Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr pauses as he talks about missing the next two races… (Chuck Burton / Associated…)
After crashing with more than 20 other drivers in a last-lap melee Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR's Dale Earnhardt Jr. lashed out at what he called the "ridiculous" pack racing on the high-banked oval.
The driver also occasionally held his head afterward, although he said he was not injured.
Turns out that wasn't the case.
Earnhardt will miss the next two Sprint Cup Series races after his second concussion in the past six weeks, most likely ending the championship chances of NASCAR's most popular driver.
The first concussion, suffered in a crash during an Aug. 29 tire test at Kansas, went undiagnosed until Wednesday, when Earnhardt was examined in Charlotte for lingering effects from Sunday's crash at Talladega.
"I had reinjured myself, for a lack of a better way to describe it," Earnhardt said at a news conference, adding that persistent headaches prompted him to seek help.
Earnhardt passed neurological tests and an MRI exam but was not cleared to race by a neurosurgeon for fear that another crash could worsen the driver's injury.
"A lot of guys would try to play hurt, but not when the doctor tells you if you get hit again, like right away, it could be catastrophic," Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt's team owner, said. Hendrick tapped Regan Smith to drive Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevrolet in the next two races.
Earnhardt is among the 12 drivers in NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup championship playoff. After Talladega he was 11th in the standings. Missing the next two races all but eliminates Earnhardt from contention, because the points Smith earns go to Smith, not Earnhardt.
Talladega is one of two tracks — Daytona International Speedway is the other — where NASCAR mandates "restrictor plates" in the engines to cap speeds from climbing ever higher. But a byproduct of "plate racing" is that the cars stayed bunched in packs, often spawning multi-car wrecks.
Earnhardt's father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, was killed in a crash at Daytona in 2001.
The cars are safer today but Earnhardt — a five-time winner at Talladega — nonetheless criticized the current form of Talladega racing after Sunday's massive crash. He called it "not safe" and said that "if this is how we raced every week I would find another job."
However, Earnhardt later told the website SB Nation that he regretted the comments. He noted that NASCAR plans a new car in 2013 that could change the race's dynamics and that he "should have checked myself a little bit before I stood on my soapbox."