By David Morgan, Associate Editor
The final result may not have been exactly what Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would have liked to have seen in his lone NASCAR Xfinity Series start of the season Saturday at Richmond Raceway, but one thing is for sure, he was having fun getting back behind the wheel.
“They race hard there in the middle of the pack, especially around me, but I was up for it,” Earnhardt said after his 14th place finish. “It was fun. We got to beating on some of those guys. They beat back on us.
“We didn’t have the car that I was looking for and maybe I just couldn’t figure out how to get it around the track. We tried hard and tried to make adjustments and couldn’t really figure out how to get the left-front to work. The car was real tight.
“But it was fun. I love racing with the Xfinity Series. All of these guys have got so much heart and they just race so hard. You can tell they’re trying to prove themselves and it’s so fun to be out there with them and learn about those guys. That’s how you learn who’s who is being out on the race track with them. You get to see how they race. That’s first-hand experience today.”
Starting the race in 30th place, Earnhardt made a steady march forward, but certainly ruffled some feathers along the way. Namely when he and Josh Williams made contact a few times while racing for position ahead of the competition caution on lap 37.
Earnhardt joked on the radio that he was having fun, but Williams probably wasn’t. Turns out that assessment was correct.
After the race resumed following the competition caution, Earnhardt maintained his presence in the top-20, finishing the first stage in 19th.
His team would gain him some track position on pit road, allowing him to climb into the top-10 during the second stage before handling issues caused him to drop a few spots, eventually finishing the second stage in 12th place.
Early in the final stage, Earnhardt returned to the top-10 before the caution flag flew on lap 183. The decision was then made to stay out on track, preserving the last set of fresh tires for later in the race.
With the majority of the field taking tires during that caution, Earnhardt’s tire disadvantage would see him fall down the running order and eventually out of the top-20 before the caution he needed came at lap 224.
Making the trip down pit road for fresh tires under caution, Earnhardt would have 20 some-odd laps to try and make up the lost track position, but things got a bit tougher for him as he would be busted for speeding on pit road, dropping him to the tail end of the field.
Over the course of the final run to the finish, Earnhardt would pilot his No. 8 Chevrolet up to 14th place by the time the checkered flag flew.
In spite of the results, Earnhardt was all smiles after the race, as he still had reason to celebrate as an owner, with Noah Gragson winning back-to-back races for JR Motorsports in his No. 9 entry.
He and Williams were also seen laughing and joking around on pit road after their run-in earlier in the race.
With the Xfinity Series race complete, Earnhardt will head up to the NBC Sports booth to call Saturday night’s NASCAR Cup Series race with fresh knowledge of the track conditions on the 0.75-mile Richmond oval.
“Hopefully I haven’t lost any credibility running 14th today,” Earnhardt joked. “But it really helps me in the booth. It really does. That’s why I do it. I know it’s good for our partners and our sponsors, but I just love to be reminded what’s going on inside the car. Getting out there for a race once a year helps me remember some of the things and makes me a better broadcaster.
“I picked up on some things that I have forgotten about this race track and that’s what it’s about, so I can call a good race tonight. I had fun. Hope everybody enjoyed the race. Looks like it was a good, wild one out there. There was racing all over the place.”
So, will we see Earnhardt back in the driver’s seat again someday? Given the enjoyment he got out of running Saturday’s one-off race, it sure seems Earnhardt is keen to climb behind the wheel again.
“I’d like to do another one, so I can’t wait to get back in there.”