concussion

Dale Earnhardt Jr. on his contract, future in an exclusive NASCAR America interview tonight

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A subpar start to 2017 in Cup won’t have an impact on whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. races in NASCAR’s premier series beyond this season.

In an exclusive interview with NBCSN reporter Marty Snider that will air on NASCAR America today (6-7 p.m.), Earnhardt said his decision “won’t be performance-based” as he weighs a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports.

“I would never let performance make that decision,” the 14-time most popular driver, who has indicated he wanted to wait a couple of months into the season before mulling his future, told Snider in the interview.  “If you don’t run well, it’s almost ‘I’m just not going to go (leave).’ You want to come back and get it right.

“I went through some struggles in a few years, and man, am I glad that I stuck around. I’m glad I fought to get some success. It was so rewarding. I feel good health-wise, and me and (team owner) Rick (Hendrick) are in conversation talking about what we want to do in the future.”

Earnhardt hasn’t finished higher than 14th in his first six races since returning from a concussion that sidelined him for the second half last season. He is ranked 25th in the points standings.

He was running well Sunday at Martinsville Speedway before his No. 88 Chevrolet was caught in a multicar crash with 82 laps remaining

“Looking at the finishes, I’m disappointed,” said Earnhardt, who also crashed out of the Daytona 500 after leading eight laps. “I felt we’ve always started really strong. We’ve had a hard time maintaining that. … We’ve come out flat and haven’t had great finishes. We’ve lacked a little speed. We saw some promise in the car at Martinsville, which made me feel good and made me excited about whether we’re getting back on track.  But we have to get the results when we have an opportunity like we did at Martinsville to get a top-five finish.  We can’t make mistakes and have the poor runs we had at the start of the season and not capitalize when we have those chances.

“If we continue to have that result, we’re not going to make the playoffs. So I’m not really panicking just yet. But we can’t be giving away points like that on a weekend when we need to finish in the top 10.”

Earnhardt told reporters during Speedweeks that the first few months of 2017 were critical to determining his long-term future and establishing confidence in his health.

He told Snider in Tuesday’s interview at the governor’s mansion in Columbia, South Carolina, that his No. 88 Chevrolet team had been a source of strength.

“I believe in our team,” he told Snider. “They believe in me. We’re a great combination. We’re a great group of guys and this is a great opportunity for me, so yeah, we’re struggling and have had challenges and aren’t getting the results, but I don’t expect that to last too long.

During the interview, Earnhardt also discussed the importance of the Southern 500 throwback weekend to NASCAR tradition and his recent dust ups with Ryan Blaney (a good friend and neighbor of Earnhardt’s).

Watch NASCAR America at 6 p.m. on NBCSN for Earnhardt’s full interview with Snider.

Brad Keselowski says more needs to be done to diagnose mild concussions

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Brad Keselowski says all sports face a challenge in diagnosing mild concussions and until such a tool is available to do so, “all of sports are playing from behind.’’

Keselowski’s comments come less than a week after NASCAR upgraded its concussion protocol and on a day where Danica Patrick said the number of concussions she could have suffered in her racing career is “thought-provoking.’’

Keselowski said Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway that the next key area for all sports is to “find a definitive way to diagnose a mild concussion. Until we can definitively define a mild concussion, we’re going to have one or two end results.

“We’re either going to have drivers sit out when they don’t really have a concussion, or we’re going to have the long-term effect of drivers that have faced multiple concussions and developed CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, all the things that go with it. We need a definitive tool to diagnose a mild concussion.’’

As part of its updated concussion protocol, NASCAR announced Feb. 17 that it will require infield care center physicians to incorporate the SCAT-3 diagnostic tool in screening for head injuries. A SCAT test is used by IndyCar and the NFL in diagnosing concussions.

Keselowski’s issue is with hits defined as subconcussive. Enough of those can impact an athlete.

“A race car driver does have, over the course of a long career, repetitive head injuries,’’ Dr. Robert Cantu, clinical professor Neurology/Neurosurgery at the Boston University School of Medicine, told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan in August. “It’s not just concussions. It’s the subconcussive violent shaking that can contribute as well. So I think it’s very important that we have the opportunity to study the brains in someone involved in racing.’’

