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After a two-week absence, NASCAR's most popular driver will return to the circuit.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been medically cleared to compete this weekend at Martinsville Speedway after multiple concussions sidelined him for two races.
Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty supervised Earnhardt Jr.'s rehabilitation program, which included a visit to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Sports Concussion Program.
Throughout all the tests, Earnhardt Jr. showed no symptoms – nor were doctors able to provoke further symptoms. Earnhardt Jr.'s last headache was Oct. 12, Petty said.
"Dale Jr. has done everything asked of him," Petty said. "... I have informed NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports that he is medically cleared for all NASCAR-related activity."
As a final test, Earnhardt Jr. ran 123 laps at Gresham Motorsports Park in Georgia on Monday. Petty, who attended the test, cleared the driver following another examination on Tuesday morning in Charlotte.
Earnhardt Jr. had sustained an initial concussion while testing at Kansas Speedway in August – one which he kept secret – and had another during a spin at Talladega earlier this month.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s recovery from multiple concussions is progressing as planned, and the driver could return on schedule at Martinsville Speedway next week, his sister wrote in a Wednesday morning blog post.
"If all goes according to plan, and he continues to improve to 100%, he will test a race car early next week to be cleared for Martinsville," Kelley Earnhardt Miller wrote in a post on JRNation.com.
The driver has been resting on doctor's orders, but was allowed to "watch some television and play a little video games," Earnhardt Miller wrote. The TV viewing included Saturday night's Charlotte race, where Regan Smith was having a good run until the engine blew.
On Tuesday, Earnhardt Miller accompanied her brother and his girlfriend, Amy Reimann, to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Concussion Program. Earnhardt Jr. "spent most of the day doing different therapies and exercises," his sister wrote, and toured the Pittsburgh Steelers' practice locker rooms afterward (at the same facility).
"We got back (Tuesday) afternoon and Dale has some different therapies to do at home as he consults with the doctors each day," she wrote.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. visited the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's sports concussion program on Tuesday, a place known for being one of the country's foremost authorities on head injuries.
UPMC specializes in concussions and, according to its web site, helps "understand any long-term effects on an athlete and determine when it is safe for that athlete to return to play following a concussion."
Earnhardt Jr. is set to miss at least another week after sitting out the Charlotte race due to a concussion at Talladega – his second in six weeks. Neurologist Dr. Jerry Petty said the driver could return at Martinsville if he's headache-free for several days, passes a stress test and is able to drive several laps without any symptoms.
UPMC helped develop the "ImPACT" test – which stands for "Immediate Postconcussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing" – and it's precisely the type of test Petty was referring to. It's unclear how Earnhardt Jr.'s visit went.
The driver was seen shaking hands with Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin at the team's headquarters, which shares the same building as the UPMC sports program.
Cadence Smith was unpacking her campground Thursday morning at Charlotte Motor Speedway when she received a text from her daughter.
"You do know your driver is not racing this weekend, right?" the text said.
Surprised, Smith wrote back asking for more information. She hadn't heard any news regarding Dale Earnhardt Jr. since arriving from suburban Philadelphia and had no idea the driver would be missing the Charlotte race with a concussion.
When her daughter broke the news, Smith was disappointed but immediately felt the driver had done the right thing.
"I'm proud of him," she said. "It's not an easy thing to do, and it can't be easy for him personally. I want him to do what's right for him."
Each of the Earnhardt Jr. fans we spoke to on Saturday afternoon seemed to express a similar sentiment: While disappointed not to see their driver race, they knew it was right for him to sit out and recover from his head injury. And most said they'll still root for the No. 88 team and Regan Smith, although several had secondary drivers they also liked.
One consensus among the fans: There was never a thought about skipping the race.
Valerie Boyd, an Earnhardt Jr. fan since his Busch Series days, said friends started asking her immediately whether she still planned to drive from Indiana to see the race.
"There wasn't a doubt," she said. "I'll root for the 88 anyway. I love racing. I said, 'I'm still going to go.'"
Some fans felt an great sense of sadness – not for themselves, but for their driver. Cheryl Moseley, who recently moved to North Carolina from Iowa, said she's been an Earnhardt fan "forever" – and felt heartbroken over the driver's concussions.
"It's the same feeling I get when I see him lose a race or have a bad day," she said. "I feel sick for him. I just hope a lot of people don't run away from the sport, because that would make him feel even worse. He doesn't want to be the reason people don't come to the track."
Ann O'Donnell, who drove more than 900 miles from Massachusetts to watch Earnhardt Jr. race, said she was "bummed" but would rather see the driver get totally healthy before returning to competition.
"Two weeks is not enough," she said. "What if he comes back and something else happens again in three weeks? I'd just rather see him take the rest of the year off and get healthy."
In that sense, the uncertain timetable for the driver's return seemed to worry some fans. While Earnhardt Jr. could return in two weeks, there are no guarantees with head injuries – especially when someone has had multiple concussions in a short time.
