Dale Earnhardt Jr. entered the weekend at Darlington Raceway knowing he could compete but questioning how well he would. With a fifth-place finish Saturday afternoon, Earnhardt felt he held his own against the Xfinity Series competition.
“Yeah, but I know there’s a lot more out there,” Earnhardt said. “I could get better, I just need to do it every week, but I’m not gonna. So, I feel like I handled it well. I just didn’t want to lose a lot of track position on those restarts, which has been a problem for me in my career.
“When that last caution came out, I said to myself, ‘All right, don’t do what you normally do and give up a bunch of spots, two or three spots on this restart. Run hard and fight hard, and try to be aggressive and maintain.’ We were able to do it.”
Coming into the weekend, the two-time series champion felt he could be able to walk away happy if he qualified and ran inside the top 10. Being competitive was not going to be easy against competition who race every week, and when Earnhardt qualified 14th he knew it was because it’s hard to jump into the car and instantly do well.
Despite qualifying, Earnhardt spent much of the day running inside the top 10. He finished seventh in both stages and even got to mix it up with another one of his JR Motorsports cars in Justin Allgaier, as well as series standout Christopher Bell.
“I figured in the race maybe I could get going and I feel like we did really good,” Earnhardt said. “I was pretty happy with it. I don’t know how much better we could have done, but running every single week and being in the car week after week maybe we could have finished a little bit better, but I don’t think much better. Taylor (Moyer, crew chief) did an amazing job.
“The whole process and plan for the weekend was perfect for me to be acclimated to the car and comfortable, and stayed off the fence – rubbed it a little bit, but didn’t hit it hard and mess up the car or anything. Really, really had some fun racing some of them guys out there. Got to race with some of them guys who run up front all the time, which was what I wanted to do and hoped to do.”
Admittedly, halfway through the 200-mile event Earnhardt remembered why he’s no longer a full-time driver.
“It was hot, it was hard,” he said. “I think what I’m really reminded of when I get to do these races is just how much we ought to respect the drivers who do it every single week because it is so hard. Not just driving the race, like all the grind throughout the week, the testing, debriefs, the study, watching races and film, there’s so much to it that it starts to pop in my head and I remember why I’m glad I’m not in that grind anymore. Just going to practice and qualify and running the race is fun.”
Having scratched the itch, Earnhardt said he’s set for another year. Having run Richmond for Hellmann’s three of the last four years, Earnhardt chose throwback weekend at Darlington to fulfill this year’s obligation. But in 2020, he’d like to compete at Homestead and said his one-offs each year will continue to depend on if the sponsor picks up its option.
“It’s really however long Hellmann’s wants to do it,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t want to do more than one a year. I don’t think I do. But I’ll do one a year until I’m wasting my time and everybody else’s. I feel I did a good job today and I didn’t really feel like I wasted my team’s time, so as long I don’t feel like I don’t belong in there then maybe we’ll keep doing it.”
Earnhardt now returns to the broadcast booth for the rest of the weekend with NBC Sports and will carry with him what he experienced Saturday.
“I think it helps me be a credible broadcaster, somebody that’s been in the car recently,” he explained. “I certainly learned a lot about the track that I did not know coming into this weekend that I would not have been able to talk about in the booth. It’s very helpful.”