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NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. waves to the crowd during driver introductions prior to the start of the 59th Annual NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway on February 26, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Alex Menendez—AP

He never won his sport’s top title. But the championship drought did nothing to thwart the love NASCAR fans had for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who announced on April 25 that he’s retiring from racing after this season. He’s won the Most Popular Driver Award for 14 years running. As the son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt, he both inherited his fame and earned it. In 2001, he won a race at Daytona five months after his dad died in a crash there. With his down-home Southern drawl, Earnhardt Jr. never lost his everyman vibe. NASCAR attendance and ratings have slumped, and the sport can ill afford to lose its biggest draw. Junior, however, has pledged to stay involved in auto racing. NASCAR needs him, even out of the driver’s seat.

This appears in the May 15, 2017 issue of TIME.

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