The suddenness and finality of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Tuesday retirement announcement may have sent shock waves through the world of NASCAR racing, but from a global viewpoint, the timing couldn’t be more appropriate.
And it’s not as if NASCAR’s 14-time most popular driver will disappear from the stock car racing landscape when he stops driving a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car at the end of the current season.
Quite the contrary. Earnhardt will maintain a higher visibility as a car owner and as a go-to spokesperson for the sport.
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Married to longtime girlfriend Amy Reimann on this past New Year’s Eve, Earnhardt, 42, is ready to move on with the next phase of his life. He has expressed a strong desire to raise children, and the clock is ticking.
Health issues have also plagued the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in the past five years. In 2012, Earnhardt missed two races because of a concussion. Last year, he sat out the final 18 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series events after a wreck at Michigan had an effect on his vision and equilibrium.
Sidelined for the last half of the season, Earnhardt worked diligently to recover and won approval from doctors to return to racing before the season-opening Daytona 500. But, for the most part, the results haven’t been there.
Through eight races this season, Earnhardt is 24th in the series standings. His only top 10 finish was a fifth at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9.
But, as he said in his formal announcement on Tuesday afternoon at Hendrick Motorsports, he wanted to return to the car to be able to go out on his own terms, not on doctors’ orders.
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When Earnhardt told reporters in late March he was close to being ready to open discussions with team owner Rick Hendrick about a possible contract extension, the assumption in most quarters was that he would continue driving beyond this year.
But on March 29, Earnhardt first told Hendrick of his decision to retire from driving, a decision he had made only days earlier.
Driving, though, is only part of the equation. As a passionate ambassador for the sport, Earnhardt has carried more than his share of responsibility for stock car racing’s popularity.
“I don’t think Dale Jr. can be measured as just a race car driver, because he is so much more than that,” says NBC analyst Steve Letarte, Earnhardt’s former crew chief. “Dale is all-encompassing. He carried the popularity of a sport on his shoulders. Anyone who tries to separate what he does behind the wheel from what he does in the sport doesn’t know Dale Jr.”
Though Earnhardt won’t be competing on the race track, he will leave the driving in the hands of talented 20-somethings who already have begun to make their mark,
Chase Elliott, Earnhardt’s teammate, has shown excellent speed from Day 1. The son of the only man to win more most popular driver awards than Earnhardt (Bill Elliott), Chase has already captured a large segment of the NASCAR fan base.
So has Kyle Larson, the Cup Series leader, whose high-speed exploits in the outside lane have won him acclaim as NASCAR’s foremost rim-rider. The Wood Brothers have returned to full-time competition with Ryan Blaney, an enormous talent with a no-fear attitude.
Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidates Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are mature beyond their years — and quick as well.
"The sky is the limit for NASCAR," said Earnhardt during Tuesday's press conference. "I'm excited about the future."
But those young drivers aren’t just aspirants eager to take Earnhardt’s place in the NASCAR firmament. They are also part of his formidable legacy. At a very early age, Earnhardt grasped the importance of identifying and nurturing those who would maintain the continuity of the sport.
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In 2003, Earnhardt formed Chance 2 Motorsports with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt. Their first driver was Martin Truex Jr., who went on to win NASCAR Xfinity Series titles for the Earnhardts in 2004 and 2005 and has recently blossomed as a Monster Energy Series driver at Furniture Row Racing.
In 2007, Earnhardt watched from a suite Atlanta Motor Speedway as a young driver in a backmarker car drove with such panache and aggressiveness that Earnhardt sat up and took notice. When Earnhardt decided to make a midseason move with his JR Motorsports team, he hired that driver.
His name? Brad Keselowski, who became an Xfinity champion in 2010 with Team Penske and a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion two years later.
Not only that. Keselowski also has taken a page from his former boss by giving back to the sport through his own NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team, this year featuring neophytes Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe.
Chase Elliott, currently second in NASCAR’s premier series, is another product of JR Motorsports. As an 18-year-old rookie in 2014, Elliott won the Xfinity Series championship. A year later, he finished second in the standings before succeeding Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet in 2016.
Though Earnhardt will no longer be on the track as a competitor, he will have an unrivaled presence on the pavement, in a larger sense, for years to come.
When Earnhardt steps away from Cup racing at the end of the year, he likely will leave unfinished business. Unless there’s an epic turnaround in race results, he won’t deliver the series title he and Hendrick wanted so much to win together.
But he will be stepping away from a NASCAR Hall of Fame career. Earnhardt won 26 races in NASCAR’s foremost series, a total equal to that of Fred Lorenzen, who was ushered into the Hall as a member of the Class of 2015. Two of Earnhardt’s victories came in the Daytona 500.
Those are the relevant numbers, but Earnhardt’s overall contribution to NASCAR racing is incalculable. So as we contemplate Earnhardt’s absence from the asphalt, let’s also celebrate his gigantic presence in the sport, which will continue to keep him in the forefront of our consciousness whether or not he’s on the track.
Reid Spencer is a writer for the NASCAR Wire Service.