Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't want the decision to retire to be made for him

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

For as long as they’ve been racing cars, they’ve been wrecking cars. And as long as they’ve been wrecking cars, the most basic post-crash, driver-health diagnosis has centered on a single question: Did they walk away?

If you could walk, you survived. If you could walk, you were healthy. If you could walk, you could race. If you could walk, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Essentially that was it. Then along came concussions, or more precisely the awareness of concussions and the awareness of the cumulative effect of many concussions, and maybe nothing is ever going to be the same again.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement from NASCAR on Tuesday, effective at the end of the 2017 season. The reasons were numerous, but what was clear is that he coveted the opportunity to walk away from the car while he still could.

“I want to make the decision on retiring, not have it made [for me],” Earnhardt said.

The concussion he suffered last June ended his 2016 season early. It also put his returning at all in doubt. He made it back for 2017, but being out of the car clearly changed his perspective on a lot of things.

“Just a lot of stuff has happened over the last 10 months,” Earnhardt noted.

Every racer is one accident away from the end of his career or worse. Tragically, no one knows that more than Junior, who lost his father on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Senior was about to turn 50. Junior is but 42.

Where back in his father’s day, Dale Jr. might appear in perfect health right now because he physically survived that wreck last season, now there is caution, understanding and worry everywhere. What if another big crash leads to another major concussion? Bones heal. Brains don’t always. Each successive concussion can be worse than the last.

During his time off last season, the goal at first was just to get back to a normal life. It wasn’t easy. As the NASCAR season barreled on, Earnhardt was consumed with doctor’s visits and rehab assignments and weekends at home.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. formally announces his retirement from NASCAR Cup racing. (AP)

He eventually had to stress test himself with trips to restaurants and eventually concerts to see how he’d hold up in the elements. He went shopping at the Sam’s Club near his Mooresville, N.C., home and got so disoriented he began to stumble. He managed to stay upright by clinging to his shopping cart.

“They grade you on a scale of a 1 to 10,” Earnhardt explained in February. “How are your symptoms? If they are at a 2 all the time and they go up to like a 6, don’t let it get to an 8. Get out of there, let it cool down and then go back in. And keep stretching it. It’s like a muscle.”

He eventually made it back behind the wheel for the 2017 season and that was important.

“I wanted to come back for me and say I was healthy again,” Earnhardt said.

And with that accomplished, now is not the time to keep risking everything. And so this … stepping away from the life he loves, the only life he ever wanted. He never tried to be his father, one of the greatest of the greats, because he never thought that was possible. He just wanted to be a racer.

“At a very young age all I wanted to do was make a living driving cars,” Earnhardt said Tuesday. “I didn’t dream of winning championships or Daytona 500s. … I just wanted to do it. I just wanted to be able to do it. I was afraid of not being able to do it. I guess what I am saying is, I accomplished more than I ever dreamed. Way more.”

He said if anything, having his father be his father almost scared him away from the sport.

“I just saw at an early age before I was a driver that growing up in that man’s shadow was going to be a real hard challenge,” Junior said. “But I wanted to race. I knew racing would put me in that shadow.”

Man, he’s always been as open and as honest and as likable as a star can be. That hasn’t changed. His press conference Tuesday was like he’s always been.

Junior’s pending retirement is part of a wave to hit NASCAR – Jeff Gordon two years ago, Tony Stewart last year, Carl Edwards out of nowhere prior to this season. Now Earnhardt.

Again, the reasons are myriad, but health – mental health – is a big one. None of these guys had to retire. They were contenders, with big sponsorship packages and adoring fans. Earnhardt will almost assuredly be voted the sport’s most popular driver for a 15th consecutive year.

Yet they’ve made the millions that allow them to make such a choice. There are teams to be owned and broadcasts to be called and post-racing empires to be run. You need your faculties for that. We’ve seen similar decisions in the NFL, guys choosing to walk away from money on the table but more confident in living a long and viable life.

NASCAR has done an admirable job over the years to make racing safer – from better restraints to better cars to better tracks. No one can completely prevent head trauma, though. No other sport has 200-mile-per-hour crashes.

Junior kept saying Tuesday that the hardest part of retiring has been telling everyone else about it, from crew members to support staff to team owner Rick Hendrick. And finally to the fans, who he knows woke up Tuesday to depressing news.

“There’s been some tears,” he admitted. ” … I’m at peace with the decision.”

He says that he was ready. He just wasn’t sure if everyone else was ready to hear it.

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