Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced that he will retire from NASCAR after the 2017 season in a statement released by Hendrick Motorsports on Tuesday.
Earnhardt has struggled mightily as of late. His crash on lap 218 at Bristol Motor Speedway on Monday continues a pattern of poor finishes that have plagued him through the first part of this season.
Before his return to the Daytona 500, Earnhardt missed the last eighteen races of the 2016 season while recovering from concussion symptoms. He currently ranks 24th in Cup standings, and has finished 30th or worse in four races this season.
At a press conference, Earnhardt spoke about his career, his father Dale Earnhardt’s influence, and the struggle to live up to his name:
When my dad was doing so well and there were a couple of guys coming into the sport that were sons, it was difficult for them to replicate their dads’ success. I just saw even at an early age, before I was a driver, that growing up in that man’s shadow was going to be a real hard challenge.
I wanted to race, but I knew racing would put me in that shadow. 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 or working with one of the best owners in the business, driving for one of the best organizations. I was afraid of not being able to do it. So I guess what I’m saying is I’ve accomplished way more than I ever dreamed — way more than I ever thought I’d accomplish.
Looking back on all the races he missed last year, Earnhardt spoke about the importance of leaving racing on his own terms: “Having influence over my exit only became meaningful when it started to seem most unlikely. 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.”
Concerning his personal relationship with his father, Earnhardt said, “I never would assume that he was proud of me when he was alive. I certainly wouldn’t make that mistake after he passed. I just never felt like I was worthy of assuming that of him. … I’ve talked to some people in the past 24 hours that know him pretty well, and they’re pretty confident that he would be very proud.”
Rick Hendrick, President of Hendrick Motorsports, reassured Earnhardt that would be the case, “I knew your daddy pretty well. He would be proud of the man that you are and what you’ve done for so many, all the charities and all the good will that you’ve done. He would be — and is — very, very proud of you.”
According to the AP, “Earnhardt has won NASCAR’s most popular driver award a record 14 times. He has 26 career Cup victories and is a two-time champion of NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity series, where he plans to race twice next year. But the son of the late champion has never won a Cup title after more than 600 career series starts.”
Though retiring, Earnhardt promised he will still be active with racing. Earnhardt said, “I do have ambition to work. I’m not going to quit working. There’s a feeling to being an asset to something. I don’t have to be the guy holding the trophy, but being a part of that success, I really enjoy.
“I really enjoy making people happy and doing stuff as a team. I think I can replicate that in the next chapter of my life.”
Follow Dylan Gwinn on Twitter: @themightygwinn