Dale Earnhardt, Jr. may be out with a head injury, but one thing was clear after a busy Friday at New Hampshire: he’s still using his head. The driver’s decision to sit out, however long was embraced by his team at Hendrick Motorsports and showcased a healthy choice to protect this athlete’s body long-term from further harm.
These days, concussions are the most talked about injury in professional sports. If diagnosed with one, a driver, crew member or anyone heavily involved in NASCAR competition is mandated go under specific protocols in order to return to full-time duty.
Sadly, those steps back to health, the product of this type of serious injury is a lingering occurrence that Earnhardt is all too familiar with. In 2002, a hard hit at Fontana led him to hide a concussion injury, one masked in the midst of a difficult year. Then, in 2012, a crash during a test session at Kansas Speedway left Earnhardt out of the racecar for two weeks, suffering from a definitive concussion and costing him a chance at a possible championship.
It’s easy to forget with years of recent success how much those incidents have affected Earnhardt, sensitive to his own health after the tragic death of his father in 2001. Earlier on in this season, the veteran raised eyebrows after announcing his brain will be donated for CTE research after his death, the largest case yet from NASCAR as to how wrecks on the racetrack could effect on a driver’s health off it long-term.
Making this choice, of course puts Earnhardt’s playoff position in jeopardy. It’s a tough call for him to miss this race, sitting only 32 points above the cut line to the Chase. But keep in mind we’re in a new era of NASCAR. Since the new Chase system was put in place in 2014, drivers have recovered from injury, returned to racing and succeeded in the postseason. Kyle Busch, for example went on to win the championship after having a compound fracture in his leg last year. Now, Tony Stewart has won Sonoma after missing the season’s first eight events, putting him in strong position to make this Chase.
Will the sport suffer Sunday? Sure. For the popularity of the sport as a whole, Earnhardt remains on another level. Busch is one of NASCAR’s villains and Stewart is a joyful character, but the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet is the face of the sport, winning the last 15 Most Popular Driver awards. Him missing a practice session, yet alone a race is a big deal throughout the industry and is going to make worldwide news. It just is.
Junior Nation in New Hampshire will be disappointed that their hero isn’t around. He’s led 368 laps at the Magic Mile, accumulating 15 top-10 finishes with a best finish of third over a decade ago in 2004.
No driver wants to miss a race, especially sitting on the Chase bubble. But is a guaranteed shot at a championship more important than a person’s health? The answer to that is clearly no.
Now, the focus will turn to Alex Bowman, getting an opportunity of a lifetime this weekend in New Hampshire. Though he qualified 20th for the 301-mile race, he was 13th in practice.
Bowman was released of his duties with Tommy Baldwin Racing less than a month before the Daytona 500 this season, putting him in an awful situation. Earnhardt picked him up to drive for JR Motorsports in the XFINITY Series for nine races. In that time, he’s sat on a pole and has finished in the top 10 every time that he has competed.
There are no real expectations for the 23-year-old, meeting Greg Ives for the first time Tuesday night, while getting fitted to be the relief driver for Earnhardt if that were the route the team decided to go. They didn’t go down that path, allowing Bowman to race in one of the top rides in the series, similar to what Regan Smith did for the team back in 2012.
“He’s [Earnhardt] done a lot for my career,” Bowman told Frontstretch. “He’s been a really great friend and somebody to lean on in all circumstances and I wouldn’t be here without him, that’s for sure.”
Don’t be surprised if Bowman records his first top-10 finish in the Cup Series this weekend.
The team is also prepared for an absence of at least one more week, a shakeup that could also provide a spark to a struggling No. 88 group. Hendrick Motorsports General Manager Doug Duchardt announced on Friday during a team press conference that Jeff Gordon will be the driver next weekend at the Brickyard if Earnhardt isn’t cleared to race.
Did anyone think they would ever see that four-time champion back in a racecar after announcing 2015 was his retirement tour?
Maybe so, but not this quickly. Gordon, who hasn’t competed in anything since Homestead last November has spent much of the NASCAR season as a broadcaster for FOX Sports. He was a color commentator through the first 16 events of the year.
The potential of bringing Gordon back for the Brickyard 400, a track where he’s scored a record-high five victories is an event to be excited about for the whole sports world. Obviously, it may happen under tough circumstances, but if a team is going to have a fill-in driver, they might as well get the best available person out there and Gordon qualifies for the role.
The ticket sales for Indianapolis will skyrocket with a chance of Gordon, the most decorated driver at that track returning for do I dare say one final time. There is a chance that if Earnhardt is not cleared that this race would be the future first ballot Hall of Famer’s last event.
And then? No one is certain, not even HMS. Nobody knows the extent to the injury, as both team and driver have released little; Earnhardt is not at the track. I would venture to say, though getting Gordon’s name involved is something that wouldn’t happen publicly if an extended outage wasn’t expected. With a deadline of next Wednesday to announce will drive the No. 88 car, it just seems like there isn’t enough time for it to be healed; expect Earnhardt to be out at least one more week.
It’s been a difficult season for the No. 88 team, the most frustrating since former crew chief Steve Letarte first climbed atop the pit box. Four runner-up finishes clash with four DNFs; inconsistency and poor decisions on setup and handling options have plagued them. The concussion now presents the toughest hurdle yet in life after Letarte, putting Ives center stage in managing a crisis on the sport’s top tier.
No doubt, the concussion presents a major hurdle for Earnhardt and company to jump over. But no matter what happens next, the decision to sit out rather than stretch his health should prove the right call. As we’ve seen with so many other athletes, risking short-term gain with this type of injury, no matter the circumstances typically causes nothing more than long-term pain.
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