Concussions have become a major hot button issue in sports over the past few years. NASCAR is no exception, as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be missing the New Hampshire 301 this week after suffering from concussion-like symptoms.
Earnhardt, Jr., now 41 years of age, has been feeling the symptoms over the past couple of weeks following crashes at Michigan and Daytona in two of the three races prior to last weekend’s race at Kentucky. This comes after Earnhardt, Jr. missed two races in the 2012 season after suffering a concussion following a wreck in a testing session at Kansas.
Multiple football players have ended their careers early due to the effects of repeated concussions. And while it isn’t something that most fans want to think about, now one must wonder if it is time for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to follow suit.
It would be a huge loss for NASCAR, with “Junior Nation” being an overwhelming force week-to-week at the racetrack and at the merchandise tents, therefore being a major moneymaker for the sport. Earnhardt, Jr. has won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award for 12,365 years in a row (okay, it’s “only” been 13 straight) and it easily the sport’s biggest star.
As sad as it is to see an athlete’s career cut short by injury, retirement just might be something that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. should seriously consider. While NASCAR and its executives and fans would hate to see the end of Earnhardt, Jr.’s career, they would also understand the reasoning behind it should he make that decision.
Head injuries are not something to be taken lightly, as they are more serious than injuries such as broken bones. While tests such as x-rays and bone scans can determine the severity of a bone injury and the progress of recovery, brain injuries are harder to track and symptoms may linger, as Earnhardt, Jr. is feeling currently.
Once an athlete has suffered multiple concussions, they become susceptible to more concussions over time, doing more and more long-term damage to the brain. The effects include chronic encephalopathy, dementia, depression, anxiety, memory loss and deterioration of motor skills. There are studies that have shown once an athlete begins accumulating concussions, they are at an increased risk for subsequent concussions and more likely to develop persistent post-concussion symptoms.
At some point, Earnhardt, Jr. needs to decide whether the possible risks of the long-term effects of concussions is worth the reward of racing. He also needs to weigh the other part of his life, such as the life he and fiancée Amy Reimann are soon to begin once they are married.
It isn’t as if Earnhardt, Jr. would have to walk away from the racing scene altogether. There will be plenty of opportunities for him to still be around the track in many different roles, including as a car owner and possibly in the broadcast booth. And while none of the roles that he might be able to step into offer the excitement of strapping on a helmet and gloves and racing door-to-door with some of the best drivers in the world, they offer him the safety and health that cannot be promised behind the wheel.
The hardest part for Earnhardt, Jr. when it comes to any decision regarding the end of his career would be that he has never been able to capture the Sprint Cup Series championship. Despite winning back-to-back Xfinity Series titles before jumping to the Sprint Cup Series full-time, Earnhardt, Jr. has never lived up to the greatness of his father, who won the Sprint Cup Series championship seven times.
One reason that makes me think that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would be willing to give serious thought to the possibility of retirement after this latest episode is that he has now proven twice that he is willing to step away from the car to protect his body and brain, even if it means giving up the chance at a championship. When he walked away in 2012, he did so in the middle of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which all but ended his hops to win the title that season. This season, he does so without the guarantee that he will make the Chase as he has yet to win a race this year to clinch his Chase entry.
As a fan of NASCAR, I would hate to see Dale Earnhardt, Jr. walk away so soon. As a fan of Dale Earnhardt, Jr., it would be a tough pill to swallow watching races without him in them.
But at the end of the day, Earnhardt, Jr. needs to walk away from the sport he loves.
While he still can.