As soon as he crossed the checkered flag in Sunday’s season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400, Dale Earnhardt Jr. morphed from race car driver to retired race car driver.
And what better way to begin retirement than with a party, and that’s what Junior did with his team, friends and fans along the frontstretch of Homestead-Miami Speedway.
On Monday’s NASCAR America, analysts Dale Jarrett and Parker Kligerman both spoke about how Junior sailed on into retirement.
Among their comments:
Kligerman: “It was maybe an hour and a half and there was still this swarm of people around his car. He and his team were sitting there, drinking beer and hanging out, he was signing autographs and taking pictures with fans. It was just incredible to see him just sitting there and taking in the moment.”
Jarrett added about the role and impact Rick Hendrick had upon Junior’s life and career both on and off the track: “Rick Hendrick came in and got in Dale Jr.’s life at a time that Junior really needed someone and needed that support, that father figure, if you will. Rick Hendrick is just so good at that. Rick’s been through a lot in his life, Dale Jr. has been that. The two of them together did a lot of real good things and were good for each other.”
Check out more of what Jarrett and Kligerman had to say in the video above.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Cup ride celebrated with smiles, laughter and plenty of beer
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.’’
“I spent so many years racing being miserable if we had a bad day and not enjoying it,” Bowman said. “You lose your ride and that’s taken away from you and you’re like, ‘wow, I should have enjoyed the time I had more.’ Going into that I just wanted to have fun. I enjoyed all those races I got to run last year the most I possibly could and I think that was the best advice, just to enjoy it. ‘Cause you never know when it can be taken away or it could all change.”
Bowman, 24, will succeed Earnhardt full-time in the No. 88 next season. The native of Tuscon, Arizona, earned the role in part from his performance substituting for Earnhardt in 10 races last season as Earnhardt recovered from a concussion.
In three months, Bowman will arrive at Daytona International Speedway as one of Hendrick Motorsports’ four Cup drivers.
The 60th running of the Daytona 500 will be Bowman’s 82nd start in the Cup Series.
But that doesn’t keep him from playing along.
“It is hilarious,” Bowman said. “I love giving people crap on Twitter for that. It’s been pretty funny. I get it. You don’t get noticed when you run cars like that (with BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing). I think it’s funny. Hopefully, everybody on Twitter knows I’m not really trying to be mean. I love running with it. ‘Yeah, I’ll run for Rookie of the Year.’ I think it’s really funny.”
Bowman will make the last of his three NASCAR starts this year Saturday at his home track, Phoenix Raceway. He’ll be driving the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity Series’ Ticket Galaxy 200 (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC).
NBC Sports: Has it been difficult for you to switch into race week mode once the time comes this year?
Bowman: Not really. Honestly, the weirdest part of Charlotte was going to the race track. Driving there on race day, having a bunch of fans there and stuff. That was the weirdest part for me, just something I haven’t experienced it. But I’ve been in the car so much this year between testing and doing simulator stuff, I feel as far as driving the race car hasn’t been weird. Everything that goes along with race day, at least at Charlotte, was kind of different.
NBC Sports: What’s been the most surreal part of the last two years for you?
Bowman: I think probably that first time I strapped into the 88 car was pretty surreal. Not knowing if it was going to be my only shot or how we were going to run. Then getting the call from Mr. (Rick) Hendrick that we’re going to go full-time in the 88 car next year was also a big moment. There definitely have been a couple. I think right now the whole feeling’s kind of surreal. Probably going to feel that way until we unload in Daytona and get on the race track.
NBC Sports: How much was that Charlotte win a vindication for your entire career?
Bowman: I think a lot. A lot of people have said thing, ‘well, he hasn’t won a NASCAR race,’ ‘he doesn’t deserve the 88 car’ and stuff like that. To go out there and not have raced in six months or seventh months, whatever it was and go win right off the bat was kind of like, ‘hey, I can do this, I can drive a race car.’ It just lets me be a lot more confident going into next year knowing even though I’ve sat out. I don’t feel like I’ve lost much, and I feel like we can pick up right where we left off at the end of last year.
NBC Sports: Last week when you were on NASCAR America, you said when your first opportunity to race in Cup came up, you didn’t want to do it. Why was that?
Bowman: I think it’s really selfish reasons. I wanted to do it in a situation I knew I could thrive and win races. … I think looking back at it I probably could have had the attitude of, ‘look, I can learn so much here.’ Instead I was like, ‘man, I just want to win and run better.’ Selfishly, I just didn’t want to go into a situation where 25th was a great day. Looking back at it, without those opportunities I wouldn’t have been nearly as ready to fill in for Dale when I did get that opportunity. So I’m very thankful for those opportunities because they helped me mature as a race car driver and learn the Cup cars and learn how those longer races play out with really no expectations. So I think it was a huge bonus for me to be able to do that. It was just a little painful at the time.
NBC Sports: What was your welcome to NASCAR moment?
