Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced Tuesday that he would retire from racing at the end of the 2017 NASCAR season. Like a lot of race fans, I will be sorry to see him leave, but I am glad that he is opening that door on his own terms.
Earnhardt Jr. has long been one of my favorite athletes to cover. He has a self-deprecating sense of humor, he never lords it over other people because of who his father was and he’s as honest and compelling of an interview subject as you will ever find.
Here are four things I am very thankful for as Earnhardt prepares to leave the NASCAR stage for good (although he’s got a lot of rocking-chair gifts in his future, since NASCAR’s season stretches until November):
He’s leaving because he wants to, not because he has to.
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The concussion issues that made Earnhardt miss the second half of the 2016 season could have forced him from the sport permanently. But he wanted to race one more season.
As Dale Jr. said in Charlotte before this season began: “All I’ve ever said is that I wanted to be able to make that decision myself. I don’t know when I’m going to stop racing, but I want to be able to make that choice and not have it made for me.” He’s doing that now.
How often do you find an athlete of Earnhardt’s caliber who consistently makes you laugh out loud? Here’s Earnhardt’s Twitter biography: “Retired dealership service mechanic. Former backup fullback for the Mooresville Blue Devils varsity soccer team. Aspiring competition BBQ Pitmaster. Beer!”
Long ago, in one of the occasional one-on-one interviews I have had with Earnhardt over the years, we were talking about TV shows. He started waxing very poetically about the then-new American version of “The Office” and basically would not let me leave the interview until I promised to start watching it. With that promise, he gave me dozens of hours of comedic bliss.
He has preserved – and updated – his father’s legacy.
It is both a burden and a blessing to have the name “Dale Earnhardt Jr.” and be the namesake of perhaps the greatest stock-car driver who has ever lived. Dale Jr. has long known he will never be the driver his father was. While Junior has won more than two dozen races at NASCAR’s highest level, his father won seven overall championships at that same Cup level. Dale Jr. has never won a single overall title and won’t this year, either – although I believe his career is ultimately worthy of a spot in the sport’s hall of fame.
But Earnhardt Jr. has always talked openly about his dad, the great moments they shared together and what he went through when Dale Sr. died in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500. In the meantime, Earnhardt Jr. has always appealed to a younger, hipper crowd while staying true to his Kannapolis roots.
There has been that off-and-on feud with his stepmother, Teresa.
Earnhardt Jr. told me in 2006 – back when Teresa Earnhardt still owned the car he drove – that sometimes he wished he didn’t share his father’s name because of all the drama involved in trying to gain rights to it.
“If I didn’t have the same name – and I kind of wish I didn’t sometimes – I wouldn’t have to be worrying about it,” he said then.
In 2016, in another one of our interviews, Dale Jr. publicly took sides with his half-brother Kerry in Kerry’s ongoing legal dispute against Teresa Earnhardt about the usage of the Earnhardt surname for business purposes.
Like his father, Earnhardt says what he feels at the time and spends his money on what he wants (for Dale Jr., it has been the vintage Western town he has had built on his own property). Unlike his father, he has the sort of crossover appeal to appear in countless rock and country music videos and on every late-night TV show you can name. He also doesn’t care about what people decide is cool – he told me once he liked Barry Manilow’s music very much and didn’t care what other people thought of that.
For all of Dale Jr.’s fame, he is often at his best in quieter moments. An introvert by nature, he can work a crowd whenever he needs to but is much more at home in smaller, more intimate settings.
Any high-profile athlete can do something nice for a terminally ill child once, all the while making sure through his PR folks that the TV cameras are there to document what a nice guy he is.
But Earnhardt? He is one of only a handful of athletes who has facilitated more than 200 wishes through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I mean, 200?! Think how many days in his life that has involved. Dale Sr. did similar sorts of things for children, mostly under the radar as well.
If Dale Sr. were alive today, he would be very proud of Dale Jr. And I imagine he would bark something at him like: “You’re dang right it’s time to retire, son! You just got married on New Year’s Eve! You’re 42 years old. You’re wanting to have a family. What the &$#!!! are you waiting for?”
Now I just hope Dale Jr. has an injury-free, happiness-filled final season. I also will go on the record and predict here that he’s going to win at least one more Cup race before it’s all over. The racing gods – or the officials at NASCAR (wink, wink) – will make sure of it.
And then, with his wife, Amy, and his favorite cold beverage by his side, Dale Jr. can take a drive into the sunset going whatever speed he likes, heading toward a lifetime of fatherhood and barbecue and whatever else he wants.
He deserves that, and much more.