Dale Earnhardt Jr. rocked the NASCAR – and sports – world this week when he announced he’d be retiring from driving at the highest level of the sport at the end of the 2017 season. And that means he’s rocked the tailgating community as well.
Earnhardt is the most popular driver in NASCAR – he’s been voted the fan favorite for 14 years running. He’s the son of NASCAR’s legendary outlaw, the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., and a powerhouse driver in his own right, winning 26 times. Lately Earnhardt has been the face of the dangers of concussions in stock car racing. Ultimately the time he missed last season recovering from the latest in a series of concussions led him to this decision.
So even though it’s like Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan hanging up the high tops or John Elway wriggling out of his shoulder pads and riding off into the Denver sunset, it’s hard to be anything but happy for Earnhardt. His daddy, who died after wrecking in the last lap at Daytona in 2001, never got the chance to leave the sport on his own terms. Dale Jr. is 42. He’s recently married and wants to have a family. He’s got so much of his life ahead of him, and if he quits banging his head around in car crashes, he might still have some quality of life left too.
I went poking around the internet trying to find something to read that really captured who Dale Jr. is and what this move means, when I came upon an ESPN The Magazine story. It was written well before the announcement was made, but it gives you more insight into the decision Dale Jr. made this week than anything else could. It was written by Tommy Tomlinson, a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C., an author and former award-winning columnist for the Charlotte Observer. Dale Jr. gives him unbelievable access and it shows up in the depth of both the reporting and the writing. If you’ve got a few minutes, read it. Sit back and enjoy the ride. I sure did.
As for what effect Earnhardt’s retirement will have going forward, we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, it certainly adds spice to the rest of the NASCAR calendar this summer. Next up is Richmond, then Talladega…..and on July 1, drivers are back at Daytona. What a story it would be if Dale Jr. can win there again.