CHARLOTTE — NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., will sit out at least the next two Sprint Cup Series races after suffering a second concussion within six weeks.
Earnhardt’s neurosurgeon, Jerry Petty, notified him Wednesday he would not be cleared to race in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I trust his opinion. That’s why I went to see him. He’s been a good friend of mine for a long time and has helped me through a lot of injuries before,” Earnhardt said of Petty.
“I believe when he tells me I don’t need to be in the car and I need to take a couple weeks off, that that’s what I need to do.”
Earnhardt said he first felt symptoms nearly six weeks ago after a hard wreck at Kansas Speedway during a tire test. He was seen by medical staff at the track but did not go into detail about his symptoms then or immediately afterward.
“I decided to just try to push through and work through it. I’d had concussions before and knew exactly kind of what I was dealing with,” Earnhardt said.
When Earnhardt was still suffering from headaches this week following his involvement in last Sunday’s last-lap wreck at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, he decided to reach out to his sister, Kelley, and ended up meeting with Petty.
Petty put Earnhardt through an impact test and magnetic resonance imaging test, both of which were clear. But because of Earnhardt’s lingering symptoms, Petty declined to clear him to race.
“The one test, the one symptom that is more important than all the tests is headache, and as long as there’s any headache, the brain is not healed,” Petty said.
“Until that’s healed and had some time to rest and then you provoke it again and can’t make it happen again, then you feel like you’re on the road to recovery.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick said he admired Earnhardt for speaking up this week about his health.
“I think a lot of guys would try to play hurt, but when the doctor tells you if you get hit again like right away, it could be catastrophic, so I think this deal has worked out extremely well as it could,” Hendrick said.
“I mean, we were so happy yesterday that the MRI was completely normal, no damage. We don’t have a problem there.”
While Earnhardt was already going to have a difficult road to a championship — he trails leader Brad Keselowski by 51 points with six races left — the decision to get out of the car will end any titles hopes for 2012.
Because of the structure of the Chase, Earnhardt cannot finish lower than 12th in the series standings.
“It’s frustrating. I really didn’t get to make the decision. I left it in the hands of the docs, and I’m going to do what they tell me to do,” Earnhardt said. “But it’s frustrating; I just enjoy driving cars week in and week out.”
Driver Regan Smith, who was recently released from Furniture Row Racing, will drive Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet in the next two races.
Earnhardt doesn’t plan to be around the track during his hiatus.
“I think that I’d be more of a distraction to the team and their efforts in the race,” he said.