Jimmie Johnson is this generation’s best driver. Guys such as Joey Logano and Kyle Busch have the makings of becoming future Hall of Famers and names most people have at least heard of. Danica Patrick remains a novelty despite her performance shortcomings.
But there’s one driver in NASCAR who is the undisputable face of the sport — Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt remains as popular as ever given the amount of No. 88 gear seen around Daytona International Speedway this weekend, and his return to racing is a much-needed boost for a sport facing questions of uncertainty about its future. If there’s one driver NASCAR can count on to bring fans to the track and get them to watch on TV, it’s Earnhardt.
Earnhardt’s absence because of concussion-like symptoms over the last 18 races certainly hurt NASCAR’s attempt to improve attendance and TV ratings down the stretch. His return, beginning with Sunday’s Daytona 500 where he’ll start second, has everyone within the garages cautiously optimistic that better times are ahead.
I would definitely not want to come back and try to race anymore if I won the championship. I would be outta here.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
But Earnhardt isn’t going to be around forever. Heck, he even alluded to the idea of walking away from the sport should he win a coveted championship that has eluded him all these years.
After all, what else is left if Earnhardt wins a championship? He’s 42 and has already built a Hall of Fame résumé with 26 victories, including his first at Texas Motor Speedway in 2000, and two Daytona 500 victories (2004, 2014).
“I would definitely not want to come back and try to race anymore if I won the championship. I would be outta here,” Earnhardt said, laughing. “I’ve always wanted to win a championship so badly. Coming back from this injury, we worked so hard. To come back this year, win a championship, it would be hard not to hang it up.
“This is the last year of my deal. I would like to race more. But if I win the championship, I’d have to consider going out on top.”
It’s happened before with some of the greats around sports.
Legendary Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway called it quits after winning the Super Bowl; St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa retired after his team beat the Texas Rangers in the 2011 World Series; and golfers such as Bobby Jones and Lorena Ochoa left the sport in their primes.
It would be a storybook way for one of the most popular drivers in history to go out, although Earnhardt understands it’s easier said than done.
I’m 42 years old. If you want me to quit racing, I’ll quit racing today. I’d like to keep racing if you think I’m able to keep racing.
Earnhardt Jr., on asking his doctor about continuing to race
For now, Earnhardt is focused on the Daytona 500 and getting back to Victory Lane. He has been fully cleared by his doctors to return to the sport and has no lingering thoughts about long-term health concerns regarding concussions.
“I’m not an expert. My doctor is. So when I have concerns, questions, I go to him and say, ‘What’s going on? What do you think about this? Am I in danger?” Earnhardt said. “I’m 42 years old. If you want me to quit racing, I’ll quit racing today. I’d like to keep racing if you think I’m able to keep racing.
“He gives me that confidence in our conversations. He doesn’t work in the gray area. He’s black or white. He don’t care about racing. He just cares about me being healthy. He knows I just got married. He knows I want to have a family. He knows I want to have a good quality of life the next, however, 40, 50 years that I’m alive. So he don’t care about racing.
“He’s going to say, ‘Stop doing this, you need to quit.’ Or he’s going to say, ‘What I see in you is not a concern of mine. Continue if you want to continue.’ I let him push those buttons ’cause I want to do what’s best for me.
“I know it’s a dangerous sport. I’m taking and accepting a risk when I go out there. He tells me it’s no more than I was accepting in taking on before the injury. So I believe what he’s telling me.”
That sort of explanation has gone over well to those who know Earnhardt within the garage. Nobody wants Earnhardt to return to racing if he doesn’t want to do it for himself.
He shouldn’t have worried about the state of NASCAR or sponsors in making this decision, and all signs point to him not doing that.
But there’s no question people would love to see his monthslong return end in Victory Lane.
“I know he’s got a lot on his shoulders, a lot of people put a lot of pressure on him, obviously,” driver Martin Truex Jr. said. “I think in a lot of ways he sometimes feels like he needs to be here for other people. But hopefully he made the decision based on what’s best for him. I think he did.
“I know he’s excited about racing still. He obviously still loves it and wants to do it and hopefully things will all work out for him.”