The headline in USA Today on Tuesday morning summed things up painfully.
“NASCAR takes serious blow with Dale Earnhardt Jr. retirement.”
Fans and sports industry analysts echoed the idea, questioning how NASCAR could survive the loss of Dale Earnhardt Jr. not long after the departures of Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards.
“Tuesday’s news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will retire from driving at the end of this season comes as a hammer blow for a sport that has seen its star power fade in recent years,” said Mike Hembree for USA TODAY Sports
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“When Earnhardt races for what he says will be the final time this November, he’ll join a Hall of Fame-quality list of drivers and huge fan favorites who have permanently pitted in recent years.”
Hembree went on to note that Earnhardt’s retirement comes at a time when “the immediate future remains shaky for a sport already buffeted by declining attendance and sour television ratings.”
Yahoo! Sports predicted Earnhardt’s retirement would have more impact than the loss of Stewart, Gordon and Edwards, due in part to Earnhardt’s legendary father, NASCAR river Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was “the last driver left who so clearly bridges old NASCAR and new NASCAR,” said Nick Bromberg of Yahoo!Sports.
Added Yahoo! sports writer Jay Busbee: “You could make a strong case that he was more popular – or at least more universally beloved – than his father ever was. Sure, he trails his father in championships won, 7 to 0, but it’s virtually impossible to find anyone with something bad to say about Junior.”
SBNation’s Jordan Bianchi wrote Tuesday that Earnhardt’s planned departure “leaves a deep void” in the sport.
“Along with Earnhardt, these three (Stewart, Gordon and Edwards) were some of the sport's marquee stars with each making significant contributions that helped NASCAR enter the national lexicon and, at one time during the mid-2000s, push television ratings that rivaled the NFL,” Bianchi wrote.
Forbes magazine noted Tuesday that Earnhardt was the highest-paid driver in the sport every year from 2008 through 2015, despite winning only nine races during the time. “He was and remains the most bankable athlete in NASCAR,” said Forbes writer Kurt Badenhausen.
“Earnhardt's retirement is a major blow to NASCAR, which is already dealing with lower TV ratings and declining attendance. It now must deal with the loss of its biggest attraction.”