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.’’