Like many in the NASCAR world, I was left with a torrid mixture of happiness and sadness amid Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s retirement release on Tuesday morning.
There was shock to the suddenness of the announcement, one of the few news stories in recent years to not be leaked (looking at you, Stewart-Haas Racing to Ford announcement). But at the same time, Earnhardt’s retirement – coming in his 18th year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and following a season marred by concussion-like symptoms – was expected sooner rather than later.
Given that, the minor surprise was quickly overcome by a sense overwhelming joy at Earnhardt’s ability to announce his leave on his own volition, without the spurring of a doctor or the sort of tragic accident that befell his father. But that joy was married with the bittersweet sorrow of the sport losing its most popular driver following the similar exits of fellow superstars Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards over the past two years.
The conflict of emotions are great. However, if there’s one bit of solace that can allow the joy of Earnhardt’s exit to outweigh the loss on-track, it’s that he – much like Gordon, Stewart and, to a lesser extent, Edwards before him – is well situated to remain a presence in the sport for years beyond his retirement.
The exits of Stewart and Gordon in the past two seasons has been immense for NASCAR. Combined, the two drivers were accountable for seven Cup series championships, 142 wins and countless moments and memories during their tenures in the sport.
However, the loss of the two legends hasn’t been complete, because neither driver is truly gone.
Sure, neither of them have been spotted behind the wheel in NASCAR, though Gordon ran (and won) the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, and Stewart’s currently contesting a variety of races, driving as recently as Wednesday at the quarter-mile Anderson Speedway.
— Tony Stewart (@TonyStewart) April 27, 2017
Still, the presence of both drivers can be felt quickly within the garage area.
Gordon still works full-time in the sport, handling broadcast duties for FOX Sports’ NASCAR coverage while also handling whatever duties remain for him as a partner at Hendrick Motorsports. Stewart doesn’t field media duties (could you imagine?), but he’s active within the garage area as a co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, typically found atop one of his team’s boxes on race day.
If NASCAR, media or fellow drivers want advice or opinion from either of the sport’s recently-retired legends, they’re within reach. Edwards isn’t as easily accessible by comparison, but inquiries from media over the past few months have proven successful in generating a response.
In that sense, all three drivers join a small group of former stars including brothers Darrell and Michael Waltrip, father and son Richard and Kyle Petty, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and a handful of others – former stars of the sport who continue to stay involved in their later years.
These personalities in the sport don’t always get the same attention as the stars of the modern day. Younger fans are much more likely to scream for Chase Elliott or Kyle Larson before they do the same for Jarrett or Waltrip. Yet each member of this tiny group deserves just as much praise.
Days, months or even years after the end of their days behind the wheel, a small assortment of former drivers continue to give back to NASCAR in the form of their expertise, analysis and business.
Most work in the media – the Waltrips for FOX Sports, Burton and Jarrett for NBC. A handful of others, Richard Petty and Stewart among them, continue to own teams and field drivers. A select few also hold duties as spotters, driving coaches and NASCAR officials.
The elder Petty, arguably NASCAR’s biggest star with seven championships, 200 wins and even a prominent role in Pixar’s “Cars” to prove it, has been among the sport’s biggest connoisseurs in retirement. “The King” hasn’t driven a car in more than two decades, yet he can still be found in the paddock weekly, working with his team, attending occasional appearances and, as he always has, making ample time to interact with fans.
Given his stature within popular culture, it could be argued that Earnhardt is the biggest name to announce retirement since Petty made his final drive in 1992. Given that, not only his presence is likely to be felt for many years, but it also offers the biggest potential upswing for a retiree in 25 years.
What he’ll do in retirement remains to be seen – grandmother Martha Earnhardt is hopeful for great-grandchildren – but the good news for JR Nation is that the 14-time MENCS most popular driver is well-positioned to contribute to the sport like those drivers listed above for years to come.
Earnhardt still has his own XFINITY Series team in JR Motorsports, an ownership role that could keep him around the sport’s second series for many years to come.
The North Carolinian still owns the popular Dirty Mo Radio Network, a popular audio platform that hosts a variety of NASCAR-centric shows, including his own weekly “Dale Jr. Download” program.
Should Dirty Mo not leave the two-time Daytona 500 champ fulfilled, there may also be the possibility of broadcast opportunities. Earnhardt handled occasional broadcasts for FOX Sports last season, and even hopped on the Motor Racing Network’s coverage for a short stint while recovering from a concussion last fall. Nothing is guaranteed in this avenue, but it’s difficult to imagine the draw of the Earnhardt name not leading to an offer, and the 42-year-old claimed to have enjoyed his time in the booth last season.
There are multiple opportunities for Earnhardt to continue to stay active in the sport, whether he wants to commit to a full-time job or just live-tweet the occasional race. Regardless of what he should choose, one can only hope that he stays active in the sport in some respect.
Earnhardt still has much to offer NASCAR in retirement. Hopefully, the sport has enough to offer in return, too.