Had you asked me a couple weeks ago, I would have said there have been only two occasions since this column’s inception when I have dreaded sitting down to write it.
Now, there are three of those occasions. After 18 seasons and more than 600 NASCAR Cup Series races, Dale Earnhard Jr. publicly announced on April 25 that his driving career would conclude at the end of the 2017 season. And for one stunned and very heart-wrenching moment, the world seemed to stop on its axis.
The news was very sad and slightly shocking, but not completely unexpected. Earnhardt missed half of the 2016 racing season while recovering from yet another head injury, the latest in a string of concussions that has beleaguered him for the past several years.
Obviously the decision was not made hastily – the beloved driver of the No. 88 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports has been delaying contract extension discussions with team owner Rick Hendrick, and in a number of recent interviews has mentioned his desire to start a family with his new wife, Amy.
“Family” is a NASCAR lifestyle. There’s no law stating you have to spend the majority of your life in racetrack garages and infields to live it that way, but in Junior’s case, that’s what happened, He grew up under both the shadow and the tutelage of arguably the most revered athlete in NASCAR history, and even now, at the age of 42, it’s something that weighs heavily on his mind. To say that Dale Earnhardt Sr. was a tough act to follow is putting it mildly.
“I saw at an early age that growing up in that man’s shadow was going to be a real hard challenge. I knew racing would put me in that shadow … But I wanted to race,” he said.
“I knew the odds of me really having any talent at all and being able to do it were thin. They are for anyone. So at a very young age all I wanted to do was be able to make a living driving cars. I didn’t set goals. I didn’t dream of winning championships or Daytona 500s … I just wanted to be able to do it. I was afraid of not being able to do it.”
Regardless of his fear and uncertainty, that mission was definitively accomplished. Over the course of his racing career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has to date won two NASCAR Xfinity Series championships; 13 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series poles; 26 wins, 149 top five and 253 top ten finishes in the Cup Series; eight appearances in the post-season Chase playoffs; and perhaps the most personal and important number of all, 14 consecutive Most Popular Driver awards, a NASCAR record.
You don’t have to be the best to be the best-loved.
“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,” Earnhardt said.
“I guess what I’m saying is I have accomplished way more than I’ve ever dreamed, way more than I ever thought I’d accomplish.”
How wonderful to hear these words – which sound an awful lot like contentment to me — from the guy whose father once publicly described as being more interested in hanging out in his motorhome listening to the “Smashing Pumpkinheads” than in honing his racing craft. (Somewhat eerily, this brings to mind lyrics from one of the Smashing Pumpkins’ (the band’s actual name) best songs: No more promise, no more sorrow/no longer will I follow/can anybody hear me/I just want to be me …)
I believe I speak for the majority when I say that’s what we want for him, as well. It would have been so easy for Junior’s success, money, fame and incredible popularity to go straight to his head, spawning an ego of epic proportions, but to his credit, quite the opposite happened.
“The one thing that I enjoy most about racing is my relationships with my team, my friendships with those guys and working with them. When it goes right, we win races, we celebrate together, and that’s awesome. But the friendships are much more important to me,” he said.
“I don’t have to be the guy holding the trophy, but being part of that success, I really enjoy. I think I can replicate that in the next chapter of my life. And I don’t think that anything in my professional career has meant more to me than the treatment I’ve received from track to track by the fans that so dearly love our sport.
“For the longest time, I let racing be who I was instead of what I did,” he continued. I’ve got a whole other life beyond driving, and I really believe that. Outside of having a family, there’s a lot of things in business that I’d love to see if I can succeed at. I think we got a glimpse of what that would be like … and it looks pretty awesome.”
I couldn’t agree more.