In 2012, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s run for a possible championship was cut short when he missed two races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup due to a concussion after multiple wrecks. This season, even getting into the Chase has been made more difficult by those same concussion-like symptoms.
Earnhardt Jr. announced on Thursday that he would be skipping the New Hampshire 301 because of concussion-like symptoms that he began feeling last week leading up to the Quaker Steak 400 at Kentucky Speedway. When those symptoms didn’t dissipate heading into this week, Earnhardt, Jr. met with his neurologist and they decided it was best for his health that he not race this weekend.
While the health of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (and any other driver or athlete for that matter) is more important than competing, skipping a race does hamper the 41-year-old when it comes to making the Chase this season and being eligible to race for that elusive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.
Because Earnhardt, Jr. has yet to win this season, he is not locked into the Chase and therefore would need to get in on points unless he can find a win in the seven races following this week. That’s if he even returns after missing a week. As things stand now, Earnhardt, Jr. would make the Chase on points, as he sits 13th after 18 races. He will drop in the standings to at least 14th by missing one race and would likely drop to somewhere around 18th or 19th should he be forced to sit out two races. That means Earnhardt, Jr. would have to find victory lane somewhere before the Chase field is set.
That’s the bad news. The good news (if there is such a thing in this situation)? A combined 10 of Earnhardt, Jr.’s 26 career Sprint Cup Series wins have come at four of the remaining seven tracks NASCAR will be visiting before the Chase.
The best chance for Earnhardt, Jr. to pick up a win would probably be at Pocono Raceway on July 31 if he has been cleared to race by that point. In the last seven races at Pocono, Earnhardt, Jr. has two wins and six top-5s. His runner-up finish at Pocono earlier this year is one of his four runner-up finishes on the year.
One of the other tracks that saw Earnhardt, Jr. come up just short and finish 2nd this season was Bristol Motor Speedway, which is another track NASCAR will see before the Chase begins. In his career, Earnhardt, Jr. has one win (2004) and eight top-5s at Bristol. He has finished in the top-10 in each of the last two races at Bristol, the first time he has had back-to-back top-10s at the track since finishing in the top-10 in both 2013 races.
Earnhardt, Jr. also has two wins at Michigan International Speedway and his 39th-place finish there earlier this season snapped a personal streak of four straight top-10 finishes at Michigan. Earnhardt, Jr. has finished in the top-10 in six of his last nine starts at the 2-mile track.
The Sprint Cup Series will head to Richmond International Raceway for the final race of the “regular season” on September 10. If Earnhardt, Jr. hasn’t won a race by then, he might be hard pressed to get his win and clinch a spot in the Chase at Richmond. Despite having three career wins at Richmond, his last victory there was in 2006 when he was still driving for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. He has just one top-5 finish in his last eight races at Richmond and only five top-10s in his 17 races driving for Hendrick Motorsports at Richmond.
If Earnhardt, Jr. doesn’t somehow win a race at one of those four tracks, odds are that he won’t make the Chase. In the other three tracks before the Chase (Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Watkins Glen International and Darlington Raceway), Earnhardt, Jr. has raced 53 time in his Sprint Cup Series career and has just seven top-5s without picking up a single victory.
So while making the decision to not participate this week (and possibly even longer), Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has made the road a more difficult one for himself as this NASCAR season heats up and the Chase looms right around the corner.
It’s going to be a win and you’re in situation for Earnhardt, Jr. And that’s going to be one big headache.