My Brain on NASCAR: Junior fans stuck looking for Pokemon

col-cathyelliottPikachu, where are you?

This question is on the minds of millions of obviously-bored Americans who downloaded Nintendo’s new Pokémon Go smartphone app after it launched on July 6, obsessed with the little yellow critter who is the public face of this hugely popular game.

Something similar is on the minds of millions of Americans who are currently beginning to worry about NASCAR’s most popular driver.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., where are you?

If you’re unfamiliar with Pokémon Go, you haven’t been watching the morning news shows lately. The popular card-trading game from the 1990s may be all grown up, but the same cannot be said of the game-playing adults wandering all over town, eyes glued to their cell phones (imagine that!), in search of virtual balls which they can then use to score points in imaginary goals and earn in-game rewards.

Talk about taking the term “jumping through hoops” to a whole new level.

What we basically have here is a bunch of rational adults running around in circles in various geographical locations trying to beat one another and earn more points than their competitors, i.e. win the game.

You may call that Pokémon Go, but I call it a NASCAR race.

The who-knows-how-many-millions of Earnhardt fans out there are getting jumpy, and for good reason. With only eight races left until the start of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Junior is getting dangerously close to missing the championship field. A month has passed without a top-10 finish, he has dropped to 13th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings, and he has yet to win a race.

“What am I going to do?” he asked after the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway. “We’re running as good as we can. It’s either going to be good enough or won’t be enough. I’m not really going to lose any sleep over it, at least at this moment. When we miss the Chase, it’ll be frustrating and disappointing, but we’re going to plan on not doing that. We’re going to plan on making it.”

Am I the only one who noticed the term “when we miss the Chase” rather than “if we miss the Chase?” Uh-oh.

With Junior ranked 14th in points coming out of Kentucky (the top 16 drivers at the end of the regular season make the Chase field), all was not lost. He ranked third among drivers who are in the top 16, but haven’t won a race this season. Bristol, Pocono, Michigan and Richmond are among the eight races remaining, and he has won at all four of those tracks. It’s too soon to freak out, right?

Wrong. Things got bad … and then they got worse.

On July 14, Hendrick Motorsports issued a press release stating that, “Dale Earnhardt Jr. will not complete in the July 17 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after experiencing concussion-like symptoms.”

The release went on to quote Junior as saying he wasn’t feeling great headed into Kentucky, but thought it was allergies. He saw a family doctor and was treated for allergies and a sinus infection.

“When that didn’t help, I decided to dig a little deeper,” he said. “Because of my symptoms and my history with concussions, and after my recent wrecks at Michigan and Daytona, I … met with a neurological specialist. After further evaluation, they felt it was best for me to sit out … I’m looking forward to treatment with the goal of getting back in the race car when the doctors say I’m ready.”

Then, the release delivered the kick in the gut: “A timetable for Earnhardt’s return has not been established,” followed by a promise that the team will provide an update next week regarding Junior’s status for The Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard on July 24.

This is bad. We have talked about safety more than once this year, and despite NASCAR’s Herculean efforts to make the sport as safe as possible, involvement in repeated wrecks at high speeds can’t be good for a guy.

Also, the implications of a Junior-less Chase are not so good for NASCAR. As sports fans, most of us know that when your favorite team is gone, your interest goes with it.

For the good of all concerned, I sincerely hope that in true NASCAR style, Earnhardt has the ‘speediest’ of recoveries and goes on to prove himself a top contender in the game we’ll now call Junior, Go!

Pikachu who?

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