Off to best start of his career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. proving he’s for real in 2014


Second may be the first loser, but for Dale Earnhardt Jr., finishing second in Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway was a continuation of the best season start in his 15-year Sprint Cup career.

After winning his second Daytona 500 last Sunday, Earnhardt in the following days went on a monumental victory lap across the country to celebrate with media and fans across the country.

And while sleep was rare this past week as he jetted from town to town, Earnhardt was wide awake and on top of his game in Sunday’s race.

He could have potentially made it two wins in a row, but Kevin Harvick held him off on the final lap to relegate Junior to runner-up status.

Granted, there are still 34 races left, but a first and second place finish in the first two events, coupled with Earnhardt remaining atop the Sprint Cup standings, bodes well for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 11 years.

That he did well at Phoenix was not exactly a surprise, per se. Earnhardt used to do very well at the one-mile flat track.

In four straight races from 2002 through the spring race in 2005, Earnhardt drove his Dale Earnhardt Inc. No. 8 to two wins and two other top-five finishes.

Ironically, when he move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Junior began a performance nosedive at PIR.

From his first race in 2008 under the Hendrick banner through the end of 2012 – 10 races in total – Earnhardt managed no wins and just three top-10s.

But things began to turn around last year in a big way. In the second race of 2013, he started 21st and finished fifth. In last year’s fall Chase race, the second-to-last race of the season, he started 11th and finished fourth.

And then came Sunday. He started fifth, ran in the top-five almost the entire race and came home with a solid second-place finish.

Is Junior really and truly for real in 2014?

So far, so good, it would appear.

“I hope everybody enjoyed the race,” Earnhardt said. “We were really working out butts of there and giving it everything we had.”

And they most certainly did a good job, indeed.

While some cynics looked at Phoenix as a better measuring stick if Earnhardt is for real after his win at Daytona, next Sunday’s race in Las Vegas may actually be the best measuring stick of all.

Earlier in his career, he excelled on 1.5-mile tracks. But much like the way his early good fortune at PIR morphed to misfortune for several years, such has been the case for Earnhardt over the last few years, as well.

He began to climb out of the void last season. Even though he didn’t win a race in 2013, he did very well on several 1.5-mile or larger tracks: including fifth at Las Vegas, second at Fontana (a 2.0-mile track), 12th at Kentucky and eighth at Atlanta.

But it was in the Chase for the Sprint Cup that Earnhardt took things to a whole other level, especially in the closing stages of the season.

In addition to a sixth-place finish at New Hampshire and runner-up at Dover, he was eighth at Kansas, 15th at Charlotte, second at Talladega, eighth at Martinsville, second at Texas, fourth at Phoenix and third in the season finale at Homestead.

That’s why what Junior has done thus far in the first two races in 2014 isn’t all that much of a surprise in many ways.

He was a win waiting to happen last season, which he finally got a little late last week at Daytona. And other than eventual champion Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt was the most consistent driver during last year’s Chase.

“I think we just got a lot of momentum carried over from last year,” Earnhardt said. “We were running well in the Chase.  I think the Chase performance we had got us pretty excited, real happy to look forward to this season.”

And that’s why there was absolutely no reason why he couldn’t pick up in 2014 where he left off in 2013.

And that’s exactly what he has done. He has a great chance to win for the first time at Las Vegas and keep his outstanding start to this season going.

“(Crew chief Steve Letarte) and those guys just keep getting better and better,” Earnhardt said. “These cars I’m driving I think are the best in the garage.”

And it certainly helps when you have the best driver in the garage thus far this season behind the wheel.

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Neurosurgeon discusses brain injuries such as Michael Schumacher’s

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PARIS (AP) — More than four years after a ski accident caused him a near-fatal brain injury, little is known about Michael Schumacher’s current condition. Updates on his health have been extremely scarce ever since he left hospital in September 2014 to be cared for privately at his Swiss home on the shores of Lake Geneva. Details of his specific condition and the treatment he received have been kept strictly private. The last public statement 16 months ago clarified nothing further would be said.

Colin Shieff is a retired neurosurgeon from Britain’s National Health Service and a trustee of Headway, the national brain injury charity. Although he has never treated Schumacher, or spoken with doctors who’ve treated Schumacher over the years, he has dealt with similar cases both at immediate critical-care level and further down the line in terms of long-term treatment.

