Even if you aren't among his millions of loyal fans, you can't help but feel some sympathy for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After having his best season in years and breaking a 143-race winless streak (the longest of his career) back in June, Earnhardt fell to 11th place following last Sunday's race at Talladega.
But that was not all. Earnhardt was involved in the massive 25-car wreck at 'Dega and wound up suffering his second concussion in less than two months, the first one resulting from a wicked crash during a test session at Kansas in August.
Earnhardt tried to keep the concussive symptoms secret from virtually everyone after the Kansas wreck, which reportedly was about 40 G's—an extremely powerful crash, indeed.
But when he rang his bell for a second time at Talladega last Sunday, Earnhardt knew something wasn't right and that nothing, not even a chance to win his first Sprint Cup championship, was worth risking his health any further.
As a result, Earnhardt announced on Thursday—one day after his 38th birthday, the same day he had an MRI that proved negative for any significant brain damage resulting from the 'Dega wreck—that he would sit out Saturday's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and will also miss next Sunday's race at Kansas as he tries to regain his faculties with plenty of rest.
I shook my head at some fans' responses on Thursday—particularly on social media—after Earnhardt said he'd miss the next two races.
While many fans expressed their support, it surprised me that there were more than a few who actually laughed at or criticized Earnhardt for doing the smartest and most prudent thing by climbing out of his No. 88 Chevrolet for the next two races.
Several critics essentially said, "Well, there goes the Chase" in fairly derogatory fashion. In essence, they would rather see Earnhardt risk his own health and, potentially, the safety and health of other drivers on the racetrack, believing that a championship is more important than for Little E to look out for No. 1.
Shame on those people.
Sure, Junior is a multimillionaire, he's been voted NASCAR's most popular driver the last nine years running and unquestionably has the biggest fan base in the sport.
He has done so much for NASCAR as a whole and the sport in general: he kept it from falling apart after the tragic death of his own father in 2001, has been the face, soul and identity of the sport since then and is almost always the first driver the media, which typically doesn't cover the sport, turns to when major news occurs.
Major news like Junior's concussions and the resulting fallout.
Here is a guy who has started 461 consecutive races (of the 465 total in his career) without taking even one green flag.
That included a stretch in 2004, just five months after winning his first Daytona 500, when Earnhardt suffered severe burns while practicing for a non-NASCAR sports car event. In a crash and resulting fire, he was knocked out and briefly trapped before being rescued.
And even with all that, he started each of the next several races despite the excruciating pain he experienced.
While he ultimately yielded to relief drivers during the first two races following the near-fatal fire event he was involved in, the fact is Junior started races that he probably didn't need to or should not have started.
It wasn't so much about getting driver and owner points for taking the green flag, but rather that he wanted to show he was all about his team and the sport, putting himself second.
But now Junior needs to take care of No. 1. He needs this time away to get himself healthy and well again. He needs to ignore any detractors or critics who question his team spirit for putting himself ahead of his team and the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization.
Heck, if he needs to sit out the remainder of the season to get right, so be it. Let him.
Frankly, whether he finishes last in the Chase is the last thing that should be on his mind—or anyone else's.
In fact, the Chase shouldn't be on his mind whatsoever. The fact of the matter is, Junior's hopes for a championship in 2012 are over and done with. Even if he comes back to compete in the last four races at Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead, it really makes no difference.
In a way, I'm hoping Junior does decide to skip those four races in addition to Charlotte and Kansas, not because I don't want to see him compete, but rather to see him get fully healthy.
Look at football players in the NFL who suffer post-concussive symptoms. Some of them sit out several weeks, if not the rest of the season. And to its credit, the league—although it took far too long to take action over the years—has gone all-in to make sure concussed players take all the time they need to get back to normal.
I'm sorry, but the kind of impacts players suffer in the NFL are nowhere near the impacts that NASCAR drivers go through. If an NFL player needs to sit out four games, eight or even a full season of 16 games to recover from a concussion, then NASCAR should follow the NFL's lead, and then some.
To his credit, Earnhardt didn't wait for NASCAR to sit him down. He took himself out from behind the wheel voluntarily.
Sure, there's no question he'll miss the competition, being at the track, seeing his friends and fellow drivers. But at the same time, why do you think Junior chose not to be at Charlotte Motor Speedway Saturday night?
The answer is simple: any exposure to the sights and sounds of NASCAR, the loudness of the engines or the brilliant vision of racetrack lights and pre- and post-race fireworks would significantly impact Earnhardt in a very detrimental fashion.
I'm sure some so-called fans criticize that as well, believing Earnhardt belongs at the racetrack even if he's not driving.
Wrong. Junior needs to do what he needs for his health, not be at the type of venue that would only aggravate the symptoms he's trying to recover from, even if he's not behind the wheel.
Two other bits of information that came out of Earnhardt skipping Saturday's race: it marked the first time in over 50 years (since 1961) that there was not a North Carolina-born driver in the race field of a Cup event, and it was the first time in 33 years that there was not a driver named Earnhardt in a Cup race.
Yeah, so? Who cares? Not to detract from that beautiful state, but I mean, really, there are no rules in the NASCAR rulebook that there must be a North Carolina native or a driver named Earnhardt in every Cup race. It's just been a coincidence that such has been the case for the past 33 and 51 years.
And unless someone like Brian Vickers (born and raised in Thomasville, N.C.) or Junior's half-brother, Kerry Earnhardt, competes next week at Kansas, that will mark the second consecutive Cup race where there hasn't been a North Carolinian by birth in it since 1961 or an Earnhardt in it since 1979. So what?
There should be absolutely nothing that is more important to Earnhardt right now than getting better. Not the Chase, not the rest of the season, not finishing last in the standings, absolutely nothing else.
There's always next year, and that's something that Junior has gotten used to over his career with so many season disappointments. But waiting until next year will be the best thing for him, for if he was so good this season, one can only imagine what he has the potential to do next season.
When he's fully healthy.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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