There is nothing else left to write about Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s storied racing career, no more build-up or nostalgia or memories to be mustered.
The only thing left to do, for Earnhardt and his crew, for his family and his fans, is to savor the last race. Relish the fact that, for now, for one last Sunday, one last race for Earnhardt to prepare for.
That is all that matters. Well ... almost all.
It’s also paramount to remember that Earnhardt, gone from the Cup Series after Sunday’s championship race, won’t actually be gone. He’ll still be around the tracks on weekends as a broadcaster, still present on social media and at public appearances.
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And most of all, he has finally come to terms with closing his chapter of his life.
“I don’t need to reconsider. This is great timing for me,” Earnhardt said Friday. “In my heart, (my career) has run its course. 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.
“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.”
Instead of grieving, Earnhardt is commemorating, documenting, living out his last race weekend to the fullest. To have been able to go out on his terms, to put his own punctuation mark on his career, is in and of itself something to be appreciated.
And Earnhardt, as he always has, is doing just that.
“I want to enjoy this weekend,” Earnhardt said, “but also, we want to end well. We want to be competitive. We want to work today, and we want to work tomorrow. We want to put in a good effort this weekend.”
The collective of “Junior Nation”
There have been countless stories shared this weekend – of Earnhardt’s first victory, of taking the Daytona 500 the year after his father’s death in the same race, of winning the first NASCAR race post- 9/11 – and for as epic or memorable as they all are, none truly do Earnhardt justice.
It is the collective, the sum of all those moments in and out of his car, that “Junior Nation” will miss the most, and that generations will speak of years for now when they look back on Earnhardt.
So in true Earnhardt fashion, he isn’t laying back and resting on the laurels of past memories – instead, he is out making new ones: Snapping photos with fans one minute, and then fellow Cup Series driver and close friend Matt Kenseth the next; speaking to the media one last time, and joking with individual personalities as has been his custom; cycling around under the warm Florida sun, and watching tribute videos from his sponsors on his phone.
“A lot of people were doing a lot of things and I’ve seen stuff day in and day out, and it’s just crazy,” Earnhardt said. “It’s just really overwhelming. ... I’m having a hard time trying to put my emotions and thoughts into words. Usually I’m pretty decent at it, but that part of it you’ll never forget.”
All of it to say, thanks Dale. Thanks for sharing your life with us, giving us glimpses into your joy and your pain, and for always being yourself.
“When somebody tells you how much they appreciate you, that means the world to you to hear that,” Earnhardt said. “It makes your heart full.”
So no, Earnhardt never rewrote NASCAR’s record books like his famous father did, but his impact on the sport goes much deeper than his 26 career wins. It’s the army of devoted fans and friends he’s made, the smiles he’s put on thousands of faces, that will endure long after he climbs out of that famous No. 88 car for the last time on Sunday.
Eventually that moment will come, when Earnhardt strips off his helmet and fire suit for the final time on Sunday. But when he does, it won’t be a moment for mourning.
It will be for celebrating, for acceptance.
That’s the way Earnhardt would want it anyway.