Silence blanketed the Hendrick Motorsports Team Center building Tuesday afternoon for three long minutes before Dale Earnhardt Jr. strode across the stage wearing a suit and tie.
Hardly anyone said a word. No music played. Just silence, save for the sound of people shifting in their chairs.
What was about to come in an hour-long news conference to discuss Earnhardt’s decision to retire? The tone was unclear, but it seemed like he could handle it in a variety of different ways.
Perhaps he’d be excited and buoyant, pumped about the future after making a decision to step away.
Maybe he’d get choked up, overcome with emotion over realizing his full-time racing career was coming to an end.
Or he could bring a motivational angle to the speech, trying to cheer his massive fan base and tell them everything was going to be OK.
In reality, it wasn’t any of those things. While Earnhardt said he was at peace with his decision and was happy with his career, he was solemn and “spun out” because he was fretting over how the news would be received by his fans.
Typical Earnhardt. A man driven by a fear of letting anyone down and a sense of duty to those he loves spent his retirement news conference thinking about other people instead of himself.
By the time he took the stage, most of those close to him had already been informed. He made a round of phone calls Monday night, breaking the news to a variety of people.
His fans, though, didn’t know until the news was made public Tuesday morning. And he was nervous as to how they’d react, because he didn’t want to bring them any pain.
“I’m very sad because I know that it’s definitely disappointing for a lot of people to wake up to that news this morning,” he said. “I know we’ve got a lot of fans that are very sad, for lack of a better way to describe it.
“So I feel that emotion as well, that what I’ve announced today has had that effect on a lot of people.”
Indeed, it was a tough day for his fans. Those on Twitter used words like “lost” and “heartbroken” to describe their emotions, spending the day crying their eyes out. People compared it to a breakup; others described it, sincerely, as one of the saddest days they’d experienced.
Those who aren’t hardcore Earnhardt fans might scoff at such reactions, but they’re very real. Even those fans who never met Earnhardt feel like they know him, because he speaks their language and they feel a connection — even if it’s a one-way relationship.
Earnhardt knows this, of course. He’s seen countless people rendered speechless or moved to tears by meeting him over the years. So even if the emotions seem silly to outsiders, Earnhardt wasn’t taking them lightly on Tuesday.
That he cares so much is a testament to why he became popular in the first place.
But after the initial shock, his fans may discover it’s not really the end. First, there are 28 more races this year where they get to say goodbye — a chance not all fans get (just ask Carl Edwards supporters).
Then, there are future races — at least two in the Xfinity Series next season and probably more to come — which will ease the transition for everyone.
Plus, he’ll still be around — just in a different capacity, he said. And that thought might help some fans dry their tears.
“I really enjoy making people happy,” he said. “I think I can replicate that in the next chapter of my life.”