With Jeff Gordon having called it quits last year at age 44 and Tony Stewart planning to do so this year at 45, Earnhardt — who will turn 42 in October — is right on the cusp of the window where drivers have recently started mulling thoughts of hanging it up.
So do the decisions of Gordon and Stewart — both friends of Earnhardt’s and two of the sport’s best drivers of all time — have any influence on Earnhardt’s retirement plans?
"I don’t want to ever do it early," Earnhardt said on the recent preseason media tour. "I don’t want to be here too long. You want to feel like the time is right, and they felt like the time is right, and hopefully I’m in the same position. I’ve said before that you want it to be your decision, you don’t want to be knocked out because of health reasons, you don’t want to be fired out of the sport. You want it to be on your terms, and that’s a lot to ask to go out your own way.
"I think those two guys are making the decision they feel is right for them, and hopefully when it feels right for me, I’ll make that decision and not have any regrets."
Since winning just twice from 2007-13, Earnhardt has gone to Victory Lane seven times over the past two seasons. Last season, his first with crew chief Greg Ives, was arguably his best since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.
Based on Earnhardt’s performance over the past few years, and especially in 2014 and 2015, it’s fair to say retirement is actually about the last thing on the third-generation driver’s mind.
"I can’t even consider when it might be, looking into the future, because things are going so well," Earnhardt said. "I’d be a fool to turn this off right now or even think about doing it. I imagine retirement maybe is something you don’t just decide to do. To slow down this machine would take about a two-year plan, wouldn’t you think? I will talk to Jeff and I will talk to Tony about how they went about that decision and how they structured their lives and their finances to make that decision. But I can’t even imagine when that will be, because things are going so well."
Of course, Earnhardt would love nothing more than to snare an elusive first Sprint Cup Series championship before calling it quits. He’s been in the hunt the past two years, but ultimately saw his title hopes end in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Round of 12.
"We’ve got a job to do," Earnhardt said. "Every year we keep getting better and we’re racing better, we’re winning, and I feel like I’ve got to be here for the next step. And when it flat-lines or I feel like I’ve flat-lined or I feel like I’m part of the problem or holding the team back, we’ve got to start thinking about (retiring), but everything’s going in the right direction right now."