CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In the moments before explaining his retirement from the NASCAR Cup Series, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a quick stroll through his 18-year career.
Wearing a suit and a striped tie, Earnhardt had to walk by four large portraits depicting high points of Cup career.
The first two represented his eight full seasons with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the second pair his 10 seasons with Hendrick Motorsports.
First, there was Earnhardt and his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., smiling after his victory in the 2000 All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Then came a shot of Earnhardt hoisting the trophy following his emotional Pepsi 400 win at Daytona International Speedway, five months after his father’s death on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
The third portrait, the largest of the four, showed one of his recent wins in a Daytona 500 qualifying race. Next to it, a picture displayed Earnhardt’s joyous celebration of his lone Martinsville win in 2014.
Not pictured was the win Earnhardt believes allowed him to “leave some kind of mark” on the team he joined in 2008: the 2014 Daytona 500.
The moment marked the end of a very long winter for Earnhardt. It was only his third win with Hendrick in seven years and his first outside the state of Michigan since 2006.
“Winning the Daytona 500, I always kind of wanted to leave some kind of mark here,” Earnhardt said. “Jimmie Johnson‘s got them all over the place. He’s marking up this joint left and right.”
“This joint” is the Team Center on the Hendrick Motorsports’ campus, where Earnhardt’s announcement was held.
As Earnhardt made his remarks, facing him on the opposite side of the room were 16 red, tie-shaped banners. One for each national NASCAR series title Hendrick Motorsports has earned since 1995.
Four belong to Jeff Gordon and the last seven belong to Johnson.
None has Earnhardt’s name.
On the wall to his left was the “Milestone Wins” display.
Under graphics of the outlines of Daytona, Darlington Raceway, Charlotte and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, each win by a Hendrick driver in the Daytona 500, Southern 500, Brickyard 400, Coke 600 and Bank of America 500 is listed.
Among 47 victories observed, Earnhardt’s only contribution is that Daytona 500 win under the lights, which launched a career resurgence with seven wins in two seasons.
And Earnhardt is OK with that.
“I wanted to leave some kind of mark that somebody would know I was here,” Earnhardt said. “When we won that Daytona 500, that made me feel good about my impression on the company. It’s always fun to win with Rick, because like I said, that’s what he loves the most.”
There’s still 28 races left in Earnhardt’s Cup career. Twenty-eight chances to have fun. Among them are the Coke 600, Brickyard 400, Southern 500 and Bank of America 500.
And a few entries on the “Milestone” wall could lead to a banner on the ceiling.
Eventually, stage hands took down those four pictures.
But Earnhardt’s mark on the wall – and the sport – remain.