"My bigger fear is that he'll hang it up early," said Smith, who recently suffered from a life-threatening illness. "I don't want my driver to go through the same thing I went through. It would be tough to see him quit, but he's 38 – he's got the rest of his life ahead of him."
At 7 a.m. Thursday morning, Regan Smith was making coffee and preparing to go work out at a local gym when he saw a text message from an unknown number on his phone.
"This is Steve Letarte," the text said. "Give me a call ASAP."
The 29-year-old didn't think much of the message until he got to the "ASAP" part. Smith called Letarte, the crew chief of Hendrick Motorsports' No. 88 team, and was informed he'd be driving the car this weekend at Charlotte in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Smith hopped in the shower, skipped the gym and went straight to Hendrick's shop in Concord, N.C., where he was fitted for a new seat in preparation to substitute for NASCAR's most popular driver, who is out for at least two weeks with a concussion.
It was a wild turn of events for a driver whose tenure in Furniture Row Racing's No. 78 car ended last week and who was set to debut in Phoenix Racing's No. 51 car this weekend.
"The past four weeks have been about as up and down as any four weeks in my life," Smith said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, wearing No. 88 Amp hat and green Amp T-shirt.
Smith made it clear his main concern was Earnhardt Jr.'s health and recovery, but said he was excited to have an opportunity to drive a Chase-caliber car.
"I just want to do these guys proud and run as good as we can this weekend with this car," Smith said. "They're the same goals this team has every weekend: We want to go out there and try win the pole and try to win the race and try to be the fastest car in every practice. That's not going to change these weekend."
Smith, who hasn't spoken to Earnhardt Jr. yet, said he didn't feel any more pressure than usual. There's always pressure no matter what car a driver races, he said.
That said, Smith is well aware he's under more of a spotlight than ever before in his career.
"I do know Dale's got a huge following – Junior Nation is a big group of people," he said. "I've seen the good side of them before and the bad side. I'm glad to be on the good side for a couple weeks."
There's a code in NASCAR: Whatever the injury, no matter how painful, a driver will never get out of his car.
Auto racing is a tough-guy sport, where even the admission of an injury can be seen as weakness. Drivers will race with severe illnesses, torn knee ligaments, broken bones and, in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s case, concussions.
"In order for me to get out of a race car, I would probably have to be incapacitated," driver Regan Smith said earlier this year. "I would probably crash on the racetrack because of whatever was ailing me before I would get out of my car."
And that can be a problem – as it was for Earnhardt Jr.
When Earnhardt Jr. blew a tire during an August 29 tire test at Kansas Speedway, he hit the wall with an incredible 40 g impact. He knew right away something was wrong, but with the Chase just weeks away, Earnhardt Jr. told everyone he felt fine.
"You know your body and you know how your mind works, and I knew something was just not quite right," Earnhardt Jr. told reporters at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Thursday. "But I decided to just try to push through and work through it. I'd had concussions before and knew exactly kind of what I was dealing with."
Emergency personnel at the track evaluated the driver in an ambulance and cleared him to fly home. That night, he flew to a Washington Redskins preseason game. For all anyone knew, Earnhardt Jr. was OK to race.
He wasn't, though. He hid his injury and said he was only "80 to 90 percent" by the time the Chase began two weeks later. Earnhardt Jr. was feeling completely back to normal by Talladega, but then the Big One happened on the final lap.
In that wreck, Earnhardt Jr. sustained a more minor 20 g hit – and it was only on the rear of his car. The impact spun him around rapidly, though, and he knew immediately he'd suffered a setback.
"The car spun around really quick and just sort of disoriented me, and I knew that I had sort of regressed," he said.
Reporters gathered at his car after the race could see Earnhardt Jr. was in pain, holding his head before conducting an interview. But he insisted he felt fine and privately hoped the symptoms would clear up in a couple days.
When his headaches persisted on Tuesday, though, he consulted neurologist Dr. Jerry Petty.
Earnhardt Jr. was cleared by a neurological exam, and an ensuing MRI checked out normal. But upon going through Earnhardt Jr.'s concussion history with the driver, Petty decided he could not clear the NASCAR's biggest star to race in the next two events (Charlotte and Kansas).
Petty will wait until Earnhardt Jr. is headache-free for four or five days, then give him a stress test to try and induce a headache. If the symptoms don't return, Earnhardt Jr. will get in the car for a test lap or two.
"If that goes well, we'll probably clear him to race," Petty said.
NASCAR vice president Steve O'Donnell said Earnhardt Jr. showed "guts" in admitting he wasn't feeling well. But the truth is, Earnhardt Jr. only came forward after he realized he wasn't fully healed from the first concussion.
Just two days after the tire test crash, Earnhardt Jr. was on track for practice and qualifying at Atlanta. He finished seventh in the race, by he wasn't all there by his own admission.
