Wednesday, April 26, 2017

NASCAR: One of the Most Popular Drivers to Retire

Earnhardt Jr. to retire following 2017 season

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CONCORD, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after the 2017 season on Tuesday, saying that he wanted to leave stock-car racing competition on his own terms. But his words also struck a tone of optimism, that his involvement with the sport would remain strong.

The emotional, engaging hourlong press conference came six hours after his Hendrick Motorsports team made the surprising news public Tuesday morning. That six-hour stretch included an outpouring of support through social media; which a gracious Earnhardt recognized in his opening statement.

It was a decision not easily reached and a day that was "bittersweet," but one that he indicated brought a certain degree of peace.

"I accomplished way more than I ever dreamed, way more than I ever thought I'd accomplish," Earnhardt said. "So I'm good, you know. I'm good on that front. I'm so blessed and fortunate on what I was able to achieve but I'm very sad because it's definitely disappointing for a lot of people to wake up to that news this morning."

Hendrick Motorsports indicated that team owner Rick Hendrick and Earnhardt Jr. first met to discuss the driver's decision on March 29. Earnhardt acknowledged that his recent health concerns -- which caused him to miss half of the 2016 season -- were a factor in making his choice now, to finish out the final year of his contract with the team.

"I wanted to honor my commitment to Rick, to my sponsors, to my team and to the fans," Earnhardt said. "I'll admit that having an 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 at the table. Of course, in life we're not promised a vote and that's especially true in racing."

Earnhardt, 42, returned to competition in the No. 88 Chevrolet this year after a concussion and lingering symptoms sidelined him from NASCAR's top series for the final 18 races last season. Through his rehabilitation process, Earnhardt has become a vocal advocate for research of sports-related brain injuries.

But his stint away from the drivers' seat, he said, also gave him the benefit of 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."

The 14-time Most Popular Driver has won 26 times in 603 starts over a career that began at age 24 in 1999. Among his accomplishments are two Daytona 500 crowns (2004, 2014) and two championships (1998, 1999) in what is now called the NASCAR XFINITY Series.

Earnhardt said he'd return to the track for two races in that series next season with the JR Motorsports team that he owns through an alliance with Hendrick. And while he described himself as "eager" to see what the next wave of racing talent can do in NASCAR's national ranks, he said his plan was to maintain a strong presence in the sport as it reaches future generations.

"I don't see myself really detaching from NASCAR," Earnhardt said. "My intention is still to be involved in the sport on some level. ... Even after this season is over, you have not seen the last of me on the race track. But more than that, I want to be a part of the future of the sport for years to come."

Earnhardt's best finish in eight starts this season was fifth place at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9. He is currently ranked 24th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, with finishes of 30th or worse in half the races. He indicated a faster start to the season wouldn't necessarily have changed his mind about retirement.

"I'm excited about the races that I have left," Earnhardt said. "It's like the practices in the mornings that I get excited for, I used to complain about the season and how long it is, but this one here can drag on for a while if it's all right."

Hendrick Motorsports said in a news release that it would announce its 2018 plans for the No. 88 team at a later date.

Earnhardt began his premier-series career on May 30, 1999 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with a 16th-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600. That step in his NASCAR career came after years of driving Late Models at the weekly and touring level before making his mark in the XFINITY tour.

Earnhardt followed the steps of his famous father, initially driving cars owned by NASCAR Hall of Famer and icon Dale Earnhardt. His earliest entries in the premier series carried No. 8, the number favored by his grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt.

The early part of Earnhardt's career was met with tragedy, with the death of his father in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. Earnhardt Jr. won in the series' return trip to Daytona International Speedway that summer, going 1-2 with teammate Michael Waltrip in an emotional victory for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Earnhardt's most prolific year with DEI was a six-win season in 2004 that included his first Daytona 500 victory. By then, he had exhibited a mastery on the sport's biggest and fastest ovals, winning six times at Talladega Superspeedway, including a four-race win streak that stretched from 2001-03.

After an acrimonious departure from his father's race team -- which continued under the leadership of his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt -- Earnhardt's free-agency period in 2007 ended with his choice of Hendrick Motorsports. That move fulfilled a half-joking "lifetime contract" he'd jotted down on a napkin and issued to team owner Hendrick as a teenager in 1991.

That relationship with Hendrick, who joined Earnhardt on the stage Tuesday, has budded into more than a driver-owner partnership. Hendrick said when Earnhardt informed him of his intentions late last month, he told him he loved him and offered his support.

"He's like a son and we've had many, many years of a tremendous relationship," Hendrick said. "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, for NASCAR, for me personally, our company, the sponsors and everyone."

Earnhardt is now in his 10th season driving for Hendrick, a span that has ebbed and flowed with both triumph and setbacks. After winning at Michigan International Speedway in his first year with the team, he went four seasons before winning again -- also at Michigan.

Earnhardt caught stride again in 2014 and '15, combining for seven wins in that two-year stretch. That included his second Daytona 500 crown in 2014.

But his tenure with Hendrick was also marked by injuries. After a pair of concussions in a six-week stretch, Earnhardt sat out two races in the 2012 playoffs. Two severe wrecks during the middle portions of last year left him sidelined for the final 18 races of the season.

The time outside the car gave him a new perspective about the effects of brain injuries on athletes, and Earnhardt advocated for change in working with NASCAR to develop its concussion protocol. Just two months before his 2016 injury, Earnhardt announced that he would donate his brain for scientific research upon his passing.

Even as his rehabilitation lingered through the second half of 2016, Earnhardt expressed an interest in returning to competition. Last December, he was certified to return to the track after a test session at Darlington Raceway. Those preparations came during an offseason of personal change as well, as Earnhardt wed Amy Reimann in a New Year's ceremony.

Through it all, Earnhardt has remained wildly popular, first inheriting his father's legions of fans and attracting new ones with his authentic personality and more recently, through his folksy, humorous and straight-shooting approach to social media. Earnhardt made his grand entrance onto Twitter from Victory Lane in the 2014 Daytona 500, and has since used the app as a forum for showing both his appreciation of stock-car racing history and for expressing his thoughts with unwavering honesty.

Earnhardt has also interacted through recent forays into broadcast media, with appearances on FOX Sports' race coverage and through his popular radio podcast, the Dale Jr. Download. The engagement with his fans has led to 14 straight seasons of being voted the National Motorsports Press Association's NASCAR Most Popular Driver. Only Bill Elliott, a 16-time recipient, has more most popular awards.

Which is why Earnhardt was quick to thank his supporters, the "nation" that has been among the sport's most vocal fans.

"One thing that has made this career the incredible ride that it's been is Junior Nation," Earnhardt said. "The fan support that I received straight out of the gate was in large part because of my famous last name, but throughout the ups and downs, it occurred to me that the fans stuck it out and the new ones that joined us, they were there because of the person I was and not who they wanted me to be."

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