Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on Tuesday that his choice to retire after the 2017 season came after serious reflection as he rehabbed from a concussion that sidelined him for half of the 2016 season.
Junior missed 18 races after he suffered a midsummer concussion. He dealt with vision and balance issues and worked hard to regain a normal life, let alone the ability to jump inside a race car and drive 200 MPH. He said that he wondered at the time if his career would be over “without getting a vote at the table.”
“I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms,” Junior said of his retirement decision. “I wanted to honor my commitment to [Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick], my sponsors, the team and my fans.”
Junior, whose contract is set to expire at the end of the season, had previously said he wanted to take a few races at the start of 2017 before beginning negotiations on a contract extension. He said on Tuesday he drove to see Hendrick on March 29 and tell him he had decided to retire. Hendrick, he said, told him he loved him.
“I made [the decision to retire] shortly before I drove to talk to Rick,” Junior said.
Junior has won 26 races in his Cup Series career and has won NASCAR’s most popular driver award 14-straight times.
“One thing that has made this career the incredible ride that it’s been is Junior Nation,” Junior said of his fanbase. “The fan support that I’ve 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 that 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.”
Junior was stoic throughout his remarks during his announcement. When he was asked about his emotions while on stage, he gave an incredibly revealing answer about his drive to be a race car driver in the “shadow” of his seven-time NASCAR champion father and why he feels he’s accomplished more than he ever thought he would in NASCAR.
“Very bittersweet,” Junior said of his emotions. “I seem like I’ve told you guys this so many times so I hate to kind of rehash it over and over but when my dad was doing so well and there were a couple guys coming into the sport and they were sons, it was difficult for them to replicate their dad’s success. And I just saw at an early age before I was a driver that growing up in that man’s shadow was going to be a real hard challenge. But I wanted to race. I knew racing would put me in that shadow.
“So what I — I kind of just, I knew the odds of me having any talent at all or being able to do it were thin, they are for anyone. So at a very young age all I wanted to do was make a living driving cars. I didn’t set goals like — I didn’t dream of winning championships or Daytona 500s or working with one of the best owners in business, driving for one of the best organizations. I just wanted to do it. I just wanted to be able to do it. I was afraid of not being able to do it. I guess what I’m saying is I accomplished way more than I ever dreamed — way more. Than I ever thought I’d accomplish. So I’m good. I’m good on that front. I’m so blessed and fortunate as far as what I was able to achieve but I’m very sad because I know I let a lot — I know it was disappointing for a lot of people to wake up to that news this morning. I’ve got a lot of fans who are very sad for a lack of a better way to describe it.
“So I feel that emotion as well that what I’ve announced today has had that effect on a lot of people. With that said, I never assume what kind of reaction I’m going to get from everything but it’s been really positive and that’s meant a lot to me. So yeah, there’s been some tears. I think the hardest part has been telling Rick. Me and him sitting in the office and just let it all hang out. We said a lot of things to each other that I think we’ve both been wanting to say for a long time. You just never really sit down and get the chance to do it or give yourself time to do it, everyone’s so busy. So it’s been a lot of emotion. At the same time, this isn’t the end of the road. We’ve got the rest of this year, I’m going to be in Richmond with my foot on the floor going down the front straightaway and this press conference will be a distant memory. So there’s a lot of racing left that I’m excited about so I’m going to be on a little bit of a roller coaster this week but I’m expecting it to be business as usual in a few days.”
While Junior is retiring from the Cup Series, he isn’t leaving NASCAR. He owns a multi-car team in the Xfinity Series and said he has two races in NASCAR’s No. 2 series scheduled for 2018.
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