By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
After 18 seasons behind the wheel in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will hang up his helmet at the end of the 2017 season, retiring from NASCAR and bringing his driving career to a close.
A mainstay in the Cup Series since 2000, Earnhardt has 26 career wins under his belt, including two Daytona 500 victories, 149 top-five finishes, 253 top-10 finishes, 13 pole positions, and a career average finish of 15.7 with 603 starts through Monday’s race at Bristol.
In addition to his success in the Cup Series, Earnhardt has also captured the Most Popular Driver Award 14 times and he also scored two championships in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 1998 and 1999.
In a Tuesday afternoon press conference on the Hendrick Motorsports campus, Earnhardt dove into the details on his decision to retire at season’s end and his reasoning is very reminiscent of the drivers that have left the sport in recent years (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Carl Edwards) as he wanted to go out on his own terms, and that is exactly what he is doing, especially after returning to the cockpit after recovering from a concussion last season.
“You’re wondering why I reached this decision, it’s really simple,” said Earnhardt “I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms. I wanted to honor my commitment to Rick, to my sponsors, to my team, and to the fans. I’ll admit, that having influence over my exit only became meaningful when it started to seem most unlikely.”
“As you know, I missed a few races last year and during that time I had to face the realization that my driving career may have already ended without me as so much getting a vote at the table. Of course in life we’re not promised a vote, and that’s especially true in racing.”
“But, during my rehab, I was given something else that I wasn’t accustomed to, and that was time. 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. So that became my motivation. The opportunity to stand here at this podium to announce my choice rather than some fate that was decided for me.”
“In that regard, the race car wasn’t my goal, it was merely the vehicle that got me here today.”
In announcing his reasons for retiring at the end of the season, Earnhardt also took the opportunity to thank the many people that have helped him along the way, both in his professional life and his personal life.
“Now planning my exit this way gives me the chance to publicly thank those who made the last 18 years possible. First and foremost, Rick Hendrick,” said Earnhardt.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, I think the toughest thing about this decision was having to tell you. I just didn’t want to disappoint you. You mean so much to me.”
“So, on March 29th, I drove over and had the conversation with him, and his response, he told me he loved me. Becoming a bigger part of your life has changed mine forever. You gave me guidance and direction that will reward me for as long as I live.”
“My wife, Amy, most of you have been around long enough to know what I was like before I met Amy. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t remind me of the incredible positive impact she’s had on me. Through thick and thin, Amy’s support and encouragement has been constant. The rehab that I spoke of earlier, she went through it too. The only difference is she didn’t have to, but she did. There were no days off. There were no hours off. There were no minutes off. It was just Amy and me. Without her help in those days of recovery, I wouldn’t have been able to return to the track for this season.”
“The most difficult thing, or the second most difficult thing about this decision was telling my brothers. Greg Ives and the guys on my 88 Team. It’s a privilege to race with this group. Greg is one of the most talented yet humble guys in the garage. We are very close, and I appreciate the sacrifices that he and his family have made for the good of our team.”
“For my road crew to the pit crew to all the people in the 48/88 shop, I’m a better driver and a better person for my time with you guys. You’ve helped me mature and grow well beyond the racetrack. We loved to work together, and I look forward to every single trip we have left on the schedule this season.”
“Kelley Earnhardt Miller, I think if I were to sum up Kelley’s life in one word, it would be sacrifice. You all know the stories, and they’re all true. She dropped out of one school to enroll in military school, where I was, because she was worried about me. She came to work for me even though it meant that she’d have to take a massive pay cut, but she knew that I needed her. She didn’t think twice about it.”
“She made it her life mission to have my back. I’m telling you today, Kelley, how much I appreciate that.”
“Brenda Jackson, my mother, she loves me through my good races and my bad races. But what makes her uniquely my own is she definitely is going to tell me when it was a bad race. Everybody deserves to have someone in their life that you never have to wonder, and with my mother, I never have to wonder.”
