Dale Earnhardt Jr., who soldiered on in the sport after the death of his father, a NASCAR icon, has decided to retire after the 2017 season.
He said he told Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick of his decision March 29.
"I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms," Earnhardt said Tuesday. "I wanted to honor my commitment to Rick, to my sponsors, to my team, to the fans.
"... I made the decision shortly before I talked to Rick. Every driver thinks about retirement and what they think that looks like for them. I wasn't thinking about it too much until the last couple years. Once I realized how delicate things are, it's something I had to start thinking about quite seriously."
Earnhardt, 42, has 26 wins in 603 starts as part of a likely Hall of Fame career, including Daytona 500 victories in 2004 and 2014. He also has earned 14 consecutive NASCAR Sprint Most Popular Driver awards and remains consistently the top driver when it comes to merchandise sales.
Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of 2016 because of a concussion. He missed two races in 2012 because of two concussions in a six-week stretch.
"I had a lot to think about over the last several months, and I was not sure I would have the opportunity to compete this season," Earnhardt said. "It's been a blessing and it's been a gift to be at the racetrack. ... About 18 months ago, I was on Twitter complaining about 8:30 [a.m.] practices, and I can't wait to do so now.
"I just wanted to be able to make that decision myself on retiring and not have it made for me. I feel healthy."
He also said he felt competitive enough to continue racing. The son of Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time Cup champion, faces the prospect of not winning a Cup championship in his career; Junior has one top-10 finish this year in eight starts and sits 24th in the season standings.
"At a very young age, all I wanted to do was to be able to make a living driving cars," the younger Earnhardt said. "I didn't set goals. I didn't dream of winning championships, Daytona 500s or working with one of the best owners in the business. ... I just wanted to be able to do it.
"I've accomplished way more than I ever dreamed, way more than I ever thought I would accomplish. So I'm good on that front."
The driver described his feeling Tuesday as bittersweet, but he's at peace with the decision.
"My heart loves being in the car. I love driving. I enjoy it as much as I ever have," Earnhardt said Tuesday. "There's a lot about it I really love. It's really emotional. I don't like letting people down, disappointing my boss. We all depend on each other to be there every day.
"To say I'm not going to be here one day is difficult. Because we all wish we could be here forever. I do have ambition to keep working. I don't want to quit working."
Earnhardt said he has plans to run two Xfinity Series races in 2018 for his own team and didn't rule out additional races.
"Dale Earnhardt Jr. is among the most recognizable athletes in the world, unequivocally serving as the sport's most popular driver for more than a decade," NASCAR chairman Brian France said in a statement. "His passion for the sport will leave an impact on NASCAR that will be felt over its entire history. Over his 20-plus year career, Dale has proven himself a leader with a deep commitment to so many areas of the sport -- all the way to its roots.
"We're excited about the next chapter of his NASCAR career and wish him success for the remainder of 2017."
Hendrick Motorsports did not announce a replacement for Earnhardt, whose contract expires at the end of this season. Before suffering a concussion last year, Earnhardt had planned to sign a contract extension. As of a month ago, he said he planned to talk to Hendrick about extending the deal.
Earlier this year, when discussing the sudden decision of Carl Edwards to step out of his car, Earnhardt talked about trying to decide whether to continue racing.
"I think Carl figured out a way to get into a place to make that decision easy," Earnhardt said. "And I can do the same thing when the time comes, and I won't have any regrets. It's not going to be a lot of fun to retire, I can imagine.
"You've seen a lot of people, athletes, retire in the past. It seems a very difficult statement to make, a very difficult press conference to have. But when I'm ready to do that, I'll be making that decision knowing it's the right thing to do."
Three weeks ago Earnhardt said he had no lingering effects from the concussions.
"We couldn't be out on the track if we had anything hanging on. I wouldn't want to be out there, and I would be forthcoming and transparent with my doctors if we needed to work on anything," Earnhardt said. "I felt great for many, many months now, and I'm happy about that. We've been through a handful of races now and didn't have any issues whatsoever."
There were times when Earnhardt didn't think he would ever race again last year.