Shieff spent many years working with people with brain injuries and trauma, including at NATO field hospitals in Afghanistan an Iraq. He answered questions for The Associated Press related to the nature of Schumacher’s brain injury, pertaining to how his condition may have evolved in the time since his accident.

MORE: As F1 season begins, Michael Schumacher still fighting, far from forgotten

Q. In your opinion, what’s the likely prognosis at this stage?

A. “The nature of his injury and those bits of information that are available, and have been available, suggest that he has sustained permanent and very major damage to his brain. As a consequence his brain does not function in a fashion similar to yours or mine. The longer one goes on after an injury the more remote it is that any improvement becomes. He is almost certainly not going to change from the situation he is now.”

Q. What ongoing treatments would he be having?

A. “He will have the kind of treatment, which is care: giving him nourishment, giving him fluid. The probability is that this is given in the main – or at least as supplements – through some tube passed into his intestinal system, either through his nose or mouth, or more likely a tube in the front wall of the tummy. He will have therapy to sit him, because he won’t be able to get himself out of a bed and into a chair. He will be treated in a way that will ensure his limbs move and don’t remain rigid.”

Q. Would someone in his position receive around-the-clock treatment?

A. “He will be allowed a period of rest and sleep and relaxation, and he will be given an environment. I’m positive as I can be without knowing the facts (that) he will be living in an environment that – although it’s got artificial bits of medical kit and care and people – will mimic a caring, warm, pleasant, socially stimulating environment.”

Q. Would he be able to sense he’s in such an environment?

A. “I don’t know. There is always a technical, medical and neurological issue with defining a coma. Almost certainly he cannot express himself (in a conversation). He may well be able to indicate, or it may be apparent to those around him, that he is uncomfortable or unhappy. Or (he) is perhaps getting pleasure from seeing his children or hearing music he’s always liked, or having his hand stroked.”

Q. Are patients in his situation aware of touch and voice from family members?

A. “Absolutely. Even in the early stages, even in a critical care unit, when medicines are being given, for one individual at one time there may be an ability to discern and show response to someone they are familiar with. Respond to familiar, respond to family you’re triggered to. You hear them all your life so that’s the very, very familiar (aspect) the person is going to respond to.”

Q. Is there a chance he can make A) a full recovery? B) A partial recovery?

A. “First one, absolutely, totally no. Number one statistically, number two neurologically, and number three he’s been ill for so long. He’s lost muscle bulk, even if he opened his eyes and started talking there will have been loss of memory, there will be impact on behavior, on cognitive functions. He would not be the same person. (As for a) partial recovery, even the smallest thing that gets better is some kind of recovery. But (it depends) whether that recovery contributes to a functional improvement for him to be able to express himself – other than an evidence of saying `Yes’ or an evidence of saying `No.’ (Therefore) if he could use words of two syllables, if he could turn on the remote control for the tele. One can do, professionally, all sorts of wonderful things with electronic devices and couple them up to eye and mouth movements. Sometimes with a person in a situation called `Locked In’ or `Profoundly neurologically comprised’ – which is essentially paralysis but with continuing intellectual function – ways can be found to communicate with those people. If that had been so with Michael Schumacher I am positive we would have known that is the case, so I don’t believe it’s so for him.”

Q. This is a deeply personal decision for the family. But how long can treatment last for?

A. “In, for example, our health system we don’t have the luxury to keep maximal intervention going in a high-tech hospital environment. For Michael Schumacher’s family, I suspect they have the financial support to be able to provide those things. Therefore, for him, the future is longer but it doesn’t imply any change in the quality of it.”

Q. Some reports have estimated the cost of treatment at anything up to 200,000 euros ($245,000) per week. Is that realistic?

A. “I would personally think that’s over the top, in terms of what I reckon that might buy him. He’ll have a nurse, a therapist, a visiting doctor. There’ll be an extra pair of hands when something physical is being done, when he’s being moved to somewhere. That doesn’t add up to 150,000 euros or 200,000 euros. He needs essentially, somebody with nursing or therapeutic qualifications with him at all times. So that’s however many people you need to run a 24/7 roster. You’re talking probably eight people to provide that level of care constantly over a year’s period. That’s the number of nurses required for instance, to nurse or to staff, one critical care bed in an intensive care unit.”

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