The day was eventually going to come when Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched the race cars ride by without him.
Now it’s actually here.
Earnhardt, as he has every year since 2000, was at Daytona International Speedway for the first two weekends of the NASCAR season. He signed autographs, same as usual. He strolled through the garage, same as usual.
But when it came time for the cars to roll out for Sunday’s Daytona 500, Earnhardt wasn’t in his usual spot. He wasn’t piloting the No. 88 car he made famous – he was watching it from atop a pit stall, binoculars in his hands instead of a steering wheel.
Earnhardt retired from NASCAR in November, at the end of the 2017 season. When he first announced his plan midway through last year, he divulged that it was because he wanted to start a family with his wife, Amy. Or to travel. To do other things besides drive a race car 38 weekends a year.
What about now, though, being back in the thick of it? Being back at the World Center of Racing, on the sport’s biggest weekend, with over a hundred thousand screaming fans in attendance?
Did that ever make him regret his decision to retire?
No. It did not. Rather, it did quite the opposite.
“As far as getting ready for the season, I’ve not really been that nervous,” Earnhardt said Saturday. “It’s actually been really nice to not have to worry about performance or living up to expectations, of your own or someone else’s.
“It’s been great to get all that off my shoulders.”
As the 15-time winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award, those expectations from the public – sponsors, fans, journalists – were immense. That doesn’t even take into account Earnhardt’s personal expectations for himself, both as a driver and team owner.
Saturday, he got to celebrate in Victory Lane after Tyler Reddick won the Xfinity series race in a car Earnhardt fielded.
“This is the first race we’ve won on a Saturday I have not had to worry about Sunday,” Earnhardt said. “I walked around every day of my life with a thousand pounds on my shoulders – what was going to happen, how was I going to run – and I think every driver does that.
“Now that that’s off my shoulders and I don’t have to worry about that anymore, everything in my life is so much more enjoyable.”
That everything is much more varied now than it was during Earnhardt’s driving days.
It includes, and this list is not inclusive: Renovating a Key West home with his wife for a television show; preparing to become a first-time father; flying to Minnesota for a broadcasting stint at the Super Bowl (where he felt like a “fish out of water”); heading for Daytona Beach to serve as grand marshall for the Daytona 500; and packing for South Korea, where he’ll debut as an NBC Winter Oympics analyst.
That’s a mouthful – but also exactly what Earnhardt wanted.
“Racing, I loved driving cars on Sunday, but it made everything else sit in the backseat,” Earnhardt said. “Everything else was nowhere near as enjoyable as it could have been or should have been maybe because of the pressure I put on myself for Sunday. But all that out of the way, man, life is – I’m living, I’m loving, I’m having a good time.”
Just because Earnhardt is relishing his newfound life outside of NASCAR doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to be involved with the sport. Again, it’s the opposite.
Earnhardt has said before that he hopes to be the Peyton Manning of NASCAR, in the sense that the former NFL quarterback remained heavily involved with the sport after his retirement. That he tweeted throughout Daytona 500 qualifying and sparked a dialogue about key rules probably bodes in his favor.
So does this: The day after the Daytona 500, Earnhardt took a plane to South Korea for the Olympics. There he will cover downhill skiing or skeleton, not Xfinity and Cup Series races. And while it won’t be NASCAR, Earnhardt will be honing his skills and building his profile.
And by doing that, he is positioning himself to be part of the future.
“I knew that I wanted to stay involved in NASCAR, and I knew that I wanted to find a reason to be here,” Earnhardt said, “and I think I’ve been able to do that, hopefully, with this opportunity with NBC.
“And if I’m good at it and the fans like what I do, I get to stick around, so hopefully it lasts for a really long time.”