CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A lot changed for Dale Earnhardt Jr. during his time away from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series last season as he recovered from a concussion.
He was awarded something valuable during this period that life as a race car driver doesn’t often allow for – time. By using this opportunity to reflect back on his life and look ahead to the future, it provided the clarity that impacted his decision to announce his retirement Tuesday at Hendrick Motorsports.
“During my rehab, I was given something else that I wasn’t accustomed to, and that was time,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “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.”
A primary goal of recovery was to get back behind the wheel, but it quickly evolved. Earnhardt Jr. worked to not only race again but to be the one to decide when it was ultimately time to step away.
“I wanted to be able to make that decision myself on retiring and not really have it made for me,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I had a lot to think about over the last several months, and I was not sure that I would have the opportunity to compete. This season has been a blessing to me. It’s been a gift to be at the racetrack, to run every lap.”
Retirement is a monumental moment in a driver’s career. Deciding when it’s time to step away from a sport that has defined much of their life is one of the toughest decisions they will ever make.
“So obviously I think every driver thinks about retirement and how they want that ‑‑ what they think that looks like for them as they get to a certain age,” Earnhardt Jr. said.
However, there is never a perfect time to begin considering the idea of walking away.
“But I wasn’t really thinking about that too much until the last couple years,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Once I started to realize how delicate things are and how quickly that can be made for you, it’s something I had to start thinking about quite seriously.”
A little over a month after returning behind the wheel at Daytona, he met with team owner Rick Hendrick on March 29th to inform him of his decision to make 2017 his final full-time year of competition.
“It was a tough conversation, very emotional conversation, but just because of our relationship and how we care about each other,” Hendrick said.
While Earnhardt Jr.’s tenure behind the wheel of his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Chevrolet will conclude, he was clear about his commitment to the sport.
“But I’m still going to be here and want to be an influence and a part of their success, however that may be,” he said. “I do have ambition to work. I’m not going to quit working. There’s a feeling of being an asset to something.”
Placing additional focus on JR Motorsports in the coming years will allow Earnhardt Jr. to develop talent and continue helping those in his organization further their careers.
“I really enjoy being in the XFINITY Series,” Earnhardt Jr said. “There is a reward that I get of helping people achieve their goals and get to the next level. That’s even greater than the wins to see somebody get a job somewhere on a Cup level, get an opportunity to step up.”
Race car drivers spend their careers chasing the prize and gracing victory lane. Now, Earnhardt Jr. will collect his rewards standing just outside of the spotlight.
“I don’t have to be the guy holding the trophy,” he said. “But being part of that success, I really enjoy. I really enjoy making people happy and doing stuff as a team. I think I can replicate that in the next chapter of my life.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s career began naturally, wanting to follow in the footsteps of his legendary father.
“So at a very young age all I wanted to do was be able to make a living driving cars,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “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. I just wanted to be able to do it.
Now 18 years after beginning his career at NASCAR’s top level, making over 600 starts and capturing 26 wins, his career has been successful beyond belief.
“So I guess what I’m saying is – have I accomplished way more than I’ve ever dreamed?” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Way more than I ever thought I’d accomplish.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. understands there will be those who will question the timing or motivation of his choice — it’s a bi-product of being the sports most popular driver.
“But for me personally,” he said, “I’m at peace with the decision. I’m very comfortable with it.”
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