Earn­hardt an­nounces plans to re­tire at end of sea­son

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY JENNA FRYER

CHAR­LOTTE, N.C. | It’s never easy to be the son of a leg­end, es­pe­cially when he is a tough-as-nails hero and the most feared man in his pro­fes­sion.

Follow in his foot­steps? For­get it.

Just be­ing able to drive cars was enough for Dale Earn­hardt Jr., and if it made his daddy proud, well, hope­fully some­body would tell him.

The Earn­hardt era of NAS­CAR opened its fi­nal chap­ter Tues­day when the driver known sim­ply as Ju­nior said he will re­tire at the end of this sea­son, his 18th in the Cup series. It will bring to a close the golden days of the sport, when Lee and Richard Petty helped build a stock car series that they turned over to Dale Earn­hardt to carry into the next phase.

When Earn­hardt died on the fi­nal lap of the 2001 Day­tona 500, the bur­den fell on a young Earn­hardt Jr. to fill a void and help heal the bro­ken hearts of Earn­hardt Na­tion. His de­ci­sion to walk away did not come lightly for NAS­CAR’s most popular driver and it is a blow to a series scram­bling to hang onto its fans.

“When my dad was do­ing so well and there were a cou­ple of guys com­ing into the sport that were sons, it was dif­fi­cult for them to repli­cate their dads’ success,” Earn­hardt said. “I just saw even at an early age, be­fore I was a driver, that grow­ing up in that man’s shadow was go­ing to be a real hard chal­lenge.

“I wanted to race, but I knew rac­ing would put me in that shadow. I knew the odds of me re­ally hav­ing any ta­lent at all and be­ing able to do it were thin. They are for any­one. So at a very young age, all I wanted to do was be able to make a liv­ing driv­ing cars. I didn’t set goals. I didn’t dream of winning cham­pi­onships or Day­tona 500s or work­ing with one of the best own­ers in the busi­ness, driv­ing for one of the best or­ga­ni­za­tions. I was afraid of not be­ing able to do it. So I guess what I’m saying is I’ve ac­com­plished way more than I ever dreamed — way more than I ever thought I’d ac­com­plish.”

Earn­hardt called the de­ci­sion, re­vealed to team owner Rick Hen­drick on March 29, “very bit­ter­sweet” and ad­mit­ted there were tears as he pre­pared for Tues­day’s an­nounce­ment. But he wanted the op­por­tu­nity to go out on his own terms.

“Hav­ing in­flu­ence over my exit only be­came mean­ing­ful when it started to seem most un­likely,” Earn­hardt said. “As you know, I missed a few races last year and dur­ing that time I had to face the re­al­iza­tion that my driv­ing ca­reer may have al­ready ended with­out me so much as get­ting a vote on the ta­ble. Of course, in life we’re not promised a vote, and that’s es­pe­cially true in rac­ing.”

Col­or­ful, can­did and tal­ented, Earn­hardt has been plagued by con­cus­sions the last sev­eral years and he missed half of last sea­son re­cov­er­ing from a head in­jury. He had de­layed con­tract talks on an ex­ten­sion to drive the No. 88 Chevro­let, and the two-time Day­tona 500 win­ner will now call it quits when the sea­son ends in Novem­ber.

“You de­serve ev­ery­thing, all the awards and all of the ac­co­lades,” Hen­drick said. “There will never be an­other Dale Earn­hardt Jr. You’re the one.”

The news shocked and sad­dened driv­ers through­out the pad­dock.

“He has a tremen­dous sense of the his­tory of NAS­CAR and, while he shares his father’s name, Dale has made a name for him­self with his ac­com­plish­ments in rac­ing,” said Jeff Gor­don, former team­mate at Hen­drick and once one of Dale Earn­hardt’s big­gest ri­vals.

Steve Le­tarte, the crew chief tasked with re­build­ing Earn­hardt’s shat­tered con­fi­dence dur­ing a lengthy slump in his ca­reer, said Earn­hardt can’t be mea­sured sim­ply as a race car driver.

“Dale is all en­com­pass­ing,” said the NBC an­a­lyst. “He car­ried the pop­u­lar­ity of a sport on his shoul­ders. Any­one who tries to sep­a­rate what he does be­hind the wheel to what he does in the sport doesn’t know Dale Jr.”

Added NAS­CAR chair­man Brian France, “His pas­sion for the sport will leave an im­pact on NAS­CAR that will be felt over its en­tire his­tory.”

A third-gen­er­a­tion racer, Earn­hardt turns 43 in October, is newly mar­ried and has said he wants to start a fam­ily. He has lately be­come a vo­cal ad­vo­cate for re­search into sports-re­lated brain in­juries, and the hit he took last June led to months of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion that gave him a new per­spec­tive on his life. His wife, Amy, posted on Twitter shortly af­ter the an­nounce­ment: “I’m so proud of Dale for work­ing so hard to get back and even prouder for his courage & self aware­ness to make the de­ci­sion to re­tire. I’m sure God has many other great plans for him and us!”

She wiped away tears as she watched her new hus­band, dressed in a suit, ner­vously dis­cuss his de­ci­sion.

The news was the lat­est blow to the stock car series, which lost two other popular driv­ers in Gor­don and Tony Stewart to re­tire­ment the past two years. Now Earn­hardt, the last of the true coun­try boys, is fol­low­ing them out the door. Born and raised in North Carolina, Earn­hardt has deep roots in NAS­CAR. Be­sides his father, who won seven ti­tles and was known as “The In­tim­ida­tor,” grand­fa­ther Ralph ran 51 races at NAS­CAR’s high­est level.

Even so, Earn­hardt didn’t grow up with a sil­ver spoon. He had a dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship with his father when he was younger, and he was sent to Oak Ridge Mil­i­tary Academy. His sis­ter, Kel­ley, joined him there to watch out for her brother.

Once out of school and as­pir­ing to be a race car driver, Earn­hardt lived in a trailer and con­stantly irked his father with his hard-par­ty­ing ways. Pub­licly, the In­tim­ida­tor didn’t know if his kid had the chops for the busi­ness. Pri­vately, he prob­a­bly wouldn’t have told him, any­way.

“I never would as­sume that he was proud of me when he was alive,” Earn­hardt said. “I cer­tainly wouldn’t make that mis­take af­ter he passed. I just never felt like I was worthy of as­sum­ing that of him . ... I’ve talked to some people in the past 24 hours that know him pretty well, and they’re pretty confident that he would be very proud.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Dale Earn­hardt Jr. said Tues­day that his de­ci­sion to re­tire at the end of the sea­son was “very bit­ter­sweet,” but he wanted the op­por­tu­nity to go out on his own terms.

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