Bowman: My first Xfinity race getting lapped by Kyle Busch at Chicago. He straight up moved me out-of-the-way. … I was like, ‘oh, OK.’ ‘Cause I had come from winning everything and winning ARCA races. Shoot, I don’t think I had ever been lapped before. Then here comes Kyle Busch blowing my doors off, moving me out-of-the-way on a fast mile-and-a-half track. I was like,’wow, OK, these guys get after it.’
NBC Sports: What’s your earliest vivid memory of racing?
Bowman: That’s a tough one. Probably the first quarter midget race that I won. Cause when I started racing quarter midgets I was pretty terrible. I practiced a lot and my dad really pushed me as far as practicing and trying to get better and then all of a sudden it kind of clicked. Then I went out and I won and didn’t stop winning for a long time. That first win was really cool and then to continue to win was fun. Just quarter midget racing in general was really cool and really special to get to share a lot of friends and family. A lot of kids I grew up with are really successful race car drivers now and come from the same background, so it’s cool to be able to look back on those memories.
NBC Sports: Who is you best friend in the garage?
Bowman: I would have to say Dale Jr. on that one. I’m not friends with a lot of race car drivers. I don’t hang out or go get dinner with other drivers. I kind of do my own thing and keep to myself. Dale is probably, he’s got to be my best friend in the garage. He’s done so much for my career, he’s helped me so much. I’m pretty good friends with all the HMS drivers. Jimmie (Johnson’s) been great. Me and William (Byron) have become really good friends. Dale has been there for me for a long time and done a lot for my career and a lot for me on a personal level as well.
NBC Sports: If you could race head-to head with any driver past or present, who would it be and at what track and in what kind of car?
Bowman: That’s a really good question. I’d want to run Irwindale (Speedway) in a pavement midget. But I don’t know against who. Actually, I do know against who. Irwindale in a pavement midget against Dave Steele … Dave Steele was a sprint car midget guy, really, really talented on pavement. He died in a pavement sprint car earlier this year … He was probably the best there ever was on pavement in those cars. I did not get to race those cars nearly as much as I wanted to. They’re by far my favorite cars to drive and Irwindale is my favorite place to run them. It was just so much fun to race there, so I think racing him there would be a heck of a lot of fun.
Bowman will drive the No. 42 car for Ganassi in Xfinity Series events at Charlotte and Phoenix. Kyle Larson was to have driven the car in those races.
HendrickCars.com will serve as Bowman’s sponsor at Charlotte with additional support from Vannoy Construction. A sponsor for the Phoenix race will be announced later. Ganassi and Hendrick Motorsports share a technical partnership.
Bowman’s work this season almost has been extensively in a simulator for Chevrolet or driving its wheel force car at tests. He has competed in one Camping World Truck race and no Xfinity and Cup races this year.
“We’re excited to welcome Alex to the No. 42 team for two races,” car owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He’s a great young talent, who can help us with our goal of winning an NXS owners’ championship. Initially those two races were earmarked for Larson but we wanted him to focus on the Cup playoffs so we appreciate Rick (Hendrick) and his team for allowing us to put Alex in our car. Hendrick Motorsports has been a tremendous partner of CGR for many years.”
Said Hendrick: “This is a terrific opportunity for Alex to get back into a competitive environment and work with a championship-caliber team. I think he’ll pick up right where he left off. It’s also a valuable platform for us to promote HendrickCars.com in our (Hendrick Automotive Group’s) home market. Chip is a great friend, and we’re looking forward to working with his team on and off the track.”
Alex Bowman said: “I’m really excited to get back in a race-winning car with a team like CGR. A huge thanks to Chip and Mr. Hendrick for putting this together for me to get some valuable seat time heading into 2018. My goal is to win two races and help the No. 42 team win the NXS owners’ championship.”
For Jeremy Clements, one of the best things about his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, is the Peach Blossom Diner.
When he was younger, Clements would make trips to the restaurant, located on Hospitality Drive, to hang out with some of his NASCAR predecessors who also called the city home.
Nine-time Cup winner Cotton Owens and 1973 Talladega 500 winner Dick Brooks were among the patrons.
There was also the “Silver Fox.”
Clements is no stranger to three-time Cup champion David Pearson and his family. His son Ricky Pearson served as Clements’ crew chief in the Xfinity Series in 2007 and from 2010-14.
A winner of 105 Cup races, Pearson wasn’t above trying to give Clements advice on how to manhandle a stock car.
“He’d always tell me how to drive and tell me what to do,” Clements tells NBC Sports, giving an example of an exchange.
“You need to just use one foot. One foot brake, one foot gas,” Pearson would say.
“David, there’s no way you can do that anymore, buddy.”
“I’ll get in that dang car and show you.”
But when the No. 51 Chevrolet of Jeremy Clements Racing arrives at Darlington Raceway on Friday, it will pay tribute not to the career of Pearson. It will be an ode to Clements’ grandfather, Crawford Clements.
The car will look like the one driven by A.J. Foyt when he won the 1964 Firecracker 400 at Daytona with Crawford Clements serving as his crew chief.
