NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Suffered A Concussion This Weekend In A Disastrous Wreck

Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t know how many concussions he’s had in his career.

1. On the final lap in last weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega, a massive wreck wiped out the majority of the field.

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2. Dale Earnhardt Jr., driving the lime-green No. 88, was caught up in the chaos and finished 20th, putting a major dent in his championship aspirations.

Butch Dill / AP

3. Junior seemed to be unharmed, though, and even gave his teammate Jimmie Johnson a lift back to the garage. Earnhardt went about his post-race interviews as usual.

Tom Pennington, Pool / AP

Today it was revealed that during the accident, Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered his second concussion in the past six weeks from the impact, and will miss at least the next two races. The first came in a incident in a tire test at Kansas Speedway in August. As one of the twelve drivers currently competing in NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup — a sort of playoff system to decide the season’s champion — he will effectively forfeit any chance to win his first title.

The weird thing is, concussions aren’t supposed to happen in NASCAR. In fact, there are safety implementations in place to ensure head injuries rarely occur, a product of the safety-at-all-costs movement started after Dale Earnhardt Sr. died after a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. In particular, the head and neck support device (the HANS device) is now worn by all drivers to prevent any whip-like head motion in the event of an accident.

5. Surprisingly, this isn’t Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first concussion in a race car. This 2002 crash left Junior with an undiagnosed concussion. He raced for weeks afterward, despite suffering from symptoms.

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And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In a disturbing press conference at Charlotte Motor Speedway this morning, Earnhardt had this to say:

[I] can’t really recall how many [concussions] I’ve had. Dr. Petty & I were trying to count ‘em other day…. The cars are fine. I don’t know if you can ever have a race car that’s 100% safe. I have no worries about that.

Earnhardt doesn’t seem to recognize the severity of the statement he just made. NASCAR has made gigantic strides in improving both the safety of cars (with the switch to the safer “Car of Tomorrow” and the HANS device), and of the tracks (with the installation of the “SAFER barriers” nearly everywhere)… but if Dale Earnhardt Jr. can’t count the number of concussions he’s had, that’s a bone-chilling problem.

This newly-diagnosed concussion is bad news for NASCAR, which has already taken heat from its own drivers who argue superspeedways are potential deathtraps. Now, the dark cloud hovering primarily over the NFL has expanded to cover NASCAR as well.

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