NEWS: After 18 seasons and more than 600 races behind the wheel, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will bring his NASCAR Cup Series driving career to a close at the conclusion of 2017.

On Tuesday, Dale Jr. announced that he will retire from NASCAR’s highest circuit at the end of this season, saying that he wanted to leave stock-car racing competition on his own terms. But his words also struck a tone of optimism, that his involvement with the sport would remain strong.

The announcement will bring to a close the golden days of the sport, when Lee and Richard Petty helped build a stock car series that they turned over to Dale Earnhardt to carry into the next phase.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. died chasing his passion for racing. His son will walk away chasing his passion for life.

The emotional, engaging hour-long press conference came six hours after his Hendrick Motorsports team made the surprising news public Tuesday morning. That six-hour stretch included an outpouring of support through social media; which a gracious Earnhardt recognized in his opening statement.

It was a decision not easily reached and a day that was “bittersweet,” but one that he indicated brought a certain degree of peace.

“I accomplished way more than I ever dreamed, way more than I ever thought I’d accomplish,” Earnhardt said. “So I’m good, you know. I’m good on that front. I’m so blessed and fortunate on what I was able to achieve but I’m very sad because it’s definitely disappointing for a lot of people to wake up to that news this morning.”

Hendrick Motorsports indicated that team owner Rick Hendrick and Earnhardt Jr. first met to discuss the driver’s decision on March 29. Earnhardt acknowledged that his recent health concerns — which caused him to miss half of the 2016 season — were a factor in making his choice now, to finish out the final year of his contract with the team.

“I wanted to honor my commitment to Rick, to my sponsors, to my team and to the fans,” Earnhardt said. “I’ll admit that having an influence over my exit only became meaningful when it started to seem most unlikely. As you know, I missed a few races last year and during that time I had to face the realization that my driving career may have already ended without me so much as getting a vote at the table. Of course, in life we’re not promised a vote and that’s especially true in racing.”

Earnhardt, who will turn 43 in October, made his first career Cup Series start on May 30, 1999, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Since then, the Kannapolis, North Carolina, 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. Among his accomplishments are two Daytona 500 crowns (2004, 2014) and two championships (1998, 1999) in what is now called the NASCAR XFINITY Series.

Now in the midst of his 18th full-time season at the elite 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.

Earnhardt said he’d return to the track for two races in that series next season with the JR Motorsports team that he owns through an alliance with Hendrick. And while he described himself as “eager” to see what the next wave of racing talent can do in NASCAR’s national ranks, he said his plan was to maintain a strong presence in the sport as it reaches future generations.

“I don’t see myself really detaching from NASCAR,” Earnhardt said. “My intention is still to be involved in the sport on some level. … Even after this season is over, you have not seen the last of me on the race track. But more than that, I want to be a part of the future of the sport for years to come.”

Earnhardt’s best finish in eight starts this season was fifth place at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9. He is currently ranked 24th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, with finishes of 30th or worse in half the races. He indicated a faster start to the season wouldn’t necessarily have changed his mind about retirement.

“One thing that has made this career the incredible ride that it’s been is Junior Nation,” Earnhardt said. “The fan support that I received straight out of the gate was in large part because of my famous last name, but throughout the ups and downs, it occurred to me that the fans stuck it out and the new ones that joined us, they were there because of the person I was and not who they wanted me to be.”

Source: NASCAR

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