Dale Earnhardt, Jr., will run his final race as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver at Homestead Miami Speedway Sunday. A two-decade career pockmarked by a series of debilitating concussions prompted NASCAR’s perennial Most Popular Driver to announce that he will step away from the sport at season’s end, relinquishing the seat in Rick Hendrick’s potent No. 88 Chevrolet while still blessed with physical and mental faculties necessary to live a normal, happy life after racing.
|Dale, Jr. will be missed|
Dale seems fine with that decision. The rest of us, however, are struggling with the idea of a NASCAR race without Junior in it.
Drivers come and go with time. They always have, and they always will. Father Time is undefeated, and Earnhardt is not the first driver to be coerced into an early retirement by injury. As safe as NASCAR has become in recent years, Dale Jr. knows better than most how cruel this game can be, and how tenuous our grip is on tomorrow.
We will most certainly miss him on the race track, where every pass generated a joyous eruption from the grandstands. Junior never equaled the on-track success enjoyed by his legendary father, but if he had been born Dale Smith, Jr. -- rather than Dale Earnhardt -- his 26 career MENCS wins would have him discussed alongside the sport’s elite. Add another 24 victories and two championships in Xfinity Series competition and you’ve got a resume that 99% of racers would be proud to call their own.
It is off the track, however, where Earnhardt will be missed most.
|Junior's Homestead throwback car|
Over the years, he has gone from a reticent, painfully shy interview to one of the most insightful and candid voices in the sport. In the early days of his career, Earnhardt’s press-conference repertoire was limited to, “yup, nope” and “guess so.” Not yet able – or willing -- to step out of his father’s all-enveloping shadow, Junior struggled to find his voice, staring at the ground, sucking nervously on his lower lip and wondering aloud why reporters and fans cared about his opinion at all.
In time, however, Junior became his own man. The loss of his father, coupled with the painful and senseless demise of the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. race team taught him valuable lessons about the unfairness of life. An eventual move to the juggernaut Hendrick Motorsports organization established him as a superstar in his own right; far more than just his father’s son.
In subsequent seasons, the once subdued Earnhardt slowly evolved into a Media Center favorite; a “go to guy” for reporters in search of insightful quotes and opinions on the current state of the sport.
Earnhardt always seemed to feel a sense of responsibility when dealing with the media. He told reporters once, “If you’re going to ask me a question, the least I can do is to think about my answer.”
|Earnhardt was thoughtful with the media|
Far more than the wins and Top-5 finishes, that’s what I will miss about Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
In a testosterone-rich sport where the reaction to injury has historically been “suck it up and walk it off,” Earnhardt singlehandedly changed the tenor of the conversation. After suffering a concussion in a high-speed crash at Talladega Superspeedway, Junior’s decision to step out of the car in the midst of the 2012 playoffs changed the way professional athletes – in all sports -- look at head injuries. If it was okay for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to put his health above all else, it was okay for others to do so, as well.
We will never know how many lives have been impacted – or even saved -- by his example.
With that said, however, Earnhardt is already dropping subtle hints that Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 may not be his final race, after all. Spirits soared here at Homestead earlier today, when he asked reporters whether NASCAR rules would allow him to take part in next season’s Xfinity Series finale. Whether he’s truly thinking of racing again one day, or simply yanking NASCAR Nation’s collective chain, Earnhardt proved once again that very few athletes “move the needle” as effortlessly as he.
|"Quickly making up for lost time..."|
Whether or not he ever straps in for another NASCAR race, Earnhardt will continue leave an indelible mark. Next season, he will move to the broadcast booth as an analyst for NBC Sports, bringing his unique insight and perspective to fans around the globe. It is entirely possible that Earnhardt will prove more valuable to NASCAR as a TV analyst than he was as a driver, and his JR Motorsports Xfinity Series team has established itself as one of the premier organizations in NASCAR’s second-tier.
Junior may be retiring as a full-time driver, but he’s definitely not going away. With a loving wife and a new baby on the way, Earnhardt is finally poised to experience the joys of life, outside the race car. By his own admission, he was a bit late arriving at that particular dance. But from all indications, he and Amy are quickly making up for lost time.
We wish him the best in that, and in his continuing efforts here in NASCAR.
Thanks, Dale, for sharing yourself with us. Thanks for sharing your talent, your intensity and your competitive fire. Thanks for sharing your successes and failures, your triumphs and your tragedies. Thanks for making us a part of your family, and for becoming part of ours.
Godspeed, and thanks for the memories.