Dale Earnhardt Jr. ‘nervous’ about return to competition

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - AUGUST 30: Dale Earnhardt Jr. drives the #8 Hellmann's Chevrolet through the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 at Darlington Raceway on August 30, 2019 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Being on edge before a NASCAR race is nothing new to Dale Earnhardt Jr., but his return to competition in Saturday’s Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200 at Darlington Raceway (4 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) brings an added dimension of pressure.

After all, Earnhardt hasn’t raced a stock car since finishing fourth in last year’s one-off race at Richmond in September, and he hasn’t raced a NASCAR Xfinity Series entry at Darlington since 1999.

“I’m real nervous about getting in the car, just because I haven’t been in a car in a really long time,” said Earnhardt, whose No. 8 Chevrolet is sporting a throwback paint scheme commemorating the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s first Cup race at Charlotte in 1975. “I only drove at Richmond last year in 24 months. That was the only time I’ve been in a race car.

“I did come over here a couple months ago and ran about 15 laps when (JR Motorsports driver) Noah (Gragson) was testing. That didn’t do anything to help my anxiety. Noah was faster than me, and that just reminded me of how hard it is to drive these cars, how good these guys that drive ‘em are and how hot and miserable it is inside there—some of the things that you kind of forget about when you’re in the booth and being a broadcaster.”

The benefits of the experience, however, more than make up for the anxiety.

“It’s a real blessing to me to be able to run one race a year and sort of relive my past,” Earnhardt said on Friday in his first large-scale question-and-answer session with reporters since he, wife Amy and daughter Isla escaped a fiery plane crash in Elizabethton, Tenn., on the way to broadcast races from Bristol Motor Speedway for NBC Sports. “That’s kind of why I picked this race at Darlington because of the throwback weekend.

“It’s such a great celebration of the history of the sport, and I wanted to be more a part of that. I got to experience it from the broadcast booth last year, and I thought, ‘Man, I get to run a race a year. Why don’t I just go to Darlington and do something fun in a throwback car.”

Earnhardt quickly shook off the rust in Friday’s Xfinity practices. He was fifth fastest in the opening session and 10th on the speed chart in Happy Hour.

There’s an interesting side note from the race Earnhardt is memorializing with his paint scheme. Dale Earnhardt finished 22nd in what was then the World 600, his only race of 1975. Right behind him in 23rd was Richard Childress, the car owner with whom Earnhardt would later win six of his seven series championships. Both drivers were running at the finish, 45 laps down.

Greg Engle