“To my father, Dale Earnhardt, I would not have been a race car driver if it not for him. He believed in me. It might have taken a little encouragement from Tony Eury Sr., but eventually dad came around. I appreciate my father, everything he put into my career, and all the guys on the old AC Delco team who gave me a shot.”
“To all the team members and co‑workers that I’ve worked with: I’ve only driven for two teams in my career, from DEI to Hendrick Motorsports, I was blessed to work with the most, body men, chassis builders, engine builders and so on. As I matured personally, the bonds I formulated with my team became so very important to me. They weren’t just co‑workers, they were friends. We cared for each other. We could fight like brothers, which me and Tony Jr. so often did. But I needed them, and I so badly wanted them to need me. I miss that camaraderie, and I’ll miss it for the rest of my life. But the friendships I’ve made will live beyond the time we’ve spent in the garage together.”
“To my fans: One thing that’s made this career the incredible ride that it’s been is Junior Nation. The fan support that I 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.”
“By the end of my career, thanks in large part to social media, I’ve really gained a new appreciation for their dedication, their enthusiasm when we succeed, and their encouragement when we fall short of our goals. I don’t think that anything in my professional career has meant more to me than the treatment that I’ve received from track to track by the fans that so dearly love our sport.”
“To our sponsors ‑‑ this wouldn’t be an official NASCAR event unless we fired off some official sponsor appreciation. In the beginning of my Cup career, there was Budweiser. They sent me on a trajectory that was unprecedented. Steve Uline, Tony Ponturo, and their team of people, wherever you are today, thank you so much for taking that big leap of faith with me.”
“I want to recognize Pepsi‑Cola and National Guard for their role in my move to Hendrick Motorsports. They were the ones that got the 88 program off the ground, and to this day, I continue to enjoy a partnership with Pepsi and Mountain Dew.”
“Charlie Shaver, Jim Muse, and William Sturgill with Axalta, you guys have accepted me as your own. You’re building an incredible legacy here at Hendrick Motorsports. You’re fully invested into the 88 Team, and you’ve helped me take our Dirty Mo Media from a vision to reality. So for all those things, I’m very appreciative.”
“Steve Rasmussen, Terrance Williams and Jim McCoy all the folks at Nationwide, our partnership goes back a very long time. Maybe you guys heard it, but the Earnhardt family has been with Nationwide for more than 30 years.”
“But what I’m proud of more is we’ve accomplished a lot in the last ten. I hope you guys are as proud as I am, and by the way, Jim, I know you’re here in the room. I’m just going to say what everyone else here in the room is thinking, your brilliant use of the retired Peyton Manning is to be commended, if not replicated.”
“To Jim Campbell and Terry Dolan, it’s an honor to carry that Chevrolet Bowtie on my cars. I don’t just mean that on the racetrack, I’m Chevrolet for life.”
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have many other partners invest in my career, and I look forward to talking to them over the next several months, and I hope you feel I did a great job for you. I want you to know that my work’s not finished.”
“I also want to thank NASCAR for giving me and a whole lot of other fortunate people a place to race. I’ve never taken that for granted. Thanks to the France family for your support, and thank you to Mike Helton who has given me tons of personal advice. He’s always shot me straight, and he’s been a tremendous role model for me.”
“The sport is in a great place with incredible, exciting, young talent emerging as we speak. I look forward to seeing what the future and current stars in the sport can accomplish in the years to come.”
“In closing, I am eager to explore new opportunities. I don’t see myself really detaching from NASCAR. My intention is still to be involved in the sport on some level. In fact, I still have two XFINITY races to run for JR Motorsports in 2018, so even after this season is over, you’ve not seen the last of me on the racetrack. But more than that, I want to be a part of the future of this sport for many, many years to come.”
Though the first eight races of the 2017 season have only produced one finish inside the top-10, with a fifth place finish at Texas, look for Earnhardt and his team to work as hard as they can throughout the remainder of the season to give him the send-off he truly deserves.
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