Junior's Chase is Over After Concussion; Rest of Field Focuses on Charlotte
As the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship hits the halfway mark Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR’s most popular driver will be missing from the lineup, thus ending his chances at winning the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup title.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been pulled from the No. 88 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports by Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty after suffering a concussion in the 25-car pile-up on the final lap last Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Earnhardt still was experiencing headaches a few days after the crash and contacted Petty for an examination. It was determined Earnhardt has a concussion, and he will not compete Saturday night at the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway or in next weekend’s race at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway.
This was Earnhardt’s second concussion in six weeks. He also was concussed in a hard crash when a right front tire failed at a Goodyear tire test Aug. 29 at Kansas Speedway. Those concussions were enough to sideline Earnhardt for the first time since he began racing in the Cup Series full time in 2000.
"I knew having those two concussions back to back was not a good thing," Earnhardt said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I knew to go see someone whether I wanted to get out of the car or not."
It was not exactly the kind of birthday present Earnhardt was hoping to get as he turned 38 Wednesday.
Regan Smith will take over as driver of Earnhardt’s Chevrolet for the next two races.
Tests indicated Earnhardt incurred an impact of 40 Gs during his crash at Kansas and another 20-G impact Sunday at Talladega, but the cumulative effects of a concussion led to the prudent decision to miss the next two races because the next impact could be “catastrophic,” according to Petty.
Earnhardt underwent an MRI on Wednesday, and the tests were normal with no damage.
"He had no amnesia after either incident, which is very important," Petty said. We'll want to give him four, five days without a headache, and then they'll try to invoke a headache to see how he reacts before clearing him to race."
Earnhardt responded in his typical honest fashion.
“I feel perfectly fine, but I don’t want to keep getting hit in the head,” he said.
By missing the next two races, Earnhardt will likely finish this year’s Chase in the last of the 12 positions. But a quick recovery could see Earnhardt back in the seat Oct. 28 at Martinsville Speedway, the seventh race of the Chase.
“I would love to race this weekend, and I feel perfectly normal and feel like I could compete if I were allowed to compete this weekend,” Earnhardt said. “But I think that the basis of this whole deal is that I've had two concussions in the last four to five weeks, and you can't layer concussions. It gets extremely dangerous. So I really don't want to – I think that we could easily have chosen to do that, but I'd like to get back in the car and compete as soon as I can, as soon as the doctors feel like I'm able to do that.
“I probably need to rest and relax as much as I can, allow my brain to take a break and get some healing done. You know, Regan doesn't need any tutoring or anything like that. He's ready to go. He's going to do a great job. I'm excited for his opportunity. He's a really good guy, been a good friend of mine for a long time. Under the circumstances I think this is a really, really neat opportunity for him, and I think that Steve (Letarte, crew chief) and the guys will enjoy working with him.”
Brad Keselowski of Penske Racing is the “Leader of the Pack” in this year’s Chase as Dodge driver Keselowski takes a 14-point lead over one of the “Brickyard Legends” heading into the only Saturday night race in the Chase.
“Having a 14-point lead heading into Charlotte is pretty big, for sure,” Keselowski said. “Once we are done at Charlotte, we’ll be halfway through the Chase. And while there is still a lot of racing left to go, it’s better than having to dig out of a hole. Charlotte is a place where the results don’t necessarily show how much this Miller Lite Dodge team has improved there. We were finally able to break through with a top-five finish back in May. We should be even better this time around. Our record this year on the intermediate tracks is very solid. With 1.5-mile tracks making up the majority of the rest of the Chase schedule, I’m pretty happy that we were able to come out of Talladega with a nice lead because I think we are set up for a good second half to the Chase.”
Keselowski is attempting to win a Cup race for the first time at Charlotte, where he has just one top-five and one top-10 finish. But that finish came in this year’s Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. He was 16th in this race last year.
“The way I look at it, we’ve run four races of the 10, and if you do the math, that’s 40 percent of the way but still a long ways to go,” Keselowski said Thursday. “But certainly a great start for our whole team to have won two races and finished sixth and seventh in the other two. That’s certainly the start that we all dreamed of as a team. We just got to keep that run up which we know is not going to be easy.”
Four-time Brickyard 400 winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson lurks in second behind Keselowski. Johnson has a spectacular record at the 1.5-mile Charlotte oval that opened in 1960.
