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My brain on NASCAR

Posted: March 9, 2017 1:17 p.m.
Updated: March 10, 2017 1:00 a.m.

I watched the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26 with my hands covering my face, peeking though my fingers like a skittish teenage girl at a scary movie. When it comes to frightening incidents, unpredictable plot twists and surprise endings, Stephen King has nothing on NASCAR.

I was terrified.

The first and most obvious fear factor for me – and I suspect I’m not alone in this – was the return of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to fulltime Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition.

Many of you probably saw Marty Smith’s two-part interview with Junior on SportsCenter during the Daytona 500 weekend. Some of you may have even read Tommy Tomlinson’s fantastic profile of NASCAR’s most popular driver in the current issue of ESPN: The Magazine.

What we learned from both of these top-notch journalists, and from Earnhardt himself, was that his mental condition during his 18-race absence from NASCAR was far, far worse than most of us could have imagined.

He suffered from extreme concussion symptoms, things like eyes that continually vibrated in their sockets, and an inability to walk more than a step or two. Over the course of the interview, Junior told Tomlinson that he had experienced extreme depression, and fear, and constant worry over whether he was going to be good enough to resume his racing career.

Any driver would feel the same, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not just any driver.

I truly love NASCAR, and desire to prop it up as best I can, but let’s face it; our sport is in some trouble.

Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have retired after long and illustrious careers, with seven championships between them.

Carl Edwards unexpectedly and voluntarily stepped away earlier this year, citing Earnhardt’s situation as one of the key factors in his decision.

At age 41, Jimmie Johnson is poised to make history in 2017 by potentially becoming the first NASCAR driver to win eight Cup Series championships. If accomplished, this feat may not be all that thrilling to legions of fans, since Johnson has to surpass Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. to get it done, but it would be impressive nonetheless.

Kurt and Kyle Busch are still going strong, with one Cup Series championship each, and after last week’s win in the Daytona 500, Kurt has some early momentum going. The Busch brothers, however, aren’t exactly beloved by the masses. Neither is 2012 Champion Brad Keselowski.

Denny Hamlin has displayed massive talent over the course of his career, but can’t seem to seal the deal. The same goes for Joey Logano, although I do feel that his combination of youth (he’s 26), talent and aggressive driving style will find him hoisting a championship trophy in the not-too-distant future.

Kevin Harvick is always fun to watch (and listen to), but he’s 41 and if he’s going to win that second championship, he needs to get crackin’.

Chase Elliott looks like the face of NASCAR’s future, but by choosing to hightail it out of the racetrack following a “disappointing” 14th-place finish in the Daytona 500 after leading 39 laps, his PR skills might need a little work.

As the pole winner for the second consecutive year and NASCAR’s bright new hope, the press corps was definitely hoping to have some time with Elliott after the race. Unfortunately for drivers, media availability is part of the job, and disappointment can be as compelling as success.

NASCAR needs the perfect combination of personality, talent, pedigree and relatability in order to hold onto the fans who haven’t already tuned out, and there is only one candidate they care about: Dale Earnhardt Jr. It’s unrealistic and unfair, but his love of racing and his sense of responsibility to the sport seem to have led him to take what I – who am not a neuro-specialist of any kind – consider to be an undue health risk.

One more hard hit, folks, could prove catastrophic.

Is the joy we feel when watching him race, the deep personal connection fans feel to him, his family, his new wife, Amy, and the baby Earnhardts that are sure to come worth more than his health? If the answer is yes, that’s just sad, and kind of medieval.

Like millions of my fellow NASCAR fans, I will cheer for Junior this year as he chases that elusive championship, and when he retires, I will miss him. I’ll be watching, but I have a feeling that my view will be an obstructed one, as no doubt I’ll continue to peek through my fingers and pray for safe outcomes for everyone concerned.

On a lighter note, my second concern for 2017 is learning the new, correct order of words in the name of NASCAR’s premier racing series before the end of the season. Honestly, it’s getting to the point where the series name resembles something out of James Joyce’s classic Ulysses, a novel which contains a sentence of more than 4,000 words. I may have mentioned this before, but I think the way for us to go is to just call it Monster Cup. It’s shorter, cooler, and I can remember sequences of two.

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