Face it: One day Junior will be gone

Published 11:30 am Monday, September 12, 2016

Call him Opie on racing fuel.

I guess it’s because he’s been like some kid from a TV life we watched grow up right in front of our eyes. We’ve laughed with him, hurt for him, been disappointed by him and for him and we’ve pulled for him, for many more reasons than his heritage.

But just like Opie grew into Richie Cunningham, and Richie threw off the mantle of TV life to become an Oscar-winning director and morphed into what he always was, Ron Howard; sooner or later there’s a racing truth we have to face.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will turn 42 years old in another month, and I find myself asking: where did the time go?

See, I remember when ‘Big Dale’ sent his youngest son down to Myrtle Beach Speedway (rumor had it, all the Earnhardt kids who were racing: Kerry, Kelley King, and Junior, ran at different tracks because their Dad didn’t want them to wreck each other). He drove the Sun-Drop Chevrolet and looked like any other tow-headed kid trying to crack his way into racing’s big time.

And he wasn’t doing it on the heels of his name.

Now he continues to struggle with a brain injury and hasn’t raced since July 9. We found out last weekend at Darlington that he won’t race anymore this season.

As if NASCAR’s myriad of challenges, from poor TV ratings to a passel of drivers whose names I can’t remember and who are tough to root for, weren’t enough.

Now NASCAR might be getting ready for another one: Life after Junior.

Even if he comes back – and he vows to be ready for the 2017 Daytona 500 – the likelihood of many more years of Earnhardt in a race car are fading like challengers in his rear-view mirror.

With Jeff Gordon one year into ‘retirement’ and Tony Stewart’s farewell coming up this season, there are already major departures of the personalities that helped make NASCAR in its late 20th century heyday and carried into the new millennium: slick marketing.

Chase Elliott? Kyle Larson? Ryan Blaney? Maybe one day, but to me they aren’t there yet.

“I think that I have the passion and the desire to drive,” Junior told reporters at Darlington last Sunday. “I think I have some good years left. I’m as good as I have ever been inside the car.”

But there are no guarantees when it comes to brain injury. Just ask Ernie Irvan. He too suffered a concussion at Michigan in 1994, but raced for another five years. Junior suffered a concussion in 2012 and came back, but this situation is more severe.

It would be presumptuous to suggest that Earnhardt should retire. It’s his call to make, not mine or the media’s. But he does demonstrate some sobering priorities.

“Just getting normal and having a good quality of life going forward for the next many, many years is the first goal,” he said.

If more athletes, particularly boxers and football players, had that attitude there’d be a lot fewer sad stories to be told.

One thing about Junior to consider: his career was just starting to blossom when 2001 at Daytona happened. Now with this, I think he’ll do everything in his power to make sure there won’t be another tragic end.


Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.