NASCAR

Driver wisely sought help when needed

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Jeff Hammond

Jeff Hammond is a former NASCAR crew chief who led Darrell Waltrip to two of his three Sprint Cup championships. The duo also teamed up to win the 1989 Daytona 500. Prior to that, Hammond was the jackman for Cale Yarborough for all three of his Cup championships. He has 43 Sprint Cup wins as a crew chief. Follow him on Twitter.

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I’ve had a lot of Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans and other people say, “Wow, I can’t believe Junior didn’t run” and, “Why didn’t he run, he looked fine" after he stepped out of the car for the races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway.

After looking at the in-car camera after the crash at Talladega, a lot of people commented, “Well, it didn’t look like it was that violent. We’ve seen worse.”

What a lot of people don’t quite understand when it comes to head injuries, and this is the beautiful part about the advancement of medicine, is they have a better understanding about what goes on inside the human body as it pertains to a concussion. I’m talking about the fact he had a hard lick at Kansas during a test where he blew a right-front tire and hit the wall extremely hard. That was probably where this whole matter started.

But once you’ve triggered it – once you have bounced the brain off the inside of the skull, which is basically what happens when you get a concussion -- usually the brain has redirected itself at a real quick rate and whether it actually hit the skull or just moved in a very unusual manner, it has a tendency to soften up that area of the brain.

So once you’ve done that, until the body has enough time to heal that, any time you have that recurrence or anything similar to that, you basically bruise it again. It’s easier to bruise than the first time because that outer layer has already been affected.

Dale Earnhardt career moments

SUPER STAR

Junior's impact goes well beyond the track. CAREER MOMENTS

And after that wreck at Talladega, this is what they feel like happened. The body once again sent a signal to Dale that, “Hey, my head is hurting, I don’t know why, I’m not feeling like I normally do.” And anybody who has had a concussion will tell you that it makes you feel almost like you’ve gotten off a bad fair ride when you went through something that made you dizzy and gave you a headache like somebody shook you around the wrong way.

So I applaud him for recognizing his signals from his body that, “Hey I need to go check this out.” This is where NASCAR has been trying to be more assertive in trying to help drivers make the decisions that they will not make on their own. Any race car driver will tell you, "I want to get in that race car, no matter if I’ve got a broken leg or broken ribs or broken collarbone or if I’m banged up a little bit, I’m going to race." Because that’s what they do – they always have, it’s been the history of the sport.

But with a head injury, you can’t see it like you can a broken arm or some other types of injury. So with him checking it out and understanding the severity of what he offered himself up to and electing to sit out a couple of races to give himself the chance to heal up properly, not only does he protect himself – which is what any Dale Earnhardt fan would want, just like NASCAR – but more importantly, he protects his fellow competitors. When you have this type of situation, you don’t know, you may get bumped the wrong way on the racetrack - it may not be a hard crash you may just brush the wall -- but because of it, you may not think right.

It may cause you just for a second not to react the right way. It may shake you just enough that you don’t react like you need to. The forces, especially at a place like Kansas, are going to be higher as we’re going to increase the speeds quite a bit. The Charlotte race, we had the G-loads and everything like that going around the corner. All this stuff is putting a load on you that could create an issue because it’s a closed-head injury. You don’t always know how the body is going to react and that’s where Dr. Jerry Petty and medical advances help protect Dale Jr. from himself.

He wants to go race, but he doesn’t want to hurt himself long term; he doesn’t want to hurt any of his competitors or the fans. It was a very unselfish move and, at the same time, I think shows how in tune with his own body Dale Jr. is and yet he understands the ramifications of not driving that car as far as points are concerned and what people are saying and the effect it can have on the big picture. But he says, “Hey, I’ve got to think about me, not only for today but also for the future.”

Hopefully these couple of weeks he’s giving himself will be enough time for him to effectively have a chance to recover. Me personally, I’ve seen drivers like Darrell Waltrip get in a car when he had a concussion and drive because that is what he did. We didn’t have the medical people in place to help keep him from doing that. We tempted fate by doing that, and today we don’t have to.

Also with my own son, I’ve seen him with a concussion and even though they’re walking around, they sometimes do not know where they are or what happened. I think that’s a very scary position to find yourself in and another reason why we need to always be very conscious in how we protect those who have experienced a situation like that.

I’m just glad to see that we have protocol in place and Dale Jr. recognized that he needed to get checked and all the safety measures were put into play to keep him from putting a lot more people besides himself in jeopardy.

Tagged: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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