Dale Earnhardt Jr Finds Balance In Final Cup Start

Third generation racer Dale Earnhardt Jr seems at peace with his final season in Cup. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Third generation racer Dale Earnhardt Jr seems at peace with his final season in Cup. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

When the checkered flag unfurls this Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, so will the career of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Sure, the past two years were a struggle in terms of consistency and performances. Certainly, the 43-year-old native of Kannapolis, NC hoped for stronger results in his final seasons.

Nevertheless, Earnhardt emerged from the shadow of greatness.  Inevitably, he answered his critics directly by remaining genuine on and off the track.

Public figures often find their success measured by their accolades in their fields.

On the contrary, Earnhardt’s greatest achievement was finding personal happiness and establishing his own legacy on the track.

Fans may recall Earnhardt for his success at the restrictor plate tracks, and rightfully so.  With 10 victories between Daytona and Talladega, he compiled a record that would’ve put a smile on his father.

Indeed, Earnhardt ranked inside the top-10 points standings seven times in his career.  Once aggressive and pushing his cars to their limits, he polished his abilities while keeping his workmanlike attitude in the driver’s seat.

Moreover, Earnhardt finds peace with his decision in concluding his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career. Naturally, racing will remain a part of his life while he embarks with the next phase of his life.

Earnhardt races into Homestead-Miami with a solid track record. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Earnhardt races into Homestead-Miami with a solid track record. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

“In my heart, (my career) has run its course,” Earnhardt observed. “I’ve felt very good about that decision before the race in Daytona started in February, that this was it. And I was more thankful to be able to compete this year than I was to ever question whether I should go further.”

Last year, Earnhardt encountered a crossroads with his racing career. After all, he dealt with concussion-like symptoms following an accident at Michigan International Speedway.

The effects stemming from the crash at Michigan curtailed his season following a 13th place finish at Kentucky. Wisely opting out of the 88 car rather than risking his health, he found strength through the recovery process through family and friends.

Arguably, Earnhardt discovered bliss outside of the racetrack, marrying his best friend Amy on New Year’s Eve.  Furthermore, the newlyweds will become parents in early May 2018 to a baby girl.

Along the way, Earnhardt matured as a man and racer.  Moving from the family-owned Dale Earnhardt Incorporated team following the 2007 season to Hendrick Motorsports, he offered insights on his growth.

Earnhardt smiles knowing he completed his final season with his health. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Earnhardt smiles knowing he completed his final season with his health. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

“I think that I wish I’d have known from probably 2000, or maybe even 1998, all the way up until the time when I went to Rick’s (Hendrick) to work,” Earnhardt said. “I learned so much at Rick’s about being an asset to your team and being accountable and being available for your crew chief and being more than just holding the steering wheel and driving the car.

When I was racing for my family, I took advantage and didn’t take it seriously. There were days when I would come into the garage to practice and everybody was in their cars pulling out of their stalls and I’m just walking in. And, nothing was wrong with that, you know, in my mind.

That’s crazy. I mean, you’d be fired in this day and time if a driver was that carefree about it. It didn’t seem to matter. As soon as practice was over, I’d go sit in the truck and if Tony (Eury) Jr. and Tony (Eury) Sr. hadn’t asked me a question in five or ten minutes, I was in the bus playing video games for as long as I could.

I was up until 2 in the morning playing video games on Friday and Saturday nights. I just had no idea how to take advantage of the opportunity that I was given. I’m sure I could have accomplished so much more if I had been plugged-in.”

With age comes wisdom. Most of all, the change of scenery accelerated Earnhardt’s commitment towards hard work and success.

“I didn’t learn how to do that until I came to work at Rick’s,” Earnhardt remarked. “Steve Letarte said man, you’re going to be in the hauler an hour or 30 minutes before practice. I was like whoa. There were a lot of these like, rules. And I learned right then that I needed to be held accountable, and that when I was, I performed and there were better results.

It was a different time back then when I was racing that Bud car. But if I had taken it as serious as I did these last several years of my career, I’m sure there would have been some better results.”

Ultimately, Earnhardt persevered, transitioning from the raw, cagey racer to a methodical, calculative wheelman in the 88 car. Compiling nine victories in 10 seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, he walks away from Cup racing with his health and dignity.

“I confided in my friends and family and my wife that I was worried that I could get another concussion and how disappointing that would be,” he said. “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.”

Once a racer, always a racer. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

Once a racer, always a racer. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson)

No matter the result in the season finale, Earnhardt can take pride with his career and life as a Cup competitor and the champion of many race fans. For that, he has earned his place in NASCAR as a true icon on his merits.

Blessed and appreciated may express Earnhardt’s sentiments when his Cup career concludes.

“When somebody tells you how much they appreciate you, that means the world to you to hear that,” he said. “It’s good.”

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. Born and raised in the Boston, MA area, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it’s about anything with an engine and four wheels, you’ll likely see an article on The Podium Finish by either myself or one of my talented columnists who absolutely have the motorsports passion.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication.

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