In his own words: Why Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring from NASCAR ride
That was the message on Tuesday at the Hendrick Motorsports complex in Concord, North Carolina when the 42-year-old explained his decision to walk away from full-time competition at the end of the 2017 season.
The 14-time most popular driver missed the final 18 races of the 2016 season due to a concussion. He also missed two races in 2012 due to two concussions in a six-week stretch. The veteran wanted the opportunity to address his fans and the media while the decision was still fresh.
Making the announcement now will allow the No. 88 team to focus on winning races and the championship in Earnhardt’s final season. NASCAR fans have no shortage of questions about the topic, so let’s jump right into it.
Make it blunt: Why is Dale Earnhardt Jr. stepping away from full-time NASCAR competition?
In short, Earnhardt wanted to control his own destiny. Here’s the main reasons he cited.
1. He wanted to honor his contract, which had one season remaining
2. His most recent injury gave him time to reflect on what matters
3. He believes he’s competitive enough to give this a solid effort
“I had a lot to think about over the last several months, and I was not sure I would have the opportunity to compete this season,” Earnhardt said. “It’s been a blessing and it’s been a gift to be at the race track … About 18 months ago, I was on Twitter complaining about 8:30 (a.m.) practices, and I can’t wait to do so now.”
When did he make this decision?
Earnhardt walked into Rick Hendrick’s office on March 29 and informed his long-time friend and boss of his decision to retire. The two had a very healthy talk where they opened-up more than ever before.
“I made my mind up before I talked to Rick. Obviously, every driver thinks about retirement when they get to a certain age. I wasn’t thinking about it until a couple of years ago.”
Is the decision to retire injury related?
Yes and no. Earnhardt said he feels healthy this season but wanted to be able to make this decision before it was possibly taken from him. He had been approached by Hendrick people about a contract extension and was open to it, but just had a lot to weigh.
“I realized how delicate things were and how quickly things can be taken from you.”
As a result, completing this season was important for Earnhardt.
“I had a lot to think about over the last several months, and I was not sure I would have the opportunity to compete this season,” Earnhardt said. “It’s been a blessing and it’s been a gift to be at the race track … About 18 months ago, I was on Twitter complaining about 8:30 [a.m.] practices, and I can’t wait to do so now.
“I just wanted to be able to make that decision myself on retiring and not have it made for me. I feel healthy.”
Does it bother him that he hasn’t won a Cup Series championship?
Not really. In fact, he feels he overachieved, especially having grown up in the spotlight of his famous father.
“At a very young age, all I wanted to do was to be able to make a living driving cars,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t set goals. I didn’t dream of winning championships, Daytona 500s or working with one of the best owners in the business. … I just wanted to be able to do it.
“I’ve accomplished way more than I ever dreamed, way more than I ever thought I would accomplish. So I’m good on that front.”
Does he want JR Motorsports to become a Cup Series team?
Kelly Earnhardt Miller, his sister, immediately shook her head no at the question. For his part, the third-generation driver wouldn’t dismiss it but says he enjoys his role in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
“I’ve always admired what commitment it takes. I’ve seen it with my family business or with Rick’s. I see with Rick that it’s a full-time job and I have to tell him to relax. He’d rather be in Victory Lane than on a boat. But I enjoy the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
“I enjoy being an asset. I like making people happy. I want to replicate that in the next stage of my life.”
How does he feel about the decision, one month later?
He called it bittersweet.
“I seem like I’ve told you guys this so many times so I hate to kind of rehash it over and over but when my dad was doing so well and there were a couple guys coming into the sport and they were sons,” Earnhardt said. “It was difficult for them to replicate their dad’s success. And I just saw at an early age before I was a driver that growing up in that man’s shadow was going to be a real hard challenge. But I wanted to race. I knew racing would put me in that shadow.
“So what I — I kind of just, I knew the odds of me having any talent at all or being able to do it were thin, they are for anyone. So at a very young age all I wanted to do was make a living driving cars. I didn’t set goals like — I didn’t dream of winning championships or Daytona 500s or working with one of the best owners in business, driving for one of the best organizations. I just wanted to do it. I just wanted to be able to do it. I was afraid of not being able to do it. I guess what I’m saying is I accomplished way more than I ever dreamed — way more. Than I ever thought I’d accomplish. So I’m good. I’m good on that front. I’m so blessed and fortunate as far as what I was able to achieve but I’m very sad because I know I let a lot — I know it was disappointing for a lot of people to wake up to that news this morning. I’ve got a lot of fans who are very sad for a lack of a better way to describe it.”
What comes next?
Earnhardt does plan to race in two NASCAR Xfinity Series races next year and will continue to run that team from the ground floor.