Asked about drawing a line from concussions to CTE, a progressive degenerative disease found in those with a history of repetitive brain trauma, Cantu said:

“I think it’s fair to draw the line from repeated head injury, both at the subconcussive and concussive level, with the risk of developing CTE, and it goes up the more trauma you’ve taken.’’

Patrick, 34, says she believes she’s had her share of concussions in a racing career that began when she was 10 years old.

“Every time you crash, you have a concussion of a varying degree,’’ she said Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway. “(Dale Earnhardt Jr.) said something about having 12 concussions, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m sure I’ve had 12 concussions.’ It is a little bit thought-provoking is what I would say for sure.’’

Earnhardt has never revealed how many concussions he has had, although he has sustained at least five concussions during his 17 seasons in NASCAR’s premier series.

Patrick has not suffered a concussion since racing in NASCAR in 2010.

“While we’re not football players, we don’t get the repeated hits in succession over a short amount of time, but it’s rough in the car and the hits are probably singularly bigger, maybe,’’ Patrick said. “I’m just assuming going 200 miles an hour, going 150 miles an hour, has got to be a fairly big hit compared to running.’’

Patrick noted that SAFER barriers and collapsible items on NASCAR vehicles have better protected drivers. Still, Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of last season because of concussion symptoms that stemmed from a crash at Michigan International Speedway in June. It marked the second time in his career that Earnhardt has missed races because of concussion symptoms.

He wasn’t the only driver to sit out last year for similar issues. Matt DiBenedetto was forced to miss a Cup race last season although he questioned if he had been diagnosed correctly after an incident in November at Texas. John Wes Townley missed two Camping World Truck Series races last year because of concussion-like symptoms suffered after two crashes in a June race at Gateway Motorsports Park.

Earnhardt’s openness about his symptoms and recovery is viewed by many in the sport as trendsetting and raised the profile of the issue.

I was very, very sick,’’ Earnhardt said Wednesday.“I had no business being in a car. I just did everything my doctors were telling me to do.

“If it helps somebody, that’s important. But I was just looking out for myself, listening to my doctors. If it taught someone a lesson or helped someone, that’s awesome. I definitely became more educated through the process.’’

A day before Earnhardt returned to the car last weekend at Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR updated its concussion protocol for competitors. The policy states:

#As part of the new rule regarding damaged vehicles, a driver whose car sustains damage from an accident or contact of any kind and goes behind the pit wall or to the garage is required to visit the Infield Care Center to be evaluated.

#The medical portion of NASCAR’s Event Standards now require that Infield Care Center physicians incorporate the SCAT-3 diagnostic tool in screening for head injuries.

#AMR will provide on-site neurological consultative support at select NASCAR events during the 2017 season and will work directly with NASCAR in the continued development of concussion protocol.

Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson each said they had no issues after their separate incidents in Sunday’s Clash.

“They just evaluated me,’’ Johnson said after his visit to the infield care center. “It seemed like a normal routine, so I don’t think I was in question to go into protocol mode.’’

With a doctor and paramedic in an emergency vehicle that responds to crashes, it allows medical officials to view drivers more closely after the incident instead of waiting until the drivers arrive to the infield care center. If the doctor or paramedic see something that raises a concern, it can trigger the concussion protocol program.

For as much as is being done, Patrick recognizes the dangers associated with concussions.

“It’s our life, and if there was someone that told me, and I would hope that any other driver that if you had another wreck you could have a serious problems (that) they would be out,’’ she said. “I would be out. I love what I do, but I love lots of other things, and I also love life. I’m too young to have it be over.’’

So with the emphasis on concussions, what more can be done?

“No. 1 for me is taking note of symptoms, being really aware, which I feel that I’m pretty good at that,’’ Patrick said. “I would almost call myself hyper-sensitive just because of how much I take care of myself with food and working out. I feel very, very perceptive to any little change to my body.

“Hopefully, it puts NASCAR in a position and the safety team into a position where they start to address it differently from a recording information standpoint or a data or testing of some sort. There are some different protocols. The question is what can we do really? Just be aware of your symptoms and be honest.’’

