NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2016 NASCAR Rewind: Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

“My biggest concern was, ‘Is this it?’ After five weeks I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘Will I ever be the same again?”

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s words, coming from an interview with Marty Smith of ESPN last week, just about summed up the questions surrounding him in 2016.

Earnhardt was sidelined halfway through the season due to concussion symptoms, believed to be caused by wrecks at Michigan International Speedway and Daytona International Speedway early in the summer. Earnhardt’s struggle with balance and nausea issues, among other symptoms, turned what initially seemed like a two- or three-race break into sitting out the rest of the season.

Even on track, Earnhardt just wasn’t as good as he was in 2015. His average finish of 15.6 was the lowest since 2010 after years of improvement for Earnhardt. What was once his greatest strength, the restrictor plate races at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, featured some of his more frustrating results of the year. All three of these races Earnhardt participated in saw the sport’s most popular driver being knocked out of contention in accidents.

But unlike 2009 and 2010, where Earnhardt struggled while his teammates mostly dominated, that wasn’t really the case this season. Jimmie Johnson may have won the championship, but save for early season wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Auto Club Motor Speedway, the No. 48 team was fairly anonymous before the Chase. Chase Elliott had a good season but not a great season by Hendrick Motorsports standards, and Kasey Kahne didn’t even lead a lap.

Even after Earnhardt got out of the No. 88 Chevrolet, his substitute drivers still couldn’t get the team into the owners points Chase, a very doable accomplishment. Alex Bowman had strong runs but bad luck, while a returning Jeff Gordon didn’t spend much time in the top 10, let alone top 5 or challenging for a win.

(Photo: John Harrelson/NKP)
(Photo: John Harrelson/NKP)

Still, it wasn’t a complete failure like 2009 or 2010. Earnhardt had four runner-up finishes, two at tracks he has historically been strong at (Bristol Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway) and two intermidate tracks in Atlanta and Texas Motor Speedway. Earnhardt hasn’t won at a mile-and-a-half since 2005, but momentum does seem — finally — on his side in that regard.

Junebug’s unplanned, premature exit from the season was the defining moment of his season, sparking months of debates, questions and rumors from the entire NASCAR community. Is it right for a doctor to pull a driver out of a car? Just how widespread was this issue? Incidents that no one had so much as thought about for years — such as Earnhardt’s concussion in a 2002 race at Auto Club — suddenly became very relevant.

At the heart of it all was the biggest concern many in and out of the sport had: would this be the end of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s career? And if it wasn’t, how much longer would he be around?

These concerns have been addressed in the offseason. Last week, Earnhardt was cleared for on-track competition after a test at Darlington Speedway. Next month, he’ll be embarking on another test at Phoenix. And after five months of wondering if he’d even be able to finish the final year of his contract in 2017, Earnhardt told the media that he and team owner Rick Hendrick would be talking about extending his contract before the 2017 season even starts.

Although Earnhardt’s 2016 was a massive disappointment professionally, personally it may have been one of his better years. In June he proposed to longtime girlfriend Amy Reimann, and the couple will be wed on New Year’s Eve. His XFINITY Series team, JR Motorsports, won five races and had two drivers in the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Next season JRM will be expanding to four full time teams with one additional part-time car.

2017 will be a year of many questions for the driver. In 2000, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was a 25-year-old rookie, a bachelor who loved to drive fast and party hard. In 2017, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will be a 42-year-old veteran, battle-hardened and newlywed. Will he be at 100 percent? Will he still be able to perform at the level expected for a Hendrick Motorsports driver?

All that will be certain is that with the retirements of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, Earnhardt’s position of being the face of the sport will be both secure and of vital importance the next couple of years. After winning his 14th consecutive NMPA most popular driver award despite missing the second half of the season, there’s no doubting his legion of fans, the heart of NASCAR, will stick with him through thick and thin.

Even with some… questionable choices in cuisine.

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