Ju­nior leav­ing with love

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - THE SECOND PAGE -

SPARTA, Ky. — Dale Earn­hardt Jr. barely had time to bond with Ken­tucky Speed­way, and now he’s say­ing farewell to the track and the sport.

For­tu­nately for NASCAR’s most pop­u­lar driver, he’s leav­ing with a lovely part­ing gift along with lots of love from Blue­grass rac­ing fans.

As Earn­hardt pre­pared to start Satur­day night’s 400-mile Cup race from 13th, track man­age­ment gave him a deluxe juke­box on Fri­day as a to­ken of its ap­pre­ci­a­tion. Adorned with Ju­nior’s No. 88 and his sig­na­ture, the large juke­box will be do­nated in his name to Na­tion­wide Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal in Colum­bus, Ohio, an or­ga­ni­za­tion he sup­ports.

“That’s awesome be­cause I know the kids are go­ing to love it,” said Earn­hardt, who vis­ited with kids there ear­lier this week. “We got them a lit­tle stereo, but this is go­ing to take the cake. … It will make a lot of kids smile when they are around this juke­box and en­joy­ing it to­gether. I ap­pre­ci­ate that.”

Other gifts are sure to fol­low as Earn­hardt fin­ishes his fi­nal cir­cuit of full-time Cup duty. The on­go­ing farewell tour has made him re­flect on his ex­pe­ri­ences, even at a track in which he’ll start for just the sev­enth time.

Ken­tucky is some­what no­table for Earn­hardt’s fi­nal 2016 start be­fore com­pli­ca­tions from con­cus­sion symp­toms ended his sea­son. Healthy now, he’s hop­ing the 1.5-mile oval can yield a vic­tory and start a climb from 22nd in points into the play­offs.

“A win is go­ing to be great any week, but this is a hero-one-week, zero-the-next sport,” said Earn­hardt, who has earned two top-fives and the 2013 pole in six Ken­tucky starts.

“Even if we have a great run or a win, which would be awesome, there is an­other hill to climb and an­other one af­ter that each week. This sport is so com­pet­i­tive and for us as a team it’s been a real chal­lenge this year to sort of find our foot­ing.”

While Earn­hardt tries to find the right for­mula, spec­u­la­tion con­tin­ues as to his pos­si­ble suc­ces­sor in the Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports Chevy.

Two-time Day­tona 500 win­ner and 2003 Cup cham­pion Matt Kenseth could be an op­tion along with ris­ing drivers Wil­liam By­ron and Alex Bow­man. Kenseth, 45, said Fri­day that he has no ride lined up for 2018 and is likely done at Joe Gibbs Rac­ing.

Asked if he might put in a good word for Kenseth with owner Rick Hen­drick, Earn­hardt smiled and said the for­mer cham­pion won’t be hurt­ing for op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“Matt is go­ing to have a job,” he said. “I don’t think he’s got to worry about that. I think that it’s smart for him to let ev­ery­body know early what his plans are or the lack thereof. He is a tal­ented guy who is just a cou­ple of races re­moved from be­ing a win­ner and could show up any week and get to vic­tory lane.”

Right now, Earn­hardt’s ob­jec­tive is end­ing a 54-race drought dat­ing back to Novem­ber 2015 at Phoenix. He also aims to bounce back af­ter wreck­ing and fin­ish­ing 32nd at Day­tona.

A vic­tory or com­pet­i­tive run at Ken­tucky would pro­vide a fine end­ing and please his loyal fan base. The track that Earn­hardt once lamented for its bumpi­ness has been repaved twice, and he seeks a sim­i­larly smooth run.

No mat­ter how it ends, he’s en­joy­ing the ride.

“You can make some choices to do some­thing dif­fer­ent in the cor­ner to give you a chance to get around a guy,” Earn­hardt said, “and that is a lot of fun.”

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