By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
BRISTOL, Tenn. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. was on fire in his return to NASCAR Xfinity Series competition at Bristol Motor Speedway. Literally.
Although the official results show the 2021 Hall of Fame inductee with a 30th-place night, Earnhardt Jr. made his presence known and ultimately added to the seemingly infinite list of iconic moments to transpire in Thunder Valley.
Entering the Food City 300, the 15-time Most Popular Driver’s nerves were at an all-time high. Having retired from full-time racing in 2017, Earnhardt Jr. never lost his pulse on the sport as one of NASCAR’s most influential ambassadors, but above all else, his inherent status as a competitor.
The driver of the No. 88’s week began stressing over qualifying for the main event. Although maybe a silly notion from the outside looking in, given his top-tier JR Motorsports equipment, any slight hiccup during his hot-lap could’ve been the difference between making the show and going home.
Between being the oldest driver in the field at 48 years old, getting reacquainted with new-age NASCAR and its 20-minute group practice sessions, on top of strapping in for the Xfinity playoff opener, nothing was ever going to be easy.
“I ain’t ever been as nervous as I was today,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I’m thinking back and there’s nothing more gut-wrenching than wondering if you might go home missing the race. Being presented with that reality was frightening.
“I didn’t feel like I got enough laps in practice to understand (anything). I felt like everything was way ahead of me and I was way behind on what I was seeing and processing mentally. But that was the way it was when I came here when I was a full-timer.
“This place just takes time to get up to speed. Your brain ain’t processing everything that’s coming at you visually, but it eventually slows down.”
Luckily for Eanhardt Jr., speed was evident as he wrapped up practice 14th-fastest overall and then qualified 15th for the race – a more than respectable start to the weekend in his eyes.
Not competing on a regular basis for over five years, Earnhardt Jr. is a realist. He looked at the five, one-off Xfinity starts he made since retiring from Cup and gauged reasonable expectations of finishing between fifth and 12th-place based on how he’s run and executed.
Even though he’s predominantly hung up the fire suit for the broadcasting mic, Earnhardt Jr’s dedication to on-track success was made clear. He admitted to watching the Xfinity race from Bristol last year three times in order to get a feel for the rhythm of the 300-lap event.
“I’m pretty lowkey on my expectations,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I was way behind. I didn’t really know what I was doing or what I needed to be doing. All the sim-work in the world won’t prepare you for what you’re going to face when you pull out on the racetrack here.
“I’m not a hot-lapper. When the car is hooked up and you get mad and go, I’m not your man. I’m not a pole winner (and) I’m not going to run the best lap in practice. But when the race starts, everything slows down and the pace drops, I can do what needs to be done and put the car and tires where they need to be to find grip.”
And where he had to put the car to find grip was the groove he was notorious for racing in – the high line.
At a track like Bristol where the bottom lane is so dominant, and even more so with the PJ1 traction compound application, Earnhardt Jr. was fearless in running his line and actually ended up setting a trend in the Food City 300 to where most cars migrated to this area of the track.
He methodically worked his way inside the top-10 by the end of Stage One. Following a blistering pit stop at the end of segment, Earnhardt Jr. picked up four spots and restarted Stage Two in fifth.
From here, Earnhardt Jr. would remain inside the top-five for a remainder of the night. As he got reacclimated to racing an Xfinity stock car, you could hear his tonal shifts over the radio throughout the night go from slightly uneasy, to animated and fired up.
By around Lap 100, the fan favorite caught leaders Cole Custer and Justin Allgaier and was having an undeniably good time in his No. 88 hooting and hollering to the team from third.
“When it comes to racing, I try not to really get too competitive,” Eanhardt Jr. said. “When I get competitive, I get miserable – even when I’m running well. These races for me are about just coming back and smelling the smells, and hearing the sounds and getting reminded what’s going on inside the car (and) what a driver thinks about.
