Many NASCAR fans don’t like to think about a NASCAR race without their favorite driver in field. While NASCAR is a sport of up to 40 cars competing in a given race, the focus for most fans is on the individual driver behind the wheel.
There are a myriad of reasons fans choose a particular driver to cheer for. Whether it’s that driver’s home state, the sponsor, the driver’s personality or the team they race for, fans will gravitate to a particular driver and swear allegiance to that person. They will buy t-shirts, hats, diecast replica racecars, cheer for their driver on race day, and defend him or her, to others. Through the years some drivers have been more popular than others, and for the last decade few would argue that none have been as popular as Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt, “ Dale Jr.”, or simply “Junior” as many call him, came to prominence after the death of his father on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in February 2001. Junior was suddenly thrust on the national stage as many of his father’s fans looked for someone to cheer for. As the son of the legendary icon, Junior seemed a natural choice for many or his father’s fans once their grief had eased.
Dale Jr.’s popularity soared in the year’s following his father’s death. Since 2003, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been voted the sport’s most popular driver by fans. He can’t walk through a NASCAR garage area without being mobbed like a Hollywood movie star, and during a race there is no other driver fans would rather cheer for.
The chances for Dale Jr. fans to cheer for him on the track however may now come to an end, sooner that anyone might have liked.
Dale Jr. has been diagnosed with at least three concussions during his racing career. He suffered one at the Fontana race in April of 2002. He continued to race but knew something wasn’t right. In the fall of that year, he revealed that he had suffered a concussion.
He suffered two more concussions in 2012 in a period of six-weeks, the first in a hard crash during a tire test at Kansas Speedway, another in a big crash at Talladega Superspeedway. After the Talladega crash, he again knew something was wrong. He went to a doctor who forced him to miss two races in October because of the injury.
Fast forward to this season, and concussions are again keeping Dale Earnhardt Jr. out of a racecar.
In June Earnhardt crashed in the race at Michigan. He failed to finish at Michigan, and struggled to a 21st place finish after being involved in a crash at Daytona. Earnhardt wasn’t a factor the next Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, starting and finishing 13th.
On the Thursday prior to the next race at Loudon, New Hampshire, the team Earnhardt races for, Hendrick Motorsports, announced that Dale Junior was suffering from “concussion-like” symptoms, and would sit out the race at New Hampshire.
In a podcast posted on his website Monday, Earnhardt said he is suffering with vertigo and battling nausea and is working with doctors on his recovery.
“My mind feels real sharp,” he said. “I took the ImPACT test, which measures thought process and the speed of your thought process, memory and retaining memory and my results matched my baseline, which made me feel confident my brain was pretty sharp.”
NASCAR requires drivers to take a preseason baseline neurocognitive test. The ImPACT (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) procedure evaluates an athlete’s verbal and visual memory, processing speed and reaction time. If a driver has a crash during the season, the test is administered to help determine if there is a possible concussion.
Throughout the history of NASCAR concussions, and TBI’s (traumatic brain injury), have taken a toll on drivers. Bobby Allison nearly died in a crash at Pocono Raceway in 1988. His TBI not only nearly killed him, but forced him to retire from NASCAR near the end of his prime at the age of 51.
Ernie Irvan crashed during a practice session at Michigan in 1994. He suffered a TBI and nearly lost his life. He would survive and underwent extensive physical therapy. Irvan returned to NASCAR in the fall of 1996, but almost five years to the day of his first near fatal crash there, Irvan again crashed at Michigan. Two weeks later Ernie Irvan announced his retirement from racing at the age of 40.
Ricky Craven was a rising star in the sport when he crashed at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997. The aftereffects of a concussion lingered and were made worse perhaps by two other concussions suffered previously. Craven continued to suffer with symptoms including vertigo and retired from racing in 2003 at the age of 37.
Jerry Nadeau was another rising star whose full potential was lost due to injuries sustained on the track. Nadeau crashed at Richmond during a practice session in 2003 and nearly died from injuries that included a TBI. He had to learn to walk again and suffered slurred speech. He was 33 years old at the time and never raced at the Cup level again.
There have been others who have seen their career cut short because of a TBI. Sam Ard crashed in the final Xfinity(then Busch) series race in 1984. He never raced again and at the age of 45, turned his attention to team ownership. Today Ard suffers from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and gets much of his financial help from the NASCAR community and its drivers including Dale Earnhardt Jr.
What the future holds for NASCAR’s most popular driver is uncertain at this point. Wednesday Hendrick Motorsports announced that he will miss the next two races, Indy and Pocono, and that recently retired Jeff Gordon will take over the No. 88 Chevy.
“It’s just going to take a lot of patience,” Earnhardt said Monday. “My health and quality of life is a top priority. I always do that. So I’m going to take this slow and strictly follow the advice of my doctors and try to learn as much as I can to be smarter and wiser. It’s always been a real experience to go through this stuff because you learn so much.”
NASCAR is a risky sport, but has never been safer. However, the safety in NASCAR can only go so far and the risk remains each and every time a driver climbs into a racecar. Should Dale Jr. decide that his “health and quality of life” are more important than those risks on the track and the chance for further damage to his brain, then no one should be surprised if Dale Earnhardt Jr. decides he has raced for the last time.
With an estimated net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, financial concerns are the least of Dale Jr.’s worries. The chance for a long life, free from the aftereffects of concussions, might tip the scale in favor of NASCAR’s favorite son hanging up his helmet.
NASCAR would survive as it did when Fireball Roberts died in 1964, when Richard Petty retired in 1992, and when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in 2001. The transition would be difficult, but NASCAR would race on.
A long life with a clear mind may be more important than trying to win a race, and taking a chance that might end with tragic consequences. We all hope that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will race for many years to come, but should he decide that his time behind the wheel of a NASCAR racecar is over, then no one can blame him. Most will agree that having a Dale Jr. around the sport with a clear mind, even if not behind the wheel, would be better than the alternative. If he does decide it’s over, all we can do is wish him well and search for another driver to cheer for on race day.