Senior staff writer
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has raced in the Brickyard 400 16 times. His team owner, Richard Hendrick, has drivers who have won the race nine times. And his father, Dale Earnhardt, won the race in 1995.
Junior announced earlier this year that it would be his final ride as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver.
So, Earnhardt, 42, should probably be emotional about the Brickyard 400 Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Well, not exactly.
You see, Earnhardt always thinks about winning or being in contention for the win or what his car is doing on every lap on the track during practice, qualifying and the race. It doesn’t really matter what track.
“It’s business as usual,” he said. “It feels just like any other race … you want the best out of your car, you want to win, you want an opportunity to win and that is all that really matters.”
In other words, his retirement tour is not messing with his mind, although he admits that it’s a bit different when he’s not at a racetrack.
“Things aren’t quite as tense or there is a little more ease of mind knowing there is a definite end (final race),” he explained. “I want to do as well at this track. But, yeah when practice ends, I kind of calm down and say, ‘Man, I’ve got to be cool and try to help my guys and Greg (Ives, crew chief).’ ”
He admits that being at the track and knowing it is his last ride is a tough balance.
Earnhardt sat out most of the 2016 season while recovering from the after effects of a series of concussions suffered in various crashes. He finished 13th in the 18th Cup race last year at Kentucky Speedway before sitting out the rest of the year to rehab.
Sitting out gave him time to evaluate his life and Cup career, which began 18 years ago and netted 26 wins.
Last year’s Brickyard 400 was one of the races he missed.
“It (returning) reminds you about how much we had to overcome and how much rehab went into trying to get healthy,” Earnhardt said. “I’m proud that we worked so hard to come back and worked so hard to get healthy. You start racing this year you kind of forget about last year, and I think we all do. We kind of forget about everything that happened, and little dates like this will bring those memories back and remind you to be thankful and fortunate.”
Earnhardt is winless at the IMS, where his average finish is 18th. His best finish in the 400 was third in 2002 and ’09.
He has won in 19 races this season. Ranking 21st in points, he has only seven more races to break into this year’s 16-driver playoffs.
“A win is going to be great any week, but this is a hero one week and a zero the next sport,” Earnhardt said recently at Kentucky Speedway. “You are going to go one day and feel like you’ve got it figured out and then reality is going to slap you in the face the next Sunday. … We need a win to get in the playoffs. This sport is so competitive and for us as a team it’s been a real challenge this year to sort of find our footing.”
After leaving the Cup series, Earnhardt will continue to be active as co-owner of JR Motorsports, which fields Chevrolets for four drivers in the Xfinity Series and two drivers in the Whelen All-American Series. He also left the door open to race in a few Cup and Xfinity races next year.