Dale Earnhardt Jr, one of the biggest names in Nascar, has surprised the racing world by announcing he will retire at the end of the 2017 season.
The decision was announced by Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt’s team, on Tuesday morning. The 42-year-old Earnhardt has called a press conference for later in the day to explain his decision. Earnhardt wrote on Twitter: “Press conference at 3pm to give me the opportunity to discuss the retirement news. Incredible to see the support today. #FinishStrong.”
Earnhardt, a two-time Daytona 500 winner and the son of seven-time Nascar champion Dale Sr, has consistently been one of Nascar’s best-loved drivers, but has suffered multiple concussions over the past few years, and missed the final 18 races of last season after crashes in Michigan and Kentucky.
He returned to racing this year with no lingering effects from the concussions, but admitted there were times during his rehabilitation when he wondered if he would race again.
He said: “I felt great for many, many months now, and I’m happy about that. We’ve been through a handful of races now and didn’t have any issues whatsoever.
“[But] there was a lot of time during the recovery where I was 90% percent sure I wasn’t going to drive again. There were days where it was 50%. [In November], I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other without falling over like a drunk driving test. I couldn’t take one step without having to step to the right or step to the left to catch myself.”
Earnhardt’s impending retirement means three of Nascar’s biggest stars will have retired in consecutive seasons. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon retired at the end of 2015, while Tony Stewart called time on his career last year.
Earnhardt’s roots in Nascar run deep. His father won seven titles and was one of the greatest drivers in Nascar history, but he died in a shocking last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001. Earnhardt grandfather, Ralph, also competed in 51 races at Nascar’s highest level.
Earnhardt, who has won the most popular driver award 14 times but has never won a Cup title, has struggled this season, with only one top-five finish so far. He’s currently ranked 24th in the Nascar Cup Series standings.