"There was a lot of time in there during the recovery, where there were days where I was 90 percent sure I wasn't going to drive again," Earnhardt said before the 2017 Daytona 500. "There were days where it was 50 percent. ... [In November], I couldn't put one foot in front of the other without falling over like a drunk driving test. I couldn't take one step without having to step to the right or step to the left to catch myself."
Last year, Earnhardt at first thought that he had suffered a sinus infection but then continued to have issues with balance and nausea. He realized that he might have suffered concussions in wrecks on June 12 at Michigan and July 2 at Daytona.
Neither wreck was a particularly hard hit when compared to his more violent 2012 crashes, but because Earnhardt showed enough continual symptoms of concussions, another hit could have resulted in a serious head injury. After the July 9 race at Kentucky, he sat out the rest of the season.
Earnhardt might be defined by the 2001 season, when his father died on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Earnhardt had two emotional victories that season, the first in July at Daytona and then in the first NASCAR race after 9/11 at Dover.
That was Earnhardt's second full season driving for a team owned by his father -- and then by his stepmother, Teresa, after his father's death.
When Teresa wouldn't give Earnhardt a piece of team ownership, he left after the 2007 season to drive for Hendrick Motorsports. When Hendrick formed his organization in 1983, he did so with the help of fabricator Robert Gee, Earnhardt's maternal grandfather.
Earnhardt struggled in his first three seasons at Hendrick, winning just one race. After that, he showed improvement. In 2011, his first season with crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt didn't win a race but finished seventh in the points. He won once in 2012, and he finished fifth in the standings in 2013. He won seven races in 2014 and 2015 but didn't make the final round of the new elimination-style Chase. He was on pace to make the Chase again in 2016 before stepping out of the seat.
His best points finish is third, in 2003, the last year before the Chase format was implemented.
Earnhardt's role in the sport goes beyond driving. He also owns a team in the Xfinity Series. The team name, JR Motorsports, initially could not use the name "Jr Motorsports" because he didn't own the rights to his name.
His sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, and Hendrick co-own his Xfinity team.
Earnhardt won two driving titles in the Xfinity Series while driving for his father in 1998 and 1999. He won as a co-owner for Chance 2 Motorsports, which he co-owned with his stepmother, in 2004 and 2005 with driver Martin Truex Jr., and then as a co-owner of JR Motorsports with Chase Elliott as the driver in 2014.
Earnhardt's life revolves around racing, and he has been in the public spotlight from the first time he stepped in a race car. Still he is comfortable living a life unlike that of his father, who was more of an outdoorsman. The younger Earnhardt has a Western town built on his property, a section of woods with damaged race cars -- a race car graveyard of sorts -- and a go-kart track complete with homemade billboards.
His Twitter profile describes Earnhardt: "Retired dealership service mechanic. Former backup fullback for the Mooresville Blue Devils varsity soccer team. Aspiring competition BBQ Pitmaster."
That is pure Earnhardt, not really taking himself as seriously as many of his avid fans do. Since joining Twitter after winning the 2014 Daytona 500, he has interacted heavily with his fans.
Those fans wish they could see him race after this season, but likely won't blame him for his decision.
On a trip to Germany in 2015, Earnhardt proposed to Amy Reimann at a church where his ancestors had worshiped centuries ago. Earnhardt and Reimann married on New Year's Eve.
Amy Earnhardt tweeted: "I'm so proud of Dale for working so hard to get back and even prouder for his courage and self awareness to make the decision to retire. I'm sure God has many other great plans for him and us."
Their life together likely played a role in the decision for Earnhardt, the latest in a series of stars who has stopped competing in NASCAR the last few years -- joining former champions Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Edwards.
When talking about his 600th start last month, Earnhardt reflected on his career, how much he valued the success he had as well as the friendships he has made.
"I think back about the wins, and maybe not even the wins -- some races are really fun and satisfactory, but you are the only one that will remember them because you ran third or fifth or something like that, and they are kind of obscure in most people's minds," Earnhardt said. "I think about winning the All-Star races as a rookie, just how fortunate we were to do that. Winning the Daytona 500 twice.
"I didn't know that I would even win it once and everything that has happened. ... I would have never thought it would have been as good as it has been or as fun as it has been along the way. I have made so many good friends."