Homestead, Fla – Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be making his 631st and final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start on Sunday afternoon. NASCAR’s 14-time most popular driver, all consecutively (2003-2016), will be walking away from the sport that his family had a big hand in helping shape and mold. His grandpa Ralph Earnhardt made 51 career Cup starts and began racing in 1949. Then, his father came along, Dale Earnhardt, who holds legendary status in the sport. Earnhardt, helped mold NASCAR to what it is today. He has a record-tying seven Cup championships and is arguably the best driver there ever was in the sport.
Now, third generation driver Earnhardt Jr., will make his last start after 17 years in NASCAR’s premiere series Sunday at the the Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Back in the spring, Earnhardt made the shocking revelation that this would be his 17th and final season in Cup. After suffering two concussions that forced him to miss 20 races over the last six years, 18 of which just one year ago, the North Carolina native thought that this season would be the best time for him to step away.
A year ago, Earnhardt actually didn’t know if he’d ever step foot back in his No. 88 Chevrolet. Those “concussion-like symptoms” well they weren’t going away. The blurry vision, constant headaches, not being able to drive his passenger car and doing things he loved to do, affected not just his professional life, but also his personal one. He was set to get married to his best friend and him and Amy wanted to have children. How could he enjoy a married life and be a father with these symptoms?
Then, the symptoms subsided and it became clear that he wanted one more shot at this. The sport that took his father away from him and nearly affected his way of life was too damn addicting to give up. Earnhardt, gave it one more shot.
But, the results weren’t there and Earnhardt thought it was time to hang up his helmet.
“At the start of the season, I was worried I wouldn’t get all the way through the year,” Earnhardt revealed on Friday from his final media press conference. “I thought I might get another concussion. I’m happy I made it to Homestead.
“In my heart, it’s run it’s course.”
When you start questioning yourself and have the fear of getting another injury, the speed and success drops off. I’m not saying that’s why Earnhardt had 1 top 10 finish over the first 11 races to the season, but it certainly was a factor. It’s also not a fluke to why the magnitude of this being the end of his Cup career has been emotional for him and he’s giving a little more. Entering this weekend, Earnhardt is in the midst of his best stretch of the season with six top 12 finishes over the last seven week.
That leads him to one goal on Sunday and it’s to just necessarily win, but to complete all the laps and get out of his Axalta Budweiser tribute red car and really embrace what he’s done.
“I just want to run all the laps, I want to finish in one piece,” Earnhardt said when asked of his goals this weekend.
As far as the championship, half of the four drivers competing for the Cup crown on Sunday are friends of his. Whom among them is he pulling for? Both Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. are really good friends of his. Both got their starts with JR Motorsports and DEI. Both have lived on his property.
Earnhardt, well he’s on “Team Martin” this weekend.
“It would be awesome to see him put his name on that trophy,” Earnhardt said of his friend Truex. “He’s just a great guy. He has zero ego. I love spending time with him.”