CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s never easy to be the son of a legend, especially when he is a tough-as-nails hero and the most feared man in his profession.
Follow in his footsteps? Forget it.
Just being able to drive cars was enough for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and if it made his daddy proud, well, hopefully somebody would tell him. The Earnhardt era of NASCAR opened its final chapter Tuesday when the driver known simply as Junior said he will retire at the end of this season, his 18th in the Cup series. It will bring to a close the golden days of the sport, when Lee and Richard Petty helped build a stock car series that they turned over to Dale Earnhardt to carry into the next phase.
When Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the burden fell on a young Earnhardt Jr. to fill a void and help heal the broken hearts of Earnhardt Nation. His decision to walk away did not come lightly for NASCAR’s most popular driver and it is a blow to a series scrambling to hang onto its fans.
“When my dad was doing so well and there were a couple of guys coming into the sport that were sons, it was difficult for them to replicate their dads’ success,” Earnhardt said. “I just saw even at an early age, before I was a driver, that growing up in that man’s shadow was going to be a real hard challenge.”
Earnhardt called the decision, revealed to team owner Rick Hendrick on March 29, “very bittersweet” and admitted there were tears as he prepared for Tuesday’s announcement. But he wanted the opportunity to go out on his own terms.
“Having influence over my exit only became meaningful when it started to seem most unlikely,” Earnhardt said. “As you know, I missed a few races last year and during that time I had to face the realization that my driving career may have already ended without me so much as getting a vote on the table. Of course, in life we’re not promised a vote, and that’s especially true in racing.”
Colorful, candid and talented, Earnhardt has been plagued by concussions the last several years and he missed half of last season recovering from a head injury. He had delayed contract talks on an extension to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet, and the two-time Daytona 500 winner will now call it quits in November.
“You deserve everything, all the awards and all of the accolades,” Hendrick said. “There will never be another Dale Earnhardt Jr. You’re the one.”
The news shocked and saddened drivers throughout the paddock.
“He has a tremendous sense of the history of NASCAR and, while he shares his father’s name, Dale has made a name for himself with his accomplishments in racing,” said Jeff Gordon, former teammate at Hendrick and once one of Dale Earnhardt’s biggest rivals.
Steve Letarte, the crew chief tasked with rebuilding Earnhardt’s shattered confidence during a lengthy slump in his career, said Earnhardt can’t be measured simply as a race car driver.
“Dale is all encompassing,” said the NBC analyst. “He carried the popularity of a sport on his shoulders. Anyone who tries to separate what he does behind the wheel to what he does in the sport doesn’t know Dale Jr.”
Added NASCAR chairman Brian France, “His passion for the sport will leave an impact on NASCAR that will be felt over its entire history.”
A third-generation racer, Earnhardt turns 43 in October, is newly married and has said he wants to start a family. He has lately become a vocal advocate for research into sports-related brain injuries.