Dale Earnhardt Jr. was wise to sit out a couple of races after suffering a concussion in an Oct. 7 crash in Talladega, Ala.
Considering the circumstances, it wasn’t a hard call. He was already out of championship contention, so why risk his neck?
A tougher call was his decision to get back on the track two weeks later in Martinsville, Va. Even though he received medical clearance, why take the chance?
If he suffered a serious concussion, could he mend in two short weeks?
It would be interesting to know if Dale Jr. would have sat out those two races if he had been leading the standings or hovering near the top, with a chance to win his first Cup championship. That would have been a tougher call.
Then again, maybe not.
Sterling Marlin faced a similar wrenching decision in 2002 when he suffered a late-season neck injury while in the thick of the championship battle.
Sterling, like Dale Jr., was chasing his first title, yet he heeded his doctor’s advice and skipped the final races.
He never got another title shot.
That wasn’t the dilemma for Dale Jr. He was already out of contention when he parked his car.
Now a bigger question looms: What about his future?
At 38 years old, Dale Jr. is still in his prime, but the clock is ticking. Nowadays in NASCAR, it ticks faster than it used to.
There is a long line of hot young drivers fidgeting in the wings, ready to pounce on any ride that comes open. When an aging driver starts missing races due to injury, it’s not good.
Granted, Dale Jr.’s not just any driver.
He’s an Earnhardt.
And he is a nine-time winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award.
Fans have shown that they stick with him through thick and thin – and there’s been a lot more thin than thick in recent years.
When he does decide to hang it up, NASCAR will miss him more than he will miss NASCAR.
He will probably stick around as a team owner, expanding his Nationwide Insurance operation into the top-tier Cup Series. But that won’t be the same as him being on the racetrack.
When Dale Jr. sat out of the Oct. 13 race in Charlotte, N.C., it marked the first time since 1979 that a Cup race had been run without a member of the Earnhardt family in the lineup.
That’s not good news for the sport.
NASCAR needs its star driver for the same reason that the Professional Golfers’ Association needs Tiger Woods on the golf course. It creates interest, draws fans and media attention.
NASCAR took a major hit with the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001.
Many veteran fans decided the sport wasn’t the same without “The Intimidator,” as he was known in the racing world, and began tuning out.
Other veterans transferred their loyalty to Dale Jr., who also captured the attention of a newer, younger generation of fans with his edgy MTV-type persona.
Having lost the father, NASCAR can ill afford to lose the son.
A sport struggling with slumping attendance and declining ratings needs its star attraction.
Dale Jr. won’t race forever, of course, injury or no injury. At some point he’ll step aside. But, did his recent concussion hasten that fateful date?
If he were concerned enough about his health to skip two races, could those concerns linger in the future? Might he decide to call it quits while he’s still ahead?
Only time – and Dale Jr’s health – will tell.