For fans throughout NASCAR, it was a shocking moment.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced Thursday he will not be racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night. He will not be racing at Kansas Speedway next weekend, either. After 461 consecutive Cup points race starts, he’ll be sidelined after being diagnosed with a concussion.
News spread quickly concerning the status of NASCAR’s fan-voted Most Popular Driver.
Well wishes popped up on message boards. Words of support came from the sanctioning body — which deemed his decision to seek medical help on his own when he felt the symptoms of a concussion as one taking guts and said it was proud of him — and his fellow drivers.
But what happens next? What impact will Dale Earnhardt Jr. not being on the track have on the sport?
“Junior being out, I don’t think it’s going to have that much of an impact on the race itself. It will on the standings, of course, because he’s going to miss the whole race,” fan Marty Boehmer of Hampstead, NC, said Thursday at the track. “As far as fans go, I think it’s going to be harder on them than it is on anybody else. Fans just love Junior. That’s just the way it is.”
NASCAR is different from other sports in that fans often identify first with a driver, then the team he represents. When Earnhardt Jr. moved from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports, Junior Nation followed. Still, there are 43 drivers still running in the race and his No. 88 entry will be in it with driver Regan Smith — and Earnhardt Jr. will be back soon.
So while his absence from a couple of races is going to be heartbreaking for fans — and will obviously end his shot at finishing higher than 12th in the Chase for the Sprint Cup — the race will literally go on for both NASCAR and its fan base.
Will fans tune out because he is not running?
“I’d still watch,” said Rochester, Vt. native Jeff White Thursday.
NASCAR officials recognize that there will certainly be an impact for the fans having the most popular driver on the sidelines. It appears, though, for fans and others that will be purely on an emotional level. From fans to the sanctioning body to analysts of the sport, everyone expects the fans to simply turn their attention to Smith and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“Certainly, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been such a popular figure in this sport for probably as long as he’s been in it,” NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said. “He’s carried that very well. The season that he’s having this year, I think, has only accentuated that popularity. We’re going to miss him at the racetrack the next couple of weeks. Our fans will miss him, the sport’s going to miss him, the next couple of weeks. Because of the following that he has and just the ability to engage even the casual sports fans. When you’re talking about NASCAR, he’s one of the drivers that usually comes up when you’re talking to the casual fan, whether it be him or Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart.
“On the flipside, I think our sport has got such great competition, they’ve got so many different personalities, it’s a pretty deep pool of talent that’s in there right now. You’ve got some of the veterans in there like Jeff and Tony, then you have some drivers coming up that are starting to make their name, like Denny Hamlin or Brad Keselowski. I think we’re fortunate to have a deep pool of talent. Certainly he’s a big part of that, his popularity obviously speaks for itself, but he’ll be missed at the racetrack.”
Andrew Campagnone, president of Sports Marketing Consultants, Inc., a company that works with uniting sponsors and teams, agrees.
“Any time you lose a guy like Dale Jr., you’re probably going to see some type of ripple effect,” he said. “But I also think there’s enough stars in the sport to keep this thing rolling. This sport isn’t based off of one guy. For his safety and for his health, I think it’s the right choice. . . . The Chase right now, I think it’s good. There (are) a lot of drivers that are right there and a lot of new faces that are right there. . . . I don’t see a downturn at all.”
And the Junior fans?
Some think they will be pulling for Smith simply because he is in Earnhardt Jr.’s car. Some say they will be pulling for Hendrick Motorsports in general.
Initially, they were just trying to adjust to the idea of Earnhardt Jr. not on the track.
“I hate it. I love to watch him race,” said Mocksville, NC, native Steve Eaton said of Junior.
What fans mostly want, though, is for Earnhardt to do whatever it takes to get better.
“It was kind of disappointing, actually,” White said. “We all look forward to seeing him race here. When he was running in the Busch Series, he used to come to this camper right here. He and a bunch of friends he used to race with, after a race he’d always come right here. . . .
“He’s been on our bus a couple of times. He’s one of my favorites. I’m a (Jeff) Gordon fan. I like Hendrick. . . . But he’s doing the right thing for his health.”
So it appears that until Earnhardt Jr. returns, the fans will just watch and wait.