DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start the engines and then watch the Daytona 500 field drive off without him today for the first time since 1999.
No longer a Cup driver, Earnhardt will give the command as grand marshal to begin the season’s biggest race. Earnhardt admits this week has felt different, even liberating in a sense.
“It’s actually been really nice to not have to worry about performance or living up to expectations or your own or someone else’s,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s been great to get all that off my shoulders.’’
That made Saturday’s 1-2 finish in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports (Tyler Reddick nipping Elliott Sadler) even more enjoyable for Earnhardt, who has said at this point he’s scheduled to run one Xfinity race this season.
“This is the first race we’ve won on a Saturday I have not had to worry about Sunday,’’ Earnhardt said after the Xfinity race. “I walked around every day of my life with a thousand pounds on my shoulders — what was going to happen, how was I going to run — and I think every driver does that. Now that that’s off my shoulders and I don’t have to worry about that anymore, everything in my life is so much more enjoyable.
“Racing, I loved driving cars on Sunday, but it made everything else sit in the backseat, and it made — everything else was nowhere near as enjoyable as it could have been or should have been maybe because of the pressure I put on myself for Sunday. But all that out of the way, man, life is — I’m living, I’m loving, I’m having a good time.’’
Earnhardt is keeping busy. He’s about finished filming a renovation of a home in Key West for a show later this year. He’ll leave Monday for South Korea to be a part of NBC Sports’ Olympic broadcast. He has his Xfinity teams and a baby on the way in the spring. And he’ll be a part of NBC Sports’ NASCAR coverage.
Earnhardt says he doesn’t know what he’ll be doing for the Olympic broadcast but he’s looking forward to whatever it is.
“I’m a little nervous,’’ Earnhardt said. “But I know that they won’t set me up to fail. They want to have good TV and they’re not going to put me in a position where I won’t be able to somehow help deliver that.
“We’re going to have some fun, and whatever that is, I’ll find out in the very last minute, and the rest of it should be great. I’m going to have a chance to see some of the best athletes in the world do what they do best, and that’ll be an experience that I’ll never forget. So I’m looking forward to that.’’