If there’s one driver who knows what Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going through, it’s Richard Petty. The driver known simply as the “King” won 200 races and seven NASCAR titles in his career. At a time when NASCAR was just emerging in America outside the South, it was Petty who was the face.
Petty decided to retire in 1992. His last race came at the end of the season at Atlanta.
“I was hoping he wouldn’t come back after having all the trouble he had last year,” Petty said on NBC Sport’s NASCAR America show Tuesday night. “I realize how hard it is to get out of the race car, because that is what we do for so long and enjoy so much. Whether you win or lose, it’s hard to give up. I’m glad he went along and made the decision.”
Earlier this season, prior to the Daytona 500, Earnhardt’s first race back after missing the second half of the 2016 season recovering from a concussion, Petty said he didn’t think Junior should come back.
“I was a little disappointed that he did [return],” Petty said. “I just feel like he got through with it two or three times, and he had some pretty big knocks in the head. I’ve had them too – I think I still live in one of them – but hitting mine was never that bad.”
Tuesday, Earnhardt said he won’t be coming back. He will retire after this season.
When Petty retired, many thought NASCAR would never bounce back. Yet in that same race at Atlanta, a driver-owner from Wisconsin, Alan Kulwicki, won the series title from an up and coming driver named Bill Elliott. Also in that race was a young kid from California; his name was Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt Sr, was on top of his game and only getting better.
NASCAR not only recovered after Petty retired, it thrived; reaching heights founder Bill France Sr. could never have imagined.
Many would argue that the sport is worse today than when Petty retired; that the loss of the 14 time Most Popular Driver may spell a death blow.
But, there were those who sported Petty blue on many a Sunday prior to 1992 who said the same thing. Yet, NASCAR carried on and young drivers would go on to superstardom and make legends of their own.
We just didn’t know it then.
And truth be told, we don’t know it now. However, there are young drivers with names like Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez. Any of whom could be the next NASCAR superstar.
NASCAR is still relevant, and probably will be for quite some time.
Like Petty, Earnhardt will still be very visible in the garage. And he said Tuesday that he will be behind the wheel on occasion.
Maybe someday, when one of those young drivers have written their own legend, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be an old man walking around the garage, smiling at fans, taking pictures and signing autographs. He will have lived a life few of us ever will; financially secure, adored by millions, no doubt a grandfather, and most importantly, healthy and happy.
He’ll be the next generations Richard Petty. And those of us who age with him, will be able to say, “I remember when Junior raced, because I was there.”