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NASCAR is way ahead of the NFL in dealing with the issue of concussions

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets into his No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet as he prepares for a practice run at Martinsville Speedway last week.

(Drew Hallowell / Getty Images)

NASCAR 1, NFL 0.

That’s my scorecard — and should be yours, too — based on Internet chatter and developments involving protecting the greatest assets in sports:

The athletes.

The NFL seems back in denial after some preposterous statements during the owners’ meetings, where several prominent faces continued to deflect the obvious link between a violent game and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay went Crazy Town, comparing the side effects of playing professional football to the possibility of a bad reaction after taking an aspirin.

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Excuse me, I have a headache from typing those words.

On the flip side, NASCAR, led by signature stars Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, is all about making this a proactive conversation. Earnhardt recently tweeted that he would donate his brain (and other body parts) to science.

Then he elaborated last week in Martinsville, Va.

“Hopefully, they don’t have to look at my brain whenever I pass away because they have learned enough science to study the brains of living adults,” he said. “Hopefully, the science has advanced enough to where they no longer need to be poking around inside my brain.”

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Earnhardt went on to say that he was inspired by former U.S. women’s soccer player Brandi Chastain and several former Oakland Raiders who will donate their brains in honor of their late teammate, Ken Stabler.

Stabler, a retired and once feisty quarterback in NFL lore, died last summer. Doctors discovered he had Stage 3 CTE, a neurological disease linked to head collisions in football and other contact sports, causing debilitating and degenerative memory and mood problems.

“I will be donating — or pledging my brain, is what they like to say — to the Concussion Legacy Foundation,” Earnhardt said. “They are in partnership with Boston University where the brain bank is. I was a donor already for many years, as my driver’s license would attest. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do for me. Anything that I can do to help others.”

And like any good teammate, Johnson stepped in to prove he has Junior’s back. Johnson, who drives with Earnhardt for Hendrick Motorsports, alluded to a situation involving IndyCar driver Will Power, who sat out the season-opening race in St. Petersburg, Fla., last month after crashing in practice and dealing with nausea. Further tests at the University of Miami Hospital’s Concussion Program ruled out a concussion but concluded that Power probably did have an inner-ear infection.

“Whatever they have in Miami needs to be at every racetrack to make a better decision, whatever that stuff is,” Johnson told reporters from USA Today Sports and NBC Sports.com in Martinsville. “That’s the bottom line. You’re dealing with someone’s career, someone’s life.

“The bottom line there is concern for the athlete, for the driver. I think it all stems from a good place. Unfortunately, mistakes are made. We’re trying with the baseline concussion tests we now take. That’s hopefully a tool to help make a better decision.”

It’s simple really: Err on the side of caution. Make informed decisions. Protect your stars.

It’s a little more complicated than taking two aspirin and hoping the throbbing pain in your head goes away.

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Brian Vickers’ future

Brian Vickers races on into uncertainty.

That’s about where things stand as a substitute driver for Tony Stewart, out indefinitely after breaking his back in a dune-buggy accident Jan. 31 in the Southwest.

Consider Vickers and Stewart both “in limbo.”

Vickers finished seventh at Martinsville, but he’s unsure when he will be back behind the wheel. He has split time with Ty Dillon this season subbing for Stewart.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” Vickers said at Martinsville. “I’ve stopped trying to guess what the future holds. I’ve stopped trying to plan what the future holds. It’s always fluid. It’s always challenging.”

You tend to gather perspective when blood clots have forced you to be away from the track four times during your career. Vickers is highly respected and considered one of the good guys in the sport, but that’s not the most important thing on a resume.

It’s a performance-based business, and Vickers has won only three times in 322 Cup starts.

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“I just live in the present,” Vickers said. “I want a good run because I want a good run. Maybe I’ve got another 500 starts. Maybe I’ve got two. But I really approach it like this is going to be my last one.”

For now, it’s TBA beyond Saturday in Texas, where Vickers again will drive the No. 14 car. However, he did talk about putting together a deal to run in the Indianapolis 500.

“If something were to happen between now and next week and it’s my last race,” Vickers said, “I want it to be a good one.”

John Hunter Nemechek has sponsorship problems

Reflecting the precarious state of financial affairs that drive the sport, John Hunter Nemechek finished second to Kyle Busch in the Martinsville trucks race but still does not have a sponsor for upcoming races.

Double-whammy: He now leads in points, by three, over Parker Kligerman.

“It is still up in the air,” Nemechek said of the sponsorship situation. “There is nothing done right now for Kansas [next month]. ... We have some deals that could get done. It’s just trying to get everything done to get their name on the hood.”

Ratings drop

If you didn’t see the Martinsville race on your big screen, you weren’t alone. According to sportsmediawatch.com, Martinsville earned a 2.2 overnight rating on FS1 on Sunday afternoon, down 12% from last year (2.5) and down 42% from 2014 on the Fox broadcast network (3.8).

Going bigger picture, all six Cup races this season have seen a decline in the overnights, with four of those six by double digits.

Fun fact

After Busch’s 35th Sprint Cup Series win in Martinsville, brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch have 62 combined victories, tying them for third-best overall with brothers Tim Flock (39), Fonty Flock (19) and Bob Flock (four).

Brothers Bobby Allison (84) and Donnie Allison (10) lead the pack with a record 94 overall victories, ahead of Darrell Waltrip and Michael Waltrip.


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