The great NASCAR name drain continues. Will the last recognizable driver please turn off the lights and roll down the door when he exits the garage.
And this one is going to really leave a mark – or is it more a vacuum? Dale Earnhardt Jr., 42, announced Tuesday this would be his final season driving on NASCAR’s top circuit, telling an afternoon news conference, “I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms.”
Let’s take roll of the retirements of just the past three years. Jeff Gordon. Tony Stewart. Carl Edwards. And now the perennial most popular driver of the sport. The caution flag is out. Racing is leaking personality and performance all over its many tracks.
In any case of a driver who exits his perilous profession intact, it is a personal victory. It’s the “and-he-lived-happily-ever-after” sign-off that all their stories deserve. (Although Earnhardt said he planned to occasionally dabble in an Xfinity Series car he owns).
But Earnhardt’s impending exit represents a great loss, too, for those who are financially and emotionally attached to racing. Getting beneath all the sponsors’ paint and the mechanical muscle to the human aspect of going fast is one of the great challenges facing this sport. Without drivers you care enough about to cheer or jeer, it’s all just a 180 mph auto show. Those kind of drivers are getting harder to find.
Even when Earnhardt isn’t winning – and he hasn’t won since November, 2015, with but one top-10 finish in eight races this season – he is commanding attention. “How did Junior do?” has to be the most-asked question among fans who had something else to do on Sunday rather than watch the race. You always had to know where he placed, even when the news wasn’t good.
The name he inherited. The initial benefits of fame he enjoyed when joining big league racing in 1999 were accidents of birth. But upon that, Earnhardt, through a genuine likability and the gift of coming off as anything but entitled, built a popularity that was uniquely his own. Funny and thoughtful will win you a lot of fans.
Want to know how a very rich driver, born with the keys to a racing kingdom, can be so popular among the commoners in the stands? Just read Earnhardt Jr.’s chosen Twitter biography: “Retired dealership service mechanic. Former backup fullback for the Mooresville Blue Devils varsity soccer team. Aspiring competition BBQ Pitmaster. Beer!”
There would be questions about Junior’s commitment to racing as he won only twice in the seven seasons between 2007-13. Legit questions. And derisive jabs questioning what had he really done to earn his cult following. Earnhardt wondered as much himself, and then won seven times in the next two years.
The questions about his commitment have even more legs now. He is a newlywed bent on starting a family. His net worth, according to Forbes, is $225 million. He has just come off a long and restless recovery from a concussion. Better to retire than to drive without purpose.
What the original Dale Earnhardt was able to do just after turning 42 was a career in itself: He won the last two of his seven series championships; along with 22 races.
But Junior is not his father.
That is not a criticism, although the phrase has often been employed that way.
As just a pure driver, Dale Jr. was good enough to win 26 times – 10 of those, nearly 40 percent, coming at the restrictor-plate venues of Daytona and Talladega. But he never finished higher than third for a series championship. And it doesn’t appear he’ll contend in his final campaign, either.
It would be patently unfair to paint his career as a pale reflection of his father’s. For in every way he has carried himself, Junior has been a fine servant of his name, the faithful caretaker of a legacy.
No, he is no Dale Sr. But, then, who is?
There are a couple of father-son driver combinations currently inhabiting the young NASCAR Hall of Fame – Lee and Richard Petty; Ned and Dale Jarrett. I can’t say that Junior ever will join his late father in that hall. Are a couple of Daytona 500 titles enough to overcome the lack of a championship?
He may not be a driver for eternity, but Dale Jr. certainly was the driver of the day. His sport quakes at the thought of losing his famous name.
Chase Elliott had best start peddling a little faster.