By Michael Guzman, Contributing Writer
Homestead, FL – After a carefully curated weekend full of interviews, appearances, and simply making sure he was seen, Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the finish line and collected his trophy. Then, he proceeded to immediately damage it. On purpose. Simply because he could. He had held up his end of the bargain.
Team owner Rick Hendrick promised Earnhardt Jr. he could keep the car he drove during the 2017 finale if he brought it home in piece. All Hendrick wanted was his helmet. And after 400 miles, with barely a scratch on his bright red no. 88, Earnhardt ran into the right side of championship winner Martin Truex Jr. to congratulate his former protégé on a job well done.
Then, he pulled on to pit road, and after more hugs and another round of TV interviews, it was time to crack open some beers with his crew. Again, he did it because he could.
“I told my guys when the race was over with, I said — I told them a couple weeks ago, the only thing I care about really is finishing all the laps and pulling down pit road and getting out of the car and having a beer with my team,” Earnhardt Jr. told NBC Sports after rushing into Truex’s celebration on the front stretch.
“These are my brothers, and we’re very close, and I want to just have a moment with them before I leave and go home. So we got a couple beer coolers out and we drank about two, three beers apiece and sat there and talked for a while and had a lot of fun and enjoyed each other.”
Earnhardt Jr. has grown up in front of the national spotlight and from frosted tips to a cooler full of ice cold beer he has transitioned from the rowdy son of a legend to a respected mentor who is more than worthy of his own individual legacy.
“I wouldn’t be here without him,” Truex Jr. said during his post-race press conference. “My path would surely be different. I wouldn’t have won two Xfinity championships right out of the gate. There’s a lot of things that would be different if it wasn’t for Dale. Just the friend he’s been over the years, the mentor that he’s been to me over the years, it’s been amazing. He’s such a great person.”
What he lacked in performance he more than made up for in character. And as he embraced his role, the kid from Kannapolis transformed into the face of the sport, becoming more genuine and approachable along the way.
For most drivers, the storybook ending would involve a trip to victory lane, a Joe Namath-like guarantee, or a championship win. But for Dale, whose legacy will be defined more for the man he is than what he did inside a machine, pulling into the pits in order to be swarmed by crew, cameras, and fans alike was just as satisfying. It was a scene unlike anything that has been seen before. Just like Junior himself.