Ryan: A good decision but tough choices remain for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. got a dose of good medicine Friday.
A dose of harsh reality, though, still might await Hendrick Motorsports, Junior Nation and a NASCAR industry largely predicated on his starpower for 15 years.
For those constituencies intertwined in Earnhardt’s uncertain future, Friday brought some clarity – and surely a huge relief for an injured driver whose team firmly decreed that getting healthy is all that matters.
There will be no more looming and portentous updates this year about Earnhardt’s potential return to the No. 88 Chevrolet. No more anxiety-ridden doctor visits fraught with “what if” questions, hazy timelines and exasperating hypotheticals. No more worries about rushing back to mollify a fervent and massive fan base that has fretted over its hero’s status for several weeks.
Earnhardt has said stress impedes his healing process from a head injury.
What is more stressful than biweekly checkups conducted under the pressing pretense of whether you suddenly have regained the mental and physical faculties to wheel a race car again at 200 mph?
Declaring Earnhardt out for the season will strip away a layer of angst while adding an open-ended coating of comfort to his rehabilitation for at least a few months.
Earnhardt bravely and candidly has chronicled his comeback by telling fans on his podcast and showing them through his Instagram account that he is dedicated to getting well. But what he shares should be motivated only by catharsis or personal preference. He shouldn’t feel obligated or pressured in any way to provide evidence of his rehab.
Hendrick Motorsports deserves immense credit for helping remove that weight from NASCAR’s 13-time most popular driver, whose name recognition and marketability have brought in a sponsorship haul that probably approaches a quarter-billion dollars over his nine seasons with the team.
It’s easy to pay lip service to putting an athlete’s health first. It takes gumption to shelve your most bankable star for an indeterminate length of time because it’s the best decision for his long-term well-being.
Without the distraction of whether he will return in 2016, the focus solely shifts to getting Earnhardt healthy, and it only helps improve the odds – however slightly -- that he might be cleared for the 2017 Daytona 500.
It was a smart move, but a difficult question lingers.
What will happen when Earnhardt is deemed healthy?
He admirably has said he intends to honor his contract with Hendrick through next season and reiterated his desire to race at Daytona in a Friday release.
But it won’t be as simple as hopping into a car again once his symptoms dissipate. There are many ramifications to weigh about whether it still remains worth it.
Research shows that those who sustain a concussion are four to six times more likely to sustain another, and Earnhardt has suffered at least five since 2002.
Just as troubling, concussion experts also believe that subconcussive impacts – hits that don’t cause major trauma – are cumulative. The next four mild knocks might not sideline Earnhardt from a race, but they could ensure that a fifth impact of greater severity is twice as devastating.
And there will be more impacts. This is NASCAR, which Chairman Brian France famously has proclaimed a contact sport.
If you race, you will wreck.
That’s a sobering fact for a two-time Daytona 500 winner who has reached a new station in life after 26 victories in NASCAR’s premier series.
At 41 years old, Earnhardt is expected to marry by next year. He seems eager to start a family. He eloquently has spoken about the quality of life he desires decades from now.
An intellectually curious soul, his experience with concussions has led him to become educated about the dozens of NFL players who suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that can plunge its victims into dementia, depression and suicide.
If he chose to hang up his helmet, nothing should be held against him.
At least one national publication already called on Earnhardt to retire Friday, and those rumblings likely will linger until Speedweeks 2017, or an announcement that Earnhardt is fit to return.
The speculation will bring high-risk stakes that make Hendrick’s unwavering support of its star impressive.
As with any elite pro sports franchise faced with an integral attraction in doubt, the team indisputably is considering contingency plans to account for worst-case scenarios in which Earnhardt couldn’t return.
If a replacement were needed, there don’t seem many good options available.
There aren’t any obvious impending free-agent veterans (a la Clint Bowyer sliding in for a retiring Tony Stewart next season), and the glut of promising youth doesn’t offer any guarantees. The signing of William Byron was a coup for Hendrick, but fast-tracking a teenager to Sprint Cup is a gamble at best even for a powerhouse organization.
Harsh realities? Yes -- and possibly for down the road.
But Friday’s news showed only one reality truly counts.