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So when was the last time a NASCAR star really got his bell rung?

  Jimmie Johnson: the NHL and NFL could take some safety lessons from NASCAR (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   KANSAS CITY, Kansas
   Head injuries. Concussions.
   "What did you say? I forgot," Matt Kenseth said, in mock humor at the topic, which then brought him to quickly knock-on-wood.

   "Thanks for bringing that up…I hope nobody has that bad luck, including me. I have never had one to my knowledge. Not yet."  
   -- The NHL is opening this week, but the best player in the National Hockey League, Sidney Crosby, still isn't on the ice. He's still out while recovering from a concussion back in January. And other NHL players have been sidelined for lengthy stretches with similar head injuries.
   -- The NFL just opened, and new helmets that light up after excessive hits are being used to pin down concussions in real time, after several seasons where such head injuries went up dramatically.

    But in NASCAR concussions almost seem like ancient history.
   Jimmie Johnson, stock car racing's five-time champion, says many of NASCAR's numerous safety improvements in the 10 years since the death of Dale Earnhardt could be applied to these other sports to make them safer too for players.
   "There are actually quite a few components to our sport that lower the concussion rate….and fatalities," Johnson says.
   Johnson himself can be thankful for all that: remember the 2005 Brickyard 400: (start at 7:15 here) http://bit.ly/nXdwD8
   And remember Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s savage crash at California in 2002 ( http://bit.ly/r5gFed ), and the concussion he hid from everyone for months.
   "When you look at the threshold, and the impact for Dale Earnhardt's crash…" Johnson went on. "Now that we have the (in-car) data recorders, we can see that we are (having hard crashes) well in excess of that. And guys aren't losing consciousness or breaking shoulders.
  "We used to break shoulders because of (poor) seat design.
   "So we have come a long way.
   "And there is a lot of technology out that that could be applied to other sports.
   "People love the crashes…people love the hits in football. But still you have to keep the athlete safe, and protect their lives….and still put on a good show.
   "Helmets….but look at what soft-walls have done for us. That might be something that hockey could consider for the boards.
   "When people break down the fundamentals of where the injuries are really coming from, there is a lot of data out there.
  "In our sport, we all knew the data was there, but we'd look at it and say 'Well, that's an option the driver can take.' And we just left it there.
  "It wasn't until NASCAR really got serious about things and started implementing changes…..
   "It took the loss of the greatest driver out there -- When Dale Earnhardt died, we had to say 'Hey, Superman has just been killed. We've got to wake up.'
   "I remember the HANS device (which protects the head-and-neck from severe injury, now mandatory) being carried about the garage years before Earnhardt's death. And we'd just look at it and say 'Aw, I've been through that wreck; I don't need that.'
   "So I think the leagues need to get more involved, and really spearhead the lead in putting safety and technology together and implement that in the regulations."

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