NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he'll retire when the season ends this November. The sport's most popular driver says a concussion that sidelined him for the second half of last season gave him a new perspective.
Last year's concussion wasn't the first in Earnhardt's 18-year career on NASCAR's top circuit. But the 42-year-old driver says he worried this time his career might be over. He's back this year, and says his recovery gave a chance to leave the sport on his own terms - and time to think ...
“Time to understand what's important to me, time to realize the incredible support system I have in my wife, my team and my doctors, and time to work like hell to wrestle back some semblance of say-so in this whole matter,” Earnhardt told reporters Tuesday.
He said he's grateful to be back for one last season. "You know I wanted to be able to make that decision myself on retiring, and not really have it made for me. But I feel healthy. I having a really good time driving the cars and enjoying that with my team," he said.
It wasn’t just the concussion. Earnhardt also spent time reflecting on the loss of his dad, driver Dale Earnhardt Senior, who died in a crash at Daytona in 2001. Another was his marriage last New Year's Eve to longtime girlfriend Amy Reimann.
Earnhardt has driven for Hendrick Motorsports in Concord for nearly a decade. Team owner Rick Hendrick said Earnhardt has been more than a winning driver, he became like a son.
“I really appreciate what we've been able to do together, and I appreciate the kind of guy you are and what you've done for the sport,” Hendrick said.
He’s done a lot. In his 18 years, Earnhardt started 600 races and won 26, including two Daytona 500s. He's NASCAR's biggest brand and has helped the sport keep an audience at a time when attendance has been flagging.
NASCAR fans have voted him the most popular driver 14 straight years - a record for the sport. He's also one of the highest paid, earning more than $21 million last year from prize money, endorsements and merchandise sales.
That has some wondering if his departure will hurt NASCAR. Reporter Jim Utter of Motorsports.com doesn’t think so.
“You know obviously he has the largest and most widespread fan base. But to say it's any kind of death knell for NASCAR I think is being very simplistic,” Utter said.
Some fans agree. As Earnhardt spoke to reporters at Hendrick’s headquarters Tuesday, about two dozen fans waited outside. Travis Parsons happened to be visiting from Des Moines, Iowa, and said he’s optimistic for the sport.
“There’s still plenty of stars out there. It’s just going to be a little missing piece and somebody will ... fill it in ... you know?” Parsons said.
Earnhardt says he sees plenty of young talent coming up, drivers like Chase Elliot and Kyle Larson.
But he’s still got plenty of racing left.