After sitting out the past two races with symptoms from a concussion suffered at Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been cleared to return to the track this weekend at Martinsville.
Earnhardt completed a rehabilitation program administered by Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty (handy name in NASCAR) as well as Dr. Micky Collins of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion program.
“Dale Jr. has done everything asked of him,” Petty said in a statement. “He hasn’t had a headache since Oct. 12, and we have not been able to provoke any symptoms since that time. I have informed NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports that he is medically cleared for all NASCAR-related activity.”
Earnhardt underwent a battery of tests, most notably a 123-lap Sprint Cup car run at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga. A final neuropsychological evaluation Tuesday morning in Charlotte cleared Earnhardt to race, and he’ll get back behind the wheel of the No. 88 this weekend.
Earnhardt’s injury, and more specifically the way in which he has dealt with it, opened up a new line of dialogue in NASCAR: the incidence and prevalence of head injuries, as well as the sport’s loopholes in dealing with potential injuries. Among the questions Earnhardt’s injury raised: does NASCAR do enough to catch and address potential head injuries? (Drivers who can drive their car back to their hauler after a wreck, as Earnhardt did, are not checked.) Would Earnhardt have stepped out of the car if he were still in the running for a championship? Should NASCAR make adjustments to the season points standings accumulation to prevent the huge disincentive to drivers to get out of the car?
This chapter of Earnhardt’s concussion story is done, but the overall issue could, and should, change NASCAR’s operations in the coming years.