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Dale Earnhardt Jr. completed his full-time racing career with a 25th-place finish in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.
Junior didn’t make a major on-track impact after he announced his intention to retire following the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaign in April. He didn’t qualify for the playoffs and failed to reach Victory Lane for the second straight year.
Yet Earnhardt, who’s won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award every season since 2003, remained a focal point of attention at every stop on the schedule. That included Sunday’s season finale, which saw Martin Truex Jr. emerge from the Championship 4 as the 2017 Cup Series champion.
The 43-year-old North Carolina native posted a message on social media before the race that showcased the everyman persona that made him a fan favorite for so many years:
Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr. @DaleJr
Woke up at 6. Made a pb&j and went back to bed. Woke up for good at 930. This is gonna be a weird day.
Likewise, NASCAR on NBC spotlighted Junior’s congratulating of the new champion after his final race:
NASCAR on NBC @NASCARonNBC
.@DaleJr congratulates @MartinTruex_Jr after his Championship win. #NASCARPlayoffs https://t.co/sbeVlZodgG
Earnhardt missed the second half of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion. In August, he told Michelle R. Martinelli of USA Today it wasn’t something he thought about “in the heat of competition,” but it was often on his mind at other times during the week.
“You can’t completely block things like that out of your mind,” he said. “If you’re a football player and you blow out your knee or tear your ACL or something, you know what that felt like, you know what the rehab was like, how hard that is to get back. So you can claim it’s out of your mind or you don’t think about it, but it is. It’s in the back of your mind all the time. Having that experience is a memory that you can’t escape.”
Along with concern about head injuries, which led to the creation of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. Concussion Research Fund, Junior said his readiness to watch the next wave of racing stars, including future No. 88 car driver Alex Bowman, helped him make the retirement decision.
“It’s time for somebody else to get in that car and get out of it what they can,” he told reporters this week. “With Alex coming [to drive 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.”
He added: “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.”
While a victory Sunday would have provided a storybook ending to a Cup Series career that featured 26 wins over the past 19 years, it wasn’t in the cards. As was the case for most of the year, his car was simply a step below the top contenders’ in the field.
That didn’t take away from the celebration, though. He was treated to a hero’s sendoff from the moment he was announced until he finished his final lap.
Here’s a look at some of the highlights from the “Appreci88ion:”
Thank you, @DaleJr.
FOX: NASCAR @NASCARONFOX
And the crowd goes WILD as @DaleJr is introduced one more time.
So much #Appreci88ion for @DaleJr. https://t.co/AW2swtDLsH
Amy Earnhardt @AmyEarnhardt
#SteveisVerse for @DaleJr ‘s final Cup race today. Thank you so much @steviewaltrip for blessing us with these each week! https://t.co/CvKdqlJRmA
Jeffrey Earnhardt @JEarnhardt1
Thanks for paving the way @DaleJr! I’m gonna miss racing against you every week, but excited to carry on the Earnhardt legacy in @NASCAR.
They’re so much more than team owner and driver.
Looking ahead, Earnhardt’s racing career isn’t completely over despite retiring from full-time action. He committed to take part in two Xfinity Series races during the 2018 season and didn’t provide a timetable for when his racing days will totally come to an end.
It still feels like the end of an era. Junior has been the face of NASCAR for most of his career, even amid the dominance of seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. He’s going to leave a massive void that no driver will be able to fill in the near future.