RELATED: Full coverage of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup changes
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ricky Rudd once famously taped his swollen eyes open so he could keep racing after an airborne crash at Daytona in 1984. Davey Allison once used Velcro to affix his broken right arm to the steering wheel after a nasty crash at Pocono in 1992. Dale Earnhardt won the pole in 1996 at Watkins Glen despite a dislocated sternum that made it difficult for him to breathe or raise his arms. Tony Stewart started a race at Dover with a broken shoulder blade in 2006.
Drivers with championship aspirations in NASCAR's top division have long pushed themselves through tremendous physical adversity, knowing that skipping even a single points event would mean the end of their title hopes. Now that era is over, thanks to one caveat of the revamped Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format unveiled Thursday. Beginning this season, the possibility exists that a driver could miss a race due to a valid medical reason -- and still hoist the big trophy after the last event of the year.
"Yes, it is a major change," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition. "But where we are with this new format, and in light of everything else that we've done, we felt compelled that if we have a medical reason, we can excuse a driver for a period of time based on a medical reason. Now, they still have to get in, they still have to compete, and all these things. But yes, this is different than the way we've looked at things in the past."
For decades, such a thing was unthinkable, given that the sport's emphasis on consistency over all else demanded a driver be in the seat every week. Two seasons ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s title hopes ended when he missed two races because of concussions. Last year, Denny Hamlin missed the Chase after sitting out most of five races with a broken bone in his back. Competitors have sometimes faced the dilemma of hiding or soft-pedaling their injury status for fear of being pulled from the car on doctor's orders.
Now, with the Chase field being comprised almost exclusively of race winners and the points standard for eligibility being lowered to the top 30, there exists the possibility that a driver could sit out one or more races with a medically valid reason, and still make the playoff because he won a event before the Chase began. Under that criteria, Hamlin could have still made the playoff despite his injury layoff last year, had he won a Sprint Cup race before the playoff field was set in early September at Richmond.
"I think it's huge that that opportunity is there," said new NASCAR Hall of Fame member and former series champion Dale Jarrett. "It is time that a driver has that opportunity, that he doesn't have to force himself to be in a race car when he shouldn't be there -- he shouldn't be there for his own good, and he shouldn't be there because of the other competitors. But he's still going to have a chance to come back and win the championship. This is going to be scrutinized, and (NASCAR) is going to be on top of this. It's not like they're going to say, 'I'm not feeling well, and I don't need to be there.' It's going to have to be a pretty big deal."
Under normal circumstances, a driver must attempt to qualify for every Sprint Cup race in order to be eligible for the new 16-person Chase. But "there is a medical exemption that could be made," NASCAR President Mike Helton said, although the condition involved would have to be a serious one. Steve O'Donnell, NASCAR's senior vice president for racing operations, specifically mentioned the scenario of a Chase-qualified driver suffering a concussion and being advised by doctors to stay out of the car for one or two weeks.
"We would make that exception on that," O'Donnell said. "I'm not going to speculate, but it would have to be something pretty severe, with clearance form a doctor that we'd look at." Even so, such a scenario would be "a very rare instance," he added, and as usual NASCAR officials would follow the recommendation of doctors involved.
"I think that's pretty clear right now, how can you define if someone can race or not," O'Donnell said. "I think someone who has the flu, I think they race today. We wouldn't expect that to be any different. We're not going to get in the weeds in terms of what-ifs. But we're pretty clear -- if it's something severe that we need to seek a doctor's advice (for), which we do today, we'll rely on that medical professional to make that call for us."
And yet, even the slight possibility of a driver being able to sit out a race and still contend for the championship marks a sea change in NASCAR. O'Donnell said there was no specific instance that spurred the move, only that it was "just the right thing to do." The change comes on the heels of mandatory baseline precognitive testing, implemented prior to this season to better help assess and diagnose the effects of potential concussions.
"We're seeing all forms of sports change, from baseball to football, and it's time that we did something here," Jarrett said. "Because of all sports, you don't need to be competing (injured) when you're sitting in a race car, because it's a hazard to yourself and to others. I love that the opportunity is going to be there. It's going to be up to (NASCAR's) discretion, and you may have to be there at a time where you really don't want to be, but for the most part, the driver is going to get the benefit of the doubt in a situation like that, and I love the idea that can happen now."
All of which perhaps means an end to the stories of broken or battered drivers strapping themselves into the race car with injuries that would leave most people home in bed.
"It's a new day, it's a new time, and we make changes for a lot of different reasons," Pemberton said. "And as you see, whether it's a medical reason, whether we're changing qualifying, or we have the Chase, it was time to look at some of those things."
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