Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's Most Popular Driver Award winner for the past 13 seasons, is out for the rest of this one. As the Sprint Cup regular season ends and the annual Chase format determines a champion, just where do the Earnhardt fans go?
Perhaps Martin Truex Jr., the guy with the common touch who won the Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway Sunday night. At the NASCAR track most steeped in tradition and lore, Truex stopped to kiss the finish line on the way to Victory Lane. A familiar site at Indianapolis, planting a kiss on the nasty asphalt of Darlington was a new wrinkle.
"I don't know," Truex said. "I had to. I loved it, man, I loved it. I mean, honestly, this has always been one of my favorite tracks. I've wanted to win here so bad, and I've led a bunch of races here in a Cup car and felt like I was in position or had chances to win this race before, or just to win at this track in general, and I've had a few heart-breakers here."
In an age in which fans complain that they don't know the drivers well enough, Truex is a familiar, friendly face and a man who has known adversity in his career. He is liked and respected both on and off the track. In the 1940s, Truex would have been "a swell guy." Now he's "a cool dude": laid-back, easygoing and unflappable. He might just be a shoulder for Earnhardt fans to lean on. The two have long been friends.
At 36, Truex has won more than a single race for the first time in his career. He picked well. He dominated Cup's longest race, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, and kept hard-charging Kevin Harvick at bay to claim the sport's oldest superspeedway event. Truex also finished second to Denny Hamlin in the closest Daytona 500 ever run.
Could the driver who seems to be everyone's second favorite become the popular choice to win the Chase? If he continues to prosper, fans will rally around him.
A day that began with more disquieting news—Earnhardt Jr. is sitting out the remainder of the season—ended in a Sunday-night flood of bonhomie and adulation.
Earnhardt, accompanied by Dr. Micky Collins of the University of Pittsburgh's Sports Medicine Concussion Program, delivered the bad news.
"I definitely don't belong in a race car today by any stretch of the imagination," Earnhardt said.
Some of Dr. Collins' words were unsettling:
When I first saw Dale, my goal was to see Dale become a human being again, and I can tell you with confidence that is occurring in front of our eyes. He is feeling better. He can tolerate a lot more. He is having fewer and fewer symptoms and is doing very well. To me, that is the number one goal is to get Dale feeling normal as a human being. The second goal is Dale becoming a race car driver again. Yes, we will be working on that, as well. I'm very confident that we are moving in the right direction in that respect.
Not this year, though. After weeks of next-week maybes, the latest media conference put short-term hopes to rest and long-term aspirations to fruition. Collins added:
I'm very confident in the way we're approaching this case. Everything that Dale presents makes sense to me. The findings make sense The improvements make sense. The therapies are taking hold. He wasn't feeling well when we saw him. I could easily see why that was. And seeing his response to treatments has been very positive, so I am positive that we're going to get Dale back to being a race car driver and I'm excited about that prospect.
This is Earnhardt's second strike in the concussion protocol. He sat out two races in 2012.
"We went through this process then," he said. "It was very scary and difficult. Micky (Dr. Collins) told me that I would one day be well and I would win races again, and he was right. I got well, and I had some of the greatest years and racing experiences of my career shortly after that. He's telling me that this is possible again, and I believe it."
While fans pray for their hero's health and long for his return, life—and, more specifically, races—goes on.
NASCAR's familiar faces are fading and fresh ones rising. Kyle Larson, who won for the first time a week earlier, finished third at Darlington. Twelve different drivers have won races this season.
Truex, who won (now) Xfinity Series championships in 2004-05, has already, 11 races from the end of the season, led nearly twice as many laps as in any of his previous 10 seasons at the sport's highest level.
As the regular season flows into the Chase, the drivers who seem most poised for a title run include several—Truex, Larson and rookie Chase Elliott—who might not have been prominently mentioned when the season began.
The prospect is exciting, even as Earnhardt hovers uncomfortably nearby, awaiting the time when he is ready to race again.
"I'm very disappointed," Earnhardt said. "I miss my guys. I miss the garage. I miss all of you folks. It's so much fun to see so many familiar faces. That is the disappointing part because I"m just used to being here, and it's sort of our circle, our family. It's been weird not being at the track."
It's been weird not having him, but those who rise to the occasion—who fill in the gaps of Earnhardt's injury, Gordon's would-be retirement and Tony Stewart's impending one—are keeping hope alive.
Hermine ripped through the South Carolina Sandhills on the Friday before the race. Come hell from Earnhardt or high water from a tropical storm, Darlington Raceway survived, and so, too, will the inevitable excitement of this fall's Chase for the Sprint Cup.
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All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.