42-year-old NASCAR icon and 26 time race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. has announced 2017 will be his final season as a professional full time NASCAR driver, bringing to a close an incredible career in the sport. "I just wanted the opportunity to go out on my own terms" said Earnhardt. "I wanted to honor my commitment to Rick (Hendrick), 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." The surprise decision to call time on a professional career lasting more than 602 top level NASCAR starts has come about following a stop / start couple of years for the American driver and son of the legendary Dale Snr. Having been forced to sit out much of 2016 due to concussion, Jr has had time to contemplate his future, and having already passed his fortieth birthday whilst racing in a series that is more than ever attracting young and talented drivers from across America, Earnhardt made the decision early that this would be his final full season in the top flight of American stock car racing. "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." "At a very young age, all I wanted to do was to be able to make a living driving cars," Earnhardt Jr. 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." Despite confirming he will step away from the car at the end of the season, 2017 will likely not be the final time the popular driver will be seen on the racetrack. With a team running under the famous Earnhardt name Jnr has confirmed he plans to run at least two Xfinity Series races next season, with the likelihood that the driver may dip his toes in other motorsport disciplines just to keep the compedetive juices flowing in the coming years. "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." For a individual who has been the recipient of 14 consecutive NASCAR Sprint Most Popular Driver awards and remains consistently as the top driver when it comes to merchandise sales, the announcement made today has left shockwaves across the sport. "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." Who will take over one of the prime NASCAR seats next season remains open to debate with only a quarter of the current season gone, however one thing is for sure is that Earnhardt will be greatly missed by fans, teams and drivers alike when the field rolls off the green flag for the first next season. Dale Earnhardt Jnr is a true NASCAR legend and one of the brightest stars of the sport. Check out the Motorsport Sub Forum here at RaceDepartment for more news and discussions about the world of motorsport. From Formula One to NASCAR, IndyCar, touring cars, rally and GT. RaceDepartment have you covered! Are you sad to see Earnhardt leave NASCAR? Do you think he deserved a championship during his stay in the series? Let us know in the comments section below!