On Sunday afternoon, with the smoke of a two-dozen-car wreck still lingering in the air above Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat on the bumper at the end of his hauler, clearly dazed. He shook off questions about his health and proceeded to give a lucid, if pointed, interview about the state of racing at Talladega. He clearly was not in the best condition, but observers attributed it to the shock of being involved in such a major wreck.
The truth, as it turned out, was much worse. On Wednesday, Earnhardt was diagnosed with a concussion. And now, according to Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt will sit out the races at Charlotte and Kansas. Regan Smith will drive the #88 in his stead.
This, of course, ends Earnhardt's championship hopes, but that's not the real issue. The issue is that Earnhardt suffered a brain injury despite all the safety improvements now in place in NASCAR. This puts a lie to the idea that drivers are perfectly safe encased in their 21st-century cars, and shines an even harsher light on the true effects of wrecks such as Talladega's "Big Ones."
Here, for reference, is Earnhardt's Talladega interview, immediately post-concussion:
Of note: This is Earnhart's second concussion. He suffered one back in 2002 during a major wreck in California, but hid it from NASCAR and his team for fear of being removed from the car. It's good, for his future, that he came forward on this one. This will end Earnhardt's consecutive Sprint Cup starts streak at 461, the fifth-longest current streak. Ahead of him: Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte.
Also of concern: how many drivers suffer undiagnosed concussions? If a driver can wheel his car back to his hauler, as Earnhardt did on Sunday, he's not required to go to the infield care center for diagnosis. Should drivers be required to undergo testing whether or not their cars are driveable?
The issue of concussions is not a minor one, as any observer of the NFL over the last few years knows. The links between head trauma and quality-of-life concerns, as well as early death, are increasing. NASCAR owes it to its drivers' future to ensure that the on-track racing is as safe as possible.
Other sports require a doctor's examination of a participant to first verify no concussion has occurred, and second to permit return to competition. In boxing and MMA -- which, granted, have a far higher risk of head trauma than a NASCAR driver -- fighters can be kept out of the ring for up to 90 days pending a doctor's approval.
Clearly, the Talladega story is not through yet.
-Follow Jay Busbee on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-