Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s absence creates many what-if scenarios for Hendrick Motorsports
With the plug pulled on the remainder of the 2016 season, the most important issue on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s plate is to continue to recover fully and completely from his concussion.
The fact that Earnhardt's concussion will force him to miss 18 races this season is an indicator that this is far more serious than the two concussions that caused him to miss a pair of races in 2012.
And while Earnhardt's fellow racers and millions of fans wish him well in his recovery, the cold, hard reality is this situation creates some real issues for team owner Rick Hendrick and his Hendrick Motorsports team.
Right now, Alex Bowman and Jeff Gordon are filling in for Earnhardt. Gordon will race the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in Sunday night's Bojangles' 500 at Darlington Raceway and the two will split driving duties for the remainder of the season.
Clearly, though, that's not a long-term solution. Gordon retired from active driving after the 2015 season and is under contract with FOX as one of the television analysts in the booth for the FOX portion of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
Nor is Bowman likely a permanent fix.
Earnhardt is NASCAR's most popular driver and has been throughout his career. Although teams don't disclose sponsorship sums, one would have to believe that the sponsorship dollars to be on Earnhardt's car are at or very near the top of the scale.
By way of comparison, Earnhardt has 1.66 million followers on Twitter. Bowman has 32,000. There is no way any sponsor would pay the same money to have Bowman in the No. 88 as they would Earnhardt. No offense to Bowman, who has done an excellent job so far, but that's the truth. Do the math.
The biggest question for Hendrick is this: After missing half of the 2016 season, can Earnhardt return and run the full 2017 season? If the doctors clear Earnhardt and he wants to race, the 2017 situation is a no-brainer: You put Earnhardt back in the No. 88 and keep your fingers and toes crossed that he stays healthy and out of harm's way.
But what if he's not cleared and can't come back?
Surely, Hendrick has to be planning for that contingency already, although what that plan is remains to be seen.
There are basically two courses of action: Sign a young, up-and-coming driver or an established veteran. Hendrick already has launched the youth movement with Chase Elliott and William Byron, but beyond them, there aren't a lot of great young drivers who are available.
Does Hendrick try to sign someone like Ty Dillon, John Hunter Nemechek or Brett Moffitt and putt them in a JR Motorsports XFINITY car like he's doing with Byron next year? Does he try to snatch away another driver from the Toyota camp?
Among the established Cup drivers, there really aren't any big names out there who are available. The most prominent Cup driver who hasn't announced his 2017 plans is Ryan Newman, who is solid but hasn't won a race in more than three years.
Besides, you wouldn't sign an experienced Cup veteran now unless you knew for sure that Earnhardt won't be back next year.
It's a thorny situation for all involved. In a 2016 season filled with big stories, Earnhardt's absence in the biggest of them all. And how this situation ultimately plays out could well be the biggest story of 2017, too.