Tales of the Turtles 400:
As retirement nears, driver popular as ever, seen as ‘a regular guy’
NASCAR’s playoffs begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, but fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. is only along for the ride.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. received a stamp of approval from fans wanting to write letters to the retiring star wishing him luck.
Jennifer Hoger of Bridgeview has attended races at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet for 15 years and penned similar farewell notes to former NASCAR champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in their retirement seasons. She stopped at the red mailbox with No. 88 on the door to drop off her letter:
“Dear Dale, Thank you for all the memories here (at) Chicagoland Speedway!! Good luck in your future endeavors!!!”
“It’s just something I really wanted to do for him,” Hoger said. “He’s just a regular guy when you see the way he interacts with people on pit road. He’s a great guy.”
Moments later, a track employee picked up the latest haul from the stuffed mailbox — she estimated 200 letters had been written by Saturday morning — and promised they would be delivered by the end of the weekend.
Fan enthusiasm hasn’t waned for Earnhardt even as he has stumbled through a disheartening final season that will end without a NASCAR Cup championship in his 18-year career. A two-time Daytona 500 champion, Earnhardt has just one topfive finish this season and hasn’t finished better than 12th in his last 10 races in the No. 88 Chevrolet.
When NASCAR’s playoffs open Sunday with the Tales of the Turtles 400, Earnhardt starts with a more modest goal of finishing the season inside the top 20.
“We should’ve run well all year and gotten ourselves into the playoffs for all of our fans,” said Earnhardt, winner of 26 career Cup races.
Earnhardt turns 43 in October, is newly married and has said he wants to start a family. He has won NASCAR’s most popular driver award a record 14 times.
He wanted to win a championship for himself, his team and owner Rick Hendrick, but also for the fans who have idolized him because of his aw-shucks charm, candor and deep NASCAR roots. His late Hall of Fame father, Dale, won seven titles and was known as “The Intimidator.”
“The pressure of trying to win the championship is not there, but that is a pressure that you kind of want,” Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt is 22nd in points and qualified 20th for Sunday’s race. He has one win at Chicagoland.
He is the latest — and biggest — star to leave NASCAR over the last three years, a brutal blow for a sport reeling from sagging attendance and sinking TV ratings.
Gordon and Stewart won a combined seven championships. Carl Edwards abruptly quit at the end of last season. Danica Patrick lost her ride at StewartHaas Racing and likely is finished in stock cars after this season.
Elliott, Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney are the young playoff drivers expected to carry the popularity torch Earnhardt has held for so long.
“By the time these guys are 28 or 30, they could be bigger than anything we’ve ever seen in this sport,” Earnhardt said.
JONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will retire at the end of the NASCAR season, signs autographs for fans Saturday at Chicagoland Speedway.