“I was really close to him,” Jeremy Clements says. “It was devastating when he passed. He’s the one that got me started. He would take my brother Jason and I to the go-kart track Buck Creek Speedway (in Chesnee, South Carolina) and race with us and do all the work and everything for years. I’ll never forget that. … I always have his name on the cars we race every week because he meant so much to me. He did a lot for a lot of people.
“He was a very smart man and I wish he was here today to see all this.”
NO REST FOR FIRST-TIME WINNERS
Clements is very tired.
Three days earlier, in his 256th start, the 32-year-old driver became the first Xfinity competitor with no Cup experience on a team with no Cup connections to win a race since 2006.
That causes the phone to ring. A lot.
“I’ve been going after it non-stop,” Clements says. “Haven’t slept the most. Everybody wants to talk to you. It kind of wears you out, but in a good way. I’m not complaining about it.”
He was not prepared for the attention one brings by winning in NASCAR.
“Heck no, man,” Clements says. “Not at all. It’s been crazy. I went into Road America thinking that we could run really well there because we had, and I like that place and the road courses were somewhere we could always run good. But I didn’t anticipate to win the race, honestly. It’s just been insane.”
Clements has tried to keep up with all the well wishes on social media, with congratulatory messages from Brad Keselowski, Darrell Waltrip, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett.
“All those meant a ton,” Clements says. “I think I missed a few.”
The “coolest” acknowledgment he received was one he couldn’t miss. On Tuesday, a goody basket full of cheese, crackers and sausages arrived.
“It wasn’t a low-end basket,” Clements says. “It was a nice one.”
The basket was courtesy of Rick Hendrick.
“First of all, I’ve never even met Mr. Hendrick,” Clements says. “Second of all, for him to even think about me was amazing. To get our address and send something to us was pretty cool. He’s one of the best team owners in the garage.”
Even as the week of celebration unfolds around Clements, the work preparing for the rest of the season does as well.
The car Clements won with, built in 2008 and the oldest of the team’s seven-car fleet by a month, was up on a lift in the shop having its engine removed.
“When I was doing my victory stuff on the front stretch, I wanted to burn that thing down,” Clements says. “But the sad truth of that is that I couldn’t. I was like, ‘heck, we’ve probably got to use this motor next week.’ I had to be easy with it and take care of it. Truth be told, that engine had two races on it before that race.”
Clements and his team don’t yet know how much their winner’s gross will be. They’ll find out Friday and instantly start spending it at Darlington.
“You need probably 15, 16 grand worth of tires there,” Clements says. “It’s going to be a good payday for sure but it’s not going to be something we can just go out and start buying cars and stuff because everything’s so expensive.
“It’s crazy how much, that’s just life in general I guess. It’s like an axle for our cars are $225 a piece and you need them every week, but that’s just one little thing, you know? It takes a lot of individual parts and all of them cost a lot.”
The team, owned by his father Tony Clements, has already made purchases they hope will benefit them in their unexpected position of having qualified for the Xfinity playoffs, which begin Sept. 23 at Kentucky Speedway.
Even before Road America they had acquired two newer composite body cars from Richard Childress Racing. They’ll first run one next weekend at Richmond.
No matter how things go for Jeremy Clements once the playoffs start, he’s “playing with house money” after Road America.
“I’m not going to get too worked up about it,” Clements says. “We’re going to go give her hell and do the absolute freakin’ best we can. But I don’t want to get too boiled up about it if we don’t do the best and we don’t make it to the next round. I’m not saying we’re not gonna, I’m just saying we’re playing with house money. In my opinion it’s just icing on the cake.”
‘LOOK AT ME. LET’S GO’
When Clements took the white flag at Road America, he started getting chills, goosebumps and knots in his stomach.
First, he had no idea how after spinning with Tifft and briefly stalling out he still had the lead. Also, as he made his final lap around the 4-mile road course, his mind began racing.
“Just honestly started thinking about what do I even do if we win?” Clements says. “What do I say and who do I need to thank?”
When he finally got to victory lane, he had the presence of mind to give a shout out to any big team owners that were paying attention.
“I want to drive for a big team, but it hasn’t been the way it’s gone,” Clements told NBC. “I try to keep doing this, to keep my name out here getting as much experience as I can in case I do get the call. To any big team guys. Look at me. Let’s go.”
For Clements, NASCAR has always been his goal since his days of watching Days of Thunder on a TV in the back of a van on the way to go-kart tracks to get “amped up.”
In the few days since his win, when not talking with the press, Clements has reached out to owners.
“They say ‘we’ve paid attention to you before,’ but at the end of the day, they need money,” Clements says. “There’s hardly anybody getting opportunities these days that didn’t bring some kind of money to get them in there. That’s the bad part about it. It’s been like that for years.”
But Clements isn’t inclined to give up on his dream, especially after the biggest win of his racing career. If his career had come to an end after Sunday, he still wouldn’t be satisfied.
“I don’t think I would be pleased until I got that break and that’s what I’m still working on,” Clements says.
But before he can continue to do that at Darlington in his tribute to his grandfather, he’s going to enjoy the perks of being a first-time winner as long as he can.
“I don’t think I’ve bought a meal yet this week so far,” Clements says. “Hopin’ to continue that streak.”