Dale Earnhardt Jr. ready to be a spectator after 23rd place finish at Bristol

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Bristol Night Race didn’t go as planned. NASCAR’s most popular driver who will retire from full time competition after this season, was able to soak up the pre-race adulation from the fans who used cards to thank him from the stands.

Early on it looked as though Earnhardt would give them something to cheer even louder about.

After a terrible qualifying session on Friday, Earnhardt started 31st, but the driver, whose only Bristol win came in 2004 when he started 30th, made an early charge and was soon 18th.

He soon began to struggle and held on to finish 21st in the first stage.  From that point, despite massive adjustments, the car had speed only in the opening laps of a run, then faded. He finished Stage 2 19th.

With no cautions in the last 60 laps the speed just wasn’t there for Earnhardt and he finished a lap down in 23rd.

“We struggled,” Earnhardt said. “We had a real fast car for like 10-15 laps and then we would just real, real tight, so we struggled all day trying to figure it out.  We weren’t good and we weren’t going to fix it on pit road either. We’ve got a lot of tools on pit road to really get after it, but the problems we had we couldn’t fix with wedge or trackbar.”

Earnhardt said he would return to Bristol, but probably not to drive.

“I think I will much rather enjoy coming here and watching, he said laughing.  “I always loved watching.”

“But this race track can be a lot of fun. It can be very difficult. There is never really no middle ground.  We were struggling, gosh, I just don’t know what to do.  We were pretty quick for the first 20 laps, passed five cars and then we dropped like a rock. The thing would get so tight and wouldn’t turn.”