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Sure, I’ll miss Junior, but……

I remember a little tow-headed kid in a fire suit that didn’t exactly fit.  Someone had said to me he was fresh out of military school.  Neither the wardrobe nor the education was what appealed to me and brought me to Myrtle Beach Speedway for an interview with a race-car driver on my day off.

It was the name.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Actually, Junior was the third Earnhardt I’d met, counting ‘The Intimidator’ from post-race interviews.  Junior’s older sister, Kelley, was then a student at nearby UNC-Wilmington, and known for driving a black Chevy around town with #3 on the front plates.  But here he was, just getting his feet wet in the racing game driving Late Model Sportsman.

That was 1992.  Now, a quarter-century later, it’s hard to believe Junior’s driving away from full-time Cup racing: 253 top-10’s, 26 checkered flags, and over $100 million in winnings later.

Most of this week, since the news broke, I’ve read what just about every columnist had to say about the news of Junior’s retirement. I think Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer said it best, the four things we should be thankful for in Junior’s leaving the track:

He’s leaving on his own terms: Gone are the days when drivers like Richard Petty, David Pearson, and Cale Yarborough raced into their 50’s and beyond.  It’s a younger driver’s game now.  I guess starting with Rusty Wallace, then Jeff Gordon, and recently, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards – you don’t have to drive until you need bifocals to read the dials on the dash. Not only is the money better, but you can find a whole lot of something’s better to do with 38 weeks of your life every year, weeks that you won’t be getting back.

He preserved his father’s legacy: I always considered this the weightiest of challenges for all Dale Sr’s kids.  I remember Junior winning Daytona in ’01, just four and a half months after his Dad died in Turn 3 at that same track.  Even in his early racing days Junior would admit that the best way he could get close to his father was at a race-track.  It may have been as competitors, trying to beat each other to Victory Lane, but at least it was bonding time.  Sure, some things got ugly between the kids and Dale Sr’s widow, Teresa, over business matters.  Whether they’re resolved, I don’t know and don’t really care: from DEI (Dale Earnhardt Incorporated) to Junior Motorsports, the lineage established as racers and businessmen has been maintained.

He has a sense of humor:  If you go to his Twitter page you’ll see he wrote in his biography that he’s a retired dealership mechanic and former fullback on a high school soccer team who loves to drink beer and aspires to be a barbecue Pittmaster.  When you throw in the fact he built a re-creation of an entire Wild West town in his backyard near Mooresville, you just have to smile and shake your head. Here’s a top-name in sports who, for all the world, could be as stoic as a pine tree, but who never took himself too seriously.  I think people relate to that.

He’s got heart – and smarts: Junior made a lot of people aware last year of the dangers of concussions sitting out parts of the season, maybe more so than all we’ve read and seen on football players and CTE.  When you don’t have to wake up remembering where your toothbrush is, when you don’t get those chronic headaches, double-vision, or other mental and physical maladies. Drivers Donnie Allison and Ernie Irvan were said to have suffered symptoms years ago; but Junior can be applauded for walking away, cleanly.

I wish Junior and wife, Amy, the best with his new scaled-back racing life, and whatever else he can cram into it.  As a fan, I’ll miss that Chevy on the track every week; but in those 25 years, kid: you didn’t do too badly, you done us proud.

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