APPRECI88ION: A Personal Reflection on Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s Career

For over 12 years, I’ve followed NASCAR. I have distinct memories of the races I’ve attended, the times I’ve yelled at the television, the times that tears ran down my face, and the times I jumped up and down as if I had just won a race.

This past weekend, like many other fans, I watched as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. completed his final laps racing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. I know you probably shouldn’t be too biased if you’re like me and trying to get a job in media around NASCAR (or any sport for that matter), but I can’t help but write this as Earnhardt’s career comes to a close.

I was born in 1999, the same year that Dale Jr. won his second consecutive NASCAR Xfinity Series title, which was then the Busch Series. In just his second full-time season in the Xfinity Series, he was already a two-time series champion and moving into the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, which was then the Winston Cup Series.

Earnhardt, Jr. didn’t wait very long to make his name known. In his 12th start in the Cup Series, Dale Jr. drove his no. 8 Budweiser Chevy to the win at Texas Motor Speedway. A month later, Earnhardt drove to his second points-paying win at Richmond.

With his wins, Earnhardt qualified to be part of one of the biggest nights of the year – The All-Star Race, or as it was known then, The Winston. He ran solid all night, and at the end of the race, found himself behind two other Dales – his father, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and Dale Jarrett.

The younger Earnhardt found his way around the elder and charged to take the lead from Jarrett. Dale Jr. led two laps that entire night – the last two. Dale Jr. became the first rookie to ever win the All-Star Race, which has only been once since. After the All-Star event, Earnhardt struggled to find victory lane. However, there was a plan to start 2001 on the right foot.

Michael Waltrip, Dale Sr., and Dale Jr. knew that if they worked together in the season-opening Daytona 500, they would be unstoppable. In the closing laps of the race, the three found each other nose to tail, with Waltrip’s no. 15 out front, followed by Dale Jr.’s no. 8 in second, and Earnhardt, Sr.’s no. 3 in third, holding off the rest of the field.

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On the final lap, Waltrip and Dale Jr. broke away from the pack when Sterling Marlin and Ken Schrader took Dale Earnhardt, Sr. three wide. There was a crash, and the race was over. Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Michael Waltrip had won the Daytona 500, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished second. However, the black no. 3 was not third. Dale Earnhardt, on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, died.

I can’t imagine the heartbreak and pressure that Dale Jr. felt. I wasn’t a fan of the sport at the time, but from the time I found out about it until today, I can’t help but feel awful for Dale Jr.

The start of 2001 was by no means great. He had six top-10 finishes in the first 16 races and suffered the pain of the loss of his father. But when the series returned Daytona, Earnhardt, Jr. would not be denied.

From the 13th starting position, Dale Jr. charged to the front of the pack, taking the lead for the first time on lap 27. He led three more times for a total of 111 laps before the caution flag waved.

All of a sudden, the dominant car of the night was mired in the sixth spot, leaving every fan wondering if he could win the race. The green flag flew and so did Earnhardt – right into the lead. The crowd roared and cheered for the no. 8 team. Dale Jr., just five months after the passing of his father, won at Daytona.

Later that year, tragedy struck across the United States. On September 11, The USA was brutally attacked in an act of terrorism. Sadness spread through the country, and NASCAR postponed its event that was scheduled to be that weekend.

12 days after, NASCAR returned to racing at Dover International Speedway. Carrying the American flag on his decklid, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. dominated the race, leading almost half of the event, and going on to win. Following the race, he drove a victory lap with the American flag, displaying the strength of America.

Just a few weeks later, emotions would run high again. NASCAR returned to Talladega Superspeedway on the anniversary of Earnhardt, Sr.’s final win. After the Pepsi 400 earlier in the year, some drivers and fans questioned if NASCAR had potentially fixed the race to let Dale Jr. win. Unhappy with the comments, Dale Jr. was hungry to prove them wrong by winning the race and the million-dollar bonus. That’s exactly what he did.

Talladega would be the sight of Earnhardt’s next three wins, winning both races in 2002 and recovering from crash damage in the 2003 Aaron’s 499. It was a record – four Talladega wins in a row. 2003 would see Earnhardt pick up another win, this time coming at Phoenix, and finishing third in the point standings. 2004 was just around the corner, and Earnhardt couldn’t imagine what was in store for him.

