Dale Earnhardt Jr. could make a difference for Hendrick at Dover

BY foxsports • September 30, 2016

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is out for the season as driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

But that doesn't mean he can't have an impact on the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs.

Earnhardt is planning to attend Dover International Speedway this weekend, arriving Saturday and staying through Sunday's Citizen Soldier 400. And his Hendrick Motorsports teammates in the Chase said they appreciate his effort to stop by and offer support despite being sidelined since early July by the lingering effects of a concussion.

"We obviously all want him to be back and to be getting better," said Chase Elliott, who heads into Sunday's elimination race sitting ninth in the points standings, but only 16 points clear of the cutoff line.

Jimmie Johnson, the other Hendrick driver in the Chase, said he's accustomed to seeing Earnhardt take part in weekly briefings at the Hendrick shop complex in Concord, North Carolina. But he said he knows how difficult it is sometimes for a driver who can't drive to attend a track in person on a busy race weekend.

"I completely understand how difficult it is to come to the track and feel productive," Johnson told the media. "Many of you haven't had a chance to see him in our team meetings, at the shop, and various ways we interact and being a part of the discussions week-to-week on what's happened when we're getting ready for the next week. He's been deeply involved in all of that.

"I can only imagine how hard it is to go to the track and watch your car race, and then also how boring it would be because we do have the coolest job to sit in that race car. And then just to come to a track and watch? I don't know if I could do it."

That's why Johnson and his No. 48 HMS team can draw inspiration from seeing Earnhardt make the effort. Johnson said what is most important to take out of it, though, is the fact that Earnhardt's appearance is evidence that the injured driver is making significant progress toward getting better.

"It's great from a public perception that he's coming and that people can really see how hard he's working and then kind of tie that together with his recovery process," said Johnson, who enters Dover eighth in the Chase standings, 18 points ahead of his teammate Elliott. "But I've seen a lot of him and I know he's dying to get back in the race car and eager to feel amazing again -- and I think he's on a great road of progress right now."

Earnhardt has been making the rounds more in public lately, attending the Tennessee-Virginia Tech college football game at Bristol Motor Speedway three weeks ago and making various other media appearances, including one earlier this week at Talladega Superspeedway.

But coming to the track on a race weekend has been rare.

Elliott said Earnhardt's decision to do so is a boost to the entire organization, including his No. 24 Chevy team. But he added that he thinks it's especially beneficial to the No. 88 team, which has Jeff Gordon back behind the wheel this weekend.

"For those guys to see him at the race track and there supporting them, I'm sure it has to mean a lot. ... I think as a company it does, but definitely centered around the No. 88 group I 100 percent think it would for sure," Elliott said.

Gordon has been splitting time with Alex Bowman as the substitute driver in the No. 88. And even though Bowman is not behind the wheel this weekend at Dover, that doesn't mean he and Dale Jr. aren't mixing it up a little with some good-natured humor on Twitter.

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