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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement announcement shows him at his best

April 25, 2017

Dale mug

It’s not a normal Tuesday. I woke up, took the phone off its charger and there, greeting me at 5:30AM was the news that Dale Earnhardt Jr has decided to hang up his helmet at the end of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (MENCS) season in November.

We’ve all known this day would come, especially as Earnhardt missed the second half of last season, recovering from concussion-like symptoms. During that time, Junior continued to run his JR Xfinity team, got to know his wife Amy even better and considered his future. He knew he wanted to continue to race if his body permitted; his multitude of fans wanted the same thing.

The 2017 season hasn’t been kind to the third-gen driver. He’s got no race wins, no stage wins and has no points that would place him in the end-of-season playoffs. He’s 24th in points and has been a pin-ball on many occasions in the early season, scaring anyone that follows the sport and this particular driver. He crashed out of the most recent event, held Monday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

When Verizon IndyCar Series four-time champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti had his career-ending accident in Houston in 2013, there were many that sighed relief as the Scotsman stated his intent to retire, helped by the excellent advice of Dr. Stephen Olvey, a physician responsible, in part, for saving Alex Zanardi’s life. Franchitti was told the next hit, when there was one, might end his ability to think coherently – something that took him a long time to do after the career-ending shunt – and another bad concussion could cause even worse symptoms than those he was experiencing at the time.

No doubt, Dale Earnhardt Jr has consulted with many people prior to making his decision to retire known. Wife Amy, employer Rick Hendrick, manufacturer Chevrolet, his sister Kelley and others close to him. Earnhardt started his 600th NASCAR MENCS race in California earlier this year. He’s got 26 Cup victories, including wins at the most prestigious Daytona 500, ten years apart in 2004 and 2014.

Fourteen times voted Most Popular Driver, Earnhardt Jr will be lauded from this day forth as he sets foot to any racetrack. He should be. Not only for his driving prowess, which continues to be top-of-the-line, but also for his humanity. And humility. When Earnhardt Jr crashed out of Monday’s Bristol race, postponed due to weather, he was, as ever, circumspect as he spoke with the media. The car had an oil problem. The crew noticed spills during his pit stop. “Went into Turn 1 on the restart and the car just went straight into the wall with oil all over the tires.”

Earnhardt action

Some drivers might have whined about it; Junior just spoke of the incident in a matter-of-fact manner. “We weren’t running that great, but we were working on our car and trying to figure out how to get it to run better. And get something out of today,” he said, “but we are going to have another bad finish. We have had a lot of them this year. It’s going to be tough.”

Interviews with Dale Earnhardt Jr have always been to-the-point. He never goes off-subject and never treats the media like the idiots we can often be. He bounded into the 600th race press conference at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana a bit early, answered all questions with a big smile and seemed genuinely happy to be there. He stayed later than expected and just seemed to eat it all up.

The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr from the MENCS garage and racetrack will be even more dramatic than that of Jeff Gordon, who has, not unexpectedly, moved to the television booth. We’ve watched this son of a seven-time champion grow up and mature before our eyes. From the time he joined NASCAR’s elite drivers on-track, expectations have been huge.

Sure he didn’t win a championship – and it doesn’t look good for his final season thus far – but he’s been a meticulous racer who has given as much as he’s been able, excelling when the car and the fates cooperate, wringing the best possible result when the car bites back.

This is a stunning development for NASCAR and for Hendrick Motorsports. The team said its plans for the No. 88 will be made later, once the enormity of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s decision settles in. NASCAR chairman Brian France weighed in: “His passion for the sport will leave an impact on NASCAR that will be felt over its entire history. Over his 20-plus year career, Dale has proven himself a leader with a deep commitment to so many areas of the sport – all the way to its roots.”

As for this writer, I’ve got to agree with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s teammates and friends in NASCAR, all of whom are happy for the driver. Over the course of his NASCAR life, Dale Earnhardt Jr has earned respect for his driving capabilities but even more for his humanity. “In sports, athletes like @DaleJr come along once in a lifetime: talented, popular, humble, honest, real – you don’t get that combo often. Well done,” tweeted Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive VP and chief racing development officer. I’ve got to agree.

Words and Photos by Anne Proffit

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2 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on saywhatumean2say and commented:
    For those of you, like me, that don’t keep up. ~~dru~~

  2. Sad to see him go but very appreciative for what he has done for this sport. Thank you for the article.
    Follow me at https://life7640.wordpress.com/

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