Earnhardt started the year with a win his Gatorade Twin qualifying race, earning the third starting spot for the 46th running of the Daytona 500. When the green flag waved to officially start the year, Earnhardt made sure he was close to the front. He led 58 laps, but was under pressure from Tony Stewart. However, on the sixth anniversary of his father’s big win in the Daytona 500, Dale Jr. would not make a mistake. He won the race and started the season with the championship lead. Three weeks later at Atlanta, Earnhardt won his second race of the season, further solidifying his name as a contender for the championship.

He continued to put up impressive results, but went winless until the spring race at Richmond. Leading 115 of the 400 laps, Dale Jr. returned to victory lane at the sight of his second win. But unfortunately, he failed to finish in the top 20 six out of the following 12 weeks.

With the Chase for the Cup nearing, the no. 8 team knew they needed to get their season back on track. When they showed up to Bristol, they would make sure they were known as a championship threat. Dale Jr. won the Xfinity Series race that weekend, but his primary focus was on the Saturday night under-the-lights Sharpie 500. Jr led 295 of the event’s 500 laps, dominating to secure his first win at the famed speedway.

Dale Jr. qualified for the inaugural Chase for the Cup that year, which put the top 10 drivers on an even playing field.

Earnhardt started the chase with five consecutive top-10 finishes, including his fifth career win at Talladega. However, two crashes occurring two weeks in a row dampened his hopes for a championship. With a win at Phoenix, he put himself back in the picture, but he fell short of Kurt Busch, who won the championship. It was a promising and successful season that Earnhardt had hoped more of, and in 2005, things turned downhill for team no. 8.

06 NASCAR Nextel Cup #8 Budweiser Monte Carlo SS-Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The season after Earnhardt had gained six wins, his team struggled. In the first half of the season, Earnhardt had led just five laps, had only six top-10 finishes, and had finished worse than 20th seven times. The team really needed a break, and they got one at Chicagoland Speedway.

Late in the race, a pit-strategy call put Earnhardt in front of the leaders, and Dale Jr. got his first and only win of 2005. The team was ecstatic, but still, they continued to struggle.

Five DNFs in the second half of the year took team no. 8 out of championship contention in 2005, to the disappointment of Jr Nation.

Around the end of the 2005 season was when I began to take interest in NASCAR. My favorite number was eight, my favorite color was red, and I found a car that was both. Believe it or not, that is actually one of the reasons I liked him. I didn’t understand that it was just a coincidence, but after my dad told me stories of Dale Sr. and that he was related, I knew Dale Jr. was my driver.

In 2006, I began to pay closer attention to the sport, as Earnhardt, Jr. began his seventh season in NASCAR’s premier series. Earnhardt’s start to the year resembled that of the season before, but in the tenth race of the year, Dale Jr. grabbed another trophy at Richmond.

It was his only win in 2006, and I continued to support the team. He qualified once again for the Chase, but was unsuccessful yet again. I can still recall the Talladega race where Jr was leading at the white flag, but coming to turn three, was wrecked from the lead. My 7-year-old self was furious with Brian Vickers, not understanding that the wreck was probably not intentional. Nevertheless, the season ended with Jimmie Johnson hoisting the championship trophy above his head, something we’d all get used to.

2007 would be a big year, for Earnhardt and for myself. It was Dale Jr’s first winless season his career, and it was the first time I got to attend a race in person, and there was no better place to do it than at the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

Earnhardt was involved in a wreck that night, and I fell asleep in the stands after he went into the garage. When I woke up, my parents were getting ready to leave, but I refused to budge, as Dale Jr. had just gotten back out on the racetrack. My parents didn’t fight me, and we stayed to watch the remainder of the race. My eyes followed the red, white, and blue Budweiser chevy every lap, and when the race was over, I knew I’d be a NASCAR fan for a long, long time.

Later that year, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. announced his departure from Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and the no. 8 Budweiser car in exchange for a ride in the no. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports starting in 2008.

