Listening to NASCAR on SiriusXM satellite radio has not been pleasant since Monday. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement at the end of the 2017 season has his fans in turmoil. Many almost weep and others declare that they are through with the sport, cementing the opinion many had that they were Dale Jr. fans and not NASCAR or racing fans. It’s an attitude that’s seen at races over the years. If Earnhardt is out of the race, the great exodus of red, green, or whatever his colors are on that day, leave in mass. I don’t think in 50-plus years of following and covering the sport I’ve ever seen that. Not for his father, Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, or anyone.
The immediate question must be asked. Will the retirement mark the end of NASCAR? Of course not. We may see a shift of loyalties (mostly to another driver at Hendrick Motorsports, maybe Chase Elliott) and some fans staying away, but just as was the case when other drivers retired, I don’t think this change will really change the landscape of the sport.
My opinion on Junior’s retirement is two-fold. I’m happy for him and relieved. With his history of concussions, every time this season when he saw contact, I worried. He was mostly running in the second ten, but that’s where a lot of action happens. I want to see Junior stay in the sport, which he plans to do, and not be saddled with problems like heroes Fred Lorenzen and others. I want to see him have children, if he wants them, and live a full life. He deserves that. Though the adoration may fade, his presence has been important for the sport.
What will happen to his legion of fans? Some will stay away and some will not watch on television, but they shall be known as not really fans of the sport. Many chose Junior as their favorite simply because of his father, and those fans will pick another and move on. The great exodus predicted by some pundits didn’t happen after Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Carl Edwards called it quits, and it won’t happen here. Yes, the fanbase has seen some slippage, but that has more to do with economics and constant rule changes. Someday, those in charge will figure that out, but for now, a retirement will not alter interest or attendance.
So, let’s enjoy the rest of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final season. If he wins a race, something he’s rarely done while with HMS, that’s great. If he makes, the playoffs, that’s the cherry on top of the banana split, but my wish is that he doesn’t have another concussion. I wish him well and am anxious to see him reach the Hall of Fame sooner than later.