CONCORD, N.C. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. grew up one town away from Charlotte Motor Speedway, running wild with his friends through the infield as his daddy thrilled the hometown crowd.
He became NASCAR’s most popular driver, the only North Carolina native who drives full time in the series.
Earnhardt won’t be at the track tonight. He will miss two races after a doctor benched him because of two concussions over the past six weeks. It marks the first time an Earnhardt won’t race at Charlotte since 1978 – and the first time an Earnhardt won’t run a Cup race since the 1979 Southern 500.
In the early days of stock car racing, running the race meant collecting a share of the purse at the end of the night and buying groceries that week. As the sport progressed, and drivers became so dependent on sponsorship, missing a start could put a deal in danger.
And now, in the age of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, missing a race will take a driver out of title contention.
That’s the dilemma Earnhardt faced on Aug. 29 when he crashed hard into the wall during a tire test at Kansas. He admitted this week that he suffered a concussion in that wreck, but didn’t seek treatment because of his championship chances. He was third in points at the time, and the start of the Chase was just three weeks away.
If a doctor said he couldn’t race, his entire season would go to waste.
After a 25-car accident on the last lap of Sunday’s race at Talladega left him with a lingering headache, he put his fate in the hands of a neurosurgeon, who said the risk was too great for Earnhardt to race tonight or next week at Kansas. Earnhardt will be replaced in the beloved No. 88 Chevrolet by Regan Smith the next two weeks.
NASCAR acknowledged it will re-visit its procedures since Earnhardt raced for six weeks following his first concussion. It praised him for seeking medical attention this week as he marked his 38th birthday.
“The temptation is to persevere though adversity,” points leader Brad Keselowski said. “But sometimes you compete through an injury and perpetuate whatever damage there is. Or, even worse, risk those around you.
“The difference in our sport is that when you’re unable to make great decisions or you lose your focus, the potential is there for others to get hurt. If you can’t focus (in football), you miss the play. In racing, if you can’t focus, you knock the wall down or you wreck somebody.”