Jr., NASCAR prepare for next chapter


NASCAR’s Monster Energy Series barrels toward the playoffs with just 10 races to go until the Championship Chase.

But as each week flies by, we draw closer to the end of the era with Dale Earnhardt Jr as a full-time competitor.

Earnhardt announced the decision in April, saying he was leaving full-time racing “on his own terms.” That, after missing 18 races in 2016 with a concussion and related symptoms. During a long and unexpected news conference, the long-time holder of NASCAR’s fan-favorite driver designation insisted that he would be part of the sport for many years to come, even if it is not behind the wheel.

For the future of stock car racing, thank goodness.

Even with Earnhardt still involved and promoting the sport, NASCAR has an uphill battle ahead, striving to stay relevant with long-time fans and working to draw in the millennial generation. The new multi-stage race format remains a mystery to many fans and may not yield the intended result: added interest across the demographic spectrum.

For old-school followers, Earnhardt Jr. has been the link to his beloved and legendary father, snatched by death from the sport he helped to build just as his son was coming into his own.

As the world watched Junior grieve, and go on and win races and honor the memory of his father, the sport continued. But the Earnhardt legacy was never fully achieved by the heir to the throne.

Still, Junior competed year in and year out, winning 26 times, including twice in the Daytona 500; he’s among the winningest drivers who has never won the Cup championship. Along the way, he earned the respect of fellow drivers and the love of the fans, even apart from their feelings for his famous father.

Across mainstream media and social media, Earnhardt built his brand: the handsome, soft-spoken good ol’ boy that women wanted and men wanted to be. What made him all the more appealing was that he never seemed completely comfortable in the spotlight, even though he knew he was destined to be there.

Now newly-married, with a net worth estimated of more than $300 million, the future seems wide-open for the team owner/soon-to-be-former driver. We can only hope that his interests continue to lie around the track, and that the fans continue to follow him. He remains NASCAR’s best hope to rev up the passion that has waned since that last lap of that fateful Daytona race in 2001.

Perhaps his mid-season retirement announcement is the best gift he could give NASCAR as the series struggles through the first year of the new format. Fans who may have strayed a bit could be drawn back in, returning to see Earnhardt take his final laps at each track down the stretch.

Hopefully, there are a few more great moments for fans to remember, and many great years near the track for Earnhardt ahead.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.