Dale Earnhardt Jr. has no plans to retire in the near future
As Jeff Gordon’s decision to quit driving full time after 2015 continues to be the buzz of the NASCAR world, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. spent several minutes during Thursday afternoon’s final leg of the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour discussing his own future in the sport.
Earnhardt, who turned 40 last October, is three years and two months younger than Gordon and joined NASCAR’s top series in 2000 — seven years after his future teammate.
So Earnhardt has at least three or four more years of full-time driving left in him, if he follows in Gordon’s footsteps.
But unlike Gordon, who is married and a father of two young children, Earnhardt is single and without kids. Also unlike Gordon, who has dealt with back pain on and off for several years, Earnhardt has had no major health issues arise.
"I’d love to win a championship," said Earnhardt, whose best career points finish was third in 2003. "We try every year to win that championship. It’s either in the cards for me or it’s not. I don’t know that I will be affected by it — should it not happen to me — for a long time after my career. But that’s definitely one of the things I’d love to accomplish. Jeff made his decision based on factors in his life, whether it be his health or his kids. And factors in my life will affect the way I look at retirement or look at making a change in my career. Right now I’ve never had more fun driving a race car than I have in the last five years. I didn’t even know I could have this much fun."
Earnhardt is coming off a season when he won four races — the most he’s won in any season besides 2004 when he went to Victory Lane six times as a driver for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
"Last year I felt like a kid," Earnhardt said. "I had the same feeling I would have when I would drive down at Myrtle Beach in my Late Model, or go to Nashville with my Late Model. We were on top of the world having so much fun, and that freedom, per say, came back in the past couple years to just enjoy it and release the pressure and just really have fun driving cars, so that’s made me really think that I can do this a lot longer than I’d imagined. I don’t have any back issues and I don’t have any kids on the way, so I don’t have any factors."
On Thursday, Earnhardt didn’t rule out racing to age 50.
"I don’t know," he said. "It just depends on what life’s like. I don’t know where I’m going to be in the next three years. I’ve got a lot of things I’d love to accomplish outside of racing that I can do while I’m racing, but there’s different things for everybody that changes the way they look at retiring and whether they make a change. I don’t know what those will be for me. I don’t know when they’ll happen."
So how old does the 40-year-old Kannapolis, North Carolina native feel?
"I feel like a 30-year-old, I guess," the third-generation driver said. "I don’t know. I haven’t felt any different in a long, long time. I don’t feel older and, again, I haven’t had anything crop up that’s reminded me of how hold I am. Other than I can’t eat chicken wings and pizza every day like I used to, and I do have to work out — I used to not have to work out but now to make sure I fit in the suit I wore last year I have to make sure (I watch) what I eat during the wintertime and get on the treadmill or something. During the season, the racing sort of beats the calories out of me, and I don’t have to work out too much. I know the older I get, the harder it is to stay the same size and the same weight. I know that for sure."
So provided that no major life changes occur, Earnhardt seems intent on racing beyond 44 — the age Gordon will be when he quits racing full time at the end of this season.
"I want to race as long as I am healthy and as long as I’m in cars that I feel like are competitive, and as long as I feel competitive," Earnhardt said. "I think I’ll stop racing when my health is an issue or I don’t feel like I’m in a competitive car or I feel like that I’ve lost a step. Like a cornerback or wide receiver loses his step as they get into their mid-30s or get older, if I start to feel like I’m not carrying my weight out on the racetrack, I think that you’ll have to take a look at yourself.
"You don’t want to waste anybody’s time out there. You don’t want the team carrying you on the racetrack out there. I feel like this past year we had some really good success and I feel like that I’m getting better in some areas as a driver each year, and my health’s been great. I’ve really had the most fun that I’ve had in a long time in consecutive years. It’s not just because we won four races. I’ve had so much fun driving cars, and I think with that happening, it’s going to be very hard to consider doing anything different."