CHARLOTTE, N.C. - After 18 seasons and more than 600 races behind the wheel, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will retire from NASCAR Cup Series racing at the conclusion of 2017.
NASCAR's most popular driver shared the news with members of his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team on Tuesday.
"I wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms," Earnhardt said.
The fan favorite and two-time Daytona 500 champion will discuss his decision in a press conference at 3 p.m. Tuesday.
Colorful, candid and talented, Earnhardt has been plagued by concussions the last several years and he missed half of last season recovering from the latest head injury. It caused him to delay contract talks on an extension to drive the No. 88 Chevrolet, and the two-time Daytona 500 winner with deep family roots in auto racing appears ready to call it quits.
(Click PLAY to hear Earnhardt Jr. talk about racing at Daytona)
He will be joined by Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, for whom Earnhardt has driven for since 2008. The two first met about the driver’s decision on March 29, according to Hendrick Motorsports.
Been up since 4. 😐— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) April 25, 2017
Woke up like 😳
Earnhardt made his first career Cup Series start on May 30, 1999, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. A third-generation racer, Earnhardt turns 43 in October, is newly married and has said he wants to start a family.
"I just wanted to make a living driving cars, so I've accomplished way more than I've ever dreamed," Earnhardt said.
The Kannapolis native has captured 26 points-paying Cup race wins and been voted by fans as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver a record 14 consecutive years. He has qualified for the NASCAR playoffs eight times.
He is a two-time champion of NASCAR's second-tier series, but the son of the late seven-time champion has never won a Cup title.
He's also been plagued by concussions and missed half of last season after suffering yet another one.
(Click PLAY to watch Earnhardt Jr. give young athletes advice on concussions.)
Earnhardt has become a vocal advocate for research of 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. The concussions left him with nausea, double vision, anxiety and a multitude of other symptoms that he's discussed in great detail.
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.
He did not seem fazed by Monday's crash.
"I feel good. We'll get in here and find out," he said as he walked to the care center.
Currently in the middle of his 18th full-time season at the Cup level, Earnhardt made his 600th career series start on March 26 at Fontana, California. He will compete in his final NASCAR Cup Series race on Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Channel 9 caught up with NASCAR legend Richard Petty, who shared his thoughts on Junior’s decision to retire.
The King said that Earnhardt has been a great role model for NASCAR, and expects him to still be involved in the sport after his retirement.
“Junior has been really good,” Petty said. “From the standpoint, he followed up his dad who was a seven-time champ, who won everything. He just steps in and continues that legacy.”
His retirement is just the latest in a series of veterans stepping away from the sport after long and popular careers.
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Jeff Gordon called it quits after the 2015 season, but he was a fill-in last year as Earnhardt recovered. Tony Stewart retired at the end of last year and Carl Edwards also has stepped away from the sport.
Now Earnhardt, the last of the true country boys, is following their exit. Born and raised in North Carolina, his roots for NASCAR run deep. His Hall of Fame father Dale won seven titles and, known as "The Intimidator," was one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history.
Earnhardt's grandfather, Ralph, ran 51 races at NASCAR's highest level.
Hendrick Motorsports will announce plans for its 2018 team alignment at a later date.
NASCAR fans, drivers react to Junior’s impending retirement
After decades behind the wheel as a fan-favorite, and following in his dad's footsteps, Earnhardt announced his plans throw in the towel at the end of the season.
Fans and NASCAR legends told Channel 9 they are sad to see Earnhardt retire.
“It was very shocking,” said Colter Franks, an Earnhardt fan. “He's young, but I see his point of view. He's got to live his life.”
Fans won’t forget the moment when Earnhardt won the Pepsi 400 in 2001.
“First race coming back to Daytona. That race was probably a big thing, watching that after his dad passed away,” Earnhardt fan David Luna said.
(Click PLAY to hear fans react to Dale Jr.'s retirement news)
NASCAR legend Richard Petty, known in the NASCAR world as 'the King,' said the sport is difficult to leave,
“Don't think he's going to go to his farm and close the gate and say, ‘see you guys,’” Petty said. “He's going to be right out there with them.”
NASCAR driver Aric Almirola, who is on the road 200 days out of the year, and admits the sport takes a toll on their family life.
With his recent marriage, Almirola understands why Earnhardt would end his career in his 40s.
“That’s what everybody dreams about one day, to retire and enjoy their family,” Almirola said. “He’s got that opportunity now.”
NASCAR Chairman and CEO and Brian France released a statement:
“Dale Earnhardt Jr. is among the most recognizable athletes in the world, unequivocally serving as the sport’s most popular driver for more than a decade. His passion for the sport will leave an impact on NASCAR that will be felt over its entire history. Over his 20-plus year career, Dale has proven himself a leader with a deep commitment to so many areas of the sport – all the way to its roots. We’re excited about the next chapter of his NASCAR career and wish him success for the remainder of 2017.”
(The Associated Press contributed to this article)
(Read tweets with reaction to Dale Jr.'s retirement news below)
(Click PLAY to hear fans react to Dale Jr.'s retirement news)
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