-- LOUDON, N.H. -- While everyone would like the Dale Earnhardt Jr. concussion talk to focus on his health, there will be a race this weekend.
And when that New Hampshire 301 goes green Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Earnhardt will lose points. The injury will have an impact on the race and the 2016 championship. It doesn't matter as much as Earnhardt's health, but it will matter in the circle of sports and competition.
Even before the race, Earnhardt's absence has had an impact. He was one of four drivers who had tested at New Hampshire, and while some of the info he gathered from that test was used to help teammate Jimmie Johnson win the pole, Johnson acknowledged nothing can replace having a driver who tested there also being at the track for race weekend.
"We all know driving styles and crew chief styles per car, so when there is somebody different in the car or a different crew chief it certainly puts those remarks [in debriefs] or the information you receive kind of into question and you just wonder," Johnson said. "And the fact that Dale tested here, that just makes it even a larger issue.
"He felt two days' worth of testing and so many different combinations of setups in the car. ... Those verbal and face-to-face conversations are so much more impactful than reading it in notes. We are going to miss that part for sure."
Earnhardt likely will remain ahead of the Chase cutoff after this weekend as he enters 34 points ahead of Trevor Bayne, who at 16th is the first driver on the outside looking in.
But missing one more race likely would put Earnhardt behind Bayne and put his championship hopes in jeopardy (assuming he gets a waiver from NASCAR, which would be a surprise if he doesn't). If he misses three races, he'd probably be about 30 points behind; four races, he probably would be 60 or so points behind -- with only four races left to get back into a position to make the Chase by points. He could get in with a win, but he hasn't appeared all that close to winning in recent weeks.
And if he misses the Chase, what's the point of coming back? Especially with NASCAR likely changing aero packages for 2017?
Earnhardt is a racer and likely will come back even if there doesn't appear much to race for, just as he did in 2012.
The other drivers on the bubble might catch a break with Earnhardt not in the car, but they likely won't focus on his absence when the race goes green Sunday.
"[His absence] doesn't change my perspective or my goal," said Ryan Newman, also on the Chase bubble. "I'm not looking in the mirror saying 'Where is Dale Jr. at right now?' I'm trying to look out the windshield making sure that I'm winning the race for myself."
Earnhardt's absence also could create incredible confusion during the Chase. If his team still accumulates enough points, it could be in the running for the owners championship and bonus money. The owners championship runs on the same system as the drivers' Chase -- so if the No. 88 team can earn one of the 16 spots based on wins or points, it would be in the running for the owners title and bonus money even if Earnhardt doesn't qualify for the drivers' Chase.
Hendrick Motorsports officials say points and championships won't determine when Earnhardt returns.
"It's all about him getting better on a timeline that is satisfied to him," crew chief Greg Ives said. "[It's] not anything to do with the Chase, not anything to do with points or anything like that.
"Our team supports him 100 percent. We have a relationship that goes beyond driver."