HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) – Dale Earnhardt Jr. threw his own retirement party on pit road. Earnhardt popped out of his car, flashed a thumbs-up sign and chugged a Budweiser. Drenched in sweat and suds, he grabbed another cold one. It was easy enough to keep happy hour rolling since the beer cooler was stashed on the trunk of his Chevrolet.
Earnhardt passed the brews around to his crew members. One by one, they huddled like frat brothers around the car and raised – and sprayed – their Buds in a career toast to NASCAR’s most popular driver.
The most popular party boy at Homestead was more like it for Junior.
Earnhardt cut loose like he won the NASCAR championship that eluded him in an 18-year-career.
The No. 88 on the hood served as a de-facto coaster for his posse as they hugged and laughed and called for more beers in a Sunday night bash that seemed poised to stretch into Monday morning.
“We’re going to miss you Junior!” a fan screamed at Earnhardt.
Earnhardt finished 25th in his final NASCAR Cup race, the result a mere footnote in a career that counts two Daytona 500s, 14 straight most-popular driver awards and a universal respect in the garage.
One example why he’s earned the love: Earnhardt left his party to seek out hunting buddy and best friend, new NASCAR champion Martin Truex Jr. on the stage.
Earnhardt still left with some hardware. He gets to keep the weathered Chevy as a parting gift from team owner Rick Hendrick. Hendrick kept Earnhardt’s race-worn helmet. Earnhardt planted a kiss on Hendrick’s cheek after the race and they smothered each other in a bear hug that neither man seemed to want to let go.
“He’s like a daddy. Trying to tell him how much he means to me is really hard,” Earnhardtsaid.
Earnhardt, whose father died in a last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500, surrounded himself with family Sunday. Before the race, he embraced his pregnant wife as fireworks crackled in the sky and fighter jets roared over the track.
Earnhardt kissed Amy three times on the lips, then pulled on his helmet and slid into his car as dozens of cameras clicked in unison.
All the video tributes, gifts and heartfelt gratitude Earnhardt received in the months since he announced his retirement seemed to fade as he pulled onto pit road. Earnhardt stuck his left arm outside the window and slapped hands with all pit crews from the entire series as he prepared to take off for a ceremonial pace lap.
Driving the car must have been a relief to the 43-year-old Earnhardt. He spent Sunday morning doing his final rounds of interviews and earned a standing ovation from his peers at the drivers’ meeting.
Earnhardt was the last one brought out before the four championship contenders. It was moments after a video aired about Earnhardt’s impact on NASCAR, which was narrated by “This Is Us” star Justin Hartley.
As the video closed, Hartley said of Earnhardt: “Talent is a gift. Character is a choice.”
Earnhardt then walked across a special stage, where he tried to high-five as many fans as possible. He hopped into the back of a pickup truck, flipped his baseball cap backward and waved to the crowd during his final trip pre-race parade around the track.
Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate, stopped by the car for a chat. Hendrick hugged him. Amy dabbed her eyes with tears after each photo shoot, and Junior gently patted her tiny baby bump.
Earnhardt laughed when a couple of fans shouted they wanted to buy him a round at Shots and Giggles, a pub near his Key West vacation home.
The fans at Homestead-Miami Speedway who usually stick Sharpies in Earnhardt’s face demanding autographs instead crammed the 88 pit box and wrote messages for him on the concrete wall.
NASCAR played a tribute video during the drivers’ meeting that was filled with celebrities, including actor Adam Sandler, late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel, actor/director Mark Wahlberg, country music singer Brad Paisley and retired NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley.
After it ended, the entire room stood and clapped for Earnhardt.
“We’re going to miss him for obvious reasons,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said. “He’s not going to be that far away. He’s going to be glued to the sport, and that’s going to be good for us.”
Earnhardt, who became the sport’s face of concussion awareness and persevered in the wake of his father’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500, won’t desert NASCAR: He has two or three Xfinity races planned for next season and tossed out the Homestead finale in 2018 as a potential race. He owns second-tier Xfinity race teams and will call the action next season in the NBC Sports broadcast booth.
“I still want to have a purpose in this sport,” Earnhardt said.
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