Dale Earnhardt Jr. is by far the most popular driver on the NASCAR circuit.
The cheers when Junior takes the lead can shake the foundation of the stands. And if that race is in Daytona or Talladega or Darlington, the pure emotion can move the Richter scale.
But those voices have been silenced for the past five weeks, as Earnhardt has sat out due to concussion-like symptoms. Doctors believe he suffered the injury in a hard crash at Michigan in June, although he was in another crash at Daytona just two weeks later.
Now the word is that Earnhardt will miss the next two NASCAR races, including a return trip to Michigan on Sunday, as his rehab continues to move slowly.
Earnhardt has already said that he plans to return to racing as soon as he’s cleared by doctors.
But why? And at what price?
It’s not the money. The 41-year-old is set for life, as are likely the lives of the next few generations of Earnhardts. His estimated net worth is a cool $300 million.
The thrill? Sure it’s a rush to drive a race car on the jagged edge at 200 mph at Daytona. But Junior knows all too well what can happen when you cross over that edge.
His legendary father was killed at Daytona on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 when his car slammed into the fourth-turn wall.
This is also the second time Junior has had to miss races due to concussion-like symptoms, the first coming in 2012. He also admitted to racing for three weeks while battling a concussion in 2002, when we knew much less about how dangerous the injury is.
The competition? You can’t reach the top of the NASCAR ladder without being competitive and wanting to win races and championships. Earnhardt has won 26 times in the Sprint Cup Series, which includes two wins in the Daytona 500. He also won Busch (now XFINITY) Series titles in 1998 and ‘99 while driving for his father.
While never the top driver in the series, Earnhardt has proven that with a strong crew chief, he is capable of being in the mix for a Sprint Cup title.
Earnhardt is now engaged to be married to his longtime girlfriend. He’s a successful businessman both in and outside of racing.
He could be the cool car owner in the Sprint Cup Series or walk into the NBC broadcast booth and be the most popular announcer on television.
Earnhardt appeals to the older fans who loved his father and the young guys who love that he plays video games with his friends while drinking a six-pack
So why race?
Drivers talk about racing being in their blood. How it’s impossible to walk away from the excitement of a late-race pass of a rival to win a race or to wake up on race day and feel the adrenalin building already.
It’s why Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip raced into their 50s, well beyond the time when either was competitive.
It’s why Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to walk away.
Sure it would be a huge blow to NASCAR, which is reeling after Jeff Gordon retired last fall (he has driven four races for Earnhardt this summer) and Tony Stewart announced that he’ll join Gordon in November. That’s seven championships leaving in two years.
If Earnhardt were to retire too, you’re left with some great talent, but with the exception of Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, mid-pack regular Danica Patrick and perhaps rookie Chase Elliott, the likeability factor of the top drivers in the series is pretty low.
That shouldn’t be Earnhardt’s concern, though.
The series eventually moved on after his father’s tragic death and it will recover if it’s three most popular drivers aren’t at Daytona in February.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. needs to worry about the next hit he takes in a race car. Or maybe the one after that. Because, it will happen again. That’s the sport of racing. There are walls, speed, other drivers and no air bags in race cars.
Doctors know what concussions can do. It’s why football is changing the way the game is played and penalties for hits to the head are severe.
Walk away Dale. Become a husband, maybe a father. Find what you want to do for the rest of your life and stick to it.
Before it’s too late.
Ken Fox is an Elkhart Truth sports reporter. Follow on Twitter at @KenFoxTruth.