On His Own Terms
Dale Earnhardt Jr. announces his decision to retire at season's end
It was bound to happen, and now it finally will: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring from NASCAR.
The surprise announcement came Tuesday morning and smacked the NASCAR world sideways, instantly moving Jimmie Johnson's rain-delayed win Monday at Bristol Motor Speedway to the back burner. Big news involving an Earnhardt in NASCAR just does that.
Earnhardt, a 42-year-old driver with a storied career that left his ardent and massive fan base always hoping for more, plans to finish his duties behind the wheel in his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series ride at the end of this season. The Nov. 19 Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be his last race in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 car.
"It's really simple. I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms," Earnhardt said Tuesday.
It was obvious from Earnhardt's tone and demeanor Tuesday that last season's scary brush with a fourth known concussion was the overriding factor in his decision to change direction and leave the full-time job as a Cup driver he's had since 2000. Earnhardt sat out the last 18 races of the 2016 season after concussion symptoms left him with substantial issues affecting balance, stamina and more. Earnhardt traced the symptoms to a crash in June 2016 at Michigan International Speedway.
Earnhardt worked through an extensive rehabilitation regimen to return to life as normal. In the process, Earnhardt's openness about the struggles he endured and the reasons for the caution around his return made him one of the leading voices in sports in terms of raising the profile of head injuries. Undoubtedly, an offseason marriage to his longtime girlfriend Amy played a role in Earnhardt's vision of his personal future.
Earnhardt returned this season at the Daytona 500 in strong spirits and was leading the season-opening race that he adores so much when a crash in front of him wiped away a chance to win the career-defining event for a third time. In the seven races since, bad luck has been the overwhelming trend for Earnhardt, including a crash due to an oil leak Monday at Bristol Motor Speedway.
"I feel healthy, and I'm having a really good time driving the cars," Earnhardt said. "I'm excited about the races that I have left."
It was also obvious Tuesday that Earnhardt didn't arrive easily at this decision to step away. He talked about the disappointment he knew that the news would cause for his fanbase -- which had voted him NASCAR's most popular driver for 14 consecutive years -- and for his team, sponsors and family.
"It's really emotional. I just don't like letting people down," Earnhardt said during a news conference assembled at the Hendrick Motorsports campus outside of Charlotte with team owner Rick Hendrick seated next to him. "We all depend on each other. To come in one day and say I'm not going to be here is difficult."
Earnhardt made the decision to not pursue an extended contract with Hendrick Motorsports -- his current deal expires after this season -- during an emotional meeting with Hendrick on March 29. It is the culmination of a career that is mostly unparalleled in sports: a legendary figure's son establishing his own footing and success in the same arena while not letting the imposing shadow entrap and ruin him. Earnhardt begins his retirement tour with 26 career wins but no Cup Series championship, the lone missing piece from an otherwise splendid career.
"I've accomplished way more than I've ever dreamed. Way more," Earnhardt said. "So, I'm good. I'm good on that front. I'm so blessed on what I was able to achieve."
Earnhardt also made sure to note that doesn't mean he'll be slowing down this season. He also plans to run twice next season for his self-owned XFINITY Series team.
"This isn't the end of the road. I'm going to be in Richmond this weekend with my foot on the floor driving down the front straightaway," Earnhardt said. "I'm going to be on a bit of a roller coaster this week, but I expect it'll be back to business in just a few days."