Friday, September 02, 2016

Earnhardt’s Injury Gives Bowman A Golden Opportunity

Earnhardt is done for the year
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s 2016 season is over.

Hendrick Motorsports announced today that after being sidelined by concussion symptoms since July 17 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Earnhardt will not return before the end of the 2016 campaign.

“I wish I could return to the No. 88 team this season,” said Earnhardt in a media release today. “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, and I will continue to follow everything the doctors tell me.

Earnhardt -- who is being treated by Dr. Micky Collins of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program as well as Charlotte neurosurgeon Dr. Jerry Petty – said today that his doctors are “seeing good progress in my test results, and I’m feeling that progress physically. I plan to be healthy and ready to compete at Daytona in February. I’m working toward that.”

Former series champion Jeff Gordon and youngster Alex Bowman will continue to share the driving duties in the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet in his absence, with Gordon running this weekend’s Bojangle’s Southern 500 at Darlington (SC) Raceway. He will also compete at Richmond, Dover and Martinsville in coming weeks. Bowman will be behind the wheel in the remaining eight races at Chicagoland, New Hampshire, Charlotte, Kansas, Talladega, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami Speedways.

Team owner Rick Hendrick said he supports Earnhardt’s decision, adding, “I know how hard Dale has worked and how frustrating this is for him. He wants to be back, and we want him back, but we want it to be for the long haul. We’ve had incredible support from everyone involved with the team, including all of our sponsors. They’ve put Dale’s health first every step of the way.

“Jeff and Alex will give us a great opportunity over the rest of the season. Jeff is one of the best of all time and knows our system. He brings things to the table that no one else can. Alex is a young driver with a lot of talent, and he will give us a fresh perspective. We know they’re not only capable of running up front and giving us a chance to win, but they’ll help us get better.”

Earnhardt’s withdrawal creates a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Bowman, who has performed admirably in his two previous starts despite being unable to close the deal with an up-front finish. He was solidly in the Top-10 with 30 laps remaining in his initial outing at New Hampshire in July, before a cut left-rear tire dropped him far back in the finishing order. At Michigan two weeks ago, he qualified sixth and climbed as high as fourth before engines issues once again spoiled his day.

Now, with eight races to showcase his ability, Bowman said he feels less pressure.

“We’ll probably have a race where we struggle,” he predicted. “I hope we won’t, but every team misses the set-up from time to time. Knowing that I will be running eight of the final 12 races allows me to relax a little bit and think long-term.”

Rick Hendrick (L) has turned to Bowman
Currently entrenched in a battle of his own to make the 2016 Chase, Jamie McMurray knows what it’s like to be handed such an opportunity. The Missouri native replaced Sterling Marlin in Chip Ganassi’s No. 40 Coors Light Dodge after the series point-leader suffered a fractured vertebra at Kansas Speedway in 2003, and drove the car to Victory Lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway in only his second start.

"There's no better position to be put in, because you are in a car capable of winning,” recalled McMurray of that day. "It lets you show guys that you can run up front, if you have the right equipment.”

McMurray said Bowman has “done a really good job” in his two HMS starts this season. “To jump in and do as well as he has, (he’s) done an awesome job. He's going to get a future opportunity, because he's shown he is capable of it."

So while Bowman attempts to make the most of his relief role, Earnhardt will now focus solely on regaining his lost health, while simultaneously setting a new standard for professional athletes dealing with concussions.

"I'm sad to see he won't be in the car,” said Elliott Sadler, who leads the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship standings in a car fielded by Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports team. “As a race driver, you want to be in your race car competing.

“But on the flip side of that, I am happy and proud of him taking a step back and making sure he gets everything in line, so he will be 100 percent when the 2017 season starts. For him to be as open about it as he has been, I'm very proud of him of him for that. Not many drivers would do that. He is definitely leading by example."

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