Done, Dale

Imperial Valley Press - - SPORTS -

JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — Dale Earn­hardt Jr. re­ceived a stamp of ap­proval from fans want­ing to write let­ters to the re­tir­ing star, wish­ing him luck.

Jen­nifer Hoger has at­tended races at Chicagoland Speed­way 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 @Chicagoland Speed­way!! Good luck in your fu­ture en­deav­ors!!!

The Hoger Fam­ily Bridgeview, Illi­nois “It’s just some­thing I re­ally wanted to do for him,” she said. “He’s just a reg­u­lar guy when you see the way he in­ter­acts with people on pit road. He’s just a great guy.”

Mo­ments later, a track em­ployee picked up the lat­est haul from the stuffed mail­box — she es­ti­mated 200 let­ters al­ready had been writ­ten by Satur­day morn­ing — and promised they would be de­liv­ered to Ju­nior by the end of race week­end.

Randy Dunn had a sim­ple note for NASCAR’s most pop­u­lar driver: Hi Jr.

Let’s Go Rac­ing Randy Dunn Dunn wrote his Mar­ion, Illi­nois, ad­dress on the note just in case Ju­nior wanted to write back and maybe spend some time with him.

“I hope so. I’m a very big fan,” Dunn said. “What­ever he wants to do is fine with me.”

Fan en­thu­si­asm hasn’t waned for Ju­nior even as he’s stum­bled through a dis­heart­en­ing fi­nal sea­son that will end with­out a NASCAR Cup cham­pi­onship in his 18-year ca­reer. Earn­hardt, a two-time Day­tona 500 cham­pion, has just one top-five fin­ish this sea­son and hasn’t fin­ished bet­ter than 12th in his last 10 races in the No. 88 Chevro­let. When NASCAR’s ver­sion of the play­offs open Sun­day at Chicagoland, Earn­hardt starts with a more mod­est goal of fin­ish­ing the sea­son inside the top 20 in the stand­ings.

“We should’ve run well all year and got­ten our­selves into the play­offs for all of our fans,” he said.

Earn­hardt has been feted at tracks all sea­son, re­ceiv­ing do­na­tions in his name and framed photos of great mo­ments. At Chicagoland, he cud­dled a puppy as the track an­nounced an $8,800 do­na­tion to a Chicago-based an­i­mal shel­ter.

He strides through the garage hounded by au­to­graph-seek­ers who know this is their last chance to re­ceive that fa­vored sou­venir on their die cast, hat or poster.

There are 16 driv­ers in the NASCAR play­off field.

There’s only one driver with the stature of Dale Ju­nior.

Earn­hardt has been plagued by con­cus­sions the last sev­eral years, and he missed half of last sea­son re­cov­er­ing from a head in­jury. He de­layed con­tract talks on an ex­ten­sion to drive the No. 88 Chevro­let, and the win­ner of 26 ca­reer Cup races de­cided in the spring to call it quits this sea­son.

A third-gen­er­a­tion racer, 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 aw­shucks charm, can­dor and deep NASCAR roots. His late Hall of Fame fa­ther, Dale, won seven ti­tles and was known as “The In­tim­ida­tor.”

Earn­hardt just could never get it go­ing in a bit of a lack­lus­ter sea­son by Hen­drick’s lofty stan­dards.

Seven-time cham­pion Jim­mie John­son had a quirky sea­son in which his only three top-five fin­ishes were wins. Chase El­liott made the play­offs on points and did not win a race. Kasey Kahne qual­i­fied with a Brick­yard 400 vic­tory but had other­wise been so in­ef­fi­cient over his Hen­drick ca­reer that he’ll be dumped at the end of the sea­son with a year left on his con­tract.

“The pres­sure of try­ing to win the cham­pi­onship is not there, but that is a pres­sure that you kind of want,” Earn­hardt said. “Even though you want it, it is not there. There is a con­cern, I guess, that you could get sort of com­pla­cent and go through th­ese races and maybe some of the ur­gency or im­por­tance falls away a lit­tle bit be­cause there is no ul­ti­mate car­rot about there like that cham­pi­onship tro­phy.”

Earn­hardt is 22nd in points and qual­i­fied 20th for Sun­day’s race. He has one ca­reer 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. Just 10 laps shy of a cham­pi­onship, Carl Ed­wards abruptly quit at the end of last sea­son. Dan­ica Patrick, once an en­dorse­ment dar­ling, saw her spon­sor­ship dry up, lost her ride at Ste­wart-Haas Rac­ing and likely is fin­ished in stock cars at the end of the sea­son.

El­liott, Kyle Lar­son and Ryan Blaney are the young play­off driv­ers ex­pected to some­how carry that pop­u­lar­ity torch held for so long by Earn­hardt.

“I thought build­ing a brand, why would I want to do that? It should just build it­self,” Earn­hardt said. “But you can ac­tively build your brand and grow it up. By the time th­ese guys are 28 or 30 years old, they could be big­ger than any­thing we’ve ever seen in this sport.”

Kevin Har­vick, the 2014 Cup cham­pion, said NASCAR could still thrive with­out its stars.

“Sports in gen­eral has a funny way of ab­sorb­ing ev­ery­thing and mov­ing on,” Har­vick said. “And whether it’s Dale Ju­nior or Dan­ica or my­self, no mat­ter what the case is, things move and they shuf­fle and people come and they go and you hope that as you look in the pipe­line there are young and ex­cit­ing driv­ers that are go­ing to de­velop their own per­son­al­i­ties and their own fan base and their own ex­cite­ment.”

But can any driver truly ri­val Earn­hardt’s fol­low­ing?

Check the mail­box in 20 years.

the NASCAR Cup Mon­ster En­ergy Se­ries

Dale Earn­hardt Jr. checks his hair dur­ing the fi­nal prac­tice for auto race at Chicagoland Speed­way in Joliet, Ill., Satur­day. AP PHOTO/NAM Y HUH

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