DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. stood next to a steel-railed barrier, trying to make sense of a Daytona week that had begun with such promise and ended halfway through the Daytona 500 with a sudden shearing of sheet metal.
Earnhardt stood near Daytona International Speedway’s infield care center, one of the first drivers of the 2017 season to undergo NASCAR’s new mandatory safety protocols. And as he was breaking down his race, analyzing what went wrong, and thanking the fans, he had to lean hard into the fence, because an ambulance carrying his teammate Jimmie Johnson was trying to squeeze past him.
It was just before 5 p.m. Eastern, and a strange parade of NASCAR’s best and brightest from the track to the care center was just beginning.
Drivers now enter the infield care center and undergo a series of tests, no matter how small the accident. The specific tests given each driver are protected by federal privacy laws, but any driver undergoing concussion protocol will receive what’s known as a SCAT-3 test. SCAT-3, which stands for Sport Concussion Awareness Tool, is a battery of questions and physical challenges seeking to get an assessment of a driver’s physical and mental states, memory extent, and breakdown of neurological concerns such as speech, balance, and eye motion.
All too often, safety advances in motorsports come as a result of tragedy. This time around, NASCAR was proactive rather than reactive. And the Daytona 500 provided the new protocol’s first real-time test.
Shortly afterward, Earnhardt – who tried and failed to get his battered 88 to run – rode a golf cart from the garage area to the care center. More so than most, Earnhardt has reason to worry about on-track injuries; he himself doubted at times whether he would even return to racing after his most recent injuries.
Outside the care center, Earnhardt leaned forward to let Johnson’s ambulance pass, and the parade was on.
The demeanor of the drivers differed markedly. Earnhardt appeared frustrated but, having seen all that racing could offer, ready to move on. Johnson walked up to the assembled media a few minutes later and was in clear stone-faced mode, emotions buried beneath a beard and an impassive expression.
“They started running into the back of me off of Turn 2 and didn’t stop until I crashed and took out the field,” Johnson said. “I was just praying that they would let me go and let me get my rear tires back on the ground, and it never happened. Just a lot of aggression, way too early in my opinion.”
Danica Patrick, involved in the same 17-car wreck that consumed Johnson, stormed forward out of the care center with purpose and determination, looking like she might well slug someone. Her rage was understandable; she’d just seen one of her best races ever end in a flash.
“I’m totally fine, I drove my car back to the garage,” Patrick said. “I would not have ever come to the infield care center if not for the new protocols. I’m all for being well, but it’s probably a bit much.”
Other drivers offered a different view, preferring to err on the side of caution.
“It’s unfortunate I got to be part of it, but it’s the right thing to do for safety,” Chris Buescher said. “I probably shouldn’t have even driven my car back; I should have hopped in the ambulance. I took several hard hits out there.”
On and on they came – Ricky Stenhouse and Ty Dillon and and D.J. Kennington and Jeffrey Earnhardt and more, each getting driven to the care center in the ambulance, each walking out a side door and trying to find the right and proper words to put a frustrating afternoon in its proper context.
“I don’t know what it is about this year,” Dillon said. “Maybe it’s the segments, I don’t know. It’s got everybody a little more amped up, but there are not a whole lot of cars finishing.”
And the wrecks kept coming. At one point – 5:44 p.m., to be exact – Jamie McMurray was speaking as Brad Keselowski was riding past on yet another medical golf cart, and at the same time an OHHHHHH went up from the crowd. Off in the distance, in Daytona’s backstretch, Brendan Gaughan and Joey Gase were involved in yet another wreck. With that, 35 of the race’s 40 cars had suffered at least some form of damage.
As the clock hit 6:00 p.m. and the last of the sun dropped behind the grandstand, Daniel Suarez, the final driver bounced from the race in the day’s carnage, walked over to the few remaining media. He tapped a Sharpie pen against his leg, seeming eager to put his first Cup race behind him. After speaking for barely a minute, he was gone.
One race down, 35 to go.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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