Hendrick Motorsports announced Tuesday morning that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will retire from NASCAR Cup Series racing at the end of the 2017 season.
The son of legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. has 26 victories at NASCAR’s top level since 2000, his first full-time year in the Cup Series, but never was able to take home the season title. The 42-year-old’s best finish came in 2003, when he finished third in the standings one year before NASCAR established its elimination-style Chase format to decide its champion. Nevertheless, Earnhardt has remained one of NASCAR’s most well-liked and bankable stars, winning the fan vote for NASCAR’s most popular driver a record 14 straight years. He won the Daytona 500 twice, in 2004 and 2014.
But Earnhardt also suffered concussions after crashes numerous times over his career and missed the second half of the 2016 season with concussion-like symptoms, the result of wrecks in June and July. In March, he announced that he would be donating his brain to head-injury researchers after his death. On March 26, Earnhardt made his 600th career series start at Fontana in California. He sits 24th in this year’s standings with one top 5 finish.
“We all knew Earnhardt would stop probably racing within the next few years, but it’s still really jarring now that the news is real. To see the words ‘Dale Earnhardt Jr.’ and ‘retiring’ sort of leaves a pit in the feeling of your stomach, because it’s really the end of an era,” NASCAR writer Jeff Gluck wrote after hearing the news. “When you take into account that a very large percentage of NASCAR fans are part of Junior Nation, there will be many people who feel lost, saddened and unsure of where this leaves them now. The positive for them is they’ll have 28 more races to watch their favorite driver and prepare to say goodbye instead of just dealing with a sudden departure.”
Earnhardt, whose last race will be Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, will discuss his decision at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
Press Conference at 3pm to give me the opportunity to discuss the retirement news. Incredible to see the support today. #FinishStrong
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) April 25, 2017
Earlier this year, Earnhardt talked about retirement after Carl Edwards’s decision to step away from stock-car racing.
“I think Carl figured out a way to get into a place to make that decision easy,” Earnhardt said, per ESPN. “And I can do the same thing when the time comes and I won’t have any regrets. It’s not going to be a lot of fun to retire, I can imagine.
“You’ve seen a lot of people, athletes retire in the past. It seems a very difficult statement to make, a very difficult press conference to have. But when I’m ready to do that, I’ll be making that decision knowing it’s the right thing to do.”
Earnhardt had a complex relationship with his legendary father, who died after crashing on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Dale Sr. and Brenda Gee divorced soon after she gave birth to Dale Jr. in 1974, and the elder Earnhardt was not a major presence in his kids’ lives as he rose up the NASCAR ranks. He was in the process of trying to rebuild his relationship with his children at the time of his death, bonding with Dale Jr. over their shared interest in stock-car racing.
The younger Earnhardt also spent his early career trying to outrun his father’s sizable shadow. Things came to a head in terms of his professional career in 2007, when Dale Jr. announced he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. — the racing team founded by his father — to drive for Hendrick Motorsports after numerous disputes with stepmother Teresa Earnhardt, who took over control of the company following her husband’s death.
Off the track, Dale Jr. cultivated an imaged that was as fun-loving as his father’s was dour. He appeared in numerous music videos, appeared twice on “MTV Cribs” and lent his voice to video games and animated movies. On New Year’s Eve 2015, Earnhardt married girlfriend Amy Reimann after proposing to her at a church in Germany where his ancestors once worshiped. She was supportive of his decision Tuesday on Twitter.
Others in the NASCAR community weighed in as well.
I’m proud of my great friend @DaleJr for everything he’s done for this sport. I’m even more proud of who he is as a man. Love you friend
— Tony Stewart (@TonyStewart) April 25, 2017
Great memories racing @DaleJr I am pretty sure when you google “cool”. Your picture shows up
— Bobby Labonte (@Bobby_Labonte) April 25, 2017