NASCAR’s most popular driver will end his Cup career after 18 seasons and the struggle of finding its next superstar to carry the sport’s banner continues
Careers can be made or broken in an athlete’s life. Some have made an impact that’s lasted generations while others are a footnote in history. Whether NASCAR fans want to admit it or not, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is one of those athlete’s that has left an impact in his profession.
Earnhardt, Jr., 42, is a two-time Daytona 500 winner, a two-time Xfinity Series (then known as Busch Grand National) champion, an All-Star race winner (2000) and winner of 26 Cup Series races.
Those accomplishments are impressive after what he’s been through since he began racing.
From the overwhelming stress of carrying the Earnhardt name to his series of concussions, Earnhardt, Jr. has had a storybook career.
When I woke up Tuesday morning, my social media feed was plagued with several tweets and posts about 14-time NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver announcing his retirement from racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after 2017.
Earnhardt, Jr. became the sixth driver to either announced their retirement or ended their careers in a span of six months (on May 16, 2017, Josh Wise confirmed his retirement, making him the seventh driver in seven months):
Jeff Gordon – announced his retirement in 2015, subbed in for Earnhardt, Jr. for eight races in 2016 and ran his last race at Martinsville Oct. 30.
Tony Stewart – announced his retirement before the 2016 season, retired after Homestead Nov. 20.
Brian Scott – retired after one season
Carl Edwards – retired after the 2016 season, 10 laps away from winning his first championship.
Michael Waltrip – announced early in the year he will retire after the 2017 Daytona 500 after racing in Cup since 1985.
Two other drivers, multi-series champion Greg Biffle and NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Bobby Labonte, have announced they won’t race in Cup this year and no signs indicate they’ll race in Cup again.
Earnhardt, Jr. said in the press conference that he wanted to leave on his own terms. A phase his father was robbed Feb. 18, 2001.
I wrote a piece last October where retirement was an intricate part of my subject regarding his future after sitting out the last 18 races due to a concussion.
Even then, the thought of Earnhardt, Jr. retiring didn’t register because of his publicly known admiration of the sport I’ve loved since I was a kid.
After the announcement was made, I started to reflect on his career that some fans have viewed as good but not good enough to be a legend as he’s still looking for that elusive Cup Series title.
My view of Earnhardt, Jr.’s career will not be about those what ifs but what he’s meant for the sport far bigger than his numbers.
Never have I seen a driver over the last few years have an infatuating passion for NASCAR like Earnhardt, Jr.
My everlasting memory may come as a surprise but his win at Martinsville Speedway Oct. 26, 2014 stood out the most.
The loud roar of Junior Nation and his jubilation when he celebrated with his pit crew showed me that he loves what he does and it’s without a doubt my favorite out of his 26 victories.
In addition to his victory, Earnhardt, Jr.’s tweets relating to the good old days when his legendary father and other greats ruled the circuit are admirable.
Those two moments alone makes Earnhardt, Jr. the definition of respect and why I enjoy the sport through its countless rule changes and sagging ratings.
NASCAR’s future is facing a dilemma far bigger than Earnhardt’s death or Richard Petty’s retirement in 1992.
Who’s the next superstar that will carry the banner like Earnhardt, Jr. has the past decade and a half?
Short term, the only driver that could carry the banner is seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson has been a good ambassador of the sport with his incredible workout ethic that’s revolutionized the way driver’s keep themselves fit to make the 10-month grind easier.
Johnson’s problem is he has not reached the same altitude as Earnhardt, Jr.
Johnson, 41, is still a threat every race but signs tells me he may not be around 10 years from now. Even if he sticks around, he hasn’t been a transcending guy.
Some fans have viewed Johnson as one of the key reasons why NASCAR isn’t the same as it was because of his dominance.
In the sport’s history, dominant drivers never detracted audiences away from the sport like Johnson has in his championship runs but he’s not to the sole blame for most of NASCAR’s problems.
From the fans perspective, the problem is the lack of continuity on its playoff system and countless rule changes NASCAR has produced. Consequently, some changes has produced several lackluster and confusing races.
