Dale Earnhardt Jr. will end his career this weekend running a paint scheme that pays tribute to his very first. With the end of his racing career finally upon him, Earnhardt used some of his final pre-race media availability to look back at the beginning – and how he didn’t live up to his full potential early in his career.
It wasn’t until Earnhardt began driving for Rick Hendrick in 2008 that he began to learn about accountability – how to be an asset to his team and be available to his crew chief. Being a race car driver was more than holding a steering wheel.
“When I was racing for my family [at Dale Earnhardt Inc.], I took advantage and didn’t take it seriously. There were days I would come into the garage to practice and everybody’s pulling out of their stalls and I’m just walking in, and nothing was wrong with that in my mind,” Earnhardt said Friday morning at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“As soon as practice was over I’d go sit in the truck and if Tony [Eury] Jr., Tony Sr. didn’t ask me a question in five minutes I was in the [motor coach] playing video games on Friday and Saturday nights.
“I had no idea how to take advantage of the opportunity I was given and I’m sure I could have accomplished so much more if I was plugged in.”
Paired with Steve Letarte in 2011, Letarte laid down ground rules for Earnhardt. He was to be active and engaged with the team, including being in the team hauler 30 minutes to an hour before practice started. When practice was over, he was to stay for team meetings.
Calling it two completely different extremes – the type of person he was at DEI versus what he became at Hendrick Motorsports – Earnhardt said he learned to emulate Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. His championship-winning teammates’ focus and work ethic had rubbed off on him, and if you didn’t work hard like they did – as a Hendrick driver should – you would be called out.
“There was a lot of these rules and I learned right then that I needed to be held accountable and when I was, I performed and there were better results,” Earnhardt continued. “I think that it was a different time back then when I was racing that Bud car.
“But if I had taken it as seriously as I did these last several years of my career, I’m sure there would have been some better results.”
Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET, NBC) is Earnhardt’s final ride in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series after 18 full seasons. Completing the race in one piece is one of the first things Earnhardt wants to do. The main agenda is running competitively and crossing the finish line on a high note.
Having made it to his final race weekend still healthy, Earnhardt called himself blessed. There’s also a sense of excitement about what the weekend holds. Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth, who is likely also making his final start, plan on taking pictures with their tribute paint schemes this weekend.
Seeing the No. 88 team and crew chief Greg Ives also has Earnhardt eager to get the weekend started. Miami is a track Earnhardt enjoys running, so he’s looking forward to getting on track.
When it’s over Sunday night, it will be over for Earnhardt. Since April, he has fondly looked back on his career every weekend while expressing gratitude and appreciation for the sport, his fans and what was accomplished.
Now it’s about putting it in the past tense.
“I don’t need to reconsider. This is great timing for me,” Earnhardt said. “It’s time for somebody else to get in that car and get out of it what they can. And with Alex [Bowman] coming in behind me, it’s just a great opportunity for him. It’s his time. It’s now his moment going into next season to take his career wherever he can go. Mine, in my heart, has run its course.”