CONCORD, N.C. (AP) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. grew up one town away from Charlotte Motor Speedway, running wild with his friends through the infield as his daddy thrilled the hometown crowd.
He became NASCAR's most popular driver, the only North Carolina native who drives full-time in a series whose origins lie in part in the souped-up cars bootleggers used to outrun police as they moved moonshine around the state.
Earnhardt won't be at the track on Saturday night. He will miss two races after a doctor benched him because of two concussions over the past six weeks. It marks the first time an Earnhardt won't race at Charlotte since 1978 _ and the first time an Earnhardt won't run a Cup race since the 1979 Southern 500.
The show will go on without him, but it remains to be seen how many people come to watch. A week after Talladega's announced attendance was its smallest since figures have been provided, CMS officials were faced with the task of selling tickets to an Earnhardt-less race.
"The good news is we have not had a mass exodus of fans, or cancellations of tickets," track president Marcus Smith said Friday. "We have had a lot of fans saying how much they hate that this has happened to Dale Jr., and now they'll just pull for their second favorite driver on Saturday night."
This is a unique situation for NASCAR, which last had a top-tier driver sidelined in 2010 when Brian Vickers, another North Carolina native, was diagnosed with blood clots. But drivers play hurt in almost every other circumstance in NASCAR because the stakes are so high.
In the early days, running the race meant collecting a share of the purse at the end of the night and buying groceries that week. As the sport progressed, and drivers became so dependent on sponsorship, missing a start could put a deal in danger.
And now, in the age of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, missing a race will take a driver out of title contention.
That's the dilemma Earnhardt faced on Aug. 29 when he crashed hard into the wall during a tire test at Kansas. He admitted this week that he suffered a concussion in that wreck, but didn't seek treatment because of his championship chances. He was third in points at the time, and the start of the Chase was just three weeks away.
If a doctor said he couldn't race, his entire season would go to waste.
"With the Chase coming up, I didn't know how difficult _ if I was to volunteer myself to get medical attention and be removed from the car, I didn't know how difficult it would be to get back in," he said.
After a 25-car accident on the last lap of Sunday's race at Talladega left him with a lingering headache, he put his fate in the hands of neurosurgeon, who said the risk was too great for Earnhardt to race Saturday night or next week at Kansas. Earnhardt will be replaced in the beloved No. 88 Chevrolet by Regan Smith the next two weeks, and he said he'll stay home Saturday night so he is not a distraction to the team.
NASCAR acknowledged it will re-visit its procedures since Earnhardt raced for six weeks following his first concussion. It praised him for stepping up and seeking medical attention this week as he marked his 38th birthday.
"I think you saw a driver who is racing for a championship, who is our most popular driver, get up here and ask to go see a doctor and get out of a car. That takes a lot of guts," said senior vice president Steve O'Donnell. "I think it also shows where our sport has come, and they know that safety is first and foremost. We know it's a dangerous sport, but we've got to be relying on our drivers too to be up front with us."
But there's a danger involved with not being up front with NASCAR that differs from other sports. Driving a car injured at nearly 200 mph doesn't carry the same implications as, say, lining up on the football field. There is a distinct danger to others.
"The temptation is to persevere though adversity," said points leader Brad Keselowski. "But sometimes you compete through an injury and perpetuate whatever damage there is. Or, even worse, risk those around you.
"The difference in our sport is that when you're unable to make great decisions or you lose your focus, the potential is there for others to get hurt. If you can't focus (in football), you miss the play. In racing, if you can't focus, you knock the wall down or you wreck somebody."
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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