After missing nearly all of the 2016 season due to long-lasting concussion symptoms, NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. says this year will be his last on the racetrack. The racer is retiring at the end of the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series.
Despite never winning the Cup Series season title, the driver has amassed 26 top-level victories and won the Daytona 500 twice – most recently in 2014. Earnhardt Jr. is also one of the most popular figures in the sport, winning the fan vote for NASCAR’s most popular drive for a record 14 years in a row.
Earnhardt Jr.’s career hasn’t been without close calls and dangerous crashes, however. The racer suffered several concussions. His most recent brain injury put Earnhardt on the sidelines for the final 18 races of the 2016 season.
Earnhardt has not publicly spoken about his retirement, yet. He is scheduled to give a press conference today at 3 p.m. However, there is one question at the front of everyone’s mind; did his most recent concussion motivate the decision to retire?
It has only been a few short months since Earnhardt Jr. returned to the racetrack, and he appears to be questioning whether his concussions may have more long-term effects.
On March 26th, the racer publicly announced he would be donating his brain to research into the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE has been linked to repeated head trauma and is characterized by severe memory problems, emotional and behavioral issues, motor impairment.
It is most commonly known for being found in a high number of retired NFL players but is suspected to be prevalent in a number of sports – potentially including NASCAR.
According to a press release from Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr. began discussing retiring with his team less than a week later. On March 29th, he met with team owner to break the news.
Earnhardt Jr. appears to have been telegraphing his retirement since the beginning of the month, without letting the news slip. In an interview with NPR’s Out of Bounds on April 9th, he spoke about the risks of returning to racing and his potential retirement:
I took a big risk, I think, to come back to race. Although I’m healthy, I’m still at danger, just like anyone else out there racing, to get concussions. And having gone through it at one point — during the worst, sickest part about it – I really didn’t want to have anything to do with racing. But as I got healthier, I got the itch, I guess, or the urge to come back. And I just want to race as long as I’m enjoying it. When I no longer enjoy it, I find something else to enjoy.
For now, all we can do is speculate and take comfort in knowing Earnhardt made the decision to step out when he felt it was right. Many fans will be saddened by the news, but it is always important to prioritize health. As NASCAR writer Jeff Gluck wrote in the wake of the news, “The positive for [Earnhardt’s fans] is they’ll have 28 more races to watch their favorite driver and prepare to say goodbye.”