Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retire after 2017 season

Dale Earnhardt Jr. — the face of NASCAR for more than a decade — will retire at the end of the 2017 season.

The announcement came from his ownership team, Hendrick Motorsports, Tuesday morning. It was stunning but not totally unexpected given the concussion issues that have plagued Earnhardt, and the changing personal dynamics now that he is married and wants to start a family.

The team has announced a press conference for Tuesday afternoon to discuss the decision to walk away. Earnhardt will be joined by Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, for whom Earnhardt has driven since 2008. The press release said that the two first met about the driver’s decision on March 29.

Earnhardt, 42, has been voted by fans as NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver a record 14 consecutive years. He has qualified for the NASCAR playoffs eight times, but did not qualify last season after missing half of the races while recovering from a concussion.

His health concerns have made Earnhardt a very introspective man. And a wise one, allowing others to make the decision for him whether it was prudent for him to return to racing this season.

“I got real close to not being able to compete and it being someone else’s decision whether I competed or not,” he said in February. “People have asked me since I turned 40 when I would retire and all I wanted to do was make that choice myself. I don’t know when I’m going to stop racing, but I want to able to make that choice and not have it made for me.”

He has already said he is going to donate his brain to science in March, prompted by a Twitter thread with fans that included a link to an article on three former Oakland Raiders who also offered to donate their brain to science in honor of teammate Ken Stabler.

“Why? What use is it to you at that point? I’m gonna donate mine,” Earnhardt tweeted.

Earnhardt has 26 victories in the Monster Energy Cup series but has not won since 2015.

Still, his popularity and ability to connect with fans has made him a huge star in a sport that has been struggling to regain its groove since it hit a peak in the late 1990s.

“Dale Jr. has had a huge impact on our sport — and you can see that every week with his legion of fans and Junior Nation,” said Jeff Gordon, a former teammate and one of the drivers who contributed to the rise in NASCAR’s popularity. “He has a tremendous sense of the history of NASCAR and, while he shares his father’s name, Dale has made a name for himself with his accomplishments in racing.”

Earnhardt’s career is forever marked by the tragic circumstances involving the death of his father, Dale Earnhardt, who died on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001.

“We all knew this was coming, but I thought the horizon was farther out and that he might drive for another season or two,” said Mike Joy, lap-by-lap NASCAR voice of Fox Sports. “I am happy for Dale Jr. because I’m sure it is a decision he has weighed heavily over quite a long time, and it’s one he is comfortable enough with to announce now and go through an entire season of well-wishes from others.”