HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. was roused from bed around 6 a.m. Sunday for the final start of his career, made himself a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and went back to sleep. When he woke up for good, the finality of his decision hit NASCAR’s most popular driver.
“This is gonna be a weird day,” Earnhardt tweeted.
Earnhardt was set for his final ride in the No. 88 Chevrolet, ending a career that saw him emerge as NASCAR’s most popular driver over 18 full seasons.
Earnhardt tweeted on the start of his day to his more than 2.3 million Twitter followers and probably had time to scroll through the thousands of replies from fans and fellow drivers wishing him good luck.
Earnhardt’s family members flew into town to be there for his final race.
Popular with his peers, Danica Patrick and championship driver Kyle Buschwere among the scores of Earnhardt fans who sent him messages. The fans at Homestead-Miami Speedway who usually stick Sharpies in Earnhardt’s face demanding autographs instead crammed the 88 pit box and wrote messages for him on the concrete wall. Kerry Earnhardt, his half-brother, tweeted a family photo in front of a private plane and wrote, “the damn fam is heading your way brother!”
The NASCAR finale felt more like a celebration of Earnhardt’s career than the anticipated coronation of a new champion. Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Earnhardt’s hunting buddy, Martin Truex Jr., are racing for the title.
Earnhardt received a rousing, standing ovation at the pre-race meeting from NASCAR drivers and executives, fans, and athletes that included Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas and MMA star Rampage Jackson.
NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton said when the sports history is recounted it certainly will “touch on the Dale Junior era in NASCAR.”
NASCAR showed a tribute video that included actor Adam Sadler, late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel, actor Justin Hartley, retired NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, actor/director Mark Wahlberg, country music singer Brad Paisley, several active drivers and some of his current and former team members as well as team owner Rick Hendrick.
After it ended, the entire room stood and clapped for Earnhardt.
Earnhardt, who tipped his red baseball cap in thanks, will lead the field in a ceremonial pace lap. He will start from the rear of field because he changed engines in his Chevrolet.
“We’re going to miss him for obvious reasons,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said Sunday. “He’s not going to be that far away. He’s going to be glued to the sport, and that’s going to be good for us.”
Earnhardt won’t desert NASCAR: He has two or three Xfinity races planned for next season and tossed out the Homestead finale in 2018 as a potential race. He owns second-tier Xfinity race teams and will call the action next season in the NBC Sports broadcast booth.
Earnhardt won two Daytona 500s and 26 races overall. But he never won a Cup championship, or came close in achievements to matching his late Hall of Fame father who won seven titles and was known as “The Intimidator.”
Earnhardt got one of the best retirement gifts he could have asked for when William Byron won the Xfinity Series championship for JR Motorsports on Saturday. He is part owner of the race team with sister Kelley and his Hendrick Motorsports boss, Rick Hendrick.
Earnhardt has been by feted with gifts, tributes and videos — including one narrated by “This Is Us” star” Justin Hartley — since he announced his retirement earlier this season.
The memories have touched the 43-year-old Earnhardt and his family.
“You never think about what the end looks like,” sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller said. “It’s been so fun to relive memories and watch all these videos and watch all these tributes. I don’t want to cry. Dale says I’m a crier. I am the crier of the family.”
Earnhardt is winless this year and, at 21st in the standings, is on pace for his worst full-season finish since 2009.
He has a modest goal for the finale.
“I just want to run all the laps. I want to finish the race in one piece,” he said. “I don’t have anything outside the car that’s on a to-do list. As far as I’m concerned, I’m good with coming in here and doing the things we always do every race weekend.”
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