By Isabel Gonzalez
November 19, 2017
HOMESTEAD, Fla.—Dale Earnhardt Jr. woke up at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning and made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He then went back to sleep until 9 a.m.
“This is gonna be a weird day,” read the rest of the tweet that described the beginning of the driver’s last race day.
Earnhardt Jr. did not win the Ford EcoBoost 400, he wasn’t even a contender for the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship, but none of this mattered to anyone at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. The crowd erupted in a sea of cheers during the driver’s final introduction.
Before the race, Junior drove down pit road with members from every crew standing on the side waiting to high-five and thank the driver for everything he’s done for the sport.
Saying his father was a prominent figure in the sport is an understatement, but Jr. did not live under his shadow. He created a name for himself, becoming so well known that he was given the sport’s Most Popular Driver award 14 times, the most among drivers who are currently active.
The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet announced his retirement back in April, saying he wanted to leave the world of racing in his own terms. On Friday morning, Earnhardt Jr. met with the media for one last press conference before running his final Cup race on Sunday.
When asked what he was looking forward to after retirement, he responded with “whatever is next.” The driver said he does not regret his decision and he is looking forward to whatever his future may bring.
Something that has been confirmed since July is the transition he will be making into the broadcasting world next year when he joins the NBC Sports team. A documentary might also be coming up, as Earnhardt Jr. said his team has people documenting everything with footage and pictures.
It’s safe to say he won’t disappear from the spotlight any time soon. Earnhardt Jr. will drive at least two races in the XFINITY Series next year, as he announced this at the same time as his retirement news. He brought up the XFINITY Series again during Friday’s press conference, showing that being behind-the-wheel is still something he looks forward to.
“So, Bob…where is Bob? I have a question man because I don’t even know the rules anymore,” Earnhardt Jr. addressed ESPN reporter Bob Pockrass at the Homestead-Miami Speedway media center. “So, if I retire and then if I want to run the Homestead XFINITY race next year, that is legal for me to do, right?”
To this, Pockrass replied with a comforting answer for those who would enjoy to see Earnhardt Jr. compete in Miami again.
“Yes, technically it is legal—for now,” the reporter said.
Since 1999, Earnhardt Jr. has competed in a total of 631 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races, achieved 26 wins, 149 top-five finishes and 260 top-10 finishes. Almost two decades after his first race, the driver said that given the option, he wouldn’t actually want to change anything from his career. Instead, he would rather keep all the experiences that got him to where he is today.
“If you change something it’s like a domino effect and there’s no telling what else it might alter,” he explained.
Earnhardt Jr. said this was great timing for him and that it was time for someone else to take over. He was referring to Alex Bowman, the 24-year-old who is taking over the No. 88 car next year. Bowman has three years of experience in the Cup Series, the last year being 2016 where he subbed 10 races for Earnhardt Jr.
This weekend was an emotional one for Earnhardt Jr. but he continued with the support of a couple friends and family members who made the trip to see his final race. The now-former cup driver began getting support the moment the news of his retirement broke. Fans have been expressing their admiration in person and through social media. Multiple videos have also been made as a tribute to his career.
“It’s just really overwhelming. It makes your heart full. I’m having a hard time trying to put my emotions and thoughts into words,” he said. “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.”
One of the most powerful tributes came from Budweiser, the former sponsor whose history with the driver inspired the throwback paint scheme Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car had for Sunday’s race.
The video, entitled “One Last Ride,” goes through important moments in Earnhardt Jr.’s career, including his emotional win at the Daytona 400 shortly after his father’s death.
You can follow Isabel Gonzalez on Twitter at @cisabelg.
NASCAR Media Group
Jonny Olkowski/The Racing Experts