CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It's never easy to be the son of a legend, especially when he is a tough-as-nails hero and the most feared man in his profession.
Follow in his footsteps? Forget it.
Just being able to drive cars was enough for Dale Earnhardt Jr., and if it made his daddy proud, well, hopefully somebody would tell him.
The Earnhardt era of NASCAR opened its final chapter Tuesday when the driver known simply as Junior said he will retire at the end of this season, his 18th in the Cup series. It will bring to a close the golden days of the sport, when Lee and Richard Petty helped build a stock car series that they turned over to Dale Earnhardt to carry into the next phase.
When Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the burden fell on a young Earnhardt Jr. to fill a void and help heal the broken hearts of Earnhardt Nation. His decision to walk away did not come lightly for NASCAR's most popular driver and it is a blow to a series scrambling to hang onto its fans.
"When my dad was doing so well and there were a couple of guys coming into the sport that were sons, it was difficult for them to replicate their dads' success," Earnhardt said. "I just saw even 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.
"I wanted to race, but I knew racing would put me in that shadow. I knew the odds of me really having any talent at all and being able to do it were thin. They are for anyone. So at a very young age, all I wanted to do was be able to make a living driving cars. I didn't set goals. I didn't dream of winning championships or Daytona 500s or working with one of the best owners in the business, driving for one of the best organizations. I was afraid of not being able to do it. So I guess what I'm saying is I've accomplished way more than I ever dreamed — way more than I ever thought I'd accomplish."
Earnhardt called the decision, revealed to team owner Rick Hendrick on March 29, "very bittersweet" and admitted there were tears as he prepared for Tuesday's announcement. But he wanted the opportunity to go out on his own terms.
"Having influence over my exit only became meaningful when it started to seem most unlikely," Earnhardt said. "As you know, I missed a few races last year and during that time I had to face the realization that my driving career may have already ended without me so much as getting a vote on the table. Of course, in life we're not promised a vote, and that's especially true in racing."
Colorful, candid and talented, Earnhardt has been plagued by concussions the last several years and he missed half of last season recovering from a head injury. He had delayed contract talks on an extension to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet, and the two-time Daytona 500 winner will now call it quits when the season ends in November.
"You deserve everything, all the awards and all of the accolades," Hendrick said. "There will never be another Dale Earnhardt Jr. You're the one."
The news shocked and saddened drivers throughout the paddock.
"He has a tremendous sense of the history of NASCAR and, while he shares his father's name, Dale has made a name for himself with his accomplishments in racing," said Jeff Gordon, former teammate at Hendrick and once one of Dale Earnhardt's biggest rivals.
Steve Letarte, the crew chief tasked with rebuilding Earnhardt's shattered confidence during a lengthy slump in his career, said Earnhardt can't be measured simply as a race car driver.
"Dale is all encompassing," said the NBC analyst. "He carried the popularity of a sport on his shoulders. Anyone who tries to separate what he does behind the wheel to what he does in the sport doesn't know Dale Jr."
Added NASCAR chairman Brian France, "His passion for the sport will leave an impact on NASCAR that will be felt over its entire history."
A third-generation racer, Earnhardt turns 43 in October, is newly married and has said he wants to start a family. He has lately become a vocal advocate for research into sports-related brain injuries, and the hit he took last June led to months of rehabilitation that gave him a new perspective on his life. His wife, Amy, posted on Twitter shortly after the announcement: "I'm so proud of Dale for working so hard to get back and even prouder for his courage & self awareness to make the decision to retire. I'm sure God has many other great plans for him and us!"
She wiped away tears as she watched her new husband, dressed in a suit, nervously discuss his decision.
The news was the latest blow to the stock car series, which lost two other popular drivers in Gordon and Tony Stewart to retirement the past two years. Now Earnhardt, the last of the true country boys, is following them out the door. Born and raised in North Carolina, Earnhardt has deep roots in NASCAR. Besides his father, who won seven titles and was known as "The Intimidator," grandfather Ralph ran 51 races at NASCAR's highest level.
Even so, Earnhardt didn't grow up with a silver spoon. He had a difficult relationship with his father when he was younger, and he was sent to Oak Ridge Military Academy. His sister, Kelley, joined him there to watch out for her brother.
Once out of school and aspiring to be a race car driver, Earnhardt lived in a trailer and constantly irked his father with his hard-partying ways. Publicly, the Intimidator didn't know if his kid had the chops for the business. Privately, he probably wouldn't have told him, anyway.
"I never would assume that he was proud of me when he was alive," Earnhardt said. "I certainly wouldn't make that mistake after he passed. I just never felt like I was worthy of assuming that of him. ... I've talked to some people in the past 24 hours that know him pretty well, and they're pretty confident that he would be very proud."
Hendrick assured Earnhardt, the driver he treated as a son, that his father would have been proud.
"I knew your daddy pretty well," Hendrick said. "He would be proud of the man that you are and what you've done for so many, all the charities and all the good will that you've done. He would be — and is — very, very proud of you."
Earnhardt has won NASCAR's most popular driver award a record 14 times. He has 26 career Cup victories and is a two-time champion of NASCAR's second-tier Xfinity series, where he plans to race twice next year. But the son of the late champion has never won a Cup title after more than 600 career series starts.
Earnhardt has driven for Hendrick since 2008 after a nasty split with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his father but run by his stepmother. He was unhappy with the direction of DEI since his father's 2001 death, and a frosty relationship with his stepmother led him to bolt to NASCAR's most powerful team.
Earnhardt is not off to the greatest start this season, with only one top-five finish so far. He took another hit Monday at Bristol Motor Speedway when a mechanical issue caused him to crash.
Even in retirement, Earnhardt vowed he won't be far from the track. He said he wants to be part of the "future of this sport" for many years to come.
"I do have ambition to work," Earnhardt said. "I'm not going to quit working. There's a feeling to being an asset to something. I don't have to be the guy holding the trophy, but being a part of that success, I really enjoy. I really enjoy making people happy and doing stuff as a team. I think I can replicate that in the next chapter of my life."
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee contributed to this report.
More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org
Jenna Fryer, The Associated Press