Talladega: a lot of hard hits..... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
It was rather stunning, to be honest.
At the same time, heart-breaking.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., this sport's most popular, taking himself out of the NASCAR championship hunt not even halfway through the 10-race chase.
It is a frightening word for anyone, particularly a race driver.
Concussions were rarely talked about during the old days. A driver would concede 'Got my bell rung,' and then keep on going.
That was about it.
Until Bobby Allison's near-death experience, and then Ernie Irvan's series of hard crashes.
Even after Dale Earnhardt's death in 2001, as NASCAR made numerous safety advances, Jerry Nadeau, in a vicious crash at Richmond in 2003, showed how much work still needed to be done.
And that came less than a year after Dale Earnhardt Jr. himself conceded he had been racing for months during 2002 when he realized he wasn't 100 percent, after a hard hit that spring at California Speedway.
Even as safe as this sport has become, Eric McClure had to sit out six weeks this spring with a concussion after a very hard hit, even into a soft wall, at Talladega.
Eric McClure, after this Talladega crash in May, was sidelined six weeks with a concussion (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Dr. Jerry Petty, the neurosurgeon whose name is well known in NASCAR circles, got the call this week from Earnhardt, complaining of headaches.
"The first thing he had was an impact test -- which is a test we've been using more and more with drivers," Petty said.
"His exam was entirely normal except that his main thing was we were seeing him for symptoms. He had very few signs at that time. In other words, his neurological exam was normal.
"We wanted to get an MRI scan, and we did that the following morning, a special MRI. We wanted to get a special method they have of looking for previous injuries. That was entirely normal: that was very encouraging.
"What we'll do now is we want him to have four or five days after he has no headache, and then we'll give him some sort of test, to get his pulse rate up and see if we can provoke a headache.
"And if we can't, we'll let him go out and drive a lap or two and see how that goes. And if that goes well, we'll probably clear him to race."
Dale Earnhardt, Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He says he feels fine, but he realizes something isn't just quite right. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
However Earnhardt's title hopes are obviously doomed.
Earnhardt, who just turned 38, has never won the championship that his legendary father won a record seven times.
But this has been Earnhardt's best season in years, since 2004 probably, and he has been near the top of the standings right from the start, from that second-place run in the Daytona 500. Earnhardt, driving for crew chief Steve Letarte, has been one of the most consistent drivers on the tour all season. Only one man (Greg Biffle) has a better overall finishing average.
Yes, Earnhardt left Talladega 51 points down to leader Brad Keselowski. However if Jimmie Johnson instead is the title benchmark, Earnhardt comes here only 37 points down, and within striking distance.
Which makes Earnhardt's move all the more poignant.
NASCAR's Steve O'Donnell: praising Earnhardt for stepping to the plate. But is there any test NASCAR and its doctors can use to step in? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
For Regan Smith, the sudden replacement for Earnhardt these next two events, the last 24 hours have been topsy-turvey: "Yesterday I was in South Carolina getting fitted for James Finch's car for this weekend. This morning at 7 a.m. I was at Hendrick Motorsports getting ready to hop in the 88 this weekend.
"I had a text message from Stevie (Letarte) that said to give him a call ASAP. I did. I was actually just getting up, drinking a cup of coffee, then heading to the gym. 'Why don't you head over to the shop instead?'
"It is certainly a good opportunity. I am very fortunate I am the guy they chose to call. I really appreciate that. It is going to be the best car I have sat in, no denying that. I just want to go out and make the most of it."
Smith will certainly need his A-game here. Earnhardt and Letarte have had killer intermediate-track cars: eighth at Chicago, seventh at Atlanta, fourth at Michigan, fourth at Indianapolis, fourth at Kentucky....
NASCAR officials well understand the situation, from several angles.
Steve O'Donnell says "It takes a lot of guts for an athlete of his caliber -- where he stands in the sport, where he stood in the chase -- to come up here and admit he had an issue."
One major problem in a situation like this is that the athlete himself can hide such an injury.
"It's everyone's responsibility in this sport to participate in the safety of all of our athletes," O'Donnell points out. "It's on the athlete, the owner, NASCAR, the tracks...
"And I think you saw the process work -- Dale Jr. knowing he had an issue, seeking out Dr. Petty, who sits on our advisory board, and taking the right steps.
"No matter how tough it is, it represents what you want in an athlete.
Earnhardt's popularity was clear again Sunday, when the Talladega crowd cheered lustily whenever he took the lead.
"Our primary concern is Dale's health and seeing him back in the race car," O'Donnell said.
"Things look good to be able to do that.
"We'll leave it up to Dr. Petty to make the final decision on when Dale Jr. can be back in a car."
However that it was up to Earnhardt to reveal his condition, that NASCAR's own medical safety procedures didn't catch the problem, raises questions, and O'Donnell accepts that.
At Kansas, where the sequence began, in that August 29th crash, Earnhardt shrugged off the cobwebs and kept going.
"He was seen by an ambulance.....proper safety measures were in place... he was cleared," O'Donnell said.
"I talked to Pat Warren (that track's manager). He had conversations with Junior, post-incident, and everything seemed fine.
"It's not just NASCAR making the call, it has to be the driver as well, letting us know how he's feeling.
"We'll look at Kansas and see what we may be able to do better.
"We do have our medical liaison team, which brings every driver's records to every event, so we know what's going on. We know their history.
"It's something we'll obviously take a look at.
"But I think we really applaud the move he made today."
Are these cars safe enough?
With concussions -- where the brain actually bounces around inside the skull -- there is only so much safety equipment and helmets can do. The physics of a crash can only be mitigated by a decrease in speed.
And measuring the G-force of a hit doesn't necessarily give an indication of what the driver might actually have experienced.
"We're very confident in the safety of our cars," O'Donnell says. "But we look at them, candidly, as a rolling laboratory.
"I would say our race cars are the safest in the world.
"When you look at the concussion history over the last five years, we've had a total of nine concussions in our national series; that's less than two per year.
"I don't want to minimize that, because any concussion is a cause for concern, and we'd like that number to be zero.
"But our overall safety record....and the fact that our R & D center is the only one motorsports to evaluate every crash, to look at what we can do better... the experts we have on staff at the R & D Center, I'd put our safety record up against anyone."
O'Donnell says NASCAR has made the call to tell a driver to get out of the car, if it thinks he should: "I would say the toughest call would be Rick Crawford. In 2005, he had the longest streak in the Trucks, was ready to break it, had an incident....saw a neurologist, and we chose to say no."
Earnhardt himself made this call, and O'Donnell was saying 'thanks.'
"You saw a driver who is racing for a championship, who is our most popular driver, go see a doctor and get out of a car. That takes a lot of guts," O'Donnell say.
"It also shows where our sport has come -- they know that safety is first and foremost.
"We know it's a dangerous sport. But we've got to be relying on our drivers to be up front with us."
Big two weeks shaping up for Regan Smith, one of this sport's 'good guys.' How will he measure up? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)