Dale Earnhardt Jr. is more than just a driver

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

When the checkered flag waves on Sunday evening at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in then No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will be over.

And though Earnhardt says he will run two or three NASCAR Xfinity Series races for his JR Motorsports team next season, his appearances behind the wheel will be few and far between.

Nevertheless, Earnhardt will maintain an enduring presence in the sport as he continues to provide opportunities to aspiring drivers. On Saturday at Homestead, three of his JRM drivers—on markedly different career arcs—will compete for the series championship.

Veteran Elliott Sadler, 42, Justin Allgaier, 31, and Sunoco rookie William Byron, 19, will race for the title against Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric in the Ford Eco-Boost 300. That Earnhardt has three quarters of the Championship 4 field under his roof is emblematic of his contribution to the sport as a team owner.

And though Earnhardt will have plenty to occupy his time in his final weekend as a Cup driver, he’ll immerse himself in the Xfinity race as soon as he finishes his post-practice debrief for the No. 88 Chevy.

“I’ll get a headset and come out to pit road and sit on the pit wall and watch the XFINITY race unfold,” Earnhardt said on Friday morning before opening Cup practice. “It’s really a proud moment for all of us, my sister (Kelley Earnhardt Miller) and everybody at JR Motorsports to have the opportunity to be here at the final race racing for a championship, whether it’s one car or three or four.

“There’s a lot of pride in that. We came close last year (with Sadler), and even when the checkered flag fell, the pride in my heart was the same as it was on the first lap. I just thought it was so special to be there.”

JR Motorsports has come light years since its 2005 debut at Homestead with driver Mark McFarland.

“We were kind of a patchwork of a ragtag crew, and we ran 20th all night, and we thought it was so awesome just to be there,” Earnhardt said.  “We were so proud to be in the race and just be competing. ‘There goes our car!’ It was awesome.

“So I don’t take that for granted, and I know how hard it is to be good and be competitive so there is a lot of pride that we are even in the position to win a championship. Hemric is a worthy opponent. I know RCR will put everything they have to give him the best opportunity.”

Three of the four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series contenders also have driven for Earnhardt—Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. Fellow Hendrick driver Chase Elliott won the NASCAR Xfinity Series title for JRM in 2014.

SHORT STROKES

Early in Friday’s opening Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice, Dale Earnhardt Jr. informed his crew via radio that something had broken in the engine of his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. The issue necessitated an engine change, and Earnhardt will start his final race in the No. 88 from the rear of the field under NASCAR’s one-engine rule…

Championship 4 contender Brad Keselowski also had issues in practice, but not under the hood of his No. 2 Team Penske Ford. Keselowski didn’t like the way his brakes felt, and the team spent time working on them in the garage stall late in the session. Keselowski was 20th fastest, compared with Playoff rivals Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick, who recorded the three fastest laps in opening practice…

Despite Keselowski’s issues, and despite the long odds against him in most Las Vegas sports books, Team Penske executive vice president Walt Czarnecki bristled at the characterization of Keselowski as an underdog. “The fact that we are here (in the Championship 4) does not make any of us underdogs,” Czarnecki said.

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