For the past 15 years Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been one of NASCAR’s top drivers. Earnhardt has never won a Sprint Cup Championship, but he is always in the mix. However the last few weeks of the 2016 NASCAR season have seen Earnhardt reduced to the role of a spectator after he suffered a concussion. Earnhardt was involved in wrecks on June 12 and July 2. And after Earnhardt initially thought that he had a sinus infection, he was diagnosed with a concussion. Earnhardt has missed the last three races with concussion-like symptoms. Earnhardt has been replaced in the No. 88 car by four-time NASCAR Champion Jeff Gordon who was also his former teammate with Hendrick Motorsports. However there isn’t a timetable for Earnhardt’s return to the track as he is still dealing with concussion-like symptoms and quite frankly, you can’t blame him.
15 years ago Earnhardt watched his father die on the race track. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was known as “The Intimidator” while he was also a seven-time Winston Cup Champion. Earnhardt Sr. died during the 2001 Daytona 500 when he was attempting to hold off the rest of the field on the final lap as two drivers that raced for Dale Earnhardt Incorporated in Michael Waltrip and Dale Jr. were looking at a one-two finish for the race. Earnhardt Sr. was clipped by Ken Schrader which sent him crashing into the wall at 200 miles per hour and the impact of the collision would take his life. Dale Jr. would climb back into the car that year to keep the family’s legacy going, but things like that are difficult to get over, and in dealing with his own injury now, he must proceed with caution.
The young Earnhardt has still been dealing with issues as far as his balance, and the last thing that he or the other drivers need is for him to get behind the wheel of a car where he could do some more damage to himself and his fellow competitors. But what Earnhardt’s injury has done is shed more light on a subject that NASCAR has begun to take more seriously.
A few years ago NASCAR implemented a concussion protocol which drivers must pass to get back on the track as they are committed to the health and well-being of their drivers. As more information continues to come out about the long-term effects of concussions, sports leagues around the world are getting on board as far as protecting their athletes. And auto racing has been like other sports where athletes tend to try to gut it out while dealing with injuries, but this is a new day.
Earnhardt was smart enough to put his career on hold while more than likely missing out on a chance to participate in the Sprint Chase this year in order to make sure that he is healthy and he should be commended for that as it takes a bigger person to both realize and admit that they are incapable of doing something; no matter much that they love it.
2015 didn’t get started in the fashion that NASCAR driver Kyle Busch desired. On February 21, Busch suffered a compound fracture in his right leg along with a fracture in his left foot during an Xfinity Series race at the Daytona International Speedway which cast some doubt for his chances to compete in the 2015 Sprint Cup Series. But Busch attacked his rehab with the same kind of relentlessness and aggression that he has on the race track on a weekly basis. And on May 16, Busch would make his season debut at the Sprint All-Star Race in Charlotte, North Carolina. Busch would go on to finish in sixth place that evening as he was in the process of getting his sea legs, but not too many people expected him to find his timing behind the wheel as quickly as he has.
On June 28 at Sonoma, a late trip to pit row for Busch in which he received four fresh tires and fuel allowed him to overtake Jimmie Johnson on a restart following a caution. And when Busch had the checkered flag in his sights, he only had to hold off his older brother Kyle in order to win the Toyota/Save Mart 350. For Busch it was a testament to his determination as he still wasn’t 100 percent when he got back into his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota.
As a result of Busch missing the first 11 races of the season, he had to be granted a special waiver by NASCAR in order to qualify for this year’s Chase for the Cup. Instead of having to finish in the top 16 of the driver standings in order to qualify for the Chase, Busch only needs to finish in the top 30, but he isn’t leaving anything to chance.
Busch would start last night’s Quaker State 400 at the Kentucky Motor Speedway in ninth place. But Busch would go on to lead 163 of the 267 laps with none more important than the final lap to secure his second win of the season. And whereas when Busch first returned to action that his quest to become Chase eligible seemed unrealistic, it is now becoming a reality. Busch has the next eight races to make up an 87-point deficit to Cole Whitt which would put him in the top 30 of the driver standings and give him a shot at the Sprint Cup Title this year.
Busch has the privilege of working for Joe Gibbs who is one of the classiest men in professional sports. As a head coach in the National Football League, Gibbs led the Washington Redskins to their only three Super Bowl Championships in franchise history. Gibbs’ golden touch has transferred to the race track where he is a three-time owner of a Sprint Cup Champion and his patience and positive attitude never allowed him to lose faith in Busch’s ability.
In Busch’s limited action this season he has four, top 10 finishes to his credit as he has let the other drivers on the circuit know that he is back as a force. The injury and the missed time has allowed Busch to come back more focused on racing due to the fact that he doesn’t have the much wiggle room in order for him to get where he wants to go. Busch was the NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year in 2005 and he has 31 wins under his belt, but if he is able to pull off what once seemed impossible a few weeks ago and secure a slot in the Chase, it will be another notch to his stellar and growing NASCAR resume.
In 2001, Kevin Harvick’s NASCAR career began unexpectedly. Following the untimely death of racing legend Dale Earnahardt Sr., car owner Richard Childress called upon a young Harvick to get behind the wheel and replace the man that was simply known as “The Intimidator”. In Harvick’s third NASCAR race he would win the the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 by holding off Jeff Gordon in a race that would have made Earnhardt Sr. proud. That year Harvick would go on to be NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year. Harvick has 30 victories on the Sprint Cup Series under his belt including winning the 2007 Daytona 500 and he’s also a two-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600. But since late 2014, Harvick has revved it up to another gear.
After years of competing against the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, Harvick would win the last two races of the 2014 NASCAR season en route to claiming his first Sprint Cup Series Title and join these two as circuit champs. Harvick’s 2014 success has carried over to this year as he has put the hammer down on the race track.
The 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is only five races old, but Harvick has already been to the winner’s circle twice. This season Harvick has won the Kobalt World 400 in Las Vegas and he followed this up in the very next week by winning the CampingWorld.com 500 in Phoenix. This past Sunday, Harvick was battling with Kurt Busch to win the Auto Club 400 until several late cautions changed things. Keselowski was able to take advantage of the final green-white-checkered as he eased by Harvick and Busch to win. Harvick was denied a third straight victory, but a second place finish in California was nothing for him to hang his head over. Five races have taken place this season and Harvick has finished in the top five on each occasion. Harvick’s first victory of the season automatically qualifies him for the Sprint Chase later this year and he has a 28-point lead in the overall Sprint Cup standings over Joey Logano who is in second place.
Harvick’s shift from racing for Childress to Stewart Haas has paid huge dividends. In each of Harvick’s last three years of running under the banner of Richard Childress, he finished in the top ten of the overall Sprint Cup standings. But when he decided to join the Stewart Haas team in 2014, his production has soared to new heights as he is now one of the premier drivers on the circuit. Harvick is ascending to the heights of Johnson in NASCAR because he is always winning. And even when Harvick doesn’t win a race, he is right in the thick of things. We still have nearly six months before the Sprint Chase begins and it would be extremely easy for Harvick to sit back and relax for this spring and summer being that he has qualified for the NASCAR’s postseason. But something tells me that Harvick is not going to sit back and rest on his laurels which means that the other NASCAR drivers better buckle up for a very long season.