“I feel like the further I get removed from my driving career, the harder it is to be a broadcaster and an analyst. Running these races is all about learning, and relearning really – reminding yourself of what a driver thinks and goes through in certain situations.”
After wrapping up Stage Two in fourth, the grandstands at Bristol Motor Speedway erupted. Everyone in front of Earnhardt Jr. opted to pit, while the No. 88 stayed on track to lead the opening 47 laps of the final stage.
This would be the first time since 2020 Earnhardt Jr. led more than five laps, and he also matched his laps led total from his final full-time Cup campaign in 2017.
When the caution flew on Lap 218, various strategies began to be applied and set the two-time Xfinity champion back in sixth following pit stops. Earnhardt Jr. was able to maintain his position and work his way up to third while chasing his driver Allgaier and holding off the likes of playoff favorites John Hunter Nemechek and Custer.
On Lap 271, Earnhardt Jr. would see his hopes – and leg – go up in flames.
While running fourth, the driver of the No. 88 picked up a burning smell and hoped it was the car in front of him. But the stench persisted and he noticed smoke starting to build inside the cockpit above the dashboard.
As the smoke worsened, Earnhardt Jr. relinquished his top-five spot and hurried his car down pit road, where he came to a stop in the No. 20 team’s pit stall and was helped out of his smokey Chevrolet.
Apparently, a positive wire shorted on the dashboard and the casing on the wire melted down to the foam of his leg brace, which caused a reaction with the cloth cover and set the whole leg brace ablaze.
Although he felt a stinging sensation, the fire suit did its job and Earnhardt Jr. walked away with no burns. The right-heel of his suit was charred up though.
“I looked down at the leg brace and it was on fire,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “ If I kept going, I think it would’ve burned me really bad. Another lap and I was probably going to get blistered up. I was disappointed to have to get out. We were going to run fourth from there.”
In the end, Earnhardt Jr. had to settle for a 30th-place finish in an otherwise dominant – yet expensive night for his team. Near the end of Stage Two, his drivers Sam Mayer, Brandon Jones and Josh Berry were all collected in a friendly-fire incident, which saw all three drivers fail to finish the race.
As a rewarding consolation, the only JR Motorsports driver to finish the race was Allgaier, who punched his ticket into the Round of 8 by winning his first race at Bristol since his maiden victory in 2010.
Once Earnhardt Jr. was released from the infield care center, he found Allgaier near pit road and hitched a ride to victory lane while sitting out the driver’s side window – a tradition he’s always admired as a historian of the sport.
“That’s old school, man,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “If I ain’t driving up my own car, I’m going to ride up the ramp in the car that I own. Everybody’s just so happy. Everybody’s [put] so much effort and work into the car. Riding on it after the race to victory lane is symbolic for some reason for me.
“I was just so disappointed we didn’t get to finish where we wanted to. But at the same time, I’m happy about our car winning and I couldn’t wait to see Justin. I couldn’t wait to congratulate him and tell him how proud and how happy I was.”
“Man, that was such a cool experience,” Allgaier said. “When he got on the door it was an awesome and surreal moment. Dale has been an incredible role model and leader for our company and he’s someone I obviously look up to.
“I came to this racetrack and watched him win races as a fan, but to be able to race with him tonight – to battle with him as hard as we did – and then to ultimately have him come to victory lane, that’s pretty awesome.”
While Earnhardt Jr. couldn’t earn his 25th Xfinity Series victory, he put on a show for the fans, was a clear contender for the win and cemented himself once again among the stories that will be told for generations about Bristol Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt Jr. is scheduled to compete in one more race this season at Homestead-Miami Speedway on October 22. He last raced there in 2020 where he finished fifth. And if Bristol was any indicator for how he’ll run there, it will be another fun night for JR Nation and NASCAR.
“I overachieved tonight in my eyes in terms of how I ran. I guess that gave me some confidence to do one here and one there for a couple more years. I had a blast and I’m a lot more confident going to Homestead.”