Dale Earnhardt Jr. speaks to USA TODAY Sports about his legacy, his incredible fan support and his future. USA TODAY Sports
A look at highlights from Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s career in NASCAR, from his first victory to all those most popular driver awards:
1996: At 21, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his NASCAR national touring series debut in the Xfinity Series. Driving the No. 31 Mom ‘n’ Pop’s Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt Inc., he qualified seventh and finished 14th at Myrtle Beach Speedway.
1998: He won his first Xfinity Series race in his 16th start, at Texas Motor Speedway. This victory led Earnhardt to believe he could race professionally and pursue his passion as a career. He reeled off six more victories en route to his first Xfinity Series championship, his first major title.
1999: Earnhardt made his Sprint Cup Series debut with the No. 8 Chevrolet in May at NASCAR's longest race — the Coca-Cola 600 — at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He finished 16th. Despite a slow start in the Xfinity Series season, with no wins in the first 14 events, he made a comeback with six victories — including three in a row — 18 top-fives and 22 top-10s, to capture the championship in his second and final full-time year on the circuit.
2000: Earnhardt ran his first full-time season in Cup and scored his first victory at Texas. He followed that, with wins at Richmond International Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he became the first rookie to win NASCAR’s All-Star race. He finished his rookie season with two wins, three top-fives, five top-10s, two poles, finishing 16th in points.
2001: His father and namesake, racing legend and seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr., died Feb. 18, 2001, in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. Earnhardt Jr. raced the entire season and when the circuit returned to Daytona International Speedway in July, he won an emotional Pepsi 400 and dedicated the race to his dad. He also won at Dover International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway later that year. He finished eighth in the standings.
2002: Earnhardt swept the races at Talladega for his only victories on the Cup circuit, establishing himself as an excellent restrictor-plate racer. He also won two of the three Xfinity Series races he entered, at Daytona and Richmond.
2003: Earnhardt set a record by winning his fourth consecutive Cup race at Talladega, the circuit's biggest track, in April. He also won twice at Daytona, in the Budweiser Shootout and a Daytona 500 qualifying race. His win at Phoenix International Raceway in the fall helped cap a season with two wins, 13 top-fives and 21 top-10s. He finished third in the standings, the highest of his career. Fans voted him the Most Popular Driver, an award he has won every year since.
2004: Earnhardt notched one of the biggest victories of his career when he won the Daytona 500, earning $1.5 million and the Harley J. Earl trophy. He went on to win at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Richmond, Bristol Motor Speedway, Talladega and Phoenix. He qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup in the first year of the playoff and finished sixth overall. As a team co-owner with DEI for Martin Truex Jr.'s Xfinity car, he won his first title as an owner.
2005: His sole win came at Chicagoland Speedway, and he missed the Chase, finishing 19th in the standings — his lowest result to date. As a team owner, he won the Xfinity Series championship for the second year in a row.
2006: Earnhardt continued to show his prowess at Richmond, taking his third victory at the track in May after starting 10th but falling back to 28th place at the start. It was his only win of the season.
2007: Earnhardt left DEI after eight years at the end of a winless season and joined Hendrick Motorsports.
PHOTOS: DALE EARNHARDT JR. THROUGH THE YEARS
2008: With a new team, sponsor and car number — he left Budweiser and the No. 8 behind — Earnhardt moved to the No. 88 with the National Guard/AMP Energy. He won the Budweiser Shootout and one of the Gatorade Duels, both at Daytona. He also won at Michigan International Speedway — snapping a 76-race winless streak. He ended the season with 10 top-fives and 16 top-10s and qualified for the Chase, finishing 12th, in his first year with Hendrick.
2010: He brought back his dad’s iconic No. 3 for an Xfinity Series race at Daytona. He won the race as a tribute to his father, but said he wouldn't race the No. 3 again.
2011: After three seasons with cousin Tony Eury Jr. or Lance McGrew atop his pit box at Hendrick, team owner Rick Hendrick made a change and assigned crew chief Steve Letarte to Earnhardt and the No. 88.
2012: Michigan again was the site of a triumph that snapped a winless streak. The June victory was Earnhardt's first in four years — a stretch of 143 races. And his relationship with Letarte was blossoming. After a wreck at Talladega in October — the second hard hit he had taken in six weeks — Earnhardt was diagnosed with a concussion and sat out two races.
2013: Earnhardt made his 500th Cup start in October, at Charlotte. He didn't win any races, but made the Chase based on 10 top-fives and 22 top-10s. He finished fifth, his best result since 2003.
2014: He won the Daytona 500 for the second time, giving him his 20th career victory. Earnhardt then swept at Pocono Raceway, winning in June and August. He qualified for the Chase and many believed he had his best shot to date at a title, but he was knocked out of the playoff at Talladega after the second round under NASCAR's new elimination-style format. His successful season continued when he earned his first-ever victory at Martinsville Speedway the following week. Earnhardt also received the Myers Brothers Award, which honors those who have provided outstanding contributions in stock car racing. Letarte left the team after the season to pursue a broadcasting career. Meanwhile, Earnhardt won another Xfinity title as a team owner, this time with JR Motorsports and Chase Elliott.
2015: Greg Ives replaced Letarte and Earnhardt continued his recent success, winning the Budweiser Duel and Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. He also won again at Talladega and at Phoenix, which ended early due to a storm. He finished 12th in the standings.
2016: He won the Budweiser Duel for the second year in a row. Hendrick Motorsports announced July 14 that Earnhardt would sit out at New Hampshire Motor Speedway after struggling with "concussion-like symptoms." Alex Bowman filled in in the No. 88 Chevrolet. During a news conference at Pocono on Aug. 5, Earnhardt said he had a concussion. He also stated his desire to return and complete his contract with Hendrick. He continued to sit out and Jeff Gordon and Bowman filled in. Gordon came out of retirement to do so.
Sept. 2, 2016: Hendrick Motorsports announced Earnhardt would sit the rest of the season - 12 more races after sitting out six - while recovering from his concussion.
Feb. 26, 2017: Earnhardt returns to competition in his first Cup race, finishing 37th in the Daytona 500.
April 9, 2017: Finishes fifth at Texas Motor Speedway for his best finish so far in his return.
April 25, 2017: He announces he will retire from NASCAR competition at the end of the 2017 season.
June 30, 2017: Wins the pole for the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, the 14th pole of his Cup career.
Oct. 14, 2017: Wins the pole for his final Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway — a track where he has won six times in NASCAR's top series.
Sources: racing-reference.info; dalejr.com
PHOTOS: DALE EARNHARDT JR.'s RETIREMENT TOUR