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Dale Jr. on Dan Patrick Show: Retirement plans, how concussion changed him

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While Dale Earnhardt Jr. anticipates racing for several more years to come, one thing could stop that goal cold – winning the NASCAR Cup Series championship.

“If I won the championship, I’d retire on the stage in Vegas. Hell yeah,” Earnhardt said.

Asked by Patrick if he would.

“Probably. Wouldn’t it be the best way to go out on top?”

Earnhardt went on to say that he wants to talk to those who retired and how they knew it was time to leave the sport.

“I haven’t had that conversation yet,” he said.

Earnhardt and wife Amy appeared Tuesday morning on the Dan Patrick Show on NBCSN. Among other topics Earnhardt discussed was how he thought his father, Dale Earnhardt, likely would have continued to race for maybe one or two more seasons had he not been killed in a last-lap crash during the 2001 Daytona 500.

The younger Earnhardt also talked about his love for the NFL’s Washington Redskins, how Amy has made him a better person, social anxiety, his recovery from concussions that caused him to miss the entire second half of the 2016 season and all that he went through during that time.

Earnhardt will be going for his third career win in the Daytona 500 in this Sunday’s season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway.

Check out excerpts of Earnhardt’s interviews at the top of this story and also below.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Next two months critical to determining if he will race beyond 2017

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In a wide-ranging conversation with reporters Saturday night, Dale Earnhardt Jr. expounded on how long he intends to race in NASCAR, confirming he will wait “a couple of months” to decide.

Earnhardt, who is in a contract year with Hendrick Motorsports, told writer Tommy Tomlinson about the timeline in an ESPN The Magazine story published this week.

After missing the last half of the 2016 season with concussion symptoms, Earnhardt said Saturday he wants to affirm his well-being but likely will re-sign if things check out.

“I told (team owner) Rick (Hendrick) I’d like to get a couple of months under my belt to get confidence in my health,” he said. “When I got hurt last year and what I saw it put the company through, how I saw it frustrate certain aspects of the company, it put a strain on our relationships. Our (sponsors) were worried about my future.

“Rick and everybody was worried. I don’t want to do that again. So I want to get some races under my belt and get confidence in my health before I can commit to him. I don’t want to make any promises I can’t deliver on, and so once I feel like I think I’m good.”

Earnhardt, who turned 42 last October, has suffered at least five concussions during his career. Richard Petty recently said he was disappointed the 13-time most popular driver decided to return instead of retiring.

Earnhardt respects Petty’s point of view (“it just shows he cares about me as a person”) but wants to drive beyond 2017.

“I think I can withstand the wear and tear of driving these cars to do a couple of more years,” he said. “I’m ready to do it because I want to race. I want to be here.

“I used to try over the last year or two to put a number on it and say this is when I’m going to retire. This will be the year, the day, the age. I’ve decided that maybe it’s best that I don’t considering my health. I can’t really try to put a date on it because I don’t know what’s going to happen to me going forward.”

At a Phoenix International Raceway test session two weeks ago, Earnhardt talked with Carl Edwards, who is stepping away from NASCAR this season. He advised Earnhardt to consider only himself in thinking about the future.

“He said, ‘Man it was a real easy decision to make when I didn’t worry about anyone else or worry about how it affected anyone else,’” Earnhardt said. “That’s the hard part for me. There are so many moving parts to what we have going on. There’s a lot of elements, and it’s not an easy decision to say when is the time to hang it up.

“There was a lot of time in there during the recovery where there were days I was 90% sure I wasn’t going to drive again. … I had to decide for myself if I wanted to drive anymore. I’m not going to race because any other reason than I want to be out there. I don’t think it’s smart for any other reasons.”

Earnhardt said he talked most about furthering his career with Dr. Micky Collins, who kept reminding him that having passion was the key.

“There are motivations to racing,” Earnhardt said. “The fans, the camaraderie and all the great things you get to experience. But if I’m going to come back, I’ve got to be racing because I want to be out there.

“I couldn’t put myself through the chance that I could put myself back in rehab for months and months going through that crap again if I really didn’t want to be out there. I couldn’t do it because of contracts or responsibilities or we just ain’t ready to retire, or we don’t have our ducks in a row from a financial standpoint. We can’t keep racing because of those things. It’s too much of a risk I think.”

