This week’s Fronstretch debate question: Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he will retire at the conclusion of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. He also once said he planned on talking with team owner Rick Hendrick about a contract extension past 2017, but told Mr. Hendrick of his decision on March 29.
Should drivers ultimately choose when to retire from racing or should they stay behind the wheel until their health or lack of a ride dictates otherwise?
Follow Your Heart
If your heart isn’t in something 100 percent, you don’t give 100 percent effort. That goes for anything and everything in life. From something so simple as studying for an exam to something so complex as driving a NASCAR race car, effort and what’s in between your ears (your brain) is most important.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has announced his retirement, effective at the end of the 2017 season. He cited it as being the right time in his life to step away from the sport he has loved, grown up in and raced in for the better part of 18 years. Sure, he has something left in the tank, but he’s done and going out on his own terms.
And that’s OK. In fact, that’s more than OK. That should be admired, celebrated and replicated.
Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement continued a trend that has been emerging in the past two years or so: drivers retiring when they want to, rather than when they need to or when their contract is up.
One major reason for drivers stepping away in their mid-40s rather than their late 40s/early 50s is money. Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have been three of the biggest names in the sport’s history, and they’ve all stepped away since the end of 2015. When you ask a casual or a non-NASCAR fan about the sport, odds are they’ll mention one of those three names. Stewart and Gordon have seven championships combined. Couple that with millions of dollars in endorsements, and you have a pretty solid living situation and quality of life, financially speaking.
Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t have a championship, but he blows every driver out of the water in sponsorship endorsements and merchandise sales. To say he’s set financially would be an understatement.
But health issues for Earnhardt Jr., specifically concussions, have also had an impact on his decision to step away. He wants to start a family with his new wife, Amy and focus on his XFINITY Series team, JR Motorsports among the things. And again, that’s just fine.
Who are we to tell drivers when to retire? Sure, we want our favorite drivers around until the end of time. Sure, we want the big names that attract attention to the sport. Sure, we want A-list drivers that perform well and put on a show week after week on the race track for the fans.
But in life, you can’t always get what you want. The one thing the driver can control when it comes to the bigger picture of their career is when they step away. Some are sooner than others, some are unexpected and some seem to never come.
Look at Derrike Cope and Morgan Shepherd. Cope is 58 years old and still racing on a part-time basis in the MENCS. Is he competitive? Hell no. He can barely finish inside the top 35. And Shepherd is a young 75 years of age. Will he ever win a race or finish in the top 10 ever again? Absolutely not.
But they keep racing for one reason and one reason only: they love it.
Carl Edwards stepped away and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is stepping away relatively prematurely for one reason and one reason only: they don’t love it as much as they once did.
Earnhardt Jr. talked in his press conference about having something he wasn’t used to: time. He used that time to reflect back on his career and think about what would come next in his storied career. There will be a portion of JR Nation that is upset that he isn’t continuing to race every week in competitive equipment capable of winning a championship. But they need to understand something.
This is what Dale Earnhardt Jr. wanted to do. Carl Edwards did what he wanted to do. So did Jeff Gordon, so did Tony Stewart, and so will countless other drivers as their careers come to a close in the next decade or so. And that’s fine by me.
– Davey Segal
Make Them Pry That Steering Wheel Out of Your Hands
I think that every driver should stay in the sport until they are asked to leave, whether it be that the owner does not want them anymore or the sponsorship money has dried up.
Now, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s situation is unique––he sustained a pretty serious injury last season that forced him to miss half of the year.
When your health starts getting in the way, then a driver should absolutely get out of the car. Ernie Irvan was a driver whose horrendous injuries forced him to retire early, and I have all the respect in the world for him that he knew when to say when. I feel likewise about Earnhardt Jr.
If health were not an issue, though, then why would you get out of the car?
For every NASCAR driver, racing is two things: their life and their livelihood. Drivers in the sport have driven a race car since the days of their youth––it is all they know. I am sure that many drivers have a hard time grasping with life once they no longer compete.
Additionally, they all use this passion to pay the bills. Making it in NASCAR is the surest sign that you can quit your day job. If you are getting paid to do what you love, then why would you quit just because you are not as good at it as you used to be?
Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Bobby Labonte and Bill Elliott are all former champions that continued to drive long after their “primes.” Did that tarnish their legacy at all? The NASCAR Hall of Fame committee did not reject The King, Jaws, Texas Terry or Awesome Bill because they rode around in junk equipment in their final years in the sport.
We don’t remember them for those years. We remember them for the amazing talent they displayed in their younger years. At least those drivers retired with the known fact that they left the sport with nothing left in the tank.
Recently, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart retired while they were still “on top.” All three made the playoffs and won at least one race in their final full time seasons. What that tells me is that all three could have left some in the tank––all three could potentially won more races and competed for more championships, and most importantly, added to their already-rich legacies.
The perfect example of what I am talking about is Rusty Wallace’s retirement vs. Mark Martin’s retirement. At the end of the 2004 season, Wallace and Martin both announced that 2005 would be their last in the sport. Both drivers made the playoffs that season and essentially went out on top.
Wallace stayed true to his word and never raced in NASCAR again. Martin, however, came back for eight more seasons, four part time years and four full time.
If not for that then, Martin would not have had one of the best seasons of his career. In 2009, four years after Martin was supposed to retire, he won five races and finished runner-up in the point standings for the fifth time in his career.
Wallace, on the other hand, has said in recent years that he felt that he gave up driving too early, and that he should have stayed in the driver’s seat for a couple more years.
The bottom line is, there is more to gain from staying out there past your prime then there is to lose. Whenever I think of drivers retiring, I always think of Ken Schrader, whose philosophy was to drive until the phone calls quit coming.
So drivers, if you think that it is time for you to hang up the driver suit and walk away from your greatest passion in life, then my advice to you is to drive for a couple more years before you seriously consider the “R” word. Drive that car until your talent tank is way past empty.
– Michael Massie
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