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Suddenly, NASCAR has to deal with another retirement tour. In a surprising announcement, NASCAR royalty Dale Earnhardt Jr. will retire at the end of this season as a full-time Monster Energy Cup driver. He made the decision to retire earlier in the year as this was not a rash decision based on the last race. He sat down with team owner Rick Hendrick on March 29th to give him the somber news that he will retire this year after 18 years of racing in the Premier Cup series. Dale Jr. took a month to prepared for this day, the announcement, as he knew that this news would vastly affect the NASCAR community, especially the fiercely loyal fans of Junior Nation.
Dale Jr. missed 18 races last year due to a concussion suffered mid-season. His recovery was slow and difficult. He had vision, balance and sleep issues. In an interview last year during his recovery process, he didn’t know if he would ever recover fully, let alone ever drive again in this #88 Chevy. During this period, he realized that there was more to life than being a race car driver, and with his recent marriage, he also wanted to start raising a family fairly soon. He stated that his retirement decision was simple, “He wanted to leave on his own terms”, while he was healthy, and not retire by fate, like another concussion incident or worse, a fatal accident like his late father, Dale Earnhardt in 2001.
NASCAR May Need a Few Years to Recover
Dale Jr. was voted the most popular driver 14 times out of his 18 years of being a Monster Energy Cup series driver. His future absence will leave a huge gap due to his popularity. Unfortunately, his timing was terrible. NASCAR is already dealing with recent retirements of some popular drivers. Jeff Gordon, a 4-time Cup series winner was the 2nd most popular driver behind Dale Jr. He retired at the end of 2015 season. Tony Stewart, another very popular driver and 3-time Cup champion, retired last year.
In surprising news, Carl Edwards abruptly retired at the end of last year, at an early age of 37. While not a Cup series champion, he was a personable, popular, and a legitimate yearly playoff contender. While not fatal to the sport, the timing of all of these retirements especially Dale Jr. will take its toll on NASCAR in the form of ratings, sponsorships, merchandise sales, and race day attendances for the next couple of years.
All Hands on Deck at Hendrick’s Motorsports
Dale Jr. has had a rough start to the 2017 season. Maybe because he was mentally checked out worrying when he should retire. Hendrick has been producing good cars for Chase Elliott, and the Jimmie Johnson team just scored difficult back to back checkered flags, so the Hendrick’s garage and engineering teams were doing their jobs. Now with retirement announcement in the review mirror, Dale Jr. can focus on his driving, his team, and his weekly performance. The relief from the announcement should provide a mental boast to Dale Jr.’s morale.
Additionally, all of Hendrick’s Motorsports will be on board to make sure that Dale Jr. retires on a high note. So, that starts by getting Dale Jr. a checkered flag victory, to guarantee a spot in the playoffs. Drivers with at least one race win, and being in the Top 30 in points are guaranteed a playoff spot. Otherwise, Dale Jr. needs to be in the Top 16 in championship points to qualify for the playoffs. The team has been struggling, so the #88 team could start by focusing on winning a single Stage, to pick up some momentum. Small victories first.
In 2015, former Hendricks teammate and racing legend Jeff Gordon secured a playoff win at Martinsville to guarantee Gordon a spot in the final four at the last race at Homestead. He would get his shot at a 5th Cup championship, making that final race a NASCAR thriller and a ratings bonanza, much like a horse going for the triple crown at the Belmont Stakes. Dale Jr. deserves to be put in that similar position, which would not only be great for him, but for the sport in general as perfect ending to the season and his career. Unlikely, I know, but it doesn’t hurt to dream out loud.
Thank You, Dale Jr.
Sports legends can’t play forever, but as fans we still will be sad, with this inevitable fate. My favorite local sports legends have retired too soon in my opinion such as Steve Yzerman, Barry Sanders(this one hurt!), and Isiah Thomas, but sports fandom and passion must move on. To some NASCAR fans, the loss of Dale Sr. to his fatal accident in the Daytona 500 still reverberates today, and the retirement of NASCAR’s favorite son, will add to the hurt. NASCAR fans will have to move on from its most popular driver. But, NASCAR will be just fine with some very talented young drivers emerging – Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, and Erik Jones – to name a few. Dale Jr. is the most genuine, honest, humble, and loyal sports athlete in today’s world and will sorely be missed on the track.