The most shocking moment for me in the history of my Nascar existence was when Mike Helton started a press conference with the words “This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements that I have personally ever had to make”. The death of Dale Earnhardt was a shock to me and to all of Nascar fans. The second most shocking moment for me was from his son.
This past Tuesday morning I woke up with a slight headache. The ride into work was tough. We are again dealing with massive flooding in the Eastern part of North Carolina. But altogether it was a pretty normal morning. That is until I sat down at my desk after our morning meeting. I decided to check the morning news cycle and glaring at me on the screen was “Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retire following 2017 season”. I was shocked. I knew the health issues were there. I knew he wasn’t really having that great of a year. I knew his contract was up at the end of the year. But still, I didn’t see it coming. I was sure he would sign a 2 – 3 year deal and that would be it. I was positive that is how it would go. I was wrong.
Growing up I hated Dale Earnhardt. I liked Cale, the Allison’s, Waltrip, and guys like that. Earnhardt was this cocky, brash, hard nosed driver that seemed to wreck all of my favorite guys. Then something changed. I guess as I grew older I wanted to be like my grandpa. He loved Dale. I also started to appreciate greatness. Dale was great. Best I have ever seen and ever will see. I became a huge fan. When his son came into the Busch ranks it was just obvious who I would root for every weekend from then on. Not only was he an Earnhardt but he was my age, brash, cocky, fun, and many other traits I loved and the sport needed. I was hooked. For the next number of years my main objective Sunday afternoons was to see what place Dale Jr was running in.
Not long ago something changed though. Up to 2 years ago I had to watch Nascar races from afar. Living in Northern Wisconsin it was a tough to make races in person. I was lucky enough to fly down to a few Coca Cola 600’s but as travel prices increased and the family grew it became tough. Fast forward to two years ago. My family and I migrated south to the great state of North Carolina. My love for Nascar was cranked up about 11 notches. But my excitement hoping to be around a ton of Nascar fans quickly waned. Yes. there are a lot of fans around here but not that much more than in Wisconsin. I run into more people who tell me the same line. I used to go to races and watch it on TV before “so and so” retired or passed away. That really changed my perspective on Dale Jr. I love the guy but I didn’t want it to define my love for Nascar. Through those conversations I learned to love the sport as a whole. I vowed not to be the guy who used to watch until Dale Jr. retired. I quickly embraced guys like Kyle Busch, Chase Elliot, Ryan Blaney, and others. That made the announcement of Tuesday a little bit easier.
I don’t know where the sport goes from here. I already hear the chants of who is going to fill the stands now that he is retiring. I personally think that is bull. I think the races are as good as they ever have been. I think the talent level of racing is as good as it has ever been. The race experience is the best it has ever been. My hope is that through the next 28 races Nascar puts the focus on the future. I believe Nascar has a great opportunity. Dale Jr’s retiring tour will put more people in the stands than they have had in a long time. Great races will keep them there. Controversies will keep them there. The story lines in general are what will drive the sport over the next 28 races and beyond. It’s a great opportunity to build the sport. Please don’t screw it up like the car of tomorrow did.
I’ll end with this. Whether its a relationship or an icon like Jr, you tend to look back and pick out the positives and make that what you remember. That’s not the case here. Of course I remember the Pepsi 400 win. The two Daytona wins. Wins like Texas, Richmond, and the Pocono wins. All those are great memories. What I am most proud of in Dale Jr. and his body of work is who he has become. He went from this brash young kid to a grown man that values the people around him more than himself. He is someone I don’t have to worry about my son looking up to. To me that is the biggest accomplishment of his career. To be able to go out on his own terms makes me happy. He is leaving a sport better than he found it. In the end that’s the goal!