01:05 - Source: CNN
Dale Earnhardt Jr. to retire
CNN  — 

NASCAR fans adore Dale Earnhardt Jr. So they were relieved to hear that he and his wife escaped a private jet crash in eastern Tennessee on Thursday without serious injury.

The retired NASCAR driver was voted most popular in 15 consecutive seasons, and can be counted alongside drivers like Richard Petty, Bill Elliott and his father as the most popular in NASCAR history.

Earnhardt never drove a race car to a top-level championship like his famous father, but he won a few big races of his own and suffered through the loss of his dad in the circuit’s most famous and visible race.

Junior, or Dale Jr., as he is frequently called, won 26 Cup Series races in an 18-year career until he called it quits two years ago, citing too many concussions.

Three of those victories came at Daytona International Speedway, including an intensely emotional win in the Pepsi 400 in 2001, a few months after his father was killed on the track during the Daytona 500.

The son was never as successful as his father, who won seven top-level championships in NASCAR and 76 races, but Junior drew from his dad’s expansive fan base, and attracted new fans with his down-to-earth attitude and his ability to race to the front at longer tracks like Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona.

In 2014, he told CNN he had learned to cope with his father’s death.

“That’s a memory that, I can’t help but not think about it,” he said. “I think about it, and I’m comfortable thinking about it. I’m comfortable with how things went down. I believe that things happen for a reason, and that was his – that was his deal. That was his time.

“And as upset as I was, you know, how am I going to live without my daddy, you know? What am I going to do? How am I going to make these decisions? I stopped and I said, you know, ‘I’ve got to feel lucky that he’s put me in this position that I’m in.’”

Earnhardt made his Cup Series debut on May 30, 1999, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He won his first race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2000.

He drove for two teams in his Cup career, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated and Hendrick Motorsports. In his best season – points wise – he won two races and finished third in the 2003 standings. The next season he won a career-high six races.

Earnhardt Jr. missed the last half of the 2016 season from the effects of a concussion.

CNN’s David Close contributed to this report.