Like most famous sons, Dale Earnhardt Jr. inherited a legacy. His father’s brilliance, a level of success that transformed NASCAR left him with unimaginable pressure, stress he has held for a generation.
It’s easy to forget that, in the matter of a few tragic seconds at Daytona, that legacy transformed into him holding the mantle for an entire sport.
What Earnhardt Jr. has been through the past 16 years, we can never understand. It’s hard enough, under normal circumstances to deal with the loss of a parent at a young age. At 26 years old, Earnhardt was faced with that public grief and then the responsibility to go out and win for millions of fans that had lost their connection to NASCAR, their role model for both sports and life.
In many ways, he has succeeded. The now 14-time “Most Popular Driver” has stepped in to fill shoes that in many ways were too big to be filled. He became a crossover star, his “normal guy” appeal translating into appearances everywhere from MTV to modern podcasting. His emotions placed front and center, Earnhardt became the heart of a sport that needed a place to put hope after its biggest star succumbed to tragedy in the 2001 Daytona 500.
It was a task few could have ever handled, balancing grief with a sport’s national growth. So it’s no surprise that, for many who follow this sport, Tuesday gave them a chance to smile, thank Earnhardt and breathe a sigh of relief for him.
The anointed one was finally free.
“I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms,” he said during an emotional press conference Tuesday. “The opportunity to announce my choice rather than some fate that was decided for me.”
No one knows more how quickly, how cruel racing can be in taking that choice away than Earnhardt Jr. He saw his father, a few years from a happy retirement die at 49 with so much left to still accomplish. Yet with seven championships, 76 race wins and a plethora of NASCAR records the father had already set a standard impossible to reach.
Earnhardt Jr. never even thought he’d come close. So in many ways, despite no Cup Series championship he’s already at the finish line of accomplishing more in racing than he’d ever dreamed.
“When my dad was doing so well, and there were a couple guys coming into the sport that were sons, it was difficult for them to replicate their dad's success,” he explained. “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 really hard challenge, but I wanted to race, but I knew racing would put me in that shadow.
“So I kind of just... I knew the odds of me really having any talent at all and being able to do it were thin. They are for anyone. 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 just wanted to do it.”
He has, and succeeded. Twenty-six race wins, two Daytona 500s and simply his outright popularity make the NASCAR Hall of Fame potentially reachable someday. His connection to the sport? It’s so deep, so rooted NASCAR will literally take a ratings and attendance hit of 10 percent or more the second he steps outside the car for the final time. That’s a Tiger Woods-esque effect we’ve only seen from a handful of athletes on the national stage.
But Earnhardt is 42, and last season brought back memories of his father’s fall before the finish line. Missing the second half of the year with post-concussion syndrome gave him a chance to reassess his future. He married Amy Reimann this offseason and has been happier than ever outside the car; starting a family is in their future.
“During my rehab,” he said. “I was given something else that I wasn't accustomed to, and that was time. 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.
“So that became my motivation. The opportunity to stand here at this podium to announce my choice rather than some fate that was decided for me.”
So Earnhardt made the choice to move on now, rather than sign a contract extension and pursue a championship that has thus far eluded him. NASCAR’s quirky playoff format makes a title as much luck as talent; this driver’s not someone who wants to take that gamble with his health many more times.
So the man who has come of age before millions, remaining that rare athlete willing to be genuine in front of the press has prioritized what he values most: the inner circle.
“My relationships with my team, my friendships with those guys and working with them now,” he said Tuesday when asked what he loves. “When it goes right, we win races, we celebrate together, and that's awesome.
“Winning races is not that much fun when you don't enjoy who you're doing it with. I think I got much better at that at the end of my career.”
For NASCAR, they’re going to have to figure out a life without Earnhardt at the helm. For 25 years, they’ve been defined first by the rise of his father, then the son spearheading the growth of the sport. Recent changes in on-track competition have led to a decline in the core fan base. But the Earnhardt family’s legion of supporters stuck around, transitioning from father to son despite their personality differences, despite rules that made fans cringe. Can the sport convince them to cling on to someone else in this new era?
“In my history of being around the sport, there's kind of always been these little gaps in between everything that cycles, whether it's fashion or drivers or cars or whatever,” Earnhardt explained. “It never really is a seamless transition from one to the next. I think that these guys that are coming in, they're really sharp and smart about how to utilize social media, how to engage with fans.
“This is a new batch of guys that are going to do things in a new way. They're going to bring a lot of color and excitement and energy to the sport. We've just got to get them in front of the fans, let the fans get to know them, and I think the rest will take care of itself. Once they start to pick it up and understand the power of what they have at their fingertips, the sky's the limit for NASCAR.”
In reality, it’s not a question for today, nor an answer Earnhardt Jr. has to worry about. For the first time in his racing career, the responsibility of keeping NASCAR afloat is no longer his to bear.
“I just had to make the decision I’m happy with,” he said when asked about weighing his impact on the sport. “I’m at peace with the decision... I’m very comfortable with it.”
As he should be.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)