Tuesday, April 25, 2017

COMMENTARY: Dale Junior Calls It a Career

It’s official. 

The 2017 season will be Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s last a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver.

The third-generation driver met with team owner Rick Hendrick to inform him of his decision on March 29 of this year, and the team confirmed just moments ago that after 18 seasons and more than 600 career MENCS starts, Earnhardt will step away at the end of the 2017 campaign. Earnhardt has driven for HMS since 2008, collecting nine of his 26 victories with the organization.

One year ago, concussion symptoms forced Earnhardt from the cockpit of his No. 88 Chevrolet for the second time in his career. NASCAR’s 14-time Most Popular Driver missed the final 18 races of the season, prompting widespread speculation that he would never return to competition.

“You want it to be on your terms,” said Earnhardt during the lengthy recuperation that followed. “You want to be able to say, ‘Alright, I’ve had enough. I’m done.’ If you get hurt and are forced to quit, that’d be incredibly emotional.”
Earnhardt refused to be carried from the battlefield on his shield last season; vanquished by a foe hidden deep inside his brain. After months of healing and therapy, he returned to competition in February at Daytona International Speedway, climbing back behind the wheel of his familiar, silver-and-blue Chevrolet and running up-front until a mid-race crash spoiled his bid for Victory Lane.
He returned to the sport on his own terms. And now, he will leave it the same way; walking away -- of his own accord -- while ranking as one of the most competitive and popular drivers of his era, or any other.

It is a fitting exit for a man who has given so such to the sport that has framed his existence from the beginning.

His childhood included a superstar father who was habitually absent while fulfilling the obligations of a NASCAR champion, often at the expense of his own children. Many of the photographs of Earnhardt, Jr.’s youth feature him in the background of various Victory Lane ceremonies, home from military school just long enough to stand on the sidelines as his legendary father celebrates with team members, sponsors and a stepmother who -- to this day – did little to include him in her husband’s happiness.

After such a rocky start, the relationship between Earnhardt Sr. and Jr. took many years to repair. And just when it had finally begun to bear fruit, “The Intimidator” was killed on our sport’s grandest stage, leaving his youngest son to shoulder an impossibly heavy burden of expectation that he had neither asked for, nor welcomed.

Despite a pair of championships in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Earnhardt, Jr. has heard his share of criticism over the years.

“He’s not his daddy.”

“He’s not aggressive.”

“He’s not a seven-time champion.”

Admittedly, Earnhardt, Jr. has never won a MENCS championship in his 18-year career. Currently ranked 24th in the championship standings, he is unlikely to do so this season, either. But at this point, who really cares?

When fans look back on Earnhardt’s career, they will certainly remember the wins and losses. But more importantly, they will remember the easygoing style that made him so beloved across NASCAR Nation. Last season, 25% of all NASCAR souvenir sales included Earnhardt’s name, number and/or sponsor. His fan base crosses international, economic and intellectual borders, and NASCAR will be hard-pressed to replace him in that regard.

Equally difficult to replace will be the honesty, humility and sense of humor that have made Earnhardt a Media Center favorite since his earliest days in the sport. No one puts more thought into an answer than Junior, and while he has never been a standard-bearer or spokesman for his fellow drivers, his opinion carries a weight and importance that very few competitors have ever equalled.

Despite his multi-million dollar bank account, Earnhardt remains a man of the people. Like his father before him, Junior resonates with the working man; the guys who build tree houses in their backyards and fill the woods with old junk cars.
Make no mistake about it, however. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is not his father. Never has been, never will be.
They share a name and an avocation, but that’s where the similarities end. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is no Intimidator. The “bull in a china shop” style that made his father a cult hero has never been part of Earnhardt the Younger’s racing DNA. With Junior in your rear-view mirror, you are more likely to be outfoxed that outmuscled; a fact that never sat entirely well with the small segment of his fan base that cheered him because of his genetics, rather than his personality.
Earnhardt has always been his own man. A man that we will miss seeing behind the wheel of a 200-mph NASCAR race car.
But let’s be honest. Since his injury at the midpoint of last season, most observers understood that Earnhardt’s driving career would likely be measured in months, rather than years. In many ways, he has raced on borrowed time since then, willfully dodging the high-speed impact that could end his career at any moment. If he is able to do so for another 28 weeks, the third-generation driver will walk away with life and limb intact, able to devote his attention to his JR Motorsports Xfinity Series organization, and – more importantly – to life outside of racing.
Recently married to the former Amy Reimann, Earnhardt spoke in January of last year about the impact marriage has had on his life.
"It's a very cool thing,” he said, “and I am so frustrated with myself that I didn't do it sooner. I didn't know things could be this good. It’s a great feeling to be able to depend on someone and (have) them be accountable and be there."

"Having her in my life has made my life an amazing thing.”

Now, there will be time for Dale and Amy to grow and explore as a couple, perhaps even starting that family he has spoken so glowingly of in the past.

And as for us, we will be just fine, you and I. NASCAR will survive without Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in the starting lineup, just as it did 15 years ago with his legendary father.


  1. Anonymous10:08 PM

    "And as for us, we will be just fine, you and I. NASCAR will survive without Dale Earnhardt, Jr., in the starting lineup, just as it did 15 years ago with his legendary father."

    Dave, we all know perfectly well you make your livelihood pontificating on all things NASCAR but if you honestly believe that Jr's retirement doesn't raise every red flag and set off every alarm then it's time to put down the microphone and take up whittling on your front porch. This is the absolute last thing this sports needs right now.

    On the bright side it gives Fox and NBC 10 months to figure how not to show the grandstands while airing the races in 2018.

