DARLINGTON, S.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has pondered what it will be like when he climbs into his No. 88 Cup car for the final time, how he’ll feel as he takes the green flag and what his emotions will be when the checkered flag waves not only on that race but his career in NASCAR’s highest series.
His sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, knows how she’ll react.
“I’m going to cry because at most events when there is anything historical or involves my family or something coming to an end or something changing, that’s just what I do,’’ she said.
Maybe Earnhardt will, but it might not be at the time he expects.
As Earnhardt looks ahead to what will be the 631st and final Cup start of his career in less than three months, he thinks about the last race with crew chief Steve Letarte, now an analyst for NBC Sports.
“I never really thought about what that would be like until Steve ran his last race with me at Homestead,’’ Earnhardt said of the 2014 season finale. “He was as cool as a cucumber all weekend, at least in front of everybody, in front of me and the guys in the hauler and everything.’’
Letarte says he didn’t get emotional that weekend as he spoke to his team before the race or had pictures with his family on pit road.
He was fine when he leaned into window to give Earnhardt his final instructions before cars pulled off pit road. Letarte started talking about the race, how he’d coach Earnhardt off the top lane and run the middle of the track.
“Then I wanted to let him know something, like, ‘Hey, it’s been great,’ ’’ Letarte said. “Disaster.’’
Earnhardt said: “(Letarte) just fell out and started crying and bawling like a baby. And I thought, man, and I started crying too, to be honest with you. It was a difficult moment.’’
Letarte said: “I think it would have been better if I had looked at (Earnhardt), and he would have been like a tough guy … but I look at him, and he’s crying. We’re a complete mess.
“There was that moment that I didn’t anticipate, didn’t expect and there was no way I could keep it together. That was without a doubt the toughest 30 seconds or so of the entire weekend. It’s tough thinking back to it.’’
Earnhardt knows for as much as he tries to steel himself that final weekend, surrounded by family, friends and teammates, it will be the unexpected moments that likely will hit him the most.
“I imagine that is going to be part of it for me, and it’s going to be hard to not have those emotions at that last race,’’ he said.