Story by: Ben Sanders
Just when NASCAR started to regain some momentum, its most popular driver and face of the entire sport for over 15 years, Dale Earnhardt Jr., decided to retire from driving at the Monster Energy Cup Series level.
Several factors, including his health, after missing the second half of the 2016 season with a severe concussion, and wanting to start a family with his wife Amy played into his decision, but ultimately, he went out how all drivers want to; on their own terms.
The Kannapolis, N.C. native admitted he has achieved more than he has ever dreamed of by winning two Daytona 500’s and two NASCAR Xfinity series championships, but owes all of that to his deceased father for taking a risk on him.
Despite earning millions of dollars in winnings, twenty-six NASCAR Monster Energy victories and a lavish mansion equipped with a race car graveyard, go-kart track and old western town, Earnhardt Jr. has battled many demons off the track illuminated in this ESPN the Magazine article by Tommy Tomlinson.
NASCAR must be panicking as Earnhardt Jr. hordes the popular vote winning the Most Popular Driver Award the last 14 years straight. He is their largest marketing asset and has used his notoriety to promote races and other initiatives. Also, Earnhardt Jr. leads Fanatics, the official apparel company for NASCAR, in merchandise sales.
The second quandary is which driver is going to replace him in Hendrick Motorsports fourth car, the most coveted available seat for 2018. Kyle Larson would be the most regarded pick as the current points leader, but his Chip Ganassi team are notoriously hushed about contracts. Luckily for Hendrick, Earnhardt Jr. has his own development team in the Xfinity Series full of talented drivers.
Drivers like 19-year-old William Byron and Xfinity Series winner Justin Allgaier are options as they have a mixture of talent and sponsorship dollars. Additionally, Hendrick Motorsports test driver Alex Bowman was two laps away from winning the fall race at Phoenix International Raceway last November, filling in for the sidelined Earnhardt Jr., leading 194 laps.
Two wildcards for the spot are former Hendrick development driver Landon Cassill and Roush-Fenway Racing’s Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.
NASCAR is Earnhardt Jr’s life and hopes to remain active within the sport. Over the past two seasons he has ventured up to the commentary booth and gives valuable and valid analysis of what the cars are like to drive. Fox Sports’ booth may be an ideal destination, alongside friend and former teammate Jeff Gordon as well as running his four-car Xfinity Series team.
Earnhardt Jr. still has two Xfinity races to run in 2018, but other than that, there is much ambiguity present for NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports and race fans worldwide as they look towards a reality in which Earnhardt Jr. is no longer racing.
Featured image for this post courtesy of USA Today FTW