By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Once a year, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. dusts off the driving suit and helmet to climb behind the wheel of one of his JR Motorsports Chevrolet Camaros, battling it out with the best the NASCAR Xfinity Series has to offer.
This year’s venue for his one-off appearance on the track was Homestead-Miami Speedway and Saturday’s running of the Hooters 250. By the time the checkered flag flew, the series regulars certainly knew he was there as he came away with a fifth-place finish.
Noting he was “nervous as hell” as the field rolled under pace laps, Earnhardt started the day in 12th place and quickly moved into the top-10, finding himself in seventh by the time the competition caution flew at lap 20.
Earnhardt would remain in seventh place when the first stage ended and advance further up the leaderboard in Stage 2, moving as high as fourth by the time the second stage ended. A lightning fast pit stop by the JR Motorsports pit crew would give the two-time Xfinity Series champion the lead heading into the final stage.
While he dropped from the lead on the subsequent restart, Earnhardt was able to maintain his position in the top-five for the remainder of the race, settling into second-place behind teammate Noah Gragson with the laps winding down.
Though it looked to be a 1-2 finish coming for the JR Motorsports duo, a late caution with five laps to go changed everything and set up a two-lap dash to the finish.
Restarting behind Gragson when the green flag came back out, Earnhardt gave his teammate a shove into Turn 1 and looked for the lead, but his car was more suited for the long run and he would have to settle for fifth by the time all was said and done, continuing a streak of top-five finishes in his one-off Xfinity Series appearances.
“Man, I was so rusty,” Earnhardt remarked after climbing out of the car. “You see I was having issues getting around the 10 car (Chastain) there early in the race and that’s just because I didn’t have enough time to be able to trust where the car was going to end up setting it into the corner. He’s pretty aggressive anyways and it was a lot of fun, but I was rusty, all the way through.
“We had it sailing there a few times. Got some good speed out of the car and we were gaining on the 9 (Gragson) and I thought ‘I’ll just keep driving it. No reason to try and save anything.’ I ended up burning it up. He was so good on the long run we weren’t going to catch him anyway. Hate we got that late yellow because our cars didn’t fire off very good. You saw it at the end of the race, we couldn’t go. It takes our cars a couple of corners.”
Saturday’s race was the first of a two-day double-header for the series at the 1.5-mile oval, but even with a top-five finish under his belt, the 70th of his Xfinity Series career, Earnhardt joked he’d let the series regulars have at it when the second race rolls off on Sunday afternoon.
“I’m going to let them have it, man,” Earnhardt said. “That’s a lot of fun, but this is the elite. This is the top, elite form of motorsports in my mind next to Cup and it’s not easy to get out there and compete with them boys. They’re so good and race so hard and my time is running out.”
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I am so thankful for such a solid afternoon. The car was fast and our team really put me in position to succeed. No laps of any kind since last year at Darlington had me nervous. The rust showed during those first laps. Things steadily improved and soon I found myself running with the leaders. I was surprised to be doing that. Ultimately we weren’t set up for the short run and it hurt us that final restart. But Im proud of the effort. Racing without fans is so strange. I took notice of that several times during the race. When you are battling for position you sometimes look up there to see the reaction. I can’t wait till we can see and hear the stands come alive with energy again. It adds so much to the event. Appreciate all the supportive messages leading up to and after today’s event. That support is the single driving force that keeps me coming back. Now, I can’t wait to be home with my family and watch tomorrow’s events. ✌🏼🧡😎🇺🇸