DARLINGTON, S.C. — While this has been a challenging year for Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans, seeing him struggle and rarely contend for a victory in his final full-time Cup season, it has been more difficult for his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller.
“It’s been fairly depressing,’’ she said Friday at Darlington Raceway after the track named its Turn 3 towers the Earnhardt Towers. “It seems like it’s just some luck things that happen here and there, and things that are beyond his control. It’s certainly not the season of how I know that he would want this last season to be. It’s not a lot to write home about lately, so it’s been pretty depressing and disappointing.’’
Earnhardt is 22nd in the points entering Sunday night’s Southern 500. He must win either Sunday or the following weekend at Richmond to qualify for the playoffs or he won’t be among the 16 drivers racing for the title.
Earnhardt Miller says she’s continued to try to boost her brother’s spirits in this rough season.
“I usually just text him and tell him to keep his head up,’’ she said. “He doesn’t like anything mushy, so I try not to get too mushy. I try to just keep it just on the surface and not get too deep and let him know that we’re thinking about him.
“We’ve sat in a lot of meetings this year where I have to remind Dale that he’s a pretty special athlete.’’
While Earnhardt has revered Darlington for its history, the track has not been as kind to him. He never has won a Cup race at the 1.366-mile speedway.
“Unfortunately his history here he hasn’t been as successful as he would love it to be,’’ Earnhardt Miller said. “You never know what could happen. Maybe the angel above will look over him and maybe carry him to a victory or something.’’
Earnhardt hasn’t come close to winning many races this year. Earnhardt’s best finish this season is a fifth at Texas in April. He has four top-10 finishes but hasn’t had such a result in the last eight races.
“I knew that I was up against a pretty difficult challenge when I decided to come back,’’ Earnhardt told NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan two weeks ago. “But I knew that the team was strong. If we could get it going, we’d get it going.’’
Earnhardt missed the final half of last season because of symptoms related to a concussion.
Earnhardt Miller says she she’s glad he came back even if this season has not been as rewarding as hoped at this point.
“I’m very glad he came back just to be able to race on his own terms and not have to sit out,’’ she said. “I think that’s good for his mental processing, too, and obviously good for the sport and the fans and everybody that benefits with him being out here.’’
Earnhardt Miller, co-owner of JR Motorsports, says she’d like to find more races for Earnhardt to run next season in the Xfinity Series. The team has one race for Earnhardt with sponsor Goody’s at this point. The race has not been picked.
Earnhardt Miller said that the team isn’t sure if it will run a fifth car for Earnhardt in select Xfinity races next year or he’ll fill out the team’s fourth car with William Byron moving up to Cup in 2018. If that fourth car is for one driver or a multitude of drivers will depend on sponsorship, she said.