Originally Published: May 2, 2017 11 p.m.
The day after one member of the media opined that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was “stuck in neutral” in his comeback from concussions, the NASCAR icon suddenly announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season.
Last week’s stunning announcement was hardly the kind of news NASCAR needed. Junior will be the fourth top name to retire from the sport in the past three years – Jeff Gordon in 2015, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards last year, and now Earnhardt, Jr. The sport can hardly afford to lose such star power at this critical time. NASCAR is suffering from a double barrel of disappointing business news, experiencing declining attendance at the track and diminishing television ratings over the past three years. Losing Junior, a 14-time winner of the most popular driver award and two-time winner of the Daytona 500, has led to predictions of doom and gloom for the sport.
Such dire predictions are understandable. Earnhardt, Jr. is a third-generation driver. His father, Dale, Sr., won seven NASCAR championships, tied with Richard Petty for most all-time. His grandfather Ralph raced from 1955-66 and although he never won an official race in the top tier of the sport, he did have 16 top 10 finishes.
Both were selected to NASCARS’s list of 50 best drivers. And while Junior hasn’t come close to duplicating his father’s success, he is arguably the most popular driver in NASCAR history.
How much of Junior’s popularity is related to his father’s untimely death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 is the subject of conjecture. What isn’t speculative is that Junior has a down-home, everyman/woman demeanor that appeals to broad segments of NASCAR’s fan base. He comes across as approachable, polite, sometimes shy and always respectful – of the sport, other drivers and the fans. Junior Nation, as his legion of followers is known, returns that respect every time he takes the track. When he wins, as he has done 26 times in NASCAR’s top circuit, the roar from the crowd is deafening.
Those 26 wins don’t put Junior in the top-20 list of winningest drivers in NASCAR history, but no one has had a greater impact on the sport over the past 15 years. ESPN ranked Earnhardt, Jr. as the most famous auto racing driver in the world. Junior also topped all NASCAR drivers on MVPindex’s 2016 social media power rankings. He has more than 5.2 million followers across his three main social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Although Earnhardt, Jr. has gotten off to a slow start this year, he claims to be fully recovered from the effects of his second concussion in four years that sidelined him for the last 18 races of the 2016 season.
A combination of equipment failures and bad luck on the track have him mired in 24th place in driver points entering the Richmond race, the ninth race of the season. His willingness to speak openly about the effects those concussions had on him – not only on his career, which was in jeopardy, but his life – captured the attention of the entire nation.
That openness has done more for concussion awareness than any lawsuit could have accomplished.
In the short term, Earnhardt, Jr’s announcement could provide a boost for NASCAR. Fans who want one last glimpse of Junior in a race car could boost attendance at the track and also increase television ratings for the remainder of the season.
Despite his retirement from racing, Junior is unlikely to fade away from NASCAR entirely. He co-owns a team in the Xfinity Series, NASCAR’s second level, with his sister/ manager Kelley and his car owner, Rick Hendrick.
Junior could also join the network of his choice in the television booth on race day.
Whatever the future holds for the 42-year old Earnhardt, Jr., he will continue to play an important role in the sport he has always called home and to which he has contributed so much.
Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.