It’s been nearly 40 years since we’ve seen a NASCAR season in which an Earnhardt didn’t run a single race.
Dale Earnhardt started his legendary career in 1979, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., announced Tuesday he’s retiring after the 2017 season.
Dale Sr. quickly became a racing immortal and was a living legend up until his untimely death at the 2001 Daytona 500. His son’s career has been much more complicated, as is often the case for someone who’s had to grow up in the weird eclipse of his father’s shadow and the spotlight that comes from being an Earnhardt.
The lasting legacy of Dale Sr. will always be greatness. Determining his son’s legacy requires a little more time and some nuance. Junior had his own varying amounts of success over what’s sure to be a Hall of Fame career. But, ultimately, Dale Jr.’s popularity and reluctant embrace of being the sport’s most popular star will define his career — despite a lengthy résumé that includes two Dayton 500 titles and 26 career wins.
That résumé also includes an absurd run of 14 straight seasons in which Earnhardt Jr. won NASCAR’s most popular driver award, and he’s a lock for a 15th consecutive honor.
It’s probably a little more than a coincidence Junior’s career has intersected with arguably the most successful era in NASCAR history. Television ratings soared with robust attendance figures from track to track. Much of that popularity peaked right around 2004 — the year Junior won a career-high six races.
All of that should make Tuesday a dark day at NASCAR headquarters. Strip down Dale Jr.’s’ decision to a purely business standpoint, and it’s a watershed moment for the sport. The 2018 season will mark the third consecutive season in which the sport will open its schedule without an icon after the retirements of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in recent years. Carl Edwards walked away, too. The clock is also ticking on veteran stalwarts like Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne.
NASCAR had to have seen this coming. These guys weren’t going to race forever, and the sport has tried to push the likes of Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano in recent years. But now the sport must truly pivot, as it no longer can lean on the older generation, which always was highlighted by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Now it’s on NASCAR to find a way to successfully market young stars like Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott and find a way for them to be like their predecessors.
It won’t be easy. There’s really no one on NASCAR’s “roster” that can match the bravado of someone like Stewart or obviously the pedigree and popularity of Dale Jr. As good as the younger drivers are inside the cars, they’re almost too polished out of the cockpit. That’s great if you’re a sponsor looking to avoid controversy. If you’re a fan looking to get behind a driver with a little personality, a little edge, you’re out of luck. Stock car racing is designed to ensure all the cars run the same way, but the sport isn’t nearly as good when its drivers all behave the same way.
Shepherding the sport (sometimes unwillingly) through one of its most successful runs will long be one of Dale Jr.’s greatest contributions to the sport. So too will be the way he (perhaps also unwillingly) embraced his role as the unofficial spokesman for concussion awareness in NASCAR. And just the fascinating way he went from the little kid hanging with dad in winner’s circles across the country to the face of the sport will long be remembered.
But NASCAR can’t dwell on that for too long. It has a lot of work to do once Dale Jr. walks away for good.
Thumbnail photo via Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports Images