Dale Earnhardt Jr. has announced that he is retiring at the end of this season. He made his first career NASCAR top-level start in 1999. Dale has had a roller coaster career since he joined NASCAR.
In Dale Jr’s rookie year in 2000 he won the Rookie of the Year Award, after finishing the season with two wins, three top-5’s, five top-10’s, and two poles. He won his first NASCAR race in his 12th race of the season at the DirecTV 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, which broke the record for fewest starts before first win (a record previously held by his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr). He also became the first rookie to ever win the all-star race.
2001 may have been the most difficult year for Dale Jr, not only in his racing career, but his entire life. During the first race of the season, the Daytona 500, Dale Jr’s life was changed forever. Coming out of the last corner on the last lap, Dale Sr. got into a crash, which ended his life. Dale Jr. ended up winning the next race at Daytona, the Pepsi 400. It was an emotional win for him and his family.
Since then, Earnhardt has been NASCAR’s most popular driver.
The fans love this guy. Trust me. I go to NASCAR races every year at Watkins Glen, and the support for Dale Jr. is huge.
He is easily the fan favorite at the Glen. The cheers for him during the pre-race driver parade is by far the loudest out of all the drivers. That weekend will definitely be different without Dale Jr. When he was sidelined by his concussion and couldn’t race at the Glen, you could tell that the fans missed him. I can’t imagine the support he will get this summer, at his last Glen race. And I’m very curious on how the weekend will be different without him.
He is arguably one of the best NASCAR drivers to never win a championship, and I’m sure he’s thinking that right now, and would love to change that to one of the best TO win a championship. He has started in 604 races and counting, until the end of the season. He has 26 career wins with JR Motorsports and Hendrick Racing. Dale Jr. has 253 career top-10 finish’s and 13 poles. The highlight of his career is winning the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014.
Now lets talk about why he decided to retire. Dale Jr. is 42 years old right now, and has had a few injuries that have sidelined him over the years, including a concussion that kept him off the track for numerous races last year. So this could be because he wants to keep his health, instead of continuously risking it every week at his age. That is why Carl Edwards retired before this season began. That is my theory. He still has his health and is getting up there in age. Also, he hasn’t been as competitive lately as he used to be. It just seems to be the right time to retire for Earnhardt.
After announcing his retirement, Dale Jr. says that he feels much more relaxed. “I certainly did feel a lot more relaxed now. I don’t know whether it’s because I finally got to tell everybody and let everybody know what we are doing, get that over with,” Earnhardt Jr. said after a practice session last week in Richmond. Also, Earnhardt said he is going to be much more aggressive for the rest of the season. This seems like a god idea, given that he is currently not in the top 16 in points, and doesn’t have a win yet this season. So the playoffs are not looking good for Dale Jr. But, this could all change this weekend at Talladega. Talladega is Dale Jr’s best track, and there is only one person who has won more races at Talladega than Dale Jr., and that’s Dale Sr. Crazy, huh?
There has been plenty of speculation on who is going to drive the 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy next year to replace Dale Jr. Even Carl Edwards’ name has been thrown around. As much as I would personally love that, I don’t think there is any chance of it. I have also seen Kyle Larson, but I don’t think that is going to happen either, especially with how well he is doing this year with Chip Ganassi Racing. Even though Larson is one of the brightest young stars in the sport, and Hendrick is the NASCAR mega team, I don’t see Larson leaving the team that has given him such a fantastic car this year.
The two names that I think have the best chance of taking control of the 88 next year is William Byron, and Alex Bowman. Lets start with William Byron. Byron is currently 19 years old, (yeah, you read that right), and has a full-time ride in the Xfinity Series with JR Motorsports, which is partially owned by Hendrick. To go along with that, Byron had 7 wins last year in a year in the Camping World Truck Series. Makes a lot of sense for William Byron to take over for Dale Jr.
The other name that makes a lot of sense is Alex Bowman. Bowman is the one that I think makes the most sense to replace Dale Jr. Bowman shared duties with Jeff Gordon last year to drive the 88 car while Dale Jr. was recovering from his concussion. Bowman had a few impressive races while driving the 88 last year. He drove 10 races in the 88 car last year and his average finish was 20th. But considering he was just thrown in the car half way through the season, that’s not that bad. He had three top ten finishes in his 10 races with the 88 team. Given that he already has been with the team, and has had some quality races with them, I feel like he makes the most sense to replace Dale Jr.
The bottom line is, whomever replaces Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have some big shoes to fill. The sport will be very different without Dale Jr. I can’t imagine a NASCAR without Dale Jr. He is the most popular driver in the sport, and whenever a sport loses their most popular figure, it takes its toll. But, Dale Jr. has left a legacy, much like his father. And even though he never won a championship at NASCAR’s highest level, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will go down as one of the best to ever sit behind the wheel in NASCAR.