Fans ex­press joy for Earn­hardt Jr.

Orlando Sentinel - - SOCCER / NASCAR / VARSITY -

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 10-race ver­sion of the play­offs open to­day with Kyle Busch on the pole, 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 au­to­graph­seek­ers 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. But 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 Cup races de­cided in the spring to make this his fi­nal year.

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 most­pop­u­lar-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.

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