Earn­hardt’s fi nal sea­son ends with­out cham­pi­onship

The Columbus Dispatch - - Nfl - By Dan Gelston

JOLIET, Ill. — 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!!!

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.

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 Chicagob­ased 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 aw-shucks 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.”


Dale Earn­hardt Jr., checks his hair Sat­ur­day dur­ing the fi­nal prac­tice for the NASCAR Cup Mon­ster En­ergy Se­ries race at Chicagoland Speed­way in Joliet, Ill.

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