As Dale Earnhardt Jr. begins retirement tour in Richmond, nephew Jeffrey Earnhardt looks to NASCAR future
USA TODAY Sports’ Brant James sheds light on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s unexpected retirement decision.USA TODAY Sports
Corrections and clarifications: This story has been updated to reflect Jeffrey Earnhardt now has 33 Cup starts since 2015, after finishing 35th Sunday. Also, an earlier version misstated the relationship between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeffrey. Earnhardt Jr. is his uncle.
RICHMOND, Va. – Four grown men wielding Sharpies and diecast race cars pursued Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he paced toward his hauler at the end of practice at Richmond International Raceway.
Moments after he hopped inside sliding doors and the autograph hounds dispersed, Jeffrey Earnhardt strode past mostly unbothered, bound for the less landed end of the garage where teams like his Circle Sport TMG Racing labor. There was the occasional chat with a crewman and then he was on his way again.
Under the John Brown beard, Jeffrey Earnhardt is facially similar to his late grandfather, seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt Sr.. He is the nephew of Earnhardt Jr. and the son of former NASCAR driver, Kerry. After 28 more Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, he will be the lone member of his family racing at the sport’s highest level. And that was playing with his mind.
“It’s pretty incredible news, with the impact he’s had,” Jeffrey Earnhardt told USA TODAY Sports. “Hell, he’s been a big part of this sport for a long time. It sucks to see him gohe’s been a big part of this sport for a long time. It sucks to see him go I texted him and said, ‘I don’t know how you and my dad managed to just hang the helmet up and walk away.’ I don’t know if I could.”
There were few outward signs that anything had changed this weekend at Richmond. Part of that could be attributed to the fact that a general mania surrounds Earnhardt Jr.’s every moment anyway. Or that he has 28 Cup races left. Or that social media provides fans a more direct and intimate way to celebrate, complain or otherwise interact, particularly with someone as active on the medium as Earnhardt. People chase him with pens and memorabilia all the time. But he was left sufficiently alone on Saturday before practice to have an uninterrupted chat with Danica Patrick.
The most notable reaction at RIR came from the highest echelon of the sport, as chairman Brian France flew in a few hours before the race Sunday with his son, Luke, 6 and made a rare media appearance to address Earnhardt’s departure.
“He’s meant a lot to the sport in many, many ways, on and off the track and not just his popularity and whatever, carrying on the Earnhardt name in such a good way,” France said. “[He] always worked with NASCAR to make the sport better, just like his father did. That’s not always the case with drivers that come in.”
France hadn’t made such an appearance to extol four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, another mainstream ambassador of the sport, or Tony Stewart last year. Either Earnhardt’s singular popularity as a 14-time most popular driver or his loss in conjunction with Gordon and Stewart apparently prompted France to make a public acknowledgement.
“Obviously, we’re also in a transition with many drivers who have retired or moved on in the last two or three years that were racing at a high level, whether it be Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards unexpectedly that have decided that their time (is done),” France said.
Even the “Experience Earnhardt Jr.” video billboard advertisement along Mechanicsville Turnpike could have been expected even if the 42-year-old planned to race into perpetuity. But Earnhardt’s camp expects a heightened level of anxiety as the number of races dwindles. The mood figures to be decidedly more pitched when the series returns to Richmond in September for the final regular-season race, no matter if Earnhardt already is qualified for the playoffs or in need of a win or strong finish to set up a chance for a run at a first title at NASCAR’s highest level.
If Sunday’s race was any indication, Earnhardt will need to boost his performance before then. After starting 12th, he fought an ill-handling car, was penalized for speeding on pit road, and was taken out by teammate Jimmie Johnson in the late stages of the race, relegating him to a 30th-place finish. He heads to Talladega Superspeedway – site of a career-best six victories – next week.
The retirement of popular four-time series champion Gordon in 2015 and three-time champion Stewart last season provided schematics on managing the process, and JR Motorsports communications director Mike Davis said his group has conferred with “several people from the Gordon camp.” Earnhardt road manager Tyler Overstreet said “As long as people stay tame and don’t get too aggressive, it’ll be fine.”
“I was nervous coming here,” he added. “I thought it was going to be crazy. It’s been pretty crazy but, I think that’s more so a product of all the carts and tires and stuff laying around the garage. I have a feeling that Talladega [next week] is going to be crazy. Fall Texas is always crazy, so I assume it’ll be even wilder.
“Homestead, I think back to what Jeff had a couple years ago and it was like a wave of people every time he’d come to and from the hauler, so I’ve been thinking about that.”
Jeffrey Earnhardt has been thinking about how long he can keep the family legacy going. An Earnhardt has contested at least one Cup race every year since 1975 when Earnhardt Sr. made his first start. Jeffrey Earnhardt has 33 Cup starts since 2015 and is scheduled to run a full season as Circle Sport TMG possesses a charter guaranteeing race entry. He knows he might have to hang on for a while to continue the family line as Kelley Earnhardt Miller’s 16-year-old daughter, Karsyn, develops in grass roots racing.
For now, he was just trying to absorb the news of his cousin’s announcement as he makes his own way.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “I don’t think I could ever fill my grandfather’s shoes. I don’t think I could ever fill [Earnhardt Jr.’s] shoes. My goal is for myself to try and just keep improving as a driver and hopefully be able to keep our legacy alive and hopefully have Earnhardt fans accept me.”
If so, his walks through the garage might not be as tranquil.