MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. turned 42 Monday and with each birthday past the 40th, the question to any driver becomes how much longer they will race.
Earnhardt’s situation is a bit different than most athletes as he recovers from a concussion that has kept him out of the car since after the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway. Earnhardt plans to be back for the start of next season at Daytona International Speedway, but how many more years does he have left as a driver?
“I don’t know,’’ Earnhardt said Wednesday at Martinsville Speedway for the track’s announcement that it will install lights after this season. “Some guys, Jeff (Gordon) was really good and strong (when) he was 43, he probably could have went a couple of more years. (Greg) Biffle has had some good years and he’s 46 now. I don’t know if age is really a factor, it’s really about the passion you have for it, if you get can get out of bed and get up on the wheel and want to do it.’’
Gordon retired last season at age 44, competing for the championship in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway before returning this year to fill in as a substitute for Earnhardt. Tony Stewart, who made the Chase this year, will retire from the Sprint Cup Series after this season at age 45.
Age, though, shouldn’t be viewed as a key factor for deciding when to retire, Earnhardt said. He says something else is more important.
“When you get up and don’t want it as much as the next guy, you’ve got to start thinking whether you belong there, whether the team deserves that kind of commitment,’’ said the two-time Daytona 500 winner. “The team is going to go in there and work their guts out. They need a driver with the same attitude. Anytime you feel like that maybe you don’t have that attitude, you need to start thinking about letting somebody else get in there and giving the team the opportunity. That’s what I think about.
“I don’t know why some guys’ careers fade. I think it’s different reasons, different circumstances, the cars, the team, the organization maybe, but also the passion to do it because it takes a ton to really want to get up on the wheel and race as hard as you’ve got to race every weekend. It came real easy when you’re young, but the older you get it’s a little bit harder. Them young guys, man, they’re coming into the sport wide open and it’s getting harder and harder to be able to keep up with them.’’
So how does Earnhardt feel in being able to keep up with the younger drivers?
“I feel good,’’ he said. “I feel young. I feel younger than my years. As long as you have the passion and the commitment to do what have you have to do, not just on Sunday and Friday and Saturday but during the week, there’s a lot of commitments not only with sponsors, but you got meetings and you’ve got to be at the shop and you’ve got to make yourself available and accountable with the team and there’re just so much to it that goes to being successful.
“If you don’t have the passion for that, then you probably don’t need to be wasting anybody’s time. I think that’s probably what happens, you sort of lose that want to be able to get up and go do it.’’