We knew it was coming. Everyone knew it was coming. It was only a matter of time, really. The latest iteration of the so-called old guard of NASCAR had begun to dissipate, its ranks transitioning into their 40s. These things happen.
And yet, few might’ve expected April 25, 2017, to be the bombshell day of news in the NASCAR world this year. April is a fourth of the way through what already feels like a fresh new season, rarely a time to be considering beginnings, or ends, or even the next year.
Still, the breaking news Dale Earnhardt Jr. planned to hang up his helmet in a full-time capacity among the NASCAR ranks was a story — the story. It’s the kind of thread that bears analysis for days, weeks, maybe a month. It’s news that even the most stubborn editors can’t keep their writers from covering, because even if something else needed to be written about, who cares, Junior is retiring.
But it also wasn’t a shock. In late April, the perennial most popular driver in NASCAR was 42 years old, going on 43 in October. He’d spent two decades competing full-time in one of NASCAR’s national series, beginning with his 1998 rookie season and title run in the XFINITY Series. Oh, and a hefty concussion had knocked him out of the sport for multiple months in 2016, allowing a glimpse at a sport — gasp — without an Earnhardt battling for the lead or the top 10 in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event. One could say we were eased into it. All were told, “Hey, this is what it might look like, get ready,” with an occasional appearance from the newly semi-retired Jeff Gordon softening the blow.
That’s the nature of the sport these days. Earnhardt, Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards — out with the old, in with the new. There’s a number of reasons for this wave of retirements: age, starting a family, lack of performance, simply being too expensive in a series needing to cut costs due to slackening sponsorship dollars. But Earnhardt was the ambassador, the guy in all the commercials, the driver with the name anyone who’d at least heard of NASCAR knew.
This moment would sting.
Or will it? In the XFINITY Series, a four-car team that’s coming off a championship with the recently departed William Byron still exists. It’s a formidable squad that’s a mix of youngsters and veterans, owned by Earnhardt himself and, reportedly, driven by Earnhardt in 2018 in a race or two as well. He’ll be at the track when the series is in town, a head-turning presence in the garage who is likely to extraordinarily rocket TV ratings and at-track attendance if and when he runs a race. And that’s not even considering his job as an analyst for NBC once its turn to broadcast the second half of the NASCAR season arrives. There, you’re not going to just see his face — you’re going to hear his voice, too.
OK, maybe it’ll be like trying to stay friends after a breakup — yeah, it’s bittersweet, but it works… until, you know, it doesn’t. But that’s doubtful. Again, this was always in the pipeline, and 2016 helped make Life After Earnhardt™ a tangible reality. And fear not, classic fans; the names Elliott and Blaney are back, and they’re going to be here for a while.
In the meantime: boy, what a farewell season. Whether Earnhardt knew pre-Daytona 500 or not that 2017 was going to be his last year, waiting until April to announce it is preferable to making it some sort of ill-fated “Victory Tour” or whatever they might decide to call it. That’s especially true considering the No. 88 never actually pulled into Victory Lane all year. Those can get exhausting, don’t they?
Heck, even two months into the season, it seemed like Earnhardt mania might overthrow any semblance of normalcy for the remainder of 2017. Tracks started coming out of the woodwork with declarations, like, “Howdy, fans! Y’all wanna see Dale Earnhardt Jr. run his final race at this track in this specific month? We’ve got tickets available! Please buy tickets. Oh god, please buy tickets.”
There were some great jokes — Twitter’s @TheOrangeCone’s “let that sink in” tweets somehow never, ever got old and were a source of amusement April to November. But around the end of May or so, once the scalding hot takes and lengthy retrospectives in which writers decided to insert themselves into a story about Dale Earnhardt Jr. because, uh, #OmgMyBrand, settled down, there was a tedium to it all, a mutual understanding. There’s a race to be run, and Earnhardt’s driving the No. 88. Maybe he’ll win, maybe he’ll get a top 10, maybe he’ll be a non-factor. The broadcast booth will talk about him, he’ll be a presence at the very least, but that’s it. Life goes on.
That’s the lesson here: Life goes on. It goes on for Earnhardt, too. In October, the driver announced he and wife Amy are expecting their first child, due next year. The Earnhardt lineage has already continued anyway thanks to Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s other children, particularly Kerry, whose sons Jeffrey and Bobby compete in the national series to this day. But few children of NASCAR are likely to be as doted-upon as Earnhardt’s kid(s), and regardless, it’s nice to see him settling down.
