Fans express joy for Earnhardt Jr.
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.