Earnhardt, Jr.’s retirement just adds another blow to the sport that hasn’t been seen in quite some time.
Outside of the Earnhardt family, Gordon was one of the last transcending drivers in the sport. Gordon brought the West Coast audience to pay attention to a sport that grew in the South.
Earnhardt, Jr. has the name value from his dad and fans adored him since his arrival. For the casuals, people know the name Earnhardt and pay attention to how he does.
Fans have stick with him through thick and thin, a bit of lost art in today’s generation of sports fans with plenty of people switching drivers or teams based on performance. Junior Nation isn’t one of those groups.
Going into 2018, the sport is going to see a large decline of attendance and television ratings because a lot of members of Junior Nation has stuck around the sport because of their patriarch.
If the sport has survived everything, NASCAR should be fine but we’re talking about a driver with the largest fanbase retiring.
Outside of Earnhardt, Jr., there really isn’t a driver with an incredible fanbase.
Long term, a driver that could carry the NASCAR banner is Brad Keselowski.
Like Earnhardt, Jr., Keselowski, 33, has a passion to the sport and respects its history as he comes from a family of racers dating back to his uncle Ron in the 1970s.
The family has also had their share of heartbreaks including Brad before joining Team Penske in 2010.
People would guess Keselowski’s journey has earned him respect from a lot of fans, right? In some cases, that is incorrect.
Keselowski’s issue in the fans eyes is his questionable driving style that has resulted several confrontations among his peers.
Fans loathed Keselowski for quite some time but not as much as his Penske teammate Joey Logano.
Logano, 26, is among the most hated drivers today because of his whiny personality and unwilling to confront his issues.
For quite some time, I’ve noticed there are many great but unlikable drivers (Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick included) or guys with no personalities. A far cry from the tough, mouthy and intelligent drivers of the past.
Those cons won’t keep the a select group of fans entertained and unwilling to accept them as NASCAR’s leaders.
Earnhardt, Jr. brought up an excellent point in his announcement and it’s the emergence of young Cup drivers like Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Kyle Larson.
Out of those four drivers, Larson, 24, could be the guy that will keep the sport rolling in the right direction.
Larson’s versatile driving style has won a lot of fans over and viewed as one of the most likeable drivers today. Once he starts putting on some wins under his belt, Larson’s impact in the sport will be positive.
Another driver I see Junior Nation falling behind on is 24-year-old Hendrick Motorsports test driver Alex Bowman.
Before filling in for Earnhardt, Jr. in 10 out of the last 18 races last season, Bowman’s career was going nowhere after racing for back marker teams in Cup.
Bowman made the most of his opportunity and outperformed Gordon in the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet. His pole at Phoenix and the run he had proved any doubters that when given the right equipment, journeymen do prevail.
The issue right now is what can Bowman do in a full-season. If Bowman exceeds expectations, Junior Nation will likely back him up.
It’ll take time for the young guns to become the next Gordon and Johnson but when Larson gets there, NASCAR could have its overdue renaissance.
Johnson will be the number one choice as the flag bearer for NASCAR in 2018 and the sport will soldier on like always and survive without its popular figure.
Earnhardt, Jr. is perhaps at its happiest point of his life. He’s happily married with Amy, the woman that’s helped him overcome his struggles and find himself as a person.
In addition to Amy, he has gone into each race embracing the moment including 8:30am practices. There’s nothing wrong about it, happiness is a possession that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Let’s not forget, Earnhardt, Jr. isn’t going away from the sport. He still has his Xfinity Series team and planning to run two races next season.
Now it’s Earnhardt, Jr.’s time to make an impact outside of his driving career.
JR Motorsports has been successful where up and coming drivers excelled and Cup veterans reviving their careers. I do see Earnhardt, Jr. expanding his team to Cup someday but going forward, the next 28 races will be filled with thanks from his fans and peers.
It has been said memories lasts a life time, Earnhardt, Jr.’s memories are limitless. From the highest of highs to its lowest of lows, his own legacy will be cherished among many NASCAR fans forever.