That’s part of what this transition is all about for Earnhardt: settling down. He’s approaching his mid-40s. He’s a team owner of a successful organization. He’s newly married. Driving was going to eventually no longer become part of the equation. Now that it’s practically out of it, he can focus on what’s to come, just as diehard NASCAR fans will.
The road to get there was difficult in the process. Earnhardt didn’t win a single race his final two seasons in the Cup Series. He was only a top-five finisher once in 2017 on the Cup level, scoring a fifth-place result at Texas Motor Speedway early in the season and nothing more (though eight top 10s in 36 races isn’t terrible, let’s get that straight). There have been worse final seasons in the annals of NASCAR, but there have most certainly been better.
Still, does anyone care he wasn’t a factor? Legitimately, do you? Do any of your friends, family or your acquaintances who happen to watch NASCAR? Earnhardt was a constant presence in 2017, seeming to simply have a good time whenever he was on track in the Cup Series. And away from the high banks of wherever the heck, he became a must-follow on Twitter among NASCAR fans who use the social media service, not because he was Dale Earnhardt Jr. but due to the way he used Twitter.
I mean, all of us who use Twitter have those accounts we follow simply because we feel like we should, not because they provide a lick of entertainment. @DaleJr on Twitter dot com (display name Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr.) is not one of those. He’s funny, first and foremost. He’s active. He’s reactionary. He’s smart.
And that’s something that was the case throughout 2017. Earnhardt morphed from someone who wasn’t on Twitter at all to one of NASCAR’s best follows, someone willing to cut through the static as well as someone who could — god forbid — speak to something outside the sport without seeming like a fish out of water. He’s a rare account that’s worthwhile to casual fans, let alone those who barely follow NASCAR.
In the end, there was a lot of pomp and circumstance, an overflow of words surrounding a man who spent 2017 out of title contention and never earned a single Cup championship. You get it. But you also likely understand why this is happening, why writers outside the usual purview of auto racing even happened to opine about some auto racer from North Carolina. For nearly two decades, Earnhardt was the guy — no, like, the guy — and losing him to inactivity, even if he’s going to still be around, is a weird feeling. It’s like following a professional sports team and understanding that the guy you’ve followed for 20 years on the squad has decided to retire. The ensuing team will still be yours, worthy of your undying loyalty, but you’re missing your Barry Larkin, your John Smoltz. It ain’t normal.
Again, though, he’s still going to be here. JR Motorsports will still either win an XFINITY championship or come close to it. That slight Southern drawl is still going to populate the NBC broadcasts. Shoot, he’ll still have things to say about this or that on Twitter, even if it doesn’t directly pertain to him. Mark Martin does it. Why wouldn’t Junior? (Disclaimer: Earnhardt’s Martin-related Gucci Mane story is one of the best things on NASCAR Twitter the last month or so. Understand that.)
This story could have a concise ending, but it doesn’t really need to. OK, maybe it does, because something something journalism. But the Earnhardt chapter has been written in NASCAR for many decades now, and it’s not going to come to a close just because Dale Earnhardt Jr. decided he didn’t want to race a car each week anymore. That’s not just because drivers like nephews Jeffrey and Bobby exist. It’s not because he owns a team. It’s not because he’s now technically a member of the media (sup, D?).
It’s because Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been a major presence in NASCAR since before he even set foot in a national series car, and that presence isn’t going away. Thank social media for that on some level, but at the end of the day, thank him. Thank the guy who’s been under a microscope for 20 years, who’s allowed people who’ve never met him and never will to pick apart every aspect of his life. Thank someone who won over two dozen Cup races in his career but still seemed like someone you could approach in any waking moment on the street. Thank the driver who’s been one of the sport’s top ambassadors, through the hard times and the good.
There was plenty to talk about this year, but what else mattered more in the grand scheme of a nearly 70-year-old sport? Not even his protege, Martin Truex Jr., winning his long-awaited championship could come close. 2017 was the year of Earnhardt. Even though it might have been the last such year for a while, if it ever comes again, nothing else in 2017 held more weight than this story.
All right. Inhale. Let it out one last time.