Tom Sorensen

Good-guy Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s legacy: Humility, happiness – and concussion awareness

Dale Earnhardt Jr. announces his retirement

Surrounded by family and friends, including Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt says he'll wrap it up at the end of the 2017 NASCAR season as a regular driver.
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Surrounded by family and friends, including Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt says he'll wrap it up at the end of the 2017 NASCAR season as a regular driver.

NASCAR is losing one of the good guys. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will retire at the end of the season.

Earnhardt has been voted the sport’s most popular driver for 14 consecutive years. He is so well liked that even if doesn’t race next season he might stretch his winning streak to 15.

I’ve sat with him at Charlotte Motor Speedway for one-on-one interviews. Earnhardt’s humility reminds me of the King, Richard Petty.

Petty believes one of his missions is to sell his sport, and he does. Earnhardt does, too. As well known as he is, celebrity doesn’t cling to him. He could not be more of a regular guy if he practiced.

Earnhardt told me that when his Cup career ended he’d like to go back to the past, take a late model car to Myrtle Beach and race there. And even if they didn’t race late models there, they’d start. At that level, a race wouldn’t be the production a Cup race is. At the Cup level there are so many hands working on a car that it’s like going on tour with a football team.

With a sprint car, it would be Earnhardt and his buddies at Myrtle Beach Speedway, the racing reduced and raw and enjoyable. And if fans found out about it, he might attract more that weekend than the Cup race did.

However, Earnhardt talked about the Sprint car before he was married and before he suffered the second of his two concussions.

The second concussion came last season, and Earnhardt sat out the final 18 races. Courage was required. Racers are supposed to race, and this is a man who loves his sport. But he wasn’t ready to return to the car.

I’m not an expert, but I missed three months of work with a concussion. Most of the time I felt sub-human. I’d get to a curb and think, how do I do this? You can’t rush your return from that sub-human life. A concussion has no speedometer. You’ll know when it’s time.

Earnhardt’s concussion has helped change the way the injury is perceived. For so long the reaction to a possible concussion has been: Ah, I just fell, no big deal; ah, I just bumped my head, no big deal; ah, I just took a soccer ball to the head or a helmet to the head or a fastball to the head, no big deal.

Many people realized that if a concussion can rearrange Earnhardt’s life, a concussion can rearrange theirs.

In one conversation with Earnhardt, he talked about being a good guy. He did not bring up the subject. Late in the interview, I asked what he thought his legacy would be. He said that being a good guy might be it.

I think that’s a fine legacy. I hope Earnhardt still does, too.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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