The retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award for the 15th consecutive year in 2017, leaves a void. The sport as a whole will miss the man whose legions of fans long ago rose up as one Junior Nation.
Earnhardt easily was the most recognizable face and name in NASCAR for the last decade and a half. He will continue to be involved in the sport as a co-owner of JR Motorsports, which fields XFINITY Series teams, and as a race analyst in the NBC booth.
But he’ll no longer be behind the wheel of a car on the track, where he had competed full-time in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series since breaking onto the scene as the then-25-year-old son of his much more famous father in 2000.
Along the way, he became a successful driver with 26 career Cup wins — but also so much more as he dealt with his father’s untimely death in a last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500, became an ad pitchman for multiple big-name companies, and eventually reached out to all his fans via podcasts and social media.
Here is what others had to say about Earnhardt upon his retirement as a driver…
“I admired that he never took advantage of his name, even with all the pressure it carried … and it always carried a lot of pressure. He knew he was a big deal, but he never exploited that. He stayed Dale Jr. even though he got the publicity and inherited many of his fans from his father.”
— Richard Petty, seven-time Cup Series champion
“Everybody asks me what memory sticks in my head the most about him, and seriously, it’s the first time I saw him wearing Spandex. I keep trying to get it out of my head, but I can’t do it. But I think what Dale has brought to the sport is really kind of off the race track for me. You look at somebody who is the biggest superstar in the sport, most popular driver for 15 years now, and he’s still super humble. You can still see him at a random bar, drinking a beer. He’s still a normal guy. His life is obviously unique and special. But I think just the fact that he’s been able to maintain such a humble attitude and be a human being instead of a superstar is amazing. He’s been able to maintain that through everything that’s been thrown at him and put upon him, and that’s really special.”
— Alex Bowman, new driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
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“Dale’s got a huge commitment with four teams. He’s going to help the team he just got out of the car with. He’s going to be in the broadcast booth. So he’s going to be visible. He’s not walking away. … Let’s face it, Dale is unique. You can’t replace Dale. I mean he’s got so many just wonderful traits of his personality the way he cares about people, cares about everything he does, and that’s why so many people are attached to him. But his commitment is to see the sport grow, and he’ll still be around to help us all with that.”
— Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports
“Dale Jr. has had a huge impact on our sport – and you can see that every week with his legion of fans and Junior Nation. He has a tremendous sense of the history of NASCAR and, while he shares his father’s name, Dale has made a name for himself with his accomplishments in racing. While we will miss Dale on the track next year, he loves this sport, those working in the industry and the fans too much to ever be too far away.”
— Jeff Gordon, FOX NASCAR analyst and former Earnhardt teammate at Hendrick Motorsports
“He was the face of our sport as it evolved and maintained its position in professional sports.
We needed someone who resonated with the human spirit of our sport, and he stepped into that role as an athlete who fans could relate to and recognize and respect and appreciate.”
— Mike Helton, NASCAR executive
“We all knew this was coming, but I thought the horizon was farther out and that he might drive for another season or two. I am happy for Dale Jr. because I’m sure it is a decision he has weighed heavily over quite a long time, and it’s one he is comfortable enough with to announce now and go through an entire season of well-wishes from others.”
— Mike Joy, FOX NASCAR play-by-play announcer
“When he called me for the first time to come drive for him, and he left a message and just said, ‘Hey, it’s Dale Jr. Just want you to know I thought you did a great job (driving an earlier race for another owner), and I’d really like to hire you for my team. Call me back.’ And I wanted to believe it was Dale Jr., but I didn’t know. Maybe I was being Punk’d. You know, at that time, Ashton Kutcher was pretty famous and he had that show, and (I) could have been being Punk’d. Then when we did talk, we talked for probably 10 minutes, and he tried to tell my why his car and team was the best team, and I wasn’t really listening to what he was saying. I was just thinking, ‘Wow, Dale Jr. called me.’”
— Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski, who got his big NASCAR break when Earnhardt called him with a job offer to drive for JR Motorsports
“Somebody always needs to replace leaders when they go away, and Dale Jr. did that when his father died. He helped bring in new and younger fans because he was sort of the boy next door. He didn’t have any affectations; he was just Dale Jr., just himself, and people liked that.”
— Humpy Wheeler, former Charlotte Motor Speedway president
“He changed the sport, that’s all there is to it. I think Dale Jr. is solely responsible for bringing thousands upon thousands of fans to the sport every weekend. So many people would go to the race track or tune in just to see him. I don’t really know of another driver who had that kind of impact.”
— Kenny Wallace, former NASCAR driver and current FOX analyst