One of NASCAR’s most popular drivers — and one of its most famous names — is leaving the racetrack. Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced Tuesday that he’s retiring at the end of the season.
Earnhardt recently took a long break to recover from a series of concussions.
Just a few weeks ago, he told NPR he wasn’t sure when he’d be leaving the sport.
“I’m 42, and I look online at statistics of other drivers and not many of them had a ton of success beyond 45,” Earnhardt told NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro. “There are a few. But I haven’t really decided when I’m going to hang it up.”
But The Associated Press reports that Earnhardt told his employer, Hendrick Motorsports, about his plans to retire on March 29, more than a week before Earnhardt’s interview with NPR.
The third-generation NASCAR superstar has long been a fan favorite.
His departure from the sport comes on the heels of Jeff Gordon’s retirement at the end of the 2015 season, and Tony Stewart’s retirement in 2016. (Gordon filled in temporarily last year when Earnhardt was unable to race.) The AP writes that the high-profile departures leave “a major void in NASCAR star power.”
Recently, Earnhardt has been a major advocate for concussion awareness.
“We’ve learned a lot of things in the past 20 years,” he told NPR, explaining that technology has improved to keep drivers safer — and NASCAR culture has shifted, too.
“I would get concussions in my early 20s racing, and it was a bit of a badge of honor,” he said. “You almost bragged about being dizzy. And it was something you looked at as much like a bruise.
“I’m excited about what I’m seeing out of NASCAR being more proactive to keep drivers safe and err on the side of safety,” he said. “The first concussion can be bad enough, but if you don’t get it treated and don’t get it diagnosed, if you get another one in a very short period of time, that’s when you get in serious long-term damage and danger.”
The AP has more on Earnhardt’s career:
“Born and raised in North Carolina, Earnhardt has deep roots in NASCAR. His late Hall of Fame father, Dale, won seven titles and, known as “The Intimidator,” was one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. Earnhardt’s grandfather, Ralph, ran 51 races at NASCAR’s highest level.
“Earnhardt has won NASCAR’s most popular driver award a record 14 times. He has 26 career Cup victories and is a two-time champion of NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity series, where he plans to race twice next year. But the son of the late champion has never won a Cup title. Now in his 18th full-time season at the Cup level, he made his 600th career series start earlier this year.
“Earnhardt has driven for Hendrick since 2008 after a nasty split with DaleEarnhardt Inc., the team founded by his father but run by his stepmother. He was unhappy with the direction of DEI since his father’s 2001 death in a last-lap accident at the Daytona 500, and a frosty relationship with his stepmother led him to bolt to NASCAR’s most powerful team.”