It’s the final ride for one of NASCAR’s legends, Dale Earnhardt Jr., a racer who over his career managed to emerge from the shadow of his larger-than-life father to become both a damned good racer himself and the point man for what social media can do in sports.
Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Earnhardt will run one last Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, this one appropriately trimmed out in the Budweiser colors he ran early in his career.
It will be an emotional day, for sure, for both Earnhardt and his millions of JR Nation fans, but in the end, he will leave on his own terms, the biggest star in a sport filled with them.
And he wants to end strong, despite having to start from the back of the field because of an engine change.
“I’d like to finish the race in one piece, whatever that is,” Earnhardt said Friday at Homestead. “Obviously, you want to do as well as you can. But no matter where we finish, (I’d just like) to be able to pull down pit road, stop the car, and get out. And then, see my guys and do all that. It would be a bit of a heartbreaker if we have any kind of issue that would take us out of the event and not be able to finish.”
Earnhardt is definitely at peace with his decision to wrap up his career.
“No, I don’t need to reconsider. This is great timing for me,” he said. “It’s time for somebody else to get in that car and get out of it what they can. And with Alex (Bowman, Earnhardt’s replacement in 2018) coming in behind, it’s just a great opportunity for him.
“It’s his time. It’s now his moment going into next season to take his career wherever he can go,” Earnhardt said. “And mine, in my heart, has ran its course. I’ve felt very good about that decision before the race in Daytona started in February, that this was it. And I was more thankful to be able to compete this year than I was to ever question whether I should go farther.
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As the son of the late Dale Earnhardt, Junior came into the sport with almost unattainable expectations: His father won seven Cup championships and 76 races, and was the true cock of the walk in the NASCAR garage. In a sport filled with alpha males, the senior Earnhardt was the biggest and baddest of them all.
But the elder Earnhardt perished in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. Overnight, Earnhardt Jr. acquired the overwhelming majority of his late father’s fans to go with his own considerable fan base– not to mention an amount of pressure and expectations that might have crushed a lesser man.
At the time of his father’s passing, the younger Earnhardt was only in his second full season of Cup racing, having won his first race at Texas Motor Speedway in April 2000 and the NASCAR All-Star Race in May.
The two Earnhardts couldn’t have been more different: Daddy was The Intimidator and the Man In Black, a former linthead who escaped the mill town of Kannapolis, N.C., to become a blue-collar Everyman and hero to millions.
In terms of personality, Earnhardt Jr. is much more quiet, humble and introspective. Tellingly, he describes himself in his Twitter bio as “Former backup fullback for Mooresville Blue Devils varsity soccer. Retired automotive service mechanic. Aspiring BBQ Pitmaster. Friends, Music, Beer!”
What the two shared was deep loyalty to family, close friends and their race teams. When Earnhardt Jr. announced earlier this year that he was retiring, he was worried about his team members.
“It’s really emotional,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I just don’t like letting people down and worry about disappointing my boss and my friend (Rick Hendrick), and my crew. These guys, we all depend on each other to be there every day, and to come in and say I’m not going to be here one day is very difficult. We all kind of wish we could stay together forever.”
In terms of his on-track performance, Earnhardt Jr. has put up solid but not spectacular numbers. Heading into Homestead, he has 26 victories, 149 top fives, 260 top 10s and 15 poles in 630 starts. Included in those totals are two Daytona 500 triumphs in 2004 and 2014, as well as 10 restrictor-plate wins, a total that trails only five NASCAR Hall of Famers: The elder Earnhardt (13), Cale Yarborough (12), Jeff Gordon (12), Richard Petty (12) and David Pearson (11).
Earnhardt Jr. also has eight non-points wins (five in the Daytona 500 qualifying Duels, two in The Clash and one All-Star Race victory) and has qualified for the NASCAR playoffs eight times.
There have been harrowing moments for Earnhardt Jr. on track, too: He suffered serious burns in a sports car race at Sonoma Raceway in 2003 when his Corvette crashed and burst into flames.
