Dale Earnhardt Jr. took stock of his own future shortly after Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon announced his decision to retire at the end of the 2015 NASCAR season.
Gordon is 43. Earnhardt turned 40 last fall.
Unlike Gordon, who has won four Sprint Cup championships and is married with two children who will keep him busy in retirement, Earnhardt has yet to win a Cup championship and has no dependents outside of girlfriend Amy Reimann.
So while Earnhardt doesn’t have any impending plans to retire, he knows time is starting to run out. The last Sprint Cup driver in his 40s to win a championship was Tony Stewart, who was 40 in 2011 when he won for the third time.
“Yeah, I’m getting up there,” said Earnhardt, the Sprint Cup series’ Most Popular Driver for the last 12 years. “It makes me reflect more about my own age than Jeff’s because you still see Jeff as this guy who could race another 10 years as competitive as he is, so you don’t look at him and say, ‘Man he’s old.’
“Certain factors sort of play into what makes that decision (to retire), and I think his children play a big role in that. … Right now I can’t see anything cropping up around me, and hopefully they won’t for a while.”
Still, Earnhardt, the defending Daytona 500 champion, says it’s strange that he witnessed Gordon’s entire Sprint Cup career and will be on the track as his teammate for the end of it.
Time goes by so fast, and careers eventually have to end for even the greatest athletes.
“It’s weird,” said Earnhardt, a huge NFL fan. “I think about that with football players a lot. I remember when Peyton Manning was a rookie. It just seems like it was 10 years ago, when it’s more than that. It just seems amazing to think that guys like Peyton and Drew Brees came into the NFL and they’re nearing the end of their careers.
“It’s crazy to see Joe Montana in these commercials and he’s an aged man, and you remember when he was this young, athletic quarterback playing on your television screen.
“It reminds you how long you’ve been around, and it kind of makes you look at yourself in the mirror and realize how old you are. Makes me feel old anyways.”
Despite reaching the big 4-0 last Oct. 10, Earnhardt won four Sprint Cup races in 2014, starting with his second Daytona 500 win. That marked the first time he’s won more than one race in a season since 2004, when he won six times.
And he qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the fourth straight season, finishing eighth.
Repeating as Daytona 500 champion will be no easy feat. No driver has won The Great American Race in back-to-back years since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95.
“I feel confident about what we did last year and that we can come in and be competitive, and we should be competitive in the equipment we’ve got,” Earnhardt said. “I’ll get out there and make all the good decisions I can in the draft and put myself up toward the front and try to work hard to stay there and be mentally disciplined to fend off the challenges and all the stuff we did in the race last year.
“A lot of decisions we made on the race track (led) to us winning that race, and I’ve got to be disciplined in myself to fight for those positions and not get too relaxed in the car and try to stay up on the wheel.”
Earnhardt is also working with a new crew chief in Greg Ives, who replaced Steve Letarte, now an analyst for NBC Sports’ NASCAR coverage. Ives was the crew chief for Chase Elliott’s car that won the Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series last season for Earnhardt’s JR Motorsports.
Their No. 88 Chevrolet did not pass post-qualifying inspection for the Daytona 500 because the ride heights were too low, and Earnhardt, who finished 10th in qualifying, will now start from the 25th position in his Budweiser Duels qualifying race tonight.
But Earnhardt has confidence in Ives’ ability to handle the pressure and limelight of being his crew chief.
“I think he has a tough mental attitude,” said Earnhardt, who made the daytime talk show rounds this week, appearing on both the “Kelly and Michael” and “Rachael Ray” shows. “He focuses real hard on his work, and I don’t think he really will be too affected by anything on the outside.
“I feel like we’re starting from scratch here at Daytona and trying to build that communication and trust and starting to understand how we can talk and communicate and work together.”