Dale Earnhardt Jr. announces retirement from NASCAR
In an announcement shocking only because of its timing, Dale Earnhardt Jr. confirmed on Tuesday morning that the current Monster Energy Cup NASCAR Series season will be his last as a driver. The two-time Daytona 500 winner, 14-time Most Popular Driver and newlywed will discuss his decision to retire at age 42 at 3 p.m. Tuesday with team owner Rick Hendrick at Hendrick Motorsports in Concord, North Carolina.
The fact that Earnhardt is retiring at a relatively young age isn’t exactly a complete shock. Although he insists he still loves driving race cars and looks forward to the weekly competition, he’s never come across as someone who must have racing to make his life complete. (Certainly, not to the extent that his late father, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, did).
Indeed, Junior’s off-track life is filled with successful business ventures, international travel, appearances on major issue-related television and radio shows, charitable activities, cameos on popular cable and over-air television programs, red carpet appearances and avidly following his beloved Washington Redskins. He is as socially conscious and politically acute as anyone in the garage with the possible exception of retired driver Kyle Petty.
To many within the Hendrick organization, Earnhardt’s “common-sense charisma and flair for originality have helped propel him to become one of the most popular figures in sports.” According to their research, he tops all NASCAR and IndyCar drivers on MVPindex’s social media power rankings. “His appeal is not limited to loyal race fans (the Hendrick research shows), as Earnhardt has appeared on Harris Interactive’s annual survey of America’s Top 10 Favorite Athletes, frequenting the list with such names as LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning and Derek Jeter. With crossover appeal that stretches beyond his accomplishments as an athlete in NASCAR, Earnhardt continues to garner media attention worldwide. He has appeared on more than 150 magazine covers and has been featured in high-profile publications such as Maxim, Rolling Stone, GQ, Men’s Journal, Sports Illustrated, People Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Fitness and TV Guide.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be able to spend more time with wife Amy after he walks away from the sport following the season-ending race at Homestead, Florida, in November.
But his career has not always been seamless. He was thrust into the professional and personal spotlight when his father was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. He and his stepmother, Teresa, generally didn’t always work well together when it came to the family’s business or public affairs. He missed the second half of last season while undergoing arduous treatment for repeated concussions. He also missed two late-season races in 2012 for treatment of concussions and has said as recently as February in Daytona Beach that he’d never want to endure that treatment ordeal again. He also said he’d likely walk away from racing on the spot if he happened to win the 2017 championship.
But this season’s first eight races have been especially difficult. He crashed out at Daytona Beach, Martinsville and Bristol, finishing in the 30s in each one. He finished five laps down in 30th at Atlanta and in the teens at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana. His only top-10 finish was fifth at Fort Worth two weeks ago. He’s led only eight laps all season and is currently 24th in points.
Earnhardt made his Cup debut — amid, some might say, utterly unrealistic expectations — in the 1999 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He goes into this weekend’s race at Richmond International Raceway with 13 Cup poles and 26 victories in 603 career starts, and has qualified for the Chase/Playoffs eight times. He’s finished seven times among the top 10 in championship points, including a career-best third in 2003. His last Cup victory was in the fall of 2015 in Phoenix, 27 races ago. Among his signature victories: six at Talladega Superspeedway; the 2004 and 2014 Daytona 500s and the 2001 and 2015 Coke 400s at Daytona Beach; three each at Phoenix and Richmond; two each at Pocono and Michigan; and one each at Martinsville, Bristol, Atlanta, Dover, Chicago and Texas, the scene of his first Cup victory in July 2000.
Earnhardt crashed out at Bristol on Monday, one day before announcing his plans to retire.
He’s NASCAR’s first third-generation driving champion, having won the 1998 and 1999 Xfinity Series championships. His grandfather, the late Ralph Earnhardt, won the 1956 Sportsman title, forerunner of the Xfinity Series. His iconic father, Dale, won seven Cup titles and 76 races, and was among the inaugural class into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In 1999, both Ralph and Dale Earnhardt were honored among NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers of all time. Between 1998 and 2008, his career as a full-time NASCAR driver was solely within the family-owned business. He won 39 Xfinity and Cup races for Dale Earnhardt Inc. before leaving after the ’08 season to drive for Hendrick, a recent inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Eddie Gossage, track president at Texas Motor Speedway, was one of the first to weigh in on Tuesday’s announcement.
“Dang it! Dale Jr. put my kids through college and I was hoping he would stick around long enough to send my grandkids to college,” Gossage said in a track press release. “You have to be happy and support him when he makes a choice like this and, certainly, I do. Now I’ve got to go pony shopping.”
Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, left, presented Jeff Gordon two ponies upon Gordon’s retirement in 2015. You’re next, Junior!