If you’re a fan of Dale Earnhardt Jr., it’s inevitable at some point that you had a pit in your stomach when you played out all the theories and potential scenarios in your mind about how, if and when retirement would happen.
Then came a vivid day every card-carrying member of Junior Nation will remember forever: April 25, 2017.
That was the day Dale Jr. let all of us know that this year would be his last on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in a full-time capacity.
Selfishly, I think I and many other Junior fans felt like we had been gut-punched with the news. After seeing him back in the car for two months since his return at Daytona, it felt like all was right again in the world. We had our favorite driver to root for, and personally I had a reason to closely pay attention to the sport.
In all honesty, I didn’t follow things nearly as closely when Dale wasn’t in the car. It wasn’t a conscious decision necessarily, but more a lack of that emotional pull to stay tuned in to every happening of those race weekends.
I was originally a big fan of Dale’s father growing up. As a three-year-old in Central New York, watching NASCAR with the Kerrick side of my family, seeing a sharp black car with a white No, 3 on it and knowing that’s how old I was at the time was more than enough for me to catch the Earnhardt bug.
Piles of wins and championships didn’t hurt either; I had picked a winner to root for who was at the top of his game.
But in the late 90s, my uncle Bruce started to get me to start paying more attention to what Dale’s son was doing in the then-Busch Series. He won two straight championships and made a move to NASCAR’s Cup Series in one of the best-looking race cars I had ever seen, carrying that now-iconic red paint scheme, black stripes and a bright white No. 8.
When you coupled that with a team that had no fear and wasn’t afraid to be a little edgy, I was hooked.
And when a driver you think you’re going to pull for in the future comes on the radio and says ‘we’re either going to win it or bring it home in a box,’ then pulls off one of the most exciting All-Star race victories in the sport’s history, how can that not want to make you set your hair on fire, stand on the couch and cheer for that guy?
When we lost Dale Sr. in February of 2001, there was no doubt that No. 8 was where my allegiance laid from that day on.
In the time since his announcement to retire, we’ve learned that his new deal with NBC will still see him have a big role in the sport and that he’ll have a growing family. Those are both reasons to be happy for a sports figure that has provided you with many happy moments in a sport you’ll live to tell your kids and grandchildren about.
Now, the initial gut punch has since subsided and turned into a celebration of a successful career and the transformation of a young kid with bleached hair to a well-rounded, outspoken leader of his sport who will join a fraternity of drivers that will be remembered for their off-track contributions just as much as the ones they made on the track.
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