RICHMOND, Va. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. smiled when he walked to his Xfinity car for the first practice at 8:30 a.m., when he worked later in the day in the NBCSN booth, when he stood next to wife Amy and daughter Isla before the Xfinity race and when he climbed from his car after winning a stage, leading 96 laps and finishing fourth.
The last time Earnhardt had this much fun as a driver?
“When I was racing late models in the ‘90s probably,” Earnhardt said on pit road. “I had a lot of fun in the late ‘90s running the Xfinity Series (but) I didn’t know how good I had it. (In) the Cup garage, it’s so damn cutthroat it’s hard to have fun in there.”
Friday, he oozed energy. Earnhardt spoke as quickly as his Chevrolet ran. He laughed. He bobbed. He raised his hands.
He took it all in just as the fans did at Richmond Raceway. They rejoiced when the No. 88 led. They roared when he was introduced before the race and exclaimed as he stood on pit road after running 250 laps. They followed their pied piper as he walked down pit road to the media center. Halfway there, he diverted his path so he could walk with them, sign autographs and take selfies.
Other than a win – which went to Christopher Bell – the day couldn’t have been much better. Especially since he sought to manage expectations by saying before practice began that he hoped to score a top-10 finish.
“You just can’t assume you can miss eight months, 10 months and come in and win, much less run in the top five,” he said.
As the day progressed, a top-10 finish would be almost a disappointment.
Earnhardt was fast during the day, qualified second and put himself in position for a strong run.
“Right around three-quarters of the way through that race, I’m like, ‘Man if I don’t win now I’m going to be disappointed,’ ” Earnhardt said. “I had backed myself into a corner with my expectations getting too high. It’s easy to be disappointed that we didn’t win because we should have, but I didn’t do a good job on that one restart. I just spun my tires.”
Even so, Earnhardt called it a “fun night” and noted the challenges for JR Motorsports to bring a fifth car to the track, especially with three of the organization’s drivers competing in the playoffs: Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and Tyler Reddick.
Yet, the car for the boss proved to be the best. Earnhardt even won a stage, which he noted on the radio to his team after it happened.
“I never won a freaking stage before. It’s kind of embarrassing to be honest with you,” Earnhardt said with a smile. “It felt good. I had fun doing it.”
That feeling, though, couldn’t compare to what he felt before the race when he stood with Amy and Isla for pictures in front of his car.
“Being with Isla, that meant a lot to me,” Earnhardt said of his 4-month old daughter. “I don’t know what she’ll think of my racing career and how that will register with her since she won’t have experienced any of it. We got to have one race together. Pretty important moment for me.”
But it might not be the last. Earnhardt talked about running another race next year. He might return to Richmond or go to Atlanta.
That’s for another day.
On this day, after he had given his fan base and himself one more memory, there was still something else to do.
“I can’t wait to get back to the (motor home),” he said.
And celebrate his accomplishment with his wife and daughter.