Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retire at the end of the 2017 NASCAR season

Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, will retire after the end of the 2017 season.

“After 18 seasons and more than 600 races behind the wheel, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will bring his NASCAR Cup Series driving career to a close at the conclusion of 2017,” said the statement from HENDRICKMOTORSPORTS.COM

Earnhardt first shared the news with members of his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team.

His father, Dale, was also one of the sport’s most popular stars. He was killed while driving at the Daytona 500 in 2001

The younger Earnhardt, 42, will discuss his decision in a press conference this afternoon. He will be joined by Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, for whom Earnhardt has driven since 2008. The two first met about the driver’s decision on March 29, Hendrick added.

Driver Mark Martin was among the first of his peers to acknowledge the news, with a Tweet that said: “I'm really excited for the next chapter in @DaleJr and @AmyEarnhardt lives. JR has made #NASCAR so much better and will continue to do so.”

Brad Keselowski‏ also tweeted “You've helped make this a better sport for so many of us, we wish you all the best in your retirement.”

Earnhardt’s wife, Amy, sent out a statement applauding her husband’s decision. “I’m so proud of Dale for working so hard to get back and even prouder for his courage and self awareness to make the decision to retire,” she tweeted. “I’m sure God has many other great plans for him and us.”

Online reaction to the retirement news from fans was swift, with many saying his departure will impact the sport’s popularity.

“The PomPom Girl” tweeted, “There goes 67 percent of the fans. I understand the why but it doesn't make it any easier. He’s a perfect representative of the sport and class.” Another fan said simply, “Sundays won't be the same.”

“I about gave up NASCAR when we lost his dad,” George Cumbee posted on Facebook. “I've tried hard to stay with it with Dale Jr. Now with him leaving I'll have to find something else. With all the changes and this the sport is not what it once was.”

“The only reason I have watched NASCAR for the last few years and now he's retiring,” posted Michael Milazzo on Facebook. “You had big shoes to fill and you did your best. Go enjoy life now good luck to you JR.”

Earnhardt quickly trended on Twitter in the Charlotte area, and there were more than 24,000 tweets about him within an hour or so of the announcement.

Earnhardt made his first career Cup Series start on May 30, 1999, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Since then, the Kannapolis native has captured 26 points-paying Cup race wins and been voted by fans as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver a record 14 consecutive years, stated Hendrick Motorsports. He has qualified for the NASCAR playoffs eight times.

Now in the midst of his 18th full-time season at the elite Cup level, Earnhardt made his 600th career series start on March 26 at Fontana, California. He will compete in his final NASCAR Cup Series race on Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports said it will announce plans for its 2018 team alignment at a later date, said NASCAR.com.

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