Symbolism surrounds the mystery of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s return

— -- Full disclosure: I just don't get all the uproar over the signage for the No. 88 team at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last weekend.

To those who yelled "disrespect" and said Indianapolis Motor Speedway was wrong to put a sign above the No. 88 garage stall that said " Jeff Gordon," it's important to remember the purpose.

The purpose? To let people walking through the garage area and those with binoculars in the stands know who's in what garage.

Believe it or not, there are people who might not have heard about Gordon replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr., and those signs are designed to inform the general public -- not the avid racing fan -- who is in the car.

So it makes sense that the signage reflects who actually sits behind the wheel on that weekend.

But that brings us to the psychological element of Earnhardt missing races because of concussion-like symptoms, including balance and nausea. Both the team and Earnhardt are doing their best to make us assume Earnhardt will be back, hopefully sooner rather than later. In a situation where we can't predict his return, both the team and driver can't show any bit of doubt.

A NASCAR spokesman said Tuesday that NASCAR has given the team permission to continue having Earnhardt's name across the windshield. And part of me wants to say: What's the purpose of having the name on the windshield if it isn't the driver of the car? Why put the name of Earnhardt on the pit-road banner at Indy? Won't it just confuse the casual fan? But if the name of the actual driver is on the car, the avid fan will know it's Earnhardt's car.

Why not something that says somewhere else, in tiny lettering, "Substitute: Jeff Gordon"?

Earnhardt has to know everyone is behind him, right? Isn't this just overboard symbolism at the risk of fans being confused?

"I love my team [when it] fights for me, goes to bat for me, anytime they do it," Earnhardt said Monday on his The Dale Jr. Download podcast. "That was pretty neat. It was real touching, to be honest." Gordon said Friday it was all about respect: "I'm honored to be driving Dale's car. I really am. ... We made a conscious decision this is Dale's car. I'm here until he gets back and I hope that's soon. We want everything to be respectful of him."

It still seems so inconsequential. To help me understand, I asked Ricky Craven, the NASCAR driver turned ESPN analyst, to explain it to me. He dealt with concussions in his career and raced for Hendrick Motorsports, the team for which Earnhardt drives.

"There's an insecurity for drivers whenever they see someone else in their car," Craven said. "That race car is sacred. It's almost like your home.

"You can invite somebody to your home, but you don't expect somebody to take control of it. That [signage] is very, very meaningful. It probably felt really, really good for Dale Jr. Those types of reminders are really valuable to a driver. ... It was a fabulous gesture."

Earnhardt said on the Monday podcast that he will visit doctors soon and that he'll have another update on his status next Monday.

Based on Craven's experience with concussion symptoms, he doesn't envision Earnhardt coming back next week at Watkins Glen to try to compete on the road course.

But there exists a bigger question mark than Earnhardt's availability for The Glen. Until doctors tell him he can return, the nagging question remains: Will he be back anytime soon? Everyone around Earnhardt will avoid or publicly dismiss this question because acknowledging it could plant a seed of doubt in potential sponsors and the current crew.

"Keep sending [my team] good vibes -- because when we get back together, it's going to be on," Earnhardt said on the podcast.

Even though Earnhardt, 41, sounded somewhat resigned and frustrated on the podcast about missing Indianapolis, that soundbite portrayed confidence he will return to race again.

"At this age, he runs the risk of appearing vulnerable, and he needs to eliminate that doubt," Craven said. "He needs to eliminate it for a number of reasons, but most of all for himself. He needs to come back with some authority."

There likely will be more public displays of support for Earnhardt from his team as the week -- or weeks -- go on without him in the car. Craven said those displays carry great importance, and the crew's actions will help Earnhardt through the sick feeling of being out of the car.

"Actions speak louder than words," Craven said. "Crew members could say it. But what they did was a great display."