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When I was a kid, my racing heroes were David Pearson and A.J. Foyt. I went to Foyt’s last Indianapolis 500. I got to know Pearson while I was writing about the men who succeeded him.

I was driving home from Fenway Park on a New Hampshire NASCAR weekend when I heard on the radio that John Unitas had died. It’s a vivid memory. I had to pull off the road and cry for a while. I felt embarrassed because I thought I was a grown man.

Life went on. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is just retiring. The sport will survive. It might be tough for a while. Others will come along. Millions of fans won’t stop loving Junior, but, assuming they love racing and not just Junior, they’ll get along.

Earnhardt Jr. himself is aiding the process. By announcing now that this is his final season, he is inspiring his fans to come see him race again before he climbs out of No. 88 for the final time. Those fans will be pondering their options even as they try to cheer their hero to one last victory.

The last time NASCAR faced such a turnover was in the mid-1960s in the aftermath of Fireball Roberts’ death. Within a few years, Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett and Fred Lorenzen were among the drivers who hung up their helmets, though Lorenzen tried, unsuccessfully, to come back a few years later.

Jeff Gordon. Tony Stewart. Carl Edwards. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

One hundred ninety-six victories. Seven championships. A wealth of personality.

The way this free enterprise system works is that the market adjusts. As long as kids dream of winning the Daytona 500, some of them will fill the holes. They will take some getting used to. Fans must get to know them. Fans will get to know them.

Kyle Larson is right there. Chase Elliott is right there. Ryan Blaney is close. Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Austin and Ty Dillon, Chris Buescher, Corey LaJoie, Alex Bowman, William Byron and others are trying to crowd their way into the subway before the doors clang shut.

Maybe the next Jimmie Johnson is hiding in that paragraph. Maybe the next Buckshot Jones is.

The stages of recovery are:

(1.) “It’ll never be the same without Junior.”

(2.) “But I do kind of like this Kyle Larson kid.”

(3.) “Go, Kyle, go!”

(4.) “I believe he’s the best I’ve ever seen.”

It’ll start over. It started over after Fireball, and Freddie, and The King, and Senior, and Jeff, and Tony, and it’ll be the same after Junior.

It’s just going to hurt for a while.