Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not compete in the next two Sprint Cup Series races due to a pair of concussions he has suffered within the past six weeks.
Earnhardt Jr., who is NASCAR's most popular driver, sustained his first concussion during a crash while participating in the Aug. 29 Goodyear tire test at Kansas Speedway. The track surface at Kansas was repaved following the April 22 race there.
Last Sunday, Earnhardt Jr. was involved in a 25-car crash on the final lap at Talladega Superspeedway. The Hendrick Motorsports driver was examined by Dr. Jerry Petty, a neurosurgeon, on Tuesday in Charlotte. Petty has worked with several NASCAR drivers in the past, including Earnhardt Jr.
Complaining of headaches earlier this week, Earnhardt Jr. underwent several tests, including an MRI, and therefore was diagnosed with a concussion.
Earnhardt Jr. said during a press conference on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway that he had no medical concerns following his crash at Kansas and decided not to see a doctor. He blew a right-front tire and slammed hard into the turn one wall.
"I remember everything about that accident, but I knew something was just not quite right," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I decided to just work through it. I've had concussions before and kind of knew what I was dealing with. I felt pretty good after a week or two and definitely 80 to 90 percent by the time the Chase started (Sept. 16 at Chicagoland), and by the time we got to Talladega, I felt a 100 percent, felt really good."
Saturday night's race at Charlotte is the fifth round in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Qualifying is scheduled for this evening.
Though his impact in the Talladega wreck was less severe than the one he had at Kansas, Earnhardt Jr. noted that he did not feel well in the days that followed, and after seeking advice from his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, he decided to visit Petty for consultation.
"I knew that I sort of had regressed and had a bit of a setback," he said. "When you know how your body is and when you know something is not quite right, I knew as soon as it happened that I had reinjured myself, for a lack of a better way to describe it. (The Talladega wreck) was not even half of the impact that I had at Kansas, but it was enough to cause me some concern."
Earnhardt Jr. said he plans to drive his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet after Kansas, if medically cleared by Petty and NASCAR.
"He had no amnesia on either side of either of the incidents, which is very important," Petty said. "What we'll do now is we want him to have four or five days after he has no headache, and then we'll give him some sort of test like to get his pulse rate up, see if we can provoke a headache, and then if we can't, we'll let him go out and drive a lap or two and see how that goes, and if that goes well, we'll probably clear him to race."
Martinsville (Oct. 28), Texas (Nov. 4), Phoenix (Nov. 11) and Homestead (Nov. 18) are the last races on the schedule.
Meanwhile, Regan Smith will substitute for Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 car for Charlotte and Kansas. Smith made his final start in the No. 78 car for Furniture Row Racing at Talladega. He was originally scheduled to drive the No. 51 for James Finch's team, Phoenix Racing, at Charlotte.
"I talked to Dr. Petty Tuesday night," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "Dale had an examination Tuesday, and Wednesday, he had an MRI. I went down with Steve (Letarte, Earnhardt Jr's crew chief) and Kelley to his office and saw the MRI, and it was normal. At that point Dr. Petty had already said to me in the morning that he was not going to clear Dale to drive.
"I called James Finch last night about 10:00 and asked him could we use Regan. He agreed. So this morning, we called Regan and told him we'd had it cleared with James, and that's where we are right now."
To prepare for the upcoming season with Furniture Row, Kurt Busch will be behind the wheel of the No. 78 for the remainder of this year after driving the No. 51 for Finch. A.J. Allmendinger is expected to drive that car at Charlotte. NASCAR had suspended Allmendinger for violating its substance abuse policy in June, but the former Penske Racing driver has been reinstated after completing NASCAR's "Road to Recovery" program.
Earnhardt Jr. has made 461 consecutive starts in Sprint Cup, which is the fifth longest among active drivers. The streak began at the start of his 2000 rookie season.
In the April 2002 race at Fontana, Calif. Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion when he crashed into the wall. He did not disclose his concussion until later in the season, prompting NASCAR officials to revise its rule in medically clearing drivers to compete in upcoming events.
After finishing 20th at Talladega, Earnhardt Jr. fell to 11th in the Chase point standings. He is currently 51 points behind leader Brad Keselowski.
At the end of Sunday's race, Earnhardt Jr. expressed his anger about restrictor-plate racing at Talladega and Daytona International Speedway, saying, "If this is what we did every week. I wouldn't be doing it. I will just put it to you like that. If this is how we raced every week, I would find another job."
Earnhardt Jr. turned 38 years old on Wednesday.