HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. bounded out of the media center and was instantly swarmed by fans snapping photos and shoving Sharpies in his face. Earnhardt was tailed until he walked up the steps to another TV interview.
“Did you see him?” a man yelled as more fans arrived a few strides too late to reach NASCAR’s most popular driver.
The chance to catch him is winding down.
Earnhardt will retire Sunday, ending a career that saw him emerge from his father’s intimidating shadow and grow into NASCAR’s favorite son over 18 full seasons. Hilarious and heartfelt, his folksy charm endeared him to the millions that comprised “Junior Nation ” and made him a household name to the casual fan recognizing Earnhardt simply as NASCAR’s top pitchman.
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Earnhardt has one final destination on his farewell tour, at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a track that over the last two years also helped the sport bid farewell to NASCAR greats Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. His legacy will be different, not simply because Earnhardt never won a championship. If anything, he was more beloved as an ambassador of the sport than any driver of his era.
The 20-something Earnhardt who retreated into his motorhome to play video games all night has matured into a 43-year-old man who will be flanked Sunday by his pregnant wife, his mother and sister before he slides into the No. 88 Chevrolet one last time.
“There’s a whole other world out there waiting for him,” sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller said. “There’s his marriage and having a baby and doing other things in life, either professionally or personally that he hasn’t been able to do. He’ll have time for them now. It’s exciting.”
Earnhardt’s finale hit a bump Friday — he’ll start from the rear of the field because of an engine change in the Chevys. His one wish was to end the race on his terms .
“It would be a bit of a heartbreaker if we have the kind of issue that would take us out of an event and we couldn’t finish,” he said.
Earnhardt, dressed in a red T-shirt and red cap of his race sponsor, was at ease as he reflected on the end of career that started May 30, 1999, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He finished 16th — dad was sixth — and he soon started his perpetual grip on NASCAR’s most popular driver award.
Earnhardt cracked jokes, quizzed his eligibility to race in an Xfinity race with a reporter and spoke with some regret on the misspent years early in his career.
“There were days when I would come into the garage to practice and everybody was in their cars pulling out of their stalls and I’m just walking in,” he said. “And, nothing was wrong with that, you know, in my mind. That’s crazy. I mean, you’d be fired in this day and time if a driver was that carefree about it. It didn’t seem to matter.”
He maintained much of that spirit even though he shaped up and ditched the lazy habits and shirttail-hanging-out wardrobe he kept at Dale Earnhardt Inc. when he joined the more buttoned-down operation at Hendrick Motorsports.
Earnhardt has driven for team owner Rick Hendrick since 2008 after he split DEI, the team founded by his father but run by his stepmother. He was unhappy with the direction of DEI since his father’s 2001 death in a last-lap accident at the Daytona 500, and a frosty relationship with his stepmother led him to bolt to NASCAR’s most powerful team.
He won a Daytona 500 with each team, and 26 races overall. But he never won a Cup championship, or came close in achievements to matching his late Hall of Fame father, Dale, who won seven titles and was known as “The Intimidator.”
A third-generation driver, Earnhardt wanted to win a title for himself, Hendrick and the legion of fans who have idolized him for a generation. Earnhardt has been feted with charitable donations, his father’s race car, a barrel of pickles and numerous video tributes from tracks, sponsors and teams. Budweiser , his sponsor at DEI, aired a tear-jerking appreciation of his days in the No. 8 car.
“They were all very emotional. Amy is the one that’s obviously the most emotional, with being pregnant and everything, so they’ve really been hitting her,” he said, laughing.
Earnhardt, who says he’s healthy and feels good in the wake of concussions that cost him 20 career races, wants some of those memories on home video and hired a photographer to shoot the final weekend and has a camera crew filming in preparation for a potential documentary.
While the sport has all eyes on Earnhardt, his are on two more parting gifts: JR Motorsports can win an Xfinity Series championship on Saturday and hunting buddy Martin Truex Jr. is the favorite to win the Cup championship on Sunday.
“I’m Team Martin this weekend, for sure,” Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt’s not quite ready for a complete uncoupling from NASCAR: He has two or three Xfinity races planned for next season and tossed out the Homestead finale in 2018 as a potential race.
He’ll still be around at the track with his Xfinity teams and his job in the NBC Sports broadcast booth. Alex Bowman takes over his ride in 2018.
Outside of his family, Earnhardt will have his flock of fans pulling for him one final time in the 88.
“I thing going to Daytona next year, I’ll still be coming to terms about what it looks like without Dale on the race track,” Earnhardt Miller said. “I’m sad about it in terms of, it’s what we’ve known, it’s what our family’s done. It’s all that we’ve lived through and worked through in our lives with losing our dad, starting JR Motorsports and all the fun and different things we got to accomplish.”
It’s not over yet — but it’s getting there.
“We want to enjoy this weekend,” Earnhardt said, “but we want to end well.”
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