LOUDON, N.H. – This weekend’s New Hampshire Motor Speedway souvenir program features Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the cover along with a headline asking, “Is This The Year?”
The reference is to the possibility that Earnhardt might finally seriously contend for what would be his first Sprint Cup championship.
Ironically, on a warm, sunny Friday in New England, there were much bigger questions floating around Earnhardt, Hendrick Motorsports and, indeed, the future of NASCAR.
Earnhardt is sitting out Sunday’s race here as he battles concussion-like symptoms, and there is the possibility he could miss more races. Looming over the sport is the possibility that Earnhardt could decide to retire because of health concerns.
There was no confirmation Friday that Earnhardt had been diagnosed with a concussion. The Hendrick team said he was experiencing concussion-like symptoms and that doctors recommended that he not drive.
Hendrick Motorsports announced Friday that retired driver Jeff Gordon would return to racing next week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway if Earnhardt remains sidelined. Alex Bowman is filling in this weekend.
Earnhardt sat out two races in 2012 because of concussions and has admitted to racing with a concussion in the past.
At 41, Earnhardt has had an accomplished career but has fallen short of scoring the Cup championship that his late father won seven times.
No one with the Hendrick team would speculate Friday on his long-term future.
“The most important thing is for this process to play out for him to feel better,” Duchardt said. “At the end of that, the right thing to do will become clear as to how he’s feeling.”
If Earnhardt returns to the No. 88 cockpit next week, he would remain in contention for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but missing a second race would seriously damage those hopes.
NASCAR spokesman David Higdon said Friday that Earnhardt can’t return to competition until the sanctioning body receives notification from a neurologist that he is able to participate.
“Dale has become more aware over the years,” Duchardt said. “That’s to his credit, and this is important. The only person who knows how you feel is yourself. You have to be self-aware of how your body responds.”
Retired driver and ESPN racing analyst Ricky Craven said Friday Earnhardt faces some tough decisions.
“Not everybody will admit this, but you’re making a ridiculous amount of money, and it’s hard to walk away from it,” Craven told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s crazy money. I walked away with a year on my contract, but I was done.”
Craven, who returned to driving after being sidelined by a concussion, said leaving competition is a hard road for every driver to travel.
“I can’t speak for Dale Jr. or anyone else, but he’s got a pretty good life,” Craven said. “He’s obviously found the love of his life (he is engaged to Amy Reimann). He’s traveled to Germany a few times. He’d still be happy (if he quit driving). You always miss competing. It’s part of our DNA.”
Bowman, 23, races part-time for Earnhardt’s Xfinity Series team. He has the opportunity of a lifetime this weekend but said he’s approaching the race with the idea of “plugging into” the 88 team.
“I’m not here to try to be Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” Bowman said. “I’m my own person. I need to plug into the team and give them the best feedback I can. I just want to do my job. Obviously, I’d like to impress people but not do anything crazy.”