It didn’t take long for Earnhardt to show that his move was the right one. In the Clash, which was then the Budweiser Shootout, Dale Jr. drove the brand now no. 88 Chevy to a win under the lights at Daytona. That Thursday, I had my dad pull me out of school so I could watch the Duel qualifying races. It proved to be a good choice, as Dale Jr. went on to win his second race in Daytona Speedweeks of 2008. He followed up his Daytona races showing speed with a pole and seven top-10s in the first ten races of the year. He had come close a few times, but by the fifteenth event of the season, he still hadn’t closed the deal. That would soon change.

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I was at Dover International Speedway cheering on Dale Jr. in the spring of 2008, in the front row seats of turn two. Most of my view was blocked off by the Monster bridges, but I still vividly remember as Elliott Sadler spun in front of me, collecting the cars of Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Dale Jr., and more. I was disappointed, but remembering the last time I went to a race and how Jr. came out of the garage to finish the race, my dad and I stuck around.

At Michigan in June, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. stayed close to the front all day in his Chevy, and in the final laps, passed Jamie McMurray for the lead. The caution came out, and a gutsy strategy call saw Dale Jr. win the race on fuel mileage.

After the Michigan victory, Earnhardt kept his results so that he qualified for the 2008 Chase for the Cup. Unfortunately, two DNFs kept Dale Jr. away from beating his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson in the championship. Even worse for Earnhardt and his fans, no one knew how long the wait was about be until he returned to victory lane.

In 2009, the no. 88 team just seemed lost. Just two top-five finishes, as well as just five top-10 finishes, highlighted Earnhardt’s season. The team struggled to find the results they had the year before. I returned to Daytona that year for the Coke Zero 400, and was disappointed when Earnhardt’s day ended early after a crash. However, I loved the rest of the race and watching the end unfold between Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch. I can still hear the crowd roar as Kyle Busch came across Stewart’s front bumper. The crowd stood as Stewart went on to win his third summer race at Daytona as Kyle Busch wrecked.

In 2010, things didn’t go much better than the year before. Three top-fives in NASCAR’s top series was the story of the year for Earnhardt. I remember the Martinville spring race I attended, my poor dad waited on line for hundreds of laps for a hot dog (sorry dad.) Jr had an okay race that day, but still he struggled all year long.

His big break in 2010 didn’t come in the Monster Energy Cup Series though. After finding out that his father would be inducted as part of the inaugural class in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Dale Jr. teamed up with Wrangler, a former sponsor of his dad’s, and Richard Childress Racing to drive a no. 3 Blue and yellow Wrangler car in the Xfinity Series, resembling one that his father drove years ago. I was in the Bahamas when they raced that night, and I remember peeking into a yacht with the race on, thinking “is that a number 3 car?” later, I would find out that it was indeed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. driving behind the wheel of the Wrangler Chevy. Earnhardt made his way to the front of the pack and held off Xfinity Series drivers to win that night, his only victory in 2010. Fans cheered and cried as the familiar paint scheme returned to Daytona victory lane.

As the 2011 season opened up, Earnhardt got the news that Steve Letarte would join team 88 as crew chief in an attempt to get him back in the Chase and back in victory lane. Dale Jr. only had two DNFs that year. He began contending for wins, but was still coming up short.

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I went to Talladega for the Aaron’s 499 that year, and I was stoked that Hendrick Motorsports qualified 1-2-3-4. I pulled for Dale Jr., who was behind Jimmie Johnson most of the day, pushing him. It was when the two-car tandem was the way of racing at Daytona and Talladega, and it was exciting! I loved watching as Johnson and Earnhardt made the last lap charge to the front to the closest finish in NASCAR history! Even though I wished Earnhardt had won, I couldn’t not be happy that he was so close to winning and that he was able to push Johnson to the win.

I also distinctly remember crying on my couch after watching the Coca-Cola 600 that year as he ran out of gas on the last lap from the lead.

By the end of 2011, I was beginning to think “will he ever win again?” I knew he was getting closer, but the three-year drought created some doubts. Luckily, for both Dale Jr. and myself, 2012 would answer my question.

I sat on my couch and anxiously awaited the Daytona 500 to start on that last Sunday of February. I sat, and I sat, and I sat. I believe it was close to 7 p.m. when NASCAR postponed the Daytona 500 to Monday due to rain, and I was furious that I’d be in school. I tried negotiation with my mom to pick me up before the start of the race, but that became a lost cause. In one of my classes the next day, I hopped onto NASCAR.com, where I learned the race would start at 7 p.m. I had a religious education class ending at 7 that night, so I made sure my mom could pick me up and race me home to watch the Daytona 500 with my dad.

