Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s absence felt by fans at NASCAR Charlotte race

Cadence Smith was unpacking her campground Thursday morning at Charlotte Motor Speedway when she received a text from her daughter.

"You do know your driver is not racing this weekend, right?" the text said.

Surprised, Smith wrote back asking for more information. She hadn't heard any news regarding Dale Earnhardt Jr. since arriving from suburban Philadelphia and had no idea the driver would be missing the Charlotte race with a concussion.

When her daughter broke the news, Smith was disappointed but immediately felt the driver had done the right thing.

"I'm proud of him," she said. "It's not an easy thing to do, and it can't be easy for him personally. I want him to do what's right for him."

Each of the Earnhardt Jr. fans we spoke to on Saturday afternoon seemed to express a similar sentiment: While disappointed not to see their driver race, they knew it was right for him to sit out and recover from his head injury. And most said they'll still root for the No. 88 team and Regan Smith, although several had secondary drivers they also liked.

One consensus among the fans: There was never a thought about skipping the race.

Valerie Boyd, an Earnhardt Jr. fan since his Busch Series days, said friends started asking her immediately whether she still planned to drive from Indiana to see the race.

"There wasn't a doubt," she said. "I'll root for the 88 anyway. I love racing. I said, 'I'm still going to go.'"

Some fans felt an great sense of sadness – not for themselves, but for their driver. Cheryl Moseley, who recently moved to North Carolina from Iowa, said she's been an Earnhardt fan "forever" – and felt heartbroken over the driver's concussions.

"It's the same feeling I get when I see him lose a race or have a bad day," she said. "I feel sick for him. I just hope a lot of people don't run away from the sport, because that would make him feel even worse. He doesn't want to be the reason people don't come to the track."

Ann O'Donnell, who drove more than 900 miles from Massachusetts to watch Earnhardt Jr. race, said she was "bummed" but would rather see the driver get totally healthy before returning to competition.

"Two weeks is not enough," she said. "What if he comes back and something else happens again in three weeks? I'd just rather see him take the rest of the year off and get healthy."

In that sense, the uncertain timetable for the driver's return seemed to worry some fans. While Earnhardt Jr. could return in two weeks, there are no guarantees with head injuries – especially when someone has had multiple concussions in a short time.

"My bigger fear is that he'll hang it up early," said Smith, who recently suffered from a life-threatening illness. "I don't want my driver to go through the same thing I went through. It would be tough to see him quit, but he's 38 – he's got the rest of his life ahead of him."

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