Dale Earnhardt Jr. merchandise is front and center at Kansas Speedway novelty shops. The No. 88 flag flies above many of the campers and RVs in the infield.
Earnhardt won’t race in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400, or any of the other final 18 races of the Sprint Cup season. He’s recovering from post-concussive symptoms that are believed to have resulted from a wreck at Michigan International Speedway in June.
Earnhardt won NASCAR’S Most Popular Driver Award for 13 consecutive years. Not coincidentally, his ovation at the pre-race driver introductions at Kansas Speedway was always among the loudest.
It’s hard to walk a few feet around Kansas Speedway without seeing a No. 88 hat, T-shirt or jacket in former and current color schemes.
Earnhardt’s legion of fans are still here to enjoy a weekend of NASCAR racing, but they’ll be a silent majority.
“I really don’t know what’s going on, I’m just disappointed. I’m a season ticket holder, and the enthusiasm of the weekend just isn’t like it was in the spring when he was driving,” Raytown’s Achie Young said. “The enthusiasm of the weekend is just not there, but I bought the ticket, so I’m here.”
Golden, Mo., natives Don Stilwell and his son, Quinn, have been coming to races since 2011.
“I’m a little disappointed. I think the weekend does lose a little bit of luster for us,” Don Stilwell said.
This is the second time concussion symptoms have forced Earnhardt out of action. He missed two races toward the end of the 2012 season after crashing during testing at Kansas Speedway.
“We’re glad he’s getting taken care of, and hopefully it’s not shortening his career,” Ken Curtiss from Ft. Madison, Iowa, said.
“It’s not quite as exciting. He’s the one guy we wanted to see race and hear on the radio,” Trisha Curtiss, Ken’s wife, said.
Earnhardt fans will have to wait until the 2017 Daytona 500 to see him back behind the wheel.
Nichoel Klinghagen and her friends traveled from Moorhead, Minn., to see this weekend’s races. This marked her fifth time at Kansas Speedway, but her first race where Earnhardt wasn’t competing.
“I think next year he’ll be back in,” Klinghagen said.
Others weren’t so sure.
“I hope (he’ll be back), but I’ve got my doubts,” Don Stilwell said.
Optimism, though, was generally high among Earnhardt fans.
“He’ll be back,” Young said matter of factly. “Hopefully in Daytona.”