Local fans react to Earnhardt’s retirement

DOVER — Making the decision to step away from the driver’s seat of a race car was obviously a difficult one for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

However, Mr. Earnhardt also realizes that not making the decision to retire at the conclusion of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series could turn into an even more painful one.

“My heart loves being in the car,” said Mr. Earnhardt, 42. “I love driving and I enjoy it as much as I ever have. There’s a lot about it that I really love and I think you guys see that when you’re at the track.

“It’s really emotional. I don’t like letting people down and disappointing my boss (car owner Rick Hendrick) and my (pit) crew. We all depend on each other.”

Denis McGlynn, president and CEO of Dover Motorsports, Inc., acknowledged the huge loss that NASCAR will face following Mr. Earnhardt’s retirement, but wished the driver well.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Dover International Speedway 2010. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“A first-class ambassador for the sport, (Mr.) Earnhardt’s legions of fans filled grandstands throughout the country, and his recent emergence on social media has engaged a new generation of NASCAR fans,” Mr. McGlynn said.

“For all he has meant to the sport, everyone here at Dover International Speedway wishes him well in his retirement and look forward to seeing him tackle the Monster Mile two more times on June 4 and Oct. 1.”

Mr. Earnhardt’s fans seem to understand his decision, especially considering that a couple of serious concussions have knocked him out of his race car over the past five seasons, including a pair of nasty wrecks during the middle of last year that left him sidelined for the final 18 races.

“While I know that he has struggled since his injury, it was not a shocker to hear his plans to retire,” said Dawn Hill, a NASCAR fan from Dover. “Yes, this could possibly be the last stich out of (NASCAR’s) open wound with the retirement of our sport’s most popular driver.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his only race at Dover International Speedway in the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 on Sept. 23, 2001. (Delaware State News file photo)

“But I remember when two of my hero’s, Richard Petty and Rusty Wallace, announced they were retiring – I thought that the world and sport would end, but it didn’t.”

Like Ms. Hill said, the biggest issue might just be “Where does NASCAR go from here?” Mr. Earnhardt was the sport’s Most Popular Driver a record 14-consecutive seasons.

He was also the connection to fans that helped keep memories of his legendary father’s exploits on the race track going ever since he was killed in a crash in the Daytona 500 in February 2001.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is all smiles after his 2001 win at Dover International Speedway. (Delaware State News file photo)

Now, NASCAR is left with an aging fan base, falling TV ratings and dwindling ticket sales – and without a bona fide superstar.

“I got this impression just with the way he was acting this year,” said Allan Scrutchfield, a race fan from Hartly. “I think he was just concerned about his head. There’s going to be a lot old-school people who are going to wonder who to cheer for now.

“It’s going to hurt because NASCAR is already hurting and seems to have been ever since Dale Earnhardt Sr. died. Junior has been the most popular driver ever since that day and that’s going to be a huge hole to fill.”

Dramatic day at Dover

One of Mr. Earnhardt’s most memorable NASCAR victories out of the 26 he has recorded in his career came at Dover International Speedway on Sept. 23, 2001.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Dover drew the largest mass audience – some 140,000 fans – since the country was shaken by the deadly attacks just 12 days earlier.

It was a day reserved for sporting superstars, as Baltimore Orioles’ legend Cal Ripken Jr. waved the green flag on the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 before Mr. Earnhardt captured the checkered flag on what was an emotional, patriotic, teary-eyed day.

Mr. Earnhardt grabbed a large American flag after the race and drove around Dover’s high-banked, one-mile oval with it waving out of his driver’s side window, much to the appreciation of the fans, who were shouting “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

Mr. McGlynn said it was a NASCAR moment that will never be forgotten. It still give him chills.

“Always a fan favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr. cemented his legacy here at the Monster Mile with his victory in the MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 on Sept. 23, 2001,” Mr. McGlynn said. “It was the first NASCAR event after the terrible tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001, and 140,000 fans celebrated as Junior circled the track with a huge American flag during his victory lap.

“No one who witnessed that moment, coming less than one year after the death of his father, will ever forget it.”
It was a moment that was not lost on Mr. Earnhardt.

“We had a great car and we’re not sitting there thinking, ‘Man, if we win, let’s have this American flag ready,’” said Mr. Earnhardt, who donated roughly $80,000 to a 9/11 victims relief fund afterward. “I always say that no matter who won that race, that’s what would have happened.

“Whoever won that race would’ve done something to show the patriotism that all of the sport felt at that particular time, so we just got to be the lucky guys that got to represent the sport in that very brief moment.”

Mr. Earnhardt has finished among the top-five at Dover a total of seven times – including his win in 2001 – in 33 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races at the Monster Mile, where he has an average finish of 16.2.

A new beginning

Mr. Earnhardt’s last name just oozes the NASCAR lifestyle and memories of his father, known as The Intimidator – running wide open with a grin on his face and offering no apologies.

Some fans admit they will have difficulty letting go, but said they can understand his decision.

“I still think he has a couple more years in him,” said Darlene Sterling, a diehard Junior fan from Dover. “He really wanted to win a championship before retiring, so we’ll see.”

It appears as if Mr. Earnhardt is just ready to start a new chapter in his life.

He got married last winter and said he would like to start a family. Plus, he is still involved in several businesses, including owning his own Xfinity Series race team.

Ms. Hill said Mr. Earnhardt’s retirement could serve as a passing of the baton off to young drivers such as Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney.

“We have some awesome, young talent coming up,” said Ms. Hill. “Remember that on Sunday afternoon. Turn on the race, get your Dover race tickets, and instead of making this a negative for our sport, let’s make this a positive.

“Junior has a new wife, a desire to have a family and is a successful car owner. He is retiring on his own terms and I can respect that.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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