Dale Earnhardt Jr. to miss New Hampshire race with concussion symptoms
LOUDON, N.H. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after experiencing concussion-like symptoms, his team announced Thursday.
Alex Bowman will replace Earnhardt in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet this weekend, and the team said it does not know when Earnhardt will return to the car. After New Hampshire, the series moves to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for one of the season’s spotlighted races.
Hendrick Motorsports said Earnhardt was evaluated by doctors this week in Charlotte after he had complaints and was not cleared to race.
“I wasn’t feeling great the week going into Kentucky (Speedway, for last week’s race) and thought it was possibly severe allergies,” Earnhardt said in a statement released by the team.
“I saw a family doctor and was given medication for allergies and a sinus infection. When that didn’t help, I decided to dig a little deeper. Because of my symptoms and my history with concussions, and after my recent wrecks at Michigan and Daytona, I reached out and met with a neurological specialist. After further evaluation, they felt it was best for me to sit out.
“I’m disappointed about missing New Hampshire this weekend. I’m looking forward to treatment with the goal of getting back in the race car when the doctors say I’m ready.”
Earnhardt has admitted racing with a concussion in the past. NASCAR has paid much closer attention to concussions and drivers’ health in recent seasons.
Earlier this year, Earnhardt announced that he had decided to donate his brain for scientific and medical research. He made that decision, he said, after hearing about professional football players making the same choice because concussions and other head injuries have been a significant problem in the National Football League.
The 41-year-old suffered two concussions while racing four years ago and missed two races.
He did not race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway in the fall of 2012 after being involved in a huge crash at Talladega Superspeedway on the race’s final lap.
Earnhardt admitted that he had had issues after an Aug. 29 crash during a tire test at Kansas Speedway that season. A concussion caused by that crash was diagnosed later.
Prior to the 2014 season, NASCAR, in part because of concussion issues, instituted neurocognitive tests for all drivers in its three national series. The tests measure visual memory, verbal memory, processing speed and reaction time and set baselines in each area. If a driver appears to suffer a head injury, a repeat of the test can help doctors determine the impact of the injury based on how the results compare.
Two doctors with experience in treating sports-related concussions say the severity and number of concussions are key factors when they decide to recommend that an injured athlete retire. Neither doctor has treated Earnhardt.
“You typically look at the age, the concussion history and the type of activity they’re doing,” Luga Podesta, director of sports medicine at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, N.Y., told USA TODAY Sports. “If they’re starting to come in with multiple concussions in a year or over several years, you start to look at them maybe doing something else before they cause more damage.”
Vernon Williams, director of the Kerlan-Jobe Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine in Los Angeles, told USA TODAY Sports demands on athletes’ bodies and neurological systems are far greater than those on typical people.
“Things that contribute to their performance — vision, mental processing, decision making, reaction times, balance, these are all neurological functions,” Williams said. “There are situations where people may have concussions and walk around in day-to-day life and be just fine, but when you expose them to the extreme requirements of professional sports, they might not be able to keep up with those demands.”
Williams said recommendations that an athlete with concussion issues retire often are easily reached, “as in when there is a bright line that the individual has ongoing symptoms that are significant and severe. There also can be significant abnormalities on brain imaging, like blood or bruising of the brain.
“But there also may be a scenario where the individual feels fine but subtle changes trend toward a reduction in function. There might be something that’s a little different in a baseline or in a trend toward worsening. This can place them at a high risk of subsequent injury and a decline in decision-making capabilities or reaction time.”
Hendrick officials are scheduled to address the situation in a news conference Friday morning at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt is winless this year and is 13th in Sprint Cup points. If he returns to the car, he would need a win, a spot in the top 30 in points and a medical waiver from NASCAR to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup or to qualify on points.
“I’m proud of Dale for standing up,” Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, said in a statement. “The number one priority is his health, so we’re going to give him all the time he needs. We completely support the decision by the doctors and will be ready to go win races when he’s 100 percent. In the meantime, we have full confidence in Greg (crew chief Greg Ives) and the team, and we know they’ll do a great job.”
Bowman, 23, drives part-time in the Xfinity Series in Chevrolets owned by Earnhardt’s team, JR Motorsports.