DARLINGTON, S.C. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t know precisely how he’ll feel when he races for the last time in the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but he got a preview of sorts when his friend and crew chief Steve Letarte left the pit box for the TV booth at the end of the 2014 season.
“I know that I never really thought about what that would be like until Steve ran his last race with me at Homestead and he was as cool as a cucumber all weekend, at least in front of everybody, in front of me and the guys in the hauler and everything,” Earnhardt said on Friday at Darlington Raceway prior to Sunday’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 (on NBCSN at 6 p.m. ET).
Before every race in the final season together, Letarte would lean into the car, shake Earnhardt’s hand and offer words of encouragement.
That pattern persisted until the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, when Letarte leaned into the car and lost it.
“As soon as he come in there and started talking, he just fell out and started crying and balling like a baby,” Earnhardt said. “And I thought, ‘Man!’, and I started crying, too, to be honest with you. It was a difficult moment. So I imagine that’s going to be part of it for me, and it’s going to be hard to not have those emotions at that last race.”
Earnhardt will have much to deal with at Homestead. Friends and family will be there to witness his last race, and that will add significantly to the emotion of the moment.
“I know it will be emotional on Sunday at Homestead, that last race,” Earnhardt said. “I’m going to have a lot of friends and family there because of that moment. I don’t really have a lot of friends and family that come to the races.
“My mom doesn’t come to many races at all, but to have all them there, it’s going to make it more important and special for me. I’m not quite sure how that is going to work out.”