After winning the pole last weekend at Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Jr. left the door open for running the Clash and perhaps even the Daytona 500 next year.
We have seen this story before with big name drivers retiring from full-time racing. Mark Martin is perhaps the best and most well–known example of the urge many competitors feel once they declare retirement. Martin came back to race for years after such an announcement, in a combination of full-time and part–time seasons for various teams in the garage.
Jeff Gordon is the most recent example. After an entire career racing the No. 24 car, the driver returned to sub for Earnhardt last season, competing in a handful of events in the No. 88 while its usual talent recovered from concussion-like symptoms.
For Gordon especially, the situation was not fun.
Certainly, these superstar drivers earn the right to return when they want. After all, they have devoted their lives to this, and it is understandable if they want to compete at NASCAR’s highest level once again. Unfortunately, doing this seems to end their careers with a fade rather than a bang.
Gordon’s last few weeks in the No. 24 were incredible. The win at Martinsville and heading into the championship round at Homestead gave the sport and Gordon’s fans an energy boost. Even though he didn’t win the title, those races were big moments that provided meaning and closure to the driver’s career.
He should have quit while he was ahead, but he didn’t. Racing the following year in a different car took away those memories. Sure, nothing can discount the fact that Gordon competed for a championship in 2015, but the event was promoted as his final race – and that was a lie.
Drivers may not want retirement tours, but it doesn’t matter what they want. Such tours benefit the fans, the people who deserve closure after following a career of ups and downs.
When fans of Earnhardt buy tickets to Daytona, Talladega or Homestead this year, they should be sure those are his final races at that venue. Otherwise, the moments created throughout the season will be diluted with a feeling of uncertainty and closure will not feel as ripe.
Earnhardt has said he would race the Daytona 500 again under the right circumstances. Perhaps, in his case, such an event would be a significant place to end his career and provide such closure.
However, such a return is a risk. Earnhardt would have to be driving a very competitive car with an appropriate number – the No. 8 is the only one that could provide as much closure as the No. 88. More importantly, he has to shut the door completely after that. Anything less would result in disappointment.
It also doesn’t help that last weekend at Daytona was promoted as his final race at the speedway by NBC, the track and the sport in general. Either way, Earnhardt needs to solidify his plans soon and be transparent with his fans and the sport in general. His last race shouldn’t be a surprise, and it should clearly be his final ride.
Gordon did not come back under the right circumstances, and while every driver is different, Earnhardt should refrain from making similar decisions, so fans are not tricked into following a retirement tour that has no meaning.
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