Did You Notice? … Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring at the end of the season? Are you surprised?
I think we’re all lying if we say we aren’t. The move, while expected to come in the next couple of years, not this one, was kept nicely under wraps. A well-orchestrated press conference Tuesday afternoon was not sniffed out by anyone publicly before a press release hours before announcing retirement. Keep in mind the decision was made March 29; it was never made public early unlike the Carl Edwards saga months earlier.
That’s impressive, especially in this NASCAR day and age where social media keeps nothing a secret. And throughout the day, from the time I read those words from Earnhardt that sparked national news, I kept thinking, “He’s doing it on his terms.” It’s a feeling which hasn’t changed for me, not through the presser and not through hours’ worth of tributes by, well, everyone in this sport.
Jeff Gluck’s piece Tuesday hit the right nerve when he called Earnhardt “a normal dude trapped in a superstar’s life.” I think that’s the most appealing part of his personality and what keeps both fans and media drawn to him.
Such a connection has been there since 1998, the year a promising XFINITY Series rookie with a famous last name raced alongside his famous father. Earnhardt Sr. was an avid outdoorsman, extroverted and never worried about ruffling feathers. Earnhardt Jr. was a bit of a computer geek, introverted and worried about fitting in.
“I needed them,” he said about the bonds with his teams through the years. “And I so badly wanted them to need me.”
Could you ever imagine The Intimidator saying that? Years later, it’s amazing when you think about how seamlessly popularity passed from father to son. They were so different in the way they lived each day but just as magnetic in getting millions of NASCAR fans to believe in them.
Earnhardt Jr. wouldn’t bump people the way his dad did. He would embrace the new age of social media in a way his father never would. He even turned down the right to keep driving inside the family business, partnering with Rick Hendrick instead in a move that could have soured his fan base.
Instead, they became more passionate about their favorite, from the time he grieved his father’s death right through the breakup of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Earnhardt Jr. represented this normal human being, facing real-life problems about family, celebrity and legacy in a way where everyone could just see inside him. It’s an open door you get from athletes about once a generation.
In many ways, what we saw the past year or so is that normal human being make a reflective, well thought-out decision about his future life and career.
There was a reason it took this long to play out. The man knows the role he plays in the sport, his massive popularity and referred to “letting people down” in a press conference that he knew would disappoint millions that have followed him. At age 42, Earnhardt recognized now was the right time for him to call it quits but knowing it is one thing. Coming to terms with that choice? Another reality altogether.
It’s more complicated when you carry the weight of an entire sport. Junior has carried that monkey on his back, not by choice ever since that fateful day in February 2001. NASCAR exploded in the 1990s because of the Earnhardt name; the baton was passed to his son in the most tragic way. The sport, for the past 25 years or so has been enmeshed with both of them.
That’s a tremendous amount of pressure for a normal guy, desperate to live that other life with a happy marriage and potential children on the way. The amount of time it takes to be Earnhardt is a commitment none of us could ever attempt to quantify. It’s not just physical time, it’s the emotional space of having to represent hope for an entire national sport.
So I think, more than ever, what pushed Earnhardt over the edge is this great desire to lead as normal a life as possible. What we forget about, the human factor here is he saw his father die on the racetrack at Daytona all these years ago. Dale Earnhardt passed away at an age (49) that’s not all that far from where his son sits today. When you go through the difficulties of post-concussion syndrome, as Junior has done, we would be foolish to think he wasn’t reminded of that reality.
Add to that the lengths to which Earnhardt has not been competitive this year. At 42, it’s going to take some effort to catch the No. 88 up to the rest of the pack. I think back to Monday’s wreck at Bristol, where Earnhardt looked like he had something on his mind in that FOX interview. This announcement clearly had to be weighing on him but the reality of three DNFs in eight races certainly doesn’t help, either. It’s not easy to play catchup these days, especially for this man and what he faces.
Now, both Earnhardt and the sport can be free of the shackles that have defined them (see below). The guy who proudly says his Twitter handle is anything but a top-tier race car driver can look ahead to the start of a different chapter.
In short, the normal guy will soon be free to do normal things. Earnhardt is ready to leave on his terms, fulfilling the chance his father never had to move forward.
20 years from now, you get a sense that legacy, the one he gets to spend with friends and family will be what he’s most proud of in the long run.
Did You Notice? … Earnhardt’s retirement marks the end of an era? NASCAR’s peak, at least according to the Nielsen ratings, was the 2005 season. That marked the perfect blend of interest after the death of Earnhardt’s father, the creation of the Chase and flat out quality competition within the sport.
Here were the top 20 drivers in points from 2005 (in the order of which they finished):
Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, Rusty Wallace, Jeremy Mayfield, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Elliott Sadler, Kevin Harvick, Dale Jarrett, Joe Nemechek, Brian Vickers, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch.
Of that group, just seven (35 percent) are currently set to be active in Cup come 2018’s Daytona 500. Even that number is tenuous, with Kenseth in the last year of his deal with Joe Gibbs Racing; there have been whispers even McMurray might hang it up. Four of the others (Johnson, Newman, Harvick and Kurt Busch) are all entering the last few years of their careers.
That means NASCAR is undergoing a titanic shift, from the days of Earnhardt to… what, exactly? After Earnhardt leaves, nothing connects the current generation of fans to the legacy his father left behind. Those fans will either have to pick an up-and-coming driver or leave the sport, the same way some Gordon and Stewart fans exited stage right at the conclusion of the last few seasons.
No more can NASCAR cling to the legacy of a driver who died over 16 years ago. The current generation of 18-year-old race fans were two when Dale Earnhardt passed away. That’s right; preschool and potty training marked their days, not mourning the death of a legend. They can be taught to understand what the Earnhardt name meant to the sport, but to love it now? They need new faces with which to connect.
It’s a phenomenon I wrote about last February in a column titled Dale Earnhardt Is Dead. But as the sport prepares to move on, NASCAR feels like it’s in a strong place. In some ways, the loss of Earnhardt Jr. could break it free from the shackles of the past and in a new direction. Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott in particular have increased their Twitter followings after running 1-2 in the season standings. An appetizing list of young talent, from Erik Jones to William Byron, keeps the sport insisting the future is bright.
Long-term, they might be right. But consider Larson, the fresh face of 2017, has 226,000 backers on Twitter as of this writing. Earnhardt has 2.08 million, even after joining much later than other athletes. He also has the best name recognition in the sport. Most people, even if they don’t know a lick about NASCAR, know about the tragedy in 2001 that claimed his father. They remember Earnhardt Jr., the family drama, how that black hat became a big-time boom for NASCAR.
How, in this 2017 world with 1,000 entertainment options, can the Cup Series land a driver who earns the same type of name recognition as Earnhardt? We don’t have that answer yet because that driver isn’t out there. Look at golf as an example, suffering mightily in the aftermath of Tiger Woods even with incredible talent week-to-week. Jordan Spieth and company may be great, but they’re bland. They’ve been seen before. They don’t connect in quite the same way a breakthrough athlete like Woods did in his prime.
Sports, you see, is just as much about the love for the people in them as what they accomplish. Earnhardt’s legacy is his ability to connect with the fans even though he was 180 degrees different from his father in many ways. He kept millions hooked on the sport after they grieved over the loss of their larger-than-life role model. So many could have been turned away after that tragedy, but the second-generation Earnhardt was enough to keep them here.
NASCAR’s daunting challenge? To keep the fans here now with no successful Earnhardt left to fall back on.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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