Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Cup ride celebrated with smiles, laughter and plenty of beer

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HOMESTEAD, Florida — The tears took place before the race. Afterward, there were smiles, laughs and plenty of beer.

There’s no other way Dale Earnhardt Jr. would walk away from his Cup driving career but with a beer, a smile and his crew nearby.

“I had a lot of fun tonight,’’ Earnhardt said after finishing 25th in his final Cup start.

And he’ll keep the car. Earnhardt’s deal with car owner Rick Hendrick was that if Earnhardt brought the car back in one piece, he would get to keep it.

He will. In exchange, Hendrick got Earnhardt’s helmet.

The only marks on the car came when Earnhardt hit the wall late and when he ran into winner and series champion Martin Truex Jr. after the race, his way of “high-fiving (Truex) with the race car.

“I love it,” Earnhardt said. “We retire and Martin wins the championship. That’s storybook.’’

Earnhardt later went to the stage to hug Truex, a close friend, and congratulate him on his first series championship.

Earnhardt’s season ends without a win but a lifetime of memories. He leaned on his red No. 88, which resembled the car he drove his rookie Cup season, along with the rest of his crew. They laughed, joked and shared a few last moments as a team before Earnhardt moves on to his duties as a co-owner of JR Motorsports and a broadcaster next year for NBC Sports.

“I hope all the fans enjoyed this season,’’ Earnhardt said. “I know it wasn’t everything we wanted on the race track but we sure had fun off and going to miss everybody. We’ll be back.’’

It was before the race that Earnhardt admits was most difficult.

“Hugging on Rick made me emotional because he’s like a daddy,’’ Earnhardt said of Hendrick. “Trying to tell him how much he means to me is really hard. Words just don’t do it justice. It’s hard to explain to somebody that you love so much.

“Me and him bawled like babies before I got in the car.’’

Once Earnhardt cranked the engine, he headed down pit. Crews from each team walked out to pit road to slap his hand as he slowly drove by, a scene reminiscent of when his father won the 1998 Daytona 500 and pit crews honored him by doing that.

The admiration by the crews to Earnhardt on Sunday was reciprocated.

“I really wanted to shake their hand because the road guys are the guys who have it the most difficult for their travel, the commitment to be on a pit crew, that’s the biggest commitment that I think anybody makes in this industry,’’ Earnhardt said. “I was wanting to shake their hands. I’ve admired all them guys in that garage for so long.

“I was hoping everybody would be on pit road so I could shake their hand.’’

No one was more proud of Earnhardt than his mother, Brenda Jackson, who flew in Sunday morning for the race with other family members.

She didn’t see him until driver intros and they talked briefly.

She told him that she loved him.

He told her: “Mom, thank you for everything.’’

“Don’t start that now,’’ she told her son, “because I haven’t cried yet.’’

After Earnhardt exited his car a final time, he shared another long embrace with Hendrick and then hugged wife Amy and his mom.

As Earnhardt hugged his mother, his face glowed and smile widened. They held each other tight.

“That was the one moment that it hit me,’’ she said, “and I got emotional.’’

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NASCAR America: Comparing today’s drivers to drivers of yesteryear

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With Kevin Harvick‘s recent run of three consecutive wins, NASCAR America analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte used the opportunity debate which NASCAR legends they compare Harvick and other current drivers to.

Burton compared Harvick to three-time Cup champion Cale Yarborough.

“I think they remind me a lot of each other because they’re both very aggressive, they both got after it, good at every kind of race track,” Burton said.

Earnhardt sees some of 1983 Cup champion Bobby Allison in Harvick.

“Won a championship, won a lot of races, but wasn’t afraid to put his finger in another driver’s chest,” Earnhardt said.

When it comes to Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, Earnhardt compared him and Denny Hamlin to the late Tim Richmond.

“Mainly in style,” Earnhardt said. “They’re the kind of guys that are a little flashy, a lot of flair outside the car. … Tim was that way. He wasn’t scared to flaunt it a little bit and he enjoyed life outside the race car as much as he did inside the race car.”