On top of that, Earnhardt Jr. twice was sidelined by concussions, the second time causing him to miss the entire second half of the 2016 NASCAR season.
Still, the numbers are there for Earnhardt Jr. His 26 victories are more than NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers Terry Labonte, Curtis Turner or Fireball Roberts achieved in their respective careers.
In addition, Earnhardt Jr. won the National Motorsports Press Association Most Popular Driver award for 14 consecutive years. Besides that, Earnhardt’s popularity transcended the sport and captivated mainstream culture.
According to Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt Jr. has appeared on more than 150 magazine covers and has been featured in high-profile publications such as Maxim, Rolling Stone, GQ, Men’s Journal, Sports Illustrated, People Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Fitness and TV Guide. He was also a presenter at the 43rd annual Country Music Awards in 2009, and the 2002 MTV Music Awards, and has been a guest on many TV shows, including “60 Minutes,” “The Late Show with David Letterman,” “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” “The Today Show,” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”
But maybe the most fascinating part of Earnhardt Jr.’s career has been watching him grow up in public. When team owner Rick Hendrick moved Earnhardt Jr. into the Hendrick Motorsports garage with Jimmie Johnson, he started getting serious about his work habits and physical fitness, two things he didn’t pay much attention to when he drove for his father’s Dale Earnhardt Inc. team.
More significant, perhaps, was his marriage to the former Amy Reimann. There is no question that the relationship has done great things for Earnhardt Jr. And the couple is expecting their first child, a little girl.
“I wish I would have figured this all out sooner,” he said. “I’m frustrated with myself that I took so long to grow up because I have an amazing wife and she’s changed my life. She’s really helped me as a person to become better on all fronts – personally, and all my friendships with people and how I react to people and treat people. And, obviously, in my professional life she’s helped me as a driver.”
Earnhardt has become a good teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, too, and a friend to his fellow drivers.
“Going through all the things he’s gone through and to still be the person he is today, it would be so easy to go off down a bad path in his situation and going through the things he went through and having the opportunities he had,” said Chase Elliott, himself the son of a racing legend. “It would be easy to not treat people right or do things wrong. I commend him for his efforts there in doing things the right way over the years from when he started all the way to now.”
Along with marriage and fitness, social media has dramatically changed Earnhardt Jr.’s life. After each race, Earnhardt Jr. goes on Periscope to talk about his day and it is no holds barred: He is brutally honest about whatever shortcomings he and his team might have had that day. His Dale Jr. Download weekly podcast is great, too.
“The only way to really do that (social media) is for that driver to be able to expose himself, be open and be genuine,” said Earnhardt. “ … All the guys my age, we had to learn how to use social media. I was obviously really apprehensive going into that, but I understand now what an incredible tool it is for interacting with the fans and how much our industry really utilizes that. It’s important for me to be a part of that.”
That authenticity has endeared him to sponsors, teammates and especially fans. I asked Earnhardt about his transparency with fans and whether it was hard to be that open. His answer to me was simple: “I’d rather they (fans) hear it from me” instead of draw their own conclusions about what he might be thinking.
Next year will mark a transition for Earnhardt and for NASCAR. He will still be active with the championship-caliber NASCAR XFINITY Series team he and sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller have built, and in the second half of the year, Earnhardt Jr. will be in the NBC TV booth.
As for the end of his driving career, Earnhardt said he’s been blown away by the support he’s gotten in his final season.
“It’s just really overwhelming. It makes your heart full,” said Earnhardt. “I’m having a hard time trying to put my emotions and thoughts into words. Usually I’m pretty decent at it. But that part of it you’ll never forget. When somebody tells you how much they appreciate you, that means the world to you to hear that. It’s good.”
Trust this much Dale: Your fans appreciate you, and so does the entire NASCAR community. Good luck on Sunday and thanks for everything you’ve done for the sport.