When I saw the news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was retiring at the end of the season, my mind immediately raced back to February 23, 2001, and Junior as a 26-year-old kid in a baggy orange sweatshirt and red hat facing the world five days after his father died. In my career, I have attended far too many press conferences and junkets, but this one sticks out.
After five days of processing his grief, what did Junior do? He apologizes for being selfish.
At Tuesday’s press conference he said, “I’m at peace with the decision. I’m more concerned with the fallout. I didn’t want to disappoint people,” and I saw that kid again with the red hat turned backwards. Same demeanor. Same concern for everyone else.
But in this decision to hang up his helmet in NASCAR’s top level at the end of the year is finally Junior showing concern for himself and getting out from under the burden of the lofty expectations inherent in his name since before his dad’s death and the grief after. He raced a week after his father died, because that is what everyone thought he should do at the time – or so he thought – because he was a racecar driver and an Earnhardt. He carried a torch for his family name, legions of fans and for NASCAR. He became the link for the old timers to still care about racing. He was the lineage that connected the past with the present and the future.
As the NASCAR community begins to look back at Junior’s career, it will be hard for many to untangle his legacy from his father. While surely it colors the story, to simply look at it through that lens will be a true disservice to both. To paraphrase Jay-Z, “neither are businessmen, they are a business, man.” Senior understood how to take his persona on the track and market it. He was darn good at it, but Junior is better. At the end of the year, he will be walking away one of the richest men in the history of the sport with an enduring legacy.
Many naysayers will look back on his career and say it was a disappointment. I’ve already heard some of it: “He never won a championship. His daddy won seven of ‘em,” or “He only won 26 races. His daddy won 73.” All true, but none of it detracts from his legacy or his impact on the sport. He has been the face of the sport for 16 years now. People who know nothing of NASCAR know who Dale Earnhardt Jr. is.
After the sport lost Dale Earnhardt Sr., his son kept it relevant. He kept the old guy who hated the Chase, and the next version of the Chase, and the version after that, and Nextel and Sprint, and the car of tomorrow with that stupid wing, and Toyota, and Brian France, and leaving Darlington and Rockingham coming back to the race track or tuning in to radio and TV. Would NASCAR be in a better place had he won more races or some championships? Probably. But that is a lot to put on one man who was working as hard as he could to manage expectations and lead something that resembled a normal life.
I’m sad to see Junior retire, but I can’t say I am surprised by the announcement. In the past five years, he has missed 20 races due to concussions. He recently got married and wants to start a family. Sometimes we forget that Junior was no Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott; he was in his mid-20s before getting his Cup ride. He will be 43 at the end of the season. Stepping away with your health intact (as much as it can be) is something for which I applaud him. His next phase in life will be starting on his own terms I hope that next phase is on the TV broadcast; he did a great job last year when he was in the booth. But that’s just me being a bit selfish.
As a fan of the sport, I hate to see Junior go. I am the old-school race fan who likes that he is a link back to his dad, who was a link back to his dad, who was a link back to guys like Cale Yarborough and David Pearson and Richard Petty. Junior retiring is the end of an era in NASCAR. 2018 will be the first season without a full-time Earnhardt racing since 1978, which happens to be the year I was born.
But as a person, and someone who has spent a lot of time around racing, racecars and racecar drivers, I’m happy for him. He gets to be like the rest of us and be selfish. He gets to chase his next adventure away from the pressure of being Dale Earnhardt’s son and namesake. He put in his time making everyone else happy, now he gets to do it for himself.
Andy Cagle writes a weekly NASCAR column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.