AVONDALE, Ariz. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has expected for months that his final NASCAR Cup race would make him feel sad, but he has tried not to get too emotional on his last visit to various tracks.
He is starting to feel the emotion, though, as his full-time Cup career will come to an end in less than 10 days with the season finale Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I feel like I almost need to apologize because I’ve got a pregnant wife, I’m retiring and I just feel like I’m going to break down any minute,” Earnhardt said Friday before practice at Phoenix Raceway for the next-to-last race of the season.
“I feel like every answer that I have has some sort of sad undertones and very emotional temperament, but … it’s starting to really sink in.”
Earnhardt, who is 41, made his Cup debut in May 1999 and has two Daytona 500 victories among his 26 career wins in 629 career starts. The son of seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr., the Hendrick Motorsports driver announced in April that he will end his full-time Cup career after this season.
Earnhardt has won the sport’s most popular driver award for 14 consecutive years. As his career is about to close, sponsors have started to release tribute videos to his career and there have been many questions about his career and his father, who died in the 2001 Daytona 500.
“[My wife] Amy being pregnant, bless her heart, she is tearing up at the drop of a hat,” Earnhardt said. “All these videos and all these things that our partners are creating, this content has just been incredible. It makes you feel so good in your heart [and with] the comments from fans.” Although Earnhardt’s nephew Jeffrey Earnhardt will continue to race for a small, underfunded team next season, there will be no Earnhardt in a championship-contending ride for the first time since 1979.
“It’s going to be sad to think there’s not an Earnhardt on the racetrack in my family, from my dad or Dale, … just going to be really strange,” said Earnhardt’s sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, in September. “I grew up with that and watching that.
“I don’t know. Maybe we can talk about that after the fact. I think it will be sad. I think Dale is going to be sad.”
Tears will be shed.
“I’m going to cry a lot,” Earnhardt Miller said. “I might as well just pack mostly tissues in my suitcase. I just know I’m going to cry just because at most events when there is anything that’s historical or involves my family or something coming to an end or something changing, that is just what I do.
“I don’t know how it’s going to be. It’s certainly going to be surreal at the moment.”
Earnhardt Miller will be kept busy with all the friends, family and sponsor representatives who plan to attend. As for the driver, he’s going to have to try to go out and compete.
“It is more than you can process, and I’m sure that Homestead is just going to be like the cork coming out of the bottle,” Earnhardt said. “I’m lucky that Amy is going to be there; I’m lucky my family will be there and my team.
“I will have so much support, and I want to support them. It’s going to be emotional for them and our fans. I don’t know really how to describe it, but I hope that you guys don’t mind it being a little bit heavy.”