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Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Out for Remainder of NASCAR Season - What's Next?

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Hurricane Hermine may be bearing down on NASCAR this weekend, canceling qualifying and practice over the next two days in South Carolina.

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However, the real whirlwind came in the form of breaking news on Friday — Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss the rest of the season. The sport’s Most Popular Driver, suffering through concussion symptoms that have sidelined him since mid-July will sit out the remainder of 2016 with hopes of returning at 100 percent come Daytona in February.

“I wish I could return to the No. 88 team this season,” Earnhardt said in a statement released this morning. “To say I’m disappointed doesn’t begin to describe how I feel, but I know this is the right thing for my long-term health and career. I’m 100 percent focused on my recovery... I plan to be healthy and ready to compete at Daytona. I’m working toward that.”

While both Earnhardt and the doctors were seeing progress, it wasn’t enough to medically clear him in time for Richmond, the regular-season finale. He would have to win there to qualify for NASCAR’s postseason and without that? It makes sense to sit Earnhardt, 41, over a 10-race stretch that would mean little to his overall career. The main bullet point missing on his resume was a championship and there’s too much risk to run him without that possibility.

Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman will share the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 the rest of the season as HMS looks ahead toward 2017. Earnhardt will hold a press conference Sunday for further details but the question he won’t be able to answer with certainty at this point is his long-term future inside the sport. His contract with HMS expires at the end of next season and Earnhardt, who’s suffered multiple concussions over the years, is getting married and wants to start a family. Comments today make it clear he wants to continue to race several more seasons but what if recovery continues to go slow? Will those plans be rethought over the next several months?

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No doubt the concern over Earnhardt’s future has HMS thrilled to have young talent William Bryon joining their ranks in 2017. Byron, who is just 18 year olds and a favorite to win this season’s Truck Series title, will run a full-time XFINITY schedule with his eye toward a quick promotion. With the roster at HMS aging – Jimmie Johnson also will turn 41 this month – it’s not a bad thing to have an up-and-coming teenager with a series-leading five Truck victories headed your way. The equivalent of the sport’s New York Yankees needs to undergo a youth movement (they already have promising Cup rookie Chase Elliott) to remain at or near the top of the sport. Remember, soon-to-be-former ally Stewart-Haas Racing will turn full-time rival at Ford beginning next season.

As for Earnhardt, who has been open with his recovery on social media, he continues to help the greater public understand the challenges behind this type of injury. All everyone can do is wish him the best as he puts 110 percent effort into returning behind the wheel of a racecar.

Until then? It’s time for NASCAR to figure out life without a name that has defined them for a generation. While his nephew, Jeffrey, competes at Darlington this weekend he hasn’t come close to sniffing a top 20 in his rookie season. We’re now 15 years out from the death of Junior’s father, a name often trotted out as what made NASCAR great but one teenagers coming up today never even saw race.

That Earnhardt name, revered by millions will be missing from several races in the near future, at the same time Tony Stewart and Gordon wind down their careers for good. With ratings down 20 percent in recent races, who will replace these legendary figures and drive ticket sales for an ailing sport?

That’s enough to make many a NASCAR executive’s head hurt. In the meantime, best wishes go out to Dale Jr. as he works his way back to good health.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at tom.bowles@frontstretch.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

(Photos by ASP Inc.)