Dale Earnhardt Jr. has decided to retire after this season, as announced Tuesday morning by Hendrick Motorsports.
The news just broke, so I’m still collecting my thoughts, but here are some early reactions:
— We all knew Earnhardt would stop probably racing within the next few years, but it’s still really jarring now that the news is real. To see the words “Dale Earnhardt Jr.” and “retiring” sort of leaves a pit in the feeling of your stomach, because it’s really the end of an era. When you take into account that a very large percentage of NASCAR fans are part of Junior Nation, there will be many people who feel lost, saddened and unsure of where this leaves them now. The positive for them is they’ll have 28 more races to watch their favorite driver and prepare to say goodbye instead of just dealing with a sudden departure.
— In February of last year, I tagged along with Dale Jr. for a day to visit one of his car dealerships in Florida. The conversation turned to how much longer he might want to race (this was before the concussion) and something he said has stuck with me.
“I’m in great cars,” he said then. “How long will I have great cars? When I’m not in great cars anymore, driving cars might not be fun. I’ve saved my money, so I don’t have to be doing this. But I love it, because I’ve got great cars.”
We’ll find out more about his reasons during a retirement news conference later today, but he doesn’t seem to be having as much fun this year. His team isn’t running well or getting good finishes and he’s already in a big hole for making the playoffs — and it’s still only April.
It makes sense that would ask himself: Do I really want to do this all of this year and next year if I’m not going to be running up front and winning?
I don’t have any insight into his reasoning, but I’m guessing that played some sort of role.
— One driver does not make a sport. But Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Earnhardt made up a trifecta of star power — with Earnhardt being arguably the biggest star NASCAR has ever had — that transcended racing and could reach across the lines of sports and pop culture.
No, NASCAR isn’t going to die just because Earnhardt is leaving — nor will it be on life support. But NASCAR is sick, and it’s serious.
After Gordon left, there was unquestionably an impact on NASCAR attendance, TV ratings and interest. Some fans followed him throughout his career and were putting up with things they didn’t like about NASCAR just because they wanted to still watch their favorite driver. Once he was gone, they stopped watching and attending.
The same will happen with Earnhardt, but perhaps on a larger scale. That’s not good for a sport that’s already been struggling.
Thanks to the TV deal where FOX and NBC overpaid by billions, NASCAR (and the tracks, which get TV money) will be stable financially for awhile. But these next five or so years will be absolutely crucial in the sport’s history, because now is the time where NASCAR either builds new superstars or continues to trend downward.
Look, Earnhardt wasn’t going to be around for much longer regardless of whether it was this year or a couple years, so the time was coming when NASCAR would have to figure out how to exist without leaning on him. As it turns out, that time is starting in 2018.
— It’s a relief to know that Earnhardt will (hopefully) be leaving the sport by his own choice — not one made by doctors.
During that interview last year in Florida, he said: “The one thing I’m scared of is you’re physically injured and it just ends. It’s jerked out from under you. You don’t want that. You want it to be on your terms. Like, ‘Alright man, I think I’m done.’ You get months to mentally absorb it. If it’s thrown right there in your lap and it’s like it’s over, that’d be so emotional.”
When he suffered the concussion last summer that made him miss half the season, it seemed like a very real possibility he might not be able to race again — and that the end of his career wouldn’t be on his terms.
Now, as long as he stays healthy for the remainder of the season, Earnhardt will be able to climb out of the car in the way he wants. All the hard work it took for him to come back in the first place has to be more than worth it for him in that regard.
— Oh, so what about his replacement? The logical choice would be Alex Bowman, because he’s already worked with the 88 team and done well there (he almost won Phoenix, remember?). Bowman at least deserves a shot, and future star William Byron wouldn’t be hurt by spending another year in the Xfinity Series anyway.
But at the same time, I’m sure there are MANY drivers outside Hendrick Motorsports who would literally give up their pinkie toe for a chance to drive the 88 car, so perhaps it’s not so obvious.
— On a personal and professional level, I’m really going to miss covering Earnhardt. There’s something about his combination of candor, wit and humility that makes him the best interview in sports (at least that I’ve seen), and you really can’t replace a guy like that.
Dale Jr. is a normal dude trapped in a superstar’s life, and his fans identify with him because he acts and talks like they would if they found themselves in a similar situation.
Over the years, I’ve found Earnhardt to be respectful and genuine and someone who doesn’t try to hide behind corporate speak. There’s nothing fake about him, and people seem to connect with that. There’s a very sincere quality there, which is something you don’t find all that often with people of Earnhardt’s celebrity status.
The people who claimed Earnhardt was popular because of his last name have always missed the point. While the name may have led to his initial opportunity in the sport, he was able to cultivate an ever-growing fan base and keep it over time because of the person he is — not his name.