HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. bounded out of the media center and was instantly swarmed by fans snapping photos and shoving Sharpies in his face. Earnhardt was tailed until he walked through the garage gate and up the steps to another interview.
“Did you see him?” a man yelled as more fans scampered toward NASCAR’s most popular driver.
The chance to catch him is all but over.
Earnhardt is at peace with his decision to retire as he straps into the No. 88 Chevrolet for the final time in his NASCAR Cup career on Sunday. The 43-old Earnhardt has Homestead-Miami Speedway stamped as the final spot in his farewell tour.
His one wish is to end on his terms.
“It would be a bit of a heartbreaker if we have the kind of issue that would take us out of an event and we couldn’t finish,” he said.
Earnhardt, dressed in a red T-shirt and red cap of his race sponsor, was at ease as he reflected on the end of a 19-year career; he cracked jokes, asked the media questions and reflected on some of the misspent years early in his career. The video tributes from race teams, tracks and sponsors have touched the usually laid-back driver. Some of them have brought his pregnant wife, Amy, to tears.
“Amy’s the one that’s most emotional with being pregnant and everything,” he said. “They’ve really been hitting her.”
Earnhardt hired a personal photographer to document the final weekend and he’s had a camera crew filming in preparation for a possible documentary. Earnhardt has a photo shoot set for Friday with long-time friend Matt Kenseth. Earnhardt and Kenseth broke in together and leave the series together.
While the rest of the sport has all eyes on Earnhardt, he is rooting for his hunting buddy, Martin Truex Jr., to win the Cup championship on Sunday.
“I’m Team Martin this weekend, for sure,” he said.
The Kannapolis, North Carolina, native made his 600th career series start earlier this year. He has 26 career Cup victories and is a two-time Daytona 500 champion. But the son of the late champion has never won a Cup title.
Earnhardt has driven for Hendrick Motorsports since 2008 after a split with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his father but run by his stepmother. He was unhappy with the direction of DEI since his father’s 2001 death in a last-lap accident at the Daytona 500, and a frosty relationship with his stepmother led him to bolt to NASCAR’s most powerful team.
His mother, sister and a few close friends were invited down on his plane for Sunday’s race. He joked he had hundreds of friends that probably want to come but, hey, there’s only nine seats on the plane.
He’ll have hundreds of thousands more fans pulling for Junior one final time in the 88.
“We want to enjoy this weekend,” Earnhardt said, “but we want to end well.”