On the cusp of his final NASCAR Cup Series start, Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t having regrets about his pending retirement. Instead he is using the weekend to enjoy everything associated with the events surrounding his farewell, which includes a retro paint scheme, spending time with family and close friends, and watching good buddy Martin Truex Jr. try to win his first career championship.
Earnhardt announced in April this would his last as a full-time competitor, but said that only recently has it begun to set in that the end of his career is nearing. The 2017 season concludes Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, representing Earnhardt’s 631st start in NASCAR’s premier division.
“I like the track and I’m glad we are ending on one that I like,” Earnhardt said Friday. “That enjoyment for racing here will keep me engaged because I want to enjoy this weekend. But, also, we want to end well. We want to be competitive. We want to put in a good effort this weekend. That will be fun to try to figure out if we have a competitive car. I look forward to getting to work on it.”
If Earnhardt is to win in his final Cup Series race, he’ll have to come from the back of the pack to do so. An engine failure in the first practice session necessitated a change in power plants, which NASCAR penalizes by requiring teams to relinquish their starting positions. Earnhardt will now lineup 40th on the grid.
While Earnhardt would ideally prefer to go with a win, his stated goal is to be competitive in the Ford 400 and complete all 267 laps. He will have about a dozen family and friends in attendance including his mother, sister, and brother-in-law. There is no elaborate pre-race ceremonies planned, though Earnhardt does have a film crew following him to document the occasion.
“I'd like to finish the race and finish in one piece, wherever that is,” Earnhardt said. “You want to do as well as you can, but no matter where we finish, just pull down pit road [after the race], stop the car and get out and see my guys and do all that. It would be a bit of a heartbreaker if we had any kind of issue that would take us out of the event."
Earnhardt is giving his legion of fans a blast to the past this weekend, as the No. 88 Chevrolet he’s driving is a homage to the famous red-and-black scheme he had when he debuted in the Cup Series in 1999. That season he ran five races before embarking upon a full schedule the following season in a car owned by his late father.
But while Earnhardt is the predominant storyline this weekend, the race is also championship finale of the Cup Series playoffs. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex, Jr. are the four drivers contending for the title, with whoever finishes highest Sunday earning the championship.
Earnhardt is adamantly cheering for Truex to win his first championship. Truex previously drove in the Xfinity Series for a team Earnhardt co-owned, winning the title in consecutive years (2004-05). Even though Truex has joined a different team and rival manufacturer, the two remain good friends, often going hunting in Ohio on land they own together.
“I am Team Martin for this weekend, for sure,” Earnhardt said. “It would just be awesome to see him put his name on that trophy.
“I love spending time with him. We just have a lot of great memories together. He slept on the couch when he first came down here. I let him stay in one of the bedrooms of the house for several months. … Drivers have such big egos, all of us do. But Martin is not on that list. He just doesn’t abuse the opportunity and what the sport has provided him.”