Following a 26-regular season that saw consistency and the first win in four years, the bottom has fallen out, so to speak, of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was diagnosed with a concussion on Wednesday, as a result of being collected in a last-lap wreck that involved more than 20 cars in the Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway on Oct. 7.
The concussion is Earnhardt's second in the last six weeks. The first came during a Goodyear tire test at Kansas Speedway on Aug. 29.
I feel perfectly fine, but I don't want to keep getting hit in the head.
"I knew having those two concussions back to back was not a good thing," Earnhardt said. "I knew to go see someone, whether I wanted to get out of the car or not."
NASCAR's current policy on clearing drivers to race following concussion came as a result of an Earnhardt incident in 2002 when the driver admitted to competing in several races while feeling the affects of a concussion.
Earnhardt didn't seek medical attention after the concussion at Kansas, concerned that the diagnosis would destroy his championship hopes for the year.
"I feel perfectly fine," Earnhardt said. "But I don't want to keep getting hit in the head."
Earnhardt is expected to sit out the next couple of races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway, according to an announcement released by Hendrick Motorsports on Thursday morning.
"I would love to race this weekend, and I feel perfectly normal and feel like I could compete if I were allowed to compete this weekend," Earnhardt said. "But I think that the basis of this whole deal is that I've had two concussions in the last four to five weeks, and you can't layer concussions. It gets extremely dangerous."
Meanwhile, Regan Smith will be behind the wheel of the No. 88. Smith originally planned to drive the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet at Charlotte, but had no definite plans for the five races remaining afterward.
Earnhardt admitted on Thursday that he was still feeling the affects of the August concussion when the Chase started, saying that he felt he was at 80-90 percent entering the Chase but was back to 100 percent by the Talladega race.
Then,Talladega happened. After going a lap down because of a pit road speeding penalty during a cycle of green-flag pit stops, Earnhardt got his lap back late in the race and was racing toward the front. After being caught up in the last-lap incident, Earnhardt was able to limp his car across the start/finish line to finish the race but wound up 20th. The poor finish dropped him to 11th in points, some 51 points behind leader Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge.
Concussion and resulting two-race break aside, Earnhardt is already more than a race worth of points out of the lead. Though, not mathematically eliminated, he became a championship longshot, at best, after Talladega.
The concussion diagnosis and resulting two-race break puts the lights out on whatever glimmer of hope the No. 88 team had left for a championship in 2012. He'll then probably be some three races back when he returns to the driver's seat with four races remaining.
"I really didn't get to make the decision (to sit out)," Earnhardt said. "I left it in the hands of the Docs, and I'm going to do what they tell me to do. But it's frustrating; I just enjoy driving cars week in and week out. I enjoy being at the racetrack with Steve, so I'm going to really miss that."
Upon his return, Earnhardt's focus will shift to assisting his three teammates, Jeff Gordon in the No. 24, Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 and Kasey Kahne in the No. 5, in their attempts to claim the 2012 title. His No. 88 team will also begin looking ahead to 2013. But he doesn't plan to be at the track while he's out of the car.
"I don't have any plans of being here this weekend," Earnhardt said. "I think that I'd be more of a distraction to the team and their efforts in the race. I think they've got a good opportunity to have a good run this weekend, and I feel like that to minimize the distraction would help them out."
That light in his eyes that came from his love of restrictor plate racing has since faded, though, mainly because of incidents like the one last weekend that will put him out of commission the next couple of weeks. Earnhardt now refers to restrictor plate racing as "bloodthirsty" and says he no longer has a desire to do it.