come with making it easier for a driver to miss races while recovering from an injury.

“You got to remember something, our sport was so different not so terribly long ago,” Waltrip said Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame after helping reveal Matt Kenseth’s throwback paint scheme for the Southern 500. “If you missed a race, you were done. You couldn’t miss a race and win the championship because you’d miss one race and that’s 185 points, and it’s hard to make that up. So we got in those cars. I know I did, I know Dale (Earnhardt) did, Rusty (Wallace), Bill (Elliott), all of us got in those cars when we shouldn’t have been in them, but we had to. We didn’t have any choice.”

Ricky Rudd was one of the most famous drivers who raced injured. In 1984, Rudd was hurt in a wreck during the Busch Clash, but he would run the Daytona 500 with his eyes duct-taped open. Rudd was also in attendance on Tuesday and said, “No, not all,” when asked if there was any hesitation to running the Daytona 500 the way he did.

“It’s good to see they’ve caught up with the other sports now,” Rudd said of NASCAR. “A driver didn’t use to have the luxury or the option of sitting out a race. Your championship season was over if that happened, so the system wasn’t set up for it back in the day.”

The 2014 revamping of the playoffs tied Chase for the Sprint Cup berths to wins, allowing drivers to be granted waivers permitting them to compete for the title despite missing races with injuries in the regular season. Kyle Busch won the 2015 championship despite missing the first 11 races with a broken right leg and fractured left foot, and Tony Stewart will make this year’s playoff after being sidelined for the first eight races with a fractured back.

“The way things are set up today, they’re set up to take care of these guys,” Waltrip said. “NASCAR has to help keep us from hurting ourselves, because we’ll get back in the car no matter what. We’ll get back in the car with a broken leg, broken arm, concussion, whatever, because that’s how we think.

“NASCAR has to save us from ourselves a lot of times. As much as we don’t like it and sometimes you think, ‘Oh that’s not fair, I didn’t have it that way,’ but in all honesty, it’s the best it’s probably ever been.”

Jeff Gordon, Waltrip’s broadcast partner at Fox, has driven the No. 88 for Earnhardt in three of the last four races. He will back behind the wheel on Saturday night in Bristol. There is no telling how long Gordon will stay in the car, and Waltrip knows Earnhardt wants to return to racing when he’s able.

There is a concern, however, about a driver’s long-term health and wellness. Waltrip described Sprint Cup cars as “violent” because their handling relies more heavily on bump stops than the springs more commonly used in his era. That does have an impact on drivers, Waltrip believes.

Regardless, Waltrip said it’s not for anyone to speculate whether Earnhardt Jr. should or shouldn’t get back behind the wheel.

“You have to know everything there is to know to say (Earnhardt Jr.) should or shouldn’t consider driving in the future,” Waltrip said. “I don’t know what his situation is. I do know this, though: I watch those cars, and I know when you have a wreck and you hit the wall, you have an impact from that. But the way those cars are set up these days riding on the bump stops, basically all you have for springs are your tires, and you watch those cars go around the racetrack, any racetrack, even a smooth one, and the driver’s head is always bobbling a little bit. It’s always kind of moving around a little bit.

“You got those headrests right there, and you’re not violently hitting them, but you’re bumping your head back and forth. And if you’ve had concussions, and maybe it doesn’t take much to give you another one, that could be an issue. The cars ride rough … when they sit on those bump stops you’re basically riding on the tires, and all that comes right back to the driver, and he’s constantly being vibrated. It could take its toll.”

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