Dale Earnhardt Jr. doing it his way

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. shocked the world Tuesday announcing that 2017 will be his last season as a driver in NASCAR.  The sport’s 14 time Most Popular Driver has 26 wins in 603 starts in a career that began when he was 24. Now at the age of 42, Junior will step aside.

But he’s doing so on his own terms.

Junior, who has amassed a huge loyal fan base known as the “Junior Nation” has overcome several health issues in the last few years, namely concussions.

Dale Jr. has been diagnosed with at least three concussions during his racing career. He suffered one at the Fontana race in April of 2002. He continued to race but knew something wasn’t right. In the fall of that year, he revealed that he had suffered a concussion.

He suffered two more concussions in 2012 in a period of six-weeks, the first in a hard crash during a tire test at Kansas Speedway, another in a big crash at Talladega Superspeedway. After the Talladega crash, he again knew something was wrong.  He went to a doctor who forced him to miss two races in October because of the injury.

In June of last year, Earnhardt crashed during the race at Michigan then again at Daytona on July 2. He said that doctors said his injury probably happened at Michigan and was no doubt aggravated at Daytona.  He didn’t really feel the effects until after Daytona. He added that he wasn’t sure he really had a concussion.

He would go on to miss the entire second half of last season.

Tuesday, we learned that 2017 will be his final one.

Perhaps Dale Jr. dropped a hint about his future prior to this season. He was medically cleared last December and his first race back was the season opening Daytona 500.  He made an appearance during the pre-season media day at Daytona.  It came only weeks after Formula 1 champion Nico Rosberg announced he would retire, and not long after Carl Edwards, seemingly at the top of his game, said he too would be stepping away from NASCAR.

At Daytona, I asked Earnhardt if he too, like Rosberg, would want to retire if he won a NASCAR Cup title.

“Hell yeah man,” Earnhardt told me.  “I would definitely not want to come back and try to race anymore if I won the championship.  I would be outta here.”

“I’ve always wanted to win a championship so badly,” Earnhardt said. “And coming back from this injury, we’ve worked so hard. So, to come back this year, win a championship, it’d be hard not to hang it up.”

The 42-year-old Earnhardt has 26 Cup victories to his credit. His best finish in the season-ending championship points is third, back in 2003.

“This is the last year of my deal,” Earnhardt said. “I would like to race more, but if I win the championship, I’d have to consider going out on top. It really depends on a lot of different things.”

Earnhardt had mentioned stepping away should he win a title earlier in the week. Some felt it was sort of tongue-in-cheek, though. He said at Daytona that it’s actually a serious thought.

“I’d definitely consider it because that’s the last box I don’t have checked, really,” he said. “There’s a few races I’d like to win, but the championship would definitely be the icing on the cake for my career.”

He may not win a championship in his final year, but he will go out as one of the most iconic drivers in the history of NASCAR. A fan favorite with an easygoing manner and an “aw-shucks” humility that belies the smart business person he is away from the track.

Earnhardt became a best-selling author in 2001 with “Driver 8,” about rookie season in the NASCAR Cup Series. The book landed on The New York Times best-seller list for 17 weeks, and online retailer Amazon.com named “Driver 8” the top-selling sports book of the year.

In 2012, Forbes magazine ranked Earnhardt seventh overall on its list of “Most Influential Athletes.” In January 2013, BusinessWeek magazine named Earnhardt to its top-100 most influential people in sports. The Charlotte Observer listed him sixth among the top-25 most influential in NASCAR in 2014. In July 2014, Harris Poll rated Earnhardt tied for fifth in its “America’s Favorite Sports Star” rankings, and rated him tied for eighth in the category in September 2015, marking his 11th appearance in the top 10. In May 2016, ESPN ranked Earnhardt as the most famous auto racing driver in the world. Earnhardt tops all NASCAR and IndyCar drivers on MVPindex’s 2016 social media power rankings. He has a following of more than 5.5 million across his three main social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

In 2006, he started Hammerhead Entertainment, a one-stop-shop production company that produces shows for multiple national television networks. In April 2008, Earnhardt extended his entrepreneurship into the Charlotte, North Carolina, entertainment scene, as he opened Whisky River, an uptown bar and nightclub located in the EpiCentre. In May 2015, Whisky River expanded to include a location at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Earnhardt launched “Dirty Mo Radio,” a podcast network, in February 2013, which features race recaps as well as behind-the-scenes insight from Earnhardt, team members, family members and others.

Earnhardt’s role as a team owner and businessman will no doubt continue after he steps away from the driver’s seat.  JR Motorsports employs more than 140 people and fields four full-time entries in the XFINITY Series, in addition to two late model stock cars competing regionally in the Southeast. From its inception in 2006, JR Motorsports has scored 32 Xfinty Series wins after adding five in 2016 and one thus far in 2017. Chase Elliott earned the company’s first Xfinity Series championship in 2014 with teammate Regan Smith completing a one-two sweep of the top spots in the driver standings. Josh Berry secured track championship honors for the JRM late model program racing at Motor Mile Speedway (2012) and Hickory Motor Speedway (2014).

So, rather than sitting back and taking it easy, without the fulltime obligations of a NASCAR cup driver, few would be surprised to see Dale Jr., busier than ever.

The newlywed will now have time to enjoy his life, start a family, and do so while still relatively young and healthy.

He won’t be forced out of the sport due to injury, or because he isn’t competitive anymore.

Fans will still see plenty of Dale Earnhardt Jr. On-top of the pit box, walking the garage area and still hawking plenty of products.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going out on his own terms; not because he has to, but because he wants to. And we should all be grateful for that.

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