ARLINGTON, S.C. — The Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-shirt is faded and ripped across the bottom but still worn proudly by Tommy Carlson of Columbia, S.C.
Earnhardt Jr., still recovering from concussion issues and, as announced Friday, absent from Sprint Cup racing for the rest of the season, won’t race at Darlington in Sunday’s iconic Southern 500. His fans, however, still make up a significant slice of the speedway population.
They refuse to make the final turn into the garage.
“We were hoping he would be back by now,” Carlson said. “But we’re still here for the 88 car and those guys. It would be great to see it in victory lane again. It will be again, for sure, when Junior is back.”
For the first time since 1979, the Southern 500 field will take the green flag without Dale Earnhardt Sr. or Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the lineup. Earnhardt Sr. raced in the 500 for the first time in 1978 but missed the ’79 race after being injured in a crash at Pocono Raceway (David Pearson replaced Earnhardt in that race and won it).
Earnhardt Jr. has not missed a Darlington race since his first full-time season in 2000.
Earnhardt's long-term future has been a topic of discussion in NASCAR circles since he revealed his latest concussion-related issues this summer. He hasn’t raced since July 9, and Hendrick Motorsports revealed Friday that he will sit out the rest of this season with a plan to return to driving in February 2017.
I want to see him back as soon as possible, but health comes first and they feel like this is the right thing for him to do and that is what he needs to do to try to get better. and we will hope to see him back in Daytona in February,” said Chase Elliott, Earnhardt's teammate. “I think that is a good goal to shoot for, and being 110 percent for something like that there is no need in taking a big risk.”
Doctors have not released Earnhardt to drive. He has said he continues to have vision and balance problems.
“We want to see him back, but we want him back full-bore,” said Earnhardt fan Brian Hawkins of Charleston, S.C., as he set up a campsite in the Darlington infield. “It’s tough to see him go through all this. I know he wants to be back in the car, and that’s where we want him. But his health is the most important thing.”
Retired NASCAR driver Ricky Craven, now an ESPN racing analyst, battled concussion-related issues during his driving career and has been in communication with Earnhardt during his recovery.
“I didn’t expect him back until at least October, but I was relieved to hear that he’ll stay out a while,” Craven told USA Today Sports Saturday. “I feel like it’s the right decision on many levels. I understand to some degree the challenges he’s facing.”
Craven said his conversations with Earnhardt have been “very, very candid and revealing. He’s been brutally honest.”
Craven stepped out of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in 1998 after wrestling with concussion issues. He returned to driving to win a pair of Sprint Cup races.
“Within a few weeks of stepping out of the 25 [Hendrick] car, I sold my airplane,” Craven said. “An airplane means a lot to people in racing. I sold it because I was extremely insecure and was willing to acknowledge that I might never race again. Thank God I did.”
Craven said he hasn’t discussed that possibility with Earnhardt, “but I know he’s thought about it. It’s part of this.”
Jeff Gordon, a seven-time winner at Darlington, is scheduled to replace Earnhardt in Sunday’s race. Gordon and Alex Bowman will share Earnhardt's ride for the rest of the season.
Earnhardt has shared much of his recovery with fans through social media and press conferences. He, team owner Rick Hendrick and Dr. Micky Collins of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Sports Medicine Concussion Program, which is treating Earnhardt, are scheduled to participate in a press conference at the track before Sunday’s race.
“I have a lot of respect for him and what he has gone through and being able to stand up and be honest about everything,” Elliott said. “That is tough. I don’t care who you are, that is a hard thing to do when you are going through something like that. He stood up and has been just really, really honest, which I think is awesome. It shows the kind of person that he is and how can you not support that and pull for him to get back as soon as possible.”