DARLINGTON, S.C. — Denny Hamlin parked it on the start-finish line, having just completed a victory burnout in a backup car, but the center of attention remained just beyond that baby blue No. 8 now idle on pit road.
Despite being out of a race car for almost a full year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed out of his machine after an unblemished sixth-place run, which became fifth-place after Hamlin’s car was later disqualified, in the Xfinity Series race Saturday at Darlington Raceway and immediately evoked echoing cheers from seemingly every fan on the front stretch.
“I knew it wasn’t for me, and then I saw he was getting interviewed,” Hamlin later said, his impressive drive overshadowed by the sport’s most famous driver making his yearly one-off return. “He’s the people’s champ.”
So, after a clean drive in the baby blue No. 8 Hellmann’s Camaro, the throwback to his dad’s Cup debut paint scheme in 1975 and first race in the No. 8 in 12 years, how much fun did he have?
“I had a lot of fun. I appreciate all these fans coming out here to Darlington,” Earnhardt Jr. told NBC Sports reporter Allen Burns. “Man, they love this place.”
“They love you,” Burns responded, the crowd still cheering.
“Yeah, we love it,” Earnhardt Jr. said back. “Proud of Taylor and the whole team for bringing a really good car. Thanks to Hellmann’s for allowing us to do the throwback. Shout out to my dad. …”
The crowd erupted again, and Earnhardt Jr. just soaked it all in. Going into Saturday evening, all Earnhardt Jr. wanted to do was run all the laps. And, if the opportunity presented itself, finish in the top 10.
“You just can’t get in these things and expect to do well,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I figured in the race maybe I could get going.”
After qualifying 14th, six miles an hour off pole-sitter Ryan Blaney, Earnhardt Jr. worked his way to eighth before the race’s first caution on Lap 12 for a John Hunter Nemechek spin.
Shortly after the restart, Earnhardt Jr. raced around Brandon Jones for seventh and took hold of sixth later on. For most of the day, Earnhardt hovered around sixth, seventh, or eighth, not looking like a top-four car, but not looking like someone who’d finish outside the top eight.
“I feel like we did really good,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’m pretty happy with it. I don’t know how much better we could’ve done. But running every single week and being in the car week after week, maybe we could’ve finished a little better. I don’t think much better.”
“[Crew chief] Taylor [Moyer] did an amazing job,” Earnhardt Jr. added. “The whole process and plan for the weekend was perfect for me to get acclimated with the car and get comfortable. Stayed off the fence, rubbed it a little bit but didn’t hit it hard or mess up the car or anything. Really, really had some fun racing some of those guys out there … which is what I hoped to do.”
On the final restart with 11 laps to go, after the whole field cycled through pit road one last tie to slap on four fresh Goodyear Eagles for the abrasive 1.336-oval, Earnhardt Jr. found himself in fifth. He didn’t advance any further, but did he experience jitters being in contention one more time?
“Always nervous, man. Butterflies never go away,” said Earnhardt Jr., who also rehashed his peace at being retired from racing.
“Halfway during the race, I started to remember the reason why I don’t do it anymore,” he said. “It’s hot, it’s hard. It’s hard. I think what I’m reminded of when I get to do these races is how much we ought to respect these drivers who do it every single week because it is so hard, not just throughout the race, but the grind throughout the week. The testing, the debriefs, the study, watching races and film. There’s so much to it.”
“It starts to pop in my head and I remember why I’m glad I’m not in that grind anymore,” Eanrhardt Jr. added. “Just going and practicing and qualifying and running the race, that’s fun. That’s always fun.”
As for next year, Earnhardt Jr. wants to race the Xfinity Series’ sixth stop of the 2020 season at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 21. All he needs is Hellmann’s to make it official, a one-race deal and one-race deal only Earnhardt Jr. wants to continue as long as he’s feeling useful.
“It’s really however long Hellmann’s wants to do it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don’t want to do it more than once a year. I don’t think I do. I do want [one race] a year until I’m wasting my time and everybody else’s time. I feel like I did a good job today and I didn’t really feel like I wasted my team’s time. As long as I don’t feel like I don’t belong in there, then maybe we’ll keep doing it.”
Once his media availability ended and live interview with ESPN’s Pedro Gomez concluded, Dale Jr. stepped down Darlington Raceway’s long pit road, attracting fans that clamored for a signature or a selfie. Dale signed … and signed … and signed … all for Junior Nation who came to see their beloved racer drive for more time.