On the bad days during his recovery, Earnhardt said he thought every day about life outside the car.

“Me and (his wife) Amy and whomever would have conversations,” he said. “We’d get into scenarios or situations and go, ‘Wow, this is what it would be like.’

“I don’t know if we ever got 100% to feeling like retirement would be like. I certainly got a glimpse into what that side of life would be like. Let me tell you: It’s a lot less stress. I really never knew how much pressure all the drivers are under until I got out from under that. Man, it is a mess.

“So, I don’t know whether I’m right about this or not, but I think for the longest time, I let racing be who I was instead of what I did. So maybe (I’ll) enjoy it more and not let it become so stressful that it’s unenjoyable. Maybe I’ll just try to focus on letting it be what I do instead of who I am. Like Richard Petty said, I’ve got a whole other life beyond driving, and I really believe that.

“I have a lot of things I’d love to do. Outside of having a family, there’s a lot of business that I’d love to see if I can succeed at. I think we got a glimpse of what that would be like. It looks pretty awesome.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. cleared to return to NASCAR, will race at the 2017 Daytona 500

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has completed his recovery from a concussion that sidelined him for the last half of the 2016 NASCAR season.

Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday morning that Earnhardt had been cleared to race again in NASCAR after a Wednesday test at Darlington Raceway. Earnhardt was cleared by Dr. Micky Collins, director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh. Collins consulted with Dr. Jerry Petty, who attended the test at the 1.366-mile oval.

Earnhardt will return with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26, 2017.

Earnhardt, who is getting married Dec. 31, has said he plans to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet in a tire test at Phoenix International Raceway in January. The recently named 14-time most popular driver hasn’t raced since finishing 13th in the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway.

Here’s the full release Thursday from Hendrick Motorsports:

Following a test session Wednesday afternoon at Darlington Raceway, Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been medically cleared to resume NASCAR competition after making a full recovery from a concussion. He will return for the beginning of the 2017 season at the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt, 42, was cleared Wednesday evening by Dr. Micky Collins, medical director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, in consultation with Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty. Petty attended the test at the 1.366-mile South Carolina racetrack.

“Dale is one of the hardest-working patients I’ve ever encountered,” Collins said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked, and we believe he is ready to compete at a professional level again and can withstand the normal forces of a race car driver. Dale has been very open with us, and we’ve had plenty of time for his treatment, so we feel very good about his long-term prospects and how this has been managed by everyone involved.”

Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet SS for Hendrick Motorsports, completed 185 laps during a nearly five-hour session at Darlington under the guidance of his crew chief, Greg Ives. In addition to the on-track test, which was observed by NASCAR, the driver has logged more than 15 hours in a racing simulator during his recovery.

“I feel great, and I’m excited to officially be back,” Earnhardt said. “I expected things to go really well yesterday, and that’s exactly what happened. Actually getting in a race car was an important final step, and it gives me a ton of confidence going into 2017. Thanks to the staff at Darlington for hosting our team and to NASCAR for giving us the opportunity to put a car on the track. I’ll do more testing in January to help knock the rust off. When it’s time to go to Daytona, I’ll be ready.”

Alex Bowman (10 races) and four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon (eight races) handled substitute driving duties for the No. 88 team during Earnhardt’s recovery. He missed the final 18 races of the 2016 NASCAR season beginning with the July 17 event at New Hampshire.

“Dale deserves so much credit,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “I’m proud of him for listening to his body and standing up to take responsibility for his health. He’s worked extremely hard and set a terrific example for others. It’s great news as we go into the off-season, and we can’t wait to see him back on the racetrack at Daytona.”

Bowman will race the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS in the Feb. 18 season-opening, non-points The Clash at Daytona International Speedway, which will feature pole position winners from the previous year. Bowman won the No. 88 team’s lone 2016 pole at Phoenix in November.

“Alex did such a great job in the car this year, and I felt like he deserved another opportunity,” Earnhardt said. “When I spoke with Rick and the team about him driving The Clash, everyone agreed that he more than earned it, and Nationwide was 100-percent on board. I’m really grateful to him and Jeff for what they did for our team, and I’m glad Alex is getting another run with us.”