Missing any races over the course of a season virtually eliminates a driver from championship contention, especially in the tightly packed Chase for the Sprint Cup. And yet that's just what Dale Earnhardt Jr. has chosen to do, skipping last week's race at Charlotte and this week's event at Kansas to recover from a concussion.
Unfortunately, Earnhardt Jr.'s injury has brought to a halt the best season of his five-year Hendrick Motorsports career. He ended a four-year winless drought at Michigan this summer, while his 18 top-10's are his strongest mark since he still raced for Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the early 2000s.
But all great athletes bounce back from setbacks like these, and there's no doubt in the minds of many that Earnhardt Jr. is the kind of driver who can—and will—come back swinging in next year's title fight. Why the confidence? Here are just some of the reasons why next year could be a career year for the sport's most popular driver:
Earnhardt Jr. is one of the more intelligent and perceptive drivers in NASCAR, and his decision to get out of the car when he's not operating at 100 percent is an example of that. Rather than risk getting dinged up even more by his third hard hit in a month and a half, he's choosing to recover fully from his symptoms and not rush his return. This is about long-term viability, not short-term gratification, and Earnhardt Jr.'s ability to see the big picture should mean that he's symptom-free in 2013.
It's too bad that Earnhardt Jr. had to step out of his car, because his No. 88 team is as strong as they've ever been with him behind the wheel. Led by crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt Jr. has 18 top 10's in 30 starts this year, compared to 16 in 36 starts during his best season so far with Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. That sort of momentum doesn't just magically disappear from a team; when you're good, you're good, and they're at the top of their game.
With all four of their cars in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Hendrick Motorsports is undoubtedly the best team in NASCAR right now. Even more significant about that feat is the fact that Hendrick had never accomplished that before, as one car had always traditionally lagged far behind the others. With that hurdle now finally overcome, there's no reason why Hendrick should regress as an organization in 2013, even as the sport transitions to a new car.
When Earnhardt Jr. returns, his Chase hopes will be completely shot, as he should be over 100 points out of the championship lead. That's perfect for him, however, as he can take advantage of a Chase-caliber car and basically just race laps to acclimate himself once again to the high speeds and G-forces. It's all of the competitive driving with none of the stress, and a great tune-up to get ready for another run at the title next year.
JR Motorsports, Earnhardt Jr.'s Nationwide Series team, should be a lot more stable next season, with the team planning to run two full-time drivers who don't attract much attention in Regan Smith and Cole Whitt and (ideally) no more major crew chief changes. Of course, that is a far cry from this season, where managing his NNS operation has been somewhat of a distraction, with Danica Patrick's struggles and the departure of both Tony Eury Sr. and Tony Eury Jr. from the crew. There's a reason why Kevin Harvick folded his team into Richard Childress' squad—the ability to focus on his Cup racing—but Earnhardt Jr. should have no problem if he doesn't have to keep making changes.
Earnhardt Jr. will miss two races on 1.5-mile tri-ovals to recover from his concussion, a particularly disappointing necessity because he's been so good at them this year. His 7.4 average finish on those "cookie cutter" tracks is best of all drivers in this Sprint Cup season. As those tracks comprise a majority of the Sprint Cup schedule and a good part of the Chase, his ability to master them will come in handy when he goes for another title next year.
Steve Letarte took a lot of flack from Jeff Gordon fans during his five-plus years atop the No. 24 pit box, but since joining Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team he's been one of the best crew chiefs in the sport. In Earnhardt Jr.'s first three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, he scored 29 top 10s; in the last two years, spent with Letarte, he has 30. He's been able to get Earnhardt Jr. up front in a way that Tony Eury Jr. and Lance McGrew were often unable to, and that won't magically cease.
Nobody wants to see a driver miss races due to injury, especially one whose success is so vital to the popularity of the sport. Everybody wants to see that driver, whoever they are, come back strong. In that sense, Earnhardt Jr. hasn't had everyone pulling for him this hard in about a decade. All of that support from those around him can act as a huge confidence booster, and given that many drivers struggle to return from head injuries, confidence is exactly what he needs to return to form next year.
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