Ailing racers can't afford not to race

If substitute drivers could earn points for injured drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. might still be in the hunt. Kevin Liles/US Presswire

NASCAR made some very nice, sensible -- and sure-to-be popular -- competition changes Tuesday. I wish they'd made one more.

Qualifying will mean something again next year, with the first 36 starting positions determined by time-trial speeds. Rather than guaranteeing 35 starting spots on points, only six will get in that way.

And formal testing will be restored, four per team, per season.

All of that is fantastic. It's not so much a matter of rules changes as of restoring the way it should be.

But there's one more way it should be, but has never been, that I've wished for since 1976, when I saw Bobby Allison, badly injured from two crashes that year, being lifted by his arms and feet into his car to race.

In 1980 I saw Richard Petty race with a broken neck -- even the slightest bump from a bad direction could have killed him. I didn't know it, and neither did NASCAR. Petty didn't tell anybody -- felt he couldn't afford to, racing for the points championship.

"You do what you have to do," he said later, when he told me what he'd done.

Ever since, I've felt that drivers shouldn't have to. On into the '80s, Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott shouldn't have had to drive with broken legs to contend for championships, but they did.

It is well, for my purposes here, that Regan Smith effectively got a non-decision substituting for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Saturday night at Charlotte. Had Smith done well, rather than falling out early with a blown engine, there would be a lot of backlash to what I'm saying here -- accusations that we in the media are always advocating what is best for Junior.

Earnhardt, sitting out two races with a concussion, is just the latest example of a point I've been writing about for 20 years, since I saw Davey Allison show up at Talladega with a cast on his arm and two terribly blackened eyes, and get help climbing into his car, and race, at what was then the riskiest track on the tour. Those injuries had come in a horrific crash the previous race at Pocono. And he had suffered broken ribs and a concussion at Charlotte earlier that year.

Back then, my analogy was Troy Aikman, then quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. Should Aikman have to sit out games with injuries, then the Cowboys' wins would still count. What Davey Allison had to do, to continue to collect championship points, was tantamount to the NFL requiring Aikman to play on crutches for his team's wins to count.

The Cowboys, and Allison's Robert Yates Racing team, were hot in '92, contending for championships. Arguably, Allison driving hurt -- badly hurt -- wound up costing him the championship eventually won by Alan Kulwicki in the notorious, season-ending Hooters 500 at Atlanta that year.

Now, Tony Romo is just as analogous to Earnhardt, in that the Cowboys are a poor 2-3, and Earnhardt's Chase chances were out the window anyway before Dr. Jerry Petty declined to clear Earnhardt to race.

But the point remains the same: Quarterbacks aren't required to play seriously hurt. Drivers are, if they want to contend for the Cup. They shouldn't be.

NASCAR, now more than ever, is clearly a team sport. Crew chief (coach) Chad Knaus gets almost as much attention as driver (quarterback) Jimmie Johnson. Pit crews must be as impeccably choreographed as offensive lines, and a loose lug nut can be as devastating as a holding penalty.

Given that, why not allow coach Steve Letarte to put in backup quarterback Smith, and still collect points for the team that essentially is known by one name, "Dale Earnhardt Jr."?

This, rather than forcing a driver into the dilemma Earnhardt turns out to have faced since he suffered a concussion during a test at Kansas in August: Either tell the truth for your own safety and dash all championship hopes, or drive badly hurt, at high risk of even worse injury.

"It's a fair question," Robin Pemberton, NASCAR vice president of competition, said when I asked Tuesday.

But then Pemberton went on to state NASCAR's long-running -- and to him rock-solid -- position.

"When a driver is out, the team does continue to get points toward the championship," he added, with a bit of artful omission. He wasn't referring to "the" championship that we all think of as THE championship.

"That's why there's two separate point systems, one for the driver and one for the team itself," Pemberton elaborated.

Yeah, but that's the owners championship -- the afterthought, the one hardly ever brought up from deep in the shadows of the driving championship which amounts to THE championship.

Pemberton thought for a moment.

"Well," he said. "But the facts are that we have point systems for owners and point systems for drivers. If your starting quarterback got hurt and was out of the game, and [the team] went on for three touchdowns and [the backup quarterback] went 17-for-18 passing, that [starting] quarterback still doesn't get those statistics. He wasn't in the game."

That's logical -- if they were playing for statistical championships in the NFL. But they don't award the Lombardi trophy for statistics, and they shouldn't award the Sprint Cup that way, either.

In NASCAR, the driving championship is a team championship -- it's just that the franchises are publicly known as "Brad Keselowski" or "Jimmie Johnson" rather than the "New York Giants" or "New England Patriots."

If Pemberton's statistical logic were thoroughly true, if the Cup were all about one person's performance, then a driver should not be penalized for a tire changer leaving a lug nut loose, or a gas can stuck in the filler valve.

But in NASCAR, you hear, "We win as a team and we lose as a team," just as often as in the NFL.

Because it's true.

Imagine Eli Manning having to free his hands from crutches to take the snap -- that, or the Giants can't win. Imagine the Packers being denied every win that Aaron Rodgers might have to sit out with a concussion.

By today's standards, Bobby Allison being lifted in and out of his car, or Richard Petty driving with a broken neck, or Davey Allison or Dale Earnhardt or Bill Elliott driving in a cast, would not be considered macho, tough, daring.

It would be considered brutal.

So now, let the backups play when the starters are seriously injured.

And let it count.

It won't happen. It hasn't, for the 36 years I've wished for it. But I'm allowed to keep on wishing.