    1. To Anonymous - while your point about NASCAR's decline in popularity certainly has validity, you seem to go too far in declaring that without Earnhardt Junior there is nothing worth watching in the sport either at the moment or down the road. Sports is NEVER about just one participant.

      Having lived through the 1970s era of racing - NASCAR and Indycars - I've seen at least four transitions in driver talent apiece in those two forms of racing, from the Petty-Pearson-Cale-Allison-Baker-etc. era of NASCAR and the Foyt-Unsers-Rutherford-Johncock-Andetti era of Indycars through to today. I certainly agree the present NASCAR generation has a far greater share of stars heavily-disliked by fans (and often with objective reason) than most between Harvick, the Busch brothers, Jimmie Johnson, the now-retired Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart, and Joey Logano and that drivers genuinely worth rooting for are not advancing in success - best shown in the 2014-16 period where over some twenty-three months the Cup series failed to see a first-time winner. But historically the sport's driver generations issue takes care of itself.

      It seems a broader issue that is related to the issue of drivers who may step to the fore of NASCAR is the issue of whether there will also be a rise of newer teams or comebacks by presently-struggling teams, as the sport's competitive depth in BOTH drivers and teams does warrant monitoring.

  2. I'm glad Dale Jr. is retiring, because like a lot of people, I would hate to see him get injured or killed in this sport. I'm the same age as his father and I have a son close to the same age as Jr. As a father I'm glad to see my son and now a grandson develop over the years. Something that was denied to Dale Sr. Dale Jr. will never be his father and who would have wanted that. I'm glad that Dale Sr. spread his DNA among 4 children and you see a little bit of that in each and every one of them. Things may have been different had Dale Sr. not been lost to us 16 years ago, but they may have not been better for us. I like the man I see in Dale Jr. and I know Dale Sr. couldn't be more proud of him if he were here to see him. Let's hope that only good things will become of Jr.'s decision to retire.

  3. Anonymous6:56 AM

    ...Well, Mr. Moody is very involved in censoring what goes on his "comments page". But for the sake of humanity and kindness, Ralph was not the only one who lost a father. I think how hard it is for Kerry, not the son of Brenda Gee, who birthed Kelley and Jr. to listen to the stories of JUNIOR missing his DAD. And this narrative obviously continues, not so much in this article but the culture of EARNHARDT thinking Dale JUNIOR was the only one to suffer. I just feel bad for Kerry and his family, maybe some kindness in future writing could be thrown the elder male EARNHARDT child and his GRANDSON who is still racing, albeit not a a great level..but hearing and reading how insensitive the NASCAR media is saying "sad day, no more EARNHARDTS racing, is well myopic and beyond hero worship. From the faux statement alone.

    1. I haven't heard any media talking about "no more Earnhardts in NASCAR," since we are all pretty familiar with Jeffrey.

    2. Bill Waugh2:44 PM

      On the morning drive yesterday one of the hosts said it will be hard to watch the Daytona 500 without an Earnhardt in it.

  4. Gary T8:01 AM

    Lots of speculation over what Junior may do next, be it late model racing, TV, etc, but this is the guy who could probably put the Nascar Hall Of Fame into the black for the first time. Its no secret that Junior is a huge history buff when it comes to Nascar, so adding him to the staff at The Hall would likely provide a huge boost in attendance. Not saying that Winston Kelley and his staff are lacking in their efforts to preserve the history of the sport, but Dale Jr brings an unprecedented fan base to anything that he does. But whatever he does, he will have fun doing it, and the sport is lucky to have him.

  5. I was starting to think this blog "called it a career"

  6. That Junior was "not his daddy" is the biggest quality he had - he was his own man and classier and more professional than some of his contemporaries.

  7. This will defiantly speed up the slow death of NASCAR but I'm happy for him I think after last year it's time. Not really worth the risk at his age to get another concussion. He really has carried NASCAR on his shoulders and will be missed.

  8. Anonymous2:52 PM

    It is sad our champions age and move on. Dale jr. was and always will be a gentleman. His fans knew that instantly when the spotlight focused on him in 2001. It is unfortunate that a championship wasn't in the cards before his final year. Now NASCAR has to deal with post Jr. How will they keep his fans? Not everyone (not a majority for sure) will keep watching the racing hoping for a new hero to replace him. Unfortunately, there is no one to step into his shoes.

    A champion without a trophy I hope he becomes a great Dad and husband and visits with us from time to time in the announcer's booth.

    Thanks Jr.

  9. Anonymous11:10 AM

    We have lost some HUGE talents the last couple of years. Smoke, Edwards, Jeff Gordon, now Junior. I know the sport is changing, but honestly the new crop of racers are very sterile and lack personality lie these guys. It's going to be hard to watch soon. Sorry it's the way I feel. And please remember Senior's birthday was Saturday. It should be celebrated every year by NASCAR. He is the one we couldn't lose but because of him so many racers are alive today because of the changes to the cars and tracks

    1. Changes to the cars and tracks were inevitable. Senior was far too controversial to be seen as some kind of beloved figure; people need to stop glossing over his negatives - the on-track bullying and the Al Davis-esque quality in his personality.

      NASCAR has lost some huge talent in recent years and one further laments the drivers who weren't there - the talented drivers who either died before achieving in Cup (Rob Moroso and Kenny Irwin, to name two), who never made it that far (Jeff Purvis, Ted Christopher, Tim Steele among others) or who for one reason or another never achieved the same level of success (Ward Burton, Bobby Hamilton, John Andretti, Joe Nemechek, Ricky Craven, etc.)