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.
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