I stayed up much later than usual that night, watching the race in its entirety. Though I was disappointed that Dale Jr. had come up short again, something told me that 2012 was going to be a good year. Luckily, I was right.

Earnhardt, Jr. started the season on a roll, finishing outside of the top ten just three times in the first 14 races. And when the series returned to Michigan, all eyes turned to Dale Jr.

Four years after his last win, Dale Jr. returned to the track of his last victory. The race started slow, and I remember watching the 88 fall back early in the race. But after putting in a spring rubber, the Dew Crew rose to the top and dominated the race. Dale Jr returned to victory lane in dominating fashion, and for the first time in four years, I could jump up and down in celebration with Earnhardt and my dad.

After the race, my dad said he’d buy me the die-cast car, and when I asked him if I should get the raced version, he said no. I started collecting the 1:24 scale die-cast around that time, and looking back, I probably should have not listened to my parents for once and gotten the raced version (This isn’t really important, it’s just a fun story to share). Dale Jr. qualified for the Chase that year, but unfortunately, a vicious wreck at Talladega sidelined Earnhardt for two weeks after being diagnosed with a concussion. It wasn’t his first, however. He had also gotten concussions in 2001, 2004, and two weeks prior in 2012 at a Kansas tire test.

In 2013, Earnhardt came close quite a few times to winning – he finished second five times. By the end of the year, I was ripping out my hair (as I’m sure Dale Jr. was) wondering what could have been had he won any of those races. I was extremely happy that his performances were still great – 10 top-fives and 22 top-10s – but victory eluded him for the season. But boy, oh boy, it showed just how competitive the 88 team would be in 2014.

As the 2014 Daytona 500 was underway, rain came and stopped the race at lap 38 for over six hours. I did nothing but watch the broadcast for six hours until the race resumed. And when it did, that was the greatest super-speedway racing I’d ever seen.

Cars were darting left and right, fighting over real estate in the season’s biggest race. Dale Jr. got to the lead for the first time at lap 131, and he would stay towards the front the rest of the night.

I watched from my home in the early hours of Monday morning as laps wound down, and suddenly, there was 18 laps left – and my hero was leading.

Unfortunately, a late-race caution meant a restart, and another opportunity for Jr. to get passed. When the black piece of tape got sucked onto Earnhardt’s grille with just a few laps to go, I didn’t know whether to be grateful that the car would be more aerodynamically slick, or to freak out because his engine might blow up.

My dad and I rose from our seats as Dale Jr. led the field to the restart, and began cheering him on. And when they entered the tri-oval for the last time, I sprung into the air and we started cheering and hollering loudly (My sister was asleep before that and wasn’t very pleased that we had awaken her from her slumber at 2 a.m.).

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I remember just being the absolute happiest I’d ever been the following day at school, high-fiving all my friends who knew absolutely nothing about NASCAR.

Dale Jr. started the season with three top-two finishes and stayed close to the front of the point standings. In June, NASCAR returned to Pocono Raceway, where Hendrick Motorsports had won the last three races with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Kasey Kahne. It seemed only fitting that Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would have a turn in victory lane next.

I missed most of the race that day. I was at my own race, driving my go-kart. However, my left-front wheel assembly detached from the kart, and I took a huge hit head on into the barriers. That concluded my day, and My dad and I were pretty frustrated about it. We packed our stuff up and headed home.

When we got there, I turned on the TV. to my surprise, the race was still on. Just eight laps left. Brad Keselowski was leading, but when he began to overheat, he pulled up behind a slower car to try and get debris off his grille so he could make it to the finish.

But as Keselowski slowed, Dale Jr. accelerated – right into the lead. He hung on and scored his second victory of the season. For the first time in my years as a fan, I got to see Dale Jr. win more than once in a season, which was very cool to me. Things were about to get even cooler.

Dale Jr. continued to run consistently throughout the summer, and it all led up to a very special day for me – August 3, 2014. The NASCAR Cup Series returned to Pocono, and so did I. Waking up that day, I had a gut feeling that something would be different about that day.

