Tales of the Tur­tles 400:

As re­tire­ment nears, driver pop­u­lar as ever, seen as ‘a reg­u­lar guy’

Chicago Tribune - - CHICAGO SPORTS - By Dan Gel­ston

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.

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