After weeks of rehabilitation, hope and determination, the end result is this — Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not return to compete in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series this season.
Sidelined for the past six races after suffering a concussion-related injury earlier this season, Earnhardt will remain out of his Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet for the final 12 races of 2016.
Instead, the 41-year-old will continue to focus on his recovery in hopes of returning to competition next season.
On Friday, HMS officials announced that the sport’s most popular driver “has not been medically cleared to compete” for the remainder of the season. Previously, Earnhardt has been visiting doctors every two weeks to evaluate his progress.
It’s obviously a disappointing development for Earnhardt, his fans, his team and the Hendrick Motorsports organization.
But it’s ultimately the best decision.
Even if he were able to return to the driver’s seat later this year, there is little to gain for Earnhardt and his team at this point. Out of Chase contention and with a rules package that will change during the brief offseason, there’s no reason, from a competitive standpoint, for him to climb back in the car.
There could be some residual benefits but overall there’s too little to be gained and too much at stake to attempt a hasty return.
From a health standpoint, the time away from the car and out of the limelight will allow Earnhardt to focus solely on his continued recovery.
Work versus health? Weighed against one another, there’s simply no compelling reason for his season to end in any other fashion.
He isn’t leaving HMS in a difficult position from a driver standpoint — Alex Bowman and Jeff Gordon have filled in admirably during Earnhardt’s absence and will no doubt continue to do so.
While time out of the car might be a concern for a driver hoping to keep his ride, Earnhardt has no such worries. He is the winner of 26 premier series events, including a pair of Daytona 500 victories, and has reigned as the series’ most popular driver for 13 consecutive years.
He has qualified for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup eight times overall and each of the past five seasons.
Even in difficult economic times, sponsors have been willing to align themselves with Earnhardt, understanding the immense impact and exposure doing so brings.
This latest development has only spurred talk of how much longer Earnhardt will continue to compete. He’ll turn 42 later this year and now sidelined for a second time in four years, some have suggested that it is perhaps time for him to close the door on his driving career entirely.
Away from Hendrick Motorsports, he is a team co-owner, fielding three NASCAR XFINITY Series teams through his JR Motorsports operation. The group has been involved all the way down to the grassroots level as well, fielding Late Model entries for up-and-coming competitors.
On the personal side, marriage to fiancée Amy Reimann awaits.
All good, sound reasons, perhaps, to consider a future outside the car.
Yet only Earnhardt knows if such a decision has been made.
Throughout his lengthy rehabilitation process, he has continued to speak of returning to competition. All the way from the talk of a contract extension with HMS before the most recent incident right up until Friday’s announcement, when he was quoted as saying “I plan to be healthy and ready to compete at Daytona in February.”
Only time will tell if that plan eventually becomes a reality. For now, though, that is the goal.
From the day officials first announced he would not be in the car at New Hampshire earlier this season, everyone involved has stressed the importance of patience. His doctors, team owner Rick Hendrick and Earnhardt himself have placed his health as the top priority. Not his ability behind the wheel or his manner with sponsors or his relationship with his fans.
As important as each might be, Earnhardt’s health and well-being continue to be the focus.
Patience. It’s worth remembering as a driver’s career hangs in the balance.
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August 31: Remembering Betty Jane France
August 27: Stewart tops Michigan Sprint Cup practice
August 25: REPORT About Dale Jr.