As announcements go, the news from Hendrick Motorsports late Thursday afternoon could not have been more stunning.
"Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not compete in the July 17 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after experiencing concussion-like symptoms," read a press release from the race team. Alex Bowman will replace Earnhardt at New Hampshire.
Deeper down in the press release, there were two other crucial phrases:
The first was, "A timetable for Earnhardt’s return has not been established."
And the second was, "Hendrick Motorsports will provide an update next week regarding plans for the July 24 event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway."
That means it’s possible that Earnhardt misses more than one race because of a concussion, just as he did in 2012, when he missed two races in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup because of a concussion suffered at Talladega in the fall race.
While the most important objective with any athlete is to make a full recovery, it’s clear that this latest concussion, which occurred after crashes at Michigan and Daytona, could have profound implications on Earnhardt’s championship chances this year.
With 18 of 26 races complete in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season, Earnhardt is ranked 13th in points, just 22 points ahead of Jamie McMurray, the current 16th seed in the Chase.
If Earnhardt misses multiple races, he could very well fall out of the top 16 Chase seeds. And in the last 10 races, he’s only had one finish inside the top 10, which was a runner-up run at Pocono last month.
The good news for Earnhardt — and his millions of fans — is that his situation in nowhere near as dire Tony Stewart’s was just three weeks ago.
Heading into the Sonoma road race, Stewart was winless and 35th in points, but the three-time Sprint Cup champ scored a surprise triumph, winning for the first time in three years. Now, after a couple of more strong runs, Stewart is comfortably inside the top 30 and in an excellent position to earn a Chase spot.
The mountain in front of Earnhardt is nowhere as high as the one that was ahead of Stewart.
Earnhardt can still make the Chase on points and he can still make it by winning at upcoming tracks like Michigan, Bristol and Richmond, all of which he’s won at before.
But there’s no question the task just got a whole lot tougher.