Race Coverage Writing
Kelly Crandall, Racer.com
Earnhardt Closes Cup Career with Pit Road Party
There were hugs, pictures, and beer toasts. Cheers were abundant.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't leave pit road at Homestead-Miami Speedway until almost an hour after the checkered flag had fallen. Completing his final race as a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver, Earnhardt soaked in the moment with his Hendrick Motorsports crew and others closest to him.
And they did so while coolers of beer were put to good use.
"That's why I kept saying I hope I finish all the laps," Earnhardt said of the mini party. "I know it sounds ridiculous, but that's really why I was saying it. Everybody [asks] what are you going to miss the most and it's my family. That's my family. We are so close.
"I've been around this sport where it's been hard to feel like someone believes in you but I've never doubted any of these guys' belief in me as a driver, and that's so important when you're a racecar driver.
"So, I told them the one thing I want to do is finish the race and have some beer ready and we're going to drink a beer together. That was the only thing that kept coming to my mind about what to do when I get out of the car? Well, I want to have a beer with my guys. I want to have a moment with them that sort of closes it up for us. Some closer, I guess."
It was vintage Earnhardt.
A 14-time Most Popular Driver award winner, Earnhardt has always resonated with the common man. Video games and computers were his two affinities early in his career. But Earnhardt also loves cars and beer. Throughout his life and career, he's partied with the best of them and had his share of fun over the years.
Racing was fun, too. Earnhardt said Sunday evening a lot of fun was had in his career, although he said it was hard to put his emotions about finishing his career into a capsule. He finished 25th in the Ford EcoBoost 400.
Climbing from his car, Earnhardt hugged Rick Hendrick and his mother, Brenda. Pictures were taken. Earnhardt fulfilled numerous media interviews.
"I got very emotional talking to Rick, he's been like a father to me," said Earnhardt. "It's easy to tell him thank you for making me a driver for your team, thank you for hiring me. it's easy to say those things.
"But trying to thank him for being what he's been to me as a person and a friend and a father figure was very hard."
Before beginning to make his way off pit road and toward the championship stage to congratulate friend Martin Truex Jr., Earnhardt went around and hugged members of his team.
They sent him off with a "To Dale!" cheer.
Now, what comes tomorrow?
"I'll be hung over a little bit. Hopefully," Earnhardt said with a smile and laugh. "It's been an amazing weekend. I'm ready to go feel normal, though. Ready to go settle down and just do nothing for a while. But I will miss all of y'all and I will be back because of that."