By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
“I just want to have fun,” Dale Earnhardt, Jr. said before Friday night’s race at Richmond Raceway.
After the checkered flag flew in the Go Bowling 250, it was mission accomplished in his return to the NASCAR Xfinity Series as he brought home a fourth-place finish after leading the most laps.
Even after being out of the race car since the end of last season, when he said goodbye to full-time racing, Earnhardt picked up right where he left off as soon as the racing action started Friday, getting his No. 88 Chevrolet dialed in over two practice sessions before qualifying on the front row, starting alongside eventual race winner Christopher Bell.
From the drop of the green flag, Earnhardt was right in among the Xfinity Series regulars fighting for the lead and keeping his car in the top-five throughout the duration of the first stage, finishing third in the first 75-lap stint.
Stage two was more of the same, but this time, he was able to get the best of Bell, taking over the lead for the first time on lap 124 and leading 96 of the next 97 laps, only relinquishing it due to his pit stall placement during a round of pit stops under caution.
He would clinch the most laps led with his tenure up front, as well as claiming his first stage win in the Xfinity Series.
Though he gave up the lead on the penultimate restart, Earnhardt still held tough in the top-five, battling through the chaos to claim his top-five finish.
“We didn’t have the car at the end,” said Earnhardt. “Restarting on the outside is kind of tough. Just didn’t have what we needed right there at the end, but I’m glad we got to lead a lot of laps and we ran real good for all the people that came out to watch us.
“We didn’t mess anybody’s night up. These guys are trying to run for a championship, so I tried to respect them a little bit.”
In addition to his own performance at Richmond, Earnhardt also took the time to speak on fellow JR Motorsports driver and friend Elliott Sadler after the race, as it was likely the final time the two drivers would race against each other in NASCAR competition.
“That’s his last race and my last race with him,” Earnhardt said. “Little emotional. We’ve been really close friends since we raced late models together and it just dawned on me in that moment. I was like ‘We’ll never race again together.’ I’m glad that he’s enjoying it. When we got together, I was like ‘Man, I hope I can give him everything he needs and get him back to victory lane and all those things.’
“We’ve done that. The only thing we haven’t gotten him is a championship. We came close last year. Hopefully we can get him close again and he can seal the deal. What a lot of fun working with your buddies.”
Sadler added his comments on getting to race with Earnhardt one last time, echoing much of what his team owner had said.
“We started racing together 25 years ago and we’ve got a special relationship,” said Sadler. “It kind of hit both of us there that it’s the last time actually racing on the same track together. He and Kelley (Earnhardt-Miller) have meant so much to me and my career these last few years. Almost a rejuvenation of life.”
Many speculated prior to Friday night’s race that this may be the last Xfinity race that Earnhardt will run, but he put that rumor to bed after the race when he said he’ll have another race lined up for next season – destination unknown.
“Had fun,” Earnhardt said. “We’ll try to do another one next year. We’ll see where we go. We’ll be with Hellmann’s again and I’m looking forward to figuring out what race that’s going to be.”