When Dale Earnhardt jumped behind the wheel at Daytona in February, he was worried his final season in the Cup Series was going to be abbreviated.
The 2017 Daytona 500 was Junior’s first race since he was sidelined with a concussion halfway through the 2016 season. At 42 and fresh off a grueling rehabilitation process that had him wondering if he was ever going to drive a car competitively again, Junior said Friday that he got back into a Cup Series car grateful for another opportunity to race. But also a bit fearful that his career could come to an inglorious end.
“It’s time for somebody else to get in that car and get out of it what they can,” Junior said. “With Alex [Bowman] coming [to drive the No. 88 in 2018], it’s just a great opportunity for him. It’s his time, it’s now his moment going into next season to take his career wherever he can go. And mine, in my heart, has ran its course. I’ve felt very good about that decision before the race at Daytona started in February. That this was it. And I was happy — I was more thankful to be able to compete this year than I was to ever question whether I should go farther. With everything we’ve been through with the concussion and trying to come back, the emotion was ‘Man I’m so glad I get to run this last year.’ It was never — it was always this was the last year. And I’m glad I get to run it.”
“And when I started in Daytona I didn’t know whether I would finish it. Feeling delicate, feeling compromised, knowing how easily that could happen again. I confided in my friends and family and my wife that I was worried that I might — that I could get another concussion and how disappointing that would be. So I’m sitting here healthy and I’m going to run this last race and I got all the way through the year so I feel blessed. I feel really good with it.”
Junior crashed in that Daytona 500 when his car slammed into a car that had spun into his path. He got out of his car that day and said he felt good. His first major scare avoided.
When Sunday’s race is over, Earnhardt Jr. will climb out of a Cup Series car for the last time. His career over. On his own terms, and not the terms of an injury.
While Earnhardt Jr. is clearly a man happy with how his career and life have turned out, he did admit that things could have been different — and more successful — in his time driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. before he moved to Hendrick Motorsports.
“I learned so much at Rick’s about being an asset to your team, being accountable, being available for your crew chief, being more than just holding the steering wheel and driving the car,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “When I was racing for my family I took advantage and didn’t take it seriously. And there were days when I would come into the garage to practice and everybody’s in their cars pulling out of their stalls and I was just walking in. And nothing was wrong with that in my mind … Just had no idea how to take advantage of the opportunity I was given and I wish — I don’t know really, I’m sure I could have accomplished so much more if I had been plugged in.”
Seventeen of Junior’s 26 career race wins came when he was driving for his father’s team from 2000-2007. And while he could have won more with a different attitude and approach, that attitude and approach is what separated him from his father’s shadow.
Yeah, he inherited his dad’s fans after Earnhardt Sr.’s tragic death in the 2001 Daytona 500, but Earnhardt Jr. attracted fans in his own way. His backwards-hat wearing and seemingly carefree lifestyle as the driver of the Budweiser car helped make NASCAR cool as the sport surged in popularity in the early and mid-2000s.
His cred was only furthered when he won six races in 2004 and looked like a serious contender for the championship. That season, he took over the points lead after winning at Talladega for the fifth time. When asked what it meant to win at Talladega for the fifth time, Earnhardt Jr. memorably uttered a line that undoubtedly upped his appeal even further.
“It don’t mean sh*t,” a jovial Junior said. “Daddy’s done won here 10 times. I’ve got to do a little more — do more winning.”
NASCAR penalized Earnhardt Jr. 25 points for that four-letter utterance later that week. The penalty, coupled with a crash at Atlanta later in the season, effectively ended his best chance for a championship.
DEI’s downfall started shortly after that season. Junior won just one race in each of the next two seasons and made the decision to leave the team and join champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. The move positioned Hendrick Motorsports as even more of a NASCAR juggernaut with three of the sport’s most recognizable drivers all competing under the same banner.
His career was eventually rejuvenated at Hendrick, even if it took a while. Junior won seven races in 2014 and 2015 after finishing fifth in the points standings in 2013. That success came after a four-year winless streak between races at Michigan in 2008 and 2012.
As the 2015 season closed, it was easy to wonder if Junior was going to have another chance to challenge for a championship like he did in 2004.
That never happened. The concussion Junior suffered in 2016 at Michigan was the fourth-known one of his career. A man used to concussions and their symptoms — Junior missed two races in 2012 — Junior at first thought he was suffering from a sinus infection because the symptoms were delayed. He drove three more races before he was sidelined for the rest of the season.
His return to the series, however, hasn’t been a great one. Crashes and mechanical failures have haunted his performance. A final-season win hasn’t happened either. But Junior said he’s excited for one more time behind the wheel at a track that he loves. In a season full of frustration, Junior deserves for his final race to end in a satisfying fashion.
“I’d like to finish the race in one piece, whatever that is,” Junior said. “Obviously, you want to do as well as you can. But no matter where we finish, to be able to pull down pit road, stop the car, and get out. And then, see my guys and do all that. It would be a bit of a heartbreaker if we have any kind of issue that would take us out of the event and not be able to finish.”
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