The response has been as diverse as NASCAR Nation itself. The announcement that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring after this season is blowing up the blogosphere. Like it or not, it’s a big deal. Among the many topics of discussion is what lies ahead for Earnhardt’s team- Hendrick Motorsports- and NASCAR itself.
Make no mistake, the exit of the sport’s most popular and most recognizable figure will have a seismic effect. Already gone from the Sunday scene at the race track are two other iconic competitors- Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. Not to diminish their impact, but the retirement of NASCAR’s favorite son will be twice that. Stewart was a racing fan’s racer. Gordon and Earnhardt were transcendent figures. All of us can think of numerous folks who aren’t racing fans per se, but they’re fans of “Lil E” and “Super G.” Heck, yours truly is married to one of them.
NASCAR will survive. While the sport wrestles with tumbling ratings and moribund race attendance, it will not die. Will fans be lost in the absence of racing’s premier good ol’ boy? Sure, let’s not kid ourselves. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a great ambassador for the sport, as a kind of bridge between NASCAR’s past and present.
With that said, let’s not forget that the sport is bigger than any one person. NASCAR is replete with rising young talents that fans are just now beginning to know. A great deal of spotlight has been rightly devoted to up and comers like Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. Furthermore, there are still plenty of accomplished veterans with faithful followings: Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick- just to name three. Who will be that charismatic figure to be the new standard bearer? Maybe we don’t even know him or her yet. There will always be racing, and NASCAR will figure into it. There’s too many people with too much skin in the game for it to dry up and blow away.
Rick Hendrick is no dummy. The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. for a part of last season no doubt signaled to his car’s owner that the end of the road may be coming for Earnhardt in the 88.
Alex Bowman acquitted himself quite nicely as a fill-in last season. William Byron has been making noise in the lower series since his arrival. It could be someone coming in from another team. Maybe Bubba Wallace will get his chance. Hendrick Motorsports is not without options.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A lot can happen in 29 races. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has plenty of opportunity remaining to further define his legacy. Perhaps he becomes racing’s John Elway, going out on top. It’s not too late you know.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not dead. NASCAR may be quite sick, but it’s not dying. Hendrick Motorsports will be just fine with whomever succeeds a driver who- as of this writing- has more career wins than either of the Labonte brothers, Buddy Baker, Fred Lorenzen, or Curtis Turner. He’s not his dad. He never tried to be. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a damn good racecar driver with a pretty decent resume, and a pretty darn decent human being.