He went out on his own terms.
That’s the assessment we keep hearing this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway as it pertains to Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s final race as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver. He announced his decision to hang up his helmet back in April, after having made the decision at least a couple of weeks earlier. He’s thoroughly enjoyed the seven-month #Appreci88ion farewell tour that followed. Everyone has.
We’ve also all used that same phrase. I wrote it into a column the day he announced his retirement. He’s going out on his own terms.
But, he’s not.
That’s the thought that crossed my mind as I watched Earnhardt, a future NASCAR Hall of Famer, address the media on Friday morning. It crossed my mind again when Danica Patrick broke down crying, repeatedly, while trying to explain why she also would be stepping away from full-time stock car racing after Sunday night.
And I thought of it again as Matt Kenseth, another shoo-in Hall of Fame racer, worked a small line of autograph-seeking fans, taking in their shouts of “We’ll miss you, Matt!”
No racer ever goes out on their own terms. Heck, no professional athlete ever does.
I felt guilty for thinking it. I thought, maybe I’ve become too cynical. I thought, maybe I’m just an overreaching sportswriter.
Then I talked to actual racers and professional athletes.
“Who’s ever really done that?” Richard Petty asked me. It was 25 years this week that The King ran his final race, capping a season-long Fan Appreciation Tour (not #Appreci88ion Tour) that is still studied by sports marketing classes. But the owner of 200 wins and seven championships, at 54 years old, was awful. He was showered with gifts and had a sold-out Alabama concert held in the Georgia Dome in his honor.
But he finished outside the top 20 of the championship standings for the fifth straight year, went winless for the eighth straight season, and wrecked out early, his car on fire and was caught screaming at the safety crews on live TV.
“Going out on your own terms would be winning the race, or winning the championship, and then riding off into the sunset like John Wayne,” he said. “But again, who has ever done that?”
At this very race two years ago, Jeff Gordon was one of the four finalists competing for the Cup title. The car was good, but not great. He came up just short.
“This was almost a Cinderella finish, wasn’t it?” he said to me that night. “But almost just makes me mad.”
Michael Jordan stroked the shot that won his sixth NBA title with the Chicago Bulls and waved goodbye — and then waved hello. He returned (for a second time) to be a Washington Wizard. His last two teams didn’t even make the playoffs.
Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl and retired shortly thereafter, leaving the game a victor but also a former passing machine who was limited to tossing semi-accurate downfield passes.
“I have no regrets with anything about that night, but there’s still those little things that kept you from doing like you picture in your mind, like you know, actually throwing a touchdown pass,” Manning says, chuckling as he recalls the night his Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50. He was 13-of-23 passing with an interception and was sacked five times. “But I also think that’s the nature of being a professional athlete, of being a winner. You’re never satisfied. It always could have been better.”
On Friday, Earnhardt initially sounded pretty satisfied. There is no doubt that he’s ready to move on. But he also talked about what he’d left on the table. He said he should have taken his craft more seriously early in his career, and that it would have led to more wins. He admitted spending a lot of time contemplating a long list of what-ifs.
The biggest of those will always be what if he hadn’t suffered all those concussions scattered throughout the years, or what if he had at least taken better care of himself after the earliest ones.
“I don’t need to reconsider. This is great timing for me,” Earnhardt said Friday. “It’s time for somebody else to get in that car and get out of it what they can. And with Alex [Bowman] coming in behind, it’s just a great opportunity for him. It’s his time. It’s now his moment going into next season to take his career wherever he can go.>/p>
“And mine, in my heart, has ran its course. I’ve felt very good about that decision before the race in Daytona started in February, that this was it. And I was more thankful to be able to compete this year than I was to ever question whether I should go farther.”
Asking “can I go further?” is not going out on one’s terms. Neither is being told you no longer have a ride. Or, not being told and finding out via hearsay. That’s how it went down for Kenseth, who celebrated his 39th career victory less than one week ago. And no one authors an exit for themselves that starts with a sponsor controversy and legal fight, followed by the news that, hey, while you were once a can’t-miss cash machines, that support has vanished, and we no longer have a place for you here.
Patrick confessed to being puzzled by it all, especially the uncharted territory of sponsor issues. She looked back on her five-plus seasons at NASCAR’s top level, scoring seven top-10 finishes in 189 races. She talked about the frustration of never gaining ground, despite changing her approach to driving stock cars. It wasn’t an admission of defeat, but it was an explanation for retreat.
“I love racing, but I love certain parts of racing,” Patrick said. “I’m not driven to just go get in the car and drive. That’s not what I do it for. I have other interests.”
Earnhardt, like Patrick, has his next chapter mapped out. He will still be a NASCAR team owner, a broadcaster, and in spring will become a father. Kenseth has no extensive future plans on the books, at least none that he has shared publicly. On some level, that’s as we should expect from one of NASCAR’s all-time purveyors of “race softly but carry a big kick.”
They have all set up nice exits. But all are leaving earlier than they expected. Certainly, earlier than they would have dreamed at the height of their powers. Perhaps they can take solace in the fact that not only are they not alone; they are following in the tire tracks of everyone who proceeded them and likely everyone who will ever follow.
I’m not sure who’s terms it was they all went out on, but it wasn’t their own.