NASCAR Legend To Hang Up The Keys
Dale Earnhardt Jr., the son of a NASCAR icon who soldiered on in the sport after his father’s death, has decided to retire after the 2017 season, Hendrick Motorsports announced Tuesday.
Earnhardt, 42, has 26 wins in 603 starts as part of a likely Hall of Fame career, including Daytona 500 victories in 2004 and 2014. He also has earned 14 consecutive NASCAR Sprint Most Popular Driver awards and remains consistently as the top driver when it comes to merchandise sales.
He has one top-10 this year in eight starts and sits 24th in the season standings.
Earnhardt, who missed two races in 2012 because of two concussions in a six-week stretch, also missed the final 18 races of 2016 because of a concussion.
Hendrick Motorsports did not announce a replacement for Earnhardt, whose contract expires at the end of this season. Before suffering a concussion last year, Earnhardt had planned to sign an extension of his contract. As of a month ago, he said he planned to talk to team owner Rick Hendrick about extending the deal.
Earlier this year, when discussing the sudden decision of Carl Edwards to step out of his car, Earnhardt talked about trying to decide whether to continue racing.
“I think Carl figured out a way to get into a place to make that decision easy,” Earnhardt said. “And I can do the same thing when the time comes, and I won’t have any regrets. It’s not going to be a lot of fun to retire, I can imagine.
“You’ve seen a lot of people, athletes retire in the past. It seems a very difficult statement to make, a very difficult press conference to have. But when I’m ready to do that, I’ll be making that decision knowing it’s the right thing to do.”
Last year, Earnhardt at first thought that he had suffered a sinus infection but then continued to have issues with balance and nausea. He realized that he might have suffered concussions in wrecks on June 12 at Michigan and July 2 at Daytona.
Neither of those wrecks was an incredibly hard hit — compared to his more violent 2012 crashes — but because Earnhardt showed enough continual symptoms of concussions, another hit could result in a serious head injury. After the July 9 race at Kentucky, he sat out the rest of the season.
Earnhardt might be defined by the 2001 season, when his seven-time Cup champion father, Dale Earnhardt, died on the final lap of the Daytona 500. He had two emotional victories that season, the first in July at Daytona and then in the first NASCAR race after 9/11 at Dover.
That was just Earnhardt’s second full season driving for a team owned by his father — and then by his stepmother, Teresa, after his father’s death.
When Teresa wouldn’t give Earnhardt a piece of team ownership, he left after the 2007 season to drive for Hendrick Motorsports. When Hendrick formed his organization in 1983, he did so with the help of fabricator Robert Gee, Earnhardt’s maternal grandfather.
Earnhardt struggled in his first three seasons at Hendrick, winning just one race. After that, he showed improvement. In 2011, his first season with crew chief Steve Letarte, he didn’t win a race but finished seventh in the points. He won once in 2012, and he finished fifth in the standings in 2013. He won seven races in 2014 and 2015 but didn’t make the final round of the new elimination-style Chase. He was on pace to make the Chase again in 2016 before stepping out of the seat.
His best points finish is third, coming in 2003, the last year before the Chase format was implemented.
Earnhardt’s role in the sport goes beyond driving. He also owns a team in the Xfinity Series. The team name — JR Motorsports — initially could not use the name “Jr Motorsports” because he didn’t own the rights to his name.
His sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, and Hendrick co-own his Xfinity team.
Earnhardt won two driving titles in the Xfinity Series, driving for his father in 1998 and 1999. He won as a co-owner for Chance 2 Motorsports (which he co-owned with his stepmother) in 2004 and 2005 with driver Martin Truex Jr. and then as a co-owner of JR Motorsports with Chase Elliott as the driver in 2014.
Although Earnhardt’s life revolves around racing, he is comfortable living a life unlike that of his father, who was more of an outdoorsman, and in the public spotlight from the first time he stepped in a race car. Earnhardt has a western town built on his property, a section of woods with damaged race cars (a race car graveyard of sorts) and a go-kart track complete with homemade billboards.
His Twitter profile describes Earnhardt: “Retired dealership service mechanic. Former backup fullback for the Mooresville Blue Devils varsity soccer team. Aspiring competition BBQ Pitmaster.”
That is pure Earnhardt, not really taking himself as seriously as many of his avid fans. Since joining Twitter after winning the 2014 Daytona 500, he has heavily interacted with his fans.
Those fans wish they could see him race after this season but won’t blame him for his decision.
On a trip to Germany in 2015, Earnhardt proposed to Amy Reimann at a church where his ancestors had worshiped centuries ago. They got married on New Year’s Eve