NASCAR

Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retire after 2017 season

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After 18 seasons, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has announced his intention to retire following the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. The news was reported on Tuesday morning, though a formal press conference was held later in the day.

“I’m at peace with the decision,” he stated.  “I’m very comfortable with it.”

I’m very sad, because I know it’s definitely disappointing for a lot of people to wake up to that news this morning.”

The 42-year old, 14-time Most Popular Driver and 26-time Cup race winner has struggled with concussions in the last five seasons. In 2012, he missed two races after suffering one in a last-lap wreck at the fall Talladega race. Four years later, he missed half the 2016 season following a concussion sustained in a crash at Michigan.

Earlier on Tuesday morning, Earnhardt tweeted:

Upon arriving at the Hendrick Motorsports shop, he broke the news to his team. Earnhardt later scheduled a press conference to be streamed through Facebook Live, which was broadcast at noon Eastern.

A two-time Busch (now Xfinity) Series champion, Earnhardt started his Cup Series career in 1999, driving the #8 for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in four races. A year later, he started racing full-time in the series and won his first career Cup race at Texas. With DEI, he won 17 races in eight full seasons, including the Daytona 500 in 2004. He also finished in the top-5 of the drivers’ championship thrice in 2003, 2004 and 2006. At Texas’ 2007 Samsung 500, he “raced” a Hendrick Motorsports car in the later stages of the race, when Kyle Busch crashed out, but his #5 car was adequately repaired to continue for the final laps. Busch had left the track by then, prompting the team to request Earnhardt to drive the car, which he obliged. A year later, Earnhardt formally moved to Hendrick, driving the team’s #88. However, he was unable to keep up with his teammates early on, winning only once in his first four seasons and finishing outside the top-20 in points on two occasions. After winning at Michigan in 2012 to snap a five-year winless streak, his HMS tenure saw a turn for the better; he finished 5th in points in 2013 despite failing to win, followed by four- and three-win seasons in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and a Daytona 500 victory in the former.

Despite his success, Earnhardt began experience signs of concussions as early as 2002, when he was injured in a crash at California Speedway. In the 2003 MBNA America 400 at Dover, he was involved in a violent crash that bruised his foot and caused him to suffer a concussion. Almost a decade later, at the 2012 Good Sam Roadside Assistance 500 at Talladega, Earnhardt was collected in a final-lap 27-car wreck exiting turn four; the crash caused him to sit out the next two races at Charlotte and Kansas while Regan Smith filled in. In 2016, he ran the first 18 races of the 2016 season before announcing he would be sidelined for the remaining 18 after being diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms following a crash at Michigan. In his place, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and JR Motorsports driver Alex Bowman drove the #88. While a replacement driver for 2018 has not been immediately announced, speculation points towards Bowman to take his spot, especially after recording three top-10 finishes, a pole position and nearly winning at Phoenix.

In 2017, Earnhardt has struggled through the first eight races. He has only one top-10 finish, a 5th at Texas, and is currently 24th in points.

“I’m disappointed with the way we’re finishing,” Earnhardt said after a crash and 34th-place finish at Martinsville. “We’ve got to finish better than this.”

Earnhardt’s announcement is one of many in a wave of full-time driver retirements over the last three seasons. 2015 saw Gordon’s final season of full-time racing, while three-time champ Tony Stewart and 2016 Championship Four contender Carl Edwards retired after the 2016 season. Gordon and Edwards’ seats were filled by burgeoning young drivers Chase Elliott and Daniel Suárez, while Stewart’s was taken over by Clint Bowyer. Despite the rise in youth, Fox commentator Mike Joy believes they would “need some time to make a name for themselves and get fans attached to them.”

“This comes right on the heels of Jeff’s retirement and Tony’s retirement,” Joy commented. “But I recall when the careers of Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison and Richard Petty and David Pearson were winding down. We were all going, ‘Oh, gosh, who is going to step up to replace those guys?’ Nobody could replace them, but other people started winning. Now we’re in a very similar situation. Fans will find their favorites, but we are losing a lot of stars from driving in a very short time.”

Earnhardt was optimistic about the future of the sport.  “There are probably a dozen guys I am excited about,” he proclaimed, pointing to drivers like Elliott and Kyle Larson, both of whom currently comprise the top-2 in the standings.

“The sky’s the limit for NASCAR. I’m super excited about the future.”

In his press conference, Earnhardt stated he had told team owner Rick Hendrick about his future on March 29.  “I wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms.”

Hendrick described the discussion as “a tough conversation, a very emotional conversation.”

While his Cup career would have ended in 2018, Earnhardt does not intend to step away from driving.  During his conference, he revealed his plan to run two Xfinity Series races in 2018 for JR Motorsports.  He also commented on the possibility of running late model races for JRM if the opportunity arises.

Barring any exceptional circumstances, Earnhardt’s final race as a full-time driver will be the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 19.

Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press

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