Dale Earnhardt Jr. is calling it a season, meaning NASCAR’s most popular driver will have missed the final 18 races of the season, including the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in November.
Earnhardt is stepping away from the sport to recover from concussion symptoms, he announced in a statement Friday, with the hope of returning in 2017.
“To say I’m disappointed doesn’t begin to describe how I feel, but I know this is the right thing for my long-term health and career,” Earnhardt said in the statement. “I’m 100 percent focused on my recovery, and I will continue to follow everything the doctors tell me.”
TMS president Eddie Gossage applauded Earnhardt for putting his health first, although he acknowledged it is a void in the racing world.
“You’ve got to give Junior credit for making the right decision because I’m sure he feels the pressure,” Gossage said. “I don’t think anyone is putting it on him, but I’m sure he feels pressure to the team and the sport. But the only thing that matters is his health. Hopefully, he’ll recover and be back at Daytona in February.
“My prayer is he has a full and complete life. Hopefully that includes racing, but you just don’t want him having issues down the road. I’m sure the matters that you hear about from the NFL, I’m sure that weighs heavily on him.”
Earnhardt, who turns 42 in October, has sat out the past six Cup races because of a concussion his doctors believe happened during a June 12 wreck at Michigan International Speedway.
Given his age and the long-term effects associated with concussions, it’s fair to wonder how much longer Earnhardt will race. Earnhardt, though, made it clear last month that he has no intentions of retiring and wants to extend his career.
Still, the thought of NASCAR without Earnhardt has crossed Gossage’s mind.
“Every sport goes through periods of times like this, and I can remember newspaper stories of great woe of how NASCAR was really finished with the retirements of Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison,” Gossage said. “And we went on to bigger heights from that. Just as the NFL is dealing with not having Peyton Manning and others, every sport goes through that.
“But, you know, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is money. Period. I mean that literally in the sense that he draws money because he draws attention. He draws money for the sport. The sport will carry on [when Earnhardt is done], but I believe Junior when he says he’s not done racing.”
Earnhardt has made five consecutive Chase appearances going into this season, and, as Gossage said, has Hall of Fame credentials. He’s won 26 Cup races, including two Daytona 500s, and has 252 top 10s in 595 career starts. The only thing that’s missing is a championship.
Earnhardt has a strong history at Texas, too. His first Cup win happened at the track in April 2000, also the site of his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win in 1998.
Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman will continue to share seat time in the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon will drive four races, including Sunday at Darlington Raceway for the Southern 500, as well as Richmond, Dover and Martinsville. Bowman will finish the year with eight more starts.
Bowman is expected to fill in for Earnhardt during the Texas race. Bowman has an average finish of 37th in four Cup races at Texas so far in his young career.
Gossage jokingly guessed why Gordon, a future Hall of Famer, opted not to run at Texas.
“I would think this is all because Jeff doesn’t want to give back the Shetland ponies,” Gossage said, referring to TMS’ retirement gift to Gordon last year.
This story contains material from The Associated Press.
Drew Davison: 817-390-7760, @drewdavison
Hurricane Hermine shoved her way into the picture and forced NASCAR to call off qualifying for the Sprint Cup and Xfinity series on Friday, deciding it was more important to use the track time for practice on the South Carolina track. The Xfinity race is set to run at 2:30 p.m. Saturday (KXAS/5) with the Southern 500 set for 5 p.m. Sunday night (KXAS/5).