His walk down the ramp during driver introductions drew enthusiasm out of the crowd that bordered on euphoria, and he took it all in with his trademark humility. Bearded and a bit battle-weary, the driver who climbed into the No. 88 Chevrolet on Saturday night bore little resemblance to the fresh-faced kid who competed in his first Cup race at BMS back on March 26, 2000.
Since that spring day, he lost a father, but he also found his wife. He shouldered oversized expectations without complaint, maintaining his down-to-earth personality even in the face of unimaginable fame and fortune. He left the family business at Dale Earnhardt Inc. and struck out on his own by signing with Rick Hendrick.
Along the way, he’s had his share of triumphs, but he’s been second-guessed at nearly every turn. He’s won 26 Cup races, including two Daytona 500s and one night race at Bristol. Whether that’s enough for others is irrelevant — it’s enough for Junior.
There was a time when Earnhardt lived to race, but seasons change. Discretion becomes the better part of valor. After the effects of a concussion kept him out of the car for half of the 2016 season, Earnhardt decided the 2017 season would be his last rodeo.
After starting 31st on Saturday, Earnhardt picked his spots in the first stage and moved up to 21st place. By the middle portion of the second stage, however, Junior was in danger of falling off the lead lap. He had a tire going down as race leader Kyle Busch closed in on his back bumper, but Ricky Stenhouse Jr. slapped the wall to bring out the caution just in time to keep Earnhardt on the lead lap.
As the cars circled the track under caution, several fans in 88 shirts stood and urged Junior to move toward the front. Through long winless streaks and various other setbacks, the fans have never jumped ship, voting him NASCAR’s most popular driver year after year.
Junior finished Stage 2 18th, but he struggled mightily all night with a car that wouldn’t carry enough speed through the turns. By lap 458, Busch caught Junior and lapped him on his way to victory.
When Earnhardt climbed out of his car following a 23rd-place finish, he was a bit deflated after battling an ill-handling car all night.
“I don’t know what to do,” Earnhardt said. “We’d be pretty quick for 20 laps, pass five cars, and then we’d drop like a rock because it would get so tight through the turns.”
For a guy who grew up sitting on top of a van in the infield of Bristol Motor Speedway watching his dad race, life is about to come full circle. And that’s just fine with Junior.
“I think I might try to enjoy coming here and watching,” he said. “I always loved watching. This racetrack can be a lot of fun, or it can be very difficult.”
Dave Ongie is a staff writer for the Johnson City Press. Email him at: [email protected]