Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final season behind the wheel hasn’t played out like many expected.
Following two of the best years of his career before being sidelined due to a concussion in 2016, the No. 88 team eyed a return to championship form in 2017.
However, consistent struggles have now placed the team well outside the Playoff picture.
With the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season coming to a close on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway, it’s looking unlikely that the Hendrick Motorsports driver will compete for the championship for a final time.
Instead, it has been an uncharacteristic year for the 42-year-old. Earnhardt Jr. has only scored one top-five and four top-10 finishes through 25 races, both career lows.
With 11 events remaining, he has time to improve; but without a victory at Richmond, he won’t be in the championship conversation.
However the Federated Auto Parts 400 unfolds, it won’t define his exit from the sport as a full-time competitor.
While earning a Playoff spot is a major accomplishment each season, the focus for Earnhardt Jr. is on the bigger picture of bringing his career to a close.
“It has been a big relief to finally have an end date and a decision made and knowing that is it,” Earnhardt Jr. said.
Announcing his retirement in April has allowed this season to be more about enjoying the ride. Despite the struggles, the reaction off-track has been encouraging.
“The reaction from the fans and everything that I’ve experienced from week to week has been really uplifting,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It’s been a positive, fun experience. You know the results are not great, but I’ve dealt with that in my career in the past.”
His season has been reminiscent of 2009 and 2010 when he also faced significant struggles and never gained a footing to emerge as a consistent threat. Having been in this position before, it provides a mindset for Earnhardt Jr. to work through.
“I know how to deal with that emotionally and personally, and I know how to work through it,” he said. “So, that has not been that difficult, to be honest with you.”
Richmond is one of four tracks on the schedule where Earnhardt Jr. has visited Victory Lane three or more times, leaving the door open for a win. He will start tonight’s event from the 21st position.
While unlikely, it’s still possible that he could compete for the title. However, it won’t change his perspective on the season nor deter his approach in the final races.
It has been about more than performance for Earnhardt Jr. this season, and away from the track, it continues to be a successful and appreciative final year.
“So, I’ve really enjoyed it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I think that hopefully, it is enjoyable all the way to the very end.”
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