CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At 7:34 a.m. Tuesday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. foreshadowed what was to come with a social media post that broadcast his mood. In typical fashion, he did not try to conceal his emotions.
“Been up since 4,” he wrote on Twitter, followed by an emoji with a straight mouth. “Woke up like,” followed by another emoji of a face with eyes wide, cheeks flushed.
He was nervous, and by 9 a.m. the world knew why: Earnhardt announced he would retire from Nascar at the conclusion of this season.
After missing half of last season because of a concussion and its lingering effects, Earnhardt, 42, said that the time had come and that he wanted to make the decision himself rather than be forced out for health concerns. His 2016 concussion was his second in four years, and led him to wonder if he would ever return to racing.
“I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms,” he said.
He will go out not as the most successful driver in Nascar, but as one of the most popular drivers in the sport’s history. In 18 seasons, Earnhardt, son of the Nascar legend Dale Earnhardt, has won 26 races, including the Daytona 500 twice, in 2004 and 2014. He has never won the Cup series championship, but he has received the most popular driver award 14 times in a row.
“There’ll never be another Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” said Rick Hendrick, his team owner. “You’re the one.”
That is a fact that Nascar knows all too well after seeing steady declines in ratings and attendance over recent years as it negotiates life after the retirement of some of its brightest stars.
Jeff Gordon, the California-cool four-time champion, retired in 2015. Tony Stewart, the fiery and outspoken three-time champion, retired in 2016. Now Earnhardt is leaving in 2017.
Earnhardt had a fan base from the moment he put on a firesuit because of the adoration directed at his father, but his popularity grew as his down-to-earth, relatable personality emerged. He has become a Twitter superstar, amassing two million followers. For many fans, he is the last connection to the generation of drivers led by his father, who was known as the Intimidator, and the glory days of Nascar.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001 at age 49.
“I knew that growing up in that man’s shadow was going to be a hard challenge,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “But I wanted to race, and I knew racing would put me in that shadow. All I wanted to do was be able to make a living driving cars.”
But he has not won a race since 2015, and his best finish this season is fifth. He is 24th in the standings.
At the same time, Nascar’s television ratings are at record lows, according to the website Sports Media Watch. Monday’s rain-delayed race at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, a track that once boasted 55 consecutive sellouts that stretched over nearly 30 years, appeared to take place before more seats empty than occupied.
But Kyle Petty, a former driver and now an analyst for NBC Sports, noted, “Earnhardt’s been here the whole time ratings have been declining.”
So how could Earnhardt’s retirement affect ratings and attendance further? Petty wondered. He echoed what many Nascar executives have said: that the sport simply is evolving as the current crop of stars reaches retirement age. Petty remembers a time when his father, Richard Petty, retired around the same time as Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison — all drivers at the top of Nascar’s career wins list.
“You know what?” Kyle Petty said. “The sport grew. It changed and it grew. People were like, ‘Oh my God, this is the end of the sport for a lot of fans.’ They thought: ‘The sport’s over. Where have all our heroes gone?’ Along comes Earnhardt.”
Nascar officials and the sport’s fans eagerly await the newest star to replace those who are retiring, and the youth movement has begun. The top two drivers in the standings are Kyle Larson, 24, and Chase Elliott, 21.
“It’s cyclical in any sport,” said Steve O’Donnell, Nascar’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer. “Certainly, bigger personalities come and go that are part of sports. For us, we look at the future and some of the drivers coming up, they’ve got to win. But when you talk to some of these guys, their personalities and where they want to take the sport is really exciting and encouraging.”
Earnhardt himself pointed that out when asked what there is to be excited about in Nascar while he and his cohorts are leaving the sport.
“Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, just to name two of probably a dozen guys that I’m excited about,” he said. “And all those guys have great attitudes, great personalities. I know them well enough to be excited about how fans are going to know them in the future. I feel like these are the guys who are the cream of the crop.”
That story line will evolve in 2018. There still is a season of racing for Earnhardt to finish, one in which he expects he will receive well-wishes from his fans as well as retirement gifts, although he said he hoped for nothing like the miniature ponies Gordon received from Eddie Gossage, the Texas Motor Speedway president. Earnhardt also said that he planned to drive in two races next year in the lower-level Xfinity Series, in which he is a team owner.
Earnhardt has been preparing for a life after racing. On New Year’s Eve, he married his longtime girlfriend, Amy Reimann. While sitting out 18 races last season, he filled in as a TV analyst on a handful of broadcasts.
Earnhardt’s success has been much more than he ever predicted when he set out to make a living driving cars.
“I was afraid of not being able to do it,” he said. “I guess what I’m saying is I accomplished way more than I ever dreamed. Way more than I ever thought I’d accomplish. So I’m good.”
Correction: April 25, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated the timing of an interview in which Dale Earnhardt Jr. spoke about concussions. It was in February, not January.