Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday he almost feels he needs to apologize as the final weekend of his full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career looms.
“Because I’ve got a pregnant wife, I’m retiring, and I just feel like I’m going to break down any minute. I feel like every answer that I have has some sort of sad undertones and very emotional temperament, but yeah, it’s starting to really sink in,” Earnhardt said at Phoenix Raceway, the second-to-last race of the year.
“I hadn’t felt much. I went through Talladega [on Oct. 15], that was an emotional weekend regardless of how many races were left in the year. But now … I went hunting for a couple of days, so I didn’t really have to think about it too much but got here, and I’m like, man, it’s just a week away.”
Next weekend will be Earnhardt’s 631st start in the Cup Series after debuting in May 1999. After recovering from a concussion late last year, Earnhardt returned to NASCAR competition at the start of this season but announced in April he would retire.
Since then, Earnhardt has made appearances in nearly every media center to discuss the impending end of his career while being presented gifts from each track. Along the way, Earnhardt has shared memories of each track, favorite memories, wins and much more.
How it would all feel at Homestead-Miami Speedway – where Earnhardt will run a paint scheme that pays homage to his first Budweiser design – has only been lingering in his mind.
“I’m not sure that I’m … ready to be going through all that emotion that I will have in Homestead, but it’s coming,” Earnhardt said. “I hope that I can handle it well, but it’s definitely going to be interesting to see how that feels. … I don’t know really how to describe it, but I hope that you guys don’t mind it being a little bit heavy.”
First comes the Can-Am 500 (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC). Of Earnhardt’s 26 career wins, three have come at Phoenix. Earnhardt went back-to-back in the fall races of 2003 and 2004 and in the 2015 playoff race, Earnhardt was in the right place at the right time when rain shortened the race by 93 laps.
If things don’t go Earnhardt’s way this Sunday or at Homestead – and if Earnhardt doesn’t return in the future – Phoenix will go down as his final Cup Series victory. Earnhardt did not win before being sidelined last year, and he is winless this season.
“No, I never thought about it as far as that way,” Earnhardt said of Phoenix being his final win. “After our dry spell, every win after that I celebrated it and thought about it being my last win. The Talladega win , the Daytona 500 , the July Daytona race , Martinsville , here – every one of them I was thinking it might be the last.
“I wanted to get it all out and have some fun and think, ‘Boy, how lucky we are.’ That was the feeling we had every time we won, so yes, we felt that way when we won at Phoenix two years ago.”
So while Earnhardt is just now beginning to experience the feeling of his career ending, he’s already gone through the emotions and celebration of having a last victory.