Just when we were starting to get used to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a three-piece suit instead of a fire suit, back he comes.
This weekend, Earnhardt will race in his first NASCAR race since retiring after last November’s Cup Series championship at Homestead, Fla. Now, make no mistake: this is far from a sign that the 43-year-old driver-turned-broadcaster is back in the racing game full-time. Far from it.
Rather, it’s a one-off exception to his new lifestyle. When Earnhardt retired, he still had a contract remaining with longtime sponsor Hellmann’s to run one Xfinity Series race in 2018 — and as Earnhardt explained on Twitter this week, he chose Richmond Raceway for a variety of reasons.
“The smooth surface. I like short tracks. My past success there. 1 day show,” Earnhardt tweeted on Tuesday.
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And all that makes sense. Earnhardt has three career Cup wins at Richmond, including his second-ever victory, and has always performed well on the 0.75-mile loop. Add in the Friday night atmosphere under the lights, and the fact that Earnhardt gets to serve as an in-car correspondent for his NBC broadcast team, and it’s about as win-win-win a situation as he could hope for.
Now the question is this: What does this race mean for the rest of us?
The obvious thing is that, at least for one more night, longtime Earnhardt supporters will get to see their favorite driver back behind the wheel of his famous No. 88. He’ll even have his old spotter, T.J. Majors, back with him.
But the harsh reality is that there’s a good chance this is the last time Earnhardt, one of the most legendary drivers in NASCAR history, ever gets behind the wheel of a race car.
That’s sad to think about. It’s sad for his fans, but also fans of the sport. Dale Jr. always drew a crowd with him, even during his farewell season when he was anything but competitive on the track. That ol’ legacy name, and all the memories and popularity that comes with it, were a lifeblood for NASCAR for years and years.
There will never be another Dale Earnhardt Jr., even if Chase Elliott eventually surpasses him in Most Popular Driver awards, or wins, or even championships. There is no replicating the iconic moments — coming back and winning in 2001 at Daytona in the first race after his dad’s death earlier that year in the Daytona 500, winning the first NASCAR race after 9/11 — that Dale Jr. produced over the course of his magnificent career. And realizing that is hard, and it’s something NASCAR will struggle with for years, no matter how exciting or engaging its seasons.
Dale Jr. was the ultimate star. You just don’t carbon copy those guys.
Instead, you appreciate them — and that’s exactly what fans should do this weekend.
There’s a real high chance that Junior doesn’t win on Friday night. Heck, there’s always a chance he spins out or blows an engine and doesn’t even finish the race.
But what if, by some chance, he was running in the Top 5 with 20 laps to go? What if, by some miracle, he actually won?
That possibility — to see that magic one more time — is worth watching all by itself. Regardless of what happens on Friday night, Dale Jr.’s legacy is already set. He’s bound for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and there’s even an off chance he’s the first unanimous inductee.
But whatever does happen Friday night, make sure you’re watching. Watch that famous No. 88 loop around time after time, and listen to the man himself as he scratches that final racing itch.
You never know — it may be the last time you get to.
And no one wants to miss Dale Jr.’s last dash of magic.
This week’s NASCAR race: Richmond: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400.
Distance: 400 laps, or 300 miles.
Where: Richmond Raceway, a 0.75-mile D-shaped asphalt oval in Henrico County, Virginia.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Last year’s winner: Kyle Larson.
Also this week: GoBowling 250, Xfinity Series, Richmond Raceway, 7:30 p.m., Friday, NBCSN.
Worth mentioning: This race has gone into overtime the last two years, with Kyle Larson prevailing over Joey Logano in 2017 and Denny Hamlin outlasting Kasey Kahne in 2016.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Brad Keselowski: His three consecutive wins, including in Las Vegas to open the playoffs, has the industry talking about a Big 4 instead of a Big 3.
Martin Truex Jr.: Your new Cup Series leader, courtesy of his third-place finish in the playoff opener, has a chance to stretch his lead this weekend at Richmond.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin has seven Top 5s this year, but after a DNF in the first race of the playoffs, he’s in danger of not advancing to the second round.
Erik Jones: After his first career Cup win in July, there was talk of Jones making a playoff run — now a DNF at Las Vegas has him on the brink of elimination.