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Dale Earnhardt Jr. ready for one-off XFINITY Series race at Richmond Raceway

Dale Earnhardt Jr. converses with his crew after XFINITY Series practice Friday morning. Photo: Austin McFadden/TRE.

RICHMOND, Va. — For the first time since he retired from full-time NASCAR competition last November, since he signed with NBC Sports as a multi-purpose analyst, and since he entered fatherhood, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back in a stock car.

NASCAR’s 15-time most popular driver will race in tonight’s XFINITY Series GoBowling 250 at Richmond Raceway in his own equipment, a special one-off deal with Hellmann’s that helps fill sponsorship throughout JR Motorsports. The deal was set in stone the year before he decided on retiring after the 2017 season.

At first, Earnhardt Jr. didn’t have much excitement toward his racing return. And who could blame him: NASCAR’s most adored and scrutinized figure had found peace with his broadcasting gig and, more importantly, as a father.

But after a recent test session in a Late Model stock at Hickory Speedway, an old NASCAR-sanctioned track not far from his native Moorseville in North Carolina, that enthusiasm and itch reinstated within Earnhardt like a shot in the arm.

“It’ll be a busy weekend for me. Not something I’d want to be doing often, but there’s a little itch to scratch, and I’m looking forward to having this opportunity to race a little bit, to have some fun,” Earnhardt Jr. said in a recent interview with Autosport.

Earnhardt Jr.’s last NASCAR win actually came at Richmond in the spring of 2016, when he won the XFINITY race after leading 128 of 149 laps. In seven XFINITY Series starts at the 0.75-mile oval, Earnhardt Jr. has four wins and an average finish of 6.4.

Clearly, past success sets Earnhardt Jr. up for a triumphant night prospectively, but winning isn’t the No. 1 thing on his mind: it’s having fun and completing all the laps.

“I’m tempering my expectations as far as the performance goes and just trying to make sure that I enjoy it,” Earnhardt told Scott Allen of The Washington Post earlier this week. “You race all your life and it’s real easy to get wrapped up in being competitive and wanting to win and being fast every single lap. You sap a little bit of the enjoyment out of it because you put so much pressure on yourself to excel. I’m not going to do that at this age and this point in my life, but we’re going to have fun.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. in action on Friday morning at Richmond Raceway. Photo: Austin McFadden/TRE.

Elliott Sadler, who drives for JR Motorsports in the XFINITY Series, says that statement is certainly how Earnardt Jr. feels but it’s also a downplay. JR Motorsports houses the hottest XFINITY Series crew in Justin Allgaier, winner of three of the last seven — a span he’s finished no worse than seventh. In total, Earnhardt’s team has won six of 26 XFINITY Series races.

The speed was there throughout Friday. Earnhardt Jr. was fifth-fastest in first practice at 120.283 MPH (22.447 seconds, 0.106 off Christopher Bell, who was the quickest in the first session). Earnhardt Jr. was 16th in the second and final practice, but he only logged six circuits — the third-least of the 29 drivers who logged laps — because of a rain-shower that cut practice time from 45 minutes to just seven.

Nonetheless, though, fans and even JR Motorsports drivers are ready for Earnhardt Jr.’s return.

“The one thing I enjoy about Dale that I enjoy watching is he’s seen a lot of stuff from the TV booth that he didn’t necessarily see as a racer, or doing your job,” Allgaier said. “We get caught up in going to the car, getting in the car, doing our thing, we have other stuff we have going on, but we don’t see anything other than what we’re doing. We’re looking at lap times, but you’re not really seeing the grand picture. And for Dale, that’s been cool.”

Two weeks ago at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. said Richmond “may be the last time I drive a car.” But in a recent interview with The Washington Post, Earnhardt Jr. projected a different outlook.

“It’s about a 90 percent chance that I’ll run another race next year,” Earnhardt Jr. told The Washington Post. “It’s probably a 90 percent chance that it’ll only be one event in the entire season. … With the challenges we have to fill out sponsorships and have every race for each of those cars sponsored for the entire season, this helps. This is a way for us to leverage me driving the car against getting those other cars fully sponsored. I’m not actively looking for races to run, or trying to put together one-race deals. I’d like to put together a deal where I run a race and they sponsor 10 more races on the other cars so we get them filled out. That makes it worth it for me to do it. Not only am I going to have a little fun driving the car, but I’m helping our company, and it helps our bottom line.”

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