Dale Earnhardt Jr during driver introductions prior to the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona, Florida. Photo by Edwin Locke/UPI | License Photo
The Most Popular Driver in NASCAR continues to be sidelined by the symptoms of a concussion that began after a crash at the Michigan International Speedway in June. With the Sprint Cup returning to the Michigan track this weekend, questions continue to loom about his future in the sport.
Here are one writer's top 10 questions and answers about the current limbo of Dale Earnhardt Jr.
1. Will Earnhardt return sometime this season?
The present timetable has Earnhardt missing the next two races, leaving 11 races in the season starting with the Richmond, Va. round. There's reason to believe, according to the head injury specialists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, that his therapy will resolve the gaze stabilization issue that prevents him from moving his head and maintaining focus. Currently, he becomes nauseous and has balance problems when he tries to stay focused while moving his head.
2. Once back in the car, can Earnhardt start winning again?
There are two recent examples of drivers sitting out for extended periods and then returning to victory lane in relatively short order. Kyle Busch missed 11 races in the 2015 season and then won in his fifth race at the Sonoma Raceway after coming back from severe leg and foot injuries. Tony Stewart, who missed eight races to start the 2016 season with a burst fracture in his back, won in his eighth race after returning -- also at Sonoma.
3. Can Earnhardt still make the Chase?
Technically, he can still make the Chase if he returns at Richmond and wins the race. He has enough cushion in points that he will remain in the Top 30 despite missing seven races prior to the Richmond round.
4. Should the bi-weekly status check of Earnhardt just be dropped in favor of taking the rest of the year off?
The prospect of getting back into his race car motivates Earnhardt, according to his comments during a media conference at Watkins Glen International earlier this month and in his Dirty Mo Radio podcasts.
There's another factor, as well. Rick Hendrick remains in the Chase in the owner's standings, which pays much better if the team continues to advance in the Chase. The team would likely perform well with its regular driver back in the seat.
Alex Bowman will sub in the No. 88 car at Michigan. Bowman was working on a Top 10 finish at New Hampshire in his only other appearance in the car, but contact with another car late in the race and a cut tire dropped him to 26th.
5. Will Jeff Gordon win a race as a super substitute?
Gordon will miss the Michigan race due to a prior commitment and return at the Darlington Raceway on Labor Day weekend. Gordon has said he will do everything he can to help Hendrick Motorsports, which likely means he will be available for most of the remaining schedule and until his duties resume next year as a commentator for the NBC Sports Network.
The more seat time Gordon gets, the more likely he is to adapt to this year's low downforce cars and to adapt working with crew chief Greg Ives. One remaining restrictor plate race remains at Talladega Superspeedway, where Gordon would definitely be a factor if he drove the No. 88 Chevy.
6. Once back in the saddle, can the 41-year-old Earnhardt contend for a championship?
If he returns to a regular racing schedule, Earnhardt would face the same challenges he's always faced during his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports. In addition to tending to make errors toward the end of longer races, Earnhardt has yet to put together a big season when it comes to victories for the Hendrick team. Given the amount of talent at the sharp end of the Sprint Cup, Earnhardt would have to step up his game or make it to the season finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on points and then win the race.
7. Is Earnhardt likely to retire if he suffers another concussion?
The case of IndyCar driver Dario Franchitti comes to mind. Franchitti, who first suffered brain contusions (i.e. a concussion) in 2000 in a crash at the Homestead-Miami Speedway during preseason testing, sustained another bad concussion in the Houston street race in 2013. The four-time IRL champion and three-time Indy 500 winner followed doctors' advice and elected to retire.
Earnhardt suffered a concussion at the Kansas Speedway in a testing accident in 2012 and then a second one in a race at Talladega, which forced him to sit out two races during that year's Chase. He developed concussion symptoms three weeks after his crash at Michigan in June. Going forward, any severe concussion would certainly give pause to Earnhardt and to his doctors.
8. Is this still a big story?
The health and availability of NASCAR's perennial Most Popular Driver continues to loom weekly over the Sprint Cup Series. But outside motor racing, Earnhardt struggles have become just a regular update.
In some ways, that's a tribute to how the Hendrick team and the driver himself have handled the situation by regularly releasing information and Earnhardt's own public comments about his progress and outlook.
If and when he returns to driving the Hendrick Chevy entries, Earnhardt's story will once again become a major focus for the media.
9. Why doesn't Earnhardt, who is highly likely to continue to garner endorsement offers and offers to become a broadcaster, consider retirement?
Like most race car drivers, Earnhardt continues to love what he's doing. Once a driver changes his roles, it's a tough adjustment even if they continue in the sport as a car owner, which will likely be the case for Earnhardt, currently the owner of JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, where Bowman is his driver. At age 41, Earnhardt can expect to have several competitive seasons remaining if and when he returns.
10. Has Earnhardt's absence hurt NASCAR in terms of attendance or TV ratings?
The return of four-time champion Gordon from retirement for four races has understandably piqued interest and possibly boosted attendance and ratings. Long-term, the sport would suffer with a premature retirement by its long-reigning Most Popular Driver, especially given the departure of Gordon last year and Stewart at the end of this season.