I smiled. I was sad. But mostly, honestly, I felt relieved.
While I wrestled with that reaction, I scrolled through social media and flipped through TV channels to take the temperature of the outside world. There I found the roots -- and the validation -- of my relief. I was greeted by some career blowhards and click-baiters declaring that they would have Earnhardt on their lists of all-time overrated athletes. Others questioned if he ever actually loved auto racing at all, portrayed as just another surname coattail rider, a silver-spoon racer, a third-generation also-ran who never lived up to his daddy's name.
I wasn't outraged by any of it because I also wasn't surprised by any of it. And neither was Earnhardt. People have been slinging that sludge at him nearly since the day "Junior" was typed onto his birth certificate. He heard it as a kid, via taunting from bullies in the hallways of his school. He heard it as a young adult, from crusty, old short-track weekend warriors strolling by his late-model ride for no reason other than to take verbal shots of jealousy at the benefits of his last name. He heard it as a grown-up, an accomplished career racer, every time he slipped into a winless drought on the racetrack -- even those that were punctuated by tragedy or injury.
The first time I saw Junior was nearly a quarter-century ago at Hickory Speedway. A red-faced race fan scrambled to the bottom of the grandstand stairs to press his face against the fence and scream, "You'll never be your daddy!" Earnhardt smiled and said, "You think I don't know that?"
A couple of years later, I watched him after a Busch Series -- now called the Xfinity Series -- race at the Nashville Fairgrounds. Following a nondescript top-10 finish, after every other driver was gone, he sat on the back stoop of the team's transporter and signed autographs for 30 minutes, until everyone was satisfied.
A woman, shaking in her Intimidator apparel, told him, "I've always wanted to meet your daddy but never have. I guess you'll have to do." He smiled, scribbled his name on her sleeve and replied, "I guess I will."
In 1999, I watched him shuffle uncomfortably alongside his father at the now-legendary "Countdown to E Day" announcement that revealed his father's plans to move him into a Cup series ride. A fan waiting outside hoping to catch the luminaries leaving the still-new headquarters of Dale Earnhardt Inc. breathlessly shouted, "Do you think you can ever match your father's accomplishments?" He smiled, gave his crisp, new Budweiser shirt a tug and replied, "I'm going to say no, but I'm also going to say that I'm going to try really hard."
He always has. Even as his star rose with unexpected speed, he tried really hard. Even when MTV Cribs, Sheryl Crow and Jay-Z were on the line, he tried really hard. Even when he had more money in the bank than he could possibly spend, more fans than he could count and more damaged neurons than anyone would ever wish to own, he tried really hard. Even after his father was taken from this earth by racing, after his hero and blood and namesake damn near had his head taken off by the racetrack that made him famous -- Daytona International Speedway -- the son continued to try really hard.
Before Feb. 18, 2001, the son was burdened only by questions about living up to his daddy. From that evening until this one, those questions have come with sobs and shakes and pleas for him to tell those questioners how they are supposed to cope with their loss ... all while he has tried to cope with his. A mere five days later, he sat at a table on a stage in front of the global media ... and apologized. He said he was sorry to bother us all with "my own selfish pity." Then he walked in the garage and prepared for a race he never should've run. Because that's what a racer was supposed to do.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been upside down, on fire, cracked, concussed, compressed and depressed. He had his heart ripped out and was asked to heal himself on national television. Yet he kept racing, and oh yeah, he also won 26 times. Nearly 3,000 men and women have started a race at NASCAR's highest level. Fewer than 200 have won even once. Only 30 have won 26 times. And only one of those 30 did so while carrying the expectations and emotional and economic loads of an entire sport on his shoulders. Somehow, amid it all, Junior also became his own man.
Last fall, as he fought through the fog of concussions and stared into the even murkier fog of an uncertain future, he was approached by multiple friends and family members who suggested that it might be time to hang up his helmet. He didn't. When asked why, he kept going back to the people who were dependent on his racing, from the employees at Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsport to the fans who voted him Most Popular Driver a record 14 consecutive times.
During Tuesday's news conference, he admitted that he reached out to Rick Hendrick nearly one month ago to discuss his decision. He was resolute and forward-focused. But he also admitted a tinge of struggle with it all. Why?
"I don't like letting people down ... "
It was another unnecessary apology for his "own selfish pity."
But this is the time to be a little selfish. This is about health and wellness and wanting to start a family. It's about the ability to pull off the lone racing feat his father wasn't able to accomplish: leaving the cockpit on his terms.
I hope he knows that he isn't letting anyone down. I hope he knows that while fans will be wistful and NASCAR will bemoan the loss of its biggest star, the reality is that, at least for those of us who have been around him for all these years, the overwhelming feeling will be much like it was for me as I was shaken awake Tuesday morning.
Smiling, sad, but mostly, honestly, relieved.
|Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he struggled with only a small portion of his decision to retire at the end of the season. Mike Comer/Getty Images|
Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retire from NASCAR Cup Series following 2017
CONCORD, N.C. -- After 18 seasons and more than 600 races behind the wheel, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will bring his NASCAR Cup Series driving career to a close at the conclusion of 2017. Today, he shared the news with members of his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team.
The fan favorite and two-time Daytona 500 champion will discuss his decision in a press conference this afternoon. He will be joined by Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, for whom Earnhardt has driven since 2008. The two first met about the driver’s decision on March 29.
Earnhardt, who will turn 43 in October, made his first career Cup Series start on May 30, 1999, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Since then, the Kannapolis, North Carolina, native has captured 26 points-paying Cup race wins and been voted by fans as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver a record 14 consecutive years. He has qualified for the NASCAR playoffs eight times.
Now in the midst of his 18th full-time season at the elite Cup level, Earnhardt made his 600th career series start on March 26 at Fontana, California. He will compete in his final NASCAR Cup Series race on Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hendrick Motorsports will announce plans for its 2018 team alignment at a later date.