Watch the above video for more old school driver comparisons.


NASCAR America: Importance of keeping NASCAR connected to grassroots racing

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The importance of grassroots racing to the future of NASCAR is a constant subject these days thanks to the likes of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson.

Now NASCAR America’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton get their chance to sound off on the subject.

On Tuesday’s episode, the panel of analysts discussed why keeping NASCAR connected to the short tracks and lower series across the country is vital to the sport’s future.

“We don’t have that national series running old short tracks that draws people to the race track but also draws them to the TV on Saturday and Sunday,” Burton said.

Earnhardt brought up an attempt by Bristol Motor Speedway to purchase the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee, last year.  The attempted failed.

“My heart was broken because I thought we had a real opportunity to bring one of the touring series, either the Truck or Xfinity, back to Fairgrounds,” Earnhardt said. “That’s where I think we’re broken or disconnected. The late model guys and the guys that are running on these local tracks don’t have the connection to the Truck Series or Xfinity Series. They need to take those series, Truck or Xfinity, back to the short tracks and bridge that link.”

The three analysts went on to discuss the short tracks and races that were part of their formative racing years.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Scan All from Auto Club Speedway

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Martin Truex Jr. was once again in championship form Sunday at Auto Club Speedway.

That fact frustrated some drivers, especially Kyle Busch.

You can hear his frustrations and more in this week’s Scan All.

Here are some highlights.

— “I mean, he’s a (expletive) idiot for racing that hard 30 laps into a (expletive) race.” – Chad Johnston, crew chief for Kyle Larson after contact with Kevin Harvick wrecked Harvick on Lap 39.

Johnston’s tone cooled once Harvick owned up to his mistake.

“Harvick’s taking responsibility for that, so don’t sweat it,” Johnston said.

— “You did a hell of a job keeping it off that inside wall. I was watching on the roof cam and was like, ‘Oh Lord, don’t hit that one.” – Rodney Childers, crew chief of Harvick.

— “I don’t know what the (expletive) he’s got going on, but damn I don’t have that.” – Kyle Busch observing how much better Martin Truex Jr.’s car was performing

— “This thing went from absolutely horrible to even worse than that.” – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

— “I don’t even know what the hell we’re doing, what the hell’s going on and what we’re going to do next. It’s been the same all day. We haven’t made any ground on it.” – Kyle Busch as he struggled to keep pace with Larson and Truex.

Watch the above video for more.

NASCAR America: Biggest storylines through five race weekends

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After five races in the Cup season, NASCAR America’s analysts assessed what the biggest storylines are ahead of this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton took turns sharing what’s stood out to them.

Jeff Burton started off by saying Kevin Harvick‘s success was the “easy answer.”

Burton discussed his surprise at Chevrolet teams underperforming.

“It reminds you in racing that you don’t really know what’s going to happen until it happens,” Burton said. “I’m surprised we haven’t seen more performance from the new Chevy body.”

Earnhardt was surprised at how big Martin Truex Jr’s margin of victory was on Sunday. He beat Kyle Busch by 11.6 seconds.

“I felt like in the first couple of races, maybe we got tricked into thinking the new inspections process had maybe leveled the playing field a little bit, even though Harvick won three in a row,” Earnhardt said. “Then Truex goes out and does what he did last year, maybe even better than he did last year.”

Letarte said his “big shock” for 2018 has been the “lack of change.”

“It’s the same players leading laps that we saw in 2017,” Letarte said. “Everyone is trying to catch up. I’ve always found it the hardest to continue to push your guys, continue to push your race cars when you’re already winning. It’s easy when you’re getting beat to motivate everybody.”

Earnhardt also observed how younger drivers have struggled to shine through five races.

“Across the board, the young guys still aren’t measuring up to the veterans yet,” Earnhardt said.

Watch the above video for more.