When the race started, Dale Jr. moved through the field and into the top 10. The cloudy day was dominated by Jeff Gordon, but after a few crashes, Earnhardt and Letarte called an audible on pit strategy that allowed them to charge to the front with 14 laps to go. The caution flag flew soon after, setting up a sprint to the finish. Dale Jr. was under pressure from Kevin Harvick, the season’s eventual champion, but Earnhardt held him off to take his third win of the season. The roar of the crowd overpowered that of the engines on track, and seeing my favorite driver and hero win in person was finally checked off of my bucket list. I screamed and hollered and jumped up and down as Dale Jr. saluted the fans on the way back to Pocono victory lane.

It was the first and only time I saw Dale Jr. win in person. Looking back now, it is definitely among my best memories and will be a time I treasure for the rest of my life.

The season continued, and it came time for the first Chase for the Cup in the modern-elimination format. Earnhardt posted results that advanced him through the first round of the Chase, but after suffering from a blown tire at Kansas, a shifting and transmission issue ant Charlotte, and a late-race wreck at Talladega, Earnhardt was eliminated from championship contention.

Despite elimination, Dale Jr. and the no. 88 team vowed to end the season on a high note. The following weekend, the series travelled to Martinsville Speedway. Earnhardt worked from far back in the starting grid to crack the top ten, and led for the first time at lap 192. He would lead three more times before a final caution flew. Suddenly, he was faced with pitting and losing significant track position, or staying out front and potentially being passed by a car with fresher tires. Steve Letarte called Earnhardt down pit road for four fresh tires leaving the 88 in fifth with under ten laps left. Earnhardt, however, accepted the challenge, and aggressively took the lead again, holding off Jeff Gordon for his first win and Martinsville grandfather clock. The 88 finished the year strong after Martinsville, not finishing worse than 14th.

2015 saw National Guard leave the sport, and Nationwide Insurance replaced the National Guard as primary sponsor of team 88. Steve Letarte was out, and Greg Ives stepped up to the plate as crew chief. Despite the changes, the goal remained the same as the years prior: win. It wouldn’t take long for that to happen. In the Can-Am Duel qualifying race on the thursday before that year’s Daytona 500, Dale Jr. would start dead last, but work his way through the field in a hurry. He took the lead for the first time on lap 35, and dominated the rest of the race to win his fourth qualifying race. While the points-paying races didn’t result as well as the year prior, Dale Jr. still kept towards the front. The series came to Talladega that May, where a once dominant Dale Jr. had not won in 11 years. Starting from fourth, Dale Jr. kept pressure on the leaders and took the lead for the first time on lap 12, and he would lead 67 laps en route to his sixth Talladega victory, locking him into the Chase for 2015. Following Talladega, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was a contender each and every week through the early summer. Only two finished between Talladega and the return to Daytona were outside the top 10. And when the series did, return to Daytona, Earnhardt would once again be a major factor.

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Earnhardt showed great speed all weekend, and starting from the pole position, Dale Jr. dominated under the lights. He led 96 of the race’s 160 laps, a performance similar to the 2001 running of the race. And, just like 2001, Dale Jr. held off fierce competition to win the race. I had stayed up all night watching the race (There was a rain delay prior to the start) and it was very well worth getting to see Earnhardt win. I got to sleep around 4 a.m. that morning, and woke up three and a half hours later to go to work. Ironically, I still remember that it was probably one of the best night’s sleep I ever had.

The summer began to fade away, which meant it was once again time to enter the Chase for the Cup and decide a champion. Dale Jr. just barely made it through the first round of the Chase, however, like the year before, two poor finishes at Charlotte and Kansas set the 88 team in a position which they needed to win at Talladega in order to advance to the next round.

Dale Jr. led 61 laps, and was in the running to take the trophy. However, a late-race controversy left Joey Logano as the race winner, and Dale Jr. in second, just inches behind. Jr Nation was, to say the very least, fuming with NASCAR’s call, and many other fans questioned whether the call was intentional.

Earnhardt was eliminated from the Chase once again. But just like the year prior, the 8 team kept their heads up and proceeded to win a few weeks after at Phoenix. Earnhardt’s car was running in the top 10 all night, and when a caution flew during a green flag pit stop cycle, it put Earnhardt in the lead. Rain came under that caution and stopped the race, eventually ending it. It was Earnhardt’s 26th career win.

