Dale Earnhardt Jr. has thrived in the unenviable situation of following one of the most successful and popular NASCAR drivers in name and vocation.
Now, it is time for him to walk away.
Earnhardt has nothing left to prove in NASCAR other than he is capable of making what will be an undoubtedly excruciating decision.
He can wail against it and lament things yet undone, and that is understandable and fair. At 41, he likely could race for another decade if he chose. But this problem chose him and it’s insidious. Medical science can’t fix concussions like it did James Hinchcliffe after a life-threatening crash in the Verizon IndyCar Series last season. It takes time, at least, and then sometimes even that isn’t enough.
Earnhardt already has demonstrated he is aware of the long-term effects of concussions and has been open about his diagnosis and treatment this season. He has learned, perhaps the hard way, after initially hiding symptoms in 2012 when he suffered two concussions in a six-week period and sat out two races.
This March, he announced he had decided to donate his brain for study, including of the dread effects of Chronic traumatic encephalopathy - a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head trauma. That was a notable and noble decision and his next crucial decision will hopefully shape how a generation of drivers that follow him honestly assess their health and welfare in a sport that too often moves on at a high rate of speed.
Earnhardt’s status as the most popular figure in his sport will make this decision more painful for NASCAR, especially with four-time series champion Jeff Gordon retiring from full-time racing last season and three-time champion Tony Stewart to follow after this year. Earnhardt, knowing his appreciation for the history of the sport and his cognizance of how the wheels roll - from sponsor deals struck in board rooms to the mechanics in the shop who benefit from his presence - won't want to let anyone down.
This isn’t and shouldn’t be about anyone else right now.
He has won two championships in NASCAR’s top developmental series and 26 Sprint Cup races, including the Daytona 500 twice. He has grown from the boy posing in victory lane photos with his late father - seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. - to a scholar of the sport and a graceful, respected veteran who earned a job with one of the most successful teams in series history, Hendrick Motorsports.
He’s had a lot of fun, made a lot of friends, and made scores of fans proud of their “Junior,” although he wasn’t necessarily the hell-raising firebrand they hoped to drink a case of beer with after a race. And judging by the criteria and sentiment applied in the most recent voting, he will eventually be a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, like his father before him.
He has a fiancée and a loyal circle of friends and millions upon millions of dollars to spend. He has a chance to have children and a future many could only dream of after a career many would have given anything to sample.
Earnhardt has spent his entire career measured by the expectations others have for him. It’s time for him to be selfish, in the context of the life he deserves beyond racing. He owes nothing to no one. And so it’s time to go.
Follow James on Twitter @brantjames
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