The Food City 300 might have prolonged Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s career.
Already the oldest driver in the Xfinity Series field by over a full decade on Friday night, Earnhardt went into the race feeling a little bit of trepidation. It had been 18 months since his last one-off national touring appearance.
That race, which took place at Martinsville Speedway, resulted in an 11th place finish which came a few months after a 14th place run at Richmond the autumn before. Earnhardt began to wonder if time was starting to catch up.
At 48 years old, Earnhardt says he feels healthy and energized to race, and the summers spent racing his Late Model Stock has kept him sharp, too, but father time remains undefeated.
“The last couple of races had me wondering ‘damn, do I need to not do this anymore,” said Earnhardt in the media center on Friday night after the race. “I’m really not getting nothing out of running 15th and struggling and being frustrated. Then you go run good, ‘ok, maybe it’s where I’m racing. Maybe I just need to run at certain tracks I love.”
Earnhardt has always loved Bristol, having coined the iconic It’s Bristol Baby slogan in 2005 when he swept both the Cup and Busch Series races at Thunder Valley, and he looked every bit in his prime as he was back then.
Earnhardt led 47 laps and was only eliminated with 29 laps to go because a fire erupted near his foot box and started to singe his driving suit. He thinks it was rubber build-up on the pipes and it also started to smoke him out from inside the cockpit.
“I looked down at the leg brace and it was on fire,” Earnhardt said. “I felt it stinging my leg so I thought if I kept going it was going to burn me pretty bad.”
He had no other option but to come down pit road and climb out under green because another lap under fire would have started to blister his skin underneath the fabric. He stopped at the very first stall, the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20, who helped pull him out of the car.
“I was going down pit road with the window net down, and I was looking over at the pit stalls to see which group was paying attention. That’s where I was going to stop.”
What’s not going to stop after this is Earnhardt’s desire to keep racing one-offs in the Xfinity Series, something he has done every year since his retirement from full-time competition in 2017. In fact, this is the first time he has scheduled two races in one season, the next one coming on October 21 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
That’s the one exception to his I don’t want to run 15th rule.
“I could go to Homestead and run against the wall the way we do and it’s the most fun I can have in a race car,” Earnhardt said. “I could run 15th all day and race against the wall and just have a complete blast.”
His sister and business partner at JR Motorsports, Kelley Earnhardt-Miller told Dale that the race at Homestead just might be the penultimate race of his NASCAR career.
What, wait, why?
“We were talking and she says, ‘I figured you’d run these two and one next year and that would be it,’ and I was like ‘alright.’ We’ll see what happens.”
But that’s the thing, Earnhardt suddenly doesn’t want this to be it, especially now that he enjoyed a night like this one at Bristol. He compared it to the love-hate relationship he has with his own golf game.
“I’m a really bad golfer,” Earnhardt sad. “I bet you I’ll be ready to quit after the first nine and then I’ll hit the pin on a par four and that’s all it takes to keep me coming back — that one nice driver or shot.”
Friday night was effectively hitting a par four on hole 10, and Earnhardt needed it because the last nine figurative holes haven’t gone so well between those starts at Richmond and Martinsville plus the learning curve associated with racing Late Model Stocks over the past two years.
“The way you drive a Late Model Stock is really unique,” Earnhardt said. “Every now and then, I’ll drop a fast lap and I’ll have no idea how to repeat it.”
But even though his Late Model game has been a work in progress, it’s also something keeping him motivated and enthusiastic about the discipline.
“The only thing that would keep me running more Xfinity races is just me wanting to race the Late Model, with the CARS Tour, especially in the first half of the year when I’m not working with NBC,” said Earnhardt, who owns that series alongside Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Justin Marks. “I want to run it more but that means getting my butt kicked more.
“I do feel more comfortable in the Xfinity car. I know what I’m doing and what to expect out of the tire and sidewall. It makes more sense to me when I steer the car through the corner. The Late Model Stock, I still don’t know what to feel and I need to race it a lot more to get better at it.”
And yet, Earnhardt thinks he might have another decade or so left in him to race at that level.
“I could see myself running that car long into my 50s if I wanted to because I wouldn’t care as much about how competitive I am,” Earnhardt said. “But here, this is the second highest level of NASCAR and I only want to race here if I think I can do it well and wouldn’t do it unless I felt like I belonged there.”
And on Friday night, leading laps and mixing it up with the top contenders at NASCAR’s second-highest level, Earnhardt convinced himself he can do this for a while longer yet.
“I’ll run as long as I can,” Earnhardt said. “I like running one here and one there but certainly not until I’m 60 years old. I still feel young. I overachieved tonight in my eyes in terms of how I ran. I guess I gained some confidence to try to do one here and one there for a couple more years.”
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.