Analysis: Dale Earnhardt Jr. concussion history raises difficult questions

To understand exactly what is going on with Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he sits out this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway — and what the long-term implications may be for him — a little history lesson is in order.

Then you have to ask yourself if Earnhardt will retire from racing sooner rather than later.

Not immediately, of course. Earnhardt has made no hint of that himself, nor has anyone from Hendrick Motorsports, which hopes to have him back in his No. 88 Chevrolet as quickly as possible.

But at age 41, and now with multiple concussion-related incidents on his career resume, it is a legitimate question to ask.

First, though, the history lesson …

You need to go back to mid-October of 2012 and listen closely to the comments Earnhardt himself made after being diagnosed with a concussion, which forced him to sit out back-to-back Chase for the Sprint Cup races at Charlotte and Kansas.

At the time, Earnhardt admitted he knew something was wrong after hitting the Turn 1 wall hard at Kansas Speedway during a Goodyear tire test six weeks earlier.

"You know your body and you know your mind, and you know when something is not quite right," Earnhardt said.

And still Earnhardt elected to continue racing. Hey, he’s a tough guy in a tough-guy sport, where some of the greatest drivers in the history of NASCAR have long records of sucking it up and getting back behind the wheel after hard wrecks.

Earnhardt said that he didn’t think much about his symptoms again until another incident at Talladega Superspeedway in early October of 2012. That led to him to seek the advice and examination of neurologist Dr. Jerry Petty, who subsequently told Earnhardt that he needed to sit out at least the next two races.

Earnhardt admitted after the fact that he should have gone to a doctor earlier after experiencing concussion symptoms following the incident in Kansas.

"I remember everything about that accident and everything after that accident," Earnhardt said then. "But you know your body and you know how your mind works, and I knew something was just not quite right. I decided to just try to push through and work through it. I had had concussions before and thought I knew what I was dealing with.

"I felt pretty good after a week or two. Definitely 80 or 90 percent by the time the Chase [for the Sprint Cup] started [on Sept. 16], and by Talladega I felt like I was 100 percent. But, at the end of that race, I was hit in the right-rear quarterpanel. It was sort of an odd kind of a collision where the car spun around really quick and sort of just disoriented me. And I knew then that I had sort of regressed and had a setback.

"Again, you know your body and you know when something is not quite right. And I knew as soon as it happened that I had re-injured myself, for lack of a better way to describe it."

Now jump forward to present time.

Details are still emerging, but the gist of it is that Earnhardt again didn’t feel quite right after a wreck at Michigan on June 12. But he kept driving.

Then he apparently felt he had regressed again after being involved in not one, but two wrecks in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona on July 2. But still, he kept driving.

It wasn’t until after last weekend’s race at Kentucky that Earnhardt finally sought more medical attention.

That brings a number of factors into question.

Why, for instance, wasn’t he placed into NASCAR’s concussion protocol after either of the earlier wrecks? Was it because he showed no "concussion-like" symptoms, or because possibly cursory post-race examinations at the tracks weren’t thorough enough? Or is it just that concussions are such an invisible injury, tricky to diagnose, and both he and doctors were sure he was OK when maybe he really wasn’t?

But the bigger picture is more frightening — possibly more so for NASCAR than for Earnhardt, who is a smart man probably better prepared for life after NASCAR than NASCAR is prepared for life after him as an active driver.

Earlier this year, Earnhardt announced that he would be donating his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation upon his death, which obviously he and everyone else hopes is a long, long, long way in the offing.

Earnhardt said he was doing so in light of all the recent discussion about athletes and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), in the hopes that it would perhaps help discover some answers that will help others in the future.

The fact is that no one yet knows completely the full effects that multiple concussions have on the brain. No one yet knows when one more concussion is one too many for certain individuals.

For Earnhardt, though, this is likely at least four concussion-related injuries in his career, dating back to violent wrecks at Auto Club Speedway in 2002 and at Dover in 2003, when he had to be air-lifted to a local hospital after safety workers reported he was unconscious when they arrived at his car after a wreck.

It could be even more.

Do you count what happened in 2012 as one concussion, or two? Were there others when even Earnhardt was unaware back in the day when we were all so ignorant of the damage that repeated blows to the brain could cause?

And already this year, Earnhardt has been involved in a total of at least five wrecks of varying degrees of seriousness — at both Daytona races, and also at Talladega, Dover and Michigan.

Earnhardt wants desperately to win a Sprint Cup championship before he retires. But his legacy as one of the sport’s all-time most popular drivers already is secure.

There will come a time when the risk of continuing to drive will outweigh the possibility of more on-track rewards for Earnhardt, who is engaged now and has repeatedly said he wants to eventually raise a family.

That time suddenly appears to be sooner than any of us, including Earnhardt, may have realized just a few short weeks ago.