"When you have a concussion, the symptoms can be really mild, and then they'll typically go away after a couple days and you feel perfectly normal," he said. "But then when you get in a car and you go around the track at a high rate of speed, you start to understand that some things just aren't quite where they need to be and some reactions just aren't as sharp.
"You really can't get a measurement of that until you're in the car. There's just no way of knowing until you can drive."
In Earnhardt Jr.'s case, he realized he wasn't all there but "wasn't willing" to tell anyone because of the impact it could have on his season. Would he lose his shot at a championship in the midst of his best and most consistent season ever?
"With the Chase coming up...if I was to volunteer myself to medical attention and be removed from the car, I didn't know how difficult it would be to get back in," he said.
Earnhardt Jr. chose to seek out a doctor's advice after the Talladega wreck rattled him. But for parts of six weeks, he was on the track at 200 mph while his brain wasn't at full health.
"I think you saw the process work in terms of Dale Jr. knowing he had an issue," O'Donnell said.
But did it?
"Concussions are mostly self-policed, and only you know how bad they are," Brad Keselowski said. "Whatever amount he had (after Kansas) wasn't enough to feel like it was a detriment to others, whereas this time, it is."
The news today that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss the next two NASCAR races due to a concussion sustained at Talladega left everyone wondering if they missed signs of a head injury after Sunday's race.
It was a bit surprising to see Earnhardt Jr. wincing and rubbing his head so much after crashing at Talladega, but the driver twice said he was OK when reporters asked how he felt.
"Yeah, I mean, I just took a lot of hard shots," he said then.
While he seemed a bit out of sorts during the interview, it appeared to be more of an emotional reaction than the reaction of a man who had just sustained a concussion. He wasn't spacey or distant or any of the signs you'd think would be associated with a head injury; rather, it seemed he was just disgusted with restrictor-plate racing – which is exactly what he said.
I still wondered, though. So during a phone interview with Earnhardt Jr. on Tuesday, I brought up the topic again.
"It just looked like you were holding your head," I said. "But you feel OK?"
"Yeah, I feel fine," he answered, with as normal of a tone as someone could have.
Clearly, though, he didn't feel fine on Wednesday – his 38th birthday. Earnhardt Jr. went to the doctor, where he was diagnosed with a concussion. On medical orders, he will miss the next two NASCAR races at Charlotte and Kansas (Earnhardt Jr. was never examined after Talladega because he drove his car back to the garage).
In fact, the Associated Press reported this morning Earnhardt Jr. also sustained another concussion when he crashed during the Kansas tire test. In that respect, this was Earnhardt Jr.'s second concussion in two months – and that's a big concern for NASCAR's most popular driver.
Earnhardt Jr. is set to address the media at 11 a.m. Eastern time, along with team owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Steve Letarte.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat on the stoop of the No. 88 hauler, holding his head and grimacing repeatedly. It wasn't exactly clear what was causing him pain – his head, the way his car was mangled at the end of Sunday's NASCAR race at Talladega or how much he has grown to dislike the restrictor-plate racing he once loved.
Perhaps it was all of the above.
Earnhardt Jr. made his strongest comments to date about restrictor-plate racing after a last-lap crash triggered by Tony Stewart collected his car along with at least 19 others.
"If this is what we did every week, I wouldn't be doing it," he said after finishing 21st. "I'll just put it to you like that. If this is how we raced every week, I'd find another job."
The driver, who fell to 10th in the point standings and is now all but eliminated from NASCAR's Chase, said he felt OK ("I just took a lot of hard shots") and had no idea how the wreck happened ("I couldn't see, really").
But regardless of the circumstances, Earnhardt Jr. now despises the type of racing seen at Talladega and Daytona, where he used to be a master.
"I don't even want to go to Daytona and Talladega next year," he said, "but I ain't got much choice."
Told many fans might have thought Sunday's race was entertaining, Earnhardt Jr. seemed incredulous – and almost angry. He said people who wanted to see a big crash such as the one on the last lap were "bloodthirsty."
"I can't believe nobody is sensible enough to realize just how ridiculous that was," he said, looking at a group of reporters. "That is ridiculous that all those cars were tore up. And everybody is just, 'Ho hum, no big deal.' That's not alright."
Asked for suggestions as for what NASCAR could do to fix the problem, Earnhardt Jr. said he was just a driver, not an engineer. But he wondered aloud why smart people couldn't come up with a way to separate the cars a bit more than they are now.
"Everybody can get on the chip about it and get all excited about what just happened, but for the longevity of the sport, that ain't healthy," he said. "I don't care what anybody says. It's good for the here and now – it'll get people talking today – but for the long run, that's not good for the sport, the way that race ended and the way the racing is. It's not going to be productive for years to come."
As for his championship hopes? Earnhardt Jr. didn't know where he was in the standings, but it was obvious he realized his position (52 points behind leader Brad Keselowski) wasn't good.
"We'll keep digging," he said. "We'll see."
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