Athletes, by their very nature, never want to miss a game. They've worked too hard and they've dedicated too much to not be on the field when the bright lights are shining. Athletes will do just about anything to keep from losing their place in the starting lineup or letting their team down. They'll hide injuries, live in the training room and play through pain at virtually any cost.
Many, when it comes to injuries, make far from rational decisions. The adrenaline rush of competition combined with a fear of being replaced is too strong.
There's little doubt those fears and concerns played a big part in Dale Earnhardt Jr. avoiding any additional medical tests following the headaches he felt since a testing crash at Kansas in August. They even came in to play when Earnhardt, ringing from more hits in the wild last-lap Talladega crash, waited almost two full days to make sure everything up top was OK. That doctor swiftly ruled him out for at least two weeks - if not more.
We know now, of course, that Earnhardt was far from OK. He was racing with an already injured brain that was still trying to mend from that Kansas crash while being subjected to intense G-forces and more every few days while Earnhardt kept racing. Earnhardt wasn't oblivious to the situation, either, explaining he only felt "80, 90 percent" two weeks later when the Chase started.
I shudder to think what he felt at Atlanta, climbing back in the car at the bumpy, fast race track for 500 miles just four days later. It's even more stomach-turning to think what would have happened had his race ended against a wall and not in a clean seventh-place finish.
Two concussions in six weeks are scary enough, but two in four days?
For Earnhardt, those enormous risks were part of the territory in a sport so dependent on a driver racing each and every week. NASCAR determines it's most prestigious champions by an accumulation of points earned by driver (a similar, less important system exists for owners). Just sitting out one race would have left Earnhardt teetering on the edge of the NASCAR's Chase for the Championship list of qualified contenders and any more would have downed his title hopes completely. Oh, and that would have happened in the very same season that he picked up his first win in four years.
But does it have to happen that way? I say no - and hope that Earnhardt Jr.'s bombshell of a situation can serve as the impetus to allow drivers to actually get healthy before they get back in a race car. The biggest step toward making that a reality would be to allow replacement drivers to earn points for a driver who is out for injury.
The similarities aren't perfect, but any NFL team who loses a quarterback for a week or two doesn't automatically give up on postseason chances. The wins with the backup, if they come, count just the same toward the final goal. Why should that be any different in NASCAR?
It's not like a team would have a competitive advantage when a primary driver misses races.
It's no slight on Regan Smith to expect that he'll likely produce results subpar to Earnhardt as his replacement. He's driving a car that has been meticulously built and set-up - from its earliest incarnations - to suit Earnhardt's driving style. And the setup books that crew chief Steve Letarte works from? They're also directed at Earnhardt's liking. In the world of hyper-competitive NASCAR racing, that's just the way of life.
For those still concerned, NASCAR could even implement stringent policies for deciding when or when not to allow drivers to use replacements that still earn points for the original driver. For example, a NASCAR-regulated doctor visit could prevent a road course ace from being used as a stand-in if the injury isn't clear cut.
One thing is clear, however: there can't be a differentiation between the regular season and the Chase for when drivers can apply to have a replacement should they be injured.
The list of concerns for this idea and its potential implementation runs longer than a scheduled lap count at Bristol. I'll be the first to admit I don't have the best answer to each possible issue, whether it's related to fairness for other teams or basic common sense in crowning a racing champion.
Instead, I just keep coming back to the central point of this whole discussion: NASCAR needs to limit the reasons a driver would try to continue to race despite desperately needing time to mend. The decision should be focused on getting better - not risking permanent injury or worse just to stay in contention for a trophy.
On a macro level, it does NASCAR no good to have competitors racing at a diminished ability or as a danger to others.
On a personal level, Dale Earnhardt Jr. - or any driver frightened losing ground in a point standings battle - shouldn't have to make the decision between long-term health and short-term satisfaction. If any driver needs a few weeks to get medically sound, sitting out and hiring a replacement driver shouldn't be a detriment. The points should count all the same.
All in all, it's a system that would rarely be used. No amount of tradition or "we've always done it this way" thinking should get in the way of providing a safer environment for every competitor. Instead, NASCAR should focus on how to better identify potential situations like Earnhardt Jr.'s - and make it easier for drivers who suffer dangerous injuries to take a step back while they heal.
HOT: It's pretty tough to not like the character - and the winner - Clint Bowyer has become.
NOT: There were a lot of empty seats at Charlotte. What else - besides the racing - could be the issue?
NEUTRAL: NASCAR's new $2.4 billion television package with Fox Sports Media Group is great for everyone that works in the sport, from tracks to teams. It, however, will apparently move some Sprint Cup races to cable, leaves the future of SPEED very much in doubt and will take a whole lot of commercials to pay for. It's not all gravy, for sure.
HOT: I like how Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe are trying to win this championship by winning. If they swing and miss at Homestead, they'll have nothing to be disappointed with.
NOT: That 18th-place run ended Jeff Gordon's streak of top-5 finishes and his Chase hopes.
HOT: I admittedly watched most of Friday night's Nationwide Series race from a local establishment, but every time I looked up three, four and five of the leaders were racing virtually under a blanket. It looked like a very solid race - despite Joey Logano waltzing away with the win at the end.
FINAL: We lost Dan Wheldon one year ago. The racing world still burns a little darker without his light in it.
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