Johnson has six wins, 10 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in 22 starts at CMS. From this event in 2003 to the fall race in 2005, Johnson won five races in six attempts at Charlotte. His last victory came in this contest in 2009. But his spectacular run of five straight Cup titles ended at this race last year when he crashed hard in the wall late in the race and finished 34th. Johnson drove the No. 48 Chevrolet to an 11th-place finish in his last race at CMS – the Coca-Cola 600 on May 27.
“When they repaved it, it changed things and kind of equalized the field,” Johnson said of CMS. “And we’ve been very competitive. Last year, we had probably the best car and one of the top two or three cars, and I just crashed late after trying to overcome some pit strategy issues we had. So I feel good. I love that track. We won the All-Star race and ran very good in the ‘600,’ so I feel like we’ll be there and be a threat and I need to at this time of the year. We need to be on top of things.”
Denny Hamlin arrives at Charlotte third in points, 23 behind the leader. Former United States Auto Club (USAC) star Kasey Kahne is fourth, 36 points out of the lead.
Kahne won the most recent Cup race at CMS as he drove to victory in the Coca-Cola 600. That is one of his four wins, seven top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 17 career starts at Charlotte. He was fourth in this race last October.
“It’s great to go back to Charlotte as the defending winner,” Kahne said. “The win in May was a total team effort and was really big for us to get that victory. I think we’ve only gotten stronger since then. I hope we can be back out front and sweep the season here.”
Clint Bowyer is fifth in the standings, 40 points behind the leader.
The fastest climber in the Chase is four-time Brickyard winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, who grew up about 25 miles west of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Pittsboro, Ind.
Gordon is up to sixth in the standings, 42 points out of first place, and hopes to continue his climb Saturday night at Charlotte, where he has five wins, 16 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes in 39 starts. His last win at this track came in this race in 2007. He finished 21st in this race last year and was seventh in the 2012 Coca-Cola 600.
"We were really good early in that race (the Coca-Cola 600 in May), and twice we had to come up through the field,” said Gordon, who finished second at Talladega last Sunday. “I think we can be even stronger this weekend because our setups are better now. Recently, we've finally been getting the finishes to match the strong runs we've had during races this year. If we continue to do that, we'll continue to move up in the standings.”
Indiana’s Tony Stewart is a true “Brickyard Legend” and the only driver in the Chase who has competed in the Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400. Stewart is a two-time Brickyard 400 winner and a three-time Cup champion who was ready to gain ground in the Chase as he headed to the checkered flag in the lead on the final lap at Talladega. But when Michael Waltrip tried to pass for the lead, Stewart went to block. The two cars collided, triggering the massive crash that ended the race.
Stewart, from Columbus, Ind., owned up for his role in the crash and looks for better results Saturday night as he hopes to climb from seventh in the Chase standings. He is 46 points out of the lead.
“It always seems like it’s a battle of trying to get your car to cut through the center of the corner and keep the forward drive in it,” Stewart said of racing at Charlotte. “It seems like it’s a sacrifice of one or the other, but the two ends of the track are different. It seems like you can carry a lot more speed through (turns) 1 and 2, and (turns) 3 and 4 are a little more thread-the-needle-type corners. Sometimes there isn’t a big difference between the fall and spring races at Charlotte. They’re spread out so far and they’re at the beginning of summer and the end of summer, so a lot of times they can be very similar.”
Stewart has one win, six top-five and 12 top-10 finishes in 27 CMS starts. He was eighth last October and 25th this past May.
Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. is eighth, 48 points out, followed by Roush-Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle, who is 49 out of the lead.
2003 Brickyard 400 winner Kevin Harvick is also 49 points out of the lead but is credited with 10th in the Chase as Biffle gained the edge based on tie-breaker. Harvick has one win, two top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 23 CMS starts. He was sixth last October and eighth this past May.
Earnhardt is 11th in the standings but will fall to 12th after missing the next two races. He is 51 out of the lead, but that deficit will increase. And the Talladega winner last Sunday, Matt Kenseth, is 12th in the standings, 62 out of the lead.
Earnhardt will not attend the race Saturday night at Charlotte, getting a chance to watch the broadcast on ABC like millions of other race fans.
“I don't have any plans of being here this weekend,” he said. “I think that I'd be more of a distraction to the team and their efforts in the race. I think they've got a good opportunity to have a good run this weekend, and I feel like that to minimize the distraction would help them out.”