News & Media

Gordon, others walk a fine line after hard hits

October 11, 2012, Joe Menzer,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Drivers have to admit problem to get help when concussions are suspected

Jimmie Johnson remembers, vaguely, how he felt the day after taking a hard hit in a Nationwide Series car when his brakes failed and he plowed into a wall during a race at Watkins Glen International.

"I literally got in my truck and was going to drive to the race shop, and I got on I-77 and went north," Johnson said. "I should have gone south, and I ended up at Interstate 40 before I realized like, 'Where am I going?' And I made a phone call and drove myself to the doctor and got checked out. So, at that point, once I was on the books, I had to be cleared before I got back in the race car."

"It's a tough situation to race in this sport, to be under injury and be wondering what the line is. We all have our own code for that."


For the record, and those unfamiliar with Charlotte-area highways, Johnson drove several miles in the wrong direction that day before realizing the seriousness of his condition. The I-40 exchange off I-77 is located near Statesville, N.C., more than 40 miles from downtown Charlotte.

He said he's thankful that these days, NASCAR at least attempts to treat drivers with possible concussion symptoms more seriously immediately following accidents. Then again, some drivers obviously like to keep their concussion-like symptoms off the books instead of on them.

It was revealed Thursday that Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., apparently suffered two concussions within six weeks recently, yet he went untreated until visiting a doctor on his own three days after the second one was incurred.

* Earnhardt Jr. reveals concussion | Caraviello: High price of silence

Therein lies the rub with concussions and racers. Most times, the drivers have to admit there is a problem before it can be treated properly. After visiting neurologist Dr. Jerry Petty on Wednesday, Earnhardt was ruled out for at least the next two Sprint Cup races, beginning with Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"In today's world, the process after a crash and what you go through is far greater than what it's been in the past," Johnson said. "And if your symptoms are serious enough to where you can't drive, it's going to be noticeable.

"Once I was cleared [after the Watkins Glen wreck], I got back in that following weekend and went racing. The symptoms went away within a day or two, and I was fine. That's the tricky think about concussions. They affect everybody differently."

Brad Keselowski, the current points leader in the Chase for the Sprint Cup who last year drove for a long stretch with a broken ankle, agreed with Johnson.

"First off, I'd say that I was as shocked as anyone else to hear that stuff [about Earnhardt on Thursday]. I certainly wish Dale the best, and I know he's got a lot of people saying that," Keselowski said. "It's a tough situation to race in this sport, to be under injury and be wondering what the line is. We all have our own code for that."

Earnhardt said Thursday that he first suffered concussion-like symptoms after a hard hit during a Goodyear tire test on Aug. 29 at Kansas Speedway. After initially being cleared by medical personnel at the track immediately following the incident, Earnhardt did not pursue further treatment despite continuing to experience headaches.

Earnhardt said he thought he was 100 percent recovered by Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway, only to have the symptoms return after he was involved in a last-lap wreck. When he still was suffering from headaches three days later, he went to see Dr. Petty.

"I didn't know that he had headaches or any symptoms following the Kansas tire test crash," Johnson said. "I knew it was a big impact. I heard about it. I think we were at a team debrief or meeting or something and word traveled to our meeting quickly that they had a tire problem and it was a big hit.

"And of course, the car came back to the shop later, and I got my eyes on it myself and knew it was a strong hit. It's something that an athlete is faced with through injury. There are some athletes and some sports that are more prone for concussions. Clearly racing is one. Hockey, football, and you get into some of those contact sports where you, as an athlete, have to know whether you're right or not.

"And I think in some cases, even if you are right, you could work your way through some of these different evaluations and not say anything and just try to get better on your own."

Jeff Gordon, another Hendrick Motorsports driver, bluntly admitted as much on Thursday. He said if he was suffering from headaches and thought he might be suffering from a concussion but was involved in a tight championship battle with two races left in a season, he wouldn't say anything to anybody about the pain.

"Honestly, I hate to say this, but no, I wouldn't," Gordon said. "We all have to play a part in this. But if I have a shot at a championship with two races to go and my head's hurting, and I came through a wreck and I'm feeling signs of it but I'm still leading the points or I'm second in the points, I'm not going to say anything. I'm sorry. That's the competitor in me, and probably many other guys. And that's to a fault. That's not the way it should be. But I think that's something that most of us would do, and I think that's what gets a lot of us in trouble."

At the same time, Gordon insisted that he always has thought about playing it safe during his long career.

"I was pretty fortunate that I came into this sport, No. 1, with Hendrick Motorsports -- but also because Ray Evernham was my crew chief. Ray Evernham had some experience with some pretty horrible crashes in his career and some pretty major concussions that really ended his driving career," said Gordon, who is in his 20th season of driving the No. 24 Chevrolet full-time in the Cup Series. "I think because of those combinations, we as a team put a lot of effort into safety. ... It's so much safer now, but that doesn't mean it's still not a dangerous sport. We've made a lot of things better, but I think Junior is a reminder that these head injuries -- and we've seen this in other sports -- but they are very, very serious and not to be taken lightly."