2016 was around the corner, and like other Earnhardt fans, I looked forward to Daytona Speedweeks after winning the most recent Daytona race. Earnhardt did not disappoint. Starting from the second spot, Earnhardt took the lead early and led 43 of the race’s 60 laps, winning his fifth Daytona qualifying race.

The Daytona 500 did not end as well as the Qualifying races. Earnhardt got loose off of turn four and pounded the inside wall hard. His day in the 500 ended at lap 169, just 31 laps shy of the finish in his car that, to many fans, could have won that race.

The next eight races, Earnhardt scored top-15 finishes, including three runner-up finishes. In the following three races, however, Earnhardt took some big hits, forcing him to not finish the races at Talladega and Dover.

I went to Pocono that year, and when the race was moved to Monday, I sure as hell wasn’t going to miss it. I skipped school that hot June day, and in the closing laps, Dale Jr. was tyring to pass Kurt Busch. He’d settle for second again in 2016. In the moment, while I knew it was a great result, I couldn’t help but be a little upset. But considering what happened next, I’m grateful I got to see him run well, and that I witnessed what would become his last runner-up finish.

A week after Pocono came Michigan, another track that Earnhardt had been pretty good at throughout his career. On lap 61, Earhardt was tapped by another car, and he hit the outside wall hard. It was frustrating in the moment, but ultimately, I think that was a turning point for Dale Jr. He announced three races later that since his hit at Michigan, he had been having concussion symptoms, and following the race at Kentucky, he elected to step out of the car in order to recover.

It’s fair to say a lot of fans were scared. I was scared as hell that he wouldn’t race again. Doubts ran through Jr Nation, and as everyone hoped he’d be okay, nobody knew if he would race again.

Earnhardt’s recovery lasted through January of 2017, and he announced that he would drive in 2017 in the Can-Am Duels and the Daytona 500.

On the night of the Can-Am Duel, Earnhardt dominated, leading 53 of the race’s 60 laps. It looked to be an easy win, but Denny Hamlin had other ideas, and with two laps to go, Hamlin and three other freight-trained past Earnhardt, leading to a fifth-place finish.

On the day of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt once again showed to be strong, but was taken out of the race after wrecking from the lead just past halfway in the race. He finished 37th.

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The week after at Atlanta, tire issues plagued Earnhardt, leaving him five laps down and in 30th position at the finish. A few weeks later, a wreck took Dale Jr. out of contention at Martinsville.

By the time the series reached Bristol, Earnhardt had one top-10 finish. At Bristol, for the third time in the season’s eight races, Earnhardt was taken out of the race because of a crash.

Frustration and disappointment in the no. 88 team and fan base spread. And it got even harder the Tuesday following the Bristol race.

I was in school on April 25th, 2017, my senior year of high school. It was early in the morning, maybe second period, when my phone started buzzing, practically out of my pocket. The first opportunity I got, I looked at the near 30 notifications I had gotten in just a short time. I nearly immediately broke down – Dale Earnhardt, Jr., on of my heroes and role models, and the only driver i had routed for since getting into NASCAR – was retiring.

I cried it off for a little while, but in reality, I knew the chances of it happening were high, based off how 2016 and the start of 2017 went. Like all of NASCAR, I just couldn’t imagine the sport without Earnhardt.

The season continued, and so did Earnhardt’s struggles. He was able to win two poles, and it seemed that the 88 team was improving towards the end of the season. Earnhardt ended the season with a single top-five and eight top-10s. In his career, Earnhardt’s 631 career starts ended in 26 wins, 149 top-fives, 260 top-10s, and 15 poles.

I’ve just finished writing this, and it’s been just three days since Earnhardt’s final race. It feels normal, somehow. One season ends, another will begin in February. But mentally, it’s odd just thinking that the 14-time Most Popular Driver award winner won’t be behind the wheel of the no. 88 nest season.

Mr. Earnhardt, if you’re reading this, this next part is for you.

Thank you for giving me something to look forward to every Sunday. Thank you for helping me find my love in racing. Thank you for showing me how to act. Thank you for all of the victories and celebrations, and for the losses and memories. Thank you for being you, and thank you for going out on your own